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Chapter 3:

Ariane, the Elf 

A young woman ran on uneasy feet through the moonlit forest. 

The surrounding trees were dark, as if the entire world had been painted with an ink-soaked brush. Despite this, the woman’s pursuers were slowly but surely closing in on her. 

She was around twenty years old, with wispy, shoulder-­length, golden hair tinted with green, matching the green of her eyes. As she ran, her hair grew tangled with small twigs and leaves, her cheeks marked by tears. Her breath was ragged, her hands and feet covered in scratches from bushes and trees, as if the very woods were trying to hold her back. 

Her elongated, pointed ears—a trait unique to the people of the forest—picked up the sounds of multiple pursuers off in the distance. When she looked around, however, she saw no signs of life. 

Had she been a dark elf, one of the other groups inhabiting the forest, she would have been able to see in the dark. For normal elves like herself, however, even seeing things in the forest during daylight was difficult enough. Night was another challenge entirely. 

Elves were generally good at sensing the presence of others. Unfortunately, this young woman was still early in her training as a soldier and did not yet have the skills to keep herself calm enough to properly sense her surroundings. 

She had tried desperately to escape her pursuers, but she could tell they were circling in closer and closer with each passing moment. 

A split second after she registered the sound of something slicing through the air, an arrow pierced her right ankle and she tumbled to the ground. 

“Aaaaaaghh!” 

Pain erupted throughout her body the moment she saw the wound, her screams echoing among the trees. Her eyes welled with tears as she held her immobile leg, wailing and rolling about on the ground in agony. 

Moments later, the bushes around her began moving, and several men stepped out of the darkness. 

The men all wore thick, leather armor that covered much of their bodies. They were armed with swords, daggers, and bows, and they quickly closed in on the young woman, menacing smiles on their faces. They were clearly quite skilled at this. 

One eagle-eyed man, his hand still holding the sword at his waist, issued commands to the rest. 

“’urry up and put a collar on ’er!” 

Another man stepped from the underbrush and approached the woman from behind, clasping a collar made of dark metal around her neck. He shoved a gag into her mouth, stifling her cries of pain as he climbed on top of her. As the men finished their well-practiced routine, a thin, well-dressed young man holding a lamp stepped from the bushes. 

“Gah, just another brat! We come all the way out here, and all we get is some filthy-smelling forest urchin. This is no fun.” 

After inspecting the fallen girl under the lamplight and letting his disdain be known, the man pulled an extravagant sword from the sheath at his waist and stabbed her in the upper arm with its tip. 

Despite the gag, her scream of pain could still be heard as she writhed about. 

“Hey, cut it out! I can’t have you scratching up our valuable merchandise!” 

The leader of the group drew his sword from its sheath and glared at the young man. The young man glared back, a vein in his forehead bulging. 

“You work for my father! You can’t tell me what to do!” 

The leader of the group looked unimpressed as he exchanged looks with the other men, rubbing his chin all the while. He decided to try to resolve the situation peacefully. 

“We can patch her up later. We need to get out of here before the other elves find us.” He issued his orders in a low voice before turning his intense eyes to the man next to him. “Did you retrieve the traps?” 

The man responded with a slight nod and lifted the cages in his hand, each of which held a small animal. It was too dark to see their contents, but weak cries could be heard emanating from within the cages. 

“Good. We’ll wait till morning and bring our four prizes back to Diento.” 

After receiving the signal from their leader, the men, accompanied by the insulting young man with his lamp, carried their bounty back into the dark forest. 

*** 

After leaving Luvierte, I began using Dimensional Step to travel upriver along the road that followed the Xpitol. I passed several settlements surrounded by long walls along the way, though they all seemed to be pretty small. 

After some time, I finally reached Corna, which looked like a smaller version of Luvierte. I decided not to stop and continued toward my next destination. 

A while later, I eventually arrived at the Lydel River, the source of the Xpitol River. To the southwest, I could see the Calcut Mountains extending into the distance. The Lydel River gently traced the eastern edge of the Calcut foothills, apparently leading all the way to the country’s capital. If I continued heading upriver, I would reach the town of Diento. 

By carriage, this trip would take at least three days. However, I was able to cover the distance in less than half a day thanks to my teleportation abilities. 

The town of Diento was just a short ways upriver from where the Xpitol split from the Lydel. At about three times the size of Luvierte, the town also possessed a rather sizeable amount of land for cultivating crops. Dual walls surrounded the town, which sat atop of a hill. Rows and rows of houses lined both the inside and outside of the wall, with dual moats surrounding the whole area. It looked exactly like a castle town. 

I lost track of time as I took in the amazing sight of the town walls dyed orange from the setting sun, and the unobstructed view of the fields beyond them. If a town this size still existed in the modern era, it would certainly be a world heritage site. 

I shook myself from my daze and began walking ­toward Diento. The fields surrounding the town were surprisingly busy, filled with farmers working and others hurrying home. I’d have to walk the rest of the way, since I was trying to avoid being seen using teleportation spells. 

I was still quite a ways off from the town, though. 

Maybe I could at least speed up my pace… I took off in a dash, my cape fluttering wildly behind me. The people ahead of me on the road heard my heavy footfalls, letting out yelps as they jumped out of my way. I wanted to tell them that there wasn’t anything to worry about. 

To be fair, it was entirely understandable to be afraid of a two-meter-tall, armor-clad man running toward you at high speed. 

I slowed my pace as the gate loomed close. I’d definitely draw attention to myself if I ran right up to it. 

Seven meters above me, guards walked atop the walls that surrounded the town. After I passed the first gate, the second wall came into view. 

The second gate stood slightly uphill from the first. After showing my mercenary license to the guard, I was allowed passage into the town of Diento. 

It seemed like everything in the town was made of stone, including the rows upon rows of two- and three-story buildings. Thrust into the massive crowd of people, I was surprised at just how noisy everyone here was, from sellers hawking their wares to the drunks milling about. 

It was almost nostalgic… 

Roads wove in and out of the buildings from every direction. I could tell that it’d take me some time to get the layout down. Upon entering a nearby bar, I found myself among several people who looked like they’d just gotten off work and were already well into their cups. 

I called to the barkeep behind the counter. “Sorry to disturb you, but I’m looking for an inn. Do you have any recommendations?” 

The barkeep responded instead with an offer of his own. “Well if it’s an inn you’re lookin’ for, we run one here on the second and third floors! A night’ll run ya two sek.” 

I wondered if I could buy food here and bring it upstairs. 

“Can I eat in my room?” 

“I don’t see why not, so long as ya bring yer plate back down when yer done. It’s three suk for a meal. Whaddya think?” 

I paid the barkeep two silver and three copper coins for my room and board and moments later received a tray with my meal on it. I took the tray up the stairwell beside the bar to my room on the third floor. 

Upon opening the door, I found a room far better than where I’d stayed in Luvierte. There was a sturdy bed with a blanket, as well as a small table and chair. I placed my food on the table, sat on the bed, and removed my helmet. 

It had been a while since I had a proper meal. 

The meal on the tray was relatively simple: flat, black bread, a bowl of bean soup, and a salad. It didn’t look like there was any meat. 

The black bread was tough to chew through, so I soaked it in the soup to soften it up. The soup itself was actually pretty good. It tasted like it was made with chicken broth. The salad was a simple affair consisting of various vegetables on a bed of lettuce and endive, topped with vinegar and salt. I was a bit confused by their choice to serve it on such similar, leafy vegetables. 

After I finished eating, I put my helmet back on and took my tray downstairs. The barkeep looked at me a bit funny when I returned the tray, but I couldn’t blame him. It must have been odd to see an armored guest take their food upstairs then return the utensils with their armor still on. But at least he didn’t say anything about it. 

Back in my room, I sat down on the bed with my back against the wall and assumed my usual pose to get some sleep. I pulled the blanket over myself as well, but it hardly made a difference with my armor on. 

Early the next morning, I woke to the sound of bells ringing in the distance. Once back on the first floor, I could see the barkeep back in the kitchen carrying out his duties. It looked like this inn was manned in the mornings, unlike the last place I stayed. I set my room key down on the counter, called out to the barkeep, and left the inn. 

After asking a person on the street for directions, I made my way to the local mercenary guild office. 

It was a three-story, stone building, but the interior wasn’t much different from the one in the previous town, other than the fact that there were so many more staff members behind the counter, and there was no caged bear of a man working there. 

A group of men who appeared to be mercenaries crowded around the job board. They were incredibly tough-looking, just like the staff. It made we wonder if there were any female mercenaries; at the very least, they could hire a woman to work in the office. 

As I looked over the job board, I could hear various discussions between the mercenaries. 

“Five members of our troupe went hunting four days ago, but we haven’t seen ’em since.” 

“Think maybe some bandits or monsters got to them? We’re close to elf territory. The monsters around that area are pretty strong, so I wouldn’t be surprised.” 

“Nah, they were heading to the base of the Calcut Mountains, toward the capital.” 

This world was full of dangers, both inside and outside the towns. It sounded like it wasn’t uncommon to simply lose track of people the moment they set foot outside. 

On the other hand, this was the first I’d heard of an elf species. Up till now, all I’d seen were normal humans. I got the impression that elves lived in the forests and didn’t venture out to where the humans lived. 

I’d hate to come all the way to this other world and not see one at least . 

I continued looking through the job board as I mulled this over, but despite the volume of requests—thanks to the larger population—they were still the same old boring chores. It seemed like I’d need to join a troupe if I hoped to get any of the good jobs. 

I left the mercenary guild office, figuring I could head out to the forest again and hunt around for something to sell. 

I stopped at a stall selling dried fruits to buy some provisions. The vendor said he was selling strawberries, but they looked like some type of wild variety to me. Maybe this was what they looked like in Europe. 

The man charged me eight copper coins for a small wooden cup full of the dried fruits, claiming it would last me half a year; I didn’t think it’d even last me half a day. I put the provisions in a small bag and threw them in my sack. 

I asked a nearby pedestrian for directions then made my way to the south gate. 

At the inner wall, I showed the gate guard my mercenary license, and he waved me through. I walked downhill and exited the city through the outer wall’s gate. 

Ahead of me, a stone bridge resting atop six arches spanned the three-hundred-meter-wide river. The bridge could accommodate three carriages traveling side by side, and it was full of people and carriage traffic. Apparently, this was a transportation hub. 

After crossing the bridge, I could see the Calcut mountain range, and the forest running along it, off to my right. To my left was a fenced-in area filled with cows, sheep, and horses, probably a pasture of some kind. Beyond that was a field of crops. 

Farther up the Lydel River, the forest loomed close, but here on the other side, the land was mostly open. 

I decided to make my way toward the base of the Calcut Mountains to hunt around for a bit. I took a path off the main road and made my way southwest. 

The Lydel River rushed off into the forest, though I couldn’t see where it went after that. As I walked, the vegetation rapidly grew thicker, closing in around me and blocking out the sunlight. Roots sprouted from the ground everywhere, looking almost like tentacles trying to grab my legs and block my path. 

