The Seventh Month of Human World Calendar 372
Grasping the axe.
It might be just those actions, but if the mind was distracted even slightly, the reaction from the hard bark would bounce back relentlessly to both arms. Breathing, timing, speed, shifting of body weight, all of them must be perfectly controlled from the beginning, transmitting the hidden power from the heavy blade of the axe to the tree, producing a pleasant, clear, high-pitched sound.
While he could understand the theory well, actually doing it wasn’t that simple. Eugeo was given this task in the spring when he was ten, and it would be the second coming of summer since then, yet he could only get that pleasant feedback once out of ten swings. He was told by fellow axe users that his predecessor Garitta-jiisan always hit the bull’s eye, and even though he didn’t show his fatigue after brandishing the heavy axe, but after merely fifty times Eugeo’s hands went numb, his shoulders became sore, and he could no longer lift up his arms.
“Forty…… three! Forty…… four!”
He counted with his loudest voice to push himself while striking the axe on the great tree’s trunk, the sweat gushing out caused his eyes to blur, his hands became slippery, and his accuracy continually decreased. Partly due to his desperation, he grasped the woodcutting axe tightly and brandished it over his body.
“Forty…… nine! Fif……t……y!!”
His last strike was a big deviation from his usual skill, it hit the bark a distance away from the deep cut on the trunk, producing an ear-splitting metallic sound. Due to the reaction which was as if it could make a spark come out of his eyes, Eugeo dropped the axe, staggered a few steps back, then sat down on the thick moss.
While he repeated his rough breathing, he heard a voice mixed with laughter from his right.
“The good sound came out three out of fifty times. So the total is, erm, forty-one huh. It seems today’s Siral water is your treat, Eugeo.”
The owner of the voice, who was lying down slightly further away, was a young boy of a similar age. Eugeo didn’t reply immediately, but fumbled for the leather water canteen then picked it up. He greedily drank the water, which had become completely warm. After he became comfortable he closed it with the hard cork, then said,
“Hmn, yours is only forty-three, isn’t it? I’ll catch up soon anyway. Here, it’s your turn…… Kirito.”
Kirito was Eugeo’s childhood friend and also his best friend, as well as his partner in this melancholy «Sacred Task» since spring last year. Kirito wiped the sweat off his black forelock, stretched his legs straight and raised his body. But he didn’t pick up the axe immediately; his hand was on his hip while he looked up above his head. Attracted by his action, Eugeo also looked up toward the sky.
The mid summer sky of the seventh month was still ridiculously blue, stuck at the center was the sun god Solus, which shone its overwhelming light from the sky. However, the light was obstructed by the branches of the great tree outstretched in all directions, most of it didn’t reach the roots where Eugeo and Kirito were.
At the same time the countless leaves of the great tree devoured the sun god’s blessing, its roots also relentlessly absorbed the favor of the earth god Terraria, allowing it to recover from Eugeo and Kirito’s hard work of steadily cutting it down. No matter how much they did during the day, after a night’s rest, when they came back the next morning, the tree would have already recovered half of the cut wounds from the previous day.
Eugeo sighed lightly as he looked back to the tree from the sky.
The great tree —— the «Gigas Cedar», its sacred name was given by the villagers, was the monster with a diameter of four mels, and had a height of seventy mels. The bell tower of the village church, which was the tallest building in the village, was only one quarter its height; to Eugeo and Kirito whose height only passed one and a half mels this year, this ancient titan was a very suitable opponent.
Is it unreasonable to cut down this guy using man power? —— Eugeo couldn’t help but think about this after seeing the cut on the trunk. The wedge-shaped cut wound had finally reached a depth of one mel, but the remainder of the trunk with three times the thickness was still healthy.
In spring last year, when he and Kirito were taken to village chief’s residence, as they were at the suitable age for the duty of «Chopping the giant tree», he had heard a mind-boggling story.
The Gigas Cedar had stretched its roots here long before Rulid village was founded, and the duty to cut the tree had been passed down the generations since the first settlers’ time. Counting from the first generation to his predecessor Garitta-jii, of the sixth generation, Eugeo and Kirito were the seventh generation. More than three hundred years had passed before they were given the duty.
————Three hundred years!
At that time, it was an unimaginable span for Eugeo, who had just reached his tenth birthday. Of course, that hadn’t changed even though he was eleven now. What he somehow could understand was, from the time of his parents, his grandparents, the time before that, and the time even further back, the amount of axe swings combined from those with this duty could be said to be infinite, and the result was just this cutting wound less than a mel deep.
Why was cutting down the great tree so important? The reason was explained in a severe tone by the village chief.
The Gigas Cedar, with its huge body and its excessive vitality, took away the blessings of the sun and earth gods from its surrounding area in an enormous range. Seeds sown on the land in the shadow of the great tree wouldn’t grow, any effort to plant anything near it was futile.
Rulid village was a part of the «Norlangarth North Empire», one of the four empires that divided and ruled over the «Human World», and it was also located in the remote northern region. In other words, this place could literally be called the edge of the world. North, east, and west, these three sides were surrounded by a steep mountain range, so in order to expand the fields or pastures, there was no way other than to cut down the forest in the south. However, that couldn’t be done due to the Gigas Cedar which was rooted at the entrance of the forest.
It had been said that its bark was as hard as iron, and even fire couldn’t cause the slightest burn, digging it up was also not possible as its roots were as deep as it was tall. Therefore the village founders had decided to chop its trunk down using the «Dragon Bone Axe» which could cut even iron, and the duty to do so had been passed down generations since then——
The village chief finished telling the mission in his trembling voice, it made Eugeo feel terrible, so he asked, why shouldn’t they just leave the Gigas Cedar alone and open up the forest further south.
Then the village chief replied in a frightening voice that cutting down the tree was their ancestors’ vow, that vocation had turned into the village’s custom to entrust chopping duty to two people. Next was Kirito, who tilted his head while wondering aloud why those ancestors chose to build the village here in the first place. The chief lost his words for a moment before going into a fiery rage, and hit Kirito’s and even Eugeo’s heads with his fist.
It had been a year and three months since then that the two continued taking turns with the Dragon Bone Axe and challenging Gigas Cedar. However, most likely due to their immature arms, their axe swing couldn’t make a deep cut into the tree trunk. The cut in the tree up until now was the result of the three hundred years of work, so it was natural that the hard work from the two young boys wouldn’t make much difference, they couldn’t feel any accomplishment from their work as a result.
No —— their mood, not only could it be seen, their clear form of depression seemed like it could be verified in reality too.
Kirito, standing beside Eugeo while staring wordlessly at Gigas Cedar, seemed to be thinking the same thing, then he briskly walked toward the trunk while stretching his left hand.
“Oi Kirito, don’t do it. The chief said not to peep excessively at the «Life» of the great tree, didn’t he?”
Eugeo hastily called out, but Kirito just glanced toward him while his usual mischievous smile floated on the edge of his mouth.
“The last time we looked was two months ago, it’s no longer excessively, just occasionally.”
“Always like this huh, it can’t be helped then. ……Oi, wait for me, let me look too.”
Eugeo whose body finally calmed down got up using the same movement Kirito did earlier and rushed to his partner’s side.
“Ready? Opening now.”
Kirito said in low voice, with his left hand out front, the index finger and middle finger stretched out tightly while the remaining fingers held close. A shape which looked like a creeping snake was drawn in the air before them. It was the most basic devoted symbol of the god of creation.
After slicing the symbol with his fingertip, Kirito immediately hit Gigas Cedar’s trunk. It didn’t make the dry striking sound it should have, but a clear sound as if it was from playing with silverware resounded softly. Then a small squared light window emerged out of the trunk.
Everything in the universe, regardless of whether it was able to move or not, had its existence governed by the god of creation Stacia in the form of «Life». Insects and flowers had a little, cats and horses had much more, and humans were given even more life than those. Then the trees in the forest and moss covered stones had many times more «Life» than humans. In all its forms, life had one similarity: it increased after being born, and once it reached the peak, continued to decrease. When life was completely depleted, animals or humans stopped breathing, the plants withered, and the rocks broke down.
«Stacia Window» was where the sacred text of the remaining Life was inscribed. It could be called out when a person with proper sacred power cut the symbol, then struck the target. While most could pull out the window of pebbles or grass, it was somewhat difficult to do so on animals, and for humans, it was not possible to pull the window out without sufficient knowledge in the sacred arts first. ——On the other hand, it was a little scary to look at one’s own window anyway.
In general, the window of trees were easier to look at than humans, but the degree of difficulty of the evil tree Gigas Cedar was as high as expected: Eugeo and Kirito only became able to call out the window about half a year ago.
There was a story that once, at the «World Central Axiom Church» in the capital city Centoria, the elder master of the sacred arts succeeded in pulling out the window of the earth god Terraria after a continuous ritual for seven days and seven nights. However, once the elder master looked at the earth’s Life, he became depressed, lost his sanity and later disappeared.
Upon hearing that story, Eugeo became a little scared not only to look at his own, but also the windows of large things like Gigas Cedar, but Kirito appeared not to care. This time as well, he put his excited face close to the floating shiny window. While Eugeo thought he sometimes couldn’t understand his childhood best friend, he lost to his curiosity, and looked into that surface.
The pale purple square window had figures written in a combination of straight and curved lines. Those were the ancient sacred letters, if it were only reading a few figures, Eugeo was able to do it, only writing them was strictly prohibited.
Eugeo used his finger to confirm it one by one while saying the figures,
“Ah― ……what was it months ago?”
On hearing Eugeo’s reply, Kirito lifted his hands in an exaggerated manner, collapsed with his knees hitting the ground, then messed his black hair using his fingers.
“Just fifty! We worked hard for two months and only managed fifty out of 235 thousands! At this rate we wouldn’t cut it down within our whole life!”
“No, that wasn’t possible in the first place.”
Eugeo couldn’t do anything but answer with a bitter smile,
“The six generations of woodcutters before us worked hard for three hundred years, and the result was not even one-quarter…… To make it simple, hmm, it would take about eighteen generations, or nine hundred years more.”
Kirito, who was crouching with his head in his arms, looked up to Eugeo, then suddenly grabbed Eugeo’s legs. Eugeo lost his balance due to the sudden attack, and collapsed onto the moss bed on his back.
“What’s with that honor student attitude! At least act more troubled with this unreasonable duty!”
Even though he said that as if he was angry, a grin floated on Kirito’s face while he rode Eugeo and messed up his hair.
“Uwa―, why you!”
Eugeo’s hands grabbed Kirito’s wrists and pulled hard. He then utilized the moment Kirito stiffened his body to resist, rolled vertically in a half circle, so now he was on top.
“Now, payback time!”
While shouting and laughing, he pulled Kirito’s hair with his dirty hands, but unlike Eugeo’s soft light brown hair, Kirito’s pointed black hair rendered his attack meaningless. Eugeo then switched to tickling Kirito’s flank.
“Ugya, you…… that’s, h-hahah……”
Kirito was running short of breath as he struggled against being held down and tickled, when suddenly a high voice came from behind them.
“You two——! Slacking off again!!”
At that moment, the fight between Eugeo and Kirito came to a complete halt.
“This is bad……”
Both of them shrugged then fearfully turned around.
On the rock a little bit away from them, with both hands on her hips, a human figure with her chest protruding forward. Eugeo pulled out slightly, then spoke with a smile,
“H……Hey Alice, you’re pretty early today.”
“Not early at all, just the usual time.”
The figure made an unfriendly face, the long hair tied on both sides of her head shining with a golden light under the sunlight filtered through the foliage. The young girl jumped off the rock nimbly. She wore a bright blue skirt with a white pinafore, and held a wicker basket in her right hand.
The young girl’s name was Alice Schuberg. Daughter of the village chief, and she was of the same age as Eugeo and Kirito, eleven years old.
