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ALL RIGHTS BELONG TO TAPPEI NAGATSUKI, THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR OF RE:ZERO STARTING A LIFE IN A DIFFERENT WORLD FROM ZERO, THIS IS A TRANSLATION OF THE FREE JAPANESE WEB NOVEL INTO ENGLISH
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A menace that consumed him, bit by bit. An anguish that seemed to turn his very blood into magma. Together, they tore away at Natsuki Subaru’s existence, trying to bare his unvarnished self.
An overtime of such cruelty, like peeling off a scab that hadn’t fully healed, and exposing the raw wound beneath to the cold air. ――His soul brushed against a reality that couldn’t be protected.
Would it be pain, grief or sorrow that would come?
Or perhaps, it would be something entirely different; Subaru had no idea.
If there was something he did understand, if there was something that served as salvation, it was but one thing only.
Namely, that the hopelessness he felt would be severed before he could reach an answer, and that the false sense of freedom would――
???: […Shut it with your wheezing and panting, you.]
Having been liberated from his earlier anguish, Subaru opened his mouth wide, which should have been foaming with blood.
His body was empty, like someone had punched a hole in his lungs, as it gasped for oxygen. And just as he tried to relish its tasteless goodness to his heart’s content, something was shoved into his mouth against his will.
Subaru was showered in verbal abuse as he recoiled from the unforeseen blow, coughing and spluttering.
Yet, he could not tell what was going on. He could not see properly. The tightness he felt on his face served as proof that something was wrapped around his eyes. His face had been bound.
――Actually, no, his face was not the only thing that had been bound. His arms and legs were tied up too.
And with him in this state, someone had forced something into his mouth.
Subaru: [Oergh! Bweh! W-Why am I tied u…Guweh!?]
???: [Why the hell are you defying me? Don’t you understand the position you’re in?]
Subaru: [Gha, Gghhk…!]
Subaru was kicked in the pit of his stomach by that violent figure, straight after he had spat out whatever had been stuck into his mouth. The wind was knocked out of him by the impact as he fell over, his opponent spitting after him.
Even the humiliation of being showered in their spit paled before the pain he felt piercing his chest. Nevertheless, Subaru’s mind was engulfed by a sea of confusion as his deprived vision flickered red in pain.
…The stuff that had happened a few dozen seconds prior was churning around his mind.
Subaru had been woken up by Todd, taken outside the tent, and there, the great forest had been set ablaze. And straight after he found out that they had made it happen due to his own gaffe, he had been struck by an arrow in the back and toppled over. The one who had fired it had been a young-looking girl. The moment he had looked at her, his strength had abandoned him, his entire body breaking into convulsions.
He’d suffered while foaming up blood, he’d heard Rem’s voice as she rushed over to him, he’d tried to hold onto his fading consciousness…
Subaru: [This place is…]
???: [Aah? How long are you gonna be fooling ar…]
???: [――Hey, hey, chill out! He’s completely clueless! It can’t be helped! Rather than that, here! Let’s take off his blindfold!]
His thoughts, engulfed in a maelstrom of chaos, were brought back to reality by the conversation happening overhead.
A conversation between two men. One of the voices was gruff, belonging to a man who was like the very embodiment of boorishness and roughness. The other one sounded like velvet, and gave a good impression of someone who could smooth stuff over.
…The faces that went with those voices popped up as a matter of course in Subaru’s mind.
With the sound of a tch and that of footsteps, the man who’d kicked Subaru moved away from him. And straight after that, Subaru heard a sigh which came interlaced with shocked exasperation and wryness.
????: [Sorry that was done to you right after you woke up. I think you’re probably feeling muddled and all, but I’ll just take off your blindfold, okay? Though, I can’t remove the rope around your hands and feet, so you gotta bear with it.]
Saying that as he walked up to Subaru, he unfastened the blindfold that was wrapped around Subaru’s head.
Subaru took a deep breath before relishing the feeling of freedom, along with the slight pain that accompanied it. Then he took another one, and another one, before finally holding his breath slightly.
After that, he opened his eyelids and slowly waited for his sight to return.
Subaru: […I knew it.]
What unfurled itself before Subaru’s eyes, as soon as his dimmed vision gradually sharpened, were tents, fires and the figures of Imperial Soldiers bustling about.
Subaru was in the familiar, though not so familiar, Imperial Encampment ― The place they’d expropriated, where he’d scurried to and fro, doing odd jobs.
There wasn’t anything strange regarding the scene itself.
After all, it was here in this encampment that he’d been felled by the arrow wound. Then what was so weird about waking up here, following his treatment after regaining consciousness?
Nevertheless, he still couldn’t explain things like the first blow ― the fact he’d had a shoe forced into his mouth, and the fact his hands and legs were still tied up, to be sure of his hypothesis.
Even considering how estranged Subaru was from how the Empire did things, if no one batted an eye at this kind of common sense, where the people would tie up one’s hands and feet everytime the latter was treated, then he would wish for the country’s ruin.
In other words, if that was not the case, then it meant that…
Subaru: [I guess I must have died…?]
――It was the most natural to think he had “Returned by Death”.
Ironically enough, he readily came up with an idea to confirm that. He would just need to swing his head around and set his gaze on the green forest beyond the encampment.
The result of Subaru’s own gaffe had been the jungle burning down, letting the Imperial Soldiers get away with that recklessness.
Black smoke should have been billowing out from the forest, enveloped by the fires of hell. Yet, there it still stood. On his left, on his right, the green jungle stretched across the horizon, in perfect condition.
The scenes vividly popped back into his mind, right after confirming this.
Subaru had fallen due to his arrow wound, foaming at the mouth. Rem had crawled over to him, and there he’d heard her voice, her presence, her entreaty, begging him to not die.
