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――Space distorted, the world broke, and they fell straight into the rift in reality that resulted.
As if it was made of fragile thin paper, the world was easily torn apart.
Swallowed by the distorted space, Subaru’s eardrums heard no sound, a stark contrast to the magnificent visuals around him.
He only heard a voice screaming, as if someone were calling him.
Even that voice faded away as well, and before long, he could not hear it.
The feeling of someone holding his chest also disappeared, and the fingers pulling onto him detached, drifting away from him.
With no one around, abandoned in this empty place, it seemed like he had become completely alone.
While being tormented by such loneliness and sadness, Subaru’s consciousness began slowly emerging.
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???: “――How long are you going to sleep? Get up, lazy Barusu.”
Feeling something sharp poking at his side, Subaru got up screaming in pain at the shock.
Having jumped up reflexively, the sand clinging onto his body fell to the ground. Coughing, he spat out dirt which had gotten into his mouth.
Subaru: “Ahk! Thu! Pthu! Huh! What? What happened??”
Rubbing his eyes, he checked his surroundings as he rose to his feet. With shaky knees and a poor foothold, he got up comically. Beneath his feet, a sea of fine grains of sand yet remained.
As his consciousness returned, Subaru could determine that this was an extension of the Augria Sand Dunes. However, the view around him was not clear. Because it was dark, far too dark.
Amidst a darkness where gazing at his own hands was not possible, Subaru’s eyes caught the presence of a small artificial light.
???: “You can sleep so well in such an emergency, it is amazing. No words.”
A stern voice hit him, and the owner of the light snorted.
That which emitted the light was a type of magic stone, processed Lagmite ore had been fashioned into a tool like a lantern. Looking at the face illuminated by the light, Subaru raised his eyebrows.
Subaru: “――Ram, is that you?”
Ram: “Who else can you see? Rem? I did not expect such a lame answer.”
Subaru: “…You and Rem look alike, but it oozes from that inside that you’re not her.”
In response to Ram, who seemed harsher than usual, Subaru gives a bitter reply. Receiving the lantern from her, he looked around the area, illuminating it.
Subaru: “This place, where is it? What happened?”
Ram: “Ram also wants to know the whereabouts of this place. As for what happened, it is three times worse than what Barusu can imagine.”
Subaru: “Does that mean you expect me to be an optimist? Do you look down on pessimists?”
Ram: “In this case, I wonder which is better.”
That reply was probably accompanied by a shrug.
Even with her right next to him, it was hard to tell Ram’s appearance in the darkness, as the space illuminated by the light was awfully large. It seemed that they were in some sort of hollow space.
There was a slightly tall ceiling overhead, joined with walls that indicated the extent of its depth.
Subaru: “Can’t feel any air flow, can’t see the sky. You mean we were sent somewhere…?”
Ram: “If Beatrice-sama’s words before we were separated are true, the space distortion is the cause.”
Subaru: “Separated… That’s right, separated! Where are the others!?”
While listening to Ram’s disinterested and emotionless demeanor, his understanding caught up with reality.
Subaru moved the light from right to left, seeking figures other than Ram’s in their surroundings. However, as he searched the illuminated space, the light was not reflected by the silhouettes he so desperately wanted to see.
Ram: “As you can see, we were separated. Barusu’s magic nullified the Watchtower’s deception… The result is not clear, but maybe instead of going into the right path, we were trapped in a distorted space-time where we will wander forever.”
Subaru: “What are you saying!? Why are you so calm? This combination of us two… it’s totally random!?”
With Ram’s calm explanation, Subaru’s face turned pale and so he raised his voice.
Beatrice’s cries, space breaking apart right before his eyes; he was instantly reminded of it. The rift had swallowed the entire party consisting of Subaru and the others, and dragged them into another space.
At that time, Subaru and Ram were both travelling along, but they should have been in different groups. Subaru was riding Patrasche, and Ram was in the dragon carriage.
Ram: “It seems that this separation did not take into account who was in contact with who, to determine who accompanies who. At the moment we entered the rift, Ram should have been hugging Rem… But it turned out like this.”
Subaru: “I was also supposed to be clinging to Beako. And yet I can’t find her… I can’t see her… No way, there’s only Ram here with me? What kind of grouping is this.”
If the condition of that separation was not contact, then was there any other reason?
Their group was composed of eight people. There was no particular common feature that only Subaru and Ram shared. Again, was the grouping completely random?
Subaru: “No, I’ll postpone guessing the conditions for now! More than that, we have to hurry and join up with everyone… No! There’s something even more important! Rem!”
Subaru: “You and I are two, so it’s still good. If any of the others who were separated are with someone else, there’s still hope. But if there’s someone who’s alone, and if that’s Rem… That’s awful.”
Emilia and Julius, the only two people responsible for making up the fighting power in this party, were of no concern. Meili and Beatrice could also manage to get by alone with their respective abilities. As for Anastasia or rather Eridna, probably there was her trump card that had been used to fight back against Lust.
Although less honorable than other ones, Subaru and Ram’s combination was still manageable.
