A Favor for the Mountain People
When I came to, I had absolutely no idea where I was.
I sat atop a rock in the middle of a forest, the ground a thick carpet of grass and leaves.
The sun was high in the sky—just past noon, maybe?—and the only sound was a gentle breeze rustling through the trees. The wind carried the scents of fresh grass and damp earth, the aromas mingling briefly before rushing away again.
I stood up and looked across the unfamiliar scene in front of me, trying to remember what brought me here. That’s when I noticed my attire.
I was draped from head to toe in a pitch-black cloak, and wore gauntlets inscribed with ominous symbols. In one hand, I held a large staff that could only be described as sinister-looking. I was pretty much the textbook image of a Magus.
While I tried to come to grips with my appearance, my body suddenly began moving on its own.
A black flame appeared at the tip of my staff, shooting into the forest and reducing a nearby tree to a charred husk. The tree shattered as it hit the ground, filling the air with soot.
My hand raised the staff into the air, as if satisfied with the black flame’s power. I heard a laugh—mine?—from somewhere far-off.
I used the black flame again and again, burning all the trees in the area before finally leaving the empty clearing and heading into the forest.
Everywhere I looked, I saw dense undergrowth and thick foliage. There was no path to lead me, yet I continued marching purposefully through the woods until I came upon a simple dirt road. The trees were trimmed on either side, giving me a clear view.
I raised my staff again and summoned a black ball of energy. It grew larger and larger until it surrounded me. It only lasted for a second, however. Then the black sphere quickly shrank again and faded away. When it did, I found myself in a slightly different place.
Looking over my shoulder, I understood what had happened.
About ten meters back, I could see the trees and shrubs where I’d left the forest. The spot was marked by broken twigs and crushed-grass footprints.
Apparently, I’d used some sort of teleportation magic.
Seemingly satisfied with this method of transportation, I continued teleporting at a quick clip through the forest, following the road.
After some time, the trees grew sparser, and I got a clear look into the distance.
The road stretched beyond the forest, merging with a path that wound among a series of rolling hills. I looked up to find the sun on its downward journey, slightly lower in the sky. I turned onto this new, serpentine road and began teleporting along it, moving between the hills.
I soon encountered an extravagant carriage stopped on the side of the road. It seemed wholly out of place in this tranquil scene, and the sight of it filled me with dread.
Multiple arrows had been shot into the carriage—and the man sitting in the driver’s seat. One of the four carriage horses had collapsed, likely due to the arrow in its neck. It bled everywhere, still hitched to the carriage.
Even more noteworthy, however, were the men fighting all around the carriage.
One side consisted of soldiers on horseback, wearing light armor and armed with swords and small bucklers marked with the same crest. Their backs faced the carriage as they fought. They were clearly guards in service to some important noble.
The other side were rough-looking men who shouted obscenities as they tried to surround the guards. There was no uniformity in their weapons or armor, suggesting they were bandits.
There were over twice as many bandits as guards, and the bandits seemed to be winning through sheer force. The situation was already beyond saving, the guards dropping one by one. If I didn’t intervene, the bandits would reach the carriage in a matter of minutes.
I readied my staff, and was quickly engulfed in a massive black ball.
A moment later, I stood about a hundred meters from the carriage and the battle. No one seemed to have noticed my presence.
I raised my staff again, calling forth a black flame and shooting a volley of fireballs toward the bandits. My aim was true, and each fireball struck its intended target, engulfing several men in flames and leaving nothing but ash and bone.
I watched, thoroughly pleased with myself, as the remaining bandits—hot-blooded and aggressive only moments before—looked around wide-eyed and terrified as their comrades screamed in agony. The guards were also uncertain as to what was going on.
One bandit finally caught sight of me. He pointed in my direction. “That’s the one! That Mage over there!”
Several other bandits turned in response, raised their weapons, and charged toward me. However, nearly all of them fell to my flame attacks before they even got close, leaving nothing but a pile of blackened bones on the earth in front of me.
I approached the carriage, vaporizing the remaining bandits along the way.
The devastation and destruction I wrought were indescribable, yet for some reason had little impact on me.
One bandit called to a hulking man nearby. “We better get outta here, boss! That guy’s somethin’ else!” He shot me a quick glance before turning tail and running.
I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye and shot another black fireball. It hit the bandit square in the back, and quickly enveloped him, eliciting a bloodcurdling scream that lasted until his lungs burnt through. He silently writhed on the ground, crumbling to ash.
“Damn you, you evil mana-sucking son of a—”
The boss screamed all manner of obscenities in my direction, although his voice quaked with fear. Either out of anger at his own weakness, or possibly sheer desperation, he lifted his axe and threw it at me. It grazed my pitch-black cloak before hitting the ground behind me with a thud. My hood fell back, revealing my face for all to see.
Everything went silent for a moment as the survivors around me held their collective breath.
As soon as my muscles tensed, everyone suddenly began moving again, like coiled springs finally releasing.
The bandits let out screeches of terror and scattered in fear, like children who’d spotted a spider. Meanwhile, the guards surrounding the carriage began issuing orders and firing arrows in my direction.
Several arrows struck my side—or would have, at least, if it weren’t for my cloak. The garment stopped the arrows in their tracks, sending each one tumbling harmlessly to the ground with a hollow thunk.
Despite having saved the guards, this was how they repaid me.
“Why’d you do that?”
They met my question with blank, wide-eyed stares.
One guard—perhaps their captain—called to the others. “I want two men here with me to keep him from pursuing us. The rest of you, take the carriage and get out of here!”
Two guards drew their swords. Another released the dead horse from its harness, while a fourth hopped into the driver’s seat.
No sooner did I step forward than the captain of the guards rode close and raised his sword. “Not one more step! You two, on his flanks!”
As the words left his mouth, the captain drove his spurs into his horse’s sides and charged at me, sunlight glinting off his sword.
I teleported away, throwing the captain off balance. However, that left my back open to the two guards looping around the sides. I dodged one man’s blows, and deflected the other’s sword with my staff. I turned around just in time to find the captain’s blade swinging down at me.
His sword caught my staff with a loud clang and sent a shower of sparks into the air.
“I’ll kill you, hell spawn!”
The captain yelled epithets at me, a vein bulging in his forehead, as he tried to push his sword into me. His hateful face grew ever-closer to mine as he put all his weight behind his blade. Finally, I could see myself reflected in his pupils. The image was that of a hairless, skinless skeleton. Red flame flickered deep within its empty skull, behind its eye sockets.
I was caught off guard by my own appearance. I swung my staff, knocking the captain away, and brought a hand to my face. All I felt under my trembling fingertips was cold, hard bone—not a hint of the soft, warm sensation of flesh.
“Back to the ground with you, undead scum!”
Taking advantage of my momentary lapse in focus, the captain came charging back in with his sword.
“I’m done with you.”
I’d grown annoyed by his presence. With a swing of my staff, I engulfed the man in a ball of black flame. Within moments, nothing was left of him but ash.
“For the captain!”
The two remaining men were enraged. They charged at me, swords lowered. I barely managed to get out of the way before reducing them to ashes as well. The crackle of fire echoed across the hills.
I looked around, feeling nothing in particular. The carriage was gone. I turned my gaze back toward the winding road; off in the distance, I saw it speeding away. I lost sight of it as it rounded a hill.
I sighed heavily and examined my staff.
Despite having just massacred numerous people, I didn’t really feel anything, aside from an odd, indescribable emotion smoldering deep within my heart, which soon passed.
The next thing I knew, I was back at the crossroads, where the path I’d taken out of the forest met the main road.
The sun was at the horizon, the sky bathed in deep lavender as night fell. I sat on a nearby rock, looking up into the emptiness.
I’d come to terms with my appearance, and was trying to figure out my next steps, when suddenly, several lights appeared on the hillside. It took me a few moments to realize they were heading straight toward me.
By the time I understood what was going on, I faced a legion of over a hundred soldiers, their spear tips reflecting the setting sun’s blood-red glow.
These men were outfitted with heavier, more extravagant armor than the guards I’d just encountered, and with capes that fluttered in the wind. The capes were probably white, but the setting sun bathed them in crimson, reminding me of Rome’s armies.