The trees here weren’t nearly as thick as those in the forest near the Furyu Mountains, but they made up for that by growing close together. There was no room for me to maneuver my two-handed sword in here. Well, I probably could have, but I’d take half a dozen trees down with each swing. Dimensional Step was also practically useless here in the dense forest. 

I saw a few small animals here and there, but, just as quickly as they appeared, they’d disappear back into the underbrush. I’d probably need to set traps to catch anything here. 

I wandered through the forest for about an hour before I encountered five men—bandits, I guessed. They stepped out of the underbrush, wearing sinister smiles on their unshaven faces. Their greasy hair suggested they hadn’t washed in some time. All five of them were holding short swords. 

“Well, well. Where ya going, Sir Knight? Hehehe.” 

“Just leave yer stuff right there, and we won’t need to torture ya to death. We’re pretty nice guys, ain’t we fellas?” 

“Can’t believe our luck! Having a fancy knight like this, just wandering around in our woods all alone. Hahaha!” 

“And when we kill someone out here, we don’t even need to hide the body. Gahaha!” 

The men kept jeering, overly confident in the strength of their position. They eyed me up and down, as if calculating the value of all the goods I carried. They were practically salivating. 

“So, whaddya think, Sir Knight?” 

Two of the men moved in unison, stabbing their short swords into the gaps in my armor at my neck and sides, as if they were used to taking on armored opponents. This wasn’t like the game at all. No one would simply strike at someone’s armor head on. 

“Hng?” I looked down at the swords sticking out of me and grunted. 

“Hya hya! Just like fighting a practice dummy.” 

“The only thing impressive about him is his armor!” 

The men continued their mocking banter. 

They weren’t wrong; this exquisite armor housed nothing but bones. But that meant there were no vital organs inside for their swords to pierce. Now that they’d attacked me, I no longer had any reason to go easy on them. 

“Was that supposed to tickle?” 

“Wha?” 

“Huh?!” 

I glanced down at the two men. They looked back at me with blank stares, momentarily stunned into silence. 

Pwaah! I punched one of the men’s heads, and it went flying with a sound akin to a balloon exploding. His body shook for a second before falling to its knees. 

The other bandits’ faces contorted in shock. I’d put a little too much strength into that punch… I hadn’t meant to knock his head off. 

The rest of the fight unfolded as if I were watching it in slow motion. I turned and uppercut the other bandit next to me, my fist punching straight through his jaw and out the top of his skull. Blood exploded from his eyes, ears, and mouth, drenching the earth. 

“A gh-ghooost!” 

“Save meeeeeeeee!” 

A little farther off, two of the other bandits turned tail. I summoned my Rock Shot ability and unleashed a volley at their backs, tearing rock-sized holes through them. Rock Shot was a fairly powerful base magic skill belonging to the Magus class. The leather armor the bandits wore stood no chance against it. 

That made four. I spotted the last man weaving through the trees in a frantic attempt at escape, almost like a monkey swinging through its natural habitat. Given the density of the undergrowth, Dimensional Step would do me no good, so I decided to simply run after the bandit instead. 

He was much more familiar with the lay of the land than I was, and he drew even farther away as I shoved through the bushes and trees. I tried closing the distance by avoiding the more densely packed areas and running through the clearings. 

Suddenly, my foot snagged on something. In front of me, a large boulder suspended by a rope dropped to the earth, and my leg flew out from under me. 

“Heh! Can’t believe ya fell for such a beginner’s trap!” The bandit had stopped and was looking right at me, as if he’d just caught a major bounty. 

I yanked my foot free from the rope, shooting the boulder high into the sky, pieces of rope flying in every direction. A boulder that size was no match for my superhuman strength. 

I took off…and ran into another trap. This time, a wall of spears erupted out of the ground, meant to stab any animal that came this way. I let my armor take the brunt of it and rushed through, sending splintering wood everywhere. 

Next up was a giant wooden stake that came flying at me through the air. My fist connected with the side of it, pulling the rope taut before the wood exploded in a shower of splinters. 

Apparently, the bandits had set up traps all along the open areas. My only choice was to continue through the dense woods and simply smash my way through. I figured if beasts could do it, then so could I. 

“Whoooa! I-It really is a ghost!” the bandit screamed in horror before taking off again. Despite being shaken by what he’d just witnessed, the man was still able to deftly navigate the woods. 

I continued my pursuit at full speed. I was like a tank as I trampled trees with my body and barreled over rocks. Nothing could make me change my path in my frantic pursuit. 

Excitement welled up within me as the pursuit continued, prompting me to yell after the fleeing man. “Hahaha! You think you can get away from me?!” 

“Aaaaaaugh!” 

Hearing this, I could see the crotch of the man’s pants darken, and I caught a whiff of ammonia. I was quite impressed that, despite having peed himself in fear, he could still keep up his escape. 

Once we made it out of the woods, I found myself staring at a cliff face around seven to eight meters high. In front of me, a cave-like opening burrowed into the rock, with a simple fence around it to keep animals away. The bandits’ hideout, maybe? 

Two men sat on the ground out front, staring into space, seemingly bored out of their minds. They stared in surprise when the man I’d been pursuing appeared. 

Wide open areas made things infinitely easier for me. 

I used my Dimensional Step to teleport behind the men, drew my sword, and sliced through all three with a single diagonal slash, staining the entrance to the cave with blood and filling the area with the faint odor of rusted steel. 

A gentle breeze rustled the forest leaves. 

Despite having murdered yet another group of bandits, I didn’t feel anything. It was all like an FPS game to me; I was simply exterminating another enemy. 

I stared down at my gore-drenched sword through the slit in my helmet, yet still felt nothing. The blood slowly dripped away, and the blade’s soothing azure glow returned. 

It was like I simultaneously was and wasn’t in my own body. And yet, at the same time, I felt oddly certain of who I was. Though, for some reason, I wasn’t the least bit shaken by things that should bother me. 

I used to role play a character that had been cursed to become a skeleton. It was beginning to feel like that was actually true. 

I slid the glowing blade back into its sheath then opened and closed my hand a few times, as if to test the reality of the situation. 

That was when I noticed the faint cries of some sort of animal coming from deep within the cave. 

Careful not to make any noise, I crept forward and peered inside. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly out of the ordinary, so I made my way in. 

The cave wasn’t very deep. It curved to the left shortly past the entrance then extended for another hundred meters or so. At the end of the tunnel was a large open area, lit by several lamps. It seemed to be where the bandits slept. 

There were various knick-knacks strewn about the place, along with a wooden box for storing valuables. It looked much like a treasure chest. Inside, I found a large number of gold coins. Adding them to my purse, I guessed I had over five hundred gold coins now. Despite their small size—around that of a one-yen coin—they weighed as much as a five-hundred-yen coin, adding quite a bit of heft to my sack. 

There were also several weapons and other items lying around, so I picked up anything that looked valuable. 

I threw everything into my sack, laughing lightly as I considered that there really was little difference between the bandits’ actions and my own. 

Just then, I sensed something move and raised my head to look around. I noticed a steel cage sitting in the corner of the cave. 

It stood in the shadows outside the lamplight, which was why I’d missed it. As I approached the cage for a closer look, I could see an injured animal glaring out at me from inside. I brought the cage closer to the lamp for a better look, revealing a fox inside. 

Well, a fox-like animal, at least. It was about sixty centimeters long. Its tail made up nearly half that length and was covered with fur that reminded me of the fluff on a dandelion. Its face looked uncannily like a fox’s, with large, triangular ears that perked up attentively. It had fleshy membranes between its legs and body, similar to a Japanese flying squirrel. I couldn’t quite tell its color in the dim light, but much of its body seemed to be covered in a light green fur, with white fur on its stomach. 

The animal held its tail up as high as the cage would allow, never taking its eyes off me and groaning lightly all the while. I could see a light wound on one of its front legs and a much deeper one on a hind leg, staining its soft fur a deep red. 

I figured I’d use my healing magic on its wounds, so I undid the latch on the cage and opened the door. However, it didn’t appear like the green fox had any desire to come out. Making sure not to leave any space for it to escape, I reached my arm into the cage to pull it out. 

“Kyiii!” The fox let out a short yelp and bit down on my finger. It didn’t hurt at all, thanks to my armored gloves, but the fox continued glaring at me, growling deep in its throat. It showed no desire to loosen its grip on my finger. 

“Hey, don’t be scared…” 

I tried calming the agitated fox with my best lines from popular anime characters, but it was no use. I just didn’t have the ability to calm animals down. Out of options, I dragged the green fox from the cage by my finger, which it stayed dutifully latched on to. 

“Mending Heal.” 

With the fox still biting down on my finger, I summoned my healing spell. A soft light enveloped the injury for a moment before dissipating. Possibly surprised by the sudden light, the green fox spread out its fluffy tail and jumped backward, staring up at me with its large eyes. 

“Kyii?” 

It cocked its head to the side inquisitively before attending to its hind leg, giving the injury several licks. Then it lapped at its front paw several times before brushing its face like a cat. Once properly groomed, the fox leaned back and sat on its hind legs, its large tail wagging as it looked up at me. 

It seemed like it was done trying to run away. 

I remembered the dried berries I’d bought that morning, which were still in my sack. The fox’s nose perked up as it watched my hands closely pull out the berries. I smiled and poured some into my hand, offering them to the fox. 

It was cautious at first, only sniffing at the berries in my hand. Then it made a decision and quickly bit down on one, running off into the corner to chew on it. After it had finished the berry, the fox walked back over to me, bit down on another one, and repeated the process. After going through this several times, the fox began eating the berries straight out of my hand. 

The fear that I’d seen earlier seemed to have faded entirely. I chuckled to myself at the absurdity of it, wondering if it was really okay for a wild animal to become this friendly with people. 

Once the fox had finished all the berries, I petted its head a few times, causing it to tense up. Its eyes narrowed slightly. 

There didn’t seem to be anything else of note in the cave, so I decided it was time for me to end my short break. The green fox jogged behind me on its short legs, hurrying to keep pace with me as I made my way toward the cave entrance. 

I stopped and turned around, causing the fox to crouch on its hind legs in a sitting position. Its fluffy tail wagged gently as it looked up at me. It seemed like the creature had taken a liking to me. 

I tilted my head to the side and looked down. 

“Wanna come with me?” 

I didn’t exactly expect a response, but the green fox replied with a “Kyii!” and walked over to my feet, its tail wagging against my legs. It was almost like it could understand what I was saying. 

I didn’t know exactly what type of animal it was, but I didn’t feel like “green fox” was cutting it. I wracked my brain as I tried thinking of a name. 

Green…fox… Hmm… 

“Which name do you like better? Oage or Tempura?” 

I threw out the first two names that came to mind, but the fox’s tail just drooped in response. Apparently, it wasn’t a fan of either. 

I glanced at the small creature’s tail, covered with dandelion-like fluff. 

“Hmm, how about Ponta, then?” 

“Kyii!” The fox’s tail popped up and wagged about excitedly. 

