Kiriko Epawsode 10: Encroaching Shadows
How did I end up in this mess, I wonder.
This obviously desperate situation, where all the odds seemed to be stacked against me.
Outnumbered and overpowered, with both my HP and TP depleted.
Though I fought because I didn’t want to die, it appeared as though my fighting had caused things to become even worse.
The bodies of the countless Black Demons wriggled around restlessly, as though they were waiting for the signal to attack.
In front of me, the Greater Black Demon that I had so painstakingly beaten down was looking up at me with its triumphant beady eyes.
Having received several heavy blows during the course of the fight, pain continued to rush throughout my body. My breathing had also become ragged, as a throbbing sensation assaulted my chest. It was likely that some of my ribs were cracked, if not broken.
The only saving grace was that none of my injuries had rendered me completely incapable of combat. As long as I could withstand the pain, I could fight.
And as long as I could fight, survival was still an option.
Exhaling deeply, I gripped my fist while solidifying my resolve.
I can do this. There’s still hope.
After all, the regular Black Demons had little combat ability on their own. As long as I could get rid of their head, the rest of the demons should scatter.
And it just so happened that their ‘head’ was right in front of me, in a severely injured state.
My foot raised, I once again burst into flames as I prepared to trample the fallen roachman.
Seemingly sensing my killing intent, a look of fear passed over the roach’s face as it began to let out several urgent screeches.
“GIII! GI GI GIII!!!”
Suddenly, the form of the anthropomorphic cockroach disappeared from sight. In its place were numerous dark, writhing bodies, concealing it.
“Tch, move outta the way, you mob monsters!!”
Stomping down, loud crunching noises ensued as the bodies of the oversized bugs were simultaneously cooked and crushed.
Raising my foot, I could easily determine that the true target of my death stomp – the leading cockroach man – had evaded the attack. Based on the pungent odor which seemed to be getting farther and farther away, it was hiding underneath the bodies of its comrades to escape.
“Oh no you don’t!!”
Yelling, I dashed forward, pursuing the roach. After all, if the head wasn’t exterminated, it was unlikely that the army of summoned roaches would disperse. Not only that, but it was possible that the bipedal roach would come back at a later time to get revenge.
There’s no way I can let it get away!
Sighting my prey, I pounced.
An animalistic instinct seemed to come over me as I extended my claws towards the fleeing insect. However, when I grabbed it, I quickly realized that unlike a real cat, my slender fingers lacked the sharp, biological weapons.
Unable to think of anything else, I wrapped my arms around the roach’s neck in a chokehold. Luckily, the move seemed to be rather effective, as the demon’s screeches began to die down, its mouth frothing.
“Just hurry……up……and……die already!!!!”
Increasing the intensity of my flames to their maximum output, I clung to the roach’s back while continuing to choke it.
Unable to even release any death throes, the monster attempted to struggle, dashing about side to side within its horde of minions. However—
—it soon collapsed.
Determined not to loosen my hold on the roach until I was absolutely sure that it died, I continued to let loose my flames while strengthening my grip on its neck.
After half a minute, the fire surrounding me weakened as a sense of exhaustion began to overcome my mind.
After another minute, the flames had been reduced to mere embers, as my conscious began to flicker.
“—KI——-!!!! OI——KIRI—-!!!! KIRIKO!!!!!”
Hearing someone call my name, I raised my head dazedly, searching for the source of the voice.
For some reason, my vision was somewhat blurry, like a television with bad reception.
Blinking, it took several seconds before I recognized the owner of the voice, who incidentally, was also shoving his worried-looking face right into mine.
“Kiriko! Are you alright?! You can let go of it now, it’s dead.”
Giving back a rather bleary response, I loosened my arms.
Immediately, a commanding voice called out and the charred corpse was dragged away. Looking around, I could see the remains of countless roaches around me, many of them with scorched shells.
“Is it over……?”
My mind seemed to have become unable to keep up with the visual information being sent to it, as I continued to stare around blankly.
In the midst of my confusion, a warm hand touched my head, gently patting it.
Somehow, I instantly knew who the owner of the hand was.
“Yeah, thanks to you. It’s okay now.”
His golden eyes met mine, and a sense of relief washed over my body.