A man wearing a suit of armor even more extravagant than the others urged his horse forward, raised his hand into the sky, and brought it down in a broad sweep. On his signal, the soldiers lowered their spears and charged. The air filled with the thunder of hooves, the ground shaking underneath me.
I had no time to teleport out of the situation.
I shot fireball after fireball at the oncoming army, but it was like throwing pebbles at a wave—there were simply too many soldiers. The ones I did hit—men and horses alike—stopped dead in their tracks, burnt to the bone.
Several men drew close and hurled their spears at me. They pierced straight through my cloak and scratched my bones with an awful scraping sound.
I turned my back on the oncoming army and ran away, all too aware of how near the horsemen were. More spears struck me from behind.
Had I been made of actual flesh and blood, I would certainly have been mortally wounded. However, I hardly even felt any pain.
I yanked a spear out and held it up, throwing it like a javelin at a knight who rode in front of me. It traveled clean through his horse and struck him, sending his body to the ground.
That still left a legion of soldiers rushing after me, spears extended.
“This sucks,” I muttered to myself.
I stabbed my staff’s tip into the earth. A shadow formed around my feet and slowly expanded, swallowing the corpses of the knight and horse I’d just killed. Blood and entrails poured from their wounds; then they were lifted into the air as if by marionette strings. The other dead knights, no more than scorched skeletons, picked up their spears and ran to meet the oncoming men who’d once been their comrades.
Even this horrifying sight wasn’t enough to stop the wave of soldiers, although uncertainty and fear were evident in their faces.
The newly-revived skeleton soldiers, wrapped in shadowy tendrils, threw their spears into the ranks they’d once marched with. The spear points tore through stomachs and chests, spraying gore onto the battlefield. Screams of pure agony filled the air as weapons clanged, turning the once-tranquil hillside into a living hell. The scents of steel, rust, and blood mingled together.
When the last life was snuffed out, over a hundred mindless skeleton knights stood stock-still, their long shadows draped across the earth like grave markers. There were no voices, no cheers. The hillside was silent, save for the flutter of capes in the wind as the ghastly army stood at rigid attention.
Standing in the center, I adjusted my hood, covering my skull and the red flame that flickered within. I pulled my staff from the earth and raised it to the sky.
The skeletal soldiers formed ranks and began to march silently along the road, a silent procession of the dead.
The sun had sunk below the horizon, drenching the entire region in darkness. The only sound was the scratching of burnt bone on cobblestone.
After that, everything went fuzzy.
When I opened my eyes, I saw foliage through the remains of a roof that had long ago fallen into ruin. Spots of sunlight made their way through the dense leaf cover, illuminating my resting body.
I felt as though I’d just woken from a bad dream, but I couldn’t recall any details. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling, hoping to expel the dark feeling from my chest.
Now that I was fully awake, the memory of what happened after I entered the hot spring came flooding back. I looked around, my head suddenly heavy, as if it were stuffed with cotton.
I lay on a stone countertop next to what had once been a hearth. It looked like this room had been a kitchen at some point. One of the pelts we’d used back when we were camping was draped over me like a blanket.
As far as I could tell, I was in the ruins of the shrine we found near the mountain’s peak. The walls were mostly bare, what few decorations there once were having falling away long ago. Grass grew through gaps in the stone floor, making the boundary between indoors and outdoors rather vague. All the same, the building still appeared sturdy.
Also on the countertop, by my side, slept a small, grass-colored fur ball. I heard it snoring lightly as its cotton-like tail swayed back and forth. It opened its eyes and blinked a few times, perhaps startled by my movements, and looked up at me. Then it started mewing excitedly.
Ponta hopped over to my face and gave it a few licks with its tiny tongue.
“Hey, hey! Cut it out! That tickles!”
I pulled the overly excited fox away and caught a glimpse of myself reflected in its pupils.
“Huh. I guess I changed back.”
The hot spring had returned me to flesh and blood, but now I was in my skeleton body again. I was just as naked as I’d been when I entered the hot spring in the first place—assuming, of course, that skeletons could be naked. There was really no shame in being naked as a skeleton. All the same, I wanted my suit of armor.
Casting my gaze around the room, I locked eyes with Ariane, who’d just entered. She gaped at the sight of me, and dropped some leafy greens as she rushed over, practically yelling in my face.
“Arc, you’re awake?!”
A tear glinted in the corner of her eye. I scratched the back of my skull in embarrassment. The way she was looking at me left me taken aback. They must have really been worried about me.
“Uh, y-yeah. I just woke up a few moments ago. How long was I unconscious?”
“Let’s see…” Ariane counted on her fingers. “This morning marks the seventh day since you passed out at the spring. We were just about to send Chiyome back to the village for help, or possibly ask the Dragon Lord to take us there himself.”
“I was out for seven days?!”
It seemed as though hardly even an hour had passed. I felt a little like Urashima Taro, from the fairytales I’d heard as a kid.
“Arc! You finally woke up!” Chiyome was dressed in her usual ninja garb. She carried a simple basket of fruit and herbs similar to the ones Ariane had dropped earlier. The cat ears on her head twitched.
“I’m sorry for worrying you so much,” I said.
Ariane crossed her arms. “You should be sorry! We had no idea whether your heart was even beating, considering that you’re a skeleton. For all we knew, you were dead!”
I couldn’t really argue with that. If they’d actually mistaken me for dead, though, they would have held a funeral and buried me.
“Thank you for waiting all this time. But how did you know I was alive? Personally, I would have given up after the second day.”
Ariane’s golden eyes wavered, and she looked away. “It’s…it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it.”
I was confused by her reply, but I didn’t press her.
“Anyway…” Ariane continued. “Y’know how you’ve been saying you’re human this whole time, Arc? Well, when the spring lifted your curse, you definitely didn’t have a human body.”
The bizarre reflection I’d seen in the hot spring came surging back to me. The face in the water definitely hadn’t been mine from the real world. But it felt familiar all the same. It was the character I’d used in the game before switching to my skeleton avatar. I’d been playing as a dark elf, with long, pointed ears, brown skin, crimson eyes, and black hair. However, I looked nothing like this world’s dark elves.
Ariane stared at me, awaiting some sort of explanation.
I averted my gaze and scratched my chin, unsure how to respond. “I honestly thought I was human.”
I knew there was no way they’d believe me if I told them what was actually going on. So, I decided to leave it at that.
Ariane and Chiyome exchanged a glance and then shrugged in unison. I was grateful that they apparently weren’t going to pursue this further.
I looked down at my body and sighed.
Ariane’s eyes remained fixed on me as she muttered to Chiyome. “Judging by the ears alone, I would have said he was an elf, but I’ve never seen an elf like that.”
Here I was, a knight who was actually a skeleton… Who’d been cursed… Who was originally a dark elf, but the person inside that dark elf was actually a human gamer… It felt like when you buy something, only to find it wrapped in layer upon layer of packaging. I shook my head, trying to dispel the frustration welling up inside.
There were more important issues at hand.
“Why did I pass out in the hot spring?”
I remembered being overcome with emotion right before I lost consciousness. It was something I’d never felt before, like a tornado running rampant through my skull. That feeling had been amplified by the fact that I’d rarely felt any emotion since becoming a skeleton.
“It was likely a side effect of the curse.” I was surprised to hear a vaguely familiar voice coming from above.
Ariane, Chiyome, and I turned. A man I’d never seen before stood atop a wall, looking down at us.
“Kyiii!” Ponta didn’t seem the least bit alarmed by this newcomer. Rather, it was excited, mewing and wagging its massive tail.
The man hopped down, landing lightly on the ground. He stood with his hands on his hips, an imposing figure.
Ariane answered my unspoken question. “This is Villiers Fim, the Dragon Lord. He can take the form of a man when he chooses.”
I still had a lot of questions.