I’d found a winner this time. 

“All right, Ponta, are you ready to go?” 

Ponta let out a squeak in response and jumped into the air, catching a gust of wind by spreading out its fleshy membranes. It almost looked as if it were floating atop some sort of invisible elevator. 

“Whoa!” I gasped in astonishment, my eyes locking onto Ponta. 

It seemed to be using some sort of wind magic. There was no way an updraft could occur inside a cave like this. 

Ponta continued riding the breeze even higher, landing atop my helmet. Since we’d been facing each other, Ponta was now pointing toward my back, its large fluffy tail drooping down to obscure the slit in my helmet. I gently brushed the tail back and forth a few times, causing Ponta to readjust its position and clear up my view. 

I knew I was in a fantasy world, but still, to meet such a mysterious creature, and one that could use magic at that, was beyond my expectations. I’d just figured it lived among the trees, gliding about like flying squirrels do. 

I nodded once, amazed at Ponta’s impressive feat, before collecting my bag and making my way toward the cave’s entrance again. 

Not wanting any further trouble, should anyone discover the bodies of the bandits, I used Fire to burn their corpses. Ponta was surprised at first by the flames, but after it realized it wasn’t in any danger, I could feel its tail swishing along the back of my helmet again. 

Once the bandits had been reduced to ash, I left their base behind. 

With the considerable loot I’d just acquired, my animal companion and I should be able to survive for a while without needing to work. It’d be nice to travel about wherever our whims took us, like birds on the wind. I felt like a newly minted retiree as I began considering the options. 

I alternately walked and teleported as I thought about my options. When I finally made my way out of the trees, I was able to see the sky, which was turning a pale red. 

Apparently, I’d spent quite a bit of time in the forest. 

Off in the distance, I could see the walls of Diento. The vast fields around the town were devoid of any signs of life. 

After walking upriver a ways, along the Lydel, I came upon the figure of a man, facing away from me. He was wrapped in a beige cloak, his green-tinged, blond hair blowing about in the wind. I assumed he was a man, but he looked different from all the other men I’d seen up to that point. From behind, I could see he had the elongated, angled ears that marked a certain species common in stories and games. 

For some reason, I was incredibly excited to see one in person. I immediately teleported behind him using Dimensional Step and called out to him. “You’re the first elf I’ve seen.” 

The elf jumped forward, spinning around in midair. As he landed, he drew a thin sword, pointing it, and a very stern look, my way when he landed. 

He had green eyes to match his green-tinged, shoulder-­length, blond hair. His slim body was covered in leather armor, his hand steady as he kept the sword tip trained on me. His demeanor was completely different from the bandits I’d encountered in the woods. I could immediately tell he was a soldier. 

“Identify yourself, stranger.” 

Never once letting his guard down, the elf spoke in a low voice as he stepped back, putting more distance between us. His gaze seemed particularly focused above my head, or rather, on Ponta, who sat atop my helmet. 

“I am Arc, a wanderer. Apologies for getting so excited.” 

The elf shot me a dubious look and lowered his blade ever so slightly. His eyes wandered over my armor, as if he were trying to see through it, to figure out who the man underneath really was. 

“A human? I never knew a ventu-vulpis to take kindly to humans.” 

“Ventu-vul…?” 

“Also known as the cottontail fox. That spirit creature sitting atop your head. What you humans call phantasms, I think? They usually travel in packs. Where did you find it?” 

“You’re a spirit, Ponta?” 

Ponta responded with a curious cry, refusing to move down from its perch. The elf looked exasperated as he stared back at me. 

“Not a spirit, a spirit creature. It’s a type of animal a spirit resides within. If you don’t already know that, then you’re definitely no elf.” 

I could tell he was talking down to me, but I couldn’t really blame him. He had no idea about my backstory. 

“Apologies, this is the first time I’ve encountered a spirit creature. I found this fellow here injured in a cage inside a bandit camp, so I set it free. It seems to have grown attached to me after I healed its wounds and gave it some food, so I’ve decided to let it accompany me on my travels.” 

The elf facing me maintained a quizzical expression on his face as he listened to my story. 

“Hmph. Spirit creatures are usually incredibly cautious. They rarely get close even to us elves. But I guess there are bound to be outliers.” 

Outliers… The elf seemed to lock his eyes on me as he said this word. Maybe it was just my imagination. 

He lowered his sword, readjusted his cloak, and pulled his hood over his head, hiding his distinctive ears. 

“What are you doing all the way out here?” I asked. “Are you heading into town? I haven’t seen any elves there…” 

Even though he had the hood pulled down low over his face, I could still see the dumbfounded expression the elf wore in response to my question. 

“Are you really a human, stranger? Humans fear…no, hate all that is different or superior to them. We elves are granted long lives and possess strong magical affinity. Even here in the Rhoden Kingdom, where you’ve already entered a treaty with us, you continue hunting us if we don’t stay out of sight. Apparently, you sell forest elves for large sums.” 

Deep within his cloak, his eyes burned with anger. 

Officially at least, hunting elves was prohibited, but it sounded like no one actually enforced that treaty. Even without knowing the particulars, the look in this elf’s eyes alone was enough to convey the atrocities committed by humans. 

Maybe hunting wasn’t quite the right word; it didn’t sound like they were killing the elves. If elves were vicious, war-loving barbarians, humans wouldn’t have entered a treaty with them in the first place. Nor would hunting and selling them for large sums be illegal. So, unless elf blood was some sort of all-encompassing cure, the only other possibility was slavery. 

That meant this elf’s reason for coming so close to a human town was… 

“You’re here to free the slaves, aren’t you?” 

The elf’s face clouded over with suspicion, a dangerous look in his eyes. 

“Hmph. You’d best not tell anyone about what we discussed here. Or even that you’ve seen an elf.” 

I sighed, letting my shoulders slump to show the elf he had nothing to fear. I spread my hands to indicate that I meant no threat. 

“Not that I can trust the words of a human…” 

Before he even got the full sentence out of his mouth, the elf was already lifting his sword again. Ponta screeched out from the top of my head, as if objecting to the man’s actions. 

“Kyii kyiii!” 

The elf froze for a moment, but then the expression on his face eased up, and he lowered his sword. 

“Well, you somehow managed to form a bond with a spirit creature, so I suppose an exception can be made. Don’t forget what I said.” 

The elf quickly walked past me and disappeared into the forest. I hadn’t even learned his name. 

I’d thought this would be my chance to engage with a different species in this strange new world, but humanity’s reputation was evidently too negative to overcome. 

Well, perhaps we’d meet again. If elves were enslaved within the town, I could try to uncover some information. That way, if our paths did cross another time, I’d have some information to share. 

With that objective firmly in my mind, I made my way back to town. 

As the setting sun cast its glow over Diento’s walls, nothing in particular seemed different or out of place. However, I looked on the town with new eyes, seeing only the darkness, a cloak that hid all of humanity’s worldly desires. 

Several days later, I woke up as usual atop my bed at the inn to the sound of the morning bells. 

Ponta lay on the blanket, its face buried in the fluff of its green and white tail. From time to time, a low growl issued from the back of its throat and it would make chewing motions, as if dreaming of some delicious feast. Because of its foxlike appearance, I’d originally assumed Ponta was a carnivore, but it seemed to be an omnivore, with a preference for fruits and berries. 

Ponta woke up, scratched behind its ears with a hind leg, then stretched its mouth wide open in a yawn. Hopping onto my shoulder, Ponta resumed its rightful perch atop my helmet. Apparently, cottontail foxes liked high places. 

With Ponta on my head, I picked up the large, black cloak sitting nearby and draped it over my armor. The cloak was a recent purchase from a shop in town. Not only did it cover up my flashy armor, but it would also help me with covert activities. 

But even when I covered up the gleam of my armor, my helmet still peeked out of the black cloak, which didn’t help matters. I probably looked like some sort of black-cloaked, laser-sword-wielding villain right out of a certain sci-fi franchise. 

Be that as it may, I was now able to disappear into a crowd of people far better than when I was showing off my armor in its full glory. 

I went down to the first floor, offered up a greeting to the barkeep, who was busy in the kitchen again, and made my way outside. The bar only served dinner, so I’d gotten into the habit of buying breakfast from a street vendor in the mornings. 

The road was lined on both sides with stalls, competing to draw the attention of prospective customers. As I walked between them, the world suddenly became dark as a certain cotton-like tail swung in front of my visor. 

Whenever I walked past something Ponta liked, it would lock its gaze and turn its body to face whatever it had spotted, eventually obscuring my vision with its tail. 

I reached up and turned Ponta around, then walked in the direction Ponta had been looking. It was a vendor selling a type of nut that Ponta had recently taken a liking to. The light brown shells housed a green inside, reminding me of pistachios. 

“Kyiii!” 

Buy it, pleeease! It wasn’t hard to figure out what Ponta was saying. 

I paid the woman at the stall five copper coins for a small bag then broke the shells of several nuts, feeding them to the creature atop my head. Ponta screeched in delight and gobbled them up. Though Ponta could take the shells off on its own, this resulted in pieces of shells falling in front of my visor as I walked. 

I’d spent the past few days exploring the town, with Ponta perched atop my head. 

I’d been looking around the nooks and crannies of Diento to see if I could uncover any information about the enslaved elves. However, since I couldn’t just walk up to someone and ask them point blank if they knew where the slaves were kept, I was left wandering around without any specific destination in mind. 

Buying and selling captured elves was likely a highly lucrative business, even if it was forbidden, which meant it was almost certainly happening under the direction of some powerful figure. 

I had my suspicions that my search would be more fruitful not in the town itself, but the homes of the nobility closer to the center of Diento. However, my current appearance would draw immediate attention. There were many guards near the nobles’ estates, but not nearly the same volume of foot traffic. 

To be completely honest, I wasn’t exactly conducting my search out of altruism. It wasn’t that the concept of slavery didn’t bother me, but, as awful as it was to admit, I was bored and simply had nothing better to do. There were probably better uses of my time, but I couldn’t ­imagine just sitting around the inn without any clear goals ahead of me. 

I didn’t know what I’d do if I actually found the enslaved elves. For the time being, I was trying to keep a low profile. That way, if I did find myself in a situation where I could help them out, I could do so quietly. 

It figured that when I’d finally met elves in this alternative world—something I’d dreamed of my whole life—it turned out they were being persecuted. 

Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen any other fantasy species since coming here. Did they even exist in this world? Judging by how the elf had spoken, I supposed that, even if they did, they were probably persecuted just like the elves. What a depressing thought. 

I mulled these heavy thoughts over as I made my way to the mercenary guild office. I hadn’t been there in several days, so it was nice to be back. Pounding the pavement wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I figured I’d take on a job. 

There were several mercenaries already crowded around the job board, picking through requests. I joined the group and began sorting through the tags, looking for something interesting. 

One finally caught my eye. It was for a missing person. 

The person had gone out into the woods up the Lydel River and hadn’t returned. That was five days ago. 

