That was probably a dream, Kutori thought as soon as she woke up. That seemed like the only possible explanation. A proposal? Even if the world was turned upside down, those words would never come out of Willem’s mouth. It just seemed too unrealistic.
But upon asking Noft and Lantolq about yesterday, she received answers like ‘I let him borrow our swords since he asked’ and ‘he came back in such a good mood it was creepy’, which only further blurred the distinction between reality and dream. What in the world actually happened?
“Did something happen with that Emnetwyte?” Lantolq asked.
“N-N-N-N-Nothing don’t worry about it,” Kutori answered in a most natural voice. Of course, she couldn’t just say ‘I think I was proposed to but I’m not sure if it was a dream or not’. Doing so would only get her explosive laughter from Noft and a cold stare from Lantolq.
Asking Willem directly seemed to be the only viable option. Hey, you. Did you propose to me yesterday? On second thought, maybe not. Definitely not. After all, her memory had been acting funky recently, so it was probably safe to assume that it was just a dream.
“What do you think happiness is?” Instead, Kutori tried asking Lantolq the question that had suddenly popped into her mind.
“Quite the philosophical question. Are you planning on starting a religion or something?”
“No, I’m just thinking about something personal.”
“I see.” Lantolq closed the book she had been reading and put on her thinking face. “Well to start with, happiness means different things to different people. Some people are happy as long as they have enough food. Some are happy if they have books. Some people need to always be living life to the fullest. Some people only get that feeling of satisfaction when they overcome some barrier. Some people are happy as long as others around them are happy, and, inconveniently, some are the exact opposite. “
“… that’s true.”
All sorts of people exist. All sorts of hearts and minds. All sorts of desires. That means happiness can take an unlimited number of forms. It seemed obvious now that Kutori thought about it.
“But almost all of those people don’t know it themselves. They don’t know what form their own happiness takes. Yet still they all claim they want to be happy, without knowing what exactly that means.”
“Even if they realize that they want to be happy, they are unable to actually become happy. The important thing is to not avert your eyes from your own heart. Does that answer your question?”
“Yeah.” To be honest, Kutori hadn’t really been expecting such a detailed answer and was kinda weirded out, but of course she couldn’t mention that. “Thanks.”
Kutori headed to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast. At Willem’s request, the fairies were now able to use the cafeteria that all the other crew members used. Kutori invited Lantolq to come with, but she refused on the grounds that she wasn’t comfortable in places where there were a lot of strangers. Kutori wasn’t in the mood to forcibly drag her along, so she ended up going by herself.
What does happiness mean to me? Kutori asked herself again, having gained new insights from Lantolq. She imagined placing a slice of sweetly boiled lemon on some bread and chowing down. The stimulating mixture of sweet and sour spreading throughout her mouth… pure happiness. It sure seemed like happiness, but that probably wasn’t what she was looking for.
Not having any ambitions, or perhaps trying to not have any ambitions, was fairly common for the fairies. After all, they simply didn’t have the time. To someone who doesn’t even know whether or not they will be alive tomorrow, having dreams about the far off future can only bring sadness. Now, even though Kutori was no longer an actual fairy, the same principle still applied to her.
But Willem refused to accept such resignation. Even if someone had an uncertain tomorrow, he would tell them to hold their head high and take off running towards the day after tomorrow. Perhaps it was even a bit cruel, but Kutori liked that part of Willem. She couldn’t run away now.
Medicine with thorns poking out of it. A gecko with round eyes. Baked goods soaked with water.
Random images flooded her mind. Although it had slowed down recently, the encroachment seemed to still be moving along smoothly. Perhaps she should have been more depressed at being reminded again that she had no future, but Kutori had already grown used to it. Waving her hand back and forth to swat away the nuisances in her mind, she took back her train of thought.
Maybe marriage was the key after all. A book she read before said that marriage is synonymous with a woman’s happiness. Since she didn’t know a single married woman, Kutori was never really convinced of that statement, but maybe it was worth considering. She remembered that weird plan Naigrat told her about the other day. Her plan to trap Willem in the fairy warehouse forever by giving him a family or something like that.
Kutori entered delusion mode. The setting was the fairy warehouse, ten years in the future. Willem had aged a bit… she couldn’t really imagine that… maybe some facial hair would do the trick. Beside him, a now grown up and very adult looking Kutori. Between them stood children of questionable race. Two boys and one girl. One of the boys shared a lot of Kutori’s features, while the other two kids took after Willem. All three were full of energy. If she looked away even for one second, they would run off and roll around and get themselves covered in mud. Then Kutori would chase them around, catch them, and stuff them in the bathtub while Willem casually baked a cake, saying something like ‘energy is the best medicine for kids’.
