Tohru felt an unpleasant sweat run down his back.
Who the hell is this boy?
In front of him was the boy that called himself Guy. He had his hand stuck out to Tohru, as if expecting a handshake.
Tohru didn’t sense any hostility from him; on the contrary, he was smiling amicably. Just from looking at his body, Tohru could tell that he was a complete amateur when it came to combat. His muscles and bones, still on the cusp of maturity, gave off a sense of frailty. His appearance was neither grim nor severe, so he didn’t seem at all like a threat. And yet…
Tohru was scared of him.
That was because even though they were face-to-face, Tohru couldn’t feel the boy’s presence. No, that wasn’t quite right… there was a presence, but it was almost otherworldly; it was certainly not human.
As a saboteur whose mind was always on battle, Tohru had a certain habit. Whenever he met someone new, he unconsciously went through a process in his head. He would first evaluate how they breathed, and then he would look for any openings in their defenses, determining whether or not he could take them. It didn’t even matter if the opponent’s strength happened to surpass his own. No matter how seasoned a warrior someone was, one good surprise attack would be enough to end their life. Going by the logic that one could win the battle by bringing their opponent’s guard down, it was better to think of ways to catch your opponent unawares rather than direct confrontation.
In other words, save the actual combat for last, and get a plan of attack in your head from the get-go. That was how he normally went about things, but…
…I can’t tell…
Tohru was unable to get a good read on him. It was as if he was looking at water or air that had merely taken the shape of a person… he was unsure that he could even reach out and grab this boy called Guy.
What Tohru did know was that this was the first time he had come across anything like this.
Anxiety swelled up inside him.
Guy took one step closer, his hand still outstretched.
Before Tohru even realized it himself, he had unsheathed his right short sword and attacked. Taking a step forward, he had used the unsheathing motion to accelerate the blade, slicing a splendid trajectory from Guy’s flank to his right shoulder. It was an attack that even Tohru had to pat himself on the back for; an average person’s flank would have been torn asunder, leaving nothing for them but certain death. An expert in combat might have been able to block it in time, but even so, they would surely have a hard time evading.
A fatal attack that didn’t leave any room for questioning, and quite an overbearing attack to send towards someone he had just met, whose alignment was, at best, unclear. If anyone asked Tohru at this point if he had gone off the deep end, he felt that he would have nothing to respond to that with. It had been a kneejerk reaction out of fear of the unknown.
But just then… Tohru lost his balance. All the excess force put into that attack had sent him reeling.
Because the blade had merely sliced the air.
He had definitely sent an attack towards the boy… no, he had even seen the blade cut into the boy’s body with his own eyes. Yet the boy’s figure was no longer there… it had vanished, like an illusion.
Perhaps what Tohru had seen the blade cut into… had merely been the boy’s afterimage.
Tohru now felt an otherworldly presence at his back, and turned around.
Guy was standing… right there.
Without a sound, without breaking a sweat, he stood there as if he had been there all along.
Increasing your speed to the point where you leave behind an afterimage… that part was actually feasible. Tohru himself could do it while in his form that explosively increased his physical capabilities, “Iron-Blood Transformation.”
But… that was only while moving in a straight line. Moving at that speed while circling around your opponent, accelerating and decelerating on a dime like he did… that violated the laws of physics. He should have fallen over, like a horse-drawn carriage or vehicle tips over after trying to take a turn without slowing down.
Yet Guy had done it. Casually, and in this narrow alley, no less.
“Uh-uh.” Guy chuckled. “That’s my line. What do you think you’re doing all of a sudden?”
He didn’t seem to have a scratch on him, nor did he seem to have any intention of boasting about evading Tohru’s attack. He wasn’t even on guard for another… actually, he looked like he was enjoying himself as he looked Tohru over.
“Did something I said hit a nerve, perhaps?”
“If so, it looks like that girl really has picked up something nice.”
By “that girl”, he probably meant Chaika. So he was referring to Tohru like he was some kind of object…
“Oh yeah. You wanted to know what I am, right?” Guy said with an impish grin. “Let’s see… putting it in a way you’d understand, I’m an ally of Chaika Gaz. And if that isn’t good enough for you, you could think of me as someone who has very high expectations for the path she will take.”