The person in front of me had two arms, and two legs, and definitely looked humanoid. He clearly wasn’t the same thirty-meter Dragon Lord I’d fought. But I wasn’t sure I could call him human, either. Blue-gray scales covered his skin, and he still had a dragon’s head. Sharp, pointed teeth poked from his mouth, and horns stuck out of his head, stretching behind him. Small, neatly folded wings lay flat against his back. He was dressed from head to toe in armor the color of his scales, and I noticed a large tail extending from his lower back to the floor.
The Dragon Lord’s most notable characteristic in human form, however, was his height. He was a giant, standing at least four meters tall.
I really wasn’t sold on the idea of calling this a “human form,” when “giant lizard-man” seemed just as fitting. However, I kept those thoughts to myself as I turned to face Villiers Fim.
I had more important things than his appearance to worry about, such as what was going on with my body. “What did you mean by ‘side effect’?”
Villiers Fim fixed his reptilian eyes on me. “From what I can tell, your body is not originally from this world, and was brought here from another. The spring’s power temporarily returned you to your true form. What you experienced was the emotional shock of that transition. Why your transformation was temporary, however, even I do not know.”
His words echoed in my mind. “From another world…”
“Correct. But you must already know that. You are a Wanderer, no?”
I cocked my head to the side, not sure I understood what he had said.
“A Wanderer, as the word implies, is someone who comes here from…elsewhere. From time to time, even people of unknown species appear.”
I glanced at Ariane and Chiyome. Judging from their faces, this was news to them as well.
Ariane spoke. “These…other places you speak of…are you referring to other continents?”
“I speak of other worlds. Hanzo, the man who made this mountaintop his home, was also a Wanderer.”
Chiyome gasped. “Hanzo?!”
Villiers Fim’s mouth curved in a crooked attempt at a smile, perhaps charmed by the pure innocence of Chiyome’s reaction. “Wanderers are hardly rare. I’ve even heard that the humans who inhabit these lands are all descendants of Wanderers.”
“That’s certainly…interesting.” I thought back to the human settlements I’d visited since arriving.
There were actually very few humans here, compared to my world. However, compared to the elven villages’ population, there were far more humans. Considering the humans’ numbers, and how long it would take to clear forests, establish farmland, and build settlements, their ancestors must have arrived ages ago.
That meant that, in addition to myself, the Wanderers included the founder of Chiyome’s clan and the Great Canada Forest’s founding elder.
There might even have been others out there like me who suddenly found themselves in this world.
“Are Wanderers always people?”
“No, not always. All manner of things, including monsters, wind up wandering through here.”
That meant that monsters could appear randomly in this world any time—a rather alarming thought.
While my mind ran wild with this new information’s implications, Ariane spoke up again. “Sir Villiers Fim, I understand that you say Arc’s body was from another world. Previously, you mentioned that the spring’s power placed a great spiritual burden on Arc when he tried to reclaim his body from this…other world. But you also said that he must partake regularly in the power of the spring. If he enters it again, will the same thing happen?”
Ariane’s question brought me back to the matter at hand. “I’ve been wondering about that, too.” Ariane’s eyes narrowed at me, nonplussed by my casual demeanor. I looked up intently at the giant dragon man, desperately trying to ignore Ariane’s intense glare.
After basking in the hot spring near the Lord Crown—a spring said to have the power to lift any curse—
I not only returned to flesh and blood, but found my head overcome with such intense emotion that I felt as though it would split in two. Then I lost consciousness for six days. I might have gotten my body back temporarily, but I was now a simple skeleton once again. Even if I could reclaim my body by bathing in the spring, it wasn’t worth passing out for another seven days. The situation almost felt like dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean, unable to drink a drop of water.
Villiers Fim scratched his chin. “The place where your body is, and the world where you come from, are not exactly the same. However, this difference is not worth dwelling upon just yet. Unless I am mistaken, you also find yourself lacking strong emotion as a skeleton, yes?”
I thought back on everything I’d experienced since coming here. He was right. Every day since waking up in this world had been filled with one surprise after another, yet I’d never found myself particularly moved by sadness or joy.
To be sure, I considered the treatment of the elves and mountain people atrocious, and didn’t hesitate to offer assistance, but not out of righteous indignation.
I’d figured that my rather indifferent demeanor was the result of thinking that this world was all just a game, or possibly a dream, and that there were no real consequences to my actions.
“Now that I think about it, you’re right.”
“I believe that the emotions you should have been feeling were suppressed, and when you returned to your body, they came flooding back like a tidal wave. That nearly unbearable burden caused you to lose consciousness.”
That made a certain kind of sense, at least. But why?
“Why are you so familiar with this rather unique situation?” Thanks to their incredibly long lifespans, Dragon Lords were immensely wise. I hoped Villiers Fim would have a satisfactory answer.
The Dragon Lord’s reptilian mouth curved into a smile again. “Many people confuse Dragon Lords with the other dragons that inhabit these mountains. We are, in fact, a completely different species. You see, we are akin to spirits that have been granted living bodies.”
I couldn’t help but look over at Ponta, who was in the middle of a large yawn, apparently quite bored with this conversation.
Villiers Fim dismissed my implication with a flick of his hand. “Spirit creatures, as their name suggests, are created by a spirit and an animal coming together as one. We Dragon Lords have created our bodies here in this world of our own will. This humanoid form is just one example of our abilities. Though, of course, it’s quite a challenge for us Dragon Lords to constrict our spirits into such a small form.” He puffed his chest out in pride. “The relationship between your skeleton and flesh is not all that different from the relationship between our spirits and physical vessels.”
I was surprised to learn that Dragon Lords had a spiritual side. Sadly, I didn’t see myself reaching that level of enlightenment any time soon. Still, I could think of worse ways to exist than as a spirit living inside a skeleton.
“So, what it all boils down to is that I’m not only unable to enjoy this wonderful hot spring, but also, any of the water’s positive effects will be temporary at best.”
Ariane shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe I was going on about bathing again. This was a pretty big deal to me, though.
“Ah, but that’s not true at all,” Villers Fim explained. “If you don’t enter the spring regularly, and experience at least some emotional release, then you will never again be able to return to your true body. It’s nothing short of a miracle that you could return to your natural form at all.”
It felt as though a lightbulb switched on inside my mind as I finally realized what he was saying.
I’d lived in this world as a skeleton for less than a month, and all the emotion I’d experienced in that time had been building inside me. The shock of two months, or even a year, of accumulated emotion might be so severe that it destroyed me.
On the one hand, not having to experience emotion certainly made navigating this rather tragic world much easier. But that left me with a debt that I would always have to pay after the fact. It was a curse in every sense of the word.
I could never have imagined that the curse I decided to create for myself back in the game would affect me like this.
“I guess I’ll need to test the hot spring’s limits.”
I wasn’t just saying that because I wanted another soak in an exquisite bath—the best I’d ever encountered. No, the hot spring’s powers could greatly impact how I proceeded forward. More research was needed.
I made my way out to the hot spring. Steaming water still poured endlessly from cracks in the stone, running down cooling rock channels before splashing into the bath itself. Excess water flowed over the sides and off the cliff. It was truly a sight to behold.
A four-meter-tall giant covered in blue-gray scales sat in the bath, his back against the stones.
Apparently, Villiers Fim enjoyed the hot spring in his human form. With each breath, tendrils of steam rose from the water’s surface and spiraled away. Sitting in the bath and soaking, he looked truly relaxed, like the monkeys that frequented the famed Jigokudani hot spring.
Without opening his eyes, the Dragon Lord spoke. “Are you just going to keep standing there?”
I was lingering at the edge of the water, dipping my toe in and watching the flesh return before yanking it back. I lost count of how many times I repeated that. The shock of what had happened earlier made me pretty hesitant.
But I couldn’t stand around like this forever. I made up my mind and fixed my eyes on the water’s surface. This time, I’d only face the past seven days’ emotions—days when I hadn’t even been conscious. The burden would be infinitely smaller than last time.
“Here goes nooooothing!”
My skeletal frame dropped into the water with a sploosh.
I stayed underwater with my eyes firmly closed, my body tensing as I waited for shock to wash over me. When nothing happened, I poked my head above the surface and looked around.
I felt a tingling sensation throughout my body, starting deep within and slowly spreading, but none of the overwhelming emotion I’d felt last time. I relaxed in the warm water and let out a deep sigh.