Kutori’s memory wasn’t the greatest, but she felt like that situation hardly differed from the current one. She shut off the delusion. That wasn’t what she was looking for either. It did seem like a happy life, but not necessarily any happier than the present.
A red haired child rolling around on the ground laughing.
Shut up, previous life! Kutori yelled mentally. I don’t have time to be dealing with you right now.
“Why are you making funny faces at that piece of bread?” Apparently, Nephren had been sitting right beside her since who knows when. “You’ve been acting kinda creepy for the past few minutes.” The bread got stuck in Kutori’s throat. Milk. Where’s the milk? “Did Willem say something to you?” The milk went down the wrong way. “… I take that as a yes.”
After a good fit of choking, Kutori finally calmed down a bit. “W-What makes you think that?”
“Anyone would be able to tell just by looking at you.” Nephren’s response left no room for a comeback. “But that’s why I’m worried,” she continued as she broke off a piece of bread.
“Lately, you and Willem look like lost cats.”
“It looks like you don’t want to talk about it, so I won’t ask for the details, but something’s happened since your hair started changing color, am I right?”
“Hm… I guess.”
“If you ever feel like talking about it, don’t hesitate to come to me. I may not be able to do much, but I can at least stay by your side.”
With that, Nephren stopped talking. “Ah… thanks.” First Aiseia, now Nephren. Kutori really did have amazing friends. Forgetting her situation for a moment, she was overcome with a happy feeling.
That was probably a dream, Willem thought as soon as he woke up. That seemed like the only possible explanation. A proposal? Even if the world was turned upside down, those words would never come out of his own mouth. It just seemed too unrealistic.
“… or maybe not.”
Let’s face reality, Willem told himself. Back there in that smelly room, he embraced Kutori and said those ridiculous words. He knew the reason too. In that moment, he thought that he never wanted to let her go. Well, not exactly that. More like he would never let her go. No, not that either. He wanted to bring her happiness forever.
… let’s stop here. The more Willem thought about it, the weirder the direction his thoughts started to wander off in.
There was something more urgent at hand. The kinslayer Desperatio. The original beings which served as the basis for the 17 Beasts. Putting the two together, the answer was simple. And most likely, even though she may not have known the details about Desperatio, Lantolq had arrived at the same conclusion, which may also be one of the reasons why she was so cold to him, an Emnetwyte.
Basically, the Emnetwyte were modified by some method to produce the 17 Beasts. Or at least, that seemed to be the logical hypothesis. Willem didn’t want to think about it much more. If it were true, the saying that the Emnetwyte destroyed all on the land would take on a whole new meaning. They didn’t just create the things which destroyed the earth, as is the common belief, but they literally were the things which destroyed the earth. And moreover, they still haunted the world as symbols of destruction.
“No, it can’t be…”
Willem could see one big flaw in the theory: there was no explanation for the ridiculously fast reproductive speed commonly attributed to the Beasts. Needless to say, transforming a living being into a completely different living being takes a considerable amount of time and effort, even with exceptional skills and techniques. Even the legendary Vampiric took at least three days to convert sacrifices into one of their own with their ‘Soul Contagion’ ability. The 17 Beasts apparently destroyed a few countries just days after their initial appearance. It didn’t seem feasible.
“Maybe I’m just thinking too much into it,” Willem concluded with a nod.
And with that, he now had one less thing to worry about. What else was left… oh right, his proposal to Kutori.
Willem got the feeling that he wouldn’t be able to look her in the eyes properly for a while.
“I angered the expedition advisor,” the First Technician said with a sad face like that of a child who got scolded for a naughty prank.
“Oh, is that so?” Willem responded, not understanding what in the world he was talking about. “Did we bring along an advisor? I don’t recall ever seeing him.”
“Not us, he was hired by the Company to tag along on the original expedition. He’s a civilian salvager. He has a lot of experience, so I really wanted to respect his opinion, but…”
“So you’ve heard that we’ve leaving in five days, right?”
Willem, who didn’t particularly see any appeal in the ‘romance’ of the land, had no reason to want to stay any longer than necessary. He would have loved to immediately take off, but of course things were not so simple. They still needed to check the health conditions of all the expedition members, finish storing all the excavated goods into the hold, and recover any materials of use from the Saxifraga which they would be leaving behind. There was still quite a lot to do.
“Due to budget constraints and such, we can’t extend our stay any longer than that. However, if we go home with just the relics we have now, we’ll end up with a slight deficit.”