――But, Rem was a different story.
Unlike the others, Rem was unable to perform any independent actions by herself.
Even if someone was alongside her, protecting the perpetually sleeping girl would turn any kind of undertaking into a next-to-impossible task. And the worst of all, if Rem were to be completely isolated from the others, then Death would be the only thing awaiting her in this lonely sand sea.
Subaru: “It’s important for us to meet up with everyone else, but the top priority is securing Rem! I can’t leave her in such a lonely place. That’s the one thing that’s absolutely… Absolutely not good. It absolutely cannot…!”
Subaru: “Because I said I’d bring you here… I thought that you might be able to wake up if you meet the Sage, so I did that. It’s useless. Absolutely, shit, just Rem…!”
Ram: “Barusu, calm down. Even I will lose it now…”
Subaru: “Why are you telling me to calm down? Are not you worried because Rem is missing from your memories!?”
Ram: “――Hk! There is no such thing!”
Imagining the worst possibility, Subaru started mumbling desperately about the future, and enumerating his regrets. Hearing Subaru speak, Ram could not stand it and exploded.
She grabbed the confused Subaru by his collar and pressed him hard against the sand wall behind him.
Ram: “Do you think you are the only one who cares about Rem? Do not push it too far, Barusu. Even without my true feelings, Ram is still Rem’s older sister. Do not make a fool of me.”
Ram: “…I can still slightly feel my connection with her, so at least for now she is safe. That much is certain, so settle down for the time being.”
It was not as if that face expressed any emotion. However, seeing the unbearable unease and distress in her eyes as she tried to appear calm, Subaru loosened the tension in his shoulders. Seeing that, Ram also moved her hands. Released from being pushed on the wall, Subaru looked down in shame.
Subaru: “…My bad. I’m sorry. Really, I was the worst idiot right now.”
Ram: “That’s just as usual. If Barusu starts reflecting on his life, it’ll take a whole day. Stop wasting our time.”
Subaru: “…Uh, my bad.”
Experiencing Ram’s sharp tongue and emotional testimony, Subaru finally let out a single apology. Then he slapped his cheeks with all his strength, regaining his fighting spirit.
Although Ram had assured him that Rem was safe, the fear of her being alone could not be dispelled. Their situation would not change if they did not reunite with the others soon.
Subaru: “Anyway, let’s rush this reunion. Ram, can’t you use your connection with Rem to work out her location?”
Ram: “It’s difficult. That girl is asleep, so the only thing transmitted is her heartbeat. There is another means, Clairvoyance, but… that’s not too reliable.”
Ram: “These Sand Dunes, it’s full of Witchbeasts, and there are almost no ordinary animals or plants around. Clairvoyance is not able to borrow their sights if their wavelength does not match with Ram’s. It does not synchronize with the Witchbeasts. At this time, Ram is only able to borrow the eyes from Barusu’s ground dragon.”
Subaru: “Patrasche? No, that should be enough. I want to check if Patrasche and Gian are with someone. It’d be helpful if they were with everyone from the dragon carriage.”
Ram: “…That would not be very useful.”
Subaru felt frustrated at Ram’s disinterested attitude, tilting his head in thought. Now was the time to collect as much information as they could to get reunited again.
And yet, he was unable to understand why Ram was hesitating here.
However, before he could touch on what she had truly meant, the answer appeared in front of them both.
What had suddenly passed by in the corner of his eyes, was a light. A light different from the lantern he was holding.
Immediately shivers ran through Subaru’s body, as he had had a bad experience with light moving through the edge of his sight, but the light that appeared was shaken by a gentle movement, totally different from that.
The light gradually came closer, and slowly the figure became clearer,
???: “Ram-san and Natsuki-kun, it seems that yer discussion’s over?”
Subaru: “――Anastasia and Patrasche?”
Hearing the familiar Kararagi dialect, Subaru’s head slightly lifted in surprise. In front of him, holding a lantern apart from the one held by Subaru, and riding Patrasche’s back, was Anastasia.
In response to Anastasia’s question, Ram bowed while lifting the hem of her robe on the spot.
Ram: “Thank you for your consideration, Anastasia-sama. May I ask, how are the surroundings?”
Anastasia: “I just checked all the way back, but I couldn’t find anyone else. Only the three of us are out here… ‘n this sort-of-girl.”
Ram: “Is that so?”
Anastasia: “Gotta keep yer spirits up. Might not be much comfort, tho’.”
Ram: “Thank you for your concern. Oh, I see…. I shall do so.”
To Anastasia on top of the dragon, Ram responded politely. From the course of the conversation, Subaru vaguely understood that Anastasia had been searching around.
But that was the extent of his satisfaction, for the lack of explanation left him displeased.
Subaru: “Hey, Ram. Weren’t you and I the only ones here? What does this mean, can you explain?”
Ram: “I do not remember telling you that Ram and Barusu were alone. Barusu was the one who made that rash judgment of his own accord. Unsightly.”
Subaru: “It’d be much more endearing if you said you were so worried about Rem you failed to mention it, nee-sama.”
