Translated By :
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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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Subaru: [――So what’s this “Lifeblood Ritual”?]
Abel: [An absolutely unignorable custom belonging to the people of Shudraq, who place great value on pride and commitment. We will hear more about it from them. More importantly…]
Abel stared at Subaru, only giving him a rough answer to his question.
The Shudraqian girl had set off to deliver Abel’s earlier message to the chief, Mizelda, leaving only Subaru and Abel behind.
Meaning that the time they had left for a private chat was limited.
Abel: [Fill me in, you said you were taken prisoner in an encampment outside the forest, right. How did they treat you?]
Subaru: […I’ve got to thank them for the injuries to my shoulder and back. That, and they made me do some odd jobs.]
To be precise, the odd jobs and abuse had happened in different loops, however, pressured by Abel’s intimidating atmosphere, Subaru had blurted it all out.
Abel narrowed his eyes, letting out a “Hmmm” upon hearing him, before looking at Subaru’s left hand,
Abel: [Seeing that you did not touch on the matter of your fingers, I guess that must be a different issue. It must have been done to you by the woman you were after.]
Subaru: [Ugh… What’s that got to do with this!?]
Abel: [It serves as proof that you are a fool to yearn for a woman who goes and breaks your fingers.]
It was hard to say that Abel’s statement was one that described Subaru and Rem’s relationship appropriately. However, Subaru had neither the time nor the obligation to dwell on it with him, and fill him in on the details.
Then, Abel quickly shifted his focus from the state of Subaru’s left hand.
Abel: [So, by saying you have performed “odd jobs”, you are implying that you have seen inside the camp. What is the layout like? Rack your empty brains, draw it out from your memory.]
Subaru: [There were a bunch of tents, and when it comes to the number of people in the camp… Hey, what’s up with that?]
Abel: [Do you not get it? It goes without saying, that the people you saw were…]
Abel snorted at Subaru after asking him one question after another, the latter’s face scrunched into a frown.
However, Abel was unable to answer Subaru’s question, due to the sound of several footsteps pattering towards the cage again.
They belonged to Mizelda, and her group, being dragged along by the girl.
Mizelda: [I heard everything from Utakata. She said you’re both going to take the Lifeblood Ritual.]
Mizelda, her hair dyed red, placed her hand on the head of the girl clinging to her leg ― the girl called Utakata. Then she sent a piercing look at both Subaru and Abel.
Her gaze was filled with sharpness that rivalled the drive from earlier, when Subaru had trampled over their pride as warriors.
Mizelda: [Where the heck did you find out about the Lifeblood Ritual? It’s supposed to be a rite that’s passed down only for us Shudraq.]
Abel: [Do not make me laugh, young chief of the Shudraq. Do you seriously think that no one knows about your traditions in this day and age? Two people, that is all it takes for a secret to leak out. Abandon your pipe dream of thinking that you are all as one.]
Abel: [Your precious “Lifeblood Ritual” is no exception either. In actual fact, I know both what kind of ritual it is, as well as what happened in the past.]
Mizelda’s gaze turned stern as Abel’s response grew in zeal.
Subaru could tell that the Shudraqians’ expressions in their vicinity, and not just Mizelda’s at that, were growing more and more tense, faced with Abel’s lofty words. Subaru took a sizable heavy gulp himself.
Right now, Subaru was the only one being left behind, not knowing anything about the details of this “Lifeblood Ritual” that had been mentioned by Abel. Nevertheless, the fact remained that the ritual was an important one to Mizelda and the others, and that Abel would not welcome him making light of how they felt about it.
And so, in order to prevent the situation from causing any further confusion, Subaru spoke up, interjecting with an, “Um!”.
Subaru: [Sorry to interrupt when your discussion was starting to become more lively, but can you tell me more about this “Lifeblood Ritual”? I’m probably not unrelated to it, right?]
Mizelda: […Why do you think so?]
Subaru: [Ah, I just got threatened by this masked prick a while ago. Stuff like asking me whether I could sacrifice everything or not. “Hell no” was my answer, though.]
Subaru: [All I can put on the line is myself. That guy’s overestimating his influence a little too much.]
Sacrificing everything. That kind of remark was only allowed to be made by people who were quite powerful.
Unfortunately for Subaru and Abel, both of them were helpless as they had been captured by the People of Shudraq, so they were not qualified to be faced with such a grandiose choice.
So, all he could wager were only whatever cards he held firmly in his hand. And as of now, “Natsuki Subaru” was his sole card.
Subaru: [But, just as Abel said, it’ll be difficult for us if you won’t listen. It’s going to be a repetition of what I previously said, but I’ll keep saying the same thing as many times as I need. At worst, I need you to at least let me out, so I can protect what’s precious to me, else I will be stumped on what to do.]
Mizelda: […I see. It seems like you’re qualified to undergo the Lifeblood Ritual.]
As Subaru made his appeal to her, wanting to keep their conversation going, Mizelda muttered with a hushed tone.
Subaru widened his eyes at her answer, and Abel made a small noise in his throat. However, there was one person who proceeded to overreact upon hearing her chief’s words.
Amidst the group that surrounded Mizelda, the person, a woman with hair dyed blue, was standing right beside her.
???: [Sister! Are you sure? Believing the words of these men…]
Mizelda: [It’s not like I believe them, Taritta. I just thought it would be a waste to disregard their words.]
The woman called Taritta hung her head, listening to Mizelda’s response, who she had referred to as “Sister”.