“So I decided to send a large scale excavation team underground tomorrow,” the Gremian said as he held up his purple finger, looking quite proud of his genius plan. “I want the army to handle the goods, so most of the members are from our side. I’ll have the Company guys finish up any other work that needs to be done up here. You — I don’t mind if you come, but what do you want to do?”
“I think I’ll pass. So that’s how you made that advisor angry.”
Of course an advisor sent by the Company wouldn’t be too fond of a plan in which only the army benefitted.
“No, that’s not quite it.” With his purple fingers, the First Technician scratched his bald head. “He said to not go underground with a large group all at once. That it goes against their theories or whatever.”
“… I wonder why.”
“Beats me. I asked him why, but he didn’t tell me. I bet it’s just a superstition. Not everyone thinks through things as logically as we do. There are always going to be sad people who blindly follow illogical customs because of their narrow world views.”
“Ah, so I assume you gave that spiel to the advisor as well? How rash of you, First Technician.”
“That’s right.” The rash First Technician drooped his shoulders. “I don’t believe I said anything wrong. It’s not like I necessarily wanted to deny his experience and beliefs. Can I ask you to set things right with him?”
“I don’t mind.” What a pain, Willem thought. “For every thing that one person sees as correct, there will always be someone else who sees it as grossly incorrect. Please keep that in mind.”
“… understood.” The Gremian nodded with a bitter face.
Upon asking various workers walking through the corridors, Willem heard that this advisor fellow had been seen going to the storage room for underground expedition equipment. The equipment storage rooms were located towards the bottom of the ship, and the whole area around there was a complete mess. Willem dreaded going there again. However, he couldn’t just abandon his task. He lifted open a heavy trapdoor, climbed down a rusty ladder, passed through a room with all sorts of metal parts of unknown origin scattered about, and headed towards the lower layers of the airship.
According to the First Technician, this advisor was a fairly experienced civilian salvager hired by the Trading Company. Willem tried picturing what this character might look like, but every time the image just ended up being Grick or one of his companions. After all, they were an extremely experienced and skillful group, having managed to dig up one of the extinct Emnetwyte and even revive him.
“Is the expedition advisor here?”
As Willem arrived at the equipment storage room, he pushed open the semi-airtight door and looked around, only to find Grick standing there, wrapped in a bunch of clunky gear.
The two men stared at each other for a moment, with a sort of awkward, hard to describe atmosphere between them.
“The theory we follow is based on years of experience,” Grick complained, not even trying to hide his upset mood. “Well, I admit that sometimes it’s easy for superstition to get mixed in. There are some theories that seem really questionable to me, like ‘if you hear the noise of water underground, immediately droop your ears’. I mean, I’m not an Ayrantrobos. What am I even supposed to do?”
Well, it’s better than being told to curl up your tail, Willem thought. “So if that belief is based on experience, does that mean you’ve never seen a large group go underground and return safely?”
“It’s not an absolute rule. But above around seven people, the rate of survival clearly decreases. That’s why civilian salvagers rarely work in large groups.”
“I see. I understand why you were pissed off now,” Willem said with a nod. He forgot to ask the First Technician exactly how many people he planned on sending down, but it most likely wasn’t any lower than seven. “By the way, what is this?”
“A dust protection cloak, scarf, and goggles.”
“And why are you handing them to me?”
“There’s a pretty nasty sandstorm today. Going outside without proper gear is a bit dangerous.”
“And why are you assuming I’m going outside today?”
“Today is our only chance to go underground,” Grick responded. “There’s something I want to show you. We can’t bring it up to the surface though, so we’ll have to go all the way down to it.”
“And why do I have to go along on this bothersome expedition?”
“Come on, I never would have thought I’d run into you here. It’s fate. Good luck bestowed upon us by the Visitors. Wouldn’t want it to go to waste.”
Willem didn’t understand Grick’s logic.
“– Ah, perfect. Would you like to come along too, young lady?” Grick called out to someone behind Willem.
Figuring that Noft or someone was there, Willem turned around, only to discover Kutori, her back turned towards them, in the middle of trying to sneak out. She slowly turned around with a panicked look on her face.
Uh oh. Willem, also remembering the events of the previous night, averted his gaze, trying to not let anything show on his face.
“If you’re his secretary, supporting him is part of your job, right?” Grick said, completely oblivious to the tension between Willem and Kutori. “Three people is just the right size for going underground. We’ll have less blind spots, and if one of us messes up the other two can cover. We can also put additional backup on standby above ground.”
As Grick rambled on cheerfully, he grabbed another set of dust protection gear.
Sometime in the past five hundred years, a large movement of the earth’s crust must have occurred. The underground structure discovered by the expedition team looked almost completely ruined. Numerous walls and ceilings had collapsed, clogging up old corridors and opening up new ones. Due to cracks in the external walls, tons of sand and water had found their way in, making the paths even harder to traverse.
With only a small crystal lamp illuminating their way, the group descended into the ruins. Grick led them through the chaotic mess of corridors with ease, demonstrating his years of salvaging experience.
Every exhalation of breath produced a misty white cloud. The air around them seemed to chill their very bones, as if they were walking through a giant block of ice. Every time they went down another level, the temperature dropped even further. By the fourth floor, the puddles of water on the ground became patches of solid ice. Having to constantly try to avoid slipping only made matters worse.
“As you’ve seen, pretty much everything up on the surface has weathered away over the years, so it’s not the best for treasure hunting. On the other hand, most things down here have been preserved in their original form. The real salvaging starts when we get down here,” Grick explained.
“At least four floors, with each one being this large, huh? Hard to believe such a labyrinth was sitting right under my hometown,” Willem said. He wondered whether it was built while he still lived in the orphanage or after he left for his final battle. Well, there was no way to find out now, so maybe it was a pointless question. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Willem turned around to check on Kutori, but she didn’t seem to be having any trouble with the darkness or the difficult footing. Not much of a surprise, considering that she was one of the few to ever be recognized by Seniolis.
“By the way, Willem. Those young ladies…” Grick began.
“They’re all good kids, just like you told me.”
“Ah.” Willem figured Grick was talking about Noft and Lantolq. Willem himself still didn’t know them very well, but Grick had been with them on the expedition for a while now. So if he said so, Willem had no reason to doubt him. “You can’t have either of them.”
“How the heck did you jump to that?” Grick chuckled.
“If you want either of them, you’ll have to get through me first.”
“I told you, that’s not what I was talking about. Also don’t look so serious all of a sudden it’s scaring me.”
“What are you guys talking about…” Kutori laughed softly, then sighed, leaving behind a short-lived small white cloud in the chilly underground room.
“Hold up, our path is blocked,” Grick said.
In his very narrow field of view dimly lit by the lone crystal lamp, Willem saw Grick’s figure stop moving. Upon squinting his eyes and peering at the road ahead of them, Willem spotted a mountain made of variously sized rubble chunks. If they tried to smash through it by brute force, they might just end up collapsing the ceiling on themselves.
“Well this is unfortunate. I’d hate to come all this way only to turn back,” Grick said.
“Up until now there seemed to be plenty of side paths. Is there no way around?”
“The paths are so jumbled it’ll take too long to check all of them one by one. On top of that, there’s a Teimerre nest closeby, so I don’t want to walk around too much and wake it up.”
“I see…” Willem thought for a second. “What kind of nest did you say?”
“A Teimerre nest,” Grick answered casually. “They get together in groups of ten or twenty and make nests underground. They usually just sleep while they’re in their nests, but very rarely one will wake up and attack if it senses passersby.”
The Teimerre. The only Beast capable of floating through the air and assaulting Regul Aire. The very reason for the disposable fairy soldiers’ existence. Would it be possible to wipe them all out right now? Willem almost asked that aloud, but shut his mouth before anything came out. If such a simple plan could have any effect, the Winged Guard wouldn’t have been using Kaliyons all these years.
Should Nephren and the others perform a surprise attack on the nest now while we have the chance? No, that was also out of the question. Fighting underground would mean completely abandoning one of the fairies’ most important advantages: wings. Furthermore, dozens of Teimerre with the ability to split and reproduce would quickly massively outnumber the fairies. With all that in mind, a surprise attack would hardly give them the upper hand at all. The only advantage on their side that Willem could think of was that the closed off space along with the Beasts all being concentrated in one place would make a self detonation extremely effective. He didn’t want to think about that, though.
“Um, excuse me?” Kutori’s voice pulled Willem back to reality from his thoughts. “I can’t really explain my reasoning… but can we try going down this path?”
Since none of them wanted to just turn around after having come so far, they decided to follow Kutori’s suggestion. As they walked along the never ending, winding path, they often encountered forks in the road. However, each time, Kutori stood still for a moment, made a gesture as if listening intently to something, then chose a path without hesitation.
“I feel like someone is calling me,” she explained.
Willem remained skeptical of navigating through a complex labyrinth with such an unreliable compass, but, seeing as they had nothing better to guide them, there was no reason to stop Kutori. Eventually, Willem lost track of time. They seemed to trudge on forever and ever until suddenly, they arrived at a large, spacious room.