Hearing Subaru, Ram snorted her nose with her usual tone.
Feeling relieved with that attitude, Subaru then walked towards Anastasia.
Subaru: “Regardless of any deception, it’s good news that Anastasia is safe. I’m relieved.”
Anastasia: “Aren’t’cha confusin’ this deception of yers with a misunderstandin’? I’d be relieved to learn that I’m not alone. Besides, Natsuki-kun’s ground dragon, Patrasche-chan, was very helpful, a very good girl.”
Stepping on the saddle, Anastasia carefully attempted to get off Patrasche. And Patrasche immediately crouched down to help her descent.
As expected, she was a proper ground dragon. A handsome ground dragon. A female, however.
Subaru: “No one else is hiding, right? It’s genuinely just the four of us?”
Anastasia: “Includin’ Patrasche-chan, there’s no doubt that it’s the four of us. Emilia-san and Julius’d have no reason not to come forth… but, I don’t know about Meili-chan.”
Subaru: “She might’ve taken advantage of the commotion to run away, huh… You don’t have to say it.”
Picturing the girl with braided hair in his mind, Subaru thought about Meili’s options.
Just before being separated, Meili’s secret insurance in having a Witchbeast accompanying them had been exposed by Subaru. Subaru, who had Returned by Death, actually knew that Meili’s Witchbeast served to protect the dragon carriage, both from the Watchtower and flocks of attacking Courtesan Bears.
However, since that was an event that had not occurred in this loop, essentially, the only one who knew Meili’s reason for having the Sand Earthworm follow them was the girl herself.
In this particular situation, having Meili escape the group and try to leave the Sand Dunes alone would not be strange.
Subaru: “But, she won’t do that… that’s what I want to believe.”
Anastasia: “Expectations? Or should it be trust?”
Subaru: “Make what you will of it. Leaving that aside, how are the surroundings?”
Setting aside his stance on Meili, Subaru asked Anastasia to be briefed on her inspection. She put her hands in the sleeves of the robe and tilted her head, saying, “’Bout that, huh.”
Anastasia: “Judgin’ from what I saw, we’re certainly in the Sand Dunes, but… Mayhaps this place could be underground.”
Subaru: “Underground? How could there be an underground in the Sand Dunes?”
Anastasia: “Under the sand of the dunes. A cave… More of a cavity, so to speak, but the temperature’s obviously lower than above ground, and the air’s also feelin’ kinda heavy.”
Subaru nodded as the girl swung her robe in an appealing gesture, joining the front parts to keep out the cold.
Certainly, the atmosphere here felt far colder than in the earlier setting. Considering the space had a tall ceiling with the sky left unseen, it was a suitable guess.
Subaru: “Underneath the dunes. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I pray that this isn’t a Sand Earthworm’s lair.”
Anastasia: “Uh… That’s…”
It was a plausible scenario.
In fact, they had witnessed the existence of Sand Earthworms inhabiting the ground, and given the enormity of the individual used by Meili, this cavity was just large enough for it to be possible. Considering the ecology of the eyeless Sand Earthworms, this dark space devoid of any light would be a perfect match for them.
Subaru: “I mean, this team seriously lacks combat power… Me, Ram and Anastasia, is this a special front of non-combatants!?”
Ram: “Emilia-sama’s own Knight, proudly describing himself as a non-combatant… How hopeless.”
Subaru: “I’m just stating the reality. Without Beatrice, I can’t be so conceited as to rely on my whip skills alone.”
In terms of everyone’s self-defense measures, this really was a group that lacked fighting power. Ram had restraints of her own, and Subaru lacked Beatrice, to name a few.
Ram: “By the way, what about Beatrice-sama? Do you feel any connection relating to your Contract?”
Subaru: “Unfortunately, my and Beako’s heart are strongly tied, but not in a realistic sense. No, Beatrice told me before that she could feel me, but I can’t.”
Subaru: “Shut up.”
As Ram sighed and looked away, Subaru discreetly zoomed his face closer to Anastasia. As he murmured towards her calm profile,
Subaru: “So, can you fight? What do you say?”
“Anastasia”: “――If it comes to it, of course I will fight no matter what. But it will shorten Ana’s life. I would prefer avoiding it as much as possible. I will be relying on you guys.”
Subaru: “Those expectations probably won’t be met. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad.”
For a moment, Subaru snorted at Anastasia, who appeared as Echidna.
Then, looking at Patrasche, who quietly waited for instructions, Subaru stroked the tip of her nose with his palm. The jet-black dragon kept silent and, leaning forward, nuzzled Subaru with her hard scales.
Subaru: “It hurts, it hurts, but… it’s a relief. Emilia and Beatrice aren’t here… but I’m relieved to have you. Except, it still doesn’t make a complete group reunion.”
As he was sharing his anxieties with Patrasche, as Ram was beckoning him, he looked back at her. Then, Ram crossed her arms while facing Subaru and jerked her chin towards Anastasia.
Ram: “We cannot stand here forever. Let’s move to meet up with the others. Fortunately, thanks to Anastasia, we have light. We will be moving onwards.”
