Chapter 2: Gathering, Lizardmen
The sun was high in the sky after half a day’s ride on Rororo. Zaryusu reached his destination without encountering any of the enemies he had been worried about.
There were several houses here which resembled those of the Green Claw tribe, surrounded by barricades of sharpened stakes pointing out on all sides. The gaps between the stakes were fairly large, but they were enough to keep away monsters like Rororo. There were fewer structures here than in the Green Claw tribe, but each of them was larger.
Therefore, he could not determine which tribe had more people.
Each building flew a flag which waved in the wind. Said flag was emblazoned with the Lizardman symbol for “Red Eye”.
Indeed, this was the first destination Zaryusu had picked — the tribal dwelling place of the Red Eye tribe.
After looking around, Zaryusu breathed a sigh of relief.
Fortunately, they lived in the same place that his information had told him. He had feared that they had migrated after the previous war, and he would have to start by finding their tribe.
Looking back at the direction from which he came, Zaryusu saw his own village at the limits of his vision. They must surely be preparing an ample welcome for their incoming guests. While he had felt uneasy when he had left his village, he was quite certain now that they would not be attacked.
The best proof of that was Zaryusu’s safe arrival here.
While he was not sure if that was an oversight by that so-called Supreme One or if this development fell within the predicted scope of events, it would seem the enemy did not intend to go back on their word, and neither did they intend to stop the Lizardmen from preparing themselves.
Of course, even if the forces of that Supreme Whatever did show up, Zaryusu had no choice but to follow through with all his might.
Zaryusu dismounted from Rororo and stretched lazily.
Although riding Rororo for long periods of time had made his muscles stiff, stretching like that filled him with comfort.
After that, Zaryusu indicated that Rororo should stay where he was and wait. Then, he took out some dried fish from his saddlebags and fed them to Rororo as his breakfast cum lunch.
Originally, he had intended to have his people bring their rations here, but he could not give that order because it might have damaged the Red Eyes’ hunting grounds.
After patting all of Rororo’s heads, Zaryusu set forth by himself.
If he kept Rororo by his side, the presence of the Hydra might have left the other side too wary to come out and speak. Since Zaryusu had come to propose an alliance, he did not want to pressure them unduly.
Water splashed around his feet as he advanced.
From the corner of his eye, Zaryusu noticed several warriors of the Red Eye tribe following his movements from within the barricade. Much like the warriors of the Green Claw tribe, they wore no armor and carried long spears, each of which was essentially a long stick tipped with a sharpened head of bone. Others carried slings, but the fact that none of them had discharged bullets at him suggested that they had no intention of attacking right away.
Zaryusu did not wish to agitate them either, so he slowly drew closer until he reached their main gate. Then, he turned to the Lizardmen watching him warily, and shouted at the top of his voice:
“I am Zaryusu Shasha of the Green Claw Tribe! I seek an audience with your chief!”
After some time, an old Lizardman holding a gnarled staff arrived. He was trailed by five strapping members of his tribe. The old Lizardman’s body was painted with white designs.
Is he their High Priest?
Zaryusu cut an impressive figure even as he stood there waiting.
Currently, they were equals. Thus, he could not show any sign of weakness. Zaryusu remained still even as the priest inspected the brand upon his chest.
“I am Zaryusu Shasha of the Green Claw. There is something I must discuss with you.”
“...Though I do not wish to welcome you, our leader has decided to grant you an audience. Come with me.”
This roundabout reply left Zaryusu somewhat confused.
What baffled him was why he did not call their leader “chief”. In addition, they had not asked him for any proof of his identity. That said, it would be troublesome if he spoke too much and upset them. With a vague sense that something was wrong, Zaryusu followed behind the group of Lizardmen.
♦ ♦ ♦
He was taken to a well-appointed little house.
It was easily larger than Zaryusu’s brother’s house, back in his village. The walls were decorated with designs drawn with rare paints, implying the high status of its occupant.
Curiously enough, this house lacked windows, though it had ventilation holes scattered throughout its walls. Like any other Lizardman, Zaryusu could see just fine in the dark. However, that did not imply they enjoyed living in darkness.
That being the case, why did this leader live in a dark little hut like this?
Questions like that popped up in Zaryusu’s mind, but nobody would answer them for him.
Looking back, he saw that the priest and the warriors who had led him here were nowhere to be found.
When he had first heard the people leading him tell everyone else to leave, he had thought they were being too careless, and he had almost asked why they had done this.
However, once Zaryusu learned that the request came from the village’s leader — its acting chief — his respect towards the person within the hut only grew.
Zaryusu had promised his elder brother that he would return safely, but that did not imply he had to come back unharmed. Surrounding him with armed warriors to apply pressure would do no good. Rather, if they had done that, he would have been disappointed at their lack of insight.
However, if the opposition had already anticipated that, and put on this great show for him...
Does that mean I’ll be dealing with a skilled negotiator...
Zaryusu purposely ignored the people watching him from afar. He marched up to the door and loudly shouted:
“I am Zaryusu Shasha of the Green Claw tribe! I was told that this tribe’s leader was here! May I request an audience?”
A faint voice came back, granting him entry. It was a female voice.
Zaryusu entered without a moment’s hesitation.
As expected, the interior was pitch-dark.
While he possessed darkvision, the dramatic change in light levels made Zaryusu blink.
An acrid odour hung in the air, possibly from some kind of herbal concoction. Zaryusu had expected an aged female, but the voice easily shattered that preconception of his.
“I bid you welcome.”
The voice had come through a door from the interior of the dark room, so he had assumed that it must have belonged to someone old. But now, he realised that her voice was young and full of vigor.
As Zaryusu’s eyes finally adjusted to the ambient light, the form of a Lizardman resolved itself within his field of vision.
That was the first thing Zaryusu thought when he saw her.
Her scales were as white as snow and bright as day, clean and free of imperfections.
Her round, shiny eyes were crimson, glowing like rubies. Her slender body was not masculine, but feminine.
Her body was covered in red and black tribal designs indicating that she was an adult, that she knew many spells...
...And that she was unmarried.
Dear reader, have you been stabbed by a lance before?
Zaryusu had. It was a searing pain that made him feel that something hot had been forcefully pressed against his body, an agony that pulsed through his body in time with the beating of his heart. Zaryusu experienced something like that.
Only, it did not hurt, but—
Zaryusu stood silently in his original position.
His counterpart’s reaction to his silence was unreadable. With a mocking smile, she asked:
“It would seem even the bearer of Frost Pain — one of the Four Treasures — regards me as an aberration as well.”
In the wild, albinism was a very rare condition. That was because albinos were very obvious and they had a hard time surviving the rigors of life.
The same applied to the Lizardmen, who possessed some degree of civilization. That was because they lacked the technology to enable people who feared the sun and had poor eyesight to survive. As a result, there were very few adult albino Lizardmen, and some were even killed at birth.
Among the Lizardmen, being considered a mere nuisance was already quite good. In the worst-case scenario, some were even regarded as monsters. That was the meaning of the mockery in her smile.
However, none of that applied to Zaryusu.
“—What’s wrong with you?” the surprised female inquired of Zaryusu, who was frozen solid at her doorstep.
Zaryusu’s answer was a cry that grew high-pitched near the end, with some warbling in the middle.
The Lizardwoman’s eyes went wide and her jaw dropped slightly. It encompassed her surprise, confusion and embarrassment.
That sound was known as a mating call.
After realizing the foolish act he had unconsciously performed, his tail swished back and forth; the Lizardman equivalent of a human blush. It thrashed so violently that it seemed as though the house would be torn down.
“Er, ah, no. No, that’s not it. I didn’t mean that, I—”
Zaryusu’s panicked reaction seemed to calm the female down. Her teeth ground against each other in a creaking laugh, and then she tried to comfort him in an exasperated tone.
