The Brave and the Visitor
Suddenly, Elq fell over. While they were cleaning a guest’s room, she simply collapsed to the ground, like a string puppet which had its string cut.
“Are you okay!?”
Willem hurried over and held her in his arms. She was cold to the touch. Hardly breathing. She’s like a corpse, he thought, then realized that she really was a corpse, just one that moved around as if living.
A living person would have gotten a fever or started breathing roughly, and he would have been able to discern the severeness of the condition from that. However, he had no idea what to do when it came to corpses. He also couldn’t think of any treatment methods. Calling a doctor seemed pretty useless. What should I do? What can I do?
For the time being, he carried her to the bed and let her sleep, although he didn’t know if that would help anything. He got the feeling that long ago, or perhaps just recently, something similar happened: someone who wouldn’t wake up was lying on a bed, and he was sitting by their side, unable to do anything but shiver. Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and stood up, convinced that there was something he could do, then went to punch someone.
Ah damn it. If punching someone this time would change Elq’s condition, even with just a slight probability, he would do it without hesitation. However, now, of all times, he couldn’t think of anyone or anything to drive his hardened fist into.
“A wet towel… wait no, is there any point in keeping her cool? Should I warm her up instead? … she’s not going to rot or anything, right?”
He stood up every time he thought of a new idea, only to immediately sit down again. This had been going on for a while. Astaltus told him to forget about work for now and stick with Elq. However, sticking with her while being powerless to do anything actually made him feel worse. I guess I should go back to work. But I don’t want to leave her side. A debate raging in his troubled mind, he stared intently at his palm.
Upon hearing a faint groan, Willem’s face shot up.
He leaned over to take a peek at her face. The color of her skin didn’t look as sickly as before. She also didn’t seem to be in pain. Seeing the lack of any apparent problems, Willem relaxed his expression.
“Yo.” Before revealing his sloppy face, he did his best to smile, activating every muscle in his face. “Finally awake? Work skipping princess.”
“Me…? Wha? Did I fall asleep? What about the cleaning?”
“You suddenly fell down in the middle of it. I was worried, you know?”
“You’re really cold.”
While tilting her head, Elq touched her palm to her forehead. Her face remained confused. Well, of course, she couldn’t measure her body temperature by touching it with her own body. Willem put his own hand on top of hers.
“Warm,” she said.
“Like I said, you’re cold. Usually, it’s the opposite for overwork and exhaustion. People get fevers. But you’re not normal, so I have no idea how to treat you. I really panicked. Thought you might never wake up again or something.”
“Yes, reflect on your actions. Well, are you all good now?”
“Yeah. I was just a little tired, so, after sleeping, I feel fine.”
Willem felt like his entire body relaxed upon hearing those words. He still had some doubts, like whether that state could really be called just ‘sleeping’, but he didn’t have the energy to pursue that any further.
“I see… is there something you want to drink or anything? Something you want to eat? An apple? Should I peel one?” He asked the spaced out Elq in a gentle voice.
“Warm milk. Something a little sweet.”
“Alright, leave it to me.” He stood up.
“You’re kind of nice today.”
“I’m always nice.”
For some reason, hearing his answer, Elq laughed out loud.
“Here you go.” A sweet scent wafted out from the pot which Willem brought over. Inside was heated milk mixed with a little honey and a pinch of cinnamon. “I made it a little on the warm side, but don’t try to drink it all at once, okay?”
“It would have been fine hot,” Elq pouted as she took a sip. “It’s good.”
“Right? I’ve pretty much understood your taste preferences.”
“Hmph.” Maybe because she interpreted that as meaning a child’s preferences, Elq made a sour face. However, either because she realized that she really did have the tastes of a child, or because she was holding undeniable evidence, she didn’t complain in response. “… um, can I ask you something?”
“Hm?” Willem looked up as he poured seconds from the pot into his empty cup. “What is it?”
“If… this is just a hypothetical situation…”
“No need to make a big deal out of it, just spit it out.”
“If I were to die in five days, would you be a little nicer to me?”