Subaru: “Ohh… I didn’t know that the light was brought by Anastasia.”
Anastasia: “Just before the dragon carriage was swallowed, I could only grab the emergency bag that was prepared by Natsuki-kun. Thanks to you, I was able to bring in the light, a knife, and some emergency food.”
Anastasia pointed at Patrasche, where a small emergency bag was hanging on the saddle. It was the equipment that Subaru had prepared for the dragon carriage as a literal emergency kit.
Even if an opportunity did not occur in which its use was necessary, he felt relieved that he had thought of it.
Subaru: “You shouldn’t make fun of the wit I have in hand, after all. From now on, let’s not forget to check the emergency door at any place we stay in for the first time.”
Ram: “Jokes aside, it is Barusu’s credit. So, a light will be given to you as a reward, so go ahead and lead the way.”
Subaru: “Huuuh~… This is a reward?”
Passing him the lantern, both Ram and Anastasia got on Patrasche’s back. This scene, regardless of how anyone saw it, put Subaru in the position of a servant.
Anastasia: “As a matter of fact, three people’d easily fit… There’d be plenty of room if Ram-san and I cramp in, wouldn’t it?”
Ram: “Please stop there, Anastasia-sama. You can imagine Barusu would happily try to touch our bodies were he to be so close to them as to be able to touch them.”
Subaru: “Off you go imagining stuff without a reason to, but if you want to be like that, I’ll imagine a lot more than that! Don’t mess with me! I’ll give you a taste of puberty!”
Raising his middle finger, he argued back, prompting a wry smile from Anastasia. Ram reacted as usual, as Subaru continued walking into the cave with a lantern in his hand.
Subaru and Ram’s light skirmish made it seem like they had forgotten the circumstances―― but it surely was a way to hide the anxiety in each respective heart, and brought just a bit of relief to their minds.
Perhaps they had both realized it, but they kept quiet.
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Although walking was a struggle, Subaru and the others were advancing through the large cave in the sand.
As expected, Patrasche was used to it, and there would not be any problem with her movement even if two heavy stones were to be put upon her back. Subaru had learned the technique for walking in the desert these past few days, and was able to proceed without much difficulty. Albeit there was the feeling of sand entering his boots.
Subaru: “The wind… I can kinda feel it, and also can’t.”
Ram: “I feel it. But given how thin this wind is, it’s still a long way from being connected to above ground.”
Along the way, wetting his finger on his tongue, Subaru tried to examine the airflow, but it was not quite clear. On the other hand, with the wind-sensitive Ram feeling it out, she concluded that the exit was still far ahead.
The way to this exit was what he wanted to give priority to, looking to meet up with his companions. Unfortunately, though, there was no indication that the signs of wind would be very reliable.
Ram: “Emilia-sama and Julius-sama should not get lost due to the guidance of the Micro Spirits. And that is why I doubt that there is a malicious intent in the selection of this grouping.”
Subaru: “Well, it’s quite useful to be guided by a Micro Spirit. Damn, in my case, Beako’s so strong that she keeps the Micro Spirits away. She’s far beyond their capacity.”
To be clear, this was something beyond Emilia and Julius’s exceptional fighting power.
When setting out to look for a lost member, the search may not go as smoothly if they are left to do whatever they feel. They could only try not to overlook anything around them as much as possible while proceeding.
Anastasia: “Before Natsuki-kun woke up, Ram-san… seemed considerably shaken. She could not find Rem-san, but seems to be hiding it behind her attitude now.”
Subaru: “…Is that so.”
Secretly, Anastasia shared this anecdote, which made his fight with Ram after waking up feeling more and more awkward.
Subaru had spent the past year alongside Ram, after she had the memories of her sister completely erased. Any connection those two previously had must have left behind some remains after being wiped. If no one else, Subaru at least had to believe so.
“Anastasia”: “Well, it is not fun seeing you huddled up all gloomy and miserable like that, so why not look ahead if you are so down about it? If you do not, you might miss something important.”
Subaru: “…Don’t throw me off like that. You, stop giving me those nice words. You’re taking after your creator, enticing people like that.”
“Anastasia”: “Sooner or later, I wish you would start thinking of me separately from my creator. Girls will not like you if you are so insistent. This is something I have picked up with time.”
Subaru: “I don’t know any other approach. I’ll keep it in a corner of my mind.”
The tongue-in-cheek talkative exchange seemed to distract from the impatience and anxiety of not making any progress.
In the midst of that conversation, the party advanced through the large cave. Nothing really changed about the sand path and the sand walls―― while walking along that path, there were a few things to think about. That was,
Subaru: “Even though I said to be wary that this might be a Witchbeast nest… We have yet to run into a Witchbeast.”
Ram: “That is what Ram is concerned about.”
Kicking the sand under his feet, Subaru grumbled at Ram as she expressed a similar opinion.
They continued into the large cave, and soon an hour had already passed. With no one and nothing around, their anxiety, impatience and bad premonitions continued to grow.