For all children living in Rulid —— no, in the northern region, it was a tradition that they would be given their «Sacred Task» and become apprentices in the spring of their eleventh year; however, Alice was the only exception, she went to school at the church instead. She was given private lessons from Sister Azariya in order to extend her talents in the sacred arts further as the best child in the village.
However, Rulid wasn’t wealthy enough to let the village chief’s eleven-year-old daughter merely study all day long, no matter how much talent she had. Everyone who could work must work, they had to continue repelling the constant attacks from drought, long period of rain, pests; all of which could shave off the Life of the crops and livestock —— in other words, from the «God of Darkness Vector’s Prank». It was only when the harsh winter arrived that all the villagers could finally be at peace.
Eugeo’s house had wheat fields in a wide cultivated land to the south of the village, his father Orick and his ancestors were farmers. After knowing Eugeo, one of his three sons, was chosen for the chopping mission his mouth was filled with words of delight, but in part of his mind he surely held some disappointment. Of course they would receive the payment for the chopping mission from the village vault, but the fact that there was one less hand to help in the field wouldn’t change.
In practice, the eldest son of each house would be given the same Sacred Task as their father: in the case of a farmer’s household, their daughter, next son, and the third son would also follow this standard. Children of the tool shop’s owner would continue working in the tool shop, a guard’s child would become a guard, and the village chief’s child would succeed them as the next chief too. Rulid village had maintained this custom with almost no change for a few hundred years, the adults said that it was the gift of divine protection from Stacia, but Eugeo could faintly remember the incompatibilities in their story.
Why, if the adults thought about expanding the village, why was there not a single change until now? He still couldn’t understand. If they really wanted to expand the fields, they could just take a little detour and leave the troublesome tree alone to be able to open up the southern forest further away. However, the chief, who was the wisest man, didn’t have the faintest urge to review those old traditions.
Therefore, no matter how much time passed, Rulid village was still poor, so the chief’s daughter Alice could only study in the morning as it was necessary that she had to tend to the livestock and clean the house in the afternoon. Her first task after studying was to bring lunch to Eugeo and Kirito.
With the wicker basket hanging on her right arm, Alice nimbly jumped down from the big rock. As she was on the verge of letting the next round of thunder fall off her small lips, Eugeo quickly got up while shaking his head.
“We didn’t slack off, really! We already finished our morning job.”
Alongside Eugeo’s quick excuse, Kirito, behind him, reacted accordingly with “Yeah yeah.”
Alice’s pupils emitted a strong light to the two again, then her cheeks softened.
“If you have enough energy to fight after finishing, I wonder if I should ask Garitta-san to increase the workload for you two?”
“A-Anything but that!”
“Just kidding. ——Well, let’s quickly have lunch. Today is so hot, if we don’t eat it soon, it’ll go bad.”
Alice then put the wicker basket on the ground, took a large sized cloth from inside, and spread it out. She selected a flat area and laid the cloth down, on which Kirito quickly took off his shoes and jumped over to sit on it. Eugeo sat down after him, then the food was lined up one by one in front of the two hungry workmen.
Today’s menu was salted meat and baked bean stuffed pie, black bread cheese sandwiches and sliced smoked meat, several kinds of dried fruit, and milk squeezed in the morning. Even though the food aside from the milk could be well preserved, the intense sunlight of the seventh month could still rob «Life» away from the food without mercy.
Alice told Kirito and Eugeo, who were nearly diving into the food, to ‘hold on’, as if she was commanding dogs, then quickly sliced the symbol in the air and confirmed the «Window» of each food starting with the bisque jar of milk.
“Uwa, the milk has ten minutes remaining, the pies have barely fifteen minutes. And I even ran here…… well, then we’ll just have to eat quickly. But make sure to chew it properly too.”
When the Life of the food was exhausted, it became so-called «Rotten Food», of which even a single bite would cause terrible symptoms such as stomach ache to those without a very strong stomach. Eugeo and Kirito were already irritated enough and started biting the big sliced pie without saying a word.
The three of them continued chewing their food without talking. It was obvious with the two hungry young boys, but Alice also made one wonder where she put all the food she ate with her slender abdomen. The food was cleared up one by one. First was the three slices of pie, followed by nine slices of black bread, then the jar of milk was depleted, after that, the three of them breathed a sigh of relief.
“——How did it taste?”
It was Eugeo who answered Alice’s question in his serious tone, as she cast a side glance toward them.
“Yeah, today’s pies are good. Your skills sure have improved, Alice.”
“I-Is that so? I still feel there was something missing in the taste though.”
Embarrassed, Alice said while facing sideways, Eugeo exchanged a wink with Kirito before smiling. Their boxed lunch had been made by Alice since last month, but even as it was declared so, the difference between the food made with help from her mother, Sadina-obasan, and without was obvious. They understood that techniques couldn’t be acquired without practicing for a long time, and that applied to everything —— however, Eugeo and Kirito also understood that it was better not to let it out of their mouth.
Kirito said while pinching a yellow marigo from the dried fruit bottle.
“With the trouble it takes to make delicious boxed lunch, I want to eat it at a slower pace. I wonder why the heat has to make the food go bad……”
This time, without hiding his bitter smile, Eugeo shrugged in an exaggerated manner.
“You said a weird thing huh? Summer making Life go down faster is just how things work. Be it meat, fish, vegetables and fruits, they become bad immediately if you leave them alone, right?”
“I know that, I asked why, didn’t I? During winter, even if you left raw salted meat outside for many days, it still wouldn’t go bad, would it?”
“That’s…… because winter is cold.”
Kirito bent his lips like an unreasonable child at Eugeo’s answer. His black pupils, which were unusual in the northern region, shone with the light of disobedience.
“That’s right, it’s just as Eugeo said, the cold will make the food last longer. Not just in the winter. If it’s cold, even during this season, we could still keep the food for a long time.”
This time Eugeo was dumbfounded. He lightly kicked Kirito’s shin with his toe.
“Don’t say it like it’s easy. Cold? Summer is hot, that’s why it’s summer. Are you thinking about using the absolutely taboo weather control art to call snow down? The next day the Integrity Knights from the capital would fly here to get you.”
“Y-Yeah…… Nothing we can do……? I feel like there is a way, some easy way……”
While Kirito muttered that with his frowning face, Alice who was quietly listening to their conversation while using her finger to curl the tip of her pigtail hair up until now said,
“W-What do you mean, Alice?”
“No, not about using the banned art. It doesn’t need to be at a scale enough to cover the entire village, but just small enough to be able to put into this boxed lunch basket is good enough, isn’t it?”
On hearing what she said as if it was perfectly normal, Eugeo unintentionally turned to Kirito, who was nodding. A smile floated on Alice’s face before she continued,
“There’re a few things which are cold even in summer. Like water from the deep well, or the leaves of Silve. If we put those in the basket, wouldn’t it become cold inside?”
“Ah…… that’s true.”
Eugeo folded his arms and thought.
At the center of the open space in front of the church, there was a fearfully deep well which had been dug when Rulid village was founded: the water drawn from it was so cold that it could make hands go numb even in summer. Also, in the northern forest, there were some Silve trees growing: their leaves were cold and released a pungent aroma when squeezed, they were very useful as treatment for bruises. Probably having a jar of water from the deep well, or wrapping the pie with Silve leaves would make it possible to keep the boxed lunch cold while carrying it between places.
However, Kirito, who’d also paused to think, slowly shook his head and said,
“Just that, I think it won’t work. The well water becomes lukewarm just a minute after it is drawn, Silve leaves might keep its coolness longer, but I don’t think it could keep the insides of the basket cold long enough to cover the distance from Alice’s house to Gigas Cedar.”
“So, do you have any other methods?”
Alice, whose good idea was shot down, asked while pouting. Kirito scratched his black hair in silence for a while, then suddenly said in a low voice,
“Ice. With a lot of ice, it’d be more than enough to keep the boxed lunch cold.”
Alice shook her head in amazement.
“It’s summer now. Where exactly can you find ice? Even the grand market in the capital won’t have it!”
She said in a tone like a mother scolding her unreasonable child.
Eugeo, on the other hand, could recall the bad feeling, as he had seen Kirito making this tight-lipped face before. This childhood friend, when such a light floated in his eyes, when he spoke in such a tone, Eugeo knew from experience that Kirito was thinking about something up to no good. Inside his head, he recalled when Kirito took the honey of the emperor bee to the eastern mountain, or when he broke the jar of milk which had expired a hundred years ago in the church’s cellar, those scenes floated and disappeared in quick succession.
“W-Well, it’s fine, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with eating in a hurry anyway. Also, if we don’t start our afternoon work soon we’ll be late going back.”
Eugeo said while quickly moving the empty plates back to the wicker basket, as he wanted to break off this disturbing topic. However, when he looked at Kirito’s pupils which were shining brilliantly, as if he had some idea, he inevitably realized that his fear had already become reality.
“……What is it, what plan do you have this time?”
His question was mixed with resignation, Kirito smiled before answering,
“Hey…… Looong ago, Eugeo’s grandfather told us a story, remember?”
Aside from Eugeo, Alice also tilted her head slightly.
Before Stacia summoned Eugeo’s grandfather to her side two years ago, a lot of legends were packed behind that white beard of his. While sitting in the rocking chair in the garden, he always told stories to the three children sitting near his legs. Strange stories, exciting stories, scary stories: there were hundreds of those stories, so Eugeo didn’t know which story Kirito was referring to. Then his black haired childhood friend coughed while raising his index finger, before saying,
“Summer Ice, it’s nothing but that, right?『Bercouli and the Northern White……』”
“Oi, stop it, you’re joking, right?”
Eugeo interrupted without listening to the end while swinging his head and hands violently.
Bercouli, among the ancestors who founded Rulid village, was the strongest sword user, who’d served as the first generation’s guard chief. But since he’d lived three hundred years ago, there were only a few remaining tales of his bravery, and the story Kirito mentioned was one of the most bizarre among them.
On a certain day during the peak of summer, Bercouli noticed a big clear rock floating in the river to the east of the village. Upon picking it up, it turned out to be a lump of ice. Bercouli, in his amazement, walked upstream along the river. Before long, he arrived at the end of the world, the «Mountain range at the Edge», and as he kept following the narrow river, he faced a huge cave opening.
Bercouli stepped into the cave against the blowing freezing wind, and after he overcame various dangers, arrived at the largest hall. What he saw there was a huge white dragon, which was said to protect the Human World’s boundary. The figure of the dragon, its body curled over an incalculable amount of assorted treasures, made Bercouli realize it was sleeping, but even with his courage, he still approached it on tiptoe. Among the treasure, he discovered a beautiful long sword, and he really wanted to own it no matter what. He softly took the sword without waking the dragon up, and ran away as fast as he could —— that was the plot summary. The title was『Bercouli and the Northern White Dragon』.
Even for the mischievous Kirito, surely he wouldn’t be thinking about breaking the village’s rules to go beyond the Northern pass and searching for the real dragon, would he? While half praying, Eugeo fearfully asked,
“You mean, we’ll watch Ruhr river and wait for an ice block to float down…… is that right?”
However, Kirito snorted before simply saying,
“Waiting like that, the summer will just end before we can get anything. I don’t want to imitate Bercouli and go find the dragon. In that story, it mentioned the icicles at the entrance of the cave, right? Just two or three of those would be enough for testing on the boxed lunch.”
“You, like I said……”
Eugeo became speechless for several seconds, then he turned to his side, looking for Alice to substitute him in objecting this reckless boy’s ideas. Then he noticed that her blue pupils were shining with a brilliant light, he dropped his shoulders in his mind.
Eugeo and Kirito were the number one brat duo of the village, they made elderly people sigh and scold the duo on a daily basis. However, only few knew that their many misdeeds were secretly aided and abetted from behind by Alice, the village’s number one honor student.
That Alice currently had her right index finger at her lips, as she remained silent for several seconds, suddenly blinked and declared,
“——That’s not a bad idea.”
“N-Not you too, Alice……”
“Certainly, only children were prohibited from going beyond the Northern pass. Try to recall properly. The exact sentence of the rule said, [Without adult supervision, children must not go play beyond the Northern pass.]”