“Huh?” Willem frowned. He got the feeling that he heard those words before. But more importantly, that means… “What are you talking about? Five days is pretty specific… is something wrong?”
Elq’s face clearly read ‘oops’. “Eh? N-No, nothing… sorry, forget about it.” She tightly held her palm against her chest area, right around where the large wound gaped.
“W-Wait, Elq, don’t tell me…”
“I shouldn’t have asked. I thought that maybe I could be the same as Kutori, but I shouldn’t have tried.”
Suddenly, pain shot through area behind Willem’s temples. Memories began trying to surface again.
“Sorry. Let me sleep a bit more.” Hugging her blanket, Elq turned so her back faced Willem.
“Alright. I’ll leave the milk here, so get some yourself.” Suppressing a small headache, Willem left Elq’s room.
Willem and Elq’s rooms were remodeled previously unused rooms in the corner of the inn’s second floor. As he walked down to the first floor, the creaking of the stairs filled the hallways. The inn didn’t usually have very many guests staying the night, but the spacious lounge on the first floor served as a space for customers to enjoy a light meal and some alcohol. In the middle of that lounge, Astaltus sat around a small circular table, drinking from a small glass.
“I heard some talking. Did she wake up?”
“Yeah, apparently she was just tired.”
“That’s good.” Astaltus nodded a few times, a kind smile on his face.
“Wait, didn’t you say you can’t drink? The other day when you declined an offer from a drunk customer. Was that just an excuse?”
“Well, not exactly.” He chuckled in embarrassment. “My drinking habits aren’t too good. It seems like when I drink I go on a rampage. I don’t remember them myself though.”
“Ah… that is pretty bad.”
“My wife and daughter always used to get mad at me, saying that it’s a lot of trouble to calm me down. So, usually, I try my best to not drink. This will be my only drink today.”
“That’s unfortunate. I guess I can’t join you then,” Willem joked with a shrug. Astaltus apologized with a laugh. “But still, I am thirsty. Maybe I’ll have tea instead. You want some too?”
“Yes, I will join you.”
Willem went to the kitchen, scooped some water out of a jar and into a pot, then put it over the crystal stove.
“… about Nils…” Astaltus started.
“The day he brought you guys here, Nils’ eyes looked very kind. After saying that he would leave the rest to me, he added on ‘I want him to live a normal life this time’.”
“… I see.”
Willem could imagine. He only spoke with Nils for a very brief time, but he understood what kind of man he was to a surprising degree.
“Neither you nor Elq have normal bodies. Also, it seems like you were not born that way… ah, I have confidence in my judgement of meat. I am a troll, after all.”
Willem wished he wouldn’t brag about that.
“I’m guessing you two lived a very rough life of exposing yourselves to harm, and that is now over. Your body and mind are exhausted. If you two can live a different life, then I want you to… that’s probably what Nils wanted to say.”
“So he acts like an actual master when no one’s looking, huh.”
“Nothing.” Willem didn’t actually know what that self proclaimed master had been to him in the past, but he could tell how importantly Nils treated both him and Elq. So he figured that Astaltus’ speculation was most likely correct… probably. “Well I’m glad for the concern, but that kind of thing is better if you hear it from–” An uncomfortable feeling suddenly clung onto the back of Willem’s neck. “– Hm?”
Did a bug land on me? No, that’s not it. He didn’t recognize that feeling of discomfort grasping at his skin, but he knew its form.
“Are there any guests staying overnight?”
“What’s this all of a sudden? No guests tonight as usual.”
“Did you ever piss off a lot of people?”
“Well… I don’t particularly remember doing anything that would earn me a long lasting grudge.”
Astaltus’ answer felt a bit uncertain, but Willem decided to take it literally for the moment. “So it must be a group robbery or something of the sort.”
He felt a few hostile presences surrounding the inn. It did make for a good target. The inn, which mainly targeted guests traveling along the highway, was just a little separated from nearby villages. Its relatively large size and clean appearance also gave off an impression slightly on the rich side. And of course, the stores of beer and food must have seemed very attractive to starving brigands.