The forest upriver lined the base of the Furyu mountain range. It was commonly referred to as the Furyu Forest—same as the one near Rata. It stretched on and on, covering a vast area of land. 

However, the forest on the other side of the Lydel River, despite being a part of the same mountain range, was known by a different name. People referred to it as the “Elf Forest” or the “Lost Woods.” 

Not only did powerful monsters run rampant there, but the elves living within the forest would give you no quarter if you came across them. 

I wasn’t interested in taking on this job right now. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to complete the job until I either found the person or brought back something proving they were dead or alive. I’d heard an experienced mercenary telling a newbie earlier that for jobs like these, it was best to keep the information in the back of your mind, notifying the guild only after you found something. 

I followed that advice and decided to look around in the woods upriver. 

After leaving the guild office, I made my way toward the east exit, the gate closest to the Furyu Forest. 

Unlike the north and south gates, which were often used by merchant caravans, the east gate was much smaller and only wide enough for a single carriage. This was also where the red-light district was located, the tiny alleys filled with questionable-looking shops. There weren’t that many people out and about during the daytime hours, but come nightfall, the streets would be filled with women calling out to men as they walked past. 

Since I was trying to stay out of trouble, I steered clear of this area at night. Besides, even if I wanted to go there, there was nothing I could do with my body in its current state. 

After passing through the east gate and the outer town wall, I crossed two wooden bridges spanning the moats and turned right to walk along the Lydel River. The Furyu Forest was twenty kilometers from the east gate, and the journey only took five minutes using Dimensional Step. 

Once we entered the forest, I could feel Ponta wagging its tail excitedly against my armor. 

I wondered if the light green fur was meant to be some form of camouflage for the forest-dwelling creature. A part of me was saddened by the thought that Ponta may return to them if we ran across any other cottontail foxes, but I ventured deeper into the woods all the same. 

The forest was decently lit, allowing me a line of sight deep into the woods. The undergrowth, however, was thick, making it impossible to even see my own feet. Off to my right was a cliff. I could hear rushing water from the Lydel River echoing below. The forest was filled with bird calls and rustling leaves, giving it an altogether relaxing atmosphere. There were no fearsome monsters to be seen. 

I continued my nature hike, basking in the sunlight streaming through the trees. But as I made my way farther into the woods, the air took on the distinct smell of rotting meat. 

Up ahead, past some underbrush, the trees opened out into a small clearing. In its center, I found scattered bones, teeth marks gouged deep into them. I quickly realized what had caused such distinctive marks. 

The mound of flesh in front of me, what had once been a human, was headless, making it impossible to identify. I couldn’t find a head anywhere in the surrounding area either. I had no way of knowing whether this was the man from the job request or not. 

Though it looked like the body had been gnawed on in several places by animals, its head had been severed cleanly. Assuming the man had been attacked and torn apart by wild animals, there was no way the neck would be cut like that. I wasn’t even sure if monsters were able to do that. 

The most likely scenario was that he’d been attacked and killed by bandits. There were no weapons or bags in the vicinity, and I had a hard time believing that someone would come into the dangerous woods unarmed. 

I decided to look around in case there was another bandit hideout nearby. 

Down in the grass, I discovered a trail of blood. Though it had already dried and turned black, it served as a guide through the forest. 

The blood led me to the shore of the Lydel River, where it continued along the rocky beach. The river was wide here, but fairly shallow. It looked like whoever left the trail had crossed the water. 

On the other side of the river was the so-called Elf Forest, which made me wonder if the man had been killed by elves. However, I had a hard time believing any elves lived at the edge of the forest, right along the river. It was too close to the humans. I thought it more likely that bandits had built a hideout here, in a place rarely frequented by humans and where elves would have a hard time finding it. 

“Wanna play detective for a bit, Ponta?” 

“Kyiii!” 

Ponta had been drinking from the river when I called out, but it ran excitedly back to my side. I took a knee to allow the fox to jump up onto my shoulder and back to the top of my head. I cracked a few more pistachios and fed them to it, leading to more excited tail wagging as it gnawed on the nuts. 

I crossed the river and entered the woods on the other side. Everything from here on out was the Elf Forest. 

The forest itself didn’t have a particularly foreboding feeling to it. If anything, compared to the woods on the other side, the massive trees here gave this forest a mystical, timeless quality. Light filtered between the leaves of the canopy above, illuminating the undergrowth at my feet. 

There was no blood trail to be found anywhere, though I did uncover tracks that looked like a footpath. Maybe the man had been attacked as he was crossing the river, and he started bleeding on the other side. In that case, the bandits would be on high alert in this area, which meant it would do me no good to perform a meticulous search of the place or to continue following the tracks. I’d just have to walk around and see what I could find. 

A short time later, Ponta and I ran across a bear. Or, rather, it had the body of a bear, the head of a wolf, and the long, drooping ears of a donkey. 

The wolf-bear glowered at us and stood up on its hind legs, moving closer. I wasn’t interested in hunting any wild animals today, so I gave the wolf-bear a quick punch, causing it to yelp and run back through the brush into the woods. 

Ponta was still tense, fur standing on end, so I reached up and scratched under its chin. From the direction the wolf-bear had run off to, the cries of someone in distress echoed through the woods. 

We were already deep into elf territory, so that meant the person was either an elf or some human up to no good. 

Looking in the direction the cries had come from, I found a small path winding through the forest. The path—if you could even call it that—had been roughly hacked through the grass. It was barely wide enough for a single carriage. 

I crept through the shrubs along the side of the path, using Ponta as a miniature ghillie suit for my head. As I moved along silently, a group of frenzied people came into view, weapons unsheathed and at the ready. 

There were a dozen or so of them standing around a cart, their eyes alert and constantly scanning their surroundings. The wolf-bear I’d sent running just moments ago was dead at their feet, bleeding from multiple wounds. A thin, young man stood over the two-meter wolf-bear, spitting out epithets as he kicked its body. 

“Dammit, don’t scare me like that! All we’ve done today is knock around a bunch of stupid brats!” 

He held an expensive-looking sword in his hand, though there was no sign of blood on the blade. It didn’t look like he’d helped kill the beast. 

An imposing man looked over, wide-eyed, at the young man and scolded him. “Keep yer voice down, Udolan. There could still be beasts lurking nearby.” 

Udolan’s face contorted with rage. “Don’t tell me what to do!” 

The imposing man, possibly the leader of the group, averted his gaze from the young man as he screamed himself red, instead looking back at the men surrounding the cart. 

“The cloth’s slippin’. Ya better fix that.” 

There was a large, steel cage in the bed of the cart. Four young children with characteristic elf ears were packed inside. All of them had injuries, either on their hands or feet, and were crying quietly to themselves. 

Several of the men standing around the cart picked up a large canvas, which had apparently fallen off during the encounter with the wolf-bear, and put it back over the cage, once again hiding the terrified elf children from sight. 

Apparently, this group was involved in the capture, ­enslavement, and sale of elves. Seeing them, I recalled my conversation with the elf I’d met outside Diento several days earlier. 

Even I’d known about the slavery, but seeing these children locked up in cages and treated like animals right in front of my eyes gave me a totally different perspective. I wondered if this altogether unpleasant feeling was related to the fact that I’d grown up in such a peaceful country. Even in my own world, there were probably those who couldn’t distinguish between people from things, so long as they sold for a high price. But I was lucky to have never been around that. 

I couldn’t stand idly by and let these children be taken. 

I was surprised to feel this focus, this calling, well up within me. I cocked my head to the side as I pondered over this, before returning my attention to the men in front of me. 

They were evenly spaced around the cart, so even if I teleported in, there’d be no way to fend them all off at once. Plus, if any of the children were taken as hostages, it wouldn’t matter how strong I was. 

On the other hand, for all they knew, I was just some mysterious knight in a black cloak. If I came up behind them, I’d have the advantage until they figured out what I was there to do. 

The next problem was the matter of timing. 

As I watched the group from behind a bush, I detected movement in front of the traffickers. 

“Who’s there?!” a man at the front of the pack called out, quickly nocking an arrow and shooting it off into a bush near the cart. However, the only cry of pain that followed was his own. 

Something flew out of the bush at blinding speed, ripping a massive hole in the chest of the man who’d shot the arrow. Before his body even had time to hit the ground, a gray shadow loomed out of the forest. 

As blood erupted from the first man, the shadow broke into two tendrils that wrapped themselves around the necks and arms of two more men and pulled them to the ground. As they fell, I could see a lone attacker standing between them, readjusting the silver sword in her hand. 

The woman was beautiful, wrapped in a dark gray cloak, thin saber at the ready. It was immediately apparent that she was no normal woman. Her flawless skin was light purple in hue, almost the color of amethyst. It was accented by her ruffled, snow-white hair, which was tied back in a ponytail and revealed elf ears, albeit shorter than those of the elf I’d met before. Her eyes glowed an eerie shade of gold in the rapidly darkening forest. 

Underneath her cloak, the woman wore a decorative priest’s robe, which was covered by corset-styled leather armor. 

The soft lines of her figure still managed to show through her simple armor. She stood poised on long, slender legs that ended at well-formed hips, and her leather chest-piece strained to hold back her ample chest. And yet, she still reminded me of the knights of old. 

“Release the children at once!” 

She glared at the men with her golden eyes, her calm, measured voice filled with hatred as she spoke. 

“An elf! Keep yer guard up, men!” 

Despite having just seen three of their own slaughtered, the men responded in unison to their leader’s orders, forming a semi-circle around the elf. The two men on the ends rushed at her from both sides, trying to stay in her blind spot. However, she didn’t seem to be in any real danger. 

An instant later, the elf warrior bounded high up into the air, easily evading the two attacking blades. She quickly slashed her blade while still in midair before landing out of reach of the encroaching group. Her aerial strike cut one of her attackers’ faces open, causing blood to pour out everywhere. The other man fell to the ground where he stood, three arrows jutting from his back. I caught the briefest of glimpses of an elf archer deep in the forest before turning my attention back to the woman. 

Apparently, the slave traders had been ambushed by two elves. 

“Don’t let yer eyes fool ya! These are elf soldiers!” 

The group of men was beginning to look more uneasy now that five of their own had been felled in a matter of minutes. However, they all hoisted their shields and withdrew slightly to readjust their formation. 

The female elf gritted her teeth and scowled. Even though she’d gotten the drop on the group, there were still more than ten slave traders remaining, and they’d been able to pull their ranks in quicker than she’d anticipated. It made sense though; if you were operating in such dangerous woods, you’d have to be able to work as a team. 

The two sides glared at each other, their hatred palpable. Udolan, the attractive young man from earlier, stood behind the protection of the men near the cart, waving his sword around frantically as he yelled. 

“Surrender while you have a chance, hag! These men are about to chop you into ribbons! The same goes for your friend in the forest!” 

Udolan’s veins bulged, spittle flying from his mouth as he yelled. The young man seemed nothing like the rest—he definitely wasn’t a regular member of their group. 

The children, still locked away in their cage atop of the cart, suddenly found themselves at the other end of Udolan’s blade. 