Yet, Subaru had betrayed her there. He ended up dying miserably before her eyes.
The man who knew her, even if she detested him, had ended up dying in this godforsaken land. Just imagining the amount of fear and anxiety the amnesiac Rem would have experienced tore his heart asunder.
While at the same time, he thought. ――I never want to make her feel that ever again.
???: [We found you right as we went out to fetch some water, yeah. Sorry, but you’ve been captured. You’re our prisoner.]
And thus, the man squatted down in front of him, as his heart was filled with strong emotion.
The individual flashed him a velvety smile, his eyes beaming. Subaru knew who he was. ――Todd, the only person who’d acted friendly towards Subaru and Rem, in this encampment full of Imperial Soldiers.
He was the man who had patiently spent his time with Subaru, the latter knowing so little about the Empire; Subaru even considered the fact he’d been picked up by him at first, a stroke of good fortune.
That was, until he’d backed burning the forest to the ground, using Subaru’s words as a pretext.
Hardly ten minutes had passed physically, but his carefree report had sent chills running down Subaru’s spine.
The Imperial Soldiers had ruthlessly burnt the forest to the ground, straight after they’d decided that entering the forest to invade the people of Shudraq, the purpose for which the troops had been dispatched for, would prove troublesome. And adding to that, they’d lauded Subaru for his contributions, since he’d provided them the information that ended up being the clincher for their choice.
In the Sacred Vollachian Empire, the strong were revered and the weak were oppressed.
It was a great nation which went by the creed that only in the Sword Wolf, the symbol of a wolf pierced by swords, were there the qualifications to live.
A mentality like Todd’s probably wasn’t at all unusual in the Empire.
He could even understand them going ahead with the plan to set the forest on fire, once they’d heard there was a Witchbeast inside.
Nevertheless, they would not mesh well with the people of the Kingdom of Lugunica, let alone Subaru. Maybe Roswaal at best, since he was a clump of rationalism.
Either way, he must not allow them to burn the forest down this time.
Subaru let out a gulp as he took what had happened last time as being his failure.
The fact that Subaru had ended up getting himself killed was whatever, but the fact that they’d burnt the forest down was taking it too far, even if the Imperial Soldiers had done it as a safety measure.
If not for Subaru’s gaffe, the chance remained that Todd and the others would have established a place to discuss things amiably, and have their negotiations succeed without spilling any blood.
He’d taken away that possibility, and brought danger upon the people inside the forest―― No, he should not dodge the responsibility he bore here. There was absolutely no way that there would be no casualties in that inferno.
Due to his own gaffe, Natsuki Subaru had reaped the lives of the people who lived in the forest.
Even if he could not meddle with what happened in that world-line, due to Returning by Death, the fact still remained. ――Subaru would never forget it.
Thus, Subaru resolved to himself, that he would not repeat the same mistake twice.
“Death” was a heavy thing, and regardless of whether it was him, or others, he would never let it repeat again. With those thoughts clouding his mind, it was a small mercy that he was redoing his first encounter with Todd and Jamal here.
The restart point of his Return by Death had been updated. He’d returned to the point after he’d been knocked unconscious by Rem in the grassland, after he’d fled from the Hunter in the forest, and the fierce attack of the Witchbeast, to where he’d been picked up by the Imperial Encampment.
From here on out, he would establish friendly ties with Todd, as well as with Jamal, if possible, and get them to open negotiations in a way that would not make them rend asunder the Shudraqians in the forest.
So, for that, he would…
Todd: [Hey you, are you listening? I get that you’re confused about being called a prisoner out of nowhere, but…]
Subaru: [――. Well, yeah, I guess. I am confused. But even if I am, well, you see…]
Squatting in front of the taciturn Subaru, Todd gave his feelings some consideration. Subaru sunk into thought, deciding on what to say next as he took in Todd’s stance.
His relationship with Todd had been good, last time. Subaru really needed to maintain it, and him and Rem would be getting the most out of that thread.
What’s more, Subaru needed to choose what he knew carefully, so to restrain his extreme behaviour.
Subaru: [You startled me, but I do know that I’ve been taken prisoner. I also remember diving into the river. If y’all rescued me from there, then you must be our saviours――」
Todd: [Wait up just a second.]
Taking first things first, Subaru examined the situation he was in carefully. Then, he tried to put on an act that looked natural, resembling a person who’d just been dragged out of a river.
However, Todd stuck his hand out towards Subaru’s face, interrupting what the latter was saying.
The palm of his hand, along with his five spread out fingers, blocked Subaru’s vision, causing Subaru to hitch in response.
Todd: […Why were you looking at me like that just now?]
And just after catching wind of Todd’s cold, hard voice, Subaru felt something sharp being thrust into his right shoulder.
With his field of view obstructed, Subaru’s reaction to Todd’s actions were slow. He swung his eyes over to where his right shoulder was smarting, and then realised what had happened.
――The sharp point of a dagger had been thrust into his right shoulder.
The moment he realized what had happened, a voiceless scream arose in Subaru’s throat.
A sensation much like burning exploded in Subaru’s right shoulder, and with sharp pain came a feeling of being pierced by pins and needles, which extended through his whole body. Had he not instinctively stretched and dispersed the pain in his entire body, the maximum level of tolerance would have been exceeded and he would be unable to keep his mind from reaching the breaking point.
The shock of the unexpected stab wound was just that immense.
Subaru: [Guh, GYAAAAAAaaaahhhh!!]
Moments later, following the voiceless cry, came the delayed scream, drawn out by pain.