“Oh my, is it already that season?” Astaltus asked.
“Wait, the seasons have nothing to do with this… also, why are you so calm?”
“When spring draws near, those type of people increase.”
You say that like they’re insects…
“You can drink tea or whatever, I’ll handle them,” Astaltus said.
“No, I’m the one being hired, so that won’t do. I’ll handle them, so you just drink some beer… oh wait… I’ll prepare some tea now so drink that.”
“You don’t need to worry. I’m used to it.”
“That’s not a good reason… also, you shouldn’t get used to that.”
Willem stood up. His memory was still as sealed as ever, but, even in this situation, he felt no fear nor nervousness. He even felt a sort of nostalgia, as if returning to an old home. Apparently, he lived in a rather dangerous world before.
“Really, it’s fine,” Astaltus insisted.
“No, no, just take a seat.” Willem cracked his knuckles.
If you want to disable someone in silence, then you must first understand your target’s breathing. That holds when you knock him unconscious and also when you steal his life with a blade. If any air remains in the lungs, it makes sound when it comes out. Even if you knock him unconscious in a single blow, he could emit a sound upon impact with the ground. That’s why any skilled assassin knows how to steal a target’s breath so well it almost becomes like an everyday activity.
“… I wonder if I was a skilled assassin or something…”
Willem crept out from the darkness and, aiming for the split second when his target’s breath was depleted, wrapped his fingers around his target’s neck, then gave his head a jerk, silently stealing his consciousness. The attack succeeded so smoothly Willem almost gave himself chills.
He took a good look at the person collapsed in his arms. First, he could immediately tell that his image of a starving robber was mistaken: the beast man wore an army uniform. In his hands, he bore a gun with a long barrel. They weren’t the kind of clothes or firearms which any regular old ruffian could obtain.
“This uniform… the Winged Guard?” In the darkness, Willem couldn’t clearly make out the color or shape, but, for some reason, he got that feeling. “But why would the Winged Guard surround our inn?”
The first reason to come to his mind was that a dangerous person was staying there. But that wasn’t possible, given their lack of any overnight customers.
The next possibility to come to his mind was that Astaltus was being pursued by the army. Considering his personality, that hypothesis seemed unrealistic yet strangely plausible at the same time. However, Willem felt it leaned more towards the unrealistic side. After all, pursuing a criminal would be a job for the law enforcement agencies of each individual city or island. The Winged Guard, being an organization which protected Regul Aire as a whole, didn’t hold the authority to search for or arrest criminals.
The next possibility…
Almost at the exact moment that question popped into his mind, the light of a lantern suddenly illuminated his body.
When they got there he didn’t notice, but a few guns now pointed directly at Willem. Well, he expected nothing less from the guardians of Regul Aire. However, even with devices aimed straight at him threatening to take his life, his mind remained as calm as ever. He felt no fear nor threat.
“What business do you have with our inn? Food? Lodging?”
“I told you to not move!”
“If possible, I’d prefer to keep this quiet. Wouldn’t want to bother our sleeping guests.” Of course, there was only one of those.
“We have found the target. We will disable him upon being granted permission.”
“I grant you permission. Attack!”
Responding to orders, the presences blended in with the darkness all moved forth at once. Putting everything else aside for the moment, Willem focused on the six opponents before him. Guns hidden in the darkness would be a bit bothersome, but nothing he couldn’t deal with. First he would deal blows to the two closest to him, then throw their bodies to destroy the lamps. If the lights went out, it might cause them to accidentally shoot each other, and it would be easier to deal with them one by one. Alright, let’s go with that.
Just as Willem made up his mind and prepared to carry his plan out–
“No good.” The voice of a small girl, completely unfitting of the situation, sounded from somewhere in darkness. “Even all together, you don’t stand a chance.”
“I believe I told you to stay back!”
“You did. But I believe I said that I’d move by my own will when necessary.”