Eugeo and Kirito unintentionally exchanged glances.
The village’s rules or «Rulid Villager’s Standards» as its formal name was the old writing half in paper and half in leather, its two cen thickness was kept inside the village chief’s residence. It was the first thing all children who went to church school had to memorize. And after that, after having to hear their parents and the elderly keep saying ‘In the rules’, ‘According to the rules’, the rules were ingrained in their heads by the time they turned eleven —— was what they thought, however, it seems that Alice accurately remembered all of the text, word for word.
……No way, don’t tell me even the empire’s fundamental law which is two times thicker has also…… no, even perfectly memorizing the village rules is already……
While Eugeo’s glance was filled with such thoughts, Alice cleared her throat once, then continued in a teacher-like tone,
“Isn’t it right? We aren’t going there to play, that’s forbidden by the rules. But searching for an icicle isn’t playing. Prolonging the Life of the boxed lunch isn’t just for us, it also helps people who work on the fields and pastures, right? So this can be interpreted as a part of work too.”
After the flowing speech, Eugeo exchanged glance with Kirito again. Although his partner’s black pupils initially seemed to have some slight hesitation, but it was immediately melted away like an ice block floating in a river in summer——
“Yeah, that’s right, absolutely right.”
While folding his arms, Kirito nodded with a serious face.
“Because it’s work, even if we go beyond the pass to the «Mountain range at the Edge», it still doesn’t break the village’s rules. Look, Balbossa-san is always saying, right? ‘Work isn’t just that which was ordered, if you’re free then look for work!’, like that. If they get angry, we can just refer to his saying, then it should be fine.”
The Balbossas were a wealthy family which owned the village’s largest wheat fields. The current head of the house, Nigel Balbossa was a fifty year old man who still had a good body; even though his house could harvest many times more than the rest of the village, he still wasn’t satisfied, and whenever he met Eugeo on the street, he always greeted Eugeo with a sarcastic ‘Still can’t cut down that annoying Cedar yet?’. Rumor said that he’d asked the chief for priority to cultivate the new land once Gigas Cedar has been cut down. Eugeo’s response was, ‘Before that happens, your Life will be long gone,’ of course he only said so in his mind.
Even though Kirito’s idea to use Nigel’s words as an excuse for going beyond Northern pass was attractive, but having served as the restraint of the group for so long made Eugeo unable to stop saying ‘But’.
“……But, going to the Mountain range at the Edge isn’t breaking just the village rules but ‘that’ too, right? Even if we go past the pass and arrive at the base of the mountain, we still can’t enter the cave……”
Upon hearing that, Alice and Kirito made a serious face.
«That» which Eugeo said was the absolute law which governed all people of the vast Human World, its authority was far beyond the «Norlangarth North Empire Fundamental Law», let alone the «Rulid Villager’s Standard» —— Its name was «Taboo Index».
It was issued by the «Axiom Church», the great tower which seemed to reach the heavens, located in capital city Centoria. The thick book which was bound in pure white leather was provided not only to the north empire that Eugeo lived in, but also at least one to every town and village in the east, south, and west empires.
The Taboo Index, unlike the village rules and the empire’s laws, just as its name implied, was the list of «Things one does not attempt». It started with a wide range of taboos like «Treason against the Church» or «Murder», «Thievery», on to more mundane entries like the limit of beasts and fish to be caught each year, or food that can’t be fed to the livestock; the number easily exceeded one thousand entries. For all children attending school, aside from learning to write and calculate, the most important subject was to memorize all of the Taboo Index. —— Or rather, not teaching the Index in school is considered to be breaking the Index.
Although the Taboo Index and the Axiom Church possessed such tremendous authority, but there seemed to be land it couldn’t extend to. Beyond the «Mountain range at the Edge» which enclosed the world was the Land of darkness —— or «Dark Territory» in the sacred words. Therefore, traveling to the Mountain range at the Edge was already prohibited by the Index in the first place. To Eugeo, it was meaningless to only go to the base of the mountain without going into the cave.
Alice would find the way to challenge the Taboo Index like always, but thinking like that is already a great taboo in itself. Eugeo stared at his other childhood friend while thinking so.
Her long eyelashes brightened under the noon sunlight filtered through the foliage like a very fine line of golden thread, Alice sank into silence for a while —— Soon after, she suddenly lifted her face, then said with the usual disobedient light shining in her pupils,
“Eugeo. Your prohibited term is inaccurate again.”
“Eh…… you’re lying.”
“I’m not lying. What is in the Index is like this: The first chapter, third passage, eleventh paragraph,『Not anyone is to go beyond the Mountain range enclosing the edge of Human World』……Beyond the mountain, naturally it means «Climb beyond». It doesn’t include going into a cave. Also, our objective isn’t to go beyond the mountain range, but to obtain ice, right? There is no『Do not search for ice in the Mountain range at the Edge』written in the Taboo Index at all.”
To the words gushing smoothly out in Alice’s sweet and clear voice like a church’s smallest bell, Eugeo didn’t say another word. Indeed, he felt what Alice said was somewhat correct.
——But, up until now we haven’t gone to the Northern pass before, we have only followed the Ruhr river up to the twin ponds, I don’t know what lies beyond that, this is the season that has many annoying bugs by the waterside too……
While Eugeo was still stubbornly thinking in circles for a way to retreat, Kirito slapped his back —— with a force not enough to reduce his Life —— before exclaiming,
“Look, Eugeo, if Alice, who studies the most in the village, says so, then there is no doubt about it! Alright, then it’s decided, on the next rest day we’ll go search for the white dra…… erm, I mean, search for the cave of ice!”
“Then it’s better if the boxed lunch is made using the ingredients which lasts a bit longer.”
Looking at the bright faces of his both childhood friends, Eugeo sighed within his mind before responding “Yeah,” weakly.
Apparently, the weather was good on the third rest day of the seventh month.
Only on rest days were children above ten, who had already been given their Sacred Task, allowed to play around until dinner as they had in their childhood. Eugeo and Kirito usually spent it doing things like fishing and practicing their sword skills with other boys, however today they left their homes before the morning mist even disappeared, and waited for Alice under the old tree at the edge of the village.
Even though he had been waiting with Eugeo for only a few minutes, Kirito grumbled,
“I can’t understand why dressing has a higher priority than coming on time to girls. Maybe in two years she will be like your sister, who had her clothes dirtied in the forest and refused to wear them afterwards.”
“It can’t be helped, girls are like that anyway.”
Having said that with a bitter smile, Eugeo then suddenly thought about what would happen in two years time.
Alice would still be a child without a Sacred Task, people around her would still tolerate her preference of being together with Eugeo and Kirito. But since she was the daughter of the village chief, it had been partially decided that she had to act as a standard model for the other girls in the village. In the not so distant future, she would be prohibited from playing with boys, and no doubt she would have to take lessons not only in the sacred arts but also in conduct.
Then…… what would happen after that? Would she have to marry into someone’s house?, like Eugeo’s eldest sister Sulinea, If that’s the case, what would this partner think……?
“Oi, you look so absentminded. Did you sleep well last night?”
With a sudden stare from Kirito with his doubtful expression, Eugeo nodded in a hurry.
“Y-Yeah, I’m alright. ……Ah, there she comes.”
Upon hearing light footsteps, he pointed in the direction of the village.
Appearing through the thick morning mist was Alice, just as Kirito had said, her finely combed golden hair was tied with a ribbon, swinging on top of her spotless pinafore. Eugeo unintentionally exchanged glances with his close friend while trying not to smile, then they turned to shout at the same time,
“You guys are just too early. Stop acting like children all the time already.”
Once she finished saying that, Alice pushed the wicker basket which was in her right hand to Eugeo and the water canteen in her left to Kirito.
Both of them reflexively took the items before turning around toward the narrow road stretching from northwards. Alice bent over to pluck an ear of a grass, straightened and pointed its tip toward the standing tall rocky mountain, she then energetically exclaimed,
“Well then…… summer ice searching party, let’s go!”
Why do we always end up as «The princess and the two followers»? While thinking this, Eugeo exchanged glances with Kirito again and ran after Alice who had already walked ahead.
The village had a road which ran through it from the north to the south, and while the southern side of the road had been trod firm by the traffic of humans and carriages that came and went all the time, its northern side, where almost no one lived, had a lot of tree roots and pebbles that made walking difficult. However, Alice lightly pranced through the rough road as if it was completely flat, proceeding ahead of the two as she hummed.
How to say it, she has good control over her body?, was what Eugeo thought. Several years ago Alice occasionally joined the sword practice played by the village brats, and her slim branch had hit Eugeo and Kirito countless times. That stick acted as if it could cut through the air, even if its opponent was a wind spirit. If she had kept practicing, it was possible that Alice could become the very first female guard of the village.
Eugeo muttered in a quiet voice.
Before the Sacred Task of cutting the great tree was given to him, perhaps it had been his dream, though it was vague and extraordinary. All the village kids yearned to be selected as a guard: instead of the ugly stick made from the bark of a living tree, they would be given real steel swords, albeit used ones, and would attend a real school of sword arts.
That wasn’t all. Every fall, all the guards of every village in the northern region could participate in the sword arts tournament held in Zakkaria, to the south. If one could achieve a high ranking, they could become a sentinel —— being recognized as a real swordsman in both name and reality, and able to borrow the official sword tempered by the blacksmith workshop in the capital. However, the dream didn’t end there. If they could prove their merit among the sentinels, they could obtain qualification to take the examination for the «Master Sword Academy», which had an ancient and honorable origin. After passing a difficult examination, and graduating from the school’s two years of learning, they could participate in the martial arts tournament which was held in the presence of the Norlangarth North Empire Emperor. Bercouli the legendary had been said to have won in this tournament splendidly.
Ultimately, a gathering of all true heroes from the entire Human World was held by the Axiom Church itself, the «Four Empires Unity Tournament». Only the one who won the battle that even god could see clearly, the top of all swordsmen, would be bestowed the command by the god to protect the world, to fight against the demons from the Dark Territory, to be appointed the duty of a dragon rider, an «Integrity Knight»——
Until that point, it was already beyond imagination, but perhaps, there was a time when Eugeo had thought of that. Perhaps, if Alice left the village not as a swordsman but as a sacred warlock apprentice, to attend the school in Zakkaria or even the «Master Arts Academy» in the capital, at that time, by her side as the escort, with his body wrapped in a green and light brown sentinel uniform, the shining silvery official sword hung on the waist, was him……
“The dream is still not over yet.”
Suddenly, a whisper came from Kirito who was walking beside him. Eugeo lifted his face in surprise. Apparently, with just the sigh he had let escape earlier, Kirito could read all the meaning behind it. His instinct was as sharp as ever. Eugeo made a wry smile and muttered in return,
“Nope, it is already over.”
Yes, the time of dreaming was already over. In spring last year, the Sacred Task of guard apprentice was given to Jink, son of the current village guard chief. Even though his sword skill fell short of Eugeo’s and Kirito’s, and of course Alice’s. Eugeo continued talking in a tone mixed with slight irritation,
“Once the Sacred Task has been given, even the village chief can’t change it.”
“With one exception, right?”
“When the task has been accomplished.”
This time he made a bitter smile at Kirito’s stubbornness. This partner still wouldn’t let go of his great ambition to cut down the Gigas Cedar in his generation.
“Once we cut down that tree, our work will be beautifully completed. After that we can choose our own Sacred Task, how’s that?”
“That’s true but……”
“I was glad I didn’t get the Sacred Task to be a shepherd or farmer. Those are tasks which just don’t have an end, but ours is different. I’m sure there is a way, in three…… no, two years we’ll cut it down, and then……”
“We’ll join the sword arts tournament in Zakkaria.”
“What? Are you thinking of the same thing, Eugeo?”
“I can’t let Kirito look good alone anyway.”