“Please calm down. It’ll be quite troublesome for me if you lose control here.”
After apologizing, Zaryusu entered the hut. By now, the Lizardwoman’s tail lay flat on the ground. It would seem she had finally managed to regain her composure. Still, its tip twitched and shuddered, which hinted that she had not completely calmed herself down yet.
“This way, please.”
The female ushered Zaryusu to what looked like a seat on the ground that looked like it had been woven from plant fibers. She took a place opposite him once he sat down.
“Pleased to meet you. This one is a traveller from the Green Claw tribe, Zaryusu Shasha.”
“Thank you for your formal introduction. I am the acting chief of the Red Eye tribe, Crusch Lulu.”
After introducing themselves, the two of them studied each other, as though conducting an appraisal of their counterpart.
The brief silence filled the hut, but it could not last. Zaryusu was a guest, so it fell to Crusch — as the host — to speak first.
“Then, Your Excellency, let’s not stand on ceremony. I would like us to be able to speak freely, so it’ll be alright to relax.”
Zaryusu nodded in response to the request for openness.
“I’m grateful for that. The fact is, I’m not used to speaking formally myself.”
“Then, why have you come here?”
Crusch had an idea already, despite her question.
The mysterious undead being had appeared in the center of their village, and it would seem someone else had used cloud-controlling magic of the 4th tier — [Control Clouds]. In addition, the visitor was a Lizardman hero from another tribe.
Thus, there could only be one answer. Just as Crusch was wondering how to react to Zaryusu, she heard an answer which completely exceeded her expectations.
“—Please marry me.”
For a moment, Crusch wondered if her ears had been mistaken.
“Granted, that’s not why I came. In addition, I know very well that this sort of thing ought to come after we’ve finished discussing business. However, I can’t deny what I feel in my heart. I suppose you can mock me as a foolish male.”
“Uu, er, mm. Oh…”
After hearing these words that she had never heard before since birth, and which she believed would never be directed at her, a storm of chaos tore Crusch’s heart apart, and she was completely unable to focus.
Zaryusu smiled bitterly as he saw Crusch in that state, and continued:
“I’m sorry, I really am. I shouldn’t be doing something like that at a time like this. I don’t mind if you tell me your answer later..”
“Er, um… hm.”
At great length, Crusch had finally managed to gather her thoughts once more, or at the very least she had managed to restart them. In any event, she finally calmed down, but as Zaryusu’s words appeared in her mind, she felt as if her head would burn up at any moment.
She studied the face of the male opposite her, taking care not to let herself be noticed as she sized up his stoic expression.
I can’t believe he can be so calm after saying that sort of thing to me… does he make proposals like that often? Or is he used to having people court him… Granted, he is very handsome… Ah! What am I thinking?! This must be his scheme... yes, that’s right. Clearly, he’s just trying to wind me up. Besides, it’s not as though anyone would pro-propose to someone like me…!
Having never been treated as a woman before, she was thrown into turmoil by this experience. She did not notice the way the tip of Zaryusu’s tail twitched slightly. The male before her was also struggling to control his emotions and keep them from erupting forth.
Thus, silence passed between them for a time. It would take a while before the two of them could cool their heads, heated by feverish thoughts.
After enough time had passed for them to regain their composure, Crusch realized that they should return to the original topic for now.
Just as Crusch thought to ask Zaryusu about his reasons for coming to this village, she recalled what he had just said.
How could I ask something like that?!
Crusch’s tail slapped the ground with a thwap. The male before her shuddered, as though he had been physically struck.
Crusch panicked, realizing that this was very rude behavior.
Even if he was a traveller, he was still a representative of his tribe. Neither was he an ordinary Lizardman, but a hero who bore Frost Pain. This was not the attitude she ought to be taking with someone like that.
But it’s all your fault! Just hurry up and say something already!
Zaryusu had chosen silence because he was embarrassed about what he had done, but Crusch had not discerned that as she tried to put a lid on the volcano within her heart.
The silence continued. Realizing that this could not go on, Crusch made up her mind and decided to change the subject.
“Given that you’re not afraid of the way I look, I imagine you must be very brave, am I wrong?”
As he heard Crusch’s self-deprecatory reply, Zaryusu replied with an expression that seemed to say, “what nonsense are you spouting?”
What on earth is he thinking, anyway? Crusch thought.
“I said, do you not fear this white body of mine?”
“...It’s like the snow that covers the mountains.”
“—-It is a beautiful color.”
And of course, he would have to say the one thing which nobody had ever spoken to her before.
What, what is this man saying?!
Unable to bear the strain from within, the lid on Crusch’s emotions burst off, never to be seen again.
Seeing Crusch at a total loss for what to do next, Zaryusu casually reached out and touched Crusch’s scales. His hand grazed over those lustrous, beautiful, seemingly-polished scales — which were somewhat cool to the touch.
“Shaa!” Crusch gasped in what sounded like fright.
That sound seemed to cool their heads off somewhat.
Both of them knew something was happening to them, but they could not hold themselves back. Panic filled them. Why had he been unable to control himself and touched her? And why had she let him do it? These questions became anxiety, which in turn became confusion.
In the end, their tails thumped repeatedly on the ground, so forcefully that the entire house seemed to shake.
Before long, their eyes met, and they realized the state of each other’s tails. Then, their tails froze mid-motion, as though time had stopped for them.
One could describe the mood in the air as heavy. The word “tense” would also be quite applicable. Silence descended upon them once more, and they studied each other as stealthily as they could manage. After that, Crusch finally managed to compose herself. With a look in her eyes which said that she would not let any lies get by her, she asked:
“...Why… did you do that all of a sudden?”
While Crusch had not adequately expressed what she wanted to say, Zaryusu seemed to have picked up on her meaning, and gave a direct and honest answer.
“I believe that’s what they call love at first sight. Also, we might die in this battle, so I didn’t want to leave any regrets behind.”
Crusch was left dumbfounded at how to reply to Zaryusu’s earnest confession. However, there was something within those words which she could not accept.
“...So even the bearer of Frost Pain feels he might die?”
“We don’t know about the enemy, so we can’t take them lightly… Did you see the monster they used to relay their message? The one which came to our village looked like this…”
Zaryusu handed Crusch a sketch of the monster in question. She looked it over, and nodded.
“Mm, it’s the same one.”
“Do you know what kind of monster it is?”
“No. Nobody else in my tribe knows, for that matter.”
“Is that so… Well, I’ve seen a monster like that before…”
Zaryusu’s voice trailed off here, and then he studied Crusch’s reaction after saying, “I ran from it.”
“I didn’t beat it. Or rather, it nearly killed me.”
After realizing how potent that monster was, Crusch breathed a sigh of relief. It would seem holding the warriors back had been the right thing to do.
“That thing can confuse one’s mind with its wails, and it’s an incorporeal creature. Unenchanted weapons are useless against it, so I couldn’t overwhelm it with numbers.”
“We druids have spells which can temporarily enchant weapons…”
“...Can you defend against mental attacks, then?”
“We can improve resistance to such attacks, but protecting everyone’s minds is beyond me.”
“I see… can all priests cast spells like that?”
“Almost any priest can bolster resistances, but I’m the only one in my tribe who can ward against confusion.”
Crusch realised that Zaryusu’s breathing was somewhat ragged. It would seem he had realized that Crusch’s position was not for show.
Indeed, Crusch Lulu was a veteran druid, and her powers were probably in excess of any other High Priest among the Lizardmen.
“...When will the Red Eye tribe be attacked?”
“They said we would be the fourth.”
“Is that so… then, what do you plan to do?”
Crusch debated the merits and demerits of telling him. The Green Claw tribe would surely choose to fight, and Zaryusu was most likely here to secure an alliance to fight with them. How could she turn that to the advantage of the Red Eye tribe?