He wanted to writhe, to move his shoulder around and rub it, to apply pressure to it, or take any kind of action to lessen the pain. But Subaru’s hands and feet were bound, and there was nothing he could do to pull out the knife thrust into his shoulder. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
???: [H-hey! What was that scream just now!]
In pain and agony, Subaru screamed over and over. It was Jamal, the rough-looking man with an eyepatch, who hurriedly rushed in upon hearing the alarming sound.
Jamal, who had been kicking Subaru just before in a violent display of power, opened his eyes wide seeing the image of Subaru with a knife in his right shoulder screaming bloody murder.
Jamal: [Todd, this isn’t what we agreed on! Weren’t you the one who said you’d reach out a hand to them since they were carrying that aristocratic knife!?]
Todd: [Ahh, that had been the plan because I didn’t know these guys’ lineage. I should’ve known you’d get angry about it just because it’s different from what I had said. My bad, my bad.]
Jamal: […If you’re saying that, does that mean you know who this guy is?]
Although he spoke in a rough voice, he recovered his composure after hearing Todd’s answer. However, in response to Jamal’s question, Todd just said “Who knows?” and tilted his head.
Without pause, Todd knocked over Subaru who let out a cry of pain, and stepped on him.
Todd: [I haven’t heard where he’s from or who he is, so I have no idea. But there’s a high possibility he’s our enemy. So, it was a preemptive strike.]
Subaru: [Guh, gyaaahh!]
Todd: [Oh, that looks painful. We can’t avoid having you suffer a bit, but you seem like you have some pain tolerance, y’know. Where’s your self-respect?]
With his foot heavily pressing into Subaru’s body, Todd asked calmly.
However, with Todd’s weight pressing the fallen Subaru into the ground, the knife in his shoulder was pushed even deeper into the wound, and the return of unbearable agony left no room for him to answer Todd.
His vision flickered, his throat burned, bloody screams rose up over and over again. No matter how many times that was repeated, the pain showed no sign of easing. Without missing a beat, it became fresh despair and continued to assault Subaru like waves crashing against the shore.
Todd: [He’s not answering. How defiant. Looks like he’s an enemy after all.]
Jamal: […If he’s being rolled like that, he won’t be able to answer even if he could y’know.]
Todd: [Hm? Is that so? Oops. When I’m sluggish from pain, I always mess up in these kinds of situations. My bad, my bad.]
Saying that, Todd finally moved his foot away from Subaru’s body.
The additional pain vanished, but the intermittent pain continued to sting Subaru, and the unbearable agony had caused him to bite his lip and blood streamed out from his mouth.
From the corners of his eyes tears also flowed, and miserably he could not even wipe them away.
Jamal: [You… After this, I don’t know how you can warn me about my bad behavior…]
Todd: […? Don’t you hit prisoners of war and your subordinates to relieve stress? So don’t joke around acting all high and mighty. I’m only doing what is necessary.]
On the other hand, ignoring Subaru’s disgraceful sight, the two men continued talking above his head.
With Jamal pacifying Todd and pointing out Subaru’s bloodshed, a scene unthinkable a short while ago had unfolded.
What the heck was going on?
Although most of his mental resources were devoted to enduring the pain, this view was too incoherent.
Why would Todd, who had treated Subaru and his group so well, take such action―
Jamal: [So, why did you stab him?]
Strangely, Jamal raised to Todd the same question Subaru had.
When asked, Todd closed one eye and looked in the direction of Subaru, who was writhing in agony.
Todd: [When I took off his blindfold and he looked at me, his eyes were intent on manipulating me. I could understand being nervous or uneasy. Crying from fear would also be fine… But trying to manipulate me is suspicious, no?]
Jamal: [Manipulate, huh.]
Todd: [This guy was unconscious, he’s kicked awake and his blindfold removed, and the first thing he tries to do is to use the first face he saw? There may be such a guy, but that sorta guy is frightening and simply cannot be handled. We should kill him quickly.]
Todd persistently expressed his own well-reasoned opinion in contrast with the thoughtful Jamal.
The reason Subaru had been stabbed was because Todd had judged Subaru to be dangerous. And the best way to deal with dangerous opponents was to neutralize them.
That was why Todd had stabbed Subaru’s right shoulder. Because Todd knew that the fingers of Subaru’s left hand had been broken, and were thereby useless.
With his right shoulder stabbed and his left-hand fingers broken, the function of both of Subaru’s arms was greatly reduced.
To ensure his own safety, Todd immediately made a decision and just acted on it.
―― “Just”, that is.
Jamal: [I dunno how you can think about that sorta thing right after you wake up. I might still be in the middle of waking up, straining my ears standing here tryna to listen to this…]
Todd: [No, that’s not it. He must’ve been pretending to be asleep the whole time I watched him. If he had regained consciousness along the way somewhere he should’ve had some kind of physical reaction. Supposing I overlooked him pretending to sleep, then…]
Todd: [Then he planned to try to manipulate me while deceiving me and pretending to be asleep, isn’t that right? That method is even more frightening. As I thought, killing him would be the correct answer, it seems.]
Hearing that, Subaru gasped and shivered as he fought off the pain.
While listening to Todd’s explanation, Jamal’s tone gradually weakened. At first he must’ve been shocked and angry at the fact that Todd had stabbed Subaru, but little by little his fury was dismantled.
Todd’s tone of voice and way of speaking held a charm that softened the other person’s emotions.
Observing from the position of a third party, he could finally see that.
Todd would get close to the other person, show his understanding, and then offer attractive proposals that were beneficial to them on top of that. First the momentum was killed, then as the other person became more open-minded, the offered proposal would be carefully considered, and against one’s better judgement it would become desirable to go through with it.
That’s exactly what was happening to Jamal right now, before his eyes.