It seemed like they were sisters, related by blood. Once their connection had been pointed out to Subaru, he realized that they were actually quite similar, especially the fierce impression given off by their eyes.
Then, after Mizelda had rejected her younger sister’s words, she looked at Subaru once more, and,
Mizelda: [You’ve heard about the Lifeblood Ritual. It’s a ritual to make the tribe acknowledge oneself, passed down to us Shudraqians since ancient times. You can call it a coming of age ritual.]
Subaru: [Coming of age… ah, it’s that kind of thing. But, we aren’t really…]
Abel: [A part of the Shudraq. It is needless to say that, as everyone is aware of it. Do not waste any time with your foolish antics. What matters most is the true nature of this ritual.]
Subaru had made Abel seem exasperated, the former perplexed by his newfound knowledge of the ritual, that it existed so that those who completed it would be treated as an adult. Subaru’s cheeks stiffened from Abel’s callous words, but he understood what the masked man wanted to say.
The true nature of the coming of age ritual laid within making the group acknowledge the challenger as an adult. That meant, the true nature of the “Lifeblood Ritual” was――,
Subaru: [A rite of passage… To ensure the Shudraqians would listen to us as their equals…]
Affirming Subaru’s belief, Abel folded his arms, glancing over at Mizelda. Soon after receiving his gaze, Mizelda drew back her chin, and then,
Mizelda: [If you are challenging the Lifeblood Ritual, then you must prepare yourselves.]
Abel: [What will happen if the challenge were withdrawn? Will you claim that you will release us, right here and now? Unfortunately, I do not possess a mind so unsophisticated as to hope for something too good to be true. That goes for me, as well as this Natsuki Subaru over here.]
With the discussion between Mizelda and Abel suddenly becoming heated, Subaru was surprised to hear himself included as one of the people who were determined to complete the ritual. However, Abel did not seem to care about what he thought.
While being shoved around by Abel’s current momentum, Mizelda asked him, “What will you do?”, he responded with,
Subaru: [……I’ll do it. If there’s no other way, then I’ll go through that ritual and make sure you listen to what I have to say. But, it’ll be a problem if the ritual’s going to take a few days…]
Mizelda: [That’s true. We do not want that, either. If that’s it…]
Taritta: [Sister, won’t the Elgina be enough, then?]
As Subaru steeled himself to undergo the ritual, Taritta offered a helpful suggestion to Mizelda, who was preoccupied with her own thoughts. Hearing her sister’s opinion, Mizelda nodded deeply, and then,
Mizelda: [Good idea. When the Lifeblood Ritual is carried out, the greatest obstacle will be chosen.]
Subaru: [The greatest obstacle… That’s…]
Mizelda: [――The Elgina.]
Mizelda repeated the word as Subaru swallowed audibly.
Utakata shrunk away, her shoulders jolting at the mention of the word, and the air around the Shudraqian women became wrapped with tension.
Since they took pride in being warriors, their reactions were more than enough to provoke Subaru’s feeling of uneasiness.
Abel: [You and I both cannot back out of this. Have you hardened your resolve?]
Subaru: [You’re acting all arrogant, even though you brought the conversation to this point without asking me anything. Aren’t you doing things as you please a bit too much, just because I’m indebted to you….?]
It was true that Subaru was in Abel’s debt for the knife he had been given, but any positive, calm feelings he held towards that had been blown away by their interactions inside the cage. Though, of course, he also appreciated the fact that Abel had undone Subaru’s mistake and created a chance for the Shudraqians to listen to him.
Subaru: [As far as I know, those who hide their faces are never good people!]
Abel: [There is a reason for why I am hiding my face, however. ――You are being insolent, but I will not deny that.]
If a character who hides their face happened to appear in a story, then there was a high possibility for them to be related to the main character in one way or another. In this case, Subaru would be in the position of the protagonist, but――,
Subaru: [You’re thinner than my dad, and your voice is also different. More so, there’s no way I would mistake my dad for another person.]
Abel: [……It seems like you are spouting out nonsense.]
Subaru: [It’s not nonsense, it’s about my dad. He’s the most annoying and also the coolest in the world.]
Perhaps the topic did not pique Abel’s interest, as what little warmth he had in his gaze had been visibly diminished.
In fact, Subaru had only mentioned that since he was in the Empire, and a masked person had made their appearance, comparing his situation to a movie about a war in outer space from a long time ago. Subaru could probably consider Abel to be a stranger who hid his face… maybe.
Ignoring his nonsensical thoughts, Mizelda proceeded to issue orders to her fellow Shudraqians, and then,
Mizelda: [Abel and Natsuki Subaru, we will bring both of you to the Elgina. Prove to us whether you can complete the Lifeblood Ritual admirably, or not!]
As she made her declaration, the cage was opened, and Subaru and Abel were taken outside.
Subaru and Abel were let out of the cage without blindfolds or restraints, and the Shudraqians surrounded them and walked them outside of the village.
In the deep, dense jungle, Subaru walked as if he were groping around in the dark, which nearly caused him to trip and fall many times. But each time, one of the surrounding Shudraqians saved him.
Subaru: [Oops, my bad. You had to help me again…]
Blonde woman: [Nooo problem～. Me, I’m a strong woman so it’s toootally fine～.]
Saying that, the woman, who dyed her hair yellow, supported Subaru as he tumbled.
The woman speaking had a plump figure and soft features. She was a rare type in Shudraq, where many women had firm and muscular bodies, but she had an air about her that made her very easy to get along with.