After that talkative exchange, Eugeo had a strange feeling that it was no longer an unrealistic dream. The two walked while grinning, imagining the scene when they received the official sword, returned to the village, and made Jink and his gang’s eyes widen in jealousy; Alice who was walking in front of them suddenly turned around.
“Hey you two, what are you talking about in secret?”
“N-No, it’s nothing. Just wondering if it’s time for lunch yet, right?”
“Didn’t we just start walking? Also, look, we can see the river now.”
When they looked toward where Alice’s ear of grass pointing to, they could see the shaking water surface at the road ahead. The source of the Ruhr river was on the Mountain range at the Edge, it flowed through the east of Rulid village, then continued south to Zakkaria town. At the point the road met the river, the road branched into two, the right path crossed the north Rulid bridge into the eastern forest, the left path stretched north along the river’s west bank. The direction they chose was, obviously, north.
Once Eugeo arrived at the junction, he knelt at the riverside, then submerged his right hand into the clear stream and made a rustling sound. It was indeed mid summer, the freezing water during the beginning of spring was now quite warm. It should feel really good if he could undress and jump into the water, but he couldn’t do so in front of Alice.
“This is not a temperature a block of ice could float in.”
Eugeo said and turned to his side, Kirito pouted before objecting,
“That is why we’re going to the big cave where the ice came from, isn’t it?”
“That’s all good, but we need to be back before the evening bell. Let’s see…… when Solus is in the center of the sky, we should start heading back.”
“It can’t be helped. If that’s the case then let’s hurry!”
Behind Alice, who was treading on the soft undergrowth, the two quickened their pace to chase her.
The tree branches protruding from the left side acted like a canopy, blocking the sunlight, there was also cool air rising from the surface of the river to the right, those helped the three walk comfortably even though Solus had already rose high up in the sky. The road along the bank which was about a mel wide was covered in short summer grasses, there were almost no pebbles nor holes to make walking difficult.
Eugeo wondered, why is it that they had never set foot beyond the twin ponds even once, although it was so easy to walk there.
The «Northern pass» in which the village rules forbade the children to go beyond was still far from the twin ponds. So even if they went anywhere else before that point, the adults shouldn’t be able to get angry, but facing going against the rules, yes —— it could be said that it was the uneasiness from the rules that made their feet unable to move when seeing the pass in front of their eyes.
Even though he and Kirito always had to listen to the complaints from the adults who were concerned about tradition, thinking about it, far from doing it, the two didn’t even think about breaking rules or Taboo. Today’s humble adventure would be the closest they had come near the forbidden act.
Eugeo started feeling a little anxious, he looked at Kirito and Alice walking carefree ahead of him, they were singing shepherd songs in chorus. Those two… don’t they have any fear or worry?, while thinking so, Eugeo sighed dejectedly.
He called out, the two still kept walking but turned around together.
“What is it, Eugeo?”
Alice tilted her head while asking in a slightly threatening and purposeful tone.
“We’re quite far from the village now…… Aren’t there dangerous beasts around here?”
“Eh―? I never heard about it though.”
Alice said while glancing at him, as Kirito lightly shrugged.
“Hmm…… the donetti whose huge long claw that grandfather saw, where did he say it was?”
“It was at the black apple tree to the east, right? But it was an old story from ten years ago though.”
“If it’s around here, it would be the four-eared fox. Eugeo, you’re such a scaredy-cat, aren’t you?”
During their ‘Ahaha’ laugh, Eugeo hurriedly refuted,
“N-No, it’s not about being scared…… We never went beyond the twin ponds before, have we? I just want us to be more careful.”
Upon hearing that, Kirito’s black pupils shone mischievously.
“Yeah, that’s true. Did you know? During the time the village was founded, sometimes the devils from the Land of darkness…… like «Goblins» or «Orcs» would cross the mountain to steal sheep or kidnap children.”
“What? Are you two trying to scare me? I know about it. In the end the Integrity Knights came from the capital and exterminated the Goblin chief.”
“——『Since then, on a sunny day, the silvery white dragon knight could be seen far above the Mountain range at the Edge.』”
Kirito hummed the final verse of a fairy tale that all the children in the village knew about, while turning to look up toward the north sky. Eugeo and Alice did the same, before they realized it, their vision was filled with a pure white rocky mountain, and over it was the blue sky where they were looking for something.
For a moment, they had the feeling they saw a small light glittering among the clouds, but they couldn’t see anything once they tried to focus their gaze. The three looked at each other before laughing in embarrassment.
“——It’s just a fairy tale, right? The ice dragon that lived in the cave was, surely, just a story he made up sometime later too, that Bercouli.”
“Oioi, if you say something like that in the village, the fist of the village chief is gonna fall on your head. The swordsman Bercouli is Rulid’s hero after all.”
Eugeo’s words made a smile float back to everyone’s faces again, and Alice hastened her stride.
“We’ll know once we reach there. Look, if you’re leisurely walking like that, we won’t be able to reach the cave before the lunch.”
——That said, Eugeo didn’t think they would reach the «Mountain range at the Edge» with half a day of walking anyway.
The Mountain range at the Edge was, as its name implied, the world’s edge; in other words, the border of the human country which consisted of the four empires of the north, south, east, and west; for Rulid village which located at the north most of the northern region, it wasn’t a place children’s feet could easily reach.
So, Eugeo was really surprised when, just before the sun reached the center of the sky, the Ruhr river, which had narrowed considerably, disappeared into the cave entrance which opened its mouth at the base of the steep cliff.
The deep forest which spread on both sides abruptly ended, in front of his eyes was the steep gray rugged cliff stretching upward. If he looked up, he could hazily see where the blue sky crossed the pure white mountain ridge in the distance, this rock slope was without doubt, the edge of the mountain range.
“We’ve already arrived……? This is, the Mountain range at the Edge…… right? Isn’t it a bit too soon……?”
Kirito, who appeared not to believe it either, said in a faint voice. It was the same with Alice, who whispered while her blue irises were still wide,
“Then…… where is the «Northern pass»? Did we pass through it unknowingly?”
It’s just as she said. It’s possible that the village’s children —— or maybe even adults have been passing through the pass without even knowing it. Thinking about it, about thirty minutes walk from the twin ponds, there was a place which had quite a bit of ups and downs, could that place be the Northern pass?
While Eugeo was looking around with his doubts, the unusually serious tone of Alice’s whisper reached his ears.
“If this is the Mountain range at the Edge…… then on the other side is the Land of darkness, right? If so…… we have been walking for just four hours, the same amount of time won’t even get us to Zakkaria. Rulid is…… really, at the border of the world……”
Eugeo stood there in confusion, We lived in the villages for so long but didn’t know where it’s located in the world? No —— could it be that even the adults didn’t know that the Mountain range at the Edge is this close? In the three hundred years of history, the one who came out of the wide forest spreading to the north of the village, aside from Bercouli, was us……?
Somehow…… it’s strange. Eugeo thought. However, he didn’t know why it was strange.
Everyday, at the same time, the adults eat breakfast like the day before, go to work in the fields or pastures, smithing or spinning workshops like the day before. What Alice said earlier, that four hours was not enough to reach Zakkaria, of course, all three of them had never been to Zakkaria before, I heard from the adults that it took over two days walking along the southern main road to reach the town. However, how many of those adults actually went to Zakkaria and came back……?
The maelstrom of depressing questions which manifested in Eugeo’s mind, was blown away by Alice’s voice,
“——Anyway, there’s nothing but to go inside after we’ve come this far. But before that, let’s have lunch first.”
With that said, she pulled the wicker basket from Eugeo’s hand, then lowered her waist on the short undergrowth where it changed to gray gravel. “That’s what I’m waiting for, my belly is starving.” With an encouraging voice from Kirito, Eugeo also sat down on the grass. The fragrant smell of the pie blew away his remaining doubts, all that he could remember was his stomach had started complaining in hunger.
Alice fought off the stretching hands of Eugeo and Kirito by slapping them while drawing the windows of each food in succession. After she had affirmed that all of them still had their surplus time remaining, she handed out the fish and bean stuffed pies, apple and walnut stuffed pies, and dried peaches. In addition, she poured Siral water packed in the water bag into wooden cups, this also has been confirmed not to have gone bad yet.
As soon as she allowed them, Kirito who was irritated enough not to say a word as he started biting the fish pie, then said in a muffled voice while still chewing,
“That cave…… if we find a lot of ice, then we won’t have to hurry to eat tomorrow’s lunch.”
Swallowing his food, Eugeo turned to face him and answered,
“But thinking about it, even if we successfully get the ice, how do we maintain its Life in the first place? If it all melts before tomorrow’s lunch then there is no point to it, right?”
‘I didn’t think about that,’ Kirito’s shoulders drooped, then Alice said with an unconcerned face,
“If we bring it back in a hurry and keep it in my house’s cellar, just a night wouldn’t be a problem at all. You two, you should have thought just this from the beginning.”
After they had their usual thoughtlessness pointed out, Eugeo and Kirito tried to hide their embarrassment by greedily stuffing their mouths with food. Even though they had enough time, Alice still ate at her usual fast pace before drinking Siral water.
After folding and fitting the white cloth neatly into the empty wicker basket, Alice stood up. She then walked to the nearby stream with three cups in her hands, and washed them quickly in the river.
She raised an odd voice while finishing her work, and when she came back, Alice widened her hands, which were wiped dry using her pinafore, toward Eugeo.
“The water in the river is so cold! It’s like the well water in mid winter.”
What he saw were her small palms which had turned completely red. Unintentionally, he stretched his hands and wrapped it around Alice’s, certainly to exchange the warmth from his hands with the cold in hers.
“Wait…… stop it.”
Her small cheeks turned to the same color as her palms, and Alice pulled her hands back. At that time, Eugeo finally realized that he had done something his usual self would never do, and shook his head in a hurry.
“Ah…… no, that’s…”
“Well, shouldn’t we be heading off now, sir and madam?”
‘Did you intend to help me out of that situation?’ Eugeo was grinning while saying that and lightly kicked Kirito’s leg, and after his rude action, he lifted the water bag to his shoulder, and walked into the cave without looking back.
It was hard to believe that the source of the Ruhr river, the clear stream that the three had been following up until this point, would really be this small. With a diameter of about one and a half mels, the small river overflowed from the cave opening on a high cliff; to its left side, there was a bare rock about the same size stretched out, he stepped on it and walked into the cave.
Eugeo was thinking, Bercouli had stepped on this rock three hundred years ago, as he tried his best to proceed into the cave’s interior. Suddenly the surrounding temperature dropped, he rubbed his arms which extended from the short-sleeved tunic.
He proceeded for about ten steps while affirming the two footsteps from behind following him.
At that point, Eugeo realized he made a major mistake, he dropped his shoulders and looked back.
“Oh no…… I didn’t bring a lamp. Kirito, did you bring one?”
Even though he was only about five mels from the entrance, the ambience was dark enough that he was no longer able to distinguish the expressions of the two. In the complete darkness inside the cave, it was very natural to entrust his hope to his partner to deal with stuff he himself had forgotten, but the response was, “How could I realize something that you also didn’t realize?” in a tone full of strange confidence.
“R…… Really, you two……”
While Eugeo was thinking how many times he had heard that amazed voice today, he looked toward the faintly shining golden hair. Alice looked at her sides a few times before thrusting her hand into her pinafore pocket and pulled something thin and long out. It was the ear of grass she had picked up when they started their adventure.
She held the grass in her right hand, with her left palm supporting its tip, Alice closed her eyes. Her small lips moved, a strange ritual verse in sacred words that Eugeo didn’t know started playing in the air.
Finally her left hand quickly sliced the complex symbol, a pale soft light lit at the swelled round tip of the ear. The light then increased its intensity immediately, and kept the darkness of the cave away at the considerably distance.
Kirito and Eugeo unintentionally let out sounds of amazement at the same time.
