Chapter 1: Beginning of Wandering
He saw a strange creature in the pale blue moonlight.
…No, to be frank, calling it an “object” was probably more accurate, because it had no arms, legs, features, nor anything resembling a head distinguishable from the rest of its body. It had no defined form; it was constantly shape-shifting. Initially, he hadn’t even been able to tell if the thing in front of him was standing up or rolling around on the ground. Tohru Acura just continued to watch the strange spectacle in front of him, completely nonplussed.
It appeared to be amorphous, and it never sat still—it constantly nudged itself along the ground, covering itself in leaves and dirt as it moved. It didn’t have a mouth, eyes, or nose. Anyone looking at it at a glance would probably only be able to describe it as “a clump of something.” It was as if the mud and earth had been given form and was writhing around—an aberration, clearly out of the ordinary.
The night air was chilly enough that Tohru’s voice came out in cloudy white breaths against the darkness.
That was the name of his master—the girl who had decided to employ him.
Silver hair, petite frame, frail appearance—a princess with no empire to call home. Every one of her features was as perfect, as if a master craftsman had designed her. A delicate body that looked like it would break if hugged tightly. Smooth, white skin without a single blemish.
The thing in front of him had none of these qualities. It was just a filthy clump of leaves and dirt—it didn’t even resemble anything human.
“Are those your…your…” Tohru uttered, dumbfounded. He blinked his eyes over and over—somewhere in his mind he had entertained the ridiculous notion that the sight in front of him was a mere illusion, and that it would disappear in an instant if he blinked several times.
At last, Tohru accepted that it was real, and asked in a clipped, resigned voice,
“…Are those your pajamas?”
Chaika’s nodding head popped out from the clump. There was probably something like a collar, or some kind of incision.
Long silver hair, violet eyes, fair white skin—there was no question that she was the same Chaika as before.
What had changed was what she was wearing.
“Heat insulation, outstanding,” said the girl whose neck was sticking out of the clump, Chaika Trabant.
“Yeah, sure, but…”
“Camouflage capability, also outstanding.”
As evidenced by her tendency to speak with a strange intonation that was almost like reciting a verse, she didn’t appear to be very proficient in the common language of the continent. She was somehow able to understand what was being said to her pretty well, though.
“Well yeah, that too, but…” Tohru’s voice came out like a groan. “Just what kind of stuff are you into, anyway?”
“Critical importance. Practicality, highest priority.”
Tohru took a second look at Chaika’s “pajamas.” Though, truthfully,they were less like actual clothing and more like a kind of sleeping bag. Specifically, a bag made of cloth that could envelop a single person. It wasn’t a typical tubular sleeping bag; it appeared to have enough room to move around while inside it.
Its exterior was covered with thin netting that had been doubled and redoubled, and once inside, Chaika had deliberately rolled around on the ground around here to pick up the leaves and mud, effectively making her disguise complete. The exterior added to the disguise’s overall nonhuman appearance—from a short distance, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell anyone was there.
“Well, you’re a wizard, so a disguise like this is probably necessary…”
“Myself, made. Rather proud,” Chaika nodded with enthusiasm.
“The best defense is to stay undetected, huh?”
“But there’s no reason for you to wear something like this right now. It’s a nuisance, so take it off.”
“We’re keeping watch over the area,” Tohru said.
Currently, Tohru’s group was in the middle of a mountain forest. They were surrounded by trees, so the fallen leaves and humus covered their footprints. After setting up camp here, Tohru had laid out several “barriers.”
Of course, these were fundamentally different from the magical defense barriers a wizard would put up, or even the typical barriers one would use when keeping watch. These measures were simpler—he had merely hidden small dead branches, thin enough that they would easily break, underneath the fallen leaves. When stepped on with one’s full body weight, they would emit a basic noise that would alert him to the intruder’s presence.
On top of that, he had also strung thin black thread along the row of trees, and had hung bells along it. That way, even if someone approached in a manner other than walking on the ground, such as using the branches above to get through, they would still trigger a sound.
“Look, it’s like this. Sure, it’s inconspicuous, and it’s difficult to identify you at a glance. But what if you need to move, and all you can do is crawl?”
“…Mu.” Chaika frowned. It seemed like she didn’t take too kindly to Tohru speaking ill of her beloved ‘pajamas.’ “Problem, none. Rapid mobility, possible.”
“…Oh?” Tohru narrowed his eyes. “Then why don’t you try circling around this tree? Running, of course.”
As if demonstrating how simple the task was, Chaika began to move quickly toward the enormous tree Tohru was pointing at. But…
“Migyaa!?” She hadn’t even taken three steps before falling face first onto the ground. The timing was comical. Now her pajamas weren’t the only thing covered in mud and fallen leaves—her white face and silver hair had also been sullied.
“What’d I tell you?”
“Clothes are made the way they are for a reason, you know. That skirt you’re always wearing, for instance, is hemmed so that you can move around in it, obviously.”