I would definitely need to take a dip here on a regular basis.
As long as I could release my pent-up emotions before they had a chance to get out of hand, using the hot spring wouldn’t be such a big ordeal. I could bathe daily if I wanted, as I had in my old life. Maybe even twice a day.
I washed my face with a handful of warm water. Back in my flesh-and-blood body, at least for the moment, memories of my actions returned. From regret over having taken lives to the warm, fuzzy feeling of soaking in a bath, the feelings were all complicated, yet oddly comfortable at the same time.
I let the water soak into my skin while thinking about my next steps.
I’d achieved my goal of restoring my real body, even if it wasn’t the body I’d expected. I tugged gently at my elongated ears as I scrutinized the face that looked back at me from the water’s surface, testing out different expressions.
I wanted to see just how long the hot spring’s effects lasted.
I lifted myself out of the water and sat on the stone edge of the bath, leaving only my legs submerged.
My dark elf avatar, the one I’d used before switching to the skeleton, had quite a nice body—rippling muscles covered in beautiful brown skin. However, only a short time after leaving the water, my upper body became semi-transparent. A few moments after that, my bones showed as my skin faded away.
The parts of my legs that were still in the water retained their form, giving me the appearance of a skeleton wearing flesh socks—a pretty shocking sight for anyone who might pass by.
Apparently, after I left the water, it only took about ten minutes for my skeletal form to return.
I dropped back into the bath and started paddling, flesh reappearing on my body as I swam. I scooped up some water with my hands and drank it. It was flavorless, but slid easily down my throat, sending a pleasant warmth into my stomach.
I returned to the bath’s stone edge and sat.
This time, I retained my body long after the ten-minute mark.
I looked over at the Dragon Lord, who sat a little farther off, occasionally splashing his long tail against the water’s surface.
“Does this mean the curse has been completely lifted?”
Villiers Fim looked at me and shook his head. “I don’t know the specifics, but from what I’ve seen of your curse, I don’t believe you’ve returned to your true form yet. Just how did you become cursed, anyway?”
I was grateful that the way he posed this question made it sound rhetorical. I had no idea how to answer.
I’d already been a skeleton when I came to this world. The curse had traveled with me. If I wanted straight answers, I’d have to ask the gods themselves.
Thinking over the problem raised more philosophical issues, such as how and why I was alive at all.
“Villiers Fim,” I said, “I would like your permission to make this abandoned shrine my own.”
“Do as you please. This place was built by the cat clan leader Hanzo, anyway. As long as you don’t get any funny ideas about taking over my home in the forest, I don’t mind.” The Dragon Lord closed his eyes, dunked his head under the water, and blew bubbles up to the surface.
I climbed out of the hot spring and made my way to a small building behind the shrine, where I’d left my armor. Halfway through getting dressed, I stopped and looked down at myself.
“I guess I don’t really need to put on my full armor.”
I decided to wear only the bottom half, which would make it easier to monitor how long the hot spring’s effects lasted. I flexed my upper body’s well-toned muscles; I could see my blood vessels pulse.
“I wish I could get a good look at my whole body.”
I added a full-length mirror to the list of items I wanted to buy for the home I was already building in my head.
I made my way back to the shrine, where I assumed Ariane and Chiyome were waiting. I found them talking in the large, grass-covered space between the shrine and the building where I’d stored my armor.
“Ah, Ariane. Sorry for the wait.”
Ariane turned, looking taken aback. “Arc, your…your curse was lifted? How are you feeling?”
“I don’t seem to be having any problems. According to Villiers Fim, the effect is still temporary, but I drank some spring water to see how long it will last.”
I struck a bodybuilder’s pose, flexing the muscles in my upper body.
Ariane made a strange face. “Why are you posing like that?”
I flexed my pectorals as I responded. “I, uh, well, I’m just happy to finally have muscles, and I wanted to show them off. Is that strange?”
“Eww! Cut it out. You remind me of my grandpa. I’m embarrassed for both of us.”
My shoulders slumped at Ariane’s scathing critique. Just then, Ponta came gliding toward me on a gust of magical wind.
The fox flew straight to the top of my head, its cotton tail tickling my face as it swished back and forth.
Ariane watched with curiosity. “It makes a lot more sense that a spirit creature like Ponta would be so fond of you, now that I know you’re an elf. Hey, Arc, can you see this?”
She blew onto her hand and stretched it toward me. A faintly glowing ball of light, similar to the one that I saw while we were in Lamburt, sat in her open palm.
I squinted my eyes and focused. “It’s faint, but I see a glowing ball. Why?”
Ariane nodded, allowing the light to fade away. “Just as I thought. You can see spirits.”
That faint ball of light was a spirit? “But I couldn’t sense the stench of the undead, or see the mana that fills the Great Canada Forest.” I remembered hearing that elves could see the flow of mana—which apparently filled the Great Canada Forest—in addition to seeing spirits. Ariane might have been convinced, but I still had some questions.
“There are differences from one elf to the next. Judging by your appearance, I’d say that you’re similar to us dark elves.”
Ariane once told me that elves had a strong affinity for magic, while dark elves had superior physical prowess. Given how muscular I’d become, I found it hard to argue with her assessment. However, this body had only been designed to resemble a dark elf in the game world, so I still had doubts about whether I was actually a dark elf in this world.
Still, the fact that I could see the spirit, if only faintly, suggested that this body shared at least some characteristics with the elves. Ariane also once told me that the Great Canada Forest’s founding elder—ostensibly someone similar to me—could barely see spirits.
“We should return to the village and notify the elders that Arc—wait!” Ariane interrupted herself mid-sentence and hit her palm with her fist. “I forgot that Chiyome had something she wanted to discuss with you.”
Chiyome, who’d watched our conversation in silence, bowed her cat-eared head.
“I’m sure you recall when you and Ariane helped me rescue my comrades in the capital, right? Well, the plan was actually much more successful than we expected. The Calcut Mountains’ refugee population has exploded. Unfortunately, there are a lot of monsters in the mountains as well, and fertile farmland is in short supply. We were already pushing the limits of what the village could support, but now…” Chiyome’s shoulders drooped, her tail moving slowly as she spoke. “The twenty-second elder charged me with finding the founder’s shrine so we can move everyone here.”
While I certainly sympathized with Chiyome’s plight, that was my exact plan. “I already asked permission from Villiers Fim to use this as my home. If I lived here, too, would that be all right with you?”
Ariane and Chiyome exchanged a surprised glance.
“That’s fine, of course,” Chiyome said. “I secured permission from Villiers Fim as well. We don’t actually plan to move the villagers to the shrine. We’re moving them east, to a location the Dragon Lord told me about, near a field and a large lake.”
That made sense. The shrine would suit a handful of people, but it would probably be difficult for a whole village to survive here. From what I’d seen of the area when we emerged from the cave, the basin was surrounded by mountains, making it nearly impregnable. The place Chiyome described sounded ideal.
But something still nagged at me. Why hadn’t Hanzo moved the mountain people here in the first place?
However, when I asked Chiyome, she simply shook her head. “I don’t know why. Hanzo lived many generations ago. I suppose the twenty-second elder might know more, though.”
I had my own suspicions about Hanzo’s reasoning. While this location was practically impregnable, traveling here was a challenge. The journey required you to make your way through a monster-infested forest, then either climb the Furyu Mountains or enter the massive, pitch-black cave beneath them. Sure, the mountain people were known for physical prowess, but a mass migration like that would be perilous, resulting in countless deaths.
I suddenly understood what Chiyome was asking of me. “So, you’d like me to use teleportation magic to transport your people here safely. Is that right?”
Her ears perked up. “That’s right! What do you think?”
Of course, my mind was already made up. “First, I’d like the opportunity to meet your elder. I don’t mean to sound crass, but I want to negotiate to receive the shrine as payment for assisting with your move. Unfortunately, I can’t budge on that, since it’s essential for my cursed body.” I offered Chiyome a smile, to show I had no ill will.
Chiyome regarded me with her usual cool expression, though her cheeks looked a little flushed. Her tail wagged behind her. “I understand. Thank you, Arc.”