Even though they already knew Alice had been studying the sacred arts, they almost never had a chance to see it with their eyes. According to Sister Azariya’s teachings, all the rituals which had their sources of power from the god of life Stacia, the sun god Solus or the earth god Terraria —— except the dark arts which were used by the servants of the god of darkness Vector —— existed to protect the order and tranquility of the world, so they should not be used indiscriminately.
The sacred arts were used by the Sister and her pupil only when the medicinal plants in the village were unable to cure the sick or injured. As Eugeo understood this well, he turned to Alice, who held the ear of grass lit in a strange color, and inadvertently asked,
“Ah, Alice…… using the arts like that, is that alright? Wouldn’t you get punished for it……?”
“Hmph, if just this much would get me punished, I would have been hit by lightning ten times already.”
After saying that, Alice thrust the shining grass in her right hand toward Eugeo with a smile. He received it without thinking before ‘Hiee’, and realized,
“Of course, or would you let the weak girl walk in front? Eugeo is in front of me, Kirito is behind. Don’t waste anymore time, let’s hurry up and move.”
As if he was pushed by momentum, Eugeo raised the small torch and fearfully proceeded into the cave.
The winding flat shelf of rock seemed to steadily continue extending. The walls were illuminated in a bluish grey as if they were wet. Occasionally, he was worried by the small rustling movements in the dim part where the light didn’t reach. However, no matter where he focused his eyes, he couldn’t find anything resembling ice at all. While there were pointed grey things which looked like icicles hanging on the ceiling, he knew they were rock just at a glance.
After walking for several more minutes, Eugeo called out to Kirito behind him,
“Hey…… certainly, you said there should be icicles once we entered the cave, right?”
“I said? Something like that.”
As he approached his partner who averted his eyes feigning ignorance, Alice used her right hand to stop Eugeo and quickly whispered,
“Hey, bring the light a bit closer.”
Eugeo brought the ear of grass near Alice’s face. She rounded her lips before blowing a deep breath toward the light.
“Look, you see it right? Our breath turns white, like in winter.”
“Wow, really. And I have been thinking that it has been cold for a while now……”
Ignoring Kirito’s complaint, Eugeo nodded alongside Alice.
“Even though it is summer outside, it’s winter inside this cave. Surely there is ice here.”
“Yeah, let’s check a bit further.”
Eugeo turned his body, he had the feeling that the cave interior was getting wider little by little as they went deeper, he returned to his cautious movements while advancing.
What they heard, aside from the faint sound of their leather boots rubbing the rock, was only the sound from the flowing stream of groundwater. Even though they had approached its source, the flow hadn’t weakened at all.
“……If we had a boat, going back would be quite easy.”
To Kirito who carefreely said that from behind, Eugeo rebuked him with “Don’t talk so loudly.” As they had already entered further than they had planned, of course, what came to his mind was——
“——Hey, if the white dragon really comes out, what should we do?”
Alice whispered as if she could read Eugeo’s mind.
“Of course…… what else, but to run aw……”
The answer to the whispered question was overlapped by Kirito’s reckless voice,
“It’s-al-right. The white dragon chased Bercouli because he stole its treasured sword, didn’t he? It sure wouldn’t mind us taking icicles. ——Hmm, but if possible I’d want to peel a scale from it though……”
“Oi, what are you thinking about, Kirito?”
“That is, if we go back with a proof that we have seen the real dragon, Jink and his gang would die from jealousy.”
“Don’t joke! I’ll tell you now, if you get chased by a dragon, we will just leave you and run away.”
“Oi, your voice is too loud, Eugeo.”
“That’s because Kirito said something strange……”
Suddenly his foot made an odd noise, and Eugeo stopped talking. Parin, it was the sound of something breaking under his foot. He put the light in his right hand closer to his right foot in a hurry before unintentionally letting leak his voice.
“Ah, look at this.”
Alice and Kirito bent down to look, Eugeo moved his toe off the spot. The water accumulated on the rock had turned into a thin ice spreading over its smooth grey surface. He stretched his fingers to pick up a piece of the thin transparent sheet.
After putting it in his palm for a few seconds, it melted into water droplets, the three looked at each other and inadvertently smiled.
“This is ice, no doubt about it. There is sure to be a lot more up ahead.”
Eugeo said while illuminating his surroundings, a great deal of blue light bounced off the similarly frozen water. And it sank into the pitch black darkness of the cave, deep within……
“Ah…… somehow, there’s a lot of light there.”
It was just as Alice said, Eugeo moved his right hand, from the countless spots of light, he could see them flicker and blink palely. As he had completely forgotten about the white dragon, he half trotted in that direction.
Based on the time they took, it seemed they had proceeded about a hundred mel deeper. Suddenly, the left and right walls ended.
At the same time, a breathtakingly fantastic scene appeared before their eyes.
Wide. It was hard to believe they were in an underground cave, as it was an extraordinary huge open space. Its size was certainly a few times larger than the village square in front of the church.
The curved wall, which almost surrounded the entire environment, no longer looked like the wet grey wall they saw until now, but was covered in a transparent, thick, light blue layer. Then, after looking at the floor’s surface, Eugeo understood, I see, so this is the source of the Ruhr river., it was a huge pond —— no, a lake would be more suitable. However, the water’s surface didn’t shake in the slightest. It was frozen firmly all the way, from the bank to the middle.
Among the trail of white haze over the lake, strangely shaped columns protruded out, their height easily exceeded the height of the three children. They were angular hexagonal columns ending in a tapered tip. It was like the crystal of raw ore that Garitta-jiisan showed Eugeo before. However, these were much bigger, and far more beautiful. The numerous transparent thick blue columns absorbed the sacred light from the ear of grass Eugeo was holding, before releasing it in six directions, which were also reflected further, illuminating the entire vast dome. The numbers of the columns increased as it approached the center of the lake, and became fully obstructed at the very center.
It was ice. The surrounding wall, the lake below the feet, the strange hexagonal columns, everything was made out of ice. The blue wall stretched up vertically, and closed up together at a far height, looked like a chapel’s dome.
The three forgot the cold which pierced their skin, stood still for several minutes while exhaling misty breath. Before long, Alice faintly said in a trembling voice,
“……With this much ice, we could cool the food of the entire village.”
“Or rather, it could even turn the village into mid winter for a while. ——Well, let’s go check inside.”
As soon as Kirito spoke, he advanced several steps before putting his foot on the ice lake. He gradually put his body weight on it, and eventually stepped on it with both feet, there was not a sound of the thick ice cracking.
He’s always like this. Even though Eugeo had the duty to object to his partner’s recklessness, this time his curiosity was superior. But if there really is a white dragon inside, I still want to peek at it no matter what.
Holding the sacred light higher, Eugeo and Alice chased after Kirito. Cautiously avoiding making loud footsteps, they moved from one shadow of the huge icicle to another with the center of the lake as their destination.
——This is great, if we see the real dragon, this time a story about us would continue for many hundred of years, wouldn’t it? And if, just if, we could do what Bercouli couldn’t…… by bringing anything from the dragon’s treasure hoard back with us, wouldn’t the village chief reconsider our Sacred Task……?
As Eugeo was expanding his day dreaming while still walking, his nose bumped into the back of Kirito’s head, who had suddenly stopped; with his face in a frown,
“Oi Kirito, don’t suddenly stop like that.”
However, there was no reply from his partner. Instead, a low groan came out,
“Just exactly what is that!”
Eugeo tilted his head at the same time as Alice beside him, and looked forward from Kirito’s side.
“Just what are you talking abo……”
Alice, who saw the same thing as Eugeo couldn’t finish her words.
It was a mountain of bones.
All of them were bones made out of blue ice. They shone rigidly as if they were crystal sculptures. Every single one of them was big, the various shape of bones stacked on top of each other, made a mountain higher than the height of the three children. On top of it, was a huge lump which told them who this grave belonged to.
A skull, Eugeo could understand with just a glance. Its empty eye sockets, elongated nostrils. The horns stretched out from the back, the countless number of sword-like fangs lined up on the overhung jawbone.
“The white dragon’s…… bones?”
Alice whispered in a low voice.
“It’s already dead……?”
“Ah…… But, its death is not due to natural causes.”
The answer came from Kirito who had regained his composure, Eugeo rarely saw his partner like this, as Kirito was always painted by various other emotions.
Kirito moved a few more steps, from his feet, he picked up a huge talon which seemed to have come from the dragon’s front feet.
“Look…… there are a lot of wounds here, the tip was also neatly cut off.”
“It fought against something……? But, a living thing which could kill a dragon……”
The same question Alice asked floated in Eugeo’s mind. Speaking of the «Northern White Dragon», it’s the one that lived in various places at the Mountain range at the Edge, which encloses the entire world, protecting the Human World from the forces of darkness, it’s the world’s strongest protector. What kind of living thing could kill something like that……?
“Fighting with animals or other dragons shouldn’t give these kind of wounds.”
Kirito said while stroking his thumb over the blue talon.
“Eh……? Then, what……”
“These are the sword wounds. What killed this dragon was —— human.”
“B-But…… well, even Bercouli, the hero who won the tournament in the capital still couldn’t do it and had to run away. It’s absurd, even the swordsmen from everywhere……”
Speaking until that point, Alice seemed to notice something and sank into silence. A moment of silence fell onto the ice lake which was now turned into a huge tomb.
A few seconds later, a whisper filled with fear flowed from her small lips,
“……The Integrity Knight……? The Integrity Knight from the Axiom Church killed the white dragon……?
An Integrity Knight, the ultimate embodiment of law and order, and also the symbol of goodness, killed the white dragon, which was also the protector of the Human World. That kind of story was, in the eleven years that Eugeo had lived, never thought of, so he didn’t think he could accept it easily. After suffering from the question he couldn’t swallow or chew for a while, he sent a glance beside him, requesting an answer from his partner.
“……I don’t understand.”
However, Kirito’s mutter was also painted in great confusion.
“Maybe…… it’s possible that the Land of darkness also has a very strong knight, and that knight killed the white dragon…… But, if that’s true, it’s odd that until now there’s not even once that the forces of darkness had crossed past the Mountain range at the Edge. ——At least, this isn’t the act of a thief though……”
After he finished speaking, Kirito stepped toward the dragon’s remains and gently put the talon back on the mountain of bones. Next, he dragged something long out of the bottom of the bone mountain.
“Uo…… so absurdly heavy……”
He showed it to Eugeo and Alice after he staggered as he dragged it for about a mel.
It was a long sword, with a silver grip and a scabbard made of white leather. Its rain guard was decorated by an inlaid delicate blue rose, with just a glance, they understood that it had a much higher value than any sword in the village.
“Ah…… this, probably……”
Alice said as she looked at it, Kirito nodded to her,
“Yeah. The «Blue Rose Sword» that Bercouli tried to steal from the bosom of the sleeping white dragon. I wonder why the guy who killed the dragon didn’t take it……”
He bowed while talking, and lifted the grip off the ground with both of his hands, however, even with his utmost strength, he only managed to lift it up a mere ten cens off the floor.
Kirito separated his hands as he yelled, the long sword dropped to the ice floor again with a heavy sound. A small crack could be seen on the thick ice, the sword seemed to have an unimaginable weight despite its delicate appearance.
“……What do we do with this?”
“Can’t, can’t, even with the two of us together, it’s not possible to bring it back to the village. Even though we deal with that woodcutting axe everyday. ……Besides, there seems to be more treasure under the bones though……”
“……Yeah, but don’t think about taking anything……”
The two nodded at Alice’s serious tone.
Even though taking a small trophy back and boasting to the other boys that they did it without waking the dragon would be a great adventure story, the act of taking treasure from this place was clearly grave robbery. Although the Taboo Index’ regulation about «Thievery» against humans wouldn’t apply to this situation, it didn’t mean they could do anything they wanted as long as it wasn’t prohibited.
Eugeo looked at Kirito and Alice again before nodding.
“Let’s follow our plan, only taking the ice. If it’s just ice, even if the dragon was still alive, it would forgive us, surely.”