On top of that, the thin netting easily picked up the mud and fallen leaves, which meant that it would also easily pick up any large objects like branches in the area. In other words, while it was true that her pajamas were well-suited for not being discovered, they were woefully useless when it came to making a quick escape.
“But…masterpiece…” Chaika looked despondent. Since her pajamas that she had been so proud of made it hard to tell the difference between her and the ground, it ended up looking like she was a disembodied head that had fallen on the ground, lamenting its fate. It was a strange spectacle, to be sure.
“Whatever, just take it off already!”
Tohru reached his hand over to Chaika, who was still on the ground from where she had fallen.
Then, in the next instant, there was a whooshing noise. A blade grazed Tohru’s outstretched fingers and lodged itself in the humus.
“What!?” Tohru instinctively pulled his hand back and prepared himself for battle.
Hatchets were normally used for things like clearing away underbrush, cutting up firewood, or even capturing animals—this type of blade was typically too bulky for use in such a crude manner as this. The blade wasn’t even that sharp—it was its sheer weight that made it capable of severing its target.
Throwing a weapon like that at full force…if it had connected with Tohru’s hand at all, it could have easily taken off one or two of his fingers.
“Nii-sama…” A toneless voice came out from the darkness, between the rows of trees. It was a voice filled with indifference, containing absolutely no trace of human emotion. “What in the world is the meaning of this?”
“That’s what I want to ask you, you idiot!” Tohru yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out of the blue!?”
“That’s precisely what I would like to ask you, Nii-sama.” The lean, tall figure of a girl emerged from the darkness and approached Tohru.
Her long slits for eyes and polite speech gave the impression that she was an adult, yet she was only seventeen. She had long, flowing black hair, yet it was tied up in a ponytail in the back, which made her look almost boyish. She had slender limbs, but they were by no means frail. She wore a leather-bound quasi-armor over her clothes, giving the appearance of a female deer draped over her body.
She was Tohru’s younger sister, though they weren’t related by blood, but by obligation. It looked like she had just returned from hunting—in her left hand was a strangled bird, dangling by the wing. Though she had most likely extracted most of its blood and internal organs, there was still some blood left, and it continued to drip onto the ground as she walked, making her appearance seem ghastly. Had any children come across her here at night, they would have undoubtedly wet themselves with fear, tears streaming down their face.
“Doing something like this in the middle of the night…” Akari fixed her dark eyes onto Tohru. “Seizing a young girl and ordering her to strip…”
“…Eh?” Tohru had no idea what she was talking about. Sure, he had told Chaika to take that thing off, but…
“Ah—that wasn’t, I meant…” Tohru began quickly, shaking his head. “It’s absolutely not what you’re thinking, okay?”
“Mui? Undress, no need?”
Chaika, who was in the middle of removing her pajamas, tilted her head quizzically at Tohru. He probably should have guessed this, but since she had called them “pajamas”, it stood to reason that she wasn’t wearing anything underneath them. What’s more, due to the chill of the night, her normally snow-white skin was faintly tinged with red, inviting even more misunderstandings.
“Why the hell did you choose now to take it off!?”
“Tohru, not make sense,” she said, puffing up her cheeks.
“It seems my Nii-sama is up to no good again,” said Akari, shaking her head as if to imply good grief. And of course, saying it completely devoid of expression like that made her statement terrifyingly transparent. Incidentally, it was less that she actually had a limited range of human emotions, and more that she was just remarkably bad at expressing them—though for what reason, Tohru had no idea.
“In the short time that I took my eyes off you, you immediately attempted to lay your hands on this young girl.”
“Don’t make me sound so horrible!” yelled Tohru. “Who in the hell would—”
“But if that’s just simply my Nii-sama’s disposition as a man, I suppose it can’t be helped.”
“No matter how perverted or depraved, no matter how small it is or how quick you are to perform, you are still the Nii-sama I love and respect so much. As your younger sister, it is my duty to accept everything about you!”
Akari spread her arms out wide, as if she was saying, Now, Nii-sama, jump into my arms! She was still dangling the strangled bird by its wing, so Tohru got the feeling that the same fate might happen to him if he did so.
“…Wait a second, don’t add unnecessary things to that statement!”
“You don’t need to bring up things like how big or small it might be!” Never mind how quick or slow he was to perform.
“It’s very necessary. That’s an important area,” said Akari solemnly. “Well, it seems I must confirm for myself then. As your sister.”
“Now then. Undress, Nii-sama,” Akari quietly ordered him. “If my Nii-sama insists on illogical courses of action such as ordering someone to undress when he himself refuses to, I’m afraid I have a hard time believing him.”
“Just believe me already!”
As soon as Tohru had yelled that, he picked up the hatchet that had remained embedded in the ground and immediately hurled it back to Akari with a flick of his wrist. With just one hand, Akari caught it, completely unconcerned, spun it around with her fingers, and slid it back into the holster on her waist.