And that was also what had happened to Subaru just before he used Return by Death.
Todd: [The young ladies with him are also suspicious, but the two of them are straightforward and easy to interact with. Let’s get rid of this one before there’s any trouble.]
Jamal: [Well, I guess that’s fine, but…]
Todd: [Or, do you want to be the one to do it? To stop your anger from getting out of control over that blue-haired girl injuring your men, you need someone to relieve your stress right?]
Jamal: […That’s also true.]
In response to Todd’s calm proposal, a vulgar smile appeared on Jamal’s face.
Just like that, Jamal passed by Todd’s side while cracking his knuckles. The signs of violence Jamal displayed made Subaru cower, but Todd’s remark made him tremble even more.
Much akin to how he had offered Subaru to Jamal for stress relief, Todd was willing to investigate his intentions in a different way, if he ended up eliminating Subaru here.
For that purpose he would use Rem, as well as Louis.
But no matter what was asked, the two of them would not be able to answer. No matter how harsh the torture, Rem had no information to reveal.
In other words…
Biting down harshly with his molars, the taste of blood exploded in his mouth, as Subaru searched for a way to prevent Rem from tasting the same. In a few seconds, Jamal’s violence would resume, and Subaru would either be killed or left half-dead by his brutal attack. Even if Jamal had a conscience, Todd would not keep Subaru alive.
Todd, who would be able to set fire to the forest, would likewise not bat an eye when it came to extinguishing Subaru’s life.
Step by step, Jamal drew closer.
In that time, Subaru’s brain went into overdrive, searching within himself for the answer. To break the deadlock of the current state of affairs, some kind of plan, a possibility, he needed a miracle,――
Jamal: [To relieve my stress, you better scream as much as you can, you son of a bitch. For your girl’s part too, I’m gonna make your body pay――]
Subaru: [People of Shudraq.]
Jamal spat out his stereotypical violent threats right on the verge of striking Subaru, ―― but Subaru’s lips put together those words.
At that moment, Jamal’s movement stopped, and Todd’s expression in the background changed too. Jamal’s face showed clear surprise, while Todd cocked one eyebrow, “Oh?”, and grinned.
Todd: [People of Shudraq… You decided to play that card now? Seems you’re well aware of how to gamble.]
Jamal: [Todd, what this brat is saying…]
Todd: [Just wait, just wait Jamal. You can hit and kick him after. But it’s hard to understand the voice of someone with their tongue and throat crushed. It’s best if we listen here.]
With nowhere to direct his anger, Jamal roughly kicked the nearby wooden railing.
Todd looked sideways at the literal dispersion of anger, and turned toward Subaru. The smile on his face was, horrifyingly, no different from the one Subaru knew.
Just as he had done when treating Subaru’s fingers, inviting Subaru to eat, and praising Subaru for his contribution to burning the forest, Todd grinned at Subaru, as the latter stood on the precipice between life and death.
Todd: [So, the name of the People of Shudraq came up. I wonder, can I expect to hear something from you that will make me happy?]
Subaru: […Ah. You know, the location of the People of Shudraq in the forest?]
Todd: [――！Oh, that’s great!]
Smiling, Todd clapped his hands in front of his chest in a show of joy.
Seeing his reaction, Subaru was confident that the miracle he had pulled out of himself had helped put off the impending predicament. However, at the same time, it was a double-edged sword for Subaru.
After all, Subaru did not know the location of the People of Shudraq.
The masked man who had handed him the knife, the hunter who had shot arrows at him… Perhaps either or both of them were related to the People of Shudraq, but he had no means of contacting them or knowing specifically where they were.
――In other words, Subaru was staking his life on this big gamble.
Todd: [How is it you know the location of the People of Shudraq?]
Subaru: […Because I’m one of the People of Shudraq.]
Todd: [I see, after all that’s how it is. Setting aside skin color, it’s the black hair, y’know? So I was wondering if that was the case. Since it’s a famous rumor that Shudraqians have black hair.]
Subaru was greatly relieved as fortune smiled upon him and he received this information that had been entirely unknown to him.
His whole body was covered in greasy sweat, and the tension of the conversation had caused Subaru to break out in cold sweat in addition. The pain in his shoulder was increasing, and the pain in the fingers of his left hand was beginning to bug him as well.
On top of that, his body had yet to recover from the turmoil at the Pleiades Watchtower or from the trouble with Rem in the forest or from the burden of the escape to the river right after that.
Barely hanging on to his fleeting consciousness and breaking spirit, he continued the questioning. One wrong answer would result in his death.―― Everything was to survive and save Rem.
To return to Emilia and Beatrice and everyone, and to reunite Ram and Rem.
Todd: [So basically, you’re a scout. And your clothing and knife were prepared to blend in with us.]
Subaru: [――. I stole the knife from a traveller. Same goes for the clothes. And…]
Todd: [You tried to get some info on us. A pretty bold plan I gotta say. Seems like you were actually drowning and there was a chance that we wouldn’t notice the knife…]
Subaru: [But it was more realistic that way, wasn’t it?]
Even as his supposed plan was pointed out as careless and flawed, Subaru laughed it off, saying that it had been all on purpose.
Putting a brazen smile on his face, he bared his teeth and made his mean eyes look more menacing. This was his act to make his bluff more believable.
Todd squinted at Subaru, trying to scrutinise his real motive.
The silence was deafening and the noose on Subaru’s neck tightened every second.
Truth be told, he had no idea if his words were persuasive at all. Neither could he tell if his act was convincing. The pain and stress he felt were too much to even give a second thought to his performance.
It felt to him, like he was making comical excuses, where it’d be no wonder if, the next moment, he’d crack his head open after dismissing him as being ludicrous with a snort.