The Red Eyes had never intended to form an alliance. They had intended to flee. After all, fighting anyone who could use 4th-tier spells was foolish in the extreme. There was no other conclusion they could draw given that their opposition could deploy the undead as well.
However, would it really be wise to tell them that?
As her thoughts swirled within her head, Zaryusu narrowed his eyes, as though he was going to bare his soul to her.
“Let me state my honest opinion.”
Crusch did not know what Zaryusu would say next, and kept her eyes trained on him.
“What worries me is what will happen after we evacuate.”
Crusch had no idea what Zaryusu was talking about. Zaryusu calmly explained himself.
“Do you think you can continue living as you always have after leaving a familiar place?”
“I don’t think so… no, it would be close to impossible, right?”
If they left this place and built a new life elsewhere, that would entail entering a new environment. They would have to bet their lives in a struggle for life and death — for survival — and win. And in truth, the Lizardmen were not the rulers of this lake. They had fought for years to carve out their niche in these wetlands. A race like theirs could not easily uproot themselves and thrive in unknown territory.
“That is to say, it might be difficult just to find food and shelter, am I correct?”
“Indeed,” Crusch replied in a somewhat shrill tone that conveyed her doubts.
“Then, what would happen if the five tribes all tried to evacuate at once?”
Crusch was speechless, because she had already divined Zaryusu’s true intentions.
The area around the lake was spacious, but anywhere that a particular tribe fled to would also be hotly contested territory for the other tribes. In other words, just moving to a new place would spark a battle for survival. On top of that, they would all be fighting over the fish that was their staple food. What would happen if events unfolded in that way? For all they knew, something terrible might occur, like that war from the past.
“So you’re telling me… the reason why you want to fight despite our lack of confidence is…”
“...Yes. It is not just a matter of my own tribe, but I have also considered how to thin the ranks of the other tribes.”
“What kind of a reason is that?!”
That was why he wanted them to close ranks and fight. Even if they lost, the number of Lizardmen would be decreased.
The idea was a radical one — the idea that everyone was expendable besides the warriors, hunters and priests. Yet, she could understand the rationale behind it. Or rather, when one took a long view of things, sacrificing everyone else was the wisest choice.
If there were fewer Lizardmen, they would not need so much food. In that way, the various tribes might be able to coexist in harmony.
Crusch searched for some way to deny that idea of his.
“—You’re telling me that you want to reduce our numbers and make a new life elsewhere without even knowing how dangerous our new home will be?”
“Then let me ask you this — what happens if we easily win the battle for our survival? When the supply of fish runs low, will the five tribes slaughter each other again?”
“For all we know, it might be easier to catch fish in future!”
“And what if it isn’t?”
Crusch had no idea how to answer Zaryusu’s cold retort.
Zaryusu seemed to be assuming the worst-case scenario while planning, which seemed like an extreme position to Crusch. If they did as she was thinking, then a tragedy would play out when times got tough. However, if they did as Zaryusu was implying, then said tragedy might be averted.
In addition, even if the adult Lizardmen died in battle, it would be a glorious death for them.
“...If anyone refuses our proposition, then we will have to mobilize our troops against them first.”
His low tones made Crusch shiver.
What he meant was that he would not allow the Red Eye tribe to migrate elsewhere with their numbers undiminished.
It was a sensible conclusion, and a very appropriate one.
When the depleted tribes ran into the Red Eye tribe — whose strength was undiminished — they would be at risk of annihilation. In order to avoid that, the only choice they had was to assault any tribes which did not choose to join the alliance. It was a perfectly rational decision to make from the perspective of a leader whose people were in danger, and if she were in his position, she might well have made that decision as well.
“I feel that so long as we form an alliance, even if we lose, there will be a minimal chance of us killing each other when our tribes relocate to new lands.”
Crusch did not understand the meaning of those words, and her ignorance showed on her face. It was then that Zaryusu decided to explain himself in simpler terms.
“I feel that the alliance will foster a spirit of mutual cooperation and change our perspectives. Everyone will be comrades who have shed blood together, and not people from different tribes.”
“So that’s it,” Crusch murmured as enlightenment dawned on her.
In other words, the tribes which had fought alongside each other might not necessarily descend into violence once food ran scarce. However, given Crusch’s opinion and her past experiences, she wondered if they could reach such a state.
Just as Crusch lowered her head and began her contemplation, Zaryusu asked:
“Come to think of it, how did your tribe survive that period, anyway?”
Crusch jerked her head up, like she had been jabbed by a needle. She turned stiffly toward Zaryusu, who had a look of surprise on his face.
So he really didn’t know about it before asking.
While they had not known each other for a long time, Crusch had a rough grasp of Zaryusu’s personality, and her instincts told her that his question posed no threat to her tribe.
Crusch narrowed her eyes and stared at Zaryusu, as though trying to penetrate him with her piercing gaze. She knew that Zaryusu would be confused about why someone was looking at him like that, but even so, she still had to do it.”
“—Must I tell you?”
Her tone was filled with disdain and resentment. So great was the change that it made Zaryusu wonder if he was speaking to someone else.
However, Zaryusu would not back down here, because this was potentially a lifeline that could save everyone.
“I hope you can tell me. Was it by the power of the priests? Or was there another way? Perhaps there might be a way to save—”
Zaryusu cut his words off halfway.
If there was really a way to save everyone, then the look on Crusch’s face would not have been so bitter.
Perhaps Crusch had sensed what Zaryusu was thinking, but she laughed, as though to mock herself.
“You’re right. There’s no way to save everyone.”
She stopped here, and smiled tiredly.
“We resorted to cannibalism — eating our dead comrades.”
The incredible shock left Zaryusu speechless. Killing the weak — reducing their numbers — was not forbidden, but eating one’s fellow man was an unclean practice, a taboo among taboos.
Why is she telling me this? Why is she telling me something she should have kept a secret all her life, to someone outside the tribe — to a visitor? Could it be that she doesn’t intend to let me leave alive… no, it doesn’t seem like that.
Even Crusch was surprised at why she was telling Zaryusu all this.
She knew very well that her tribe would be vilified for it. But why —
And then she continued speaking, as though her mouth were no longer under her control.
“At that time — during the tribal war — our tribe was in dire straits due to a lack of food. However, we did not participate in the fighting because our tribe had more priests and comparatively fewer warriors. The priests could create food with magic.”
As though in the grip of some other being, Crusch carried on.
“However, the food that the priests created with magic was little more than a stopgap measure, and our tribe was slowly and surely heading towards destruction. However, the chief suddenly brought back some food one day; fresh red meat.
—Perhaps, I wanted to confess… my sins to him.
The sound of Crusch gnashing her teeth filled the air.
The male before her listened silently. If he was repulsed by it, he showed absolutely no sign.
Crusch was thankful for that.
“Everyone had an idea of what that meat was. There had been strict laws laid down, and those families who violated them had been exiled. The chief only brought that meat back after those exiles had left. But everyone ignored their suspicions and ate the meat in order to survive. Of course, things could not go on like that forever. Everyone’s pent-up feelings reached a head, and then they exploded.”
Crusch closed her eyes and recalled the face of the previous chief.
“We who ate that meat… even when we knew what it was… we were guilty of the same crime as the chief. When I think about it now, it almost seems laughable.”
After she finished her monologue, Crusch looked Zaryusu in the eye. As she saw no sign of revulsion in his eyes, a secret thrill of delight ran through her, followed by surprise at her joy.
Why was she so happy about this?
Crusch began to realize the answer to that question.
“...Please look at me. Sometimes, people like myself appear in the Red Eye tribe. When they grow up, they develop some form of special ability — in my case, I was talented at priestly magic. Therefore, I was in the running to be the next tribal chief… and so I raised my banner in revolt against the chief. That battle split the tribe in two, but we won because we were stronger.”