After he said that, Eugeo walked closer to the icicles, and kicked a small ice crystal which stretched up from the base of the big icicle like a newly grown bud. Pakin, with a good sound, he picked up the broken lump before holding it out to Alice, who opened the lid of the empty wicker basket and placed the ice inside.
The three concentrated on working to pack the ice fragments into the wicker basket without talking for a while. When the base of the icicle was cleared, they moved to the next column and repeated their actions. In just a few minutes, the big wicker basket was full of crystals which looked like transparent blue jewels.
Alice exerted her strength to pull up the wicker basket while looking at the group of lights between her arms,
“……So beautiful. Somehow, it’s such a waste to bring these back and let them all melt.”
“Aren’t we bringing these back to prolong our boxed lunch?”
Kirito said matter-of-factly while making a frown, Alice suddenly held out the basket to the black haired boy.
“Eh? I have to carry it all the way back too?”
“Isn’t it obvious? These are too heavy for me anyway.”
Trying to keep them from starting their usual bickering, Eugeo hurriedly said,
“I’ll help, we can take turns to carry it. ——Well, if we don’t go back now, we won’t reach the village before evening. Haven’t we already been in this cave for nearly an hour?”
“Ah…… as I can’t see Solus, I don’t know the exact time. Is there something in the sacred arts that can tell what time it is now?”
Alice quickly averted her face, a small exit could be seen from one side of the wide lake of ice.
Next, looking around, on the opposite side was another exit.
Then, she drooped her shoulders before speaking,
“——Hey, which way did we come from?”
Eugeo and Kirito immediately pointed to the direction they were very confident of. Of course, they pointed at different exits.
There must be footprints - unfortunately, there was not a single depression on the smooth ice surface; the side where water from the lake flowed to must be the exit - unfortunately, it flowed out of both sides; the direction the skull was looking at was the exit - unfortunately, it didn’t look at either side; after all options were exhausted in vain, finally Alice started to explain something likely to be a pointer.
“Look, isn’t there a frozen puddle that Eugeo stepped on and broke? If we go closer to the exit and see it, that would be the correct one.”
I see, it’s as she said. As if to hide his embarrassment because he couldn’t think of it himself, Eugeo coughed, before nodding.
“Alright, it’s decided, let’s go check on the nearer side.”
“I think that way is correct though……”
While Kirito was still grumbling in reluctance, Eugeo used his left hand to push his back while holding the ear of grass in his right hand high, and stepped into the waterway in front of him.
When the ice columns that reflected the light had disappeared from their surroundings, what had been a reliable sacred light now felt very unreliable. The three increased their pace.
“……Hmm, we don’t know the road back, just like the Berin brothers in the old tale. It’d be great if we had scattered nuts on the way in, as there are no birds to eat them anyway.”
Kirito’s silly talk felt somewhat feigned, So this carefree partner can feel uneasy too huh? Eugeo became slightly amused in contrast.
“What are you talking about? We don’t have nuts in the first place. If you want to utilize what you have learned, how about putting your cloth at each fork we’ll run into?”
“Stop it, I’ll catch a cold like that.”
As Kirito imitated intentional sneezing, Alice slapped his back.
“Stop talking nonsense and look at the ground carefully. If we overlook it, it’ll be troublesome…… or rather……”
As she cut her speech off, she frowned before continuing,
“Hey, we have walked for a while now but still can’t see the broken ice puddle…… So, it’s actually the other path?”
“No, let’s go a bit more…… Ah, listen.”
As Kirito suddenly put his finger to his lips, Eugeo and Alice stopped talking. They listened carefully.
Certainly, there was another sound mixed in with the flow of the groundwater stream. It sounded like a melancholic whistle that raised and lowered in pitch.
“Ah…… the sound of wind?”
Alice murmured. Certainly, Eugeo also realized it was a sound similar to the treetops playing in the wind.
“The exit is nearby! It’s great we picked this path, let’s hurry!”
As he called out in relief, he started jogging to resume advancing.
“Hey, you’ll slip if you run in a place like this.”
But even though she said so, Alice also increased her pace. Following them from behind was Kirito, who made a doubtful expression.
“But…… does summer wind sound like this? Somehow…… it sounds like cold winter wind……”
“The strong valley winds blow like that. Anyway, let’s get out of here quickly.”
The light in Eugeo’s right hand swung violently as he approached the cave exit. My heart has already overflowed with the feeling of quickly going back to the village, to my home. I’m sure my family would be surprised once I show them the fragment of ice I got from Alice.
But, the ice will melt quickly. Maybe it’d be better if I took an old silver coin back there…… As he thought that, he saw a small light in the darkness up ahead.
He shouted with a smiling face, then frowned. The light became faintly reddish. They had entered the cave just around lunch, the time they spent inside was at most an hour or a little more, it seemed they had been in the underground world longer than they realized. If Solus had already started sinking to the west, and they didn’t hurriedly go back, they wouldn’t reach the village in time for dinner.
Eugeo quickened his pace. The high-pitched sound of the wind echoing into the cave had already dominated the sound of the river.
“Hey Eugeo, stop for a bit! This is weird, it has just been two hours at most but……”
Alice who ran behind him raised her voice in anxiety. However, Eugeo didn’t stop. I’ve had had enough of this adventure. Right now, I want to be home even a moment sooner——
Turning to the right, turning to the left, and turning to the right again, finally the light fully spread in his vision. The exit was just a few mels ahead. He narrowed his eyes which had been accustomed to the dark while gradually loosening his running pace, before completely stopping.
The cave ended just there.
However, in front of Eugeo’s eyes wasn’t the world he knew.
The whole sky was deep red. But it wasn’t the color of the setting sun. First of all, Solus couldn’t be found anywhere in the sky. Like the juice from the hanging mountain grapes that were too ripe —— or the sheep’s blood which was thrown out, only a dull, depressing red spread across his eyes.
The ground was black. On the other side was the strangely steep mountain range which was dotted in front by strangely shaped rocky mountains, the water surface which could be seen here and there were stained in black with something reminiscent of ash. The skin of twisted dead trees was white like polished bone.
The wind, which blew violently as if to tear everything in pieces, shook the dead treetops, causing long melancholic cries. It was without a doubt, the sound of the wind they had heard inside the cave.
A place like this, a world which was forsook by gods, wasn’t the Human World Eugeo lived in. Then —— what the three were looking at, this scene was——
Kirito’s hoarse voice was immediately carried off by the sound of the wind.
The place where the authority of the Axiom Church couldn’t extend its reach to, the land of the devil tribes serving under the god of darkness Vector, the world which they had thought only existed inside the tales told by the village elders, was just a few steps ahead. As he thought that, the center of Eugeo’s head became freezing cold, he couldn’t do anything but to stand still. As if having touched that information for the first time in his life, the large amount of it flew into a section of his mind which had never been used before, he was no longer able to even handle thoughts of his own.
Inside his head, which was stained in pure white, was a single sentence written at the beginning of the Taboo Index, shining clearly and brightly. The first chapter, third passage, eleventh paragraph which should have been forgotten after talking to Alice the day before.『Not anyone is to go beyond the Mountain range enclosing the edge of the Human World』.
“No…… don’t go any further……”
Eugeo recklessly moved his stiff mouth and squeezed the words out. He spread his arms as if to prevent Kirito and Alice, who were behind him, from falling.
At that time. A solid metal striking sound echoed from above, Eugeo’s body trembled in surprise. He looked up at the red sky reflexively.
In the blood red background, he could see something white intertwined with something black.
As they were flying at frightening heights, they were tiny little specks. It seemed their real size would be far beyond humans. While the two flying bodies were intensely switching places, they separated before approaching each other again, the moment they blended together, an intermittent metallic sound echoed.
“The dragon knights……”
Kirito, who was looking up at the sky beside Eugeo, whispered in a husky voice.
It was as his partner said, the two fighting each other had long necks and tails, they were huge flying dragons, each with a pair of triangular wings. The body of the riders could be seen on their backs, armed with swords and shields. The one riding the white dragon was in a white silver armor, on the black dragon was a knight in jet black armor. Their swords were like that too, the beam of dazzling light from the white knight’s sword was stagnated by the miasma released from the black knight’s sword.
As the two dragon knights struck each other with their swords, the sound of thunderous impact reverberated, as large amount of tiny fire particles danced in the air.
“I wonder if the white one is…… the Church’s Integrity Knight……”
To Alice’s mutter, Kirito nodded slightly.
“Right…… The black one is the knight of the darkness’ forces, I guess…… With strength on par to the Integrity Knight’s.”
“It can’t be……”
Eugeo shook his head inadvertently.
“The Integrity Knights are the world’s strongest. He can’t be defeated by the likes of a knight of darkness.”
“I wonder about that. From the look of it, there isn’t much difference in their sword skills. Both can’t penetrate the other’s defense.”
Immediately after Kirito said that. As if hearing his voice, the white knight pulled his dragon’s bridle and gained a large gap. The black dragon flapped its wings violently to shorten the distance.
However, before the distance could be reduced, the white dragon turned its head sharply by bending its neck, along with an action which seemed to be gathering power. Immediately after that, while still swinging its neck, its jaws opened wide. A colorless flame gushed out in a straight line from between its fangs, and wrapped the black dragon knight entirely.
The roar which dominated the sound of the wind struck Eugeo’s ears. The black dragon twisted its body in pain, shaking violently in mid air and descended. Without missing that chance, the Integrity Knight had replaced his sword with a reddish brown great bow and drew it to the limit, before releasing a long arrow.
The arrow drew a faint trace of flame in the mid air, without missing, it pierced through the black knight’s chest.
Alice raised a small voice which sounded like a shriek.
As the skin of both its wings had been burnt completely, the black dragon lost its ability to fly and wriggled violently in mid air. The black knight separated from its back, and with a trail of blood, started falling straight toward the cave entrance where the three of them stood.
First, the black sword stabbed upright into the gravel mixed ground, producing a dry sound. Next, at a place about ten mels away from the three of them, the knight crashed. Lastly, the black dragon crashed into the considerably far rocky mountain, it moved its long tail while crying in agony, before it stopped moving altoghether.
In front of the three children who were staring wordlessly, the black knight was struggling in pain, trying to raise his upper body. On the dully shining metal armor’s breastplate, the deep hole from the pierce wound could be seen. The knight’s face, which was hidden behind the thick visor, was directed straight at the three.
His slightly trembling right hand stretched out as if asking for help. But immediately after that, a large amount of fresh blood gushed out of the neck of the armor, the knight then collapsed onto the ground. The red liquid spread wide from the body which no longer moved, soaking into the gaps of the black gravel.
A thin voice leaked from Alice on Eugeo’s right side. Moving as if she was sucked toward, staggering forward —— to the outside of the cave.
Eugeo didn’t have any reaction. However, Kirito on his left made a low and sharp shout “Nooo!!” Alice heard that voice, her body trembled, trying to stop. But her feet were tangled, her body inclined forward. This time Eugeo also stretched his hand along with Kirito in reflex, trying to grab Alice’s clothes.
However, their fingertips only sliced air.
Alice collapsed on the ground of the cave and let out a small gasp, followed by the trail of her long golden hair.
It’s just falling. Even if I checked the «Window», Life would be reduced by just one or two points. However, the problem wasn’t that. The moment Alice fell, her right hand stretched forward, and went about twenty cens past the strangely clear boundary between the bluish grey cave floor and the ash colored ground ahead. The pure white palm touched the pure black gravel. The Land of darkness, Dark Territory’s ground.
Kirito and Eugeo unanimously called, they stretched out both hands and grabbed Alice’s body tightly. Normally, doing something like this would get them yelled at until they regretted it, but this time, she just stood firm as if in a trance, and was pulled back into the cave.
Alice, who was held up by Eugeo’s and Kirito’s hands, had her eyes wide opened at the defeated black knight, before long, her gaze dropped to her right hand. The fluffy palm still had sand and small stones stuck to it, every single grain pitch black.