“So, now you use children as a shield?! And you have the gall to call yourself a human, you cowardly beast?!” 

The white-haired elven woman shot an intimidating glare at the young man before readjusting her stance and moving toward the group. However, Udolan’s next move stopped her cold. 

“Oh, shut up, will you? Take one step closer and I can’t vouch for their safety!” 

The moment the words left his mouth, the man thrust forward with his sword, plunging its tip into the leg of one of the young girls in the cage. 

Even with the gag in her mouth, the young girl’s scream could still be heard far outside the cage. The other children cowered back into the corners, sobbing uncontrollably with fear. 

The elf woman’s face grew even fiercer, but she didn’t dare move closer while the children were hostages. 

“Kyiii.” 

Ponta, who was concealing my head with its light green fur, chewed lightly on a paw as it watched the events unfold. 

Now that the light purple woman’s advance had stopped, thanks to Udolan’s threats, the slave traders seemed to relax a bit as they slowly encircled the woman. Her snow-white hair was in disarray, her eyes burning with hatred as she watched the oncoming men. They hesitated momentarily, but it would only be a matter of time until they made their move. 

The male elf in the forest seemed at a loss for what to do, his bow hanging limply at his side. At this rate, it seemed clear they would both be captured. 

Tired of watching the men make their painfully slow advance, an agitated Udolan pointed his sword at the woman and began screaming. “Don’t even think of continuing to resist! Men, go in and get that dark elf. Looks like we’ve caught ourselves a pretty prize. I’ll need to inspect this one myself.” 

A lustful grin pulled at the corners of Udolan’s lips, the meaning behind his words readily apparent. 

So, this woman was a dark elf, which was quite different from a run-of-the-mill elf. Back in the game, dark elves usually had dark brown skin, red eyes, and long, pointy ears. Apparently, things were a bit different in this world. From the way Udolan was talking, it sounded like they were a rare breed. 

The dark elf’s face contorted in a look halfway between fear and anger. Udolan’s smile only grew with each passing moment. 

If these were simply bandits roaming through the woods, I may have ignored the situation. But now that children were involved, I could no longer stand idly by. 

I looked into the cage on the cart. The young girl who’d been stabbed held her leg, moaning as tears rolled down her cheeks. 

No matter what the situation, it was absolutely unforgivable to threaten innocent children and use them as shields. 

Since the men were focusing all their attention ahead of them, it’d be easier for me to get in a surprise attack now. 

Figuring things were about to get dangerous, I took Ponta down from my head and put it around my neck, like a scarf. Then I used Dimensional Step to send myself behind the young man. Just as I’d hoped, neither Udolan nor the other men seemed to notice me, their attention fixed on the white-haired elf in front of them. 

As I pulled back my fist to attack Udolan, I surveyed the surrounding area. My eyes locked with the dark elf’s, her surprise evident in her wide pupils. 

“You seem to be in a bit of trouble. Would you care for a hand?” 

Upon hearing my voice, Udolan began turning toward me, but it was already too late for him. 

“Gyaugh?!” 

Unlike the last time, when I’d punched the other bandits with all my might, this time, I merely pushed my closed fist into the young man’s back. I could feel his spine break, but rather than exploding like before, he flew into the group of men like a bowling ball into a row of pins. 

Everything seemed to stand still for a moment. 

Considering that the men had just seen a black-cloaked knight in brilliant silvery armor appear behind them, it was understandable they’d be speechless. The man I’d punched, as well as the two men he’d collided with, lay motionless on the ground. 

Everyone in the vicinity was stunned, though the dark elf was the first to regain her composure. 

She fell upon three of the men who were still staring blankly up at me, ending their lives with some skillful swordplay. From where I stood, a mere novice, her swordsmanship was poetry in motion. 

The gruff leader of the group lunged forward to stab the elf in the chest. She spun deftly out of the way, no more than a paper’s thickness of space between her body and the blade as she returned the blow. The rest of the men screamed aloud as they watched the events unfold. 

The formation broke down and men took off into the woods. At that very same instant, the male elf began launching a volley of arrows at them. 

One of the slave traders took off toward me, swinging his sword wildly, the deftness he’d displayed against the elf earlier now a long-forgotten memory. 

I turned toward my attacker. 

“Armor Lariat!” 

With no time to draw my sword, I crossed my armor-­clad arms, clasped my elbows, and ran into the man. I could hear a dull thud as I hit his sword, followed by the snap of his neck as I threw his body into a nearby tree. 

In a matter of moments, the forest had returned to its usual silence, the only sounds those of the insects and the wind. 


With the threat now gone, my first priority was to set the children free and heal the girl’s injuries. As I turned toward the cart, a harsh male voice rose up behind me. 

“Stop right there!” 

I turned around and saw that the male elf had left the forest. He had his bow trained on me, drawn and ready to fire, a fierce look in his eyes. 

I raised my hands to show that I had no intention of putting up any resistance. 

“I am but a simple traveler who happened upon…” 

Even as the words came out of my mouth, I barely managed to suppress a chuckle at how absurd they must have sounded. I was no mere traveler. But still, I tried to explain myself. 

“I said don’t move! Ariane, look for a key to the cage!” 

The male elf barked a command at the white-haired woman, who seemed hesitant. The look of uncertainty on her face only grew more intense. 

“Wait a moment, Donaha. He helped us back there, didn’t he?” 

“I understand. But we’re in elf country, and no one here wears massive armor like that. He must be a human, just like those abductors.” 

Ariane’s eyes widened upon hearing this. She shot me a suspicious glance. 

“Get the children from the cart and begin administering aid.” 

The female elf responded to Donaha’s command and began searching for a key to the children’s cage. Apparently, simply being human was enough to mark me as untrustworthy. 

While Ariane searched the cart and the pockets of the dead slave traders, Donaha motioned for me to lower my hands, though he kept the bow trained on me, his eyes alert. 

“Thank you for your assistance. However, we do not trust humans, especially those who keep their faces hidden.” 

I slowly lowered my hands, my palms still spread out, suppressing a laugh. It made perfect sense for him to be suspicious of an armor-clad man who’d suddenly appeared out of nowhere. 

“Unfortunately, I cannot remove my helmet. The reasons are various, but personal.” 

Just then, Ponta’s triangular ears perked up. After running a quick loop around my neck and checking the surroundings, Ponta hopped back on top of my head and cried out. 

“Kyiii!” 

Upon seeing this, Donaha’s eyes went wide in disbelief. He lowered his bow ever so slightly. 

“Is that…a ventu-vulpis?! Are you a human or aren’t you?!” 

Much like the elf I’d run into before, he was also taken by surprise upon seeing Ponta. It must have been pretty rare to encounter one of these cottontail foxes. Ariane looked up from her search for the key, shock registering on her face as well. 

“The other elf I met was surprised, too. Yes, I am ­indeed human. I helped this creature out when it was injured and gave it food. It’s grown attached to me. Lately, it’s taken a liking to these.” 

I went back to the bush where I’d left my sack and retrieved the bag of pistachios. I poured a few out into the palm of my hand and raised it above my head. Ponta started chewing through the nuts’ shells, stuffing their delicious innards into its cheeks. 

Donaha seemed to be having a hard time believing what he was seeing. Though the look of caution never quite left his eyes, the drawn bow lowered farther as he continued his line of questioning. 

“Who is this elf you said you met before?” 

“I ran into him outside the town of Diento. He was working to set the elves in town free.” 

Though the man had asked me not to tell any humans of our interaction, I figured telling elves should be fine, especially elves with the same goal. Donaha’s expression softened slightly, as if he may know the man I was referring to. 

“You met Danka? Were you the one who…” 

“No, this is the first time I’ve spoken of the encounter.” I hurried to head off the man’s suspicion, though I couldn’t be sure he believed me. 

Just then, Ariane called out to us. “I found the key, Donaha!” 

She ran over to the cage and undid the latch, letting the door swing open with a heavy, metallic clang. The injured elven children inside looked relieved to see her, though they still wore black metal collars around their necks. Ariane lifted the girl who’d been stabbed out of the cart first. 

Hoping to gain some points with them, and to smooth over my relations with the other elves of this world, I decided to offer Donaha the use of my magic. 

“If anyone has been harmed, I may be able to heal them. Would it be all right for me to look at the child’s injuries?” 

“You say you’re a human, so why would you help us? You must be aware of the relationship between humans and elves.” 

“Not all humans view elves as their enemies. There’s nothing more to it than that. Like you, I cannot stand by while barbarous acts like kidnapping, hostage-taking, and violence against children are carried out in front of me.” 

Donaha turned his gaze from Ponta to Ariane and the girl in her arms. He put the arrow back in his quiver. 

“I shall trust your word, for her sake. Can you heal this child?” 

I took that as permission. 

I left Ponta, who was busily munching pistachios, in my hand as I approached the girl. I thought the fox may keep the children calm. One hid behind Ariane, and the rest cowered slightly as I approached. I put Ponta on the ground and knelt to bring myself closer to their eye level. 

The girl Ariane was holding tried burrowing herself deeper into the woman’s arms, her face tensing up. She had blood-stained bandages around her leg from injuries she’d sustained prior to the recent stab wound. She probably had a hard time walking under her own power. I assumed the men had done that to keep her from escaping. 

I spoke in the softest voice I could manage, to try and keep the girl calm. 

“Stay still. I’m going to use a healing spell on you.” 

I reached out and summoned Mending Heal. A soft light enveloped the girl’s injured leg, and the wound started closing. 

Everyone around me looked surprised, from the young girl herself to Ariane and all the other children. They crowded in around the girl for a closer look. 

Donaha, who’d been hanging back as he watched on, spoke up. 

“You must be quite powerful to use a healing spell without chanting. Judging by your armor, I’d figured you for a knight.” 

Evidently, one generally needed to chant in order to use magic. There was a cooling down period in the game before spells could be used again, but they were automatically cast the moment they were selected, without any need for chanting. I was thankful Donaha only thought of this as something uncommon, rather than something impossible. 

Once the girl’s leg was fully healed, she dropped down from Ariane’s arms and tested her leg. After she was satisfied, she turned toward me, eyes facing downward. 

“Th-thanks, mister…” 

“Do you have any other injuries?” 

The girl quickly shook her head. 

Seemingly reassured, the other children came forward to have me heal their wounds as well. 

Just then, an eerie wail broke the silence of the forest. Donaha narrowed his eyes, looking around the dusk-­colored woods for the source of the noise. 

“Sounds like a scavenger.” 

Seeing the children’s concerned expressions, Ariane gently patted their heads to soothe them. 

“We should do something before any other scavengers arrive,” Donaha said. “Can I leave the bodies to you?” 

Ariane nodded and immediately went about moving the slave traders’ bodies all into one location. She was much stronger than she looked. 

Keeping one eye on Ariane, Donaha turned toward me, looking as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. 

“Excuse me, but you are…?” 

I realized then that I hadn’t yet told him my name. 

“They call me Arc. I’m a wandering mercenary.” 