Unable to read Todd’s expression, the tension in the room spurred up.
And after some time――,
Todd: [――You, would you sell out your tribe for your life?]
Todd asked with one eye closed. Subaru gulped.
He would bring out the words he needed to bring out. All he needed to do was to not answer incorrectly.
He would sell out his tribe for his life.
After stating that he was a member of the people of Shudraq, he would sell out the people of Shudraq.
He could not let them discover that this was a farce. To aid him, he would adopt the necessary expression and voice.
――The expression and voice of a deplorable bootlicker who would sell out his own tribe for his life.
Subaru: […Yeh, yeah, that’s right. I’ll sell them out.]
Subaru: [Please, I’ll do anything. I’ll even lure them out if you want. Anything, I’ll do anything!]
Stammering, twitching his cheeks, smeared in cold sweat, Subaru begged for his life.
Clinging on to his life, disregarding the lives of others, not letting others see him in any positive light, he had to transform himself into selfishness personified.
But he only had to act.
Over the course of his time in this world, Subaru had seen many people with that way of thinking.
He did not think the day would come where he would model himself after the most inhumane among inhumans, the Sin Archbishops.
Jamal: [You’re a rotten guy you know. Hate that no-good look in your eye.]
Jamal spat out his true feelings, hearing Subaru plead for his life. His disdain and anger were evident.
It seemed that Subaru’s performance had steered Jamal into having a negative opinion of him. But to be completely honest, though he felt bad, he had no time to deal with Jamal’s shenanigans.
Right now, the right to decide Subaru’s fate belonged to Todd.
A person’s ranking or standing did not matter here. The strong eat the weak. He would follow the Empire’s motto to the tee.
Todd: [――. That seriousness, you don’t seem to be lying.]
Todd finally replied to Subaru, who with great effort, kept a docile face.
Hearing that, Subaru almost jumped in joy at his tiny victory. Though, he prayed it was not a premature celebration. At the same time, Jamal spoke up, unhappy about it.
Jamal: [Oi, Todd! You trust what this guy says? This piece of shit who would sell out his people for his own life would…]
Todd: [Hang on, hang on. What are you saying Jamal? These are the words of a bootlicker who would betray his people for his own sake. Of course he’d show how much worth he has. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to save his own precious life.]
Jamal’s outburst was silenced by Todd’s reasoning.
Of course, this “subservient and servile bootlicker” was the exact image Subaru wanted Todd to have of him. The type of person who would double-cross his comrades just to save his own neck. To make his story believable, Subaru would have to drag his reputation to rock-bottom.
On that point, the big scene he had caused after getting stabbed in the shoulder should have helped in that regard too.
Though, the pain he had to suffer as a result was too great for consolation.
Jamal: [Don’t blame me if anything happens!]
In the end, exactly to Subaru’s plan, Jamal was persuaded by Todd.
Admonishing him, Todd tapped Jamal’s shoulders saying “Trust him, trust him”.
Todd: [There’s no mistake he’s attached to life. ―― Whether it’s his or not.]
Todd said as he looked at the meek, downcast Subaru.
Rem: [――! Wait a moment! What do you plan to do with that person!?]
Rem yelled out angrily, grabbing onto the bars of the metal cage she was confined in.
They were currently in the Imperial army’s campground. Todd and Jamal, after listening to Subaru’s claims, dragged him out straight away and were now on the way out of the camp.
Rem ― who had been put in a cage after her turbulent capture ― had started shouting out when the trio just so happened to pass by.
Rem glared at a tattered and worn out Subaru.
Having been dragged out of the river, his half-dried clothes were still heavy. Additionally, the stab wound on his right shoulder had received the bare minimum treatment and the broken fingers on his left hand had received none. Even if the restraints on his legs were gone, the cuffs on his arms robbed him of his freedom.
Looking no different from a slave worker, the person who was being led outside of the camp, Natsuki Subaru.
Seeing this Subaru, Rem’s emotions were all over the place. Shock and surprise, all of it in turmoil. Of course, Subaru was unable to explain the situation to her.
Having Returned by Death, what little progress that had been achieved in the relationship between Subaru and Rem was reset, and needed to be redone from scratch again.
Rem saw Subaru as an enemy based on the witch’s scent that clung to him. Subaru was given no time or opportunity to solve that misunderstanding. Also――,
Rem: [――!? The smell has become worse since last time… What is this exactly?]
The miasma that would thicken with each consecutive Return by Death. Having smelled it, Rem’s caution rose to another level.
To her, Natsuki Subaru might as well have been a child of darkness.
It pained Subaru’s heart, but he could not afford to perform any action that could fix that misconception, lest he be found out.
Todd: […You two have a pretty convoluted relationship don’t you? The way she’s acting. Didn’t you bring that girl along with you?]
Subaru: [That girl… No, the two that were together.]
Todd: [The two of them?]
Subaru: [――. I bought them as tools to help when meeting you guys.]
For a moment, he was unsure how to reply. But he donned his inhumane mask and answered frankly.
Subaru, right now, was a cold-blooded person who would sell off his comrades’ lives to save his own. Naturally, he felt nothing for Rem and Louis. He needed to be one-hundred percent filled with his selfish love for his life.
He could not let the scenario where the two of them ―― well, at least, Rem be taken as hostages to occur.
Subaru: [So I don’t know anything about them. There’s no point asking them this and that…Though you seemed to have gotten the gist of it already.]
Todd: [Well, it didn’t seem to be an act, I guess? The little missy seems to be actually nuts in the head and the missy here ain’t lying. Even so, her reason for rampaging being so vague is a bit troublesome.]