Blonde woman: [Are your injuries okay～? I’m the one who did your medical treatment～.]
Subaru: [Oh, this was thanks to you? Ahh, I’m alright. It’s still a little, well, I mean it hurts quite a bit, but it’s better.]
Blonde woman: [Ahahaha, you’re an honest guy ain’tcha～?]
Saying that, the woman laughed in a carefree manner, and her attitude also helped Subaru. Practically speaking, she had treated his wounds, so he should say he was helped in two ways.
Subaru naturally relaxed in the presence of such a big-hearted and kind woman. But he was rather concerned about the meat bone she always carried in her other hand.
Blonde woman: [Yeah? You hungry～? Wanna have some meat～?]
Subaru: [Ah, no, I’m good. Not that I’m not hungry, but if I eat I won’t be able to move well.]
Blonde woman: [Ahaha, that’s how it is～. Besides, if your stomach is full you’ll suffer when you die too～.]
Even while gnawing on her ham bone, and despite with her gentle looks, she was Shudraqian through-and-through.
In any case, Subaru and Abel were led someplace by the Shudraq in this manner, without feeling any hostility from them.
Mizelda had been like that at first, but once Subaru and Abel resolved to face the Lifeblood Ritual, it appeared that the effect of the failure of initial negotiations had been nullified.
In other words, whatever the outcome of the trial, the rehabilitation of their image with the women was a success.
If that was the case, even if the outcome of the trial were not favorable, it might be possible to get back to the negotiating table again.
Abel: [――Your face appears like you are thinking of something convenient.]
Subaru: […Don’t read whether a person is thinking this or that just from the color of their face and the look in their eyes. I get that you’re like that, but are people in the Empire always that sort?]
Abel: [I do not know the cause of your bewilderment. Moreover I have no interest in whom you may be comparing me to. It is simply that, in order to live, humans in the Empire learn to look closely at their opponents. It is different from the Kingdom.]
Subaru: [Look closely at their opponents, huh…]
Abel, who was being taken away with him, impressed Subaru with his words.
That was a lesson many people without outstanding military power should be aware of, not just the people of the Empire. For Subaru too, without careful observation of his opponents, would be unable to grasp a chance of success even under normal circumstances.
It was a tough, tough issue that he needed to be aware of from now on.
Abel: [By the way, are you not thinking of fleeing when you have the chance?]
While Subaru was entertained by those thoughts, Abel whispered a new one in his ear.
Subaru narrowed his eyes, surprised at Abel’s dispassion to the matter.
Subaru: [Could you stop coming up with such weird temptations? I’m sure you can’t help thinking about it, but it can’t be done.]
Abel: [Oho, why not? There is a better chance to escape now than when you were in that cage. If you create a good opportunity, you could slip out of the Shudraq’s sight.]
Subaru: [Well, I’ve also started running in that sort of reckless manner before, when getting too hot-headed, but…]
Abel’s words were like that of a carefree criminal’s, and Subaru once again surveyed his surroundings.
The depths of the forest were so dark that Subaru could only see a few meters ahead. In the end, the direction and distance of the encampment Subaru must get back to were not clear, so there was no point in escaping.
On top of that, all of the surrounding Shudraqians were much more capable than Subaru with his two injured hands.
Blonde woman: [――? What’s the matter?]
Utakata: [Definitely in love with Hol. Hol is the prettiest girl in village.]
Blonde woman: [Wahaa～, Me, that’s so embarassing～]
Peeping into Subaru’s line of sight, Utakata spoke to the woman at her side.
The woman shook her head from side to side in denial, blushing. It was awfully cute, but there was no opening. If Subaru tried to flee, she would certainly pin him down in an instant.
Subaru: [If I ran, what exactly would happen to you?]
Abel: [――. I see. When it comes down to it, you are that kind of fellow, hm? A detestable, idiotic, wannabe hero.]
Averting his gaze, Abel spat out those words.
Annoyed by that declaration, Subaru snapped at the masked man’s profile. However, before he could enquire about the real meaning of his words, the feet of Mizelda, who stood at the vanguard, came to a halt.
Mizelda: [We’re here.]
Subaru: [You say we’re here, but I can’t see anything…]
Even with a raised torch to illuminate the surroundings, it was only possible to see a range of a few meters at best. To Subaru, the view of the forest spread before him seemed unchanged.
What on earth is here――,
Mizelda: [Go ahead and you’ll see.]
Straining to see in the darkness, Subaru pitched forward. His back was pushed by Taritta, who was behind him, and upon taking one or two steps forward, his feet stepped on thin air.
It was proof that a foothold was missing, that a foundation to stand on was missing.
Subaru: [This feeling… Oh no, not again!?]
Without thinking, Subaru shouted as he faced the earthen void――A steep slope to be precise. He put his feet to the incline and slid down so as not to start tumbling.
He travelled down the steep slope, and, someway or another, managed to catch his breath at the bottom.
Subaru: [Ah, that was dangerous… Even though I’m untouched, what was with that all of the sudden?!]
There was a strong impact on his back that had barely come to a halt, causing him to stumble and fall forward in the end. When he looked over his shoulder reproachfully, Subaru saw that the one who had collided with his back was Abel.
It seemed he had been pushed down the steep incline, just like Subaru.
Subaru: [From the looks of it, it just seems like the bottom of a hole but… is this where the ritual’s happening?]
Abel: [Indeed it is. Now then, what will reveal itself? Elgina, they called it.]