“And so your stores of food were now adequate because your numbers had decreased?”
“Yes… and in the end, our tribe survived. When we rebelled, the chief held out until the bitter end, and he died after being covered in countless wounds. Before he received the fatal blow, he looked at me and smiled.”
The words slipped painfully from Crusch.
That was the guilt which had been festering in her heart ever since she killed the previous chief.
She could not confess these sins of hers to the people who had stood by her, complicit in her treason. But now, she could unburden herself to Zaryusu. That was why she was going on and on about the past.
“It was a smile which I did not expect from someone looking upon the person about to murder them. There was no hatred, resentment, hostility or malice there — it was such a beautiful smile! I was wondering… could it be that the chief had done all this after taking everything else into consideration? In contrast, we were merely acting out of hostility and idealism. The chief was the one in the right! And after the chief died — that is to say, after the scapegoat for all our sins had been killed — our tribe united once more. In addition, he left us the parting gift of solving our food shortage!”
By now, Crusch had already reached her breaking point.
She had struggled for so long with her guilt and the burden of becoming the acting chief. Thus, when she let herself break down, she would do so with tremendous force. However, Crusch swallowed the impending deluge inside her, because she knew that if she allowed her thoughts to fall into chaos, she might not even be able to speak.
A quiet sobbing filled the air. Biologically speaking, it was an insignificant amount of tears, but the fact was that on a psychological level, she had been broken to the point of weeping.
What a frail little body she had.
In the natural world, weakness was intolerable. While children were still a protected group, there was little difference between male and female Lizardmen; all of them valued strength. From that point of view, he should be scorning the female before him. After all, how could the leader of a tribe show weakness before a member of another tribe — before a stranger?
However, Zaryusu thought differently.
Perhaps he felt that she was a beautiful female, but more than that, she seemed to him like a warrior. She was a warrior who had been wounded, who was panting and in despair, but yet she continued forging ahead. Zaryusu felt that this was merely revealing her vulnerable side.
If she was still willing to stand up and advance, then she was not weak.
Zaryusu leaned close, and gently wrapped his arms around Crusch.
“—We are not all-knowing, and each of us might make a different decision in a different situation. If it were me, I might have done the same thing. But I don’t want to try and comfort you or anything, because there’s no such thing as a right answer in this world. All we can do is to choose to move on, and I feel that even after all the regret and misery and the wounds that cover the soles of your feet, all you can do is choose to press forward.”
The warmth of their bodies flowed into each other, and the tiny tremor of their heartbeats went with it. For a moment, it felt as though their hearts were slowly syncing up with each other.
What a strange feeling.
This was a warmth Zaryusu had never felt before in his life. It was not because he was embracing a Lizardman.
Could it be that it’s because I’m holding this female — Crusch Lulu — in my arms?
Before long, Crusch wriggled free of Zaryusu’s chest.
Zaryusu briefly regretted the departure of her warmth, but he kept silent because he did not know how to express that feeling.
“It seems I’ve embarrassed myself in front of you… do you think less of me now?”
“What do you mean, embarrassed? Do I look like the sort of male who would laugh at someone who carried on moving forward despite their wounds and worries about the future? ...But I think you look very beautiful.”
The white tail curled, and slapped repeatedly at the ground.
Zaryusu did not inquire about what Crusch had meant by those words she had muttered. Instead, he asked another question.
“Right, does the Red Eye tribe raise fish?”
“Yes, as in breeding and nurturing fish to be eaten.”
“We don’t do that, because fish are a blessing from nature.”
From what Zaryusu could tell, no Lizardman tribe had ever practiced fish breeding. That was because they felt that growing their own food was a form of blasphemy.
“That seems to be what the priests — what the druids think. Could you try to change their minds and persuade them to raise fish to fill their bellies? The priests in our tribe seem to have accepted that.”
“Then, I shall teach you how to raise fish. The important thing is their feed; you need to feed them with the fruits conjured by druidic spells. The fish grow large and fat when fed on those.”
“Is it really alright for you to tell me the secrets of fish-rearing?”
“Of course. There’s no point hiding it. It’s more important that I help as many tribes with that as possible.”
Crusch bowed deeply to Zaryusu and lifted her tail in thanks.
“You have my utmost gratitude.”
“You… Well, you don’t have to thank me, but in return, I’d like to ask you something again.”
The emotion disappeared from Crusch’s face, and that shift in attitude calmed Zaryusu’s heart down.”
This was a question he could not evade. Zaryusu took a deep breath, and so did Crusch.
And then, Zaryusu asked:
“What does the Red Eye tribe intend to do about the coming battle?”
“...After what we discussed yesterday, we are currently in favor of fleeing.”
“Then, acting chief Crusch Lulu, let me ask you one more time — do you still feel the same way?”
Crusch could not answer him.
It was only natural to hesitate, given that this concerned the fate of the Red Eye tribe.
However, Zaryusu could do nothing about that response but force a smile to his face.
“...You have to make that decision, because I believe the reason why the previous chief smiled at you was because he was entrusting you with the tribe’s future. That being the case, now is the time to validate his trust in you. That’s all I have to say. The rest is up to you.”
Crusch’s round eyes panned around the room. It did not imply she wanted to flee or seek help, but that she was searching for the right answer within her heart.
No matter how it ended up, all Zaryusu had to do was accept her answer.
“As acting chief, may I ask how many people you intend to evacuate?”
“For the time being, we are planning to evacuate 10 warriors, 20 hunters, 3 priests, 70 males, 100 females and some children.”
“...As for the others?”
“—Depending on the circumstances, we might have to let them all die.”
Crusch stared off into empty space and murmured:
“Then, please give me your answer, acting chief Crusch Lulu of the Red Eye tribe.”
Crusch considered her options.
She could kill Zaryusu. Personally speaking, she did not want to do that, but it was a different matter in her capacity as acting chief.
How about killing him and fleeing with the rest of the village? Crusch abandoned that line of thought, because it was an extremely dangerous gamble and it concerned their future. Besides, there was no guarantee that he really had come alone.
Then, how about agreeing with him and then running away with everyone?
That would probably be problematic too. If they tried to be clever and messed up instead, it might lead to a war with the Red Eye tribe — one that would lead to an extermination of their people. After all, their intention was to reduce the population, and it did not matter who had to die for that to happen.
Ultimately, if he did not receive an answer agreeing to an alliance, he would probably lead an army to the Red Eye tribe to destroy them.
However, she did not know if Zaryusu had realized there was a flaw in that plan. The problem of food scarcity still remained.
Then, enlightenment dawned on Crusch, and she laughed. There had never been a way out to begin with. From the moment Zaryusu had proposed the alliance; from the moment he had suggested they work with the Green Claw tribe—
The only way for the Red Eye tribe to survive was to ally with them and join the battle together. Zaryusu should have realised that as well.
Even so, he wanted Crusch to give her answer. He probably wanted to see if Crusch — the leader of her tribe — was worthy of standing beside him as his comrade.
After that, all that was left was to speak her decision.
However, if she told him, many people would surely die. However—
“Let me get one thing straight. We are not fighting to die, we are fighting to win. I may have said a lot of things that made you uncomfortable, but as long as we beat the enemy, we can laugh it all off. I hope you understand that.”
Crusch nodded to show that she understood.
He was a compassionate male. With that, Crusch replied with her decision:
“...We, the Red Eye tribe, will join you, because I do not wish to make the previous chief’s smile meaningless, and also because I want to give the Red Eye tribe its best shot at survival.”
Crusch bowed deeply, and lifted her tail.
“—Thank you very much.”
Zaryusu nodded, and his firmly erect tail spoke more of his emotions than his words ever could.