Todd scratched his cheek with a bitter smile, while Jamal clicked his tongue in annoyance.
With the two of them at the head, a group of twenty or so Imperial soldiers would be leaving the camp with Subaru. Subaru was to bring this group into the jungle and show them where the people of Shudraq resided.
He would show them their settlement and bring the Empire one step closer to victory. And as a reward for that, his life would be saved. Terrible people live long lives after all, so that was the plan.
A plan that would get average reviews as a bootlicker’s success story.
Though, that would only happen if one ignored just how impossible it was.
Subaru: [Isn’t it better if you threw them out? I did buy them. If you don’t need them, I’m happy to have them after they’ve done their work…]
Todd: [You’re a hasty one, aren’t ya? It’s good to be thinking ahead but don’t forget your life depends on whether you can do your job properly or not. Rather than what’s going to happen to them, you should worry about yourself first.]
Subaru: [Hehe, oh yeah, that’s right. My desire for what comes after slipped out.]
If he were to make a fuss over this, his attachment to Rem would be found out instantly and the tables would be flipped on Subaru.
He couldn’t rub his hands together because of his bindings, but in his heart, that was the manner in which he interacted with Todd. Thankfully, Todd did not look deeper into his words. Waving his hand at the caged Rem,
Todd: [Behave yourself missy. If nothing happens, nothing will happen to you.]
Rem: [Do you think your words hold any weight?]
Todd: [I don’t know about weight, but believing me or not is your problem, ain’t it missy?]
Having been told that by Todd, Rem had no choice but to quiet down, annoyed.
Frustrated that he was unable to support Rem or even talk to her any more than this, Subaru burned her figure and voice into his mind. He would use those as fuel for his spirit.
――One way or another, he had to bring Rem out of the camp and escape.
Building a friendly relationship with Todd’s group and getting them to protect him and Rem was no longer a thought Subaru entertained. ――They were a threat, both as an enemy and as an ally.
They could not be controlled even when allied and he did not need to state how dangerous they would be as an enemy.
To begin with, he should avoid teaming up with the people of Vollachia as much as possible.
Subaru’s standing in Vollachia was extremely complex, and if he were to slip up, it would not be a problem that affected just himself. That was another secret he held.
Todd: [Alright, let’s go. Stay sharp everyone.]
Jamal: [I’m the one giving orders!]
Todd called out to his crew, bringing along a hyperconscious Subaru.
Among the Imperial soldier’s replies to Todd’s call, Jamal’s reply was very openly angry.
――After that, the group trespassed onto the Buddheim Jungle with Subaru at the very front.
Their destination was the village of the Shudraqians who lived in the forest, and their objective was to pinpoint their location. ――However, Subaru the navigator was pulling a bluff, as he didn’t know where the village was.
Far from that, he was making a gamble while only vaguely knowing about the identities of the people of Shudraq.
Walking through the thickly-wooded forest, Subaru was waiting for an opportunity to somehow sneak away from the group.
He was against a large number of people, and even if they were wearing light armor, said equipment did not allow them to move around quicker than he could. If he could take advantage of their carelessness and run away, it might be possible to return to the encampment quicker than them, and bring Rem with him on his escape. Actually, that was his only plan as of now.
Fortunately, the cage that Rem had been put in could be easily unlocked from the outside.
The important things were Subaru obtaining the right to do so from Rem, and the hope that she would believe in him and follow him out once he unlocked the cage. And, there was the matter of Louis’s existence as well.
Subaru: [If I say that I am leaving Louis behind, Rem will never come with me…]
In addition to the current situation, he had shaved off a significant amount of Rem’s trust with the added miasma via Return by Death.
Even if Subaru desperately rushed back to the camp in that state, Rem would not welcome his decision to leave Louis behind. Far from that, she would beat him into the ground on the spot, rescue Louis from him by herself, and there was also the possibility of her deserting him in the Empire’s encampment.
Subaru: […I guess that’s not going to happen, even if Rem is hostile to me. Her legs aren’t free to move around, after all.]
She couldn’t go through with these events he imagined solely due to the condition of her legs, so were she to be physically fit, then Subaru wouldn’t put it past her to actually carry it out. That was what he thought, but it would cause him trouble if she did so.
So, if Subaru was going to take her out of that place, then he had to bring Louis along with them as well. Thus, it forced Subaru to face the hardship of being unable to abandon this negative factor, which should be referred to as a shackle, no matter where he went or what he did.
Todd: [So, how long will it take until we arrive at the village?]
Subaru: […Around two to three hours.]
Todd: [Two to three hours! That’s pretty quick. If that’s all it takes, then I could wish for nothing more. From our point of view, this was supposed to be a mission that’d take years to complete.]
Obtaining an answer to his question, Todd broke into a smile, seemingly considering his situation to be one of good fortune.
Hearing his words, and seeing him clad in his light armor with a hatchet hanging from his waist, Subaru remembered that Todd had joined the mission whilst leaving his fiancée behind.
That should be glaringly obvious, but even if he made a decision that inflicted wounds upon Subaru, it wasn’t like the story behind his circumstances would change completely.
Todd was dispatched to the jungle as an Imperial Soldier following his orders, and he was unavoidably separated from his fiancée to do so.
The same could be said for some of Todd’s fellow soldiers, such as Jamal. They too had their own circumstances behind their actions, and so every one of them must have a reason to be engaged in the mission like this.
In that sense, there was no reason for Subaru and Todd’s group to be at odds with each other.
Subaru was purely unlucky. His misfortune had piled up on top of itself. The situation was turning against him. That would be what this whole thing was, if he were to line up an assortment of words in this manner.