Subaru: [You got any idea what that is?]
Abel: [“El” has the meaning of large but… hm.]
While Subaru and Abel conversed at the bottom of the slope where they had been dropped, something was thrown in. At Abel’s feet, a bundle of cloth rolled to a stop.
And peeking out from inside the package was――,
Abel: [It’s my luggage and your garbage.]
Subaru: [Mine is luggage too!]
Subaru and Abel picked up their equipment, which had been tossed down.
Inside was the Guiltywhip, naturally, and the knife that had been stuck in Subaru’s shoulder. He had received it from Abel, but after being bounced around from one place to the next, it had returned here.
Abel also picked up his own things, a sword and a mantle, and quickly put them on.
Subaru: [But, what the hell does this mean…?]
Utakata: [Uu’s watching too! Good luck!]
Following Abel, a high-pitched voice answered Subaru’s question as he recovered his equipment. He looked over and saw Utakata waving both hands atop the slope. It looked like that girl had thrown in the equipment.
Mizelda and Taritta did not raise their voices against her actions either. It seemed this level of assistance would not hinder the ritual.
And then, at the same time――,
Blonde woman: [I want you to do your best, okay~!?]
He saw the woman from before, her hair dyed yellow, with a calm voice and a carefree manner, smiling nonchalantly while blocking the entrance to the slope with a large boulder.
There was no mistaking it, judging from the rumbling of the earth, it could be nothing else.
Unbelievable superhuman strength.―― It was clear whose hands had made that solid, improvised cage.
With the entrance closed, Subaru and Abel were enclosed in an empty valley about twenty meters across from left to right.
Opposite the entrance, darkness spread out in front of the pair. It looked like they could escape if they ran straight ahead, but such a naive idea should be abandoned.
Abel: [Natsuki Subaru, how much are you able to move your hands?]
Subaru: [Huh? My hands… they’re as bad as they look. I can’t raise my right hand, and my left hand can’t grip strongly either. Naturally, I also can’t do fine movements…Woah!?]
Abel: [Put this on your finger in best condition! There is no time.]
Abel then threw a ring from his belongings to Subaru. Without saying yes or no, Subaru accepted it immediately and put it on the middle finger of his left hand.
The ring was inlaid with a black jewel, which gave it an air of luxury, as well as a strange sense of intimidation.
Subaru: [This is?]
Abel: [A ring with magic sealed inside it. Kiss it before using it. It spews fire, but it is limited.]
Subaru: [Huh? Magic? Kiss? What do you…]
Abel: [――Here it comes.]
Unable to keep up with the stream of rapid-fire information, Subaru was hung out to dry by Abel, who readied his sword. Swept up in the moment by a determined-looking Abel, Subaru hurriedly drew his whip out.
And so, just as the preparation of their equipment was more or less completed――,
Subaru: […Oi oi, you gotta be kidding me.]
Backs facing the sloped surface that blocked their exit, Subaru stood alongside Abel as he stared in shock at the sight in front of him.
The figure that appeared as it slowly slithered along the ground from the darkness was a collection of scales. All green, shiny and dripping with water――It was a Snake Witchbeast.
A Witchbeast that Subaru had already encountered in this Buddheim Jungle twice before.
Subaru: [Don’t tell me, Elgina…?]
Snake Witchbeast: [――ϡϡ！！]
Subaru questioned fearfully, swallowing his breath.
The Snake Witchbeast opened its giant maw and, as if it were agreeing with Subaru, roared loudly. Enveloped in the fierce wind pressure of the roar, Subaru froze up.
Elgina is the Snake Witchbeast, and undertaking the Lifeblood Ritual meant facing the most difficult challenge available.
If that were the case, the wall that Subaru and Abel had to break through was――,
Mizelda: [Now, it is time to fight. Show that you are warriors. Shudraq’s eyes, the eyes of the hunters will see you through.]
Subaru: [Daaah! Of course it’s something like this!]
The booming voice of Mizelda reverberated around the arena, along with other blaring voices of cheer from the other Shudraqians. They stood on the surrounding cliffs, overlooking Subaru and Abel’s match against the Witchbeast.
Subaru took to heart the questioningly cheerful and encouraging shouts. Meanwhile, the Snake Witchbeast took a stance――,
Abel: [――Here it comes, Natsuki Subaru!]
Subaru: [I can see that! Dammit, all I’ve been doing is facing trials lately!]
The Snake Witchbeast surged forward ferociously as if to silence Subaru’s whining. And so, the Lifeblood Ritual had begun.
――The Witchbeast that inhabited the Buddheim Jungle, Elgina.
According to Abel, “El” meant “Large”. Therefore, “Gina” was probably the word for “Snake”.
Or it could be that that was the People of Shudraq’s unique way of naming the Witchbeast.
Nevertheless, verifying that claim and contributing to the history of cultural anthropology would have to come later.
Subaru: [The enemy in front of me comes first!]
Snapping its mouth open, the Snake Witchbeast charged, baring its sharp fangs. Its body was at least ten meters in length and it resembled a large, sentient tree thrashing about in a forest.
Its torso was as thick as a bundle of logs and its flailing tail had enough power to cause serious injuries with just a graze.
As always, Witchbeasts would try to kill with their physicality.
――ko. Calling out to his absent partner, Subaru grit his teeth.
The course of action Subaru would usually take when thrust into an unexpected situation was to, before even giving it a thought, let his trusted partner Beatrice handle it with her judgement and adaptability. That was what he had decided to be for the best.