The girl stepped forth into the narrow space illuminated by the lanterns. A gray haired, small statured markless. She wore a blank expression which rendered any attempts to read it useless. A simple eyepatch covered her left eye.
Did I… see her before? Meet her before? No, more than that. We shared something very important… I remember…
Overwhelmed by intense pain, Willem instinctively suppressed his forehead.
She called my name without hesitation. We really must be acquaintances.
“Willem,” the girl called again. “Willem, Willem, Willem!” With each repetition, more emotion seeped into her voice. The girl ran forward, straight through the darkness towards Willem. “I finally found you.” She threw her warm body into his chest. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep my promise. I was scared.”
The girl’s shoulders, so thin they seemed like they would break if he touched them, shivered slightly. Unable to push her away nor embrace her, Willem stood there motionless. He felt a bit envious of the soldiers surrounding them. They too were caught off guard by the situation, but at least they weren’t suffering from a splitting headache.
“Do I know you?” he asked, deciding to confirm the situation first.
“Eh?” the girl looked up.
“Sorry, but I can’t remember you at all.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a soundless scream split the air extremely close by. Knocked off balance by the shock, Willem somehow managed to stand straight up again. In front of him floated a strange creature… he had no idea when it got there, or perhaps it had been there the whole time. A large floating fish, covered with beautiful red and white scales. Or at least, that’s what it looked like. However, that couldn’t be right. It seemed as if a separate image had been hung up amidst the darkness; the floating fish stood out so much from its surroundings. Without needing much thought, Willem could tell that it had to be an illusion or something of the sort.
“No no no, you think you can get away with saying that!? Now, I may be a little too old to be a representative of a young maiden, and it’s true that sometimes my overabundance of life experience prevents me from commenting what I really think, and it’s true that I’m too busy worrying about my own family to stick my nose in the business of some random girl, but, as someone who was once a young maiden very long ago, I can’t let that comment just now slip by!” The illusion started rambling on about something.
“Be quiet, Carma.”
“How could I stay quiet what’s with this guy does he think of girls he knew in the past as already used up what a typical piece of trash this is too different from what I heard from Elq she really looked up to this guy like the hero of a story so why is he like this like I can’t remember you at all what did you get your memory sealed or something I mean come on.”
The illusion’s rambling suddenly came to a stop. It floating elegantly towards Willem, then poked his forehead with its mouth. “Oh, his memory really is sealed.”
“Eh?” The girl blinked in confusion.
“Moreover, only one part of his memory is closed off. I guess there must be some pretty skilled curse casters still left in this world. This sortilege is so high level it might be able to erase an entire concept from the world if used well. Being able to use that on an individual with such precision… that goes beyond great and into just plain creepy territory.”
“… apparently I won’t be able to maintain my personality if I remember my past. That’s why he sealed only the memories related to my past,” Willem explained.
“Ahh, I see… wait–” The illusion took a step back in midair. “You can hear me!?”
“What!? Right now I’m supposed to be only seen by my host!”
“It’s not that hard to understand,” the gray haired girl said with her eyes faced down. “Willem and I both have a part of the same soul inside us. I can’t explain the details logically, but that’s probably why.”
Without answering Willem’s question, the girl removed the eyepatch covering her left eye, then, very slowly, opened that previously closed shut eye, revealing a vivid gold iris, completely different than that of her right eye.
“… that eye.” Instinctively, Willem’s hand went to his own right eye.
“That side changed color for you, right Willem?”
“I don’t really know what’s going on, but you really do seem to be familiar with my situation.” While his headache was calming down a little, it still continued to shake his brain about. With each heartbeat, his brain screamed in pain as if about to rupture.
“Willem. I have a request.”
“I decline.” By now, he had figured out that the girl was someone important to him, and that he was someone important to the girl as well, so a large feeling of guilt accompanied those words.
“Listen. The fairy warehouse is going to disappear. I’m not a fairy anymore, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to everyone else. Naigrat is more worried than I’ve ever seen her been.”
Another wave of pain pulsed through Willem’s head. “I said, I decline,” he said, biting down on his back teeth. “I decided to not remember my past. So I can’t listen to your request.”
“Well, maybe there’s nothing we can do.” The illusory fish sighed despite its lack of lungs. “Seal some memories to prevent the Beast from appearing. It’s easy to say, but this is a reckless feat. It could break at the slightest opportunity, and, once that happens, resealing is impossible. Given that situation, it’s only natural that he doesn’t want to get involved with his past.”
“Anything more is just you being selfish, Nephren. Do you want to make Willem into a complete Beast?”
“……” The girl called Nephren fell silent.
She probably still had words to say. Feelings to release. But she held onto all of them inside her small, tightly squeezed fist next to her chest. Sorry, Willem apologized in his mind. It probably wasn’t the kind of thing that an apology would resolve. If his past self saw him now, it would probably throw a punch with all its might and send his head flying. But still, his current self already decided its course.
“Well then, Willem. Moving from the past back to the present, do you happen to know anything about Elq?”
“Yes,” he answered immediately. Earlier, this Nephren girl called the illusion ‘Carma’. He had heard the name before: it was the name of the family member who Elq said would one day come to pick her up. “I’ve been waiting for you. Right now she’s ill, sleeping on the second floor.”
“Ill? Eh?” the illusion said, confused. “She’s still a corpse, isn’t she?”
“The guy that sealed my memory said he chipped away a little at the curse cast on Elq’s body. Said that right now she’s an undying being infinitely close to a corpse or something.”
From that bewildered shriek, Willem inferred that Elq’s current situation and Nils’ doings were irregular even to an irregular being.
“Take her with you. She’s been waiting for her family to come too.”
With guns pointed at him, Willem lead Nephren and Carma to Elq. As the three of them talked, he waited outside the room. He didn’t try to listen in, so he had no idea what they talked about. After about thirty minutes, the gray haired girl and Carma came out.
“We’ll take our leave for today.” Carma had become much less talkative than before.
“You’re not going to take her with you?”
“I’d like to, but she told me to give her time. She isn’t usually very selfish, but, when she is, she really doesn’t listen.” The giant floating fish let out a giant sigh. “I know I shouldn’t ask for favors when we just met for the first time, but can I leave her to you for a little while longer?”
“I don’t mind, but, are you sure? Isn’t she the daughter of the family you serve or something?”
“Uhh, well, if you put it in really rough terms, then yeah kinda like that.”
“I was opposed,” Nephren said with a slightly irritated face. “I think we should take her away, even if it means wrapping a chain around her neck.”
“Pretty sure you’re just jealous,” the fish said in return.
“Elq’s kind of like a kitten.”
“You could at least try to deny it, geez.”
What are they talking about? Willem thought.
“We’ll come again,” Nephren said, then started to leave the inn.
“O-Oi! Where are you going!?” Soldiers followed after her.
“Home. There isn’t any dangerous Beast here.”
“Wait, abandoning our post will not be forgiven!”
“There’s no work to be done here. I’m the one with the authority to decide that, right?”
“That… damn it. What is the officer thinking!”
The soldiers chased after the girl as she walked without hesitation off into the distance. And with that, their unwelcome guests of the night vanished from sight.
“… so who were they?” Astaltus asked, his head tilted in confusion.
“Our pasts chased after us, it seems,” Willem answered jokingly.
“Was it okay for you to send it back home?”
“I don’t have a past,” Willem said with a shrug. “Of course, I don’t know about that one.” He looked up at the second floor.
“Someone from her family came to pick her up, correct? What did Elq herself say?”
“Nothing. She just told me ‘I’m tired so get out’ and drove me out of the room.”
“I wonder if it was okay for her to not go home with them.”
“Who knows. I can never really tell what kids are thinking.”
That wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth either. The reason why Elq remained behind was probably because she didn’t want to leave Willem by himself. He was half convinced of that, but, put another way, only half convinced of that. Also, he was deeply thankful for that.
“Anyways, she’s here, so it seems we’re still going to be under your care, boss.”