I turned back to Ariane. “And what about you? Do you want to return to Lalatoya? I feel bad for making you waste a week fretting over me.”
Ariane shook her head. “The time wasn’t wasted. Besides, Chiyome and I spoke while you were sleeping, and I promised her I’d visit her village.”
I scratched the back of my head sheepishly. It seemed the two of them had gotten close while I was unconscious. I admit, I was a bit jealous.
Ponta used its large cotton tail to stroke the back of my head, making me feel less lonely.
“Thanks, Ponta. I’ll get you a treat in a bit.”
Just then, my arm’s skin began to vanish, and I saw bone.
Slowly but surely, my flesh faded away, returning me to my skeletal form. It had been a little under an hour since I drank the spring water.
Ariane looked just as surprised as I felt. “So, you turned back. I guess the effect doesn’t last all that long, huh?”
She was right, although it was clear that drinking the water greatly extended its effects. Next time, I’d need to increase the amount I drank, and see how that affected my transformation.
Together, we began to plan our next steps.
As the sun set, light blues fading to deep scarlets, the serene mountain peak took on the dwindling sunlight’s colors. A gentle wind wound through the hole in the shrine roof. Carrying with it the sound of rustling leaves, it brushed the long grass that pushed through the cracked stone floor and caressed my skin gently.
I opened my eyes and looked around, spinning my lower body and transferring the motion fluidly into my outstretched arm. I was summoning a weak wind-elemental spell from the Mage class.
A large blade of air flew out in front of me, chopping down the grass in its path.
Even though this was a base-level spell, it was still quite powerful. It took a lot of practice, but I could now limit its strength enough to cut only the grass in the immediate area.
“Kyiii! Kyii!” Ponta mewed excitedly.
“All right, Ponta. You want to give it a shot?”
The cottontail fox took a step forward, narrowed its gaze, and focused its attention on a small sapling growing from a crack in the ground.
Ponta’s green fur brightened almost imperceptibly as fallen leaves fluttered around it.
Ponta sent a gust of wind flying toward the sapling, chopping it down.
“Wow! Good job! Looks like someone deserves a treat. How about some roasted beans?”
“What kind of strange things are you teaching Ponta?” Ariane sounded unimpressed. I turned to find her glaring at me, eyebrows furrowed and arms crossed.
“Well, if I’m going to make this place home, I figured I should at least cut the wild grass. Ponta just started…imitating me.”
While I tried to explain myself, Ponta stared at me quizzically, wondering where its reward was.
“I guess cottontail foxes don’t use many offensive spells against enemies, do they?”
Ariane shook her head. “I don’t actually know a lot about cottontail foxes, but I definitely haven’t heard of them using offensive magic.”
“Huh. I guess Ponta will be the first. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if it had the ability to defend itself.”
“You’re probably right.” Ariane didn’t sound too pleased. “Oh! Arc, you’re starting to change back!”
“So, the amount of spring water I drink does alter how long the effect lasts.”
This time, I drank a liter or so, and it lasted three hours. I watched as my brown skin faded like mist, leaving nothing but the bones underneath, then ran a hand over my ribs.
Ariane’s shoulders slumped. “Hmm. It’s still pretty brief.”
She was right, but at least I had it better than that one super-sized hero from Nebula M78 who only got his body back for three minutes. However, I had a feeling that if I exercised or exerted myself, the effect would likely weaken. I hadn’t gotten a clear answer out of Villiers Fim on the subject.
“Dinner’s ready,” Ariane said. “Chiyome cooked tonight.”
“Kyii!” Ponta—who’d been staring at me impatiently, waiting for roasted beans—took off in search of Chiyome.
I watched the fox speed away. “So, tomorrow we’ll set out for the Rhoden Kingdom and Chiyome’s secret hideaway?”
Ariane nodded. “I’m interested to see where the mountain people are currently living.”
I followed her toward the kitchen—or what was left of it—where Chiyome waited.
A fire in the old hearth dimly illuminated the room; a boiling stewpot filled the air with the sounds of crackling wood and bubbling broth.
Chiyome’s cat ears pricked up as she listened intently. She dipped the ladle into the liquid, giving it a stir. Ponta sat in front of an empty plate, tail wagging excitedly.
“I made a wild bird and herb stew,” Chiyome explained. “It’s filled with all sorts of nutrients. We often make it in my village, to help people who’ve been sick get back on their feet.”
Chiyome ladled meat onto the not-so-patient Ponta’s plate. The fox immediately fanned the still-piping food with spirit magic. It was a pretty impressive sight.
Chiyome had probably decided to make this revitalizing Jinshin clan dish because it would be my first meal since recovering from my blackout.
Of course, I hadn’t actually been sick. The only way I’d survived for seven days without food or water was thanks to my body, or rather, lack thereof. I highly doubted that this world had anything like IVs, so being out for six days would practically be a death sentence due to dehydration alone.
“Well, thank you very much.” I accepted the bowl Chiyome offered me and lifted it to my mouth.
The bird meat had a gamey flavor that permeated the whole stew, but it was tender and easy to chew, thanks to the dish’s long boiling time. The mountain herbs had a slightly bitter taste, giving the dish an almost medicinal flavor. I didn’t want to be ungrateful, but it felt as though the stew was missing something. I continued sipping, thinking how good it would taste with a bit of soy sauce, or maybe a rich bouillon.
“Do you like it, Arc?” Chiyome’s face was a mask of concern.
I responded with a gentle laugh. “I was just lost in thought. It’s delicious, and definitely seems healthy.”
“Hey, Arc, you’re changing back,” Ariane said, pointing with her spoon.
“Huh? Oh. Whoa…”
I looked down. My dark elf body’s brown flesh was slowly reappearing, covering the bones visible moments ago.
“Oh, sorry about that,” Chiyome said, ears drooping. “I used spring water in the stew. In my village, we have limited salt and dried herbs for flavoring, so we often supplement them with spring water.”
“It’s fine!” I said. “Please, don’t worry about it. Anyway, it sounds like it’s hard to find salt in your village. How do you get it, then? And what do you plan to do once everyone moves here?”
Salt is essential to all living things. It can be produced near an ocean, of course, but this basin was surrounded by mountains. If the villagers were lucky, they might find a spot nearby where they could mine salt, but those weren’t exactly common.
Chiyome and Ariane exchanged a glance.
“There’s a small quarry near our village where we mine rock salt,” Chiyome said. “We’ll have to look for a new spot once we move here, though. For now, I’ve asked Ariane to talk with her father to see if we can trade with the elves.”
“It seems like you two decided quite a bit while I was sleeping. So, have you accomplished what you came here to do, Chiyome?”
She nodded. “I had two objectives. One was to find Hanzo’s shrine, and the other was to find the pledge spirit crystal hidden inside.”
“Pledge spirit crystal?” I repeated the unfamiliar words, suddenly remembering that Villiers Fim had referred to Chiyome as “entrusted with a spirit crystal.”
Chiyome set her bowl down and reached into her sash, pulling out a large, diamond-shaped gem. It gave off a prismatic glow in the flickering flames, the light growing stronger and weaker, almost like a heartbeat.
“This is one of our clan’s mystical treasures, passed down by Hanzo himself from generation to generation. I explained this to Ariane earlier; bonding with these spirit crystals gives us our ninja abilities. You use the crystal to pledge yourself to a compatible spirit.”
Chiyome’s cheeks flushed, and she quickly hid the crystal away again.
I cleared my throat and brought my bowl up for another sip. “Huh. This world is full of all sorts of intriguing items.”
Chiyome let out a sigh. “Oh… Then I guess you don’t know where this is from, Arc. I was hoping you might, since Hanzo was a Wanderer, like yourself.”
Ariane shot me a quizzical look. “Wait. Villiers Fim said that Hanzo was a Wanderer, but Hanzo was a human, wasn’t he? Arc is an elf.”
Judging by Ariane’s confused face, I assumed Chiyome had told her about my slip-up earlier, when I used the word “ninja”—a word known only to her people. I’d told Chiyome that it was a word we used back in my hometown.