“You’re shitting me,” Tohru growled. “Ally, huh? If she has an ‘ally’ like you, then why did Chaika have to come to us for help?”
But as soon as that was out of his mouth…
Wait, maybe it’s possible?
Just then, Tohru remembered something. This “Guy” might be the information dealer Chaika was talking about.
“Sorry, but unfortunately, I can’t give her any direct help. The information I have is the only help I can give. Also, I can only help Chaika and you two, her comrades.”
“…” Tohru glared at Guy, narrowing his eyes.
Only able to supply information and not help with anything else.
That didn’t sound at all like an ‘ally’. Rather, it sounded like…
This guy’s just trying to manipulate us as he pleases.
Tohru knew that although there were those who legitimately wished for the revival of the Gaz Empire, there were probably others among them that didn’t necessarily want to bow down to Chaika as its heir. In fact, it wouldn’t be strange for some of them to aim for Chaika to take the throne so that they could make her their puppet, essentially taking the power and authority of the empire for themselves.
“And why would I believe information from someone like you?”
“You’re free to believe whatever you want; I’m just the messenger. Whether or not you accept it is completely up to you. Forcing you to take it would require some extra measures on my part.”
This boy had a cryptic way of speaking. There was no uncertainty in anything he said… he spoke as if everything had already been decided.
“Then, if you’re not against us…” Tohru returned his sword to its sheath. “Why did you appear before me?”
“You just looked like you needed some assistance. You do, right?” Guy gave a light laugh.
“You’re in need of some wheels, no?”
That was indeed true. But…
“You have something we can use?”
“Oh, no, no. I told you already, I’m merely the messenger.” Guy gave an exaggerated shake of his head.
Then, turning away from Tohru and narrowing his eyes ever so slightly, he spoke again.
“After you leave this town, if you walk south for a little bit, you’ll come to a forest, correct?”
Yes, Tohru knew that there was a forest south of Ipsom. It was common sense to always have a good grasp of your surroundings, at least on the battlefield.
“In the depths of that forest, there’s a small spring. There are a number of vehicles parked along the bank of that spring.”
“Along the way to this town, you saw the ruined earth, right? Thirty years ago, a pretty big battle took place here. A number of vehicles belonging to the army were abandoned in the forest. The personnel riding the vehicles has long since fled. It looks like they were vacated in the middle of the army’s retreat, though, so they’re not in great condition. However, all of the vehicles abandoned there are the exact same model, so it should be possible to switch out the broken parts for the ones that still function. With that, surely you can repair one of them to the point where it’s up and running again?”
Tohru tried to gauge the veracity of what Guy was saying.
He didn’t seem to be an enemy. At least, not for now. If he had harbored ill will toward any of them, Guy would have just attacked them directly instead of talking to him like this. He had taken Tohru by surprise; after all, he should have been able to do the same to Akari as well. It would have been enough to secure a victory.
“Chaika…did mention something,” Tohru said, still glaring at Guy. “About a certain someone who would just appear in front of her sometimes with information on the remains. Are you him?”
“I am indeed.” Guy confirmed it with a nod. “Oh, by the way, I almost forgot. One more thing. I know the name and location of one of the heroes who were at the capital at the time of its collapse.”
Guy pointed eastward. “Some ways east from here, there’s a forest different from the one I told you about previously. Should take about two days to get there with a vehicle. The hero’s residence is within that forest.”
Tohru called up the mental map of the area in his head. “Two days…so that’s about where Ratison is, huh?”
“That’s right. The hero’s name is Dominica Scoda. I would recommend going to see her after you get your vehicle.”
“Why, thank you for your generosity,” Tohru shot back, a frown on his face.
“Well then, that’s all from me.” Guy put one hand on his chest in an over-pronounced gesture…and in the next instant, he was gone.
“How the hell…? What kind of trick is he using? “Tohru asked aloud, dumbfounded.
It wasn’t a figure of speech. He really had vanished in an instant; as soon as Tohru had taken his eyes off him. As if he had never actually been there at all, he had disappeared without a single trace.