In this situation however, this line of thinking would illuminate Subaru’s lack of adaptability――.
Abel: [Fool! This is not the time to be dawdling!]
Stiffening up at the realisation of his blunder, an angry shout rang out as Subaru’s head, along with his hair, was grabbed. Bent backwards and falling, Subaru yelped before being dragged down.
Above the head of Subaru’s fallen body, the fangs of the Snake Witchbeast snapped shut without mercy. An intense sound roared overhead, choking the atmosphere with bloodlust. At the same time, the resulting smoke and wind violently kicked up the soil.
Snake Witchbeast: [Oooooaaaa――!]
Pushed by the strong gales, Subaru, unable to bear against it, rolled along the ground. Still, he could not stay rolling forever. Only a fool would pick their life up by the skin of their teeth and lose it immediately after.
Using the momentum to stand up, he tried to put some distance between him and the Snake Witchbeast.
Abel: [Do not make me repeat myself, fool. Hold your breath.]
Subaru’s head was forcibly pushed down, pinning his body to the ground. Looking up, he saw a dust-covered Abel wrapping the both of them under his cloak.
However, the cloak was not that big. It was too small to wrap the two of them fully and currently, Abel was straddling Subaru’s back.
Subaru: [What, what are you… Oh right, the Concealment Cloak!]
Abel: [Correct. If we stifle our breath, it will not find us immediately… Still, how unfortunate. If the Lifeblood Ritual were anything but a test of strength, we would have had a chance.]
Looking out for any signs of the Snake Witchbeast in the immediate vicinity, Abel’s eyes were mixed with anger and frustration.
Hearing Abel’s thoughts, Subaru could painfully relate to his thinking.
The contents of the Lifeblood Ritual seemed to differ with each attempt.
There must have been other trials that did not involve fighting a Witchbeast. However, fighting the Snake Witchbeast was the path thrust to Subaru and Abel to prove their status as warriors.
Subaru: [Both my hands are damaged and Abel’s swordsmanship is second-rate… What a shit situation we’re in.]
Abel: [My swordsmanship is second-rate, you say? Considering your current state, your arms cannot even be used to drag me down.]
Subaru: [I still got my mouth to talk back to you… Oh yeah, about before.]
Inside the dense smoke, Subaru lifted his left hand up to show the ring on his middle finger.
The ring that had been thrown at him by Abel. The ring with much needed explaining. Having to kiss it, it spewing out fire, various inexplicable facts were said but――,
Subaru: [How do I use it?]
Abel: [I told you before. Kiss the jewel and have it acknowledge you as its holder. The rest is akin to using magic.]
Subaru: [What the hell is that. A ring that’s like a weapon from a light novel…!]
Staring at the ring in half-belief half-doubt, Subaru frowned at the explanation. Ignoring Subaru’s reaction, Abel searched for movements of the Snake Witchbeast through the plumes of dust.
Although he had looked relaxed when trapped in the cage, he could not hide his tension when faced with a genuine threat. Breathing heavily, Abel tightly gripped his sword,
Abel: [Even if we get close, it is doubtful that we can pierce its scales. The places without scales… The eyes or mouth. If we do not pierce those places, or those places where the scales are thin, our attacks will be ineffective, I imagine.]
Subaru: [That’s kinda impossible if we don’t create an opening. If we could just do that somehow…]
Abel: [You create that opening. Why do you think you and I are working together?]
Subaru: [I was thinking of saying it but, being told to be a decoy really does my head in…!]
Having said that though, looking at the duo’s equipment and physical condition, those were the only roles they could realistically accept.
Subaru on support and Abel on offence. A familiar role for Subaru, as being in the role of an assistant was always Natsuki Subaru’s job.
Abel: [Currently, the Witchbeast has lost sight of us. Draw its attention with fire. That will be the opening.]
Subaru: [Yeah, I get――]
Investing your resources at the start to reap the biggest reward possible was a fundamental tenet of battle.
Utilising the cover of smoke that the Witchbeast had coincidentally created, they would use their environment to their advantage to defeat the enemy.
Just as Subaru finished that thought, he felt a sense of wrongness.
The source of that wrongness was the Witchbeast, Elgina.
The Witchbeast that appeared to be a large snake. Its large size made it comparable to anacondas and the like. However, because it actively hunted humans, its threat level was above that of an anaconda.
And, if the Witchbeast were snake-like, if its biology was similar to that of a snake――,
Trembling with fear, Subaru unconsciously pressed his lips to the ring. He then raised the ring above him and faced it towards the plumes of dust Abel was watching over.
Faster than Abel could question his actions, Subaru opened his mouth and――,
Immediately after, the Snake Witchbeast aiming for Subaru and Abel burst through the smoke. And right in front of its nose, a flame exploded out.
――Snakes possess an organ specialized in detection of heat, called a ‘pit organ’.
As nocturnal critters inhabiting dense forests and boulder crevices, they require the ability to track their prey in the dark. That is why they are equipped with the pit organ from birth, which allows them to track and capture their prey by sensing their heat in total darkness.
In practice, this principle is known as thermography. But snakes are born with this ability, and thus have earned their moniker as an assassin cloaked in darkness.
So in turn, this giant snake was also equipped with the same pit organ.
It slithered near, but was met with a counterblow right as it attempted to strike. As its snout was singed with a blast of heat, it raised its neck upwards. And Abel took his chance immediately.