As the tension flew away, my eyelids fluttered, threatening to seal themselves shut.
In turn, as though a switch had been flipped, the aches and pains which had hidden away due to the fear of death began to reveal themselves.
Hearing me hiss in pain as I sat up, Conrad’s eyes hardened for a moment before he turned and appeared to shout for someone. At this point, however, words were beyond me as agony electrocuted my senses.
A deep throbbing sensation rose from my back, having received several heavy impacts during the fight.
An intense aching emerged from my overexerted limbs, as they went limp, no longer capable of moving any longer.
Cuts covered every inch of my exposed flesh, dripping blood as they continued to drain away at my vitality.
Worst still was the piercing sensation that seemed to be coming from my ribcage. It appeared that several of my ribs were broken, and were close to piercing the thin membranes covering my lungs.
Pounding at my head was a fierce headache, utterly destroying any and all attempts at rational thinking.
As pain continued to dominate my person, a sliver of fear began to snake its way into my heart.
Am I going to die like this…?
“It’s okay, Kiriko. Calm down. It’s going to be okay.”
Hugging me closer, Conrad began to whisper words of comfort into my ears. It was as if he had read my thoughts.
Staring at his side profile, a strange sense of reassurance seemed to come over me as the warmth of his body sank into mine.
It was at that moment that a strangely simple epiphany hit me.
I can leave the rest to him, can’t I?
He was someone that I could trust.
Despite our short relationship, the bonds forged by the life-and-death encounter today had served to rapidly germinate the seed of trust planted within my heart.
At that moment, the golden-eyed youth rose from being a mere acquaintance, to a friend.
He had saved my life, and I, his. Surely there was no greater proof to show that he was a trustworthy person.
As my body relaxed into my new friend’s embrace, Conrad gave a small sigh of relief as he gently placed his hand back onto my head.
Warmth spread through my scalp, easily dissolving the raging headache that had been assaulting my mind.
His hand gradually made its way forward, stroking my forehead before landing on my eyes. Though I found his actions to be rather puzzling, I stayed still, choosing to follow my decision to trust the young man.
The feeling of someone taking my hand was transmitted by my senses, followed by an intense wave of sleepiness.
“It’s okay, just relax. Sleep, Kiriko.”
Conrad’s calming voice whispered into my ears, rapidly stripping away any and all resistance I had mounted against the sleepy sensation.
In spite of all that, I couldn’t help but feel that everything would be alright. I was safe. There was nothing left to fight against.
Thinking that, I allowed my consciousness to plummet into the softly approaching darkness.
Feeling the young girl’s body go limp, I removed the hand covering her eyes.
“Don’t mention it. She’s a new adventurer after all – it falls under the Guild’s jurisdiction to take care of her.”
Raising an eyebrow, I glanced at Darius’s sky blue eyes doubtfully. After all, though the Guild did take care of new adventurers to some extent, they didn’t do so to the point where they’d even heal them without charge after overdoing it.
That said, this shouldn’t have been a quest where she needed to overdo it. Normally, it’d be unthinkable for a Greater Black Demon to show up on the hunting grounds like this. In fact, its appearance simply stank of foul play.
“Did you guys find anything?”
Scrunching my nose, I questioned Darius about the results of the Guild’s investigation.
“……*sigh* You know I’m not supposed to leak Guild info like that, right? Even if you’re my childhood frie—”
“Darius. You know and I know that the Guild wouldn’t want adventurers to be scared off from hunting Black Demons because of this incident. And if Greater Black Demons are going to be appearing here frequently from now on, we, as adventurers doing the quests, have the right to know.”
“……fine, fine, I got it.”
Smiling with exasperation, the honey blonde-haired receptionist shook his head while raising his hands in surrender. Then, his expression turned serious as the conversation took a darker turn.
“We found traces of Black Demon pheromone.”
“……a coincidence? Or……”
“Of course it was spread by someone! Female Black Demons rarely ever come up to the surface, and if they do, it’ll be when they’re accompanying some Greater Black Demon. Based on the corpses we’ve seen so far, all the Black Demons around here are male. Meaning…”
“That the Greater Black Demon we fought was an unmated male, searching for the female spreading the pheromones……right?”