Of course, at the time, I’d assumed I was a human, just like Hanzo.
I shrugged and mumbled a response. “I…I thought I was human, but apparently, even my memory is faulty.” It was the best explanation I could come up with.
Ariane looked at me skeptically.
I ignored Ariane and turned back to Chiyome. “Do you want to know the spirit crystals’ source because there aren’t many of them?”
Chiyome ran a finger over the spot where the spirit crystal rested in her sash. “Yes. Hanzo supposedly left the clan ten pledge spirit crystals. Only ten, no more. There are eight in the village. The one I found here makes nine. According to legend, the remaining crystal was lost long ago. If there were more, they would improve our village’s defensive capabilities a lot.”
I wondered whether Hanzo brought the spirit crystals from his own world, or crafted them here. Perhaps a skill from one of the crafting classes had created them.
“Once you’re bonded with a spirit crystal, I assume you can’t easily undo it, right?”
“I would die the moment I undid the bond,” Chiyome said. “These spirit crystals are passed down from generation to generation. Upon the previous owner’s death and cremation, the spirit crystal is taken from the ashes, and given to the person entitled to join the Jinshin clan’s top six fighters.”
Chiyome’s face, illuminated by the light of the silent flame, was no longer that of a young girl, but of a warrior who’d put her life on the line for her village and comrades.
I suddenly found myself lost for words, so I brought the bowl back up, gulped down the remaining herbs, and let out a deep breath.
“Thank you for the meal, Chiyome.”
Chiyome bowed her head.
Early the next morning, as the sun was still barely cresting the horizon, we woke to find the shrine shrouded in mist, the forest still and silent.
After we said our goodbyes to the Dragon Lord, who was still lounging in the hot spring, I used Transport Gate to teleport us to an area near the Rhoden Kingdom’s capital. That was the closest place I knew to the Jinshin clan’s village. The dark, imposing forest vanished, and we found ourselves in the middle of a large, open field.
Off to the south, I saw the walls surrounding the city, and beyond that, the capital itself, illuminated by early morning light.
Ponta yawned lazily atop my helmet—probably still tired from waking at such an early hour—and nearly slipped off the side.
Behind us, to the north, were the Calcut Mountains, their peaks a sawblade against the sky. A massive forest sprawled at their base.
Chiyome’s village, and the Jinshin clan’s hidden base of operations, were located somewhere in those mountains. There was no road to speak of, so we let Chiyome lead the way. Thankfully, there were relatively few monsters in the area. The tradeoff was that there were plenty of bandits.
“Most of the area’s bandit camps will be gone soon, though,” Chiyome said.
She led us through the forest easily and confidently.
“You mean the Jinshin clan is pushing everyone out of their territory?” I asked.
Chiyome stopped and turned to face me. “What exactly do you think we ninja do?”
Her question confused me. “Rescue comrades abducted by the humans?”
The corners of Chiyome’s mouth turned up slightly. “We certainly do that. But we also hunt bandits. Blades and other metal objects are invaluable in our village, which makes the bandit camps ideal hunting grounds.”
Since the bandits probably didn’t want their pillaging and looting to draw too much attention from local nobles, they set up camp outside town. That made it even easier for the Jinshin clan to attack them and steal their supplies.
Judging by the physical prowess Chiyome and Goemon displayed during our assault on the Etzat Market, your run-of-the-mill bandit wouldn’t even stand a chance.
“If the Jinshin clan suddenly possesses stolen items, doesn’t that draw suspicion from the capital?”
“That’s what our informants are for. They make sure that any survivors returning to town claim that humans attacked them. We make it look like the bandits moved their base camp, wipe it out, and steal their supplies. That’s why so few bandits raid from the area around the Calcut mountains.”
Chiyome’s tail wagged confidently. She turned and led us deeper into the forest.
Those mountain people were a lot more rugged than I’d given them credit for.
About halfway up one of the mountains, after a short journey through dense forest, we finally reached a clearing. The soil underfoot gave way to rock, and I saw that the way ahead was riddled with deep gorges. Between them, a mountain stream snaked downwards.
Chiyome pointed toward a peak across from the overhang where we’d stopped. “Once we pass this gorge, we’ll be in the Calcut Mountains proper. Humans rarely venture out here, due to the powerful monsters that make these mountains their home.”
I nodded. From where we stood, I had a clear sightline to a treeless patch of ground on the other side. Traveling there would be relatively easy.
“So, you’d like me to teleport us over?”
Chiyome nodded. She and Ariane put their hands on my shoulders in a now-familiar movement.
An instant later, we found ourselves on the far side of the gorge. Looking backward, I could see the overhang where we’d just stood.
“The village is on the other side of this mountain. Let’s get going.” Chiyome was already several paces away.
This part of the Calcut mountain range was less a series of distinct mountains than an undulating mass of earth covered in dense foliage.
Just as Chiyome had warned before we teleported, we encountered much more dangerous monsters in this area, the likes of which we hadn’t seen on the gorge’s opposite side. They didn’t pose much of a threat to the three of us, of course, but any normal person would have been easy prey. Considering the sheer number of monsters we saw, it was difficult to believe that this place was suitable to live in.
Sure, the mountain people might not need to worry about humans infiltrating their domain, but simply surviving here seemed like a struggle—hardly what I’d call a peaceful existence. When I thought of the women and children we’d saved from the slave market and sent to this village, I got a little worried.
At one point, we killed a monster that Chiyome and Ariane called an “umbra tigris.” It was a massive, tiger-like creature with blood-red eyes, stiff purple horns, and a black-spotted pelt. It was about four meters long—five if you counted its tail—and the large fangs extending from its upper jaw gave it the appearance of a saber-toothed tiger. Felling an umbra tigris usually required several groups from Chiyome’s clan to work in unison.
Daytime encounters were practically unheard of, but we ran into that particular creature as we made our way through the dense underbrush. At night, it released a dark, mist-like gas to conceal its movements, but that only made it a larger target during the day.
When the umbra tigris came in to strike, we responded aggressively, ending the battle so quickly that your instant noodles would still be warm long after we finished.
“Are you okay, Arc? Isn’t it heavy?”
Chiyome had asked me to carry the umbra tigris back to her village. Apparently, the villagers would pulverize the monster’s horns and mix them with steel to make incredibly sharp and durable blades. According to Chiyome, the dagger at her waist was one such weapon.
The umbra tigris’s pelt also provided much-needed warmth up in the mountains, and its teeth were ground for use in medicines. If the villagers sold the pelt with the head attached, it would fetch a high price at the human markets, providing money for food, weapons, and other supplies.
“Honestly, it’s nothing compared to the giant basilisk I took down.” I laughed lightly and, to emphasize the point, hopped a few times with the umbra tigris still on my back.
Ariane, who trailed behind us with Ponta held firmly to her chest, butted in, her voice clearly annoyed. “You’re something else, Arc. You remind me of my mother sometimes.”
I laughed. “I’m not sure how comfortable I am with a compliment like that.”
Ariane furrowed her forehead. Apparently, she hadn’t meant it as a compliment.
As we reached another clearing, Chiyome stopped and pointed toward a mountain on the far side of a steep cliff. “My village is opposite this valley. At this pace, we should reach it just before sundown.”
I hefted the umbra tigris. “I’m happy to keep going. Ariane?”
“Sounds good to me.”
I teleported us across the valley.
Just as the sun began to dip behind the mountains, we looked down on Chiyome’s hidden village.
Wooden posts formed its outer perimeter; an inner wall of spiked stone served as the second line of defense against would-be attackers. Honestly, it looked more like a fortress than a village.
A hinged door, like a drawbridge—which I assumed to be the entrance—was shut tight to prevent anyone from entering.
The buildings inside the village seemed to cling to the mountain’s slopes. Beyond the walls, I saw homes and windmills huddled close together near the summit. Farther down, crop-filled fields supported by stone walls covered the mountainside.
It reminded me of Machu Picchu.
“I can’t believe they’ve built a village on such a steep slope.” Ariane’s eyes took in the impressive sight.
The Calcut range was full of mountains and valleys, leaving little in the way of open plains. This peak must have been the flattest land Chiyome’s people found in the area.