♦ ♦ ♦
It was morning.
Zaryusu looked toward the main gate of the Red Eye tribe’s village, from where he stood in front of Rororo.
His mouth opened, and a yawn slipped out. He was still feeling a little tired, because he had been sitting in on the tribal meeting of the Red Eye tribe until late last night. However, time was of the essence, and he had to visit another tribe by today.
Zaryusu furiously battled the spectre of sleep, but he lost his fight and yawned again, louder than before.
While Rororo was hardly a stable ride, for some reason he felt that he could still fall asleep on top of it.
Zaryusu glanced at the sun, which seemed bright yellow despite having just risen, and then he looked back at the main gate. A feeling of confusion came over him, because something strange had walked out from it.
It was a bundle of grass.
It was a set of garments that had been made with long strips of cloth and stuffed full of long grasses. If it lay down on the marsh, it would look like a pile of weeds from a distance.
Ah, where have I seen a monster like that before—
As Zaryusu recalled the sights he had seen as an adventurer, Rororo growled in a threatening fashion from behind him.
Of course, Zaryusu knew who that pile of weeds was. There was no doubt about it. After all, her white tail peeked out from it.
As he stared dumbly at the swaying tail and absentmindedly rubbed Rororo to calm it down, the pile of weeds had already drawn up to Zaryusu.
“Mm, good morning… it seems you’ve gathered the tribe.”
He looked toward the dwellings of the Red Eye tribe. It was filled with a frantic energy, with many Lizardmen running back and forth. Crusch stood aside to watch, and then replied:
“Mm, there were no problems with that. We should be able to reach the Razor Tail village by today, and we’ve already picked out the people that we’re going to evacuate.”
According to the spells cast by the priests from the village, the Razor Tail tribe was the first to be attacked. The fact that the first tribe to be attacked was not the Dragon Tusk tribe was a godsend when they considered the time they had left.
“Then, why are you coming with me, Crusch?”
“The answer is simple, Zaryusu. But before I answer you, tell me this — what do you intend to do next?”
After the long meeting that had lasted from evening to the middle of the night, neither of them felt uncomfortable about addressing each other by their first names. Even the way they in which they spoke had changed, probably because they had come to be familiar with each other.
“After this, I intend to visit another tribe — the Dragon Tusk tribe.”
“They’re the tribe that values strength over all things, right? I’ve heard that they have the greatest fighting power of all the tribes.”
“Mm, that’s right. Since we haven’t had much contact with them, we’d best prepare ourselves for anything.”
Everything about them was shrouded in mystery, so even proceeding to their domain was a very risky matter. In addition, they had absorbed the survivors of the two tribes which had been disbanded during the previous war, so that made things even more dangerous.
Zaryusu had distinguished himself during that war, so he would be a hated nemesis for the survivors of those two tribes.
Even so, they were the tribe whose strength they most needed during the upcoming conflict.
“So that’s it… Then it would be better for me to accompany you.”
“Is it strange?”
The weed pile rustled softly. Zaryusu had no idea what those words meant because he could not see her face.
“It’s not strange… more that it’s very dangerous.”
“Is anywhere safe during these times?”
Zaryusu could not reply to that. When he thought calmly about it, there were many advantages to bringing Crusch along. However, as a male, he did not want to bring the female he loved to a place where he knew great danger was waiting.
“—I really can’t calm down.”
He could not see Crusch’s face inside the weed pile, but she seemed to be smiling.
“...Then I’ll ask you another question. Why are you dressed like that?”
“Is it ugly?”
It was not ugly so much as bizarre. However, would it be better to praise her for it? Zaryusu did not know how to answer, but after some thought, he sized up the expression he could not see and replied:
“...Well, I should say it looks good… does it?”
Crusch shut him down with a flat denial. That was probably why Zaryusu felt weak all of a sudden.
“It’s simply because I don’t deal well with sunlight. Thus, I need to dress up like this whenever I go outside.”
“Ah, you haven’t given me your answer yet. Will you let me come with you?”
No matter what he said to her, it would all be pointless. Having her around would be advantageous to his aim of forging an alliance. She must have suggested as much because she felt the same way. Thus, there was no reason for him to refuse her.
“...I understand. Then, please lend me a hand, Crusch.”
With a sense of joy that seemed to come from the bottom of her heart, Crusch replied:
“—I understand. Leave it to me, Zaryusu.”
“Are you ready to set out?”
“Of course. My pack is filled with everything I need.”
After hearing that, Zaryusu looked at her back and found a bulge there. The thick scent of fresh grass and other herbs came from it. Since she was a druid, she ought to have skills pertaining to herbs and the like, so it must be filled with such materials.
“Zaryusu, you look tired.”
“Uh, yes, I do feel a bit weary. The past two days have been pretty busy, so I haven’t had time to sleep.”
Just then, a white-scaled hand emerged from under the mass of weeds.
“Here. This is a Rikiriko fruit. Eat it, skin and all.”
The hand proffered him a brown-colored fruit. Zaryusu placed it into his mouth and bit down on it without hesitation.
A bitter taste filled his mouth, chasing away his fatigue. While it was barely passable in terms of flavor, after chewing it several times, an explosion of flavor bloomed on his tongue. In addition, even the breaths he exhaled had the same taste on them.
“Muu! What’s this cool sensation that’s filling my head?”
Zaryusu had unconsciously adopted his elder brother’s verbal tic. Crusch could not help but giggle as she saw him.
“Your desire to sleep has gone away, right? But the fact is that it isn’t really gone, so don’t get too used to it. It would be best to find somewhere to rest.”
Every breath Zaryusu took in and released filled him with bliss, as did the full-body sensation of coolness. He replied:
“Then, I’ll take a nap while I’m on Rororo.”
Saying that, Zaryusu immediately mounted Rororo. He was followed by Crusch. While Rororo glared at Zaryusu due to the sinister feeling of a pile of grass climbing astride it, Zaryusu finally managed to calm it down.
“Then, let’s go. The seating isn’t very stable, so you’d best hang on to me.”
Crusch’s arms encircled Zaryusu’s waist. The prickles from her weed outfit made Zaryusu feel itchy.
Zaryusu frowned. This was not what he had imagined.
“—Is something wrong?”
“No, it’s nothing. Let’s go. Rororo, I’ll leave it to you.”
What exactly was making her so happy? Crusch’s cheerful laughter came from behind him, and as Rororo lurched on, Zaryusu was all smiles.
The Great Forest of Tob was silent under the oppression of its new rulers. That was because all the living beings here had gone into hiding, afraid of the gaze of those who held power over them.
However, that was not the case for a specific area of the forest.
The sound of tree-cutting and logs being moved filled the air in that place.
There was a Golem which resembled a piece of heavy machinery — a Heavy Iron Machine — which carried logs to a massive wooden structure that was still under construction.
It looked like it would take a long time before that building was complete. While it occupied a large area, the portions which had actually been constructed were surprisingly small.
A group of undead and Golems worked there.
Among these undead were a Elder Liches who wore eye-catchingly bright red robes.
Every now and then, they would be approached by demons that were roughly 30 cm tall — small monsters with bat wings and coppery-red skin, called Imps. The Imps kept their slender tails — which were tipped with venom-dripping stingers — out of the way lest they get in the way of the Elder Liches’ work.
One hardworking Elder Lich unfurled the blueprints he was holding and gave orders to one of the Golems under him.
The Golem obediently stopped what it was doing and compared the worksite before him to the blueprints, before pausing to cogitate. Shortly after, it spoke to the Imp on its shoulder.
After hearing it out, the Imp indicated that it understood, and took wing.
Flying with ungraceful movements, the Imp opened its eyes and took in the surrounding area. Before long, it found its target and swooped down.