“Tsk……who the hell’s going around doing such dangerous things……”
Clicking my tongue, my eyebrows furrowed as I pondered upon the potential culprits of the incident.
“Well, whoever it is, the Guild’ll take care of them! Leave it to me!”
Hitting his chest with a fist, Darius made a bold declaration whilst bearing an unusually determined look. Unlike his usual frivolous character, the blue-eyed man seemed to give a sense of seriousness.
Really, how unusual.
Raising an eyebrow skeptically, I glanced down at the unconscious girl in my arms. Remembering something, I used a casual tone as I continued the conversation..
“By the way, thanks for saving Kiriko.”
“Ah, no problem.”
“I didn’t know you could use Wind magic – I was surprised.”
“Well, I mean, I did learn it from—eh?”
Freezing up, Darius stopped in his tracks as he turned to me, his eyebrow twitching in disbelief.
“Thought I wouldn’t notice, huh? Though you tried to suppress it, how long do you think I’ve been with you? I could sense your mana from miles away.”
“Naw, I figured that you’d realize it eventually……just not this quickly. I guess throwing out a Wind Blade at that time was bad—”
“You idiot. You managed to save her life. A tiny secret like that is a small price to pay – and besides, I probably would’ve found out sooner or later. You couldn’t possibly’ve hidden it away from me that long.”
Lightly chopping his head, I gave my childhood friend an impish grin before continuing to walk towards the Guild. The twilight sky was rapidly being consumed by the encroaching night, bringing about a solid darkness dimly lit by the town’s lamps.
“A tiny secret…huh……”
Noticing that Darius had remained frozen in place as he muttered incomprehensibly, I tilted my head while turning back towards the shadow-covered man.
“Hm? Ah, it’s nothing.”
Suddenly, Darius took a step forward, coincidentally returning to a well-lit spot as his brilliant smile was illuminated. The brightness of his smile seemed to glow on its own, beating out the nearby lamps, which paled in comparison.
“………speaking of magic, this girl’s is pretty weird, isn’t it?”
Remembering something from the battle earlier, I asked Darius’s opinion on it. After all, as a Guild receptionist, he had experience in handling various adventurers who could use different kinds of magic.
“…yeah, it is. Though I can feel mana moving when she uses it, it doesn’t seem to be coming from her own mana stores.”
“Hmm…… how strange. If it’s not coming from her own stores, then where’s it coming from?”
“Well, it is possible that she’s a spirit user, but……it feels a bit different from that.”
“Heh~ you’ve met a spirit user before?”
Simply speaking, mages capable of commanding spirits were rare. Especially in Auksas, where local adventurers often used brute force as opposed to magic to fight.
Hence, it was highly unusual for Darius to have met a spirit user and seen them casting magic.
“Yeah……a while back in the Capital, I managed to meet one.”
Looking off, the honey blonde-haired man rubbed the back of his neck as he responded nonchalantly. Then, apparently remembering something himself, he asked.
“By the way, how’s Hawera been? It’s been a while since I last saw her.”
“As energetic as always. She was being pretty persistent about meeting Kiriko after I talked about her……”
“Ah, so that’s why……”
Without needing me to explain any further, Darius quickly understood the reason why I had chosen to hunt Black Demons today. As expected of him. He knew exactly how both my cunning little sister and I thought.
Even without my permission, Hawera would likely try to meet Kiriko.
Knowing that, I had met up with the noble girl today and brought her to a place where the daffodil-eyed female would absolutely, never want to go.
The Black Demon Fields.
After all, Hawera truly couldn’t stand the giant critters. They simply ‘freaked’ her out. For whatever reason.
Thinking back to our childhood, Darius and I had often teased the young daffodil-eyed girl by forcefully taking her to the fields to play.
Actually, that could’ve played a part in the reason why she abhors them so much now…
A certain incident popped into my mind.
It was a small prank.
Knowing that Hawera was scared of the black-bodied bugs, we had left her in the field alone while watching from afar.
Who would’ve thought that she was carrying fruit on her, which ended up attracting tens of them?
They had surrounded her as she wailed, and soon began to swarm on top of her.
Realizing that we went too far, Darius and I quickly ran back to get her.
After throwing a pouch of monster repellant, we managed to drive the Black Demons off her small frame, though at that point, it was too late.