Alice murmured in a grave tone, as Eugeo mindlessly stretched his hands out to her right hand. He rubbed her palm, wiping out all the grains of sand, and said earnestly,
“I-It’s alright, Alice. You didn’t go out of the cave. Your hand just touched it. That, surely, isn’t forbidden, right? Right, Kirito?!”
Eugeo lifted his face and looked at his partner’s face as if to rely on him. But Kirito wasn’t looking at Eugeo nor Alice. While standing on his knees, his gaze was sharply running through the surroundings.
“W-What’s the matter, Kirito?”
“…………Don’t you feel it, Eugeo? It’s like…… someone…… something……”
He frowned and started looking around again after speaking, however, in the cave there wasn’t even a bug, let alone a human. The only thing that entered his vision was at the place ten mels away, the dead black knight. The figure of the Integrity Knight who had won the battle had already disappeared from the sky.
“It’s just your imagination, rather than that……”
Let’s get Alice to the other side of the cave quickly.
As Eugeo was about to say that, Kirito grabbed his shoulder at full force. While frowning, Eugeo followed his partner’s gaze, immediately after that, his body became intensely rigid.
Near the ceiling of the cave, there was something strange.
A violet circle shook like the surface of water. With a diameter of about fifty cens, vaguely looking out of it, was —— a human face. It was hard to tell if it were male or female, young or old from its plain features. Its skin was pale, its head didn’t have a single strand of hair. Both of its eyes which opened in a perfect circle were also void of emotions. However, Eugeo could instinctively guess. Those eyes weren’t looking at him or Kirito, but at the person who was sitting absentmindedly on the ground, Alice.
The stranger’s mouth started moving, through the violet membrane, strange words could be heard,
Both its eyes, which looked like balls of grass blinked briefly, then once again, the mysterious voice said,
Then, the violet window suddenly vanished. Once Eugeo belatedly noticed that the stranger’s words might be some kind of the sacred arts’ ritual phrase, he hurriedly looked at Alice, Kirito, then finally himself, but he didn’t feel that anything had changed.
Even so, the event was too strange to ignore. Eugeo exchanged glances with his partner, the two helped to lift Alice up, as if to carry their childhood friend who was still trembling, back into the cave —— and started trotting in the original direction they had come from.
Eugeo couldn’t remember how they returned to Rulid village.
Going back across the lake where the white dragon lay, and continuing to run after they jumped into the opposite exit. They slipped many times as they were running on wet stones, but they went through the long cave with just a fraction of the time when they came, when they jumped into the white light they finally saw, the afternoon sunlight was still brightly pouring onto the forest.
However, Eugeo’s anxiety of getting captured hadn’t disappeared easily. Even at this moment, he still had the feeling that the violet window would open right behind them, with that strangely pale face appearing again, so he didn’t let himself rest.
Under the trees where small birds sang, passing the bank of the small river where a group of small fish moved here and there, the three hastily walked in silence. Crossing the hill which was supposed to be the Northern pass, going past the twin ponds, before finally arrived at the north Rulid bridge.
With additional walking, they had returned and rested at the base of the old tree, which had been their meeting place at dawn, but still didn’t talk much. The three exchanged glances before smiling slightly.
“Hey, Alice, here.”
Kirito said and thrusted the heavy looking wicker basket forward. Inside it was packed with the fruit of today’s adventure, the «Summer Ice»; Eugeo now realized the existence of the basket which he had completely forgotten. To hide his embarrassment, he said with a calm face,
“When you get back home, you’d better bring them to the cellar quickly. That way, it should be able to hold out until tomorrow, right?”
The unusually obedient Alice nodded, after taking the basket, she looked at two boys’ faces in turn; finally, her usual clear smile floated to her face.
“You can look forward to tomorrow’s boxed lunch. As the reward for your hard work, I’ll do my best.”
You mean Sadina-obasan will do her best, don’t you?, which of course, Eugeo and Kirito didn’t say out loud. The two exchanged glances for a moment before nodding at the same time.
“……Hey, what were you thinking?”
Alice asked while wearing a perplexed expression, the two boys slapped Alice’s shoulders, before saying in unison——
“It’s nothing! Well, let’s go back to the village!”
By the time they walked to the village square, the place where they parted, the real sunset sky hovered above them. Kirito lived in the church, Alice went back to the village chief’s residence. Eugeo arrived at his house on the west side of the village just a few seconds before the six o’clock bell rang.
Eugeo stayed silent throughout the dinner he arrived at, barely on time. Even though he was confident that his brothers and sisters, and even his father and grandfather never had an adventure like him today, he was somehow unable to bring himself to boast about it.
It seemed he couldn’t speak about the fact that he had seen the Land of darkness with his own eyes —— the fierce battle between the Integrity Knight and the black knight, and then the strange face which appeared at the end; because once he talked about that, it wasn’t hard to guess what the reaction from his family might be, and it made him scared.
That night, Eugeo who went to bed early thought he would be able to forget everything he saw at the end of the adventure. But he wasn’t able to, as the Axiom Church and the Integrity Knight which he had been holding in admiration and respect up until this point had turned out to be something completely different.
Solus had set, then arisen —— and then, it was daily life as usual, without any changes.
Normally, on the day after the rest day, Eugeo would go to the workplace slightly depressed, however, today he somehow felt relieved. I’ve had enough adventure, I’m a woodcutter after all. As he was thinking this as he walked out of the village’s south gate, Kirito joined him on the border between the fields and the forest.
Eugeo noticed a slight sense of relief on the face of the partner he had known for a long time. The other also noticed the same expression on Eugeo’s face. For a short while, the two exchanged grins to hide their embarrassment.
They walked along the narrow forest path for a short while before obtaining the Dragon Bone Axe from the storage hut, then after walking several more minutes, reached the base of the Gigas Cedar. Eugeo was grateful when he thought of continuing to cut the tree trunk like nothing had changed.
“Alright, make sure you get in a few good hits and treat me to Siral water today.”
“Isn’t that what you have always had to do until recently, Kirito?”
As they jabbed at each other, Eugeo set up the axe. The first strike produced a Gon high-pitched sound. I’m in a good condition today. Eugeo thought.
As the morning went on, the two continued making good strikes on the tree trunk. The reason was, as they were swinging the axe, if they lost concentration, their minds would return to the scene they saw yesterday —— it wasn’t something that could be denied.
After striking nine sets of the fifty strikes per set requirement, Eugeo’s stomach started rumbling.
Eugeo looked up into the sky as he wiped his sweat, Solus was already reaching the middle of the sky. Like always, after one more strike, Alice would bring the awaited lunch. But today we can slowly eat pie with cold milk. His empty stomach hurt just by imagining it.
Just thinking about lunch made Eugeo’s grip slip. After wiping both his wet palms, he cautiously held the axe in a tighter grip.
Suddenly, the sunlight became dim.
Sudden rain? That’s annoying. Eugeo thought while looking up.
A shadow could be seen flying across the blue sky above Gigas Cedar’s branches at a high speed. Eugeo’s heart flinched.
“The flying dragon……!?”
Eugeo unintentionally shouted,
“Oi…… Kirito, just now!!”
“Aa, it’s the Integrity Knight from yesterday!!”
His partner’s voice was also frozen in fear.
The flying dragon along with the silvery white knight sitting on its back swept over the treetops and disappeared from their eyes in the direction of Rulid village.
Why would he comes to a place like this?
In the complete silence, as if the birds and bugs were in fear, Eugeo thought in confusion.
The Integrity Knights fight against the Axiom Church’s enemies and keep the order in place. In the current Human World where the four empires divided and ruled, there are no rebel groups anymore, so aside from the forces of darkness, the Integrity Knights’ enemies don’t exist. What I heard about the knights’ endless fights outside the Mountain range at the Edge, I actually saw it with my own eyes yesterday.
It is the first time I have seen a real Integrity Knight. Since I was born, the knight had never come to the village. And yet, why now——
“It can’t be…… It can’t be, Alice……”
Kirito murmured beside him.
The moment he heard that, the strange voice he heard back then returned vividly to Eugeo’s ears. Beyond the violet window, blurting out mysterious phrases from the human with strange facial features. He felt chill down his spine as if he was suspended in freezing water.
“It’s a lie…… it can’t be true, just that…… with just that……”
He looked at Kirito’s face while he talked, as if to seek agreement, but his partner was wearing a rare solemn expression while staring in the direction the knight flew. A few moments later, Kirito looked straight into Eugeo’s eyes before giving a short call,
He took the Dragon Bone Axe off Eugeo’s hand before running toward the north in a straight line.
Something bad is happening. While he was thinking that, Eugeo also kicked the ground and quickly chased after Kirito.
They ran through the familiar small path of the forest at full speed while avoiding roots and rocks, as the path merged with the main road which went through the field. They couldn’t see the shadow of the flying dragon in the sky over the village. Kirito loosened his feet slightly, and loudly asked the farmer among the ears of wheat, who wore a blue outfit and was looking up at the sky.
“Ridack-ojisan! Where did the dragon knight go!?”
The farmer looked like he had just woke up from a dream, after blinking many times, he finally replied,
“A…… Ah…… hello, it looked like it dropped at the village square……”
After thanking him in irritation, the two continued running at full speed.
On various places along the main road and fields, were groups of villagers standing still. Probably, even among the elders, there might be no one who had actually seen the Integrity Knight before. Everyone just stared at the village with an expression of not knowing what to do. Eugeo and Kirito just ran past them desperately.
Passing through the village’s south gate, running through the short shopping street, and, after crossing the small stone bridge, the two finally saw it. They caught their breath without their feet ever stopping.
The long arching neck and tail of the flying dragon occupied the northern half of the square in front of the church.
Its big wings folded to its sides, almost completely blocking the church from view. Its grey scales and the steel armor on various parts of its body reflected the light of Solus, which made it look like an ice sculpture. Its bloodshot eyes, void of emotion, were looking down at the village square.
In front of the dragon, shining even more dazzlingly, was the figure of the knight.
His frame was larger than anyone in the village. The heavy armor polished until it was like a mirror covered his entire body, without a single trace of cloth, as all the joints were covered by finely knit silver chains. The headpiece which mimicked a dragon’s head had its forehead protruding out, on its sides were long decorated horns stretched backward, the knight’s face was hidden behind the huge visor which was pulled down.
There was a long sword which had a silver grip hanging from his left waist. On his back, with a length of about a mel, was a reddish brown bow. It was without a doubt, the Integrity Knight who shot and killed the black knight that Eugeo had seen at the exit of the cave yesterday.
From the cross shaped opening of the visor, the knight stared wordlessly to the south of the square, and the dozens of villagers who had gathered lowered their heads in unison. On the last row, the figure of a young girl who had just lowered the wicker basket in her hand could be seen, Eugeo released the tension from his shoulders slightly. Alice, who was wearing her usual blue dress and white pinafore, stared at the figure of the Integrity Knight from between the gap of the adults.
Eugeo elbowed Kirito’s sides as a signal, they bent their bodies and moved, after they arrived behind Alice, Kirito whispered,
Their childhood friend turned around, as her golden hair swung sideways, her surprised face looked as if she was about to say something. Kirito quickly put his finger to his mouth, before quietly whispering,
“Alice, be quiet. I think we need to get out of here right now.”
Alice replied in a similarly low whisper, she seemed not to know the danger which currently drew near her. Eugeo thought she wouldn’t notice the possibility without Kirito saying it.
“No…… that Integrity Knight is probably……”
How should we explain from there. As Eugeo was lost in thought for a moment. At that time.
A few low voices came from within the crowd. Looking up, walking to the square from the village hall, a tall man came into view.
Alice muttered. The man was the girl’s father and at the same time, the current village chief of Rulid, Gasupht Schuberg. The firm body was dressed in a simple vest, his black hair and beard were tidily trimmed. Even though he had inherited this Sacred Task from the previous village chief for just four years, his piercing discernment quickly gained him the respect of all villagers.
Gasupht approached the Integrity Knight alone without any trace of hesitation, before setting his hands in front of the body according to the Axiom Church’s etiquette, then bowed. After raising his face, he addressed himself,
“I serve as the village chief of Rulid, Schuberg is my name.”