Of course, not having enemies show up was a welcome situation, but the extensive silence could not be of any help in wiping out the bad feelings regarding this place―― It was much like being detached from the whole world.
Subaru: “No way, we couldn’t have been swallowed by a hyperspace that does not connect to anywhere, right?”
Anastasia: “Well then, would’cha tell me where the wind we’re relying on’s comin’ from? Do ya think it’s the heavy breathing of an unusually big and ferocious Witchbeast who owns this cave?”
Subaru: “That’s not even funny, it’s rather scary.”
In fact, it would not be surprising if that happened. They had already seen it with their own eyes that even the world could be broken apart. Whatever this rift was connected to, it would not be worth a surprise.
Ram: “Regardless of the maliciousness of this selection, it is hard to believe that whoever set it up had considered it could be broken. We were not aiming for such a thing with the negation spell, it was just a coincidence.”
Subaru: “What do you mean, precisely?”
Ram: “It is useless to imagine the worst scenario that this road, as it is, is connected to a Witchbeast’s stomach―― Look, observe.”
The lack of progress was leading to pessimistic theories, which Ram rationally rejected. Then, at the end of the explanation, she urged Subaru to look ahead, him having stopped.
Following her indication, Subaru held out the lantern to look forward. Then, the illuminated passage of the cavity became narrow, in front of their eyes――
Subaru: “It’s a fork.”
Anastasia: “Right or left, we gotta make a choice. What do we do?”
Subaru: “From what I know, Kurapika said to choose right when the time called for it.” 
Anastasia: “Who’s that?”
Looking at it in practical terms, he remembered hearing that people tended to unconsciously choose to proceed left when they got lost. Perhaps it had to do with dominance, such as the dominant hand, dominant leg, and other complicated factors like those; that was said to be one way of thinking about it.
For that reason, Subaru wanted to follow the theory of an intellectual character he once knew and chose the right path which he thought was correct, but――
Ram: “So, Barusu, which way do you want to go?”
Subaru: “…Honestly speaking, left.”
Ram: “What happened to Kurapika?”
Anastasia: “Who’s that?”
Subaru replied, Ram asked question after question, and Anastasia just poked fun.
If the words were taken at face value, then the exchange could be interpreted as such.
――But in reality, the three people who exchanged words had a stiff expression and worrisome looks on their faces. On top of that, even Patrasche, unable to speak, was staring at the right path with stern eyes.
The cause was the overwhelming negativity they were feeling from the right path. Abstractly speaking, they felt a detestable premonition. If more words were to be used, what they felt was more like dread.
Their instincts were ringing the alarm bell. Selecting the right path, would be deadly.
Subaru: “The right… I think it’s dangerous. I have a feeling it’s not going to be pleasant.”
Ram: “Surprisingly, I agree with Barusu. What you think Anastasia-sama?”
Anastasia: “If done the Kararagi way, majority wins, by the support of two votes… Besides, I’m honestly lackin’ the courage to choose the right side.”
As no sleeves would swing, Anastasia made the gesture of swinging both hands as the answer for everyone.
Subaru was not the only one. Ram and Anastasia both felt a strange sensation from the right path; Patrasche did as well. Therefore, the right road could not be chosen.
Subaru: “Then, left it is… that also feels like choosing a terrible option though.”
Ram: “So, turning back? There is nothing to gain in such a manner.”
Subaru: “There’s nothing to lose, that’s what you’re saying, I might just be overly negative.”
As Subaru failed to make a decision, Ram and Anastasia seemed ready to jump in.
Reluctantly shrugging his shoulders, Subaru stepped forth, walking in front of Patrasche. Straight towards the road on the left.
Despite his hesitation, by proceeding in that direction, the path on the right would deviate greatly from the large cavity. He found that the pressure that he felt through the walls of sand kept disappearing further and further, and the stiffness in his shoulders was naturally released.
Ram: “――What an unpleasant place.”
She felt the same thing, and as he heard Ram murmuring, Subaru agreed in silence.
At this crossroads, the right path caused overwhelming negative thoughts. They chose the left road out of something like instinct to avoid the other, but there was one more reason.
――Inside his chest, Subaru felt the presence of something shouting in joy towards the right path.
It would be dreadful to obey what it declared.
It was also undeniably a major factor as to why Subaru did not opt for that road.
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Team Non-Combatant traipsed through the cave, and a few more hours passed after that fork.
As they slowly advanced their search in the great cavern, the number of words spoken between the three dropped drastically.
With their fatigue, and not to mention the darkness, any sense of time was fuzzy, but what was truly wearing down their spirit along the walk was silence.
In fact, Subaru felt like several hours had passed, but he did not know if that was true. There was the possibility that they had utilized the time better than they thought, or even that they had completely squandered it.
What they knew for sure, was that there was no progress, no more than that.
Subaru: “…At that split, I wonder if we should have gone right.”
Ram: “After that much silence, you can only think to complain? Stop it. It’s shameful.”
Murmuring, he moved his dry lips to complain, and Ram bitterly delivered a stab.
However, her poison also lacked ambition. Not being able to find anything, it caused her to also be slightly dominated by anxiety.
Although the foothold along that path of sand was shoddy, there was some confidence that they had already walked for a few kilometers. So with no end to the cave in sight, it could not be helped that they would be swept over by a bad feeling. It was natural that one would doubt that the wrong choice had been made.
Even more, if they reached a dead end, they would give up and turn back.
Subaru: “The barrage of lights above ground… What do you think it was?”
Subaru changed the direction of the topic, for fear that the negative conversation would continue as it was.
The topic that turned up was the light of the Watchtower that had triggered this situation in the first place―― the defense mechanism of the dunes, which was believed to have been prepared by the Sage.
Ram: “It was a needle.”
Subaru: “A needle?”
To that question, Ram responded curtly. She spilled a sigh at Subaru’s follow-up question and gently stroked her pink hair,
Ram: “I do not know its principle in detail, but long and narrow needles enchanted with magic were being fired. The needles carried high heat, probably the effect of firing magic. But the needle itself seemed to be of special manufacture. As it was repelled and fell on the sand, it disintegrated and disappeared.”
Subaru: “…You got such a good glance at it, during all that uproar.”
Ram: “A quick glance would tell you that much.”
Without a doubt, it seemed Ram’s observation power was not as ordinary as she claimed it to be. In fact, with Subaru just staring at her, Anastasia shook her head in amazement.
In Ram’s case, she was aware of her own talents, but was still speaking sarcastically. Despite that, it was quite the analysis.
Subaru: “What do you think was the purpose?”
Ram: “Kill those approaching the Watchtower… it is a mystery why it relentlessly aimed at Barusu. It’s standard practice to take down the weaker enemies first, so that might be it.”
Subaru: “Crap, I can’t deny it!”
It would be only natural to arrive at the same conclusion when taking a bird’s-eye look at it. Nonetheless, thanks to that, there had been no casualties among those of the party.
The conclusion to be reached here, was that it was good to have a weak Subaru donning invincible magic. But in that case――
Subaru: “It means, a friendly encounter with the Sage would be difficult.”
Anastasia: “I think it’s premature to say so. Lookin’ at it from their point of view, they didn’t know who we were nor what we wanted, right? There’s a chance for a discussion to occur, it’s what I think.”
Ram: “At worst, our business is with the Sage’s knowledge, and not their personality. If they do not speak, you can just tie them up and make them taste an adequate level of pain until they do.”
Subaru: “Nee-sama, was that your villainous side talking!?”
Ram: “If there is something you want, take measures. This is not mere child’s play.”
Ram remained strangely calm in the face of Subaru’s astonishment. Just hearing those statements, he felt he was being reminded of how innocent and shallow his own resolutions were.
Regardless of whether it was actually put into practice, there was no doubt that Ram was prepared for it. That was naught but proof that she was serious about Rem.
To touch Ram’s resolve, Subaru would be required to make some decisions regarding his own resolutions.
He had not thought of getting his hands dirty for Rem. Rem was not to be blamed for that either.
What he had to do was to be prepared to reap the results.
When confronted with the existence of the Sage, no matter what kind of opponent that is, he must be absolutely determined―― He must be resolved to that degree.
At the same time Subaru bit his lips with those thoughts, Patrasche held her breath.
The ground dragon was glaring at the path with squinted eyes and neighed a little. Having noticed that stare, Subaru also stopped his feet and returned to soothe the ground dragon. He stroked the back of her neck and called out, “What’s wrong?”.
Subaru: “Did you see something? What…”
Ram: “――The reason would be this.”
On Patrasche’s behalf spoke Ram, interrupting Subaru. Anastasia frowned and looked at the passage, imitating Patrasche.
Of course, nothing could be seen anything within the extent of that darkness, but a different feeling was being stimulated rather than sight―― Seeping into their nasal orifices was a smell of something burning.
Anastasia: “…Don’t’cha think it smells like fire?”
Ram: “I cannot think of anything else. But I do not think something like a kitchen could possibly be here.”
Subaru: “If this is fire… The reason for this smell is civilized people, right?”
Ram & Anastasia: “――――”
At Subaru’s clinging question, neither Ram nor Anastasia could just easily nod.
He could also understand the girls’ judgment. But the smell that was drifting was clearly a scent of something supposedly burning. Ram said it was something like cooking; the aroma wafting through the air was similar enough.
A bonfire, or a stew for a meal. If that was the case,
Subaru: “Do you think there’s a possibility of that being Emilia and the others?”
Anastasia: “Assumin’ they were sent to the same place, there’s enough possibility. Nevertheless, whether it’s rational or unwise to use fire in such situation, I’d leave that judgement up to the others.”
Even if discussed here, the answer regarding who aid ahead of the road would not arrive.
The idea of beckoning and checking the intents of the other party came to mind, but――
Anastasia: “Even if they’re at the end of the path it doesn’t mean they’re friendly.”
Supposing it was not Emilia and the others, could it be the Sage? It was hard to believe that the Sage who should be in the Watchtower would come down, but it was not unlikely.