Said target was the Guardian of the Sixth Floor of the Great Underground Tomb of Nazarick — Aura Bella Fiora. In other words, she was one of the people who now ruled this forest.
The Dark Elf Girl rolled up her scroll into a megaphone so her voice would carry out to a long distance. The Imp landed before her and bowed deeply, whereupon she asked in a familiar tone:
“Alright~ and which group are you from?”
“Aura-sama, I come from Number 3 in U Group.”
“U Group, huh? Alright, Got it. Anything else?”
The work crews here were divided into named after the vowels from “A” to “O”, and they were assigned to work on different areas. From what Aura could remember, U Group was assigned to the storehouse. Progress on that was the second fastest among all the other areas.
“There’s a discrepancy in the thickness of the timbers used in construction, so could we please have more time—”
The Imp suddenly shut up, because the steel band around Aura’s wrist suddenly made a sound.
Aura’s face changed as she heard that lazy, yet cheerful voice. Her ears drooped and she looked oddly vulnerable and embarrassed.
“Got it, Bukubukuchagama-sama!” she answered the wristband.
“So, uh, it’s time to eat, so we’re done working for the morning.”
Hardly any of the monsters here needed to eat. In fact, Aura was also wearing a Ring of Sustenance, which eliminated the need for food or sleep. However, her master had insisted that “everyone must take breaks from time to time”, so she had to obey him despite her wishes.
“Ah, sorry about you, but I need to rest, so come back in an hour’s time.”
“Understood. Then I shall take my leave first.”
The Imp bowed and flew off amidst a storm of noisy flapping.
As she watched the Imp fly off towards the storehouse, Aura worked her shoulders, and then glanced down at the band around her wrist.
Then, her face was all smiles.
This was a reward her master had given her for her hard work. Of course, the Guardians had been created to serve their master and the Supreme Beings, so working hard for them was a fundamental fact of life. Thus, they should not have accepted a reward, as their labor was only a matter of course.
However, she could not refuse the band her master had given her.
“Kukuku, I want to hear more of Bukubukuchagama’s voice.”
Aura tenderly caressed the band on her wrist. That gesture was more loving and gentle than how she stroked her own beasts.
All the voices recorded into this item came from the Supreme Being who had made Aura.
They filled Aura with delight, even if all they did was tell the time.
She had felt jealous when she learned that her brother (Mare) had received a Ring of Ainz Ooal Gown, but in all honesty, she felt that this item was better.
Aura’s ears drooped and she caressed the band with an embarrassed look on her face. Then she nodded in satisfaction as it gleamed in the sunlight. But shortly after that, she tilted her head in bafflement.
“Why did Ainz-sama say that I could not set it for certain times?’
Ainz-sama had commanded that the watch not be set to state the times of 07:21 or 19:19, among others.
“Hm… I might as well ask him. Ah, crap!”
After noticing the time which floated above the watch, she hurriedly rushed off.
There was a maid at her destination.
The 41 maids who served the Great Underground Tomb of Nazarick were heteromorphic creatures called Homunculi. All of them resembled beautiful women. However, she did not.
She had the head of a dog that was divided down the middle by a line — it resembled a scar, complete with traces of stitching. It looked as though her face had been split in half and joined back together again.
Her name was Pestonya S. Wanko.
She was the Head Maid of the Great Underground Tomb of Nazarick, and a high-level cleric.
“I have brought the hamburger over as you wish, Aura-sama. The side dishes are two pickles and unpeeled french fries, while the drink is cola… woof.”
The delay before the “wan” made Aura think that she had forgotten to add her verbal tic at the end of her words, but Aura did not comment on it. Her attention was focused on the smell that tantalized her tummy and made her drool in anticipation. While the ring she wore meant that she did not need to eat, it did not make her unable to do so. In addition, eating was a pleasurable activity, especially when it came to such delectable cuisine.
“The combined effects of this food and drink are—”
“Ah, no need for that. I didn’t ask you to make this for me just to boost my stats.”
Aura approached Pestonya and the dinner service she was pushing, which emanated a delicious scent.
“Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub!”
Pestonya whipped the silver lid off the tray as Aura intoned her eating-rhyme.
Aura’s eyes were glued to the food as it revealed itself, and at the same time she blurted out something which came to mind.
“A7 beef mince is good, but I prefer mixed mince. I hope you can make a triple patty with that meat.”
“Then, I shall inform the Head Chef of your wishes -woof.”
“Mm, thank you!”
Aura picked up the entire tray and giggled as she strode off.
As Zaryusu examined the village of the Dragon Tusk tribe which lay before his eyes, a pile of vegetation thrust itself forward from beside his head. Needless to say, that mass of leaves was actually Crusch. She reached out to pull away the vegetation covering her face, which Zaryusu felt was very beautiful.
“Are you really going to charge right in? Do you want to pick a fight with them?”
“No, it’s the exact opposite, actually. The Dragon Tusk tribe places great value on strength. If I left Rororo behind and went in on foot, I might end up being challenged by all sorts of people before I even got to their chief. Entering while on Rororo’s back will avoid that sort of trouble.”
After advancing with Rororo for some distance, it would seem they had been spotted, because several warriors emerged from the village, each brandishing a weapon and eying Zaryusu and his group.
Rororo sensed their hostility and let out a low growl. As he heard Rororo’s growl of warning, he urged it forward.
Continuing on like this would spark a confrontation. Zaryusu went on until conflict was almost inevitable before stopping Rororo and hopping down from it. Crusch jumped down as well.
Quite a number of warriors stared daggers at the two of them. Their gazes seemed to inflict a palpable pressure; this was no longer mere hostility, but on the level of murderous intent.
Crusch seemed shaken by their gazes and froze. That was because she was not experienced with the battlefield, despite her potent abilities as a druid.
In contrast to her, Zaryusu strode forth. He shielded Crusch with his body and shouted:
“—I am Zaryusu Shasha, a representative who has come to visit. I seek an audience with your chief!”
His powerful voice blew away the bloodlust in the air. The tables were turned on the warriors of the Dragon Tusk, who flinched as they were shaken by him.
Then, Crusch raised her voice and stated her name.
“I am Crusch Lulu, acting chief of the Red Eye tribe. I too seek an audience with your chief.”
Though her voice was not loud, it carried the assurance and confidence of one who carried the fate of her tribe in her hand. Spurred on by the manly and proud voice of the male beside her, the cowering girl from just now was nowhere to be seen.
“I say again! I am here to see the chief! Where is he!”
In that moment — a ripple ran through the air. It was as though raw emotion had been transformed into a shockwave, which washed over them.
Rororo’s heads thrashed wildly. Its jaws gaped and it gave voice to a menacing roar, glaring angrily around itself. As the hydra’s roaring echoed from all around, the air seemed to shrink from it, as though in fear.
“...There’s no need to protect me from small things like this.”
“I didn’t do it to protect you, because you chose to come here of your own free will. However, I was the one who destroyed their tribe, so I should be the one to bear their vengeful gazes.”
The warriors started gathering to the entrance of the village. All of them were heavily muscled and imposing Lizardmen. Their bodies were covered in faded scars, which implied that they were grizzled veterans. However, Zaryusu did not see their chief among them.
All of these Lizardmen were mere warriors. None of them had the fearsome stature of his brother, nor did any of them have anything like Crusch’s unusual looks or her air of authority.
As Rororo roared, the Lizardmen remained on edge. And then—
—Crusch gulped and squeaked. However, Zaryusu had already sensed the arrival of another Lizardman and remained unmoved. That was because he had already sensed the slow approach of a mighty being even before it had made its appearance.
Still, he could not help but stare at the Lizardman before him.
Simply put, that Lizardman was a monster.
Facing them was a gigantic male Lizardman who was in excess of 230 cm in height. That alone would not have qualified him as monstrous, but that was not the only reason it was described as such.