In her fear, Hawera wet herself.
Naturally, it had taken days for her to forgive us, and during that time, Darius’s face was quite the sight to see……
“Now that I think of it……how’s it going between you and Hawera?”
Suddenly, the honey blonde-haired youth jolted as he froze in place.
Really, I wonder what he’s so surprised about. It’s been obvious since that time that he had liked my feisty little sister quite a bit. However, with things being as they were, he’s never acted on those feelings or tried to convey them one.
And with Hawera being as she is…
The person in question never noticed at all.
“*cough* Well, I’ve been busy with various matters at the Guild lately. Once I’m finished with my business, I plan on telling her.”
Lightly coughing, the apparently unflustered receptionist gave a rather calm response, contrasting with his earlier rigidity. Seeing this, I let out a small sigh.
After all, Darius had always been like this.
Always giving off a composed demeanor, with an unaffected smile on the surface.
Yet underneath, he’d have all sorts of feelings simmering, just waiting for the right moment.
“Hmm~ well, that’s fine and all, but if you don’t hurry up, she’ll get taken away.”
“EH?! *cough* *hack*”
—with just a little bit of prodding, his serene mask would easily come off.
Waiting for my agitated childhood friend to catch his breath, I leaned relaxedly against the wall of the Guild building next to us.
“If you’re feeling better now, could you hurry up and bring me to Kiriko’s room? My arms are starting to get a bit tired…”
After Darius’s coughing fit ended, I gave a rather impatient request. It couldn’t really be helped – I had been carrying the flame-haired girl since we had left the Black Demon Fields. With the moon having fully risen, quite some time had passed since then.
“Geez, she can’t be that heavy. But fine, follow me. We’ll go through the back door.”
Following the blue-eyed youth, I was led into a dark alleyway situated behind the Guild. Hidden away from the light of the main road, it seemed like a suitable place for the more shady dealings that the Guild dealt with occasionally.
As Darius opened a rather unremarkable door, light flooded into the surroundings, illuminating the darkness like a heavenly portal.
Passing through the doorway, I found myself in a dimly lit hallway. The candlelight flickered, sensing our intrusion into the building as we entered.
Making our way to Kiriko’s room, I was surprised to discover how spacious her room was.
Rather than saying that the room itself was large, it was better to say that there was a complete lack of clutter in it. Other than the neatly folded pile of clothes that she had been wearing earlier that day, there was nothing else.
Does she not have any other possessions?
Laying the young girl on the sole bed in the small space, I glanced around skeptically. After all, even if she had been tricked out of her assets when eloping, it was rather unusual for her partner to be so vicious that he didn’t even leave her with a single knapsack. Though thinking back to it, even when I had first met her, she didn’t have a single piece of luggage in sight.
…the poor thing, she’s probably gone through a lot…
Giving the sleeping individual a pitying glance, I shook my head as I turned to Darius.
Strangely, his face was painted with an expression of interest as he carefully observed the room. Then, noticing my gaze, his blue eyes flashed, briefly turning towards Kiriko before looking back at me with a smile.
“Alright then, shall we?”
Gesturing towards the door, Darius walked out of the room, blowing out the candle lighting it in the process.
Walking after the Guild receptionist, I went with him to the reception. After discussing the rewards for today’s haul, I bid the honey blonde youth goodnight and left the building.
The moon overlooked the streets as I slowly headed home, enjoying the evening breeze.
Despite all the happenings that had occurred today, the night was peaceful, like the calm before a storm.
“It truly was a busy day…”
Smiling to myself, I thought about just how excited, and envious, Hawera would be if I told her about today.
She’d definitely insist on meeting Kiriko this time, huh……well, it should be okay.
The flame-haired girl wasn’t someone who would harm others without reason, after all.
She wasn’t like those other so-called nobles.
Though there were some dubious points about her, she was, in essence, a good person.
I had understood that much from her actions today.
Deciding to let my rambunctious little sister meet the fiery noble girl tomorrow, I contently headed home.
“Ah, the lights are on.”
A soft candlelight leaked through the windows of the modest home, spreading across the street like a golden rug set out to welcome me.
Walking up to the entrance, I turned the key and entered the house.
But what greeted me there—
—were the whisperings of a devil.