“Building a village this size so deep in the mountains is certainly praiseworthy, but I don’t imagine it could support many people.”
It seemed rather cramped compared to Lalatoya, Ariane’s hometown.
Sadness washed across Chiyome’s face, her azure eyes fixed on the village. “Ever since we rescued the enslaved from the capital, the population has grown to over a thousand.”
“That’s…that’s quite a lot.”
Back in my world, a thousand people wasn’t much, but that population would severely overcrowd a small settlement like this. Ariane nodded in agreement with my shocked assessment as we looked down over the village.
Ponta let out a loud yawn, lazing in Ariane’s arms and letting its large tail sweep back and forth slowly. It was good at noticing when food was around, but not much else. If we ran across a problem big enough to bother Ponta, that would truly be cause for concern.
After taking a look at the carefree Ponta, Chiyome broke into a broad smile. “Let’s go meet the twenty-second elder, then.”
I shifted the umbra tigris’s weight on my shoulders and followed her down the well-worn footpath into the village.
There were towers on either side of the entrance. The guards inside banged mallets on hanging wooden panels as soon as they noticed us—some kind of warning system, no doubt. The panels made a hollow sound that resonated throughout the village. Even from outside the walls, I could hear people murmuring inside.
After a few moments, the drawbridge door lowered, making a loud “thunk” as it hit the ground. The door was made of a double layer of thick logs. It must have been incredibly heavy.
“The sun’s about to set,” Chiyome said. “We should hurry up and get inside. More monsters will start appearing soon.”
Ariane and I followed her through the entrance.
No sooner had we set foot in the village than the door rose behind us. At the same time, the door to the inner wall lowered. That door, too, closed as soon as we were through.
I followed Chiyome toward the village’s tallest building, located in the center. I looked around, taking in as many sights as I could. A large crowd—mostly children—filled the streets, watching me with great interest. They represented a wide variety of species, various types of ears twitching with excitement as they pointed toward the umbra tigris over my shoulder.
Chiyome paid no attention. She stopped in front of the two-story building at the village center and motioned toward me.
“This is where Hanzo, the twenty-second elder of the Jinshin clan, lives.”
The building looked almost exactly like the shrine near the hot spring, although this one was much smaller. Despite its compact size, a lot of love had clearly been put into its construction. Intricate engravings covered its walls.
The surrounding buildings were also well-built. It didn’t seem as though the mountain people were doing all that badly for themselves here.
I followed Chiyome into the building, and found myself in a spacious entry hall, facing an elderly man with cat ears.
The man stood around 180 centimeters tall. Long white hair ran straight down his back. His thick, bushy eyebrows and long beard gave him the appearance of an old mountain hermit. His arms were crossed behind him, resting at his lower back.
The old man looked at me, raised a single bushy eyebrow, and turned his attention to Chiyome.
“Ah, Chiyome, you’ve returned. This man you bring with you, is he the one who comes from the same home as our great founder?”
“Yes. The armored one is Arc, and this is the dark elf Ariane.”
Ariane and I bowed our heads.
“Kyiiii!” Ponta introduced itself from Ariane’s arms.
The old man smiled. “We are honored that you grace us with your presence. I am Hanzo, the twenty-second to hold the name, and to be granted charge of the Jinshin clan. I know how much you two have done for us, and I offer you humble thanks on behalf of our people. Am I correct in assuming that your presence means you have agreed to help us once again?”
I set the umbra tigris on the ground and straightened. “I, too, am honored to meet you. I have come here at Chiyome’s request. I hear that your village finds itself in dire need. If there’s anything I can do to assist you, I will do it.”
I did my best to respond to Hanzo’s formal greeting in kind, although the whole thing felt a bit like a period drama.
Ariane bowed her head toward Hanzo. “My full name is Ariane Glenys Maple. I am a soldier of the Great Canada Forest. I’m here as Chiyome’s friend and Arc’s travel companion.” She smiled at Chiyome, who blushed in response.
What had she meant by “travel companion”?
Hanzo gestured at the umbra tigris. “And this monster next to you, Arc, may I ask what it is for?”
“We encountered it on our journey here,” I said. “Chiyome told me how valuable it is, so I’ve brought it as an offering to the village.”
The wrinkles in Hanzo’s forehead deepened as he smiled broadly. “We appreciate it greatly, and humbly accept your gift.”
Hanzo raised his right arm, and several people in ninja garb similar to Chiyome’s silently stepped from the shadows and carried the massive umbra tigris out of the building.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Ariane tense up for a split second when the newcomers appeared. Apparently, even she could be rattled sometimes.
Hanzo smiled again. “You must be tired from your journey. I have already prepared rooms for you two, so please, settle in and rest your weary bodies. We can talk more later, over dinner.”
Two cat-eared women appeared.
“These two will show you to your rooms. I will call you once dinner is ready.”
Hanzo turned to leave. Chiyome jogged after him.
“Have you learned Sasuke’s whereabouts?” She spoke in a low voice, but I still caught what she said.
I hadn’t heard the name before, but I assumed Sasuke was another of the Jinshin clan’s top fighters.
Hanzo simply shook his head.
“Sir Arc, I will take you to your room.” A woman’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
I looked at her. “Ah, yes. Thank you.”
The women led us to the second floor, and down a hall to the two rooms prepared for Ariane and me.
Mine was relatively simple, lit during the daytime by sunlight shining through a slatted shutter on one wall. It contained a raised platform, about two meters square, covered in animal pelts. I assumed that was the bed.
Next to the platform was a gorgeous writing desk of elaborately carved wood, and a long, wooden chest for storing my things. Both looked well-made and built to last. An oil lamp, the room’s sole source of illumination, hung on the wall by the door. Its dim light cast long shadows into the corners of the room, causing my imagination to run wild.
“It seems like a ghost could pop out at any minute,” I mumbled.
“What’re you talking about, Arc?” Ariane called from behind me. “You’re practically a ghost yourself.”
“Wah!” I cried in surprise.
When I turned to tell Ariane off for scaring me, a green furball suddenly latched onto my face, plunging me into darkness.
“Mmmph! I can’t see, Ponta.”
I grabbed the fox by the scruff of the neck and pulled it away. It dangled, looking completely content and wagging its tail back and forth. It was probably thinking about dinner, since it had heard that word earlier.
Ariane watched Ponta absently. “Chiyome’s village is better-established than I thought it would be. Are they really going to throw this all away and move on?”
She had a point. The village’s defenses seemed more than adequate to keep forest-dwelling monsters at bay.
“Maybe they’ll explain over dinner. I’ll use teleportation magic to help them move, if they want. But it’s not my place to tell them what to do.”
“I suppose you’re right. Speaking of dinner, what do you plan on doing about…that?” Ariane pointed at my helmet.
I’d worn my armor ever since we arrived here, even during my introduction to Hanzo. I had shown Chiyome my skeleton body back in Lalatoya, but I hadn’t yet mentioned—much less shown—it to anyone else. Ariane was probably asking how I planned to deal with that. I didn’t really have a good way out this time, though.
“Don’t worry. I brought this with me.”
I dug in my bag and showed Ariane a leather waterskin that I’d tucked inside.
She caught on immediately. “Aah. Got it.”
The skin was filled with enough spring water to provide about two hours back in my body. If I drank it before dinner, I wouldn’t frighten anyone.
A short time later, the two women who took us to our rooms returned to let us know that dinner was ready. They led us back to the first floor, through a living room of sorts, and into a room with a raised wooden floor and a central hearth. A steaming pot hung above the fire, and the burble of boiling liquid filled the room.
The chamber reminded me of the old homes you’d find in a remote Japanese village. Nostalgia welled up inside me.
“Sit wherever you like, Arc,” Hanzo said. The white-bearded elder sat in front of the pot, legs crossed. “You know, I never would have guessed you were an elf, since you come from the same place as our great founder.”
I’d already taken off my helmet, revealing my dark elf face, temporarily restored thanks to the spring water’s curse-lifting powers.
“Ah, yes… My memory is still quite fuzzy. I’ve only recently been able to recall some of the details. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that your founder and I truly come from the same village.”