“Pleased to meet you, Arc. I am Donaha, and this is Ariane. I hate to ask this of you, but would you mind healing the other children as well?” 

I nodded in response to his request, which was surprisingly timid. I then went about casting Mending Heal on the remaining three children, each one thanking me quietly in turn. 

After I finished, I looked over to Donaha, who’d been watching us the entire time. He had a rather conflicted expression on his face. 

“Are those mana-eater collars? They won’t be able to use magic if we don’t take them off. But I have no idea how to…” he muttered to himself as he looked at the black metal collars locked around the children’s necks. There was a series of strange symbols carved into the surface of each one. 

“What’s a mana-eater collar?” 

The term was completely foreign to me. 

Donaha explained that the collar was cursed and would sap its wearer’s magic ability, preventing them from casting spells. It also prevented elves from using their spiritual abilities. 

“Ariane will be meeting with Danka after this. That leaves me to watch over these children and take them to the nearest village…with their ability to use magic blocked.” 

As Donaha examined the now-healed children and tried figuring out his next move, Ariane paused in her work with the bodies and approached us. 

“Arc, was it? Can’t we ask him to accompany you on the way to the village? I recall hearing that a mercenary is a type of human who will accept money to carry out a task.” 

Donaha furrowed his brow and turned his gaze toward me. 

“That may be so, but…” 

It was clear what he wanted to say. He probably didn’t want to bring this strange human anywhere near where the elves lived. It was fine to make requests out here, but trusting humans was something else entirely. 

“He helped us and the children, didn’t he? We should be able to trust him on some level.” 

Ariane continued advocating for me, pushing through Donaha’s hesitation. I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t be so trusting of people; there was something about her innocence that awakened a protective instinct within me. 

It looked like Donaha was about to cave, so I decided to offer a suggestion of my own. I watched their expressions as I spoke. 

“I have a spell that can remove curses. But I don’t know if it’ll work on the mana-eater collars.” 

There were several spells in the Monk class line that could lift curses, specifically Uncurse from the mid-tier Bishop class and Holy Purify from the top-tier Priest class. Uncurse would remove curses caused by items and status effects, while Holy Purify would remove all curses as well as cause major damage to the undead. 

However, I’d never actually used them, so I couldn’t be sure if they’d have the effect I was hoping for. 

Donaha looked back at me, surprised. “You can remove curses?” 

“Well, I can certainly try.” 

I turned to one of the children and waved my hand over his mana-eater collar while I called forth the Uncurse spell. The symbols running along the collar absorbed the light coming from my hand. A moment later, I heard a distinct crackle followed immediately by the thud of the collar breaking off and hitting the ground. 

The child ran his hands along his neck, beaming up at me. 

“Thank you, Mister Knight!” 

I smiled inwardly at this, happy to be able to do something to help. The other children crowded around me, so I lined them up and removed their cursed collars one by one. 

“Thank you so much… We can now bring these children back to their parents.” Seeing how happy the children were, Ariane came over to thank me, using a hand to obscure her eyes slightly. 

Donaha let out a sigh of relief. Now that the situation had been resolved, he scolded the children. 

“Didn’t your parents tell you all not to leave the village? I can’t believe how careless you were!” 

“I’m sorry… I saw a spirit moving about begging for help, so I went to see what I could do. I meant to come right back.” 

The child had tears in her eyes as she explained. Ariane followed up with another question. 

“What was this spirit doing?” 

A different child spoke up in response. “It kept saying ‘help me, help me,’ so I went after it. I found a tied-up cottontail fox covered in injuries. The humans caught me as I tried to help it…” His voice trailed off. 

Ariane and Donaha turned their eyes to me, the appreciation that had been there only moments ago now a mere memory. A grave misunderstanding was playing out right in front of me. 

“Before you jump to any conclusions, I just want to say that I found Ponta tied up in a bandit hideout. I had nothing to do with drawing out or capturing the elven children!” 

“This is true… Cottontail foxes would never trust a person who’d caused them so much pain… I apologize for suspecting you.” 

Donaha gave me a weak smile and slumped his shoulders as he apologized. The suspicion faded from Ariane’s gaze as well, and she began brushing off her armor. At least I’d been able to nip that problem in the bud. 

I looked down to find Ponta surrounded by the elven children, on the receiving end of various pets and scratches. Everything I’d heard suggested that cottontail foxes rarely grew close to people, but I had a hard time believing that given the sight unfolding in front of me. 

“Well, it’s about time for me to take the children to the nearest village. If we don’t get going now, we won’t make it before sundown. Now that you can use magic again, I’m sure you can all watch out for yourselves, right?” 

The children responded enthusiastically to Donaha and began making their way toward the bushes that led off into the forest. Apparently, with their magic, even these small children could protect themselves from the dangers that lurked in the forest. 

Donaha collected his bags and began leading them. “We’d best be off.” 

“Take care, Donaha,” Ariane called after him. 

Donaha looked back over his shoulder and offered a quick response before he and the children disappeared among the trees. 

Once they were out of sight, Ariane turned toward me, a carefree smile on her face. 

“Thank you, Arc, for helping the children back there. I am Ariane Glenys Maple, an elf soldier.” 

I nodded my acknowledgement to her introduction. I had to admit, her name had a sugary-sweet ring to it. 

“You may call me Arc. I am a simple wandering mercenary. This little guy is Ponta.” 

“Kyiii!” 

Ponta had been brushing its tail against my legs when it heard its name called out, inciting a squeal. Ariane’s expression melted, and she knelt to pet it. Ponta’s eyes narrowed contentedly, and its ears twitched with each pat. 

“I always heard humans were nothing more than barbarous beasts. I was so surprised to see a spirit creature this attached to a human.” 

“I’m not like most humans, so I may not be the best example to base your opinions off of.” 

It wasn’t that I was special, just that I wasn’t from this world. My values were quite a bit different from those here. 

Ariane looked surprised at my response, though the edges of her lips began turning up ever so slightly. 

“Well, I suppose if anyone is qualified to say you’re different, it’d be you.” 

I coughed in embarrassment at her response and decided to change the subject. 

“That reminds me… You were still in the middle of cleaning up the bodies. Shall I give you a hand?” 

I glanced over at the haphazard pile next to the cart. 

“If you could.” 

I rummaged through the belongings of the dead men as I added their bodies to the pile, taking weapons and other valuables I could find. Ariane made a face as she watched. 

“You would take things from the dead?” 

I could see where she was coming from; it wasn’t exactly civil. 

“You need money to live in the human world. Travel­ing about isn’t cheap, either. Do elves have no use for money?” 

Ariane looked back at me angrily. “We have our own money!” 

According to Ariane, elf villages functioned mostly on a barter system, though elven money was used when performing trades between villages. 

Elves used pure gold for currency, unlike the alloys used by humans, making it much more valuable. Ariane bragged that human merchants would even do business with the elves just to get their hands on the elven money. 

At first glance, Ariane looked like a glamorous, refined woman, but when she went on excitedly about the greatness of the elves, she looked somewhat cute. I was pretty sure she’d fix me with an intimidating glare if I said as much, so I kept my mouth shut. 

It sounded like there was at least some form of economic transaction between elves and humans. That preexisting relationship was probably the reason Ariane and Donaha had trusted me, at least somewhat, despite my rather sinister appearance. 

After gathering all the bodies into one spot, Ariane stepped forward and ushered me back. 

I retreated a few paces with Ponta, who weaved in and out between my legs before sitting on its hindquarters. Its ears twitched as it watched Ariane’s movements attentively. 

“Great earth, I call upon you to swallow these up!” 

Ariane put her hand to the ground. The earth surrounding the mound of bodies began rippling, then split wide open, swallowing the bodies like a giant beast. A moment later, there was no sign that the bodies had ever been there at all. 

Ariane brushed her hands together, wiping the dirt away. 

“That should keep the buzzards from coming.” 

Ponta tilted its head in confusion and began scratching at the ground, digging where the bodies had been. 

Seemed like a pretty useful spell for disposing of bodies. 

“So, is that spirit magic? I’ve never seen it before.” 

Though I’d heard about it several times already, I was impressed to see it performed in front of me. 

“Strictly speaking, no. Spirit magic is the type of magic used by spirit creatures.” 

“Hmm. I see.” 

I watched Ponta scratch at the ground. That meant the wind magic the fox used from time to time was this so-called spirit magic. But I couldn’t really distinguish between what Ponta did and normal magic; it all seemed the same to me. The only real difference was that when Ponta used magic, its fur would glow ever so slightly. 

Now that the bodies were taken care of, Ariane removed the saddles from the horses attached to the cart and unhooked them, giving each a slap to send them on their way. The only remaining evidence of the battle was the cart and steel cage that sat in it. They both looked like they’d fetch quite a bit of money, but I’d definitely stand out if I tried selling them in town. I figured we’d just have to leave them behind. 

“Where are you going next, Arc?” 

Ponta gave a squeak before I had a chance to respond. As I followed the fox’s gaze up into the sky, I could see a bird with beautiful turquoise wings swooping toward us. 

Ariane also took notice. The bird deftly weaved through the trees and landed silently on her outstretched arm. It was just slightly smaller than a crow. The white feathers of its crest stuck up askew, as if it had just gotten out of bed. 

Ariane explained. “This is a Whispering Fowl—it’s also a spirit creature.” 

As she brushed the bird’s turquoise feathers, it began speaking in a clear, masculine voice. 

“I was sent with a report from Danka. He has found the hideout in Diento. Ariane, you must meet up with Danka and help him save the elves.” 

As soon as its report was finished, the Whispering Fowl closed its beak and cocked its head to the side. Ariane retrieved a small, red berry from a leather pouch attached to her waist, which the bird quickly snapped up. She brushed the bird’s crest as she spoke back to it. 

“We were able to save four children. Donaha is escorting them back to the village. I’ll head to Diento now to meet up with Danka.” 

Once she finished speaking, she shook her left arm, causing the Whispering Fowl to take off into the air. It deftly swooped between the trees again, disappearing into the depths of the forest. 

Apparently, the Whispering Fowl was used like a carrier pigeon, though it acted more like a voice recorder. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would convey the message in Ariane’s voice once it returned to whomever had sent it. 

Ariane picked up on my surprise and laughed. 

“You humans aren’t used to dealing with spirit creatures, I guess. Is it hard for you to pretend something like this is a normal occurrence?” 

Ponta was busy grooming itself at her feet, bringing a smile to Ariane’s face before she turned her gaze back up to me. 

“I’d like to ask you something, Arc. You said you were a mercenary, right? So, does that mean I could hire you?” 

Ariane’s golden eyes held mine as she pulled five gold coins out of a pouch at her hip. 

“I’ll pay you five elven coins up front and five when you’re finished. Not a bad deal, eh?” 

She was trying to recruit me for the mission to save the elves from Diento that the Whispering Fowl had mentioned. 

I wondered if the elf I’d met a few days ago had figured out where the slaves were being held in town. All the time I’d spent walking the streets hadn’t even turned up anything. 