For starters, his right arm was extremely large and bizarre in appearance, like the oversized claw of a fiddler crab. No, his left arm was hardly slender, being about the same as Zaryusu’s. It was merely his right arm which was abnormally thick, and it had not become that way because of a mutation or disease, but simply because of sheer muscle mass.
The ring finger and little finger were missing from his left hand.
A scar continued back from the edge of his mouth, possibly caused by some sort of injury. His tail was flat like it had been squashed. It looked less like a Lizardman’s tail than an alligator’s.
However, more than all these visual features, the thing which drew the most attention was the brand on his chest. The design was different from the one Zaryusu had on his chest, but the meaning was the same — this Lizardman was also a “traveller”.
And as he sized up Zaryusu and company—
—The rustle of dry kindling spilled from his mouth, the sound of that monstrous Lizardman grinding his teeth. It was probably his version of laughter.
“Welcome, master of Frost Pain.”
The monstrous Lizardman’s rich, basso profundo voice matched his appearance perfectly. He was probably speaking normally, but even that exuded an awesome air of power.
“Pleased to meet you. I am the Green Claw tribe’s Zaryu—”
The monster Lizardman waved off the rest of his introduction.
“State your name.”
“...I am Zaryusu Shasha, and this is Crusch Lulu.”
“That wouldn’t be a… plant monster? No, since you’ve brought a Hydra along, it stands to reason that you’d have another creature by your side. Hardly anything to be worried about.”
The monstrous Lizardman once again waved off Crusch, who was taking off her costume of leaves.
“Hey, it was just a joke. Don’t take everything I say so seriously, it’s a pain.”
After glancing at Crusch as she doffed her pile of leaves, he looked back to Zaryusu.
“So, why are you here?”
“Before that, might I know your name?”
“Oh, I’m the chief of the Dragon Tusk tribe, Zenberu Gugu. Zenberu will do.”
Zenberu laughed in his tooth-grinding way. While this was exactly what he had expected, the idea of a traveller becoming chief was still quite surprising.
On the other hand, it was an answer he could accept. A Lizardman like him was no mere traveller. In truth, the gathering hostility had vanished the moment he showed up. Clearly, he was a Lizardman with great authority, as well as extraordinary martial might and leadership.
“Zaryusu will be fine, then. Tell me, Zenberu… have any strange monsters visited your village recently?”
“Mm, that messenger of the Supreme One or whatnot.”
“Well, if they came, then we can discuss—”
Zenberu raised his hand to interrupt Zaryusu.
“I think I know what you want to say. However, we only listen to the strong. Draw your sword.”
The towering Lizardman before him — Zenberu Gugu of the Dragon Tusk tribe — bared his fangs in a toothy grin.
As Crusch gasped, she saw approving looks on the faces of Zaryusu and the surrounding warriors.
“...Well, that makes things simple, chief of the Dragon Tusk. It certainly saves a lot of time.”
“You’re a truly outstanding messenger. No, as the master of Frost Pain, perhaps I should say that it was only to be expected?”
♦ ♦ ♦
Choosing the strong as their leaders was a very rational decision for the Lizardmen.
However, was it really such a good idea when it involved the continued survival of their tribe? Should they not discuss it with the others and consider the matter from various angles before coming to a conclusion?
Those thoughts ran through Crusch’s head — followed by surprise that she would actually think that way.
The fact was that all the warriors watching them approved of their chief’s decision, be they male or female. She would probably have felt the same way had she been asked the same thing earlier.
Then, why am I questioning this now?
Where had these doubts come from?
Was it because of some kind of magical attack? That was impossible. She was confident that nobody in this swamp was her superior in terms of magic. That confidence made her absolutely certain that she had not been the victim of some sort of spell.
Crusch turned to look at the two of them.
Zaryusu and Zenberu.
Standing next to each other, they looked like a child compared to an adult.
One’s physique did not determine everything. She was very clear about that as a magic caster. However, given the massive difference between their bodies, she could not help but hope that this was not the case.
Hope? I’m hoping that they — that he won’t have to fight?
Crusch wanted to know why she was feeling such a bizarre thing. Why did she not want that? Why did she not want them to fight?
There was only one answer for that, which went without saying.
Crusch smiled bitterly, as though to mock herself.
You might as well admit it, Crusch. You don’t want Zaryusu to fight because you’re afraid he’ll get hurt… that he’ll die.
That was the whole thing in a nutshell.
It was rare for these battles to be fought to the death. However, the word “rare” implied that the possibility for it still existed. Lives could easily be lost if they fought until they were no longer in possession of their senses. As a female, she did not want her companion to die because he had taken part in this fight.
In other words, Crusch had long since accepted Zaryusu’s proposal within her heart.
I gave in so simply because no male ever… does that mean I’m easily tricked? Eh, it just feels… I’m both happy and a little upset… ah, what a pain!
Having accepted her innermost feelings, Crusch stepped up to Zaryusu as he prepared for battle, and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Do you need anything? Is anything lacking?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Crusch patted his shoulder.
It was a strong shoulder.
Ever since she had come of age, Crusch had walked the path of the priest. She had touched the bodies of many males while she was praying, while she was applying medicine to them, and while she was casting spells on them. But her contact with Zaryusu’s body was longer than all those other times put together.
So this is Zaryusu’s body… huh.
His firm muscles, filled with hot blood that was eager for battle and a palpable manliness.
Zaryusu was baffled by Crusch’s lingering hand.
“—Eh? Ah, that… It was a prayer. A priest’s prayer.”
“I see, so your ancestor spirits watch over those of other tribes, then?”
“The spirits of our tribe are not so petty. Good luck.”
Crusch apologized internally to her ancestors as she peeled her hand off Zaryusu’s shoulders, because she had lied about praying to them for the victory of the male she favored.
Zenberu was also preparing for battle. He carried a massive polearm in his right hand — a steel halberd that was almost three meters long. A regular Lizardman would need both hands to wield it.
And then — he swung it lazily.
The sweep of the halberd generated a gust of wind that swept over Crusch, who was some distance away from him.
“Can you… no, I should ask, will you be alright?”
“About that… well, I’ll see how it goes.”
At first, Crusch had wanted to ask if he could win, but ultimately, she did not. Zaryusu must have fought while knowing that victory was not impossible.
That would mean that the male before her would not lose. They had only known each other for a day and travelled with each other for half that time, but Crusch was certain of that.
She loved this male because there was something about him to love.
“Then, are you ready? Master of Frost… oh, Zaryusu.”
“I’m fine. Whenever you’re ready.”
With a dramatic flourish, Zaryusu turned his back to Crusch and stepped into the dueling circle.
Crusch sighed. That was because of the back which could not help but draw her attention.
♦ ♦ ♦
The warmth of her hand which had been touching his shoulder for so long — not very long, in actual fact — slowly faded away.
The battle which came next was essentially a simplified version of the tribal chief selection battle. Since this was intended to be a one-on-one fight, magical assistance from a third party was against the rules.
However, the warmth on Zaryusu’s shoulder — which had made him feel nervous and jittery — and the contact with Crusch made him wonder if she had worked some magic on him. However, there was no way that she, as the acting chief of her tribe, could not know of that rule.
Then, why was he so fired up, even though she had not cast a spell?
Was it because he wanted to do his best for her, as a male performing for his female? His big brother had once said that he was a “withered tree”… but that did not seem quite right.
Zaryusu entered the circle formed of Lizardmen, and swiftly drew Frost Pain from his waist. The blade emanated a frosty white mist, as though in response to Zaryusu’s will.
A disturbance swept through the surrounding Lizardmen.
They were the survivors of the Razor Edge tribe — in other words, they had known the previous owner of Frost Pain, and they understood its fearsome power.