“Ahh, goddammit…why the hell am I on this mountain, anyway?”
“We’re setting up camp, aren’t we?” replied Akari in a tone of voice that implied, you’re asking this now?
“Oh, of course. How could I forget?!” spat Tohru hatefully.
In order to catch her hatchet, Akari had thrown the bird over to Tohru, and he now caught it.
“And what the hell are we going to do with this? Eating it raw’s gonna suck.”
“Well, you say that, Nii-sama, but we can’t very well light a fire here,” replied Akari.
It was obvious why. Even something like lighting a fire in the middle of the mountains would be much too conspicuous. And even if they were to somehow conceal the fire itself, the smoke or even its scent would be more than enough to tip anyone off. There was nothing they could do.
Tohru’s group was being pursued. They had to take whatever measures they could to reduce the risk of being discovered.
“Pickling it in salt is an option, I guess—except we don’t have nearly enough salt on hand. No utensils either…”
“Tohru.” He felt two tugs on his sleeve, and there was Chaika. She was no longer half-naked. He didn’t know when she had done it, but at some point she had already changed back into her regular black-and-white outfit.
“Cooking. With magic, can do.”
Chaika pointed to herself.
“Ah, I guess that could work out, then. Can I count on you though?”
“Yes.” She nodded enthusiastically, and reached over to the black box leaning against the side of the large tree. It was a long, octagonal box, long enough to fit a person inside.
It was a coffin.
But when she opened it up, what was inside was obviously not a dead body, but pieces of a contraption made of wood and metal. There was a long tube, various complex mechanical parts, and a wooden piece resembling a grip. With an experienced hand, Chaika began setting it all up.
In no time at all, she assembled and prepared the device for use. The completed product was rich in length, even longer than Chaika herself.
It was a magical device called a “Gundo.” Those who were called “wizards” used them as a kind of wand in order to use and control their magic. Formerly, magic had been a technique that required countless drawn-out rituals in order to use, but with the advent of these devices, handling it had become much simpler. After taking the piece called the “connecting cord” and fastening it around her neck, Chaika pointed to a branch growing on the large tree next to Tohru.
“Tohru. Meat, skewer. That branch, use.”
“Yes.” She nodded, and aimed her Gundo at the now-skewered bird. Then—
“Aimuru…Iai…Deruza…Torugu…Irugu…” Peeking through the scope with one eye shut, she started chanting incomprehensibly. Then, at last, light-blue phosphorescent lights began to appear around her.
They didn’t resemble flames or lightning—they appeared right there in the night sky, and in the next moment, began to expand in all directions, forming a complex pattern.
It was a magic circuit, specially designed to regulate and control magic into a fixed direction. What were originally just fragments of light came together and slowly revolved around the Gundo’s center. Then, they all converged, concentrating around a single point, and became a large magic circle.
“Now come, ‘The Boiler!'” Chaika declared, completely confident in herself.
And in the next moment, though he couldn’t see it, he felt like something had taken hold of the bird on the skewer, enveloping it. There was no light, or even any sound, yet Tohru knew that some sort of force had to be at work. Then…
A faint smell of roasted meat immediately reached his nose.
Being able to cook something in such a short amount of time without even using a flame—it was so convenient, it was almost scary.
Tohru looked at Chaika with admiration, and then—
She blinked her eyes several times.
And immediately afterwards…the cooked bird exploded.
Of course, that cry of pain was due to the flaming pieces of bird meat scattering every which way, including the area where Tohru was standing. Tohru was confident in his evasion skills, but even so, it was impossible to avoid all of them.
“Hot…! W-What the hell was that!?”
Wiping a searing piece of meat from his face, Tohru turned to look at the bird on the skewer.
There was no other way to describe how it looked except “pitiful.” All the meat and entrails inside had been blown off, leaving nothing left but the skin hanging off of the bone.
“What the hell happened!?”
“…” Chaika just stood there with her eyes wide. Then…
She smiled apologetically.
“Don’t just try to gloss over it!” yelled Tohru.
Basically, it seemed like Chaika had messed up when increasing the heat. She had added too much heat too fast, causing the inside of the bird to boil in mere moments, expand, and then explode. As a result, the bird had been torn asunder.
He remembered. This girl called Chaika—she had an extraordinary ability to focus when it counted, but in exchange was a total klutz when it came to normal tasks, with or without magic.
“How could I forget…” moaned Tohru as he brushed the remaining pieces of meat off of his clothes.
“Well, that was absolutely pointless,” declared Akari. And it wasn’t hard to see why—with the meat having made such a showy explosion, never mind the smoke, the smell alone was enough to give them away.
“Ah, dammit…” Tohru raised his head to the moon overlooking the night sky and breathed a large sigh.
The saboteur, Tohru Acura.
“Maybe my decision was too hasty after all?”
Even at the onset, he was already facing enough hardships to make him regret having gone on this journey.