His swordsmanship was one of not letting any chances slide. He thrust with great might, the edge of his sharp blade poised to slide through the giant snake’s underneck. The strike connected with its scales, cold steel hissing―― But to no avail.
Abel groaned as the strike was deflected.
The tip of his sword had barely pierced the snake’s scales. While his stance may have not been the best, his whole backbone had definitely been put into that strike.
Even so, he was not permitted entry.
Subaru: [One more!!]
Glaring at Abel as he took a step back, it attempted to strike once more, only for a fireball to smash into the side of its face.
Even though the dense forest lit up in red and its damp air sizzled, the great snake looked to have taken little to no damage. Its long tongue flicked over its burnt side, then moved its eyes to Subaru and out rose a great bellow from within its gaping maw.
A mere thirty seconds had elapsed since this fight started.
Within that timeframe alone, he had determined they possessed no chance of winning this fight. Abel’s sword could not pierce through its scales, and, as hurt as he was, Subaru’s petty and cheap tricks had no place in this fight.
After all, Subaru had no means of standing up to the face of overwhelming violence. Those were always his worst obstacles.
Subaru: [Goa! Goa! And again, Goa!!]
With a short wave of his hand, Subaru haphazardly shot multiple rounds of magic at the giant snake just as it was lunging at him.
Each shot blossomed with a brilliant flash of light as the fire from his ring shot past the Witchbeast, smashed into the precipice of the ravine they were fighting in, and caused a collapse of debris, separating Subaru and Abel from the Witchbeast, albeit temporarily.
Subaru: [Oi, Mizelda-san! This is-――]
Getting worse by the minute, he had wanted to say, but swallowed his words.
The Shudraqians, who were supposed to protect them during their difficult battle――They had instead set up arrows on their bows, their sights aimed at Subaru and co.
With cold, hardened gazes, the Shudraqians sized up their prey.
Mizelda, Taritta, the lady with the blonde hair, and even Utakata; Without exception, all glared at Subaru’s party.
Abel: [We set this in motion. There is no way to run from the “Lifeblood Ritual”. If we do not kill it, forget your little wish, we shall not even be left with our own lives.]
Abel informed Subaru, who was frozen stiff under the Shudraqians’ cold gaze.
He understood this. It was a difference in values, in morals. He had felt this from the moment he had been flung to Vollachia, and throughout the trek he had made from the military encampment until this place.――The People of Shudraq were the kind who could sing and laugh with their fellow comrades one moment, then turn their blades on them the other.
One glance at Utakata told him everything. This was the result of being brought up with these values. It was a difference in their nurturing environment.
To ponder on or ask whether these values were right or wrong was meaningless.
Here, was not the place for an argument about ethics.
What was necessary at this moment, was to follow their rules, participate in the “Lifeblood Ritual”, and win.
Abel: [I cannot pierce its scaly hide. If cutting out its heart through its chest is impossible, should I aim for its brain through the eyes or mouth instead?]
Subaru: [That’s the thing about all living beings, the brain’s the weak spot, but… That might be a bit too hard to pull off. What we should really aim for is that area right above its pit organ. That’s our ticket to victory.]
Abel: [――Right above.]
Winning via a death blow was a hurdle too high to cross.
Then all that remained were victories earned by means other than that. Were this its nest, perhaps taking its eggs hostage to force it into surrender may have been the best, albeit the scummiest, course of action. Of course, that was not the case.
Thus, what remained was to take advantage of that one weakness all Witchbeasts possessed.
Subaru: [We break its horn. The beast will submit itself to whoever breaks it. ――That’s the only way.]
Abel: [And your plan――]
Subaru: [Like I said before. I’ll be the bait, and you, my suspicious hooded stranger, will be the attacker.]
Abel: [I beg your pardon? There’s naught but hooded nobility here.]
Once their brief conversation ended with one of Abel’s usual comebacks, Subaru took in a deep breath, then exhaled.
They had exchanged their objectives. It was set in stone.
Behind and overhead, the Shudraqians observed them with a frozen gaze. With targets painted on their backs, the two stood back up, a show of their resolve as warriors, and then headed back into the fight against the giant snake that had claimed the great forest as its own.
Not that they desired, nor was a warrior’s resolve a fit for them, but regardless――,
Subaru: [But if that’s what it takes, that is exactly what I’ll do.]
――As his mind drifted to Rem, whom he had left behind in the encampment of the Imperial Army, Subaru put strength into his stride forward.
Snake Witchbeast: [――――ϡϡ!!]
Its great maw agape, the giant snake burst through the smoke.
Subaru thrust his left arm forward. The Witchbeast’s yellow eyes took notice, and immediately closed its mouth and turned to the side.
While the lowest level of flames would not deal any significant damage, it seemed that Subaru had managed to make it become averse to being hit.
However, that proved to be its undoing. Subaru did not actually have the ring on his left hand, at that moment.
Subaru: [My left hand’s not aiming for the side of your face, but right above that!]
As he shouted, the tip of a whip lashed out of his left hand.
Able to use the whip with ease using either hand thanks to Clind’s teachings, Subaru opted to exert his left arm, which could be used to easily handle the weapon with merely two fingers as his crutch, as opposed to his right, which he could barely lift above from his shoulders onwards.
The tip of his whip was not aimed at the snake’s scales, but rather at the thick branches overhead. With his whip firmly wrapped around a branch, Subaru leapt into the air.
Snake Witchbeast: [――ϡϡ!!]