I sat across from Hanzo, assuming his cross-legged posture, and set Ponta down next to me.
Ariane sat on my other side. She kept shifting and moving her legs, as if she wasn’t used to sitting on the floor.
Hanzo watched patiently as she settled. “Now, about our request for help. I hear that you are a mercenary, Arc. Of course, we intend to pay you for your services. But Chiyome mentioned that you might have another request.”
When Chiyome had approached me with her request, I agreed to take it on, so I was at a loss as to what sort of payment to ask for. I just wanted to help my friend, who was in trouble. I couldn’t really think of anything I needed.
“As I’m sure you have seen, our village is far from prosperous. If it is acceptable to you, I would like to offer you several of our finest women. What do you think? Heh heh.”
The old man raised a bushy eyebrow and gave me a suggestive smile. While that offer was tempting, I felt eyes drilling into me from the side. Replying to the offer, even jokingly, seemed like a poor choice.
Instead, I brought up my original request—the shrine. “I understand that this is a rather big favor to ask, but I would like permission to use the shrine your great founder built, near where you’ll be moving. That would be sufficient payment for me.” I mentioned that the Dragon Lord who watched over the region had already granted me permission.
Hanzo nodded. “After our great founder’s death, the third Hanzo abandoned the shrine, and it fell into ruin. Chiyome already retrieved our clan’s mystical treasure, so you are free to use the shrine as you see fit. Is there nothing else you wish to ask of us?”
I crossed my arms and thought it over.
Ponta looked up at me, cocking its head to imitate my posture. It wagged its tail, clearly impatient about the lack of dinner.
“From what I’ve seen already, your people are incredible at crafting,” I said. “I would like your help returning the shrine to its former glory. Would that be possible?”
It would take a lot of work to restore the shrine. I could easily buy the materials from human towns, but I didn’t feel remotely qualified to try repairing such a large building on my own.
Hanzo stroked his long, white beard. “We would gladly provide assistance. But is that all you want? I could find you a well-endowed young lady, you know…! Gyahaha.” As Hanzo spoke, his gaze turned quickly toward Ariane. Then he looked back at me and ended with a lecherous laugh. I couldn’t see for sure, but I was nearly certain that he was staring at Ariane’s chest.
Was this perverted old man really the Jinshin clan’s leader? I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was suddenly revealed to be a body double.
I felt Ariane’s death glare intensify, making the muscles in my neck tense up. This body was supposed to have the ability to bypass strong emotions, but Ariane’s glare was something different entirely.
Ponta pawed my lap, begging for food. I petted it to try and calm it down.
“Thank you, Hanzo,” I said. “That is incredibly generous.”
Hanzo nodded. “We’ll even lend you our best crafters. Chiyome!”
The cat-eared ninja girl glided into the room silently. She bowed once in the entrance before approaching.
Three others followed her, including a massive man around 230 centimeters tall, with hair the color of a tabby cat. I recognized Goemon, one of the six great ninjas, who joined Chiyome in our attack on the Etzat Market. This time, he wore the same form-fitting ninja garb as Chiyome. He entered the room in silence, offering only imperceptible glances as greetings.
An even larger man followed Goemon. He must have been at least 270 centimeters tall; his head almost scraped the ceiling. He bowed several times as he entered. The muscles in the man’s back bulged, as did his thick, muscular arms. His legs were short for his height, and two cute round ears sat on his head. Deep wrinkles creased his face, giving him a commanding presence.
Behind him followed a small, middle-aged man around 160 centimeters tall. The determination in his eyes made it clear that he was far from average. Faded scars covered his arms below rolled-up sleeves, and one long rabbit ear was torn off halfway down. As I watched, his brutal face developed a playful grin.
The four walked over to Hanzo and sat beside him, bowing to us. Ariane and I bowed back.
Hanzo gestured to the newcomers. “I believe you have both met Goemon, and of course you know Chiyome. This large man is Gowro, one of the bear people, and the chief of our village.”
The large man bowed low, forehead touching the floor. He looked back up, speaking with a heavy accent.
“I am Gowro, a member of the bear people and village chief. I am immensely grateful and honored that you will help us.” He bowed low again.
“Oh?” I said, a bit confused. “I thought Hanzo was chief.”
Hanzo explained. “This village was built by the Jinshin clan, but we don’t rule it. There are, in fact, multiple villages like this one across the continent.”
Hanzo glanced at the short man with rabbit ears.
A menacing look returned to the man’s face. “I am Pittah, one of the rabbit people. I serve as the village’s military commander. I will lead the advance party to prepare the new location for everyone’s arrival. I look forward to working with you, Arc.” His voice was an intimidating growl. Ponta scooted backward slightly at the sound.
So, a walking, talking skeleton like myself was fine, but the Yakuza-esque Pittah was a no-go for Ponta. I wasn’t sure how it decided where to draw the line, but clearly, spirit creatures weren’t drawn to beast species unconditionally.
Pittah slumped at Ponta’s rejection. It seemed he had a soft spot, despite being fierce-looking.
“What advance party, Pittah?” I asked.
Hanzo stroked his beard as he explained. “The Dragon Lord told Chiyome of a place that would be perfect for us: an open plain beside a large lake. However, I want an advance party to check it out personally. Once we examine the land, we would like you to teleport an engineering group to our new home. They can prepare the basic necessities for the rest of the village’s arrival.”
Traveling to the lake on foot would take quite a long time. While the advance party was busy examining the land, I would need to get a good feeling for the surroundings, so I could teleport the engineering group there. Since this new land didn’t have walls to drive off monsters, like the village did, they would need to build temporary defensive structures, along with sleeping quarters.
“How many days do you believe it will take until the engineering group is ready to accept the first settlers?” I asked. “And how many groups do you plan to break the village into?”
I wanted to know the plan so I could prepare accordingly.
Hanzo arched an eyebrow. “It will be at least a month or two until we’re ready to move the first settlers. After that, we plan to relocate about half the townspeople.”
“Ah, I see,” I said. “So, you won’t be abandoning this village?”
Hanzo shook his head. “This village belongs to our people. The place we’re moving to is safe from outside attack, but also incredibly difficult to reach. The third Hanzo abandoned the shrine because he couldn’t assist his comrades while maintaining a base there.”
Without the ability to use space-time ninjutsu, or some other teleportation magic, the only way in or out was through the monster-infested forests and cave.
The hulking warriors in front of me could probably make the journey, but there were also plenty of civilians and children in the village, who would undoubtedly suffer many casualties.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why do you wish to return to a place you abandoned?”
Hanzo shook his head. “Back in the days of the founding elder, our people settled in many villages. Whenever humans abducted our comrades, they were rescued and returned to their homes. But as the human population increased, it pushed the villages deeper into the woods and higher into the mountains, until we found ourselves where we are now, living only in places where humans dare not venture. Our numbers have dwindled greatly, as has travel between our villages.”
Everyone sat in silence, eyes downcast, the only sounds the bubbling stew and crackling wood.
In such a small village, with no one entering or leaving, it would only be a matter of time until everyone was related.
The new location might be surrounded by mountains, but it also had a vast field. They could even increase the field’s size by cutting down the surrounding trees. As they developed the land, they could bring settlers from other villages to diversify their population. At least, I assumed that was their plan.
According to Ariane, the mountain people had a massive country to themselves on the southern continent. Here in the north, however, the humans had crowded them into a corner.
“Should we send the advance party out first thing tomorrow, then?”
Hanzo bowed his head. “Yes, I would appreciate… Huh?!” He jerked backward to look at me, expression grim.
Until then, the conversation had gone smoothly, but the mood in the room had suddenly changed. I looked around, confused.
Hanzo wasn’t the only one who looked alarmed. Gowro, Pittah, and even Chiyome stared at me, wearing surprised expressions. Only Goemon seemed unphased.
Ariane looked alarmed. “Arc, y-you’re changing back!”
I ran my fingers across my face. The spring water had worn off much faster than I expected. I wondered if storing the water for a longer time weakened its effect.
The men on the other side of the hearth began to stand.
With a heavy sigh, I explained my body’s circumstances.