“Well, of course I welcome that, but…” Astaltus made a conflicted face. “It’s difficult to put this in the right words, but, at the very least, please live so that you won’t have any regrets.”
“I’ll do my best,” Willem answered with some effort. He had no past. Accordingly, declining that girl’s request without listening to it had to have been the correct decision. But that correctness would most likely worsen the girl’s situation. For some reason, that thought left a bitter feeling deep inside his chest.
“… this is just something I’ve heard,” Astaltus started.
“In children’s stories or fairy tales, there’s the cliche ‘lived happily ever after’ ending, right? But that itself is something so far separated from reality, only allowed to exist inside children’s stories and fairy tales. A dream unrealizable in reality, similar to magic swords or majestic castles and such. Unconsciously, we all realize the futility of the word ‘ever after’.”
“I’m pretty sure magic swords and castles actually exist, don’t they?”
“Now that you mention it, I guess that’s true.” Astaltus thought for a moment, not seeming to be phased by Willem’s little jab. With his index finger pointed up, he continued, “Basically, we unconsciously think of the phrase ‘ever after’ as as fictional object.”
“The same time will not continue on forever. Eventually, an end will come to the entire world itself. The important thing is to accept that change occurs and to figure out how to best utilize that to meet tomorrow. No matter how different tomorrow is from today, we can live on. And as long as we are living, we can try to obtain happiness.”
“… ‘try’, huh. At least you’re being honest.”
“Happiness is not so cheap that even those who do not try can obtain it.” Astaltus shrugged. “No matter how long you stay here, I don’t mind. However, should an opportunity present itself, please don’t hesitate to leave. The place where you belong is wherever you are at that moment.”
Of course, Willem knew why Astaltus suddenly started talking about this stuff. He could regain his memories at any time, and Elq could become a plain old corpse at any time. No matter how much they denied the past or clung on to the present, these peaceful days at the inn would most likely not continue for long.
If, when the end came, he still hadn’t accepted that fact, he would end up cursing the world or fate or some other greater force. He would carry enmity not faced at any concrete person or thing, grudging his inability to simply live everyday normally and peacefully. He would forget how much effort and sacrifice was required to make such a greedy wish come true.
“I know,” he repeated.
These days would not continue for long. But, they were still continuing right now, thanks to Astaltus, Elq, and also the disappeared Nils. So at the moment, he just wanted to be thankful for this time.
With those thoughts running through his mind, Willem put his mouth to his yet untouched cup of tea. Naturally, after sitting out for so long, it had grown incredibly bitter.
The military began to keep watch around the inn, rotating through three shifts. The number of guards went up and down depending on the time of day, but usually hovered around three or four. They mainly occupied two places: the shadow of the neighboring farm’s stone fence and the watchman’s hut at the public bridge a little ways away. Both were separated enough from the inn to render observation with the naked eye impossible, so the soldiers most likely had devices for viewing from afar. They really put a lot of effort into it.
While it proved to be quite annoying, if Willem and Elq just sat still, the guards wouldn’t bring them any harm. As for Astaltus, he took the optimistic stance, pointing out that the army would step in if anything happened, and that they provided free protection from thieves.
Considering that, the soldiers were taking care of them in a way, so Willem once tried offering them some coffee, only to be met with the sourest of faces. He had been planning to start up a conversation and ask why he and Elq were being targeted, but the foul mood of the soldiers didn’t exactly provide the most conducive environment for that.
“Guess I can’t torture them or anything.”
If he wanted to, though, Willem figured he probably could. His body seemed to know various techniques for no apparent reason, like massages and assassination style combat. If he used his skills well, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to destroy a target’s will and dignity without destroying their body.
Of course, doing so would certainly destroy his current lifestyle, so there was no point. Accordingly, Willem decided to continue living normally, trying his best to not think about who he was or why he was being watched by the army.
However, normal everyday life began to turn into a somewhat uncomfortable and twisted thing. He knew that the end to these gentle days was slowly, but surely, approaching.