Below, the snake’s maw opened, chasing after him.
Had he not folded up his knees midair, everything below his thighs would have been ripped off by the giant snake’s jaws just now.
Taritta: [――Tch, sister! That man, he’s running away!!]
Taritta shouted to Mizelda, then nocked, her sight and arrow aimed at Subaru’s back as he rose out of the ravine delegated as their battlefield. Mizelda, however, put her hand on the bow and lowered it.
Mizelda’s green eyes shone like gems, fixated on Subaru,
Mizelda: [He’s not running away, he’s going to fight!!]
She shouted in cheer as Subaru whirled through the air using his whip.
His trajectory drawing circles in the sky much like an amusement park attraction, Subaru aimed the ring with his right hand at the edges of the cliff.
It was more of a war cry, rather than a chant.
Fire erupted from his right hand as he raised his voice, dousing the edges of the ravine in flames―― The vines and branches all caught fire, turning the ravine into a sea of hellfire.
Blonde woman: [Wawawawa! Utakata, look out～!]
Taritta: [Aaaah, sister! Sister! Should I? Should I!?]
As they watched the ravine burn, the People of Shudraq began to panic.
Utakata and the blonde-haired Shudraqian embraced each other, while Taritta kept insisting on permission to put an arrow through Subaru. However, Mizelda took no notice of her, eyes sparkling with excitement.
She only balled her fist, her eyes nailed to Subaru.
Mizelda: [Amazing! Wonderful! This is getting exciting!]
Mizelda & Subaru: [AAAAaaAaaAaaa――!!]
Mizelda’s cheers and Subaru’s yell, prolonged right until he ran out of breath, overlapped.
The ring’s light faded, but with one final bellow, a fireball sprung forth and shot straight at the precipice of a cliff, causing a landslide of rocks, forcing the giant snake to stand down to avoid the falling debris.
Snake Witchbeast: [――――]
The snake, while slowly drawing itself backwards, understood that it had no way to escape, its surroundings blocked off.
The fire spreading over the fallen trees, the valley was brightened with shimmering flames, to the point the light of a torch would be considered unnecessary.
More than that, the splendidly scattered flames――,
Abel: [Perhaps it has a technique that allows it to see heat. ――That will no longer be effective.]
The giant snake had lost sight of Abel, who had hidden himself under the cape of “Concealment” and leapt towards the beast.
Snake Witchbeast: [――――ϡϡ!!]
Sensing a dangerous presence, the snake kept a watchful eye on its surroundings. However, above its head was Subaru with miasma wafting out of his body, its heat detecting ability had been rendered useless by the flames, and Abel’s figure was unperceivable.
Moving onto a pathway with weaker flames was all the Witchbeast could do.
And that was a false escape route Subaru had created, by intentionally spreading the flames――,
Instantaneously, Abel sprung off the cliff, assaulting the snake’s head as it attempted to flee.
The sword drew an arc as it was swung, a silver flash streaking towards the snake’s head, where its gnarled horn was located. The blade diagonally entered the center of the horn, with enough force to bisect it in one clean stroke――,
Snake Witchbeast: [――――ϡϡ!!]
It was right as the snake’s horn was about to be sliced off, which would signify the battle drawing near its end due to the snake losing its sense of self.
The giant snake roared, twisting its head in as a last act of desperation, attempting to avoid the sword strike. However, a fruitless struggle was still fruitless. Acting out of desperation like that would not be effective.
――But that was only if the single attack had been that of a warrior’s.
His strike dislodged by the snake’s twisting head, Abel’s attack stopped midway through its horn. Like that, before he could pour additional strength into his arms to resume his attack, a tail lashed out and collided with his body.
Tossed about by that impact, Abel’s slender frame was blasted sideways. He rolled across the burning valley, unable to break his fall, spitting out blood from his throat as he coughed.
Abel: [Kfuh…kh, how careless of me…! I suppose it will not turn out like how it did with the fool…]
The large snake turned its face towards Abel, who was still coughing up blood, down on his hands and knees.
Catching a glimpse of its golden opportunity, the chance of a lifetime to turn the tables, the snake’s eyes glinted with malice as it slithered towards Abel. Having received a blow from its tail earlier, Abel was unable to stand up, and neither did he have the time to curl up in his “Concealment”.
Its jaws wide open, the snake lunged at Abel to swallow him whole.
Upon witnessing that, Subaru had no time to spare for thought.
Subaru: [I can… Return by Dea――]
It felt like it had been quite a while since he had last declared that out loud.
However, to Subaru, who had traced his own steps through the Books of the Dead inside the Pleiades Watchtower, his experience of attempting to lure Witchbeasts towards himself was fresh in his memory, almost as if he had just done that the day before.
That was why he had come up with that on the spur of the moment.
Subaru: [Gih, gah――!]
Once the color faded from the world, all sound disappeared, and Subaru could no longer feel the flow of air, what visited him instead was a black shadow, streaming into that static world.
It was identical to that tremendous mass of shadows that had surged towards Subaru back then, when he had dealt with the Trials, lost Shaula, and had been overwhelmed with everything that had happened――,
???: [――I love you.]
Subaru: […Yeah, I’m sick of hearing that so many times.]
He responded to the short phrase, just like that.
Immediately after that, the palm of a hand slid into him, seizing his heart. Uncontrollable pain consumed him, making him feel as if his whole body was being ground into dust, starting from his fingertips. Rather than his vision being stained red, a force that felt like his eyeballs had exploded tore him down.