“… seriously?” Grick murmured in amazement. “We’re here. This is what I wanted to show you.”
“Huh?” Willem took a look around. “There’s nothing here. What did you want to show me?”
“In front of you,” Grick said.
Willem looked ahead once more, but there was nothing more than a wall. No, wait — upon closer inspection, he realized that it was not a wall but a colossal chunk of ice.
“At first almost this whole room was just ice, but we shaved it all the way back to here after some hard work.” Grick lightly tapped the ice with his finger.
Something was inside. As Grick lifted the crystal lamp up, Willem could see it more clearly. Through the unnaturally transparent ice, he spotted vivid scarlet. Willem gulped hard.
“Surprised, right? I was too when I discovered it. Never would have thought I’d discover such a treasure two times in my short life.”
Inside the ice was a young child, even younger than the little ones at the fairy warehouse. Her long red hair looked as if it had been fluttering lightly in the wind before being frozen in time. Willem couldn’t make out the fine details of her face, but she seemed to have a peaceful expression. And then, at her chest, gaped a large sword wound. Ignoring that, she looked alive, almost as if she were simply sleeping peacefully. But the body before their eyes was unmistakably a corpse.
“It’s not an acquaintance of yours from back then… is it?” Grick asked cautiously.
“Ah…” Willem checked the child’s face once more. “No, I didn’t know her. I think.”
“Gotcha. Her condition’s pretty similar to yours when we found ya, so I thought maybe that meant something.”
Grick had been in the exact same situation once before. When Willem was a chunk of frozen stone sitting at the bottom of a lake, Grick and his salvager companions got him out and revived him.
“Do you think we can save this one, like you saved me?”
Grick shook his head. “We were able to save you because you were just turned to stone by a curse and not actually dead yet. No matter how you think about it, this kid’s clearly long gone.”
Fair enough. No human would survive having their heart sliced in two.
“Hold on a second.” Willem ignited a small bit of Venom and turned on his spell vision. “Ah, as I thought.”
“There’s some kind of curse on that wound.” Enduring the throbbing pain in his head, Willem looked closer. He clearly saw a strong curse carved deeply into that tiny body.
“For real. But even if we lift it I don’t think she’ll come back to life anyways.”
Curse were sometimes cast onto a corpse. They could reanimate the corpse to serve the caster, make the corpse spit out information, or spread the curse to blood relatives of the victim. But of course, lifting such a curse only turned the cursed corpse into an uncursed corpse, not into a living person.
The curse seemed familiar. Willem strained his eyes to get an ever closer look. It looked like an orthodox alteration curse — the type that could turn a person into a frog or a meal into a stone or stuff like that. The way the spell veins twisted and intertwined gave him that impression. However, he still couldn’t recall where he had seen the curse before. His throbbing headache was also beginning to impede his thinking. Willem deactivated his spell vision.
“I was thinking we could bury her in a more suitable place… but if the body’s cursed I guess dispelling it comes first,” Grick said.
“Not gonna sell it to a collector or something?”
“That just seems kinda wrong. She looks so peaceful sleeping there, so wouldn’t want to interrupt that, right? It’s the humane thing to do.”
When Grick used the word ‘humane’, it was strangely persuasive. Willem looked at the girl once more. “Well either way, we have to get her out of this ice first. This kind of curse preserves the body’s condition, so even if we take it out of the ice it shouldn’t rot or anything.”
Suddenly, a cold shiver ran up Willem’s spine.
Only a moment later, an inexplicable sense of dread welled up from the depths of his stomach. He searched around wildly for the cause. He found it soon enough: Kutori stood frozen still with a look of terror on her face, gazing intently at the girl within the ice. And moreover, Willem could sense raging Venom flowing out from her body.
As he stared in shock at Kutori, the remaining blue in her hair rapidly transformed into the exact same vivid scarlet that they saw in the ice. Kutori Nota Seniolis was disappearing before Willem’s eyes.
“Kutori!? What are you doing!?!”
He grabbed Kutori’s shoulders and shook her violently. He slapped her on the cheek again and again. But her Venom refused to calm down. Her gaze seemed empty. Whether or not she still had consciousness was uncertain. If Willem didn’t act now, it would be too late. He shaped his hand into a wedge and drove it through Kutori’s chest, right next to her heart. Her expression immediately twisted in agony. Willem’s strike had disordered her blood flow, crushed her lungs, and scattered the blazing Venom. Her vague consciousness was forced to return to normal.
“Sorry, I’ll explain later! We need to get back to the surface!”
“Ahh, right right.” Grick, utterly bewildered but smart enough to infer what was going on, nodded hurriedly and started leading the way back up.