In that case, if the Sage continued to be hostile, a corresponding assault was also to be expected.
Subaru: “…Hide the light and move forward? What I mean is, if they’re using fire then there’s light on their side. We, at least, should hide.”
Anastasia: “It’s strange to keep speculatin’ about it. We also gotta check what’s the cause, so I think it’s a reasonable idea.”
Anastasia nodded to Subaru’s proposal, and after that, Ram also quietly agreed with it.
When the lights of the two lanterns were turned off, the party went back to the path where the smell of fire was drifting from, relying only on Subaru’s light.
Ram: “If anything happens to you, we will leave you here and run away. Try not to hold a grudge.”
Subaru: “If you do that I’ll curse you.”
Ram’s words were those of encouragement, perhaps because she knew he would be fearful.
In the light held by Subaru, Ram slightly loosened her lips, and Subaru went straight through the passage. Feeling Patrasche’s breath behind him, the scent of the fire gradually grew more intense,
Subaru: “――! It’s the light.”
Beyond the passage, he found a slightly shimmering red light.
Subaru immediately darkened his own light and instructed the three behind him to be silent. Then he squatted down and stepped on the sand stealthily to confirm the existence of the light.
One step, two steps―― as he moved forward, he could see that the light was on the other side of a corner. The passage was slightly bent to the left, and the fire was just beyond there.
Quietly reaching the bend, he took a peek of the other side ever so slightly while leaning against the wall. At that moment, a wind carrying a slight heat tickled Subaru’s forehead and he unintentionally closed his eyes.
――Immediately after, Subaru’s footing dug into the soil unexpectedly, the sand slid, and his body rolled down.
Incapable of withstanding that surprise, Subaru forgot to hold on and rolled down the slope. The fine particles of sand were hard to grab on to, and so he slid all the way down to the bottom.
Plunging head-first into a pile of sand after rolling down a steep incline of about ten meters of height, Subaru again spat out sand and raised his body.
Subaru: “Ugh! Thu! Again sand… No, that then…”
Subaru shook his head and looked around. With the shock, he had dropped his lantern. As it was nearby, he started searching for it, stretching his hand, and he touched something hard.
For an instant, he thought he had found the lantern, but it felt different compared to the hardness what he had held. The surface was crisp and pleasant to touch, like a wooden stick. Despite its thickness and length, he judged it light when lifting it up.
Subaru: “What is it…?”
In that pitch-black darkness, even getting closer to it and straining his eyes would not relay to him its identity.
Smelling it timidly, the smell of charcoal was felt――
The very next moment after he thought that, a light appeared behind him suddenly.
The wisps that appeared in the background were red, shimmering and primitive, and they were called flames. Then, as the flames began to light up the world, Subaru saw the true identity of the thing he had grabbed.
――Probably, it was a creature’s foot.
Something that had once been an animal, burned until it turned into charred remains.
And around the place where Subaru was sitting, the remnants of former creatures that had become lumps of charcoal were scattered; Subaru had slipped right into the middle of countless, burned, dead bodies.
Subaru: “Ohh! Ah! AHH!?”
Throwing away the charred waste in his hand, Subaru aimed to retreat. However, a terrible flame existed at his rear, and his neck was burned by the heat wave, and this time, he fell down just on his face. And finally, he turned back and looked at it directly.
Subaru was thrown out of reality, facing a tremendous roar from his front.
Why were all the Witchbeasts’ roars so disgusting as to irritate human beings to the limit of their disgust?
With such a high-pitched roar, it was like countless babies were crying all at once.
It was a blasphemous creature that Subaru had never seen, it burned red in a place full of burned bodies―― it truly was a Witchbeast, but the color of its fur was different from what he had seen in the past.
As far as Subaru knew, all the Witchbeasts were distorted and ugly, but they were often in a form such that they bore a resemblance to an existing creature somehow.
That applied all the same for the White Whale or the Great Rabbit. For all cases, there was a basic foundation of an animal.
However, this time, he did not wish to apply the same concept to the Witchbeast that existed in front of him.
The Witchbeast, once again, cried out. At first glance, some similarities could be found with a horse.
Thin, but strong legs of a quadruped, that existed to charge over the earth. It was the same as a horse, in that it possessed a trunk supported by its four legs and a long tail swaying from its rear.
However, there was a human torso in the part where the horse’s neck should normally be, leading to the head. Compounding on the four legs, the human torso possessed two further arms. And there was no head above the neck of the human torso. As from the neck to the top, a Horn protruded.
It was the mark of a Witchbeast, a mark that branded it as something decisively different from other animals.
In place of its head, a horn grew. It possessed a head not. But if that were the case, where was the mouth from which its cry was raised? From the chest till the belly of the human torso, was a vertical gash, and inside the oral cavity, were fully-grown fangs aligned horizontally, asserting their existence.
Subaru: “…A monster.”
Even calling it a Witchbeast was somewhat absurd; rather it was a blasphemy of life.
To Subaru’s knowledge, it was close to a creature of fantasy called Centaur, half-man and half-horse, but that was a distorted figure, as if its production had been abandoned half-way.