Had it been some kind of illusion? He had heard that there was magic capable of producing illusions, and knew that even without magic, there existed devices that could use a trick of the lens to create projections…but the problem was that with Guy, he had definitely felt a presence. A strange one, but a presence nonetheless.
“…What was that?”
But right now, he didn’t have the time to worry about Guy. He broke off in a dash towards the inn once again.
* * *
From Ipsom, it took about three hours on foot to get to their destination.
In the end, they had to leave immediately, unable to even get one night’s rest at the inn. Tohru and the others, relying only on their own two feet, had headed straight for the forest towards the spot Guy had mentioned. Of course, it wasn’t that they believed every word of Guy’s information, but even so, Tohru thought it’d be a pretty good place to hide from Gillette’s group in the meantime.
In the depths, amidst the overgrown brush, there was indeed a small spring just slightly west of the middle of the forest. It really was an inconspicuous body of water; if Tohru hadn’t known about it beforehand there’d be no way he’d ever find it. Perhaps due to the undercurrent there were no signs of any fish, despite the water being clear.
“I guess it really was here,” Tohru said, with a bit of astonishment creeping in his voice.
On the bank just ahead of Tohru were three military vehicles, concealed by overgrown detritus.
These were different than the small and medium-sized combat vehicles Tohru had seen before. These were large vehicles most likely designed for transport, with seemingly large capacities to boot. To Tohru, they looked kind of like giant tortoises with their heads stuck out.
“Vehicle!” He heard Chaika’s voice. Staring at them in amazement, Chaika selected one, opened the hatch to what must have been the driver’s chamber, and stuck her legs through first so that only her torso was visible.
As Tohru was watching her…
“Nii-sama…” said Akari next to him. Her voice contained traces of suspicion. “How do you think that boy knew this was all here?”
“Well, I’m not too sure myself…”
Though he had been a bit hesitant, they really had no choice but to follow Guy’s words—he had told Akari what Guy had said along the way.
“But that cavalier’s group is still in the city, so we had to leave anyway. I just thought that while we were at it, we could confirm his info for ourselves.”
“I’m appalled,” Akari said. “You mean to tell me that you decided to obey the advice of someone who you’ve never met when you don’t even know their background?”
“Well, when you put it like that, yeah, I guess…” Tohru shrugged.
“You didn’t even stop to consider the possibility that it might be a trap?”
“If that were the case, he would have been trying to kill or torture me or something back there. Look: first of all,” Tohru held up one finger, “we might not know his true nature, but I didn’t sense any direct hostility from him, at least. And second of all…I’m not sure how to put it, but…”
Tohru stopped talking here. He had to think about how he was going to phrase what he said next.
“He seemed like he had his eye on something besides us, or that what I wanted and what he wanted were different…something like that. Ah, shit, I can’t express it very well.”
“He seemed like that, huh…” Akari tilted her head.
“Sorry I couldn’t put it more eloquently.”
In no way did Tohru accept this “Guy” at face value. On the contrary, he actually thought he reeked of suspicion…in fact Tohru really wanted to take him down if he could. But that was something else entirely, and for the moment Guy didn’t seem to be their enemy.
It was almost like…Guy was looking at someone else’s game rather than the chessboard in front of him.
“At any rate, the vehicle’s here, so I guess your hunch worked out this time, Nii-sama.”
The moment that Akari said that, there was a low, mechanical-sounding rumble, as if coming forth from the depths of the earth itself.
“Tohru!” Chaika’s head popped out from the vehicle. “Operation, possible! Parts, must gather!”
If Guy was to be believed, it had been thirty years since these vehicles had been abandoned, and from the looks of it, the inside must have been caked with dust and grime. Chaika’s white face and silver hair were speckled with grey spots.
Although, seeing her innocent face looking like that was pretty cute.
“Sounds good.” For now, Tohru replied with a wry smile.
“Exchange of parts, require assistance!”
“Yeah, I got it. Just tell me what to do.”
With a nod to Akari, Tohru headed toward the vehicle.
They now had some “wheels.” There was no doubt that this would save them a lot of time in the long run. For now, it was best to take the circumstances surrounding Chaika one piece at a time. Then he could organize what they had later.
Thinking that, Tohru rolled up his sleeves and entered the vehicle.