Pain that he could never become accustomed to, and the attachment and hopelessness that would not foretell when it would end.
However, once those had eventually withdrawn――,
Subaru: [Eyes… on… me――!!]
Snake Witchbeast: [――――ϡϡ!!]
Right after the color, sound, smell, and sensation had returned to the world, Subaru let out a fierce shout.
Along with the reappearance of Subaru, the snake spun around, having detected the increased amount of miasma. It did not face the feeble, masked man in front of itself, despite being able to kill him at any second, but it faced Subaru, who was above its head, all smelly and full of energy.
Subaru: [It’s all up to you――!]
The moment his eyes met with the snake’s as it turned around, Subaru brought the ring on his right hand to his lips.
Letting go of the whip at once, Subaru’s body drew a parabola as he flew towards the giant snake. ――In order to reach the snake’s head, he needed it to turn around and face him.
The confession of Return by Death was for that. And a very little small fraction of the reason was to not let Abel die, as well.
Placing his feet on the snake’s upper jaw, Subaru jumped forward, although he looked like he was falling ungracefully.
In front of his eyes was the white horn, with the blade of a sword jammed halfway through it. Subaru twisted his body so that he was facing the hilt of the sword, guessing that the weapon would be able to sever the horn after one last push, and slammed his right fist into it with all his might.
Of course, he did not think he could cut apart the thick horn with only his fist.
However, his strike was not a simple swing of his fist. ――It was a devastating blow, joined with the magic stone and loaded with magic.
The jewel embedded in the ring cracked as it connected with the sword’s hilt, vermillion light pouring out.
The next moment, the leaking light swelled, detonating with Subaru’s right arm and the snake’s horn at the center of the explosion, and everything in his vision, as well as all sound in his ears, vanished.
Subaru spun around as he fell to the ground, rolling across it around two or three times.
His whole body hit the ground with intense force, but he could not recognize the damage it had taken. The right half of his body was scorching hot, almost as if it was on fire, and he could not even perceive his physical condition.
His body began convulsing while he was lying flat on his back, and as yellowish stomach fluid dripped out of the corner of his mouth, Subaru felt the ground rumble.
As he was on the verge of death, his body riddled with critical injuries impossible to overlook, he did not realize that the source of that sound was the giant snake that had collapsed onto the ground beside him, having lost its head.
???: [――Natsuki Subaru! Hey, Natsuki Subaru! Stand up! Stand up at once!]
Although he was barely maintaining his consciousness by a single thread that was about to be torn off, someone scrambled towards him, calling out to him and shaking his body.
Subaru did not know which part of his body the person was grabbing as he was shaken, but he was being jerked from side to side. The scorching sensation worsened, and he let out a soundless voice, fluids spilling out of every hole on his face.
He could not process anything anymore.
He wanted the person to allow him to lose hold of his consciousness. Pain, heat, a burning thirst, and suffering, every negative-sounding word that existed in the world swirled around in his head――,
???: [There is something you must stand up and pronounce, no!? The woman… What will become of that woman called Rem!?]
???: [Speak with your own mouth! Your desires cannot be expressed by me!]
A strong, passionate plea was wedged into his ears, and his body was forced to sit up on top of that. Even if he were in a state where he could not comprehend whether it was his head or feet on top, he had been propped up.
He could not lift his body. Perhaps, only the upper half of his body had been held up.
???: [Listen, People of Shudraq! This is just as you are witnessing it! We have completed the Lifeblood Ritual, establishing the proof that we are warriors! If so, as our comrades-in-arms, is there not anything you all must carry out?]
????: [――Yes, I, Mizelda, the chief of the Shudraq, have seen your endeavors with my own eyes! Dear warrior, our fellow comrade! What do you desire? What will you shout out for us to do?]
Voices emerged from his side and right above him, resonating inside of his head.
It was as if his brain had lost its source of protection, the voices passing straight through into his head. Even as he could not fathom what their words meant, his shoulder was shook, his head rocked back and forth, and his soul was stirred.
???: [Answer me, Natsuki Subaru. Speak of what you desire. Squeeze and wring out all that you have.]
???: [Envision what you wish for behind those closed eyelids of yours. Nothing can be granted to those who cannot disclose what they seek. ――There is no food to be given to a slothful pig!]
Think up and envision what you wish for behind those closed eyelids.
He could see a silver-haired girl. A young girl with cream-colored hair, a pink-haired girl, a gray-haired youth and a golden-haired boy. He could also see many faces, the faces of other people, and,
――He was happy to see a blue-haired girl standing among them.
???: [What is it!?]
Feeling as if he himself was being peeled off slowly, Subaru made out his words with his lips. The moment he said that, the force behind the hand that was gripping his shoulder, or what was most likely his shoulder, grew stronger.
And then, the owner of the voice nodded quietly with an, “I see.”
???: [You have heard him, People of Shudraq. This is the wish of your new comrade. He must have validated it by making a gamble with his own life. What he desires… If you have seen his act, then…!]
????: [Say no more. ――We have dignity, as well as courage.]
His body grew limp as it lost its strength, and his consciousness started fading into the distance.
The voice that had previously attempted to keep him awake by force did not try a second time. Slowly, gradually, and bit by bit, his consciousness faded――,
???: [――You have fulfilled your duty. Leave the woman to us.]
At the very end, although he did not understand the meaning, he heard a trustworthy voice. He felt like he had heard it.
He felt like he had heard it.