But why would an elf like Ariane want to hire me, a human? Judging by Donaha’s reaction, humans were generally not to be trusted. It didn’t make much sense for her to so readily trust an unknown entity like me, especially one covered in armor. Did she figure my actions here were reason enough to do so? 

“Wouldn’t Danka object if you were to hire me?” 

Ariane crossed her arms, taking on a stern expression. Her golden eyes seemed to look straight through me. 

“I have my reasons. Not only did you rescue us and the children, but this creature here has also grown close to you. It’s not like I trust all humans.” 

She glanced down at Ponta, who was still sitting at her feet. The ability to form a bond with a spirit creature seemed to be held in high regard among elves. 

“And, of course, there was the way you came to help us. Did you use teleportation magic?” 

I gulped, remembering the moment our eyes met when I teleported in. 

So, elves knew of teleportation magic. That meant it wasn’t unheard of in this world. But the fact that Ariane would want to hire me because of that magic implied that she couldn’t use it. Perhaps not many people—or elves—could. 

I scratched the back of my head and shrugged my shoulders. “Yes, I can use teleportation magic.” 

Ariane’s response was a mixture of surprise and amazement, though the serious expression remained fixed on her face. “I knew I wasn’t mistaken! I never thought I’d see such legendary magic with my own eyes…” 

Evidently, teleportation magic was something only written about in legends, or perhaps passed down in oral stories, not something normal people used. 

“Will you help us, Arc?” 

There was hardly any reason for me to turn her down. This would surely put me in good graces with Ariane and the elves. Plus, with my teleportation magic, it would be a standard infiltrate and escape mission. If I did everything successfully, I wouldn’t even draw any attention to myself. 

“I’ll accept your offer.” 

“It’s decided then!” 

After shaking my hand, Ariane gave me the initial payment of five elven coins. 

These were rather different from the currency used throughout the country. They were about the size of a one-hundred-yen coin and had intricate designs carved into both sides, lending them a far more professional look. Judging by the currency alone, the elves seemed to be far more advanced than humans. It was easy to see why humans may value elven coins more highly than their own, especially if they were made of pure gold. 

“So, shall we use your teleportation magic to travel back to Diento?” 

“Certainly. It’s probably best to get back to town before the sun sets.” 

I nodded and summoned an image of Diento in my mind. Ariane readjusted her gray cloak, covering up her ears and skin, and nodded back. 

“Let’s head to Diento. Transport Gate!” 

As soon as I summoned the spell, a three-meter-wide, pale blue column of light appeared at our feet. 

It was already late in the day, and the forest was filling with the dark shadows cast by the trees and overgrowth. Sunlight bathed the trees in a supernatural glow as everything around us suddenly went black. A split second later, the trees were gone, and we were somewhere else entirely. 

Ariane’s golden eyes opened wide as she took everything in, the surprise apparent on her face. 

Night was rapidly approaching, the sky taking on a light purple hue. All around, we could hear the sounds of the grass and leaves rustling in the wind. Ahead of us was the familiar stone bridge made of six successive arches that crossed the Lydel River. Beyond sat the town of Diento and the walls that surrounded it. 

“I can’t believe it. You can teleport without even chanting!” 

“That should make the rescue easier, no?” 

“Absolutely. You’ll be a great help to my friends.” 

After considering our surroundings, Ariane turned back to me with a broad smile on her face. The rescue was looking much more promising, which seemed to have put her in great spirits. 

“Unfortunately, this spell isn’t without its flaws. I can only teleport to places that I have a clear memory of visiting. And I’m unable to teleport to plains, forests, caves, or any other indistinct locations.” 

“That’s fine. Elf villages are all connected by teleportation spots, but we can only go to specific locations, and it takes a ton of magic. You’re the only person I know who can use teleportation magic at will.” 

I was surprised to hear this. “So, elves can use teleportation magic, too?” 

Ariane made a face, as if cursing herself for saying something she shouldn’t have. “Listen, umm, don’t tell anyone I said that, all right…?” She waved her hands in a panic, bowing her head several times. 

From the way she spoke, it sounded like only elves were able to use the teleportation spots to travel between towns. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen anything like what she was describing in any of the human settlements I’d been to. The humans would definitely be far more advanced if such teleportation spots existed. It’d make distribution channels more boring, but it’d go a long way toward modernizing the world. 

If humans—who weren’t exactly on the best terms with elves—learned of this teleportation magic, it could be enough to start a war between the species. I wondered if that was what she was worried about. 

I supposed the same could also be said about me though, since I was able to use the magic as well. 

I gave her my word that I’d keep it to myself. “Under­stood. I promise I will tell no one of the elves’ transportation abilities.” 

With that out of the way, Ariane let out a deep sigh of relief. 

“Well, we can’t just stand here looking out at the town forever.” 

“You’re right. We’ll need to sneak into Diento.” Ariane seemed to be back to her normal self. She pulled the hood low over her face and tied the gray cloak tightly around herself, practically disappearing within its folds. Together, we began walking toward the town. 

Her soft, light purple skin certainly made her stand out from humans, and even other elves, so covering up was the only way for her to avoid being spotted immediately. 

I was in the same boat, unable to let anyone see the skeleton body lurking inside my armor. At least in my case there was a sense of excitement at my new circumstances. For her, this was something she’d lived with her entire life. 

I pulled my own cloak tighter around myself as well to hide the gleaming armor underneath and let Ariane lead the way. 

Even as night fell over Diento, a large number of people and carriages still stood on the far side of the bridge, waiting to enter the town. They reminded me yet again that Diento was a transport hub. All the traffic seemed to be going one way, however, with no one heading out of town. 

We crossed the bridge and joined the throngs of ­people, passing through the outer gate and making our way to the second. The crowds took notice of my black cloak as I approached, opening a path in front of me. I hardly minded the special treatment and moved on ­silently toward the inner gate. 

I showed the guard my mercenary license then gestured to Ariane, who stood a few steps behind. 

“This one’s with me. How much is the entry tax?” 

The guard glanced at Ariane, but he seemed more interested in the large number of people waiting behind her. He quoted the price for entry in a well-rehearsed manner. 

I pulled a silver coin from the leather pouch at my waist, handed it to the guard, and made my way into town with Ariane following. 

Irregularly placed lamps lit the darkened town as its inhabitants continued bustling about the streets. We passed through the south gate’s square, doing our best to avoid the crowds. 

“Well, we’ve made it to Diento. Where to next?” 

“I was told to meet in the square right after the gate in front of the bridge, so, right about…here. Let’s wait around a bit. I’m pretty sure Danka will be able to find us.” 

Ariane stepped out of the throng of people and made her way to a corner of the courtyard. We stood there with our backs against the wall, watching the crowds pass us in silence. 

I recalled that Danka had also used a hood to cover up his elven features, so I started scanning the area for anyone dressed in a similar fashion. 

A short time later, I spotted someone making their way toward us. The figure was wearing a brown cloak with a hood drawn low over their face. Even though I couldn’t see their eyes, I could tell they were watching us. 

As soon as Ariane spotted the figure, she stepped away from the wall and approached them. 

“Who is this man, Ariane?” 

The brown-hooded figure stopped in front of us, shooting me a glance while he spoke to Ariane in a low voice. I recognized the voice immediately as that of the elf I’d met outside of town. 

“Listen, I’ve been through a lot. This man is a mercenary. I hired him to help us out.” 

“You can’t be serious…” Danka’s voice betrayed his incredulity. 

It made sense. Hiring a human to help save elves that had been enslaved by humans did seem absurd. 

Ariane responded politely. “We’ll draw attention to ourselves if we stand around talking like this. Let’s find somewhere to sit down.” 

With that, she began leaving the square. Danka must have realized it would do him no good to get into an argument here and started after Ariane, though his dissatisfaction was clear in his body language. 

I followed, and Ponta made up the rear. 

In the thoroughfare, rows of stalls lined the street, selling a variety of foods. There were tables and chairs set up in front of each of the stalls, giving it something of a festival feel. The tables were filled with noisy revelers who’d bought food and liquor from nearby vendors to enjoy with their friends. 

“I’ll go buy us something.” 

Ariane began making her way toward a vendor, but Danka stood in her way, keeping his eyes trained on me. 

“I’ll go. You get a table.” He headed off to purchase food, leaving us behind. 

Ariane bowed her head slightly in Danka’s direction before making her way to an empty table nearby. She spoke to me as I sat down, though her eyes never stopped scanning the crowd. 

“Are you going to eat something, Arc?” 

“No, I’ll be fine.” 

The sizzling meat from one of the stalls smelled delicious, but I couldn’t take my helmet off with all these people around. Even though my body never really grew hungry, I still had trouble overcoming my desire to eat. 

“I’ll take the meat skewer, some of those beans over there, and…” 

Danka made small talk with the vendor as he ordered before handing over some money. He seemed to be able to blend in easily with humans. 

While I watched him, Ponta hopped down from my head to the table, assuming a sitting position. The smell of all that food was probably overwhelming, and the fox let out a sad cry. 

“Kyiii…” 

Moments later, Danka returned with two wooden cups filled with alcohol, some meat skewers, and a dish full of beans that looked like peanuts. After setting all the food on the table, he finally took a seat. 

As soon as he sat down, Ariane gestured toward Danka and began making introductions. 

“Arc, this is Danka Niel Maple. He is also an elf soldier, and he came here to collect information on the town. Danka, this man in the armor is named Arc. He saved Donaha and me from a pretty sticky situation with some slave traders.” 

Danka furrowed his brow at this, his face contorting into a scowl. 

Did she just say Maple? I knew that I’d heard that name somewhere else before—the woman in front of me, in fact. Ariane Glenys Maple. 

“If I recall correctly, you also introduced yourself as a Maple. Are you two siblings?” 

Danka’s scowled deepened. Ariane made a face and laughed, shaking her head all the while. 

“Elves have three names. Your first is your given name, then the name of your same-sex parent, followed by the name of the town you belong to. So, we’re from the same town, but we’re not related. We’re from the Maple borough in the forest province of Canada.” 

That was a completely different naming pattern from the one I was used to in Japan. 

And what was this about the Canada forest province? And Maple borough… Just hearing the name made me think of a town covered in syrup. 

“Is this Canada forest province the same one the humans refer to as the Elf Forest or the Lost Woods?” 

“I believe that’s what the humans call it. Canada forest province is the largest elf city, named by the first elf chief. He also gave Maple borough its name.” 

I had a hard time believing that the Canada and Maple connections were mere coincidences. Perhaps people like me were brought to this world from time to time. Though the way she explained it, this sounded like it happened a long time ago. 

“When was Maple built?” 

Ariane tilted her head to the side and glanced at Danka. 

“Hmm… About eight hundred years ago or so?” 

Danka nodded noncommittally then coughed. “That’s not really important right now, is it? Shouldn’t we be focusing on our plan?” 

Danka turned the conversation back to strategizing for the rescue. 

Ariane glanced around then waved for Danka to lean in closer. She whispered something in his ear. Even from under his hood, I could see the shocked expression on his face. Danka turned toward me and began questioning me in a low, harsh tone. 

“You can use teleportation magic?!” 

“With certain limitations, yes.” I doubted anyone could hear us over the din of the surrounding crowds, but I kept my voice low, just to be safe. 

Danka looked from me to Ariane, still in disbelief. Ariane was busy feeding Ponta a skewer, tugging playfully at the cottontail fox’s ears as it ate the meat. She let go of Ponta’s ears and went back to patting its head, then turned to face Danka, a serious expression on her face. “Anyway, you found their base, right? What’s it like?” 

Danka finally seemed to regain his composure and returned to business mode. 

“Aah, right. Their base is located near the red-light district by the east gate. There’s so much foot traffic in the area immediately after sunset, so I plan to sneak into their base in the middle of the night. They have a lookout posted at the entrance, and I believe there are quite a few people inside.” 

Apparently, the abductors’ base wasn’t near the nobility at the center of town like I’d thought. I hadn’t spent much time in that area, since I was trying to avoid getting involved with any unsavory sorts. 

“Do you know how many they’ve kidnapped?” 

“My source said there were four elves, though they’re planning on bringing more in soon.” 

“We put an end to that plan earlier today. But that means there are still four who need to be rescued. With Arc’s magic, it should be relatively simple to get out of there.” 

I could feel her eyes on me. 

Danka readjusted his hood, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. 

“Understood. So, for now, we just need to kill time until we make our move?” 

I hadn’t realized we had so much time left. “In that case, I have a few errands to take care of.” 

As soon as I stood up and grabbed my bag, Ponta stopped rolling around on the table and crawled out from Ariane’s hand, jumping up to my shoulder with an energetic “Kyii!” Ariane looked on jealously. 

Danka watched me out of the corner of one eye. “Don’t be late.” 

I guessed that was his way of saying he agreed to have me along. I assured them I’d be back shortly. 

*** 

Danka watched as Arc grew smaller and smaller in the distance. Then he turned to his sister-in-arms, sitting across the table from him. 

“I’m surprised you’d bring someone along for this. And a human, at that.” 

Ariane looked away, her expression unreadable under the darkness of her hood. 

“I was reckless, and the slave traders took one of the children as a hostage.” 

She continued staring at a fixed point on the table, her voice quiet and full of shame. 

“If he hadn’t come to our aid, Donaha and I very well could have been taken as well. I overestimated my abilities and tried taking on a small group all by myself. I should have waited for backup.” Her voice was a mere whisper. 

Danka’s shoulders slumped as he sighed. “Eevin would’ve taken them head-on without ever putting the children in danger.” 

Ariane’s head jerked up in response. 

Eevin was the most powerful soldier in Maple and Ariane’s sister. Ariane had chosen the path of a soldier in the hopes of one day becoming as strong as her. But it sometimes led to Ariane getting in over her head. 

Danka gulped down his liquor and cast her a look. 

“I get that you look up to her, but constantly comparing your achievements to hers will drive you crazy. You’re incredibly strong for your age. Build up more experience, and eventually a day will come when you’re as strong as she is.” 

This was no small compliment. Ariane was already stronger than Danka, and she was still only fifty years old. Danka let out a sigh. It was probably easy to underestimate your own abilities when you had someone like Eevin in your family. 

“Still…I can’t get over the idea that there’s someone who can actually use teleportation magic. Are you sure he’s human? What does he even look like?” 

Danka changed the subject to try and improve the mood. Ariane seemed to pick up on this and slowly raised her gaze from the table. 

“I haven’t seen his face. He doesn’t seem to want to take his helmet off.” 

Danka furrowed his brow at this. 

“Trying to keep his identity a secret, maybe? You really picked a strange one to hire. Anyway, I sent a spirit to follow him around, just to be on the safe side.” 

If Arc was working with the enemy, he’d probably be making contact with them right about now. 

“That cottontail fox seems pretty fond of him, too. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about him that reminds me of my sister.” 

Danka shook his head. Try as he might, he couldn’t find anything in common between Eevin and the armor-clad man. Maybe it was something only someone who had lived with Eevin for years, like Ariane, could see. 

He recalled that Arc was keeping the timid spirit creature as a pet. 

“Well, if he won’t show his face, maybe that means he’s one of the mountain people?” 

Elves, the so-called “forest people,” weren’t the only species with an affinity for spirit creatures. The “mountain people,” who were treated by humans as if they were monsters, also had a history of bonding with spirit creatures. 

They, too, were often enslaved whenever they crossed paths with humans. Danka had heard rumors of a group of mountain people who were also trying to free their enslaved allies. That would explain Arc’s need to hide his face. The mountain people had beast-like ears and tails, making them easily distinguishable from elves—and humans. 

Ariane began poking holes in Danka’s theory. “Mountain people and elves are hardly hostile to each other, so it doesn’t seem like a good reason for him to hide his face from us. He also seems pretty powerful, magically speaking, which the mountain people usually aren’t.” 

“That’s true. But even among the mountain people, the wolfmen have stronger magical abilities than humans. Those who are particularly gifted are even employed as mages in Fabunach, so it’s not entirely impossible.” 

Fabunach was the mountain people’s capital, located on the southern continent on the far side of the south-central sea. It even included mages selected from those with the greatest magical potential. 

“I suppose that’s possible…” 

Ariane furrowed her brow, not entirely convinced. She hadn’t gotten that impression from her interactions with Arc. 

“Well, in any case, he’ll be back soon.” Danka crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair once again, closing his eyes. 

*** 

My greaves creaked rhythmically as I walked through the quiet streets of nighttime Diento. After parting ways with Ariane and Danka, I traveled down the thoroughfare to a district full of shops. 

As usual, Ponta sat on its perch atop my head, dutifully swishing its tail back and forth against the back of my helmet. 

All the shops were already closed, the lonely streets illuminated by the occasional street lamp and the stray glow of light coming from the shops’ windows. I arrived at the shop I was looking for, but it was also closed, its sign marked with a sword and shield and the name of the armorer written underneath. 

I could hear a young man mumbling to himself. 

“Aww, it’s already closed… I guess I’ll just have to come back tomorrow.” 

Behind me, a cart had parked in front of the armorer’s shop, a man in his early twenties sitting in the driver’s seat. Judging by the various boxes stacked behind him, he was some type of merchant. 

“Do you have any business with this armorer, merchant?” 

“I, umm… Oh! G-good evening, Sir Knight.” 

The young man’s eyes went wide with shock momentarily when he saw my face. Or, more accurately, when he saw the gleaming helmet that poked out of my black cloak. He hurriedly climbed off his cart and bowed his head. 

“I am a mere mercenary, a wanderer. You need not bow for the likes of me. Do you have any business with this armorer?” 

“Hmm? Oh! Uh, right. I was here to purchase some weapons, but I got into town much later than expected.” 

The young merchant gave me a chagrined smile. What an amazing turn of fortune! I was getting tired of dragging around the weapons I’d taken off the slave traders. 

“How interesting. Actually, I was just here to sell some weapons to the armorer when I found out they were closed. Would you perhaps be interested in buying them?” 

“Really? Well, could you show me what you have?” 

“Certainly. These are prizes I picked off some fallen bandits.” 

The young merchant looked disappointed, though he quickly put on a smile. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned I’d taken the weapons from bandits? 

I hefted the sack off my shoulder and onto the ground, then opened it up, pulling the weapons out and handing them over. The merchant carefully drew each sword from its sheath and gave it a close inspection. 

His business-like smile was soon replaced with a look of excitement. The man had no poker face, which would prove detrimental to a merchant. As a customer though, that was fine with me. 

“Did you really take these from bandits? The blades are made of some high-grade steel! I won’t even need to do any smithing. Maybe just some sharpening and I could sell them right away!” 

They were technically elf slavers, not bandits, but I figured that wasn’t worth mentioning. Judging by the way he spoke, bandits didn’t usually carry high quality weapons. Maybe that was why he’d been disappointed when he’d heard these blades were from bandits. 

After the young man finished inspecting all the items, he crossed his arms and surveyed the weapons laid out neatly in his cart. 

“All fifteen of these swords are of superb quality. This one here is particularly amazing. However, I don’t think my budget will allow me to buy it…” 

The sword he held had belonged to the man they’d called Udolan. Despite his complete lack of skill, he’d wielded the best sword of the bunch. From the craftsmanship of the sheath to the gleam of the blade, it was truly superior to all the rest. 

The merchant continued mumbling to himself, almost as if he was taken in by its beauty. He should have kept that information to himself to buy the weapons cheap and resell them at a higher price. I was somewhat worried about whether this young man would even be able to succeed as a merchant. 

“There’s no way I could buy them all with the money I have on me…but which do I pick? Hmm…” 

I really didn’t want to carry the weapons with me while I was sneaking around. 

“How about 10 sok each, 150 sok for the whole lot?” 

It hadn’t cost me anything to acquire them, so even if I sold them cheap, I was still turning a profit. Besides, I wasn’t hurting for money. 

“Are you sure? These would normally go for thirty sok each!” 

“You really shouldn’t talk so much, merchant.” 

After I scolded him for being forthright about the market price, the young merchant quickly put his hands over his mouth. He seemed like a good man, so I was happy to help him profit. I assured him my price still stood, despite what he’d said. 

“Thank you so much! With all the monster attacks along the border to the north, weapons and raw metals have been shooting up in price, which is what brought me down here.” 

“Huh. I’d heard there was a rather large monster that appeared up the road from here recently, in a town called Luvierte.” 

“Really? Thank you for telling me!” 

The young man grinned from ear to ear, bowing low in appreciation. He packed up the weapons and climbed onto his cart, heading off in the direction of the inn. He turned back to bow his head multiple times as he made his way down the road. Even though I’d just met this man, I really hoped for his success. 

Ponta wagged its tail from side to side, as if waving back. I was sure the young man would become fast friends with any spirit creatures he ran across. 

With that out of the way, I put the 150 gold coins into my pouch and readjusted the much lighter bag on my shoulder. I knew I should probably start making my way back to Ariane and Danka. 

When I arrived at the food stalls, the two of them were still at the table where I’d left them. I sat down in the empty chair. 

“That was fast. Did you finish your errands?” 

Ariane used one of her meat skewers to try and draw Ponta in closer as she spoke. Danka was in the same position as before, arms crossed and eyes closed. 

“Yes, I was able to sell the weapons I took off the men from before.” 

“Oh, right…” 

Ariane shot me a look, letting me know she was less than impressed. She finally coaxed Ponta down onto the table with the meat and immediately took hold of the fox, rubbing its stomach affectionately. 

We spent the rest of the time making small talk while Ariane played with Ponta. 

Once it was late enough, and most of the surrounding stalls had closed, Danka finally stood up from his chair. Ariane silently stood as well. 

“Let’s get going.” 

Ponta woke up and ran over to me. I put the fox on its perch on my head, grabbed my bag, and followed after Danka. 

Hopefully, this plan will go off without a hitch, I whispered to myself as we made our way through the dark, empty streets. 


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