From the back side of the human torso of the Centaur grew a mane of flame torso searing the sand cave with incredible power, red light urging forth.
Considering the strength of that blaze, who had created all the charred carcasses that lay around the place became clear. Using fire meant civilized people or whatever; it had been a mistake to embrace such expectations.
The arms of the human part of the Centaur were that of a human, with five fingers.
The legs of the horse part of the Centaur were that of a horse, with hoofs having been formed.
The figure was about six or seven meters long, just about the right size to pass through the cavern―― that was to say, the master of the cavern was this being in front of him――
Subaru: “…It was, a trap.”
Holding his breath, Subaru despaired.
There was nothing he could do. He quickly turned his hand to the back of his waist and grabbed the handle of the whip, but he did not believe he could do anything with it.
And to that breathless Subaru, the Centaur tilted his eyeless head. From its mouth was hurled a bellow, inciting fear.
At that moment, Subaru moved to create a gap.
He turned around on the sand, roughly kicked one of the charcoaled debris onto the Centaur. Having been cooked to a crisp on the inside, the corpses had no power to them, even if they connected. But still, it was good to be in control. Clinging to the steep slope, he attempted to return to the upper passage. He would go back the road he came, but he did not mind it. The problem was, how far this Centaur was going to give chase was unknown. Given that it burnt its prey in this manner, it was dubious whether it had an appetite. Of course, this was not necessarily a good thing, as he had heard that Witchbeasts possessed an instinct to hurt and murder human beings. Still, if there was a possibility that the situation to look up for a little bit, it would――
While thinking so much about it, Subaru noticed that his body was not trembling.
Trying and creating a diversion by kicking a piece of charred debris, and climbing the steep sand slope and turning back, and reaching out to his whip, Subaru could do none of this.
――Because before he could get to it, the breath of the Witchbeast burned Subaru.
As soon as the conception reached that his whole body was being burnt, Subaru screamed in pain and suffering. However, perhaps because his throat was being burnt, his lungs were having their oxygen burnt, not a bit of his voice could be raised.
Where the burned skin formed bubbles, they swelled and burst instantly. The fluids that had flown inside the body, which he had never seen before, instantly evaporated, his blood actually boiling.
Never mind rolling over on the ground in this suffering.
The muscles and fat had been burnt, melted and charcoaled. The pain disappeared to a place far away, and Subaru experienced an illusion of being drowned in flames.
Burned. Yes, burned. He had read somewhere about burns in-depth.
He had learned that there were several stages of burns, and that once the third stage was reached, the scars would remain, and a skin graft would be necessary. He also had learned that if thirty percent of a person’s body were burnt, breathing would be made difficult, leading to death.
Body hair burnt till the folicule, eardrum and brain matter alike melted and flowed out the earlobe. Lips and gums evaporated, exposing the teeth, and the tongue was gulped by the suffering of the heat wave. It did not matter. He had already drowned. These burns, could they be healed? Even though he was not confident regarding his face, if it got burnt, would they like him less? Emilia, Beatrice, Rem.
Burning, his field of vision was burning. Everything was burning, turning red, and going white. Blood was eradicated by the tremendous heat, the eyelids melted away, the fluids of the eyeballs evaporated, it turned white and cloudy, and nothing could be seen.
He had just heard something. He had heard someone calling. He had heard babies crying. Someone came down beside him. Idiot. Why had they? They had said they would run away. Why had they come down here? But, going down, what did that mean? Moreover, what was left or right?
A horse, a human. Different. Hot. It melted, it burned, sleepiness.
Melted and disappeared――
※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※ ※
???: “――How long are you going to sleep? Get up, lazy Barusu.”
Subaru: “Guah uh!?”
Subaru was pulled back to reality with a sharp poke, his limbs unable to move, and his scorched thoughts crumbled away.
Suddenly raising his body, Subaru wiped cold sweat from his sand-laden forehead.
Subaru: “Eh, oh… eh?”
Looking around. Dark, he was unable to see anything. There was something that evoked fear just a few seconds ago.
Ram: “…I am stunned. How can you be frightened from mere darkness? You are not a child.”
Cowering, this small Subaru’s eyes widened at the sound of that voice.
Her face illuminated by the lantern she herself carried, from Ram spilled a slight exhale. Then, she quietly knelt down on the spot, and stroked Subaru’s cheeks with her hand.
Ram: “What a pitiful face.”
Subaru: “…Has my face melted?”
Ram: “――Except in front of Emilia-sama, I have never seen such a pitiful sight.”
The heat of the palm touching the cheek was so warm, but it was not even close, compared to what Subaru had just experienced.
Thanks to that feeling, thanks to the sensation of flames and the warmth of another, Subaru understood.
Again, he had Returned by Death. And here was another save point, different from that of the two Deaths he had met in the Sand Dunes.
So it had been said, that to conquer the labyrinth of sand one had to put their very lives at stake.
――He felt like the cold sand flowing on the sand sea was silently ridiculing the scorched Subaru, watching.
 Hunter x Hunter reference.