Subaru: […I don’t think this is for me to say, but isn’t this unsafe? Only bringing this many people, even though we’re heading for the Shudraqian village…]
Walking at the front of the line as the leader, Subaru called out to Todd, who was right behind him.
There were about twenty Imperial Soldiers in the group. Even though they had a guide with them, it wasn’t possible to say that there were enough people to explore the extensive forest.
Todd shrugged his shoulders in response to Subaru’s doubts,
Todd: [It can’t be helped. You’re a splendid source of information, but the higher-ups aren’t expecting much from your story. The information only becomes worth it when we go out and confirm it. Also…]
Todd: [If this turns out to be your trap, and my group doesn’t return, our absence will inform our allies back at the encampment that it’s dangerous to enter the forest. Haha, long live Vollachia.]
Imperial Soldiers: [――Long live Vollachia!]
Making sacrifices in order to attain victory was inevitable. Todd seemed to display that with his easy-going attitude, the Imperial Soldiers following his chant with their own.
Long live Vollachia! Their voices caused the atmosphere of the forest to tremble, sounding like an indication of how devoted they were to the country that valued strength above all.
In any case――,
???: [Is this the time to be worrying about us, eh? After this is done, there’s no guarantee that your head and body will stay connected. At least do your best to humor us.]
Jamal: [Don’t call my name, you shitty traitor. You’ll be cut up into pieces and dumped somewhere, and the woman and child will… hm… maybe I’ll offer them to the Womanizer, General Second-Class Zikr. He’ll definitely be overjoyed.]
Todd: [Jamal… don’t say anything too stupid. It tires me out.]
Acting as if he absolutely hated Subaru’s guts, Jamal’s gaze and voice were filled with foul intent.
Adding to that, Subaru and Rem were also not getting along with each other, so if he made Jamal hold the casting vote for the situation, then the results could very well turn out as the worst for Subaru.
As expected, it was Todd who tried to quell Jamal’s anger, saying, “Calm down,”
Todd: [Rather, don’t forget it’s us who have to humor this guy. He’ll provide us with the necessary information to save his skin. We’ll rescue him in exchange for that. If not, we’re gonna get jumped by the Shudraq the moment we arrive at the village.]
Jamal: [Bring it on. If they’re gonna pull something like that, we can exterminate…]
Todd: [――Are you serious? I can’t get on board with a fight I see no chance of winning in. You don’t want to turn your little sister into a widow before she gets married, either. Right? Brother-in-law?]
Todd persuaded Jamal, who often spoke while disregarding all thought.
Subaru caught a glimpse of the unknown relationship between them, but it unfortunately did not move his feelings. He had already steeled his resolve against Todd and his group.
――Their encounter, the situation, his luck. All of those were terrible.
Subaru: [――But, Rem is more important to me.]
That was why Subaru decided to put them in harm’s way.
Imperial Soldier: [――?]
Suddenly, at the back of the search party that was organized in a line, one of the Imperial Soldiers made a small sound in his throat. He cocked his head as if he had noticed something, searching for the cause of it in his field of view.
The faintest feeling of something being wrong. He searched for it, unable to simply ignore it, his gaze whizzing around the jungle in circles, and then――,
Imperial Soldier: [――Ah?]
Amidst the darkness of the forest, his eyes met with a red glimmer that rose to the surface.
Imperial Soldier: [It’s a Witchbeast――!!]
Other Imperial Soldiers: [――!?]
Immediately after making eye contact, the Imperial Soldier who found “it” instantaneously alerted his allies to take caution.
His reaction had been perfect up to this point, and it could be said that there was no fault on the soldier’s part. The same could be said for his allies, who readied themselves for a fight, having listened to the first soldier’s call.
However, they wasted no time in attacking the Witchbeast the moment they unsheathed their swords.
――This could be exactly noted as being rash.
Imperial Soldier: [Uwooooh!!]
An Imperial Soldier drew his sword, running through the forest and lunging at his opponent, a humongous snake that twisted its giant body around ― it was a serpentine Witchbeast, enclosed in green-colored scales and its full height around ten meters long.
Being the same species as the Witchbeast Subaru had encountered in the forest, its existence was like a bolt from the blue to the Imperial Soldiers, who did not know of the existence of Witchbeasts in the forest.
However, their attempt to deal with the Witchbeast immediately, knowing full well of how dangerous it could be, had been a mistake precisely because it was the right decision. ――The Witchbeast was not after them.
Its target was none other than Natsuki Subaru, who was shrouded in a gigantic amount of miasma.
Snake Witchbeast: [――――ϡϡ!!]
Catching the released sword strike with its scales, the large snake roared as it sent the Imperial Soldier flying with its huge tail. The red glint in its eyes gleamed savagely, and the group was hit by a tremendous bellow.
With one year that had passed ever since he started acting as a decoy against Witchbeasts, Subaru knew what it was all about, being a professional who went down this path.
Most of the time, the concerned Witchbeast would actively go after Subaru, encircled by the miasma as he was, but it was a different story if harm were caused to the Witchbeast itself. That was their unchangeable nature, no matter if the Witchbeast was the White Whale or this snake.
The White Whale had aimed for Wilhelm, who had been chopping it up, and the gigantic snake had bore its fangs against the hunter that had shot it.
The rule took effect even in the present situation. The snake’s aim had shifted from Subaru over to the Imperial Soldiers, who were covered in matching equipment, their hostility leveled towards the Witchbeast.
Jamal: [――, a Witchbeast!? I wasn’t told about it!!]
Having the roaring snake’s malevolence directed against himself, Jamal drew out a pair of swords, his voice trembling with rage. Unexpectedly, he dauntlessly threw himself at the Witchbeast with surprising swiftness, putting his combative capabilities on display.