As he beheld the power of Frost Pain which only a true owner could unleash, Zenberu’s savage expression turned to one of glee. He bared his teeth and growled like a beast.
In response to his opponent’s fighting spirit, Zaryusu only had a single, cold response:
“I don’t want to hurt you too badly.”
His taunt immediately incurred the ire of all the warriors around him. However, they immediately calmed down as the sound of an unnaturally loud splash echoed through the air.
Zenberu had driven the point of his halberd into the mushy ground.
“Oh… then make me accept my defeat! Listen up, all of you! If I die in this fight, he will be your new chief! There will be no objections to that!”
The surrounding warriors did not agree right away, but neither did they protest. If Zaryusu really did kill Zenberu, they would obey him, however unwillingly.
“Good. Now come at me with the readiness to die. I ought to be the strongest foe you’ve ever faced.”
“Indeed… I understand. Also, if I die by your hand—”
Zaryusu glanced back to Crusch.
“It’s fine. I’ll let your female go back safely.”
“...She’s not mine yet.”
“Kek, it seems you’re really into that plant monster. Is she really such a good female?”
They paid no heed to said female, who was hugging her head and squatting on the ground.
“Now that I’d like to see. Perhaps if I win I’ll strip her bare and see what she looks like before I let her go.”
Until now, Zaryusu had only been filled with an intent to fight, but now that intent had developed another nuance.
“...It feels like you’ve given me an excellent reason to win. I won’t let someone like you enjoy Crusch’s bare body.”
“You really are hopelessly in love with her, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes. There’s no helping how much in love I am.”
Several other Lizardwomen seemed to be talking to the squatting female, but she hurriedly shook her head. The two males put that matter out of mind for now.
Zenberu chortled in glee.
“Then defeat me! If you die, none of that will matter any more.”
“That was my intention.”
Zaryusu and Zenberu locked gazes. It would seem they had said everything that had to be said.
“—Here I come.”
“—Bring it on.”
The two of them exchanged terse words, but no blows.
Just as the anticipation of the spectating Lizardmen built to its peak, Zaryusu began inching forward. There was no sound, despite this being a waterlogged marsh.
Zenberu remained still, awaiting his foe.
Before long, when Zaryusu had reached a certain distance, a massive clang rang out from the air which Zaryusu had just leapt away from. It was the sound of Zenberu swinging his halberd.
There was no skill to it; it was merely a forceful swing.
However, it was so shocking precisely because of its artlessness.
Zenberu braced his halberd, took a stance, and prepared himself for Zaryusu’s next incursion. He wielded the massive halberd with just his right hand. Immediately after every cyclonic swing, he would immediately reset to a ready position.
Zaryusu felt something was strange.
Therefore, to verify the meaning of that motion, he darted into his foe’s attack range — and was subjected to that hurricane-like swing. He blocked the haft of the weapon with Frost Pain, but a bolt of intense pain wracked the hand holding the sword, and he was bodily flung away,
One could say that he had extraordinary arm-strength if he could toss away a grown Lizardman with just the might of one arm.
—Their blood was boiling.
The surrounding warriors roared as they saw their chief display his matchless might.
Zaryusu’s tail swished as he stumbled back, still on his feet.
He shook his numbed hand, and narrowed his eyes.
This… what’s this?
Zaryusu’s energies were focused on the hulking body before him.
What’s going on? This is… too weak.
Indeed, that was a swift blow, and if he blocked it with his sword he would be sent flying, but that was all. It was not terrifying in the least.
Zenberu’s moves were like a child swinging around with a stick. There was no technique to speak of, only sheer brute strength. The question now was if that was really all he had. Someone with a huge arm like his ought to be able to wield his weapon more skilfully.
Could it be that he’s not using his full strength to lull me into overconfidence?
Zaryusu felt that it was not the case.
He began to reconsider his strategy, watchful against the unusual feeling of not knowing the truth. The hitherto stationary Zenberu smiled and asked:
“What’s the matter? Not using Frost Pain’s power?”
He was clearly taunting him with that smile, but Zaryusu did not take Zenberu’s bait.
“I was once beaten by the wielder of Frost Pain.”
Zaryusu remembered. He knew the person of whom Zenberu spoke — the former chief of the Razor Edge tribe, and also the one whose head Zaryusu had taken.
He relaxed the intense focus he had directed at Zenberu, and set his sights wider.
Among all those who bore hostility towards him, the ones who hated him most must be the survivors of the Razor Edge tribe.
“That’s where the wounds on my left hand came from.”
Zenberu waggled his left hand and its two missing fingers for emphasis.
“Maybe if you use the ability that guy used to beat me, you might be able to win.”
“Really now?” Zaryusu replied in a cold, calm voice.
Granted, that ability was very powerful.
Because it could only be used three times a day, he had a good chance of victory if he used it. The reason why Zaryusu had defeated the previous owner of Frost Pain was because his foe had already expended his three uses of the ability. If his foe had been able to use it back then, Zaryusu might well have been the one to die instead.
However, someone who knew of Frost Pain’s power would not deliberately incite its wielder to make use of it.
Zaryusu’s remained on his guard.
I have no idea… still, there’s no point dragging this out. Time to make my move.
Having decided on his course of action, Zaryusu charged forward, twice as fast as before.
Zenberu responded to Zaryusu with shocking speed.
Zaryusu did not evade, but met the blow head-on with Frost Pain. Everyone who saw it felt that Zaryusu would be swatted away once more.
Zaryusu met the halberd with Frost Pain — and countered the attack.
There was no need for martial arts or the like. Zenberu’s halberd swings were child’s play. No matter how forcefully he swung, his blows could be easily dispersed.
Zenberu’s eyes went wide in shock — no, in respect.
At the same time, Zaryusu dashed forward with lightning speed, faster than Zenberu could bring the halberd back. Even with muscles like his, resetting his stance after a full-power hit with his halberd would take time. That time was enough for Zaryusu to close in.
In the next moment, Frost Pain cut in at Zenberu’s body—
♦ ♦ ♦
—-And blood splattered.
Thunderous cheering erupted from all around, as well as a whimper of pain.
It was not Zenberu who stumbled back, oozing fresh blood. It was Zaryusu, with two gouges on his face.
In contrast with what he had done until now, Zenberu strode forward at Zaryusu, intent on not letting him escape. He led the way with the weapon that had wounded Zaryusu.
That weapon was — his claws.
They collided with Frost Pain, and the ringing of metal pealed forth. The halberd splashed as Zenberu let go of it.
Zenberu exhaled, and as he stepped forward, his massive arm launched into a flurry of blows.
Compared to his amateurish spearplay from earlier, his bare-handed chops were on the level of a master. Now that the most important piece of the puzzle had been revealed, it all came together for Zaryusu.
Zenberu was not a warrior, but a monk; one who used the power of ki to turn his body into a living weapon.
Zaryusu blocked his chop with Frost Pain.
Lizardman claws were sharper and harder than human nails, but even they would not make metallic sounds like this. Indeed, this was a monk ability called [Iron Natural Weapon], which hardened one’s natural weaponry, such as claws or teeth.
It was said that the fists of the most skilled monks could even break adamantite, the hardest metal known. However, judging by the sensation which filtered back through Frost Pain, Zenberu had not yet reached that level. He was only on par with steel. Even so, his hardened claws could stand on even terms with Frost Pain, one of the Four Treasures, so he could not look down on it.
The two of them exchanged blow after blow.
Zenberu swiped with his chops while Zaryusu swung with Frost Pain. They leapt away to avoid each other’s strikes, opening up the distance between them.
“—Haha, so you’re still alive!”
Zenberu licked at the flesh and blood staining his fingertips.
Zaryusu too extended that tongue of his that was longer than a humans, and licked at the red fluid that flowed from the place which corresponded to the cