Subaru: [...What is the “Lifeblood Ritual”?]
Abel: [It is a custom of the people of Shudrak. They place great value on pride and commitment, it cannot be ignored. They'll tell you more about it. More importantly.]
Abel stared at Subaru, only partly answering his question. The Shudrak girl had gone to deliver Abel's message to the Chief, Mizelda, leaving Subaru and Abel alone. This meant that the time available to talk was limited.
Abel: [Let's hear it. You told me that you were taken prisoner in a military camp outside the forest, right? How were you treated?]
Subaru: [...The wounds on my shoulder and back were their kind doing. Apart from that, they usually made me do chores.]
To be precise, menial tasks and assaults are two separate lapses in the story, but Subaru replied with that under Abel's intimidation. Hearing this, Abel narrowed his eyes and looked at Subaru's left hand.
Abel: [Hmm. Seeing that you didn't mention your fingers, I’m guessing that's another matter. So the woman you were chasing did this to you.]
Subaru: [Ugh..., what does that have to do with anything?]
Abel: [It's proof that you're a fool to be so attached to a woman who would break your fingers.]
That perception is not an appropriate way to describe the relationship between Subaru and Rem. But he doesn't have the time or the obligation to dwell on it and discuss the details at length. Abel, as well, quickly disengaged himself from the matter of Subaru's left hand.
Abel: [If you did chores, you've seen the inside of the camp. What is the approximate layout? Squeeze everything you can out of your head and pull it out of your memory.]
Subaru: [A few tents and the number of people in the camp is... Hey, why are you even asking me this?]
Abel: [Don't you understand? You should be able to realise. What you saw...]
Abel snorted at Subaru, who frowned as he was suddenly asked a series of questions. However, Abel could not answer Subaru's question. Because before he could, the sound of multiple footsteps came towards the cage once again. It was Mizelda and her group, being led by that girl...
Mizelda: [I heard from Utakata. She told me that you wish to undergo the “Lifeblood Ritual”.]
With her hand resting on the head of the girl clinging to her leg, the one she called Utakata, the red haired Mizelda thrust a serious gaze toward Subaru and Abel. The harsh look in her eyes had a ferocity that rivaled the supremacy that Subaru had been shown earlier when he had trampled over the womens’ pride as warriors.
Mizelda: [How in the world did you know about the “Lifeblood Ritual”? It's supposed to be a custom that's passed down only among the Shudrak.]
Abel: [Don't make me laugh, young Shudrak Chief. Do you really think that in today’s world, no one knows of your traditions? If there are more than one of you, secrets will leak. Give up your pipe dreams of an unbreakable unity.]
Abel: [Your precious “Lifeblood Ritual” is no exception. In fact, I know what kind of ritual it is, and I know what’s happened in it in the past.]
Mizelda's gaze became grim, and Abel's words grew more heated. It's not just Mizelda, but also the Shudraki around her who are becoming more and more uptight as a result of Abel’s words, and Subaru swallows a large gulp of saliva.
At the moment, Subaru is the only one who doesn't know what Abel is talking about regarding the "Lifeblood Ritual" and is being left behind by the conversation. However, it is certain that this is an important ritual for Mizelda and her people, and that Abel is not welcome to disrespect their traditions. So, in order to prevent further confusion, Subaru raises his voice.
Subaru: [Umm…! Sorry to interrupt all the excitement, but can you tell me about the “Lifeblood Ritual”? Maybe that's not irrelevant to me, right?]
Mizelda: [......Why do you think so?]
Subaru: [No, I was just threatened by a masked man over here. He was like, can you sacrifice everything? My answer was that there was no way I could.]
Subaru: [I'm the only one I can bet on. I think you're overestimating your influence a bit.]
Sacrificing everything is something that only the most powerful people are allowed to say. Unfortunately, Subaru and Abel, who were trapped here by the Shudraki and were helpless, would not be qualified to even make such a grandiose choice. So, the only stakes he could wager is what he has in his own hands. Currently, only Natsuki Subaru.
Subaru: [But Abel's right, I’d be in big trouble if I can’t get you guys to listen to me. I know it's a repeat of what I said earlier, but I'll say it again and again. If worst comes to worst, I need you to at least let me out so I can protect the ones I care about.]
Mizelda: [......I see. It seems that you are qualified to undergo the “Lifeblood Ritual".]
In response to Subaru's appeal, Mizelda muttered quietly. Subaru widened his eyes at her answer, and Abel cleared his throat slightly. However, there was one person who overreacted to hearing Mizelda's murmur. It was from the group surrounding Mizelda, a woman with blue hair who was standing in line next to her.
???: [Sister! Are you serious? You’re really going to take these men's stories seriously......]
Mizelda: [Indeed, I didn't take them seriously, Talitha. I just thought it would be a shame to throw them away.]
The woman called Talitha face fell at the words of Mizelda, who called her sister. It seems that those two truly are sisters, and if one would ask him, it is true that their faces, with their strikingly strong eyes, are indeed very similar. After dismissing her sister's words, Mizelda looked at Subaru again.
Mizelda: [You have heard about the “Lifeblood Ritual”. It is a ritual that has been passed down through the Shudrak since ancient times, to deem those worthy of our clan. You could call it a coming of age ritual.]
Subaru: [Coming of age...... Oh, so that's what it is. But we're not .......]
Abel: [We are not people of Shudrak. You don’t need to say it.. Don't waste our time with nonsense. What is important is the true nature of the ritual.]
Abel was taken aback by Subaru's confusion when he learned that the ritual was treated as a coming of age ceremony by the Shudrak. His cheeks tugged at the way he said it, but Subaru understood what he meant. The essence of a coming of age ceremony is to recognize the challenger as a full-fledged member of the tribe. In other words, the essence of the “Lifeblood Ritual” is...
Subaru: [It's a rite of passage, to get the people of Shudrak to view you as an equal.....]
Affirming Subaru's thoughts, Abel crosses his arms and looks at Mizelda. Then, catching his gaze, Mizelda also pulled her chin back and said,
Mizelda: [If you're going to challenge the “Lifeblood Ritual,” we will prepare you.]
Abel: [What if we withdraw? Are you saying you're going to let us go now? Unfortunately, I don't have the worldly mind to expect such a convenient story. Neither I, nor Natsuki Subaru.]
While both parties were getting riled up, Subaru was surprised to get caught up with the aggressor, but Abel didn't even care. Struggling to keep up with the pace of the conversation.
Mizelda: [What will you do?]
Mizelda asks Subaru, to which he responds with....
Subaru: [What do we do? I'll do it....... If there's no other way, I'll take the ritual and have you listen to me. But it’ll be a problem if it takes several days..]
Mizelda: [That's true. We don't want that either. Then......]
Talitha: [Sister, then, would you prefer the Elgina?]
Subaru was ready to undergo the ritual, and Talitha offered a suggestion to Mizelda, who was thinking about the proposal. Mizelda nodded deeply at her sister's suggestion.
Mizelda: [That's good. When the “Lifeblood Ritual” is performed, the greatest difficulty will be chosen.]
Subaru: [The greatest difficulty ......is that?]
Mizelda: [...The Elgina.]
When Subaru gulps, Mizelda says that word again. Upon hearing this, Utakata shrank her shoulders and started shaking, while at the same time the women of Shudrak also became somewhat tense. The reaction of these women, who were proud to be warriors, was more than enough to provoke Subaru's anxiety. However...
Abel: [There's no turning back for you or I. Are you ready for this?]
Subaru: [Look at you, going on talking as you please, you must be so proud. Just because I owe you one doesn't mean you can do whatever you want.....]
Subaru was indebted to Abel for giving him a knife, but all his modesty was blown away by this exchange. Of course, Subaru was also grateful for an opportunity to repay his debt and for the Shudrak women to listen to him.
Subaru: [As far as I know, the good guys don’t hide their faces!!]
Abel: [It was for a good reason. ...I know it's disrespectful, but I'm not going to deny it.]
In a story, if a person with a hidden face appears, they’re usually related to the main character. In this case, Subaru is the protagonist...
Subaru: [Abel is thinner than my father, and he has a different voice. More importantly, there was no way I would have mistaken him for my father.]
Abel: [......What kind of foolishness are you talking about?]
Subaru: [It ain't foolish, it’s about my dad. He is the most annoying and coolest man in the world.]
Perhaps it wasn't a very interesting topic, but the intensity of Abel's gaze dropped visibly. In fact, Subaru just tried to tell a useless story by likening it to the Star Wars movies of yesteryear because in them there was an empire that had a person who hid his face behind a mask. And while Subaru was thinking about such a useless idea, Mizelda instructed her compatriots around her.
Mizelda: [Abel and Natsuki Subaru, I will take you both to the Elgina. Prove to me that you can successfully complete the “Lifeblood Ritual”!]
With that, the cage was opened and both Subaru and Abel were let out.
△ ▼ △ ▼ △ ▼ △
After being taken out of the cage, Subaru and Abel were not blindfolded or restrained, but were made to walk outside the village, surrounded by the people of Shudrak.
The forest was dense and deep, it was like walking in the dark. Subaru had lost his footing many times, each time being saved by the Shudraki around him.
Subaru: [Oops, I'm sorry. You're supporting me again.....]
???: [Don't woorry. I'm very strong, so I'm totally fiiine.]
A woman with yellow hair caught Subaru when he almost fell down. She is a soft-spoken, soft-faced woman with a plump figure. She was a rare type in Shudrak, where most women are firm and muscular, but she was very friendly.
???: [Are your injuries okaaay?? I’m the one that patched you uuup...]
Subaru: [Oh, you did that for me? Yeah, I'm fine. It still hurts a little, well, a lot, but it’s better.]
???: [Hahaha, you're an honest maaan.]
Saying that with her calm, jolly attitude was comforting to Subaru. In fact, he should say that she saved his life in a double sense, since she was also treating his wounds. Subaru's heart naturally relaxed by such a generous and gentle woman. The only thing that bothered him greatly was that she was carrying a piece of meat attached to a bone in one hand.
???: [Hmm? Are you hungryyyy? Do you want some meaaaaaat?]
Subaru: [Oh, no, I'm fine. It's not that I'm not hungry, but if I eat, I won't be able to move.]
???: [Hahaha, that's truuue. And if you're full, you'll also suffer when you diiiie.]
She was everybit a Shudrak, even with her gentle appearance as she bit a piece of meat off the bone. In any case, the people of Shudrak, who were guiding Subaru and Abel in such a manner, did not show any kind of hostility towards them. Like Mizelda, when Subaru and Abel decided to undergo the "Lifeblood Ritual," it seemed that they had not been affected by the initial failure of Subaru’s negotiations.
In other words, regardless of the outcome of the ritual, they had succeeded in recovering from their first impressions. If this was the case, even if the results of the ritual were not good, they might be able to come to the negotiation table again.
Abel: [...So, you look like you're thinking of something convenient.]
Subaru: [......Don't read into people's thoughts this way and that way because of their complexion or the way they look at you. You seem like one of them too, but are all Imperials like that?]
Abel: [I don't know why you're so worked up, and I'm not interested in who you're comparing me to. It's just that people in the Empire learn to look at others carefully in order to survive. There is a difference between us and the people of the Kingdom.]
Subaru: [Look closely at other people, huh? ......]
Abel, who was being taken away with him, made a comment that left an impression on Subaru. This is a lesson that not only the Imperials, but also many people who don't have outstanding military power should be aware of. That's why Subaru also needs to watch and observe his opponent carefully to pick up even the smallest chance of winning. It was an issue that he would have to be strongly conscious of in the future.
Abel: [By the way, don't you think you should escape while you still can?]
Abel whispered in his ear to Subaru what he thought. Subaru's eyes narrowed in surprise at the bluntness of the question.
Subaru: [Can you not tempt me like that? It’s not that I’m not thinking about it, but that I can’t do it.]
Abel: [Oh, why not? There is more room for escape now than there was in that cage. If you can create an opening, you might be able to evade the eyes of the Shudrak.]
Subaru: [True, when I lost my cool, I almost recklessly ran away like that.]
At Abel's amused words, Subaru took another look at his surroundings.
The darkness of the forest was so deep that Subaru could not see more than a few meters ahead. In addition, the direction and distance of the position to which Subaru had to return were vague, there was no way to escape.
On top of that, all of the surrounding Shudrak were much better off than Subaru, whose hands were broken.
???: [...? What's wroooong?]
Utakata: [I bet you're in love with Ho. Ho is the most beautiful woman in the village.]
Ho: [Woooow, I'm in trouuuuble...]
That's what the woman next to him and Utakata are saying about Subaru's peeking gaze. The woman shakes her head reluctantly, her cheeks blushing and looking very pretty, but shows no weakness.. Without a doubt, even if Subaru tried to run, he’ll be held down and forced to surrender in an instant, and that’ll be the end.
Subaru: [If I run away, what will happen to you?]
Abel: [...I see. So that's the type of fellow you are. A detestable, foolish hero.]
Abel said, breaking his gaze and spat out. Suabru was so pissed off by what he was told that he tried to bite the side of Abel’s face that was hidden behind the mask. But before Subaru could question his true intentions, Mizelda, who was leading the way, stopped in her tracks.
Mizelda: [We are here.]
Subaru: [What is here? I can’t see anything.....]
Even though the torches she held up illuminated his surroundings, he could only see within a few meters at most. It seemed to Subaru that the scene of the forest had not changed at all. He wondered what in the hell was here...
Talitha: [If you go, you'll find out.]
Subaru stared into the darkness and leaned forward. He was pushed from behind by Talitha, and his legs gave ways as he took a step or two. It's proof that he's lost his foothold and the reason to hold on.
Subaru: [This feeling ...... again?]
As he shouted out, Subaru found a void in the ground, a steep slope, to be exact. He put his feet on the slope and slid down, trying not to tip over. He ran down the steep slope and somehow managed to catch his breath at the bottom of the slope.
Subaru: [Oh, that was dangerous ......, I wasn’t even ready, and then suddenly…!?]
Abel: [Out of the way!]
The impact on his back, which had just barely stopped, was so strong that Subaru ended up falling forward. When he looked behind him, Subaru saw that it was Abel who had bumped into his back. Apparently, he, too, had been pushed down the steep slope, just like Subaru.
Subaru: [From the looks of it, it doesn't look like the bottom of a hole. ...... Is this the ritual?]
Abel: [Yes, I suppose it is. Now, what else is going to be served? Elgina, she said.]
Subaru: [Do you have any idea?]
Abel: [El means big.....]
At the bottom of the slope, during the conversation between Subaru and Abel, who had fallen down, something was thrown into the air. Lying at Abel's feet was a cloth package. What was peeking out from inside the package was...
Abel: [That's my luggage and your garbage.]
Subaru: [Mine's luggage too!]
What was thrown in was the equipment that had been taken away from Subaru and Abel. Inside was not only the Guiltywhip, but also the knife that had been stuck in Subaru's back, the one that Abel had given him, which had come around and returned to its owner. Abel, too, had picked up his own sword and cloak, and was quickly putting them on.
Subaru: [But why is this ......?]
Utakata: [Uu and the others are watching! Good luck!]
A high-pitched voice answered Subaru's question as he followed Abel's lead and regained his equipment. Looking over, he saw that Utakata, the girl waving her hands on the slope, had thrown the equipment in. Mizelda and Talitha did not raise their voices at Utakata's action. This level of assistance did not hinder the progress of the ritual. And at the same time...
Ho: [That's it, I want you to do your beeeest!]
Subaru saw the woman from earlier, her hair yellow, smiling lazily, with a calm voice and leisure tone, blocking the entrance to the slope with a large rock. There was no doubt that he hadn't mistakenly seen it, from the tremors of the ground that had been transmitted through him. It was unbelievably monstrous …Subaru could tell whose hands had built that solid, improvised cage.
Once the entrance was blocked, Subaru and Abel were dropped into a pit that was about 20 meters wide on either side. The darkness stretched out in front of Subaru and Abel, opposite of the blocked entrance, but they ought to abandon the naive idea that they could escape if they simply ran straight through it.
Abel: [Natsuki Subaru, how much can you move your hands?]
Subaru: [Oh? Both hands...... as you can see. I can't lift my right hand, and I can't grip my left hand tightly either. Of course, I can't do any detailed work either....... Whoa!?]
Abel: [Put this on your best finger! We're running out of time.]
With that, Abel tossed a ring from his belongings to Subaru. Quickly accepting the ring, Subaru obeyed his words and placed it on the middle finger of his left hand. The ring was inlaid with a black gemstone, which gave it an air of luxury, as well as a strangely intimidating aura.
Subaru: [What is this?]
Abel: [It's a ring that seals demons. You must kiss it before you can use it. It has a limit, but it spits out fire.]
Subaru: [What? Demons? Kissing? What the hell......?]
Abel: [...It's coming!]
Abel drew his own sword, leaving Subaru unable to keep up with the speed of the developments behind him. Subaru narrowed his eyes, and he hurriedly picked up his whip. And so, when their equipment was ready...
Subaru: [Oh come on, you've got to be kidding me.....]
With it’s back to the slope blocking the exit, Subaru and Abel were stunned by what they saw before them. Slowly crawling along the ground, a large serpent appeared out of the darkness, ordained with a collection of shiny green scales that looked wet and slimy. The serpent demon beast that Subaru had already encountered twice in the Buddheim forest.
Subaru: [No way, that’s Elgina......?]
Elgina: [......Hsss Hsss!!!]
Gasping for breath, Subaru muttered a fearful confirmation. The serpent opened its large mouth and let out a massive roar as if to affirm him. Subaru stiffened as his whole body was bathed in the fierce wind pressure.
Elgina = big snake, and the "Lifeblood Ritual" consists of completing the most difficult challenge. If that's the case, then the obstacle that Subaru and Abel will have to overcome now is...
Mizelda: [Come on, fight and prove yourselves as warriors! The hunting eyes of Shudrak will bear witness!]
Subaru: [Daaaah! I knew it!]
From the top of the cliff, Mizelda's mighty voice and the Shudraks’ loud cheers of “Hurrah!” echoed down to Subaru and Abel, as they faced the demon beast. While being watched over by the voices that could best be described as cheering or shouts of encouragement, the giant serpent braced itself…
Abel: [...It's coming, Natsuki Subaru!]
Subaru: [I can see that! Damn it, from the beginning, that thing has done nothing but test me!!]
With that, the serpent surged with such force that Subaru's grief was overshadowed, and the "Lifeblood Ritual" began.
△ ▼ △ ▼ △ ▼ △
...Elgina is a demon beast that lives deep in the dense Buddheim Forrest.
According to Abel, the word "el" means "big", so the word “gina” must mean “snake”. Or maybe it was a word unique to the Shudrak people. Either way, Subaru would have to examine their cultural anthropology at a later time.
Subaru: [Right now, our top priority is trying to find a way to deal with the enemy in front of us!]
The huge serpent opened its mouth and pounced at him, baring its sharp fangs. Its body was over ten meters long, and to anyone far away it would look as though a tree had gained a will of its own and had started rampaging through the forest. The body of the serpent was as thick as the biggest of trees and its tail is powerful enough to turn even a small scratch into a serious wound. Like every other demon beast, the serpent seemed to have all the physical traits to easily kill humans.
Subaru clenched his teeth as he called out the name of his partner, who wasn't with him. Whenever an emergency happened, Subaru had always trusted Beatrice’s judgment and listened to her thoughts before he started thinking up a plan. Which, in the current situation, seems to have affected Subaru’s own ability to respond to danger...
Subaru: [First off..!]
Abel: [You fool! This is no time to be stupid!]
Having realized his mistake, his face went stiff, but immediately after, his hair was grabbed by a man with an angry voice. Then with a scream, his head was pulled backwards and Subaru was pulled down to the ground. The fangs of the serpent mercilessly bit down into the space where Subaru’s head had been, with the bite releasing a loud sound. Simultaneously, a plume of smoke and a heavy wind hit the ground with great force.
Pushed by the strong blast, Subaru started rolling helplessly on the ground. But he couldn’t keep rolling forever. He would be an idiot to let himself get killed after just being saved. He stood back up and put some distance between him and the serpent.
Abel: [Don’t make me repeat myself you fool. Hold your breath.]
Subaru's head was pushed down again and he was pinned onto the forest floor. He looked over to see Abel, also covered in a cloud of dust, wrapping himself and Subaru in his cloak. It wasn’t a very large cloak though. Since it wasn’t big enough to be wrapped around both of them at the same time, Subaru was currently being mounted by Abel.
Subaru: [What.. oh your “Hidden Figure”.]
Abel: [That’s right. As long as we hold our breaths it shouldn’t be able to find us…. But we’re out of luck. We’ll need to find a way to effectively defeat that beast.]
Abel's eyes were filled with anger and frustration as he watched the serpent slither around in his immediate vicinity. Subaru understood Abel’s thoughts painfully well.
It looks like the contents of the “Lifeblood Ritual” is different each time. There must have been other possibilities apart from fighting a demon beast. But Subaru and Abel had been thrown into a position where they had to defeat the giant serpent in order to prove themselves as warriors.
Subaru: [Both my hands are out of order, and Abel’s swordplay is second rate at best… What a shitty situation.]
Abel: [You have the audacity to call me second rate. You’re the one currently dragging me down, and you can’t even use your arms.]
Subaru: [And you still got some back-talk left in your mouth…. Hey, you gave this thing to me earlier.]
Subaru held up his left hand, showing off the ring on his middle finger from the cloud of smoke. It was the ring that Abel had thrown to him, without offering an explanation. He had talked about kissing, fire, and other things, none of the which Subaru understood--
Subaru: [So, how does it work?]
Abel: [I told you earlier. Kiss the pearl to make it acknowledge you as its owner. After that, it’s just like casting a regular spell.]
Subaru: [Woah, this ring sounds just like a weapon you’d see in a light novel…!]
Subaru frowned at Abel’s instruction as he looked at the ring in disbelief. Meanwhile, Abel was carefully watching the serpent through the smoke of the explosion. Even if Subaru had seemed calm with the Imperials, he couldn’t hide his sense of urgency now that he was faced with a real threat. With a deep breath, Abel gripped the hilt of his sword tightly.
Abel: [Even if I manage to get close, I doubt I could penetrate those scales. I’m going to have to attack in a place where it doesn’t have scales….. It’s eyes, mouth, or somewhere else thinly armored.]
Subaru: [You would have to create an opening to attack those spots. Somehow…]
Abel: [You are in charge of creating that opening. We should be able to do it if you and I work together.]
Subaru: [That’s what I thought you were going to say, I’m sick of always having to be the bait…!]
But that was the only way they could divide the roles, given their equipment and Subaru’s current physical condition. It was a role familiar to Subaru, playing support as Abel took the offensive. As usual, Natsuki Subaru’s role was only to work as the assistant.
Abel: [Right now, the demon beast has lost sight of us. Use the ring’s flame to draw its attention. We can shift the course of battle to our advantage.]
Subaru: [Oh, I get it...]
It’s a basic rule of battle to maximize all your possible resources. Using the smoke screen that the demon beast had created with its missed attack, they would use the environment and defeat the enemy. As Subaru thought about this, he suddenly realized that something was out of place.
It was a demon beast called Elgina. It’s a snake-like demon beast, a little bigger than an anaconda, but has a higher threat level since it actively targeted humans. And if the snake-like demon beast also had a similar biology to that of a real serpent...
Trembling with fear, Subaru unconsciously pressed the ring to his lips. Then he held the ring out over his head before pointing it into the smoke that Abel was staring into. Before Abel could ask what he was doing, Subaru opened his lips...
Instantly, flames exploded from the snout of the giant serpent and broke through the thick smoke, aimed directly at Subaru and Abel.
△ ▼ △ ▼ △ ▼ △
The loreal pit is a snake’s heat-sensing organ. Snakes, which are often nocturnal, live in shadowy forests or in the shadows of rocks, and have loreal pits that allow them to locate prey even in the dark. It allows them to see the heat signatures of its prey, and enables them to quickly capture the unsuspecting prey. A snake becomes a natural assassin in the dark. And to Subaru’s dismay, it looked as though the demon beast also had the loreal pit.
The serpent crept towards them slowly, but was intercepted right as it was going to strike. As the serpent flipped up it’s face from the intense burning on its snout, Abel immediately slashed at it with his blade. Abel, unwilling to let a good opportunity go by, used his superior skills to pierce the serpent’s throat with his blade, boring deeply into its scales...or so he thought.
Abel let out a grunt as his right arm received the shock of his strike. With the tip only shallowly piercing into the demon beast’s scales, the sword strike was unable to go any deeper. While one can’t say that his stance was the best, there’s no mistake that he put all his strength into that one strike. And it didn’t cut through.
A fireball collided with the demon beast's side, which was about to unleash an attack as it glared at Abel, who was trying to back away. The red light exploded with a burst of hot air, heating up the moist air of the jungle, but causing almost no damage to the serpent. The demon beast stuck out its tongue and licked its charred scales, only to turn his glare in Subaru’s direction and let out an air shaking roar.
It had only been thirty seconds since they had started fighting. But in only that much time, it was already clear that Subaru and Abel had no chances of winning. Abel’s swordsmanship wasn’t able to break through its scales, and Subaru’s usual tricks wouldn’t work here. There was no way Subaru could win against an overwhelming force, that is his biggest limitation.
Subaru: [Goa! Goa! And even more GOA!!!]
Aiming at the leaping serpent, Subaru waved his left hand and fired a series of magical fireballs at the demon beast. With each shot, a flash of light missed the demon beast, with the flames collapsing the cliffs around the battlefield and temporarily separating Subaru and Abel from the demon beast.
Subaru: [Hey, Mizelda! This is...]
Subaru breathed hurriedly, complaining about how hard the trial was. Overhead, the people of Shudrak, who were watching Subaru struggle, were all aiming their bows at them from above.
The people of Shudrak, their expressions cold, had their eyes ruthlessly fixed on their prey. There was Mizelda, Talitha, the gentle woman with yellow hair, and even Utakata, all of whom without exception, were glaring coldly at Subaru and Abel.
Abel: [There is no way to escape the “Lifeblood Ritual” once it has been started. If you fail to complete it, you won’t even be able to keep your life, let alone get what you set out for.]
Abel said to Subaru, who had frozen under the Shudrak’s cold gaze. This is the difference in culture that he had felt many times since being sent to Vollachia and spending time in the Imperial camp. They could be talking and laughing together one moment, only to kill each other the next. Looking at Utakata’s eyes, he knew that such a view on life had been ingrained into her from an early age.
There was no point in questioning the right and wrong of their ways of life now, nor would it be the right place to try and have that conversation. What they need to do now is follow these women’s rules and complete the “Lifeblood Ritual”.
Subaru: [Its scales can’t be broken. If you can’t aim for its heart, why don’t you try to get to its brain through the eyes or mouth?]
Abel: [The weakness is the brain, which is the common weakness of all living things. ...... Maybe that's difficult, too. Then the conditions for victory we're aiming for are a bit higher.]
Fatally injuring the serpent would be incredibly difficult. If that's the case, there's no other way to win than with a fatal wound. If this place was a nest of the demon beasts, he could have taken the serpent's egg as a hostage and forced it to surrender, but that was not the case. Then, there’s no other target but the one weakness shared by demon beasts.
Subaru: [If you sever the horn, the demon beast will obey the one who breaks it. That's the only way.]
Abel: [And the plan...?]
Subaru: [As we said earlier. I'll be the decoy, and the attacker will be the suspicious masked man.]
Abel: [Suspicious? The only one here is a noble masked man.]
After some banter with Abel, who always had a comeback for everything, Subaru took in a deep breath and exhaled. Winning would be a joint effort, and what needed to be done was now set in stone.
With the icy gaze of the Shudrak people behind and above them, Subaru and Abel challenge the serpent that owns the forest to prove that they are warriors. The proof of being a warrior, although Subaru doesn’t think that it’s appropriate nor does he want it....
Subaru: [If I can't get to where you are without it, I'll obtain it.]
...With Rem, whom he had left behind in the Imperial soldiers' camp weighing on his mind, Subaru took a strong step forward.
A large, open-mouthed serpent pierced through the smoke and rushed forward. In front of him, Subaru thrust out his left hand at the serpent. Seeing this, the yellow eyes of the serpent became alert, and it closed its mouth and shifted its head to the side.
The lowest level of flames hadn't done much damage, but it seemed to have drawn out the serpent's disgust enough to make it avoid being hit. That caution was unwarranted. Currently there was no ring fitted on Subaru's left hand.
Subaru: [My left hand's not aiming for your face, but above it!]
As he said this, the tip of the whip was thrown from Subaru's left hand. Clind, his master, had trained him to be able to handle it almost as well with his right hand as with his left. Subaru used his left hand, which can move with two fingers, rather than his right hand, which can't rise above his shoulder. The tip of the whip was not aimed at the serpent's scales, of course, but at the thick branches of the dense jungle above the serpent's head. The whip was entangled there, and Subaru's body jumped up with great force.
The jaws of the serpent, which had stretched out its body, chased after Subaru's vigorous leap. If he hadn't folded his knees in haste, his body would have been caught by the closed fangs and his legs would have been torn off from the hip down.
Talitha: [Ah, sister! That man will escape!]
Talitha, who was holding her bow, screamed at the sight of Subaru, who soared and circled above the valley that had become a battlefield. However, Mizelda lowered the bow aimed at Subaru with her hand. Then, Mizelda's green eyes began to shine.
Mizelda: [He’s not running away, he intends to fight!]
In the eyes of the applauding Mizelda, Subaru was hovering in the air with a whip. While drawing a circling trajectory like a theme park attraction, Subaru aims at the edge of the cliff with the ring on his right hand.
It was a voice that sounded more like a war cry than a chant.
Then flames flew out from the right hand of Subaru as he screamed, and burned on the edge of the cliff… The vines and branches extending toward the valley, turning it into a terrible fire, burning the valley.
Ho: [Wawaa! Utakata, it’s dangerooooous!]
Talitha: [Ahh, sister! Sister! Are you sure you're okay with this?]
Seeing the burning scenery in the valley, the Shudraks who had been watching the battle began making an uproar. The yellow-haired girl hugged Utakata, and Talitha asked her sister for permission to shoot Subaru. But Mizelda, whose eyes were shining, was oblivious to her appeal. She just clenched her fists tightly and kept her eyes glued to Subaru.
Mizelda: [Good, good, interesting!]
Mizelda's cheers coincided with Subaru's final shout before he ran out of breath. The light from the flame-spewing ring faded, and in response to the final howl, the ejected fireball collapsed part of the cliff, and the serpent dropped back to avoid the falling rocks. But...
As the giant serpent slowly dropped back, it realized that there was no escape. The fire had already spread to the fallen trees in the chasm with the glowing flames making even the light of torches unnecessary. Above all, flames that have been spread so grandly...
Subaru: [For the most part, a serpent uses heat as a method of detection. Now, that trick will no longer work.]
Abel hid himself with his “Hidden Figure" and let the serpent lose sight of him as he jumped at him.
The serpent's eyes flashed furiously as it sensed the presence of danger. However, there was Subaru above his head, whose miasma was drifting, it’s heat sensing was useless due to the flames, and Abel's figure was becoming transparent. All the serpent could do was to jump from the spot into the path where the fire was less intense. And that was the false escape route that Subaru had created while spreading the flames...
A moment later, Abel jumped down from the cliff and attacked the head of the giant serpent as it jumped into the escape route. The swinging sword drew an arc, and a silver flash flashed at the twisted horn on the serpent's head. It penetrated diagonally into the center of the horn to cut it in two.
The horn was slashed, and the demon beast was on the verge of losing itself. The serpent howled and twisted its head in a last ditch effort to dampen the sword strike. But its struggle would be in vain. Such a feeble attempt would not work. ...If it had been a warrior's blow.
The twisted head dodged the sword strike, and Abel's blow stopped mid-way into the horn. This way, before his arm could strike again, the flung tail caught Abel.
Struck by the impact, Abel's thin body was blown to the side. Unable to catch himself, Abel's body rolled through the valley surrounded by fire, coughing up blood from his throat.
Abel: [Ha ...... Made a mistake ....... I ended up... being like that fool huh......?]
The serpent turned its head towards Abel, who was crawling on the ground and vomiting blood. With a great opportunity to turn the tide, the serpent slitters towards Abel with its eyes glistening with viciousness. Abel, who was hit by the blow, could not stand up and had no time to cover himself with "Hidden Figure".
It opened its blood-filled mouth, and like a snake, the devourer charged towards Abel. Once Subaru saw it, he had no time to think.
Subaru: [I can "Return by Dea.."]
It had been a long time since he had said that to someone. But for Subaru, who had retraced his own footsteps in the “Book of the Dead” in the Pleiades Watchtower, the experience of trying to attract a demon beast was as vivid as if it were the other day. That's why he came up with this move in a moment of panic.
Subaru: [Uhgh, ah!]
As the colors faded from the world, sound disappeared, and even the flow of air was no longer felt, what came to Subaru was a black shadow that flooded the still world. It is the same kind of black shadow that flooded Subaru, who was devastated by the loss of Shaula after the trials.
???: [I love you...]
Subaru: [......Yeah yeah, you’re giving my ears calluses.]
With a short sentence, Subaru also responded. Immediately afterwards, a hand slipped in and grasped his heart, and there was a sharp pain that was caused by the fingertips all over his body. And the shock destroyed him as if his eyeballs had exploded rather than his vision had turned red. The pain he could never get used to, and the sense of obsession and despair that never seemed to end. But when it eventually went away...
Subaru: [Look at me...!]
Subaru shouted forcefully just after all the colors, sounds, smells, and textures returned to the world. The serpent, sensing the swelling miasma that accompanied the return of his presence, turned around. Not to the weak masked man in front of him, whom he could kill at any time, but to the energetic and smelly Subaru above him.
Subaru: [I'm counting on you!]
The moment Subaru's eyes met the serpent's, he was kissing the ring on his right hand. He then let go of the whip at once, and his body flew in a parabolic line toward the serpent. In order to reach its head, he had to get Elgina to turn around. That's why he revealed "Return by Death". It was also to prevent Abel from dying, just a little. And...
He put his foot on the serpent's upper jaw and clumsily leapt forward as if he was tripping over himself. Before his eyes was a white horn with the blade buried halfway up. He turned his body and slammed his right fist into the hilt of the sword, which would have cut off the horn with one more step.
Of course, Subaru didn't think that a mere punch by him can cut off the thick horn of this demonic beast. But it wasn't just a punch. It's not just a fist shot, it's a shot with magic power, a shot with a magic stone.
The pearl of the ring that collided with the hilt cracked, and red light leaked out. At that instant, the red light swelled up and caused an explosion around Subaru's right arm and the corner of the serpent's head, blotting out all sight and sound.
Whirling and spinning, Subaru fell to the ground, rolling two or three times. His whole body hit the ground hard, but he didn't know the extent of the damage it caused. The right side of his body was burning hot, and he couldn't even see what condition it was in.
As he lay on his back, his body convulsing, yellow gastric juices spilling from the corner of his mouth, Subaru felt the earth shake. The dying Subaru doesn't realize that it was the tremor of the giant serpent that had fallen right next to him. But...
???: [...Natsuki-Subaru! Natsuki Subaru, stand up! Stand up, at once!]
Someone rushed up to Subaru, who was now in a state where even his consciousness was connected by a thread that was about to break, and called out to him, shaking his body. Subaru didn't know where he was grabbing him and shaking him, but he was shaken anyway. The burning sensation returned, and Subaru spilled out a voiceless voice, blood dripping from the wounds on his face.
He couldn't think of anything else. He wanted to let go of his consciousness right now. Pain, heat, thirst, suffering, and just about every bad word that exists in this world is swirling around in his head, and...
Abel: [Stand up, you have something you must say! The woman...what would you like us to do about the woman called Rem?!]
Abel: [Speak from your own mouth! Your wish can't be said from my mouth!]
Strong, passionate words were forced into Subaru's ears, and then his body was brought to its feet. He couldn't even tell if his head or his feet were on top of his body. He couldn't lift his body up. He thought he at least managed to raise his upper body.
Abel: [Listen, people of Shudrak! As you can see! We have fulfilled the “Lifeblood Ritual”, and we have proven ourselves as warriors! Then we, my fellow warriors, have something we must do!]
Mizelda: [Yes, I, the head of the Shudrak, Mizelda, witnessed it! Warriors, my comrades! What do you wish? Shout for what you’d like to do!]
The voice from right next to him and above him echoed in his head. It's as if his brain's defenses are gone and he can hear the voices bypassing him, and even though he doesn't understand what they mean, they shake his shoulders, his head, and his soul.
Abel: [Answer me, Natsuki Subaru. State your desires. Give me everything you have.]
Abel: [Draw what you desire behind your closed eyelids. Nothing can be given to those who cannot speak what they want. ...There is no food for a lazy pig!]
Under his closed eyelids, he drew what he wanted.
He saw a girl with silver hair. He saw a girl with cream-colored hair, a girl with peach-colored hair, a young man with gray hair, a boy with blond hair, and many, many other human faces.
...He was glad that the blue-haired girl was among those people.
Subaru: [Rem, please go to .......]
Abel: [What is it!?]
Subaru's lips spun as he felt himself being peeled away. Just as he finished talking, a strong helping hand caught hold of his shoulders, or perhaps what was left of his shoulders. Then the owner of the voice nodded quietly.
Abel: [Yeah. Did you hear that, people of Shudrak. This is the wish of your new comrade. He’s wagered his life to prove it. If it is what he wishes, what he sees, then...!]
???: [Say nothing more . We have pride, and we have courage.]
Subaru's body went limp, and his consciousness slipped away.
The voice that had tried to force him to stay connected didn't try to do so this time. Slowly, slowly, slowly, it drifted away...
Abel: [You've done your duty. You can leave the woman to me.]
To the very last moment, he couldn’t understand what the voice was trying to say. But he felt that he could trust it. He felt it.