However, Subaru could not cheer for Jamal’s unanticipated, courageous fight.
Subaru had been meaning for this to happen, having walked in the forest with Todd for a few hours, with this objective.
The soldiers who did not know of the Witchbeast’s existence, and the Witchbeast that was pulled closer to them by Subaru’s miasma. He always made use of Witchbeasts with his body odor every time, but Subaru was also a proud “Witchbeast User”.
He had multiple accomplishments, enough to fight against Meili with the title of the “Witchbeast User” on the line.
However, now was not the time to fuss over that.
Subaru: [I should――]
Taking advantage of this opportunity, he would return to the encampment and free Rem.
He tried to make a break for it in order to do so, but felt dread pricking at the back of his neck. Conforming to the frightening sensation, Subaru lowered his head regardless of how ridiculous he would look in the eyes of others.
The very next moment, an axe sliced through the place where his head had previously been, wedging itself into the large tree right beside him.
He would have been dead had he not lowered his head just now.
Shaken by that fact, Subaru only moved his gaze behind him, looking at the person who had made that attempt on his life.
His gaze crossed Todd’s, who was glaring at him, a piercing look in his eyes.
Refusing to be caught in his gaze, Subaru began running inside the forest with all his might.
He would be caught by Todd if he stopped in his tracks. If he were caught, then Todd would unquestioningly claim his life. Those eyes had that kind of firm, strong will. They were darkened with pitch-black intent.
Subaru felt a different kind of fear compared to what he had experienced with the Sin Archbishops, Witchbeasts, and even Reid Astrea.
Those eyes were brimming with vindictiveness ― pitch-black intent to kill.
A forceful impact penetrated Subaru’s back as he ran, unable to turn around.
What struck the area around his shoulder blade was a knife that had been thrown at him― it was returned to him in an awful manner, strangely enough.
Leaving the knife hanging from his shoulder, Subaru blew out a ragged breath, continuing his desperate escape.
Behind him, he felt like the battle between Witchbeast and Imperial Soldiers was still ongoing, but Subaru was also desperately hoping he would not be intercepted by other Witchbeasts, and that he would not be chased after by Todd as well.
Desperately, urgently, and frantically, Subaru carried on running, and ran, and ran, and ran.
Out of breath, spitting out blood, nearly tripping multiple times, actually falling over, and still running even with his whole body being covered in mud, he was growing more frenzied to return to the Empire’s camp.
Subaru: [Rem… Rem… Re, m…]
Growing slower to the point a walking child would be faster, panting for breath with his dried throat, and in a condition in which his oxygen and stamina and mental fortitude were on the verge of running out, Subaru clung to the only attachment he had.
He would reach Rem, bring Rem out of that place, save Rem, and go back home, back where everyone was.
He would return to the place where Emilia and Beatrice, Ram and Petra and Frederica, Garfiel and Otto, and even Roswaal were at, and then, he would give Rem her peaceful, mellow time back.
The time she was supposed to have spent, her dear time, like that――,
Reaching his hand out as if seeking for such a fleeting dream, Subaru’s legs kicked empty air.
Losing his footing abruptly and unable to use his arms to support his unbalanced posture, he plunged downwards head-first.
Towards somewhere, he was falling upside down. He couldn’t scream. His throat wouldn’t open.
Falling. Purely, utterly, simply, falling.
Descending, plummeting down. Almost as if his dreams were bursting apart like a bubble, faint and broken.
Sounding empty and meaningless, he let out a hoarse voice, and Subaru’s consciousness was cut off during that moment.
???: […Until when do you plan on sleeping, fool?]
Subaru’s consciousness was pulled up from the depths of the abyss by a sudden strike.
The blow to his temple felt almost as if the side of his head had been stepped on ― No, not almost as if, rather, that was exactly what had happened.
As far as he could tell, the right side of his head was being pushed into the ground while the left was being stepped on. Resulting in the sharp sandwich of pain that awoke him.
Subaru: […Wha… t? I’m… ugh…]
Tasting blood in the back of his throat, Subaru sat up in a daze.
Suddenly, Subaru became acutely aware of the intense pain that emanated from his right shoulder, back, left hand, legs and various other places on his body.
The terrible agony caused his field of vision to turn red, his body falling back on the floor and he shivered like a fish on dry land.
The adrenaline allowed him to ignore the pain for a bit, but that had been the result of having passed out and returned to consciousness. However, each part of his body hurting like this meant―
Subaru: [I’m not… dead.]
???: [Obviously. Do the dead speak? I will say, your reaction entertains me more than some second-rate jester’s half baked acts. I will grant you a compliment for that.]
The word slipped out of a dumbfounded Subaru who was doing a once over on himself as he was showered in arrogant speech.
As his understanding caught up to what had been said, Subaru slowly rose again, wary of the pain that would return.
Looking at his surroundings, Subaru could see thick branches protruding from the ground where he’d been lying― No, it was a wooden lattice.
Remembering Rem for the umpteenth time, Subaru realised he was imprisoned in a wooden cage. His head was in further chaos.
No way, did he fail to escape and was once again captured by Todd and his group? He started to fret―
???: [Do not panic. Your pursuers are not here. Although to say everything is alright would be a rather bold lie to the current predicament we are in.]
???: [Seriously, I never thought I would look upon your face again, Natsuki Subaru.]
Like that, his companion smirked and laughed, calling the wide-eyed Subaru by name.
Because he wore a mask and so only the shape of his eyes could be seen, it was not possible to say for sure that he was smiling, yet Subaru could tell.
Trapped in the same wooden cage and situation as Subaru, that arrogant masked man laughed.
We recommend that you read this Short Story after this chapter, that takes place from the masked man’s side!