The Integrity Knight lifted up his fists in front of his body in return to Gasupht, the armor made a faint sound when he nodded, before starting to speak,
“Overseeing the Norlangarth North Castle, Integrity Knight of the Axiom Church, Deusolbert Synthesis Seven.”
It was hard to believe that it came from the throat of a living person, as it reverberated in a discordant intonation. The voice which had a steely feel to it echoed throughout the square, causing every villager in the area to become silent. Eugeo frowned as the sound felt as if it pierced directly through his forehead rather than come through the ears, even though he was more than twenty mels away. Even the village chief Gasupht was pushed half a step backward due to the pressure.
However, as expected from his courage, Gasupht corrected his posture, before issuing his impressive speech once again,
“It is an honor to have Sir Integrity Knight, who keeps the order of the vast Human World, visit our small village in this remote region. If I had known of your approach in advance I would have prepared a welcoming banquet.”
“I can not accept that during the fulfillment of my official duties.”
The knight’s reverberating voice said, and with an ice-like glare under the visor —— he continued,
“Due to Gasupht Schuberg’s child, Alice Schuberg’s offense to the Taboo clause, I have come to arrest her for interrogation, followed by her execution.”
A trembling could be seen on Alice’s back who stood nearby. However, Eugeo and Kirito couldn’t do anything, let alone speak. In their heads, the knight’s words repeatedly echoed.
The village chief’s strong body also shook for a moment. A short but clear curve could be seen slightly from the side of his face.
After a long silence, Gasupht said in a voice which had lost its luster,
“……Sir Knight, what was the sin that my daughter committed?”
“The Taboo Index, first chapter, third passage, eleventh paragraph, trespassing the Dark Territory.”
At that moment, a big commotion began among the villagers who were holding their breath, listening to the exchange up until this point. The children widened their eyes, as every adult murmured the church’s sacred phrase while tracing the curse protection symbol.
Then, Eugeo and Kirito finally acted, partly due to instinct. They thrust themselves in front of Alice, stuck together at their shoulders, hiding the girl from the villagers eyes behind their backs. However, they couldn’t perform any further actions, as sudden movements would attract attention from the adults in front of them.
Inside Eugeo’s head, What should we do, what should we do, was the only thought there, continuously repeating itself. Even without the depression which had welled up in his chest at this moment, he still wouldn’t know what he could do.
All he did was stand upright, watching the scene up ahead, at the village chief Gasupht who was hanging his head deeply without making any actions.
It’s alright, if it’s that person. Eugeo thought. Even though he had never spoke to the village chief Gasupht much, he should have the most respect from the adults after Old Garitta.
“……In that case, I will call my daughter, I think we should hear the reason from the mouth of the person herself.”
The village chief who lifted his face said just that.
No, we can’t let Alice come out in front of the knight. During the brief period Eugeo thought that, the Integrity Knight lifted his right hand up as his armor made a small sound. Seeing his fingertip pointed directly at him, Eugeo’s heart squirmed uncomfortably.
“That is not necessary. Alice Schuberg is right there. You, and you……”
The knight moved his hand and pointed to the adults among the crowd in turn.
“Take the chief’s daughter here.”
The row of villagers in front of Eugeo quickly split. What stood between the Integrity Knight and Alice were just Kirito and Eugeo.
On the vacant road, two village acquaintances slowly approached. Their skin had lost the color of blood, but there were odd lights floating in their eyes.
The men forcefully tore Eugeo and Kirito, who were blocking them, off Alice, and pushed them to the side before grabbing Alice’s arms.
Alice raised a small voice, before clenching her lips tightly. As her rose colored cheeks faded, a faint smile floated to her face, It’s alright. She nodded to the two like that.
When Kirito called out in a small voice, the wicker basket in her right hand fell down due to the rough pulling. The lid opened, and its contents rolled out onto the stone pavement.
The two villagers pulled Alice, without letting her pick it up, toward the Integrity Knight.
Eugeo’s stare was fixed on the wicker basket which was lying on its side.
Pie and hard bread were wrapped in a white cloth, small ice firmly filled the gaps. A piece of ice which had spilled out reflected the sunlight and shone brilliantly. In just a moment, the ice on the stone’s surface, which was heated by the sunlight, immediately melted, turning into a small black spot.
Beside him, Kirito inhaled sharply.
As expected, he lifted his face and chased Alice’s back, which was being pulled away. Eugeo also clenched his teeth, forcing his stiff legs to follow his partner.
The two men released Alice’s arms beside the village chief, then moved a few steps backward before kneeling. Both their hands were clasped as they bowed down deeply, showing obedience to the knight.
Alice, who had been released, looked at her father with a pale face. Gasupht glanced at his beloved daughter briefly before turning away and looking downward once more.
The Integrity Knight nodded lightly before pulling an odd tool out from the back of his armor. It was a thick iron chain with three leather belts attached to it in parallel, there was a big loop at the tip of the chain.
The knight handed the tool to Gasupht.
“An order to the village chief. Bind the criminal.”
As the village chief received the restraining tool as his confused gaze lowered, before Kirito and Eugeo finally arrived in front of the knight. The knight’s headpiece moved slowly, before facing straight at them.
Eugeo was unable to see anything inside the cross shaped cut on the shiny visor, as it was wrapped in deep darkness, but the pressure from the gaze caused him to feel pain. He looked down reflexively, wanting to say something to Alice who stood in front of him, but unable to do so, as his throat felt like it was burning.
Kirito also faced downwards, like Eugeo, while taking shallow breaths repeatedly, then suddenly he lifted his face and shouted in a clear voice while he was still trembling.
He inhaled deeply once, and continued,
“A……Alice didn’t enter the Dark Territory! One of her hands merely touched the ground briefly! It was just that!”
However, the answer from the knight was simple,
“Is there any need of further acts?”
Along with those words, he waved his hand to the two kneeling men. The villagers stood up and grabbed the back of Kirito and Yujio necks, before starting to pull them away. While opposing them, Kirito shouted again,
“Th……Then, we also commited the same sin!! We were at the same place! If you’re going to take her, then take us too!!”
However, the Integrity Knight no longer looked at them.
That’s right…… If Alice committed the Taboo, then I should receive the same punishment. Eugeo thought so. He thought that from the bottom of his heart.
Then why won’t my voice come out? I want to shout like Kirito, but my mouth feels like it has forgotten how to move, all it can do is spit out husky breaths.
Alice glanced and turned to look at them, It’s alright. She smiled like that, and nodded.
Her father, who had lost his facial expression, turned the threatening restraint tool behind her slim body. He tightened the three leather belts at her shoulder, abdomen, and waist. Alice’s face distorted just slightly. After he finished tightening the metal fixtures, he staggered a few steps backward, and looked down once more. The knight walked toward Alice, before grabbing the end of the chain dangling behind her back.
Eugeo and Kirito were pulled back to the center of the square, then forcefully pushed down on their knees.
Kirito put his mouth near Eugeo’s ear while he pretended to stagger, and quickly whispered,
“Eugeo…… listen, I’ll use this axe to attack the Integrity Knight. I should be able to buy a few seconds, you use that chance to take Alice and run away. Run to the wheat fields in the south, blend into the gap in the fields and go into the forest, you won’t be easily seen that way.
After Eugeo glanced at the Dragon Bone Axe Kirito held, he was somehow able to squeeze out his voice,
“……Ki…… Kirito…… but…”
Yesterday, haven’t you already seen the Integrity Knight’s terrifying sword and bow skills? If you do something like that, he’ll kill you immediately…… just like that black knight.
As if he could read Eugeo’s thoughts, who was unable to speak, Kirito continued,
“It’s alright, that knight didn’t execute Alice right here. Probably, without an interrogation first, he can’t just kill me. I’ll find a chance to escape too. Also……”
Kirito’s burning gaze was directed at the Integrity Knight, who was confirming the tightness of the restraint tool. Each time he pulled the leather belts, Alice face became distorted in pain.
“……Also, it’s fine even if we fail. As long as we are taken along with Alice, there must be a chance for us to escape. But right now, if Alice is taken alone on the flying dragon, there is no more hope.”
That’s probably right.
But —— such a reckless idea which can’t even be considered a plan, isn’t it «Treason against the Church»? The Taboo Index, first clause, first passage, first paragraph, defined it as, the greatest sin——
“Eugeo…… is there any need for hesitation!? Who cares if it’s Taboo!? Is that more important than Alice’s life!?”
Kirito’s low but tense voice hit Eugeo’s earlobe.
Right. It’s just as he said.
Inside Eugeo’s heart, he shouted to himself,
——We three had decided that we would be together from birth till death. Working together, so that one could live for the sake of the other two, we did vow that.
Then, there’s no reason to hesitate. The Axiom Church and Alice, which is more important? That answer is already decided. It’s already decided. That is —— that is ——
“Eugeo…… what are you thinking, Eugeo!!”
A voice which now sounded like a shriek tore out from Kirito.
Alice was watching at the two. She shook her head with a worried face.
“That is…… that…… is……”
A hoarse voice came from his throat, as if it wasn’t his own.
However, he couldn’t finish his words. Even inside his head, he couldn’t form the rest of the words. Zukin, a sharp pain ran up his right eye. The continuous throbbing pain interfered with his thinking. Zukin, zukin, a blood-like color spread in his vision, covered everything altogether, as the senses from his limbs faded.
At this time, the village chief had noticed the unusual event occurring, caused by the two of them. He slowly moved his arm, and ordered the two villagers standing behind the two,
“Take those children out of the square.”
Immediately after that, Eugeo and Kirito’s napes were grabbed and dragged backward.
“Damn…… let go!! ——Village chief!! Gasupht-ojisan! Is this alright!? Is it alright to let Alice be taken away like this!!?”
Kirito struggled as if he went insane, shook off the man’s hands, readied the axe in his hand, preparing to charge in.
However, his feet, which wore simple leather boots, couldn’t even make a single step forward. Before he could start running, something surprising had occurred.
The moment the Integrity Knight, who had finished confirming the leather belts on Alice, glanced at Kirito, the Dragon Bone Axe which was held in a tight grip made a sharp metallic sound before flipping out of his hands. The knight touched neither the sword on his waist nor the bow on his back. He didn’t move even a single finger. It was as if his intention itself formed a real blade and hit Kirito’s axe, sending it flying to the edge of the square.
Kirito who had received the aftereffects from the unusual impact also had his body suppressed as he collapsed. Immediately, several men joined in and completely sealed his movements.
His right cheek was pressed against the stone pavement, while he gave off an expression of pain, Kirito desperately shouted,
“Eugeo! Please, go!!”
Eugeo’s whole body trembled.
Go. I have to go. I have to take Alice back from the knight’s hand, then escape to the southern forest.
A faint voice echoed from a corner of his mind. But immediately, a sharp pain attacked his right eye as if it was stabbed, blowing off all his intentions. Together with the pulsing red light, another voice noisily reverberated like a cracked bell.
The Axiom Church is absolute. The Taboo Index is absolute. Disobeying it isn’t allowed. No one is allowed to do so.
“Eugeo, at least get these guys off me!! Then I can……!!”
The Integrity Knight paid no more attention to the commotion at the square, he set the end of the chain to the saddle on the back of the flying dragon. As the dragon lowered its neck, the knight effortlessly climbed into the saddle. The silver armor gleamed brightly.
Kirito screamed as he was vomiting blood.
The white flying dragon raised its body, and spread open its wings. The loud sound rang twice, thrice.
Alice, who was bound to the dragon’s saddle, looked straight at Eugeo. She was smiling. As if she was saying ‘Goodbye,’ with those blue pupils of hers. Her long golden hair shook from the wind caused by the flapping wings, glittering as brilliantly as the knight’s armor.
However, Eugeo couldn’t move. He couldn’t make a sound.
As if his legs were rooted to the ground, he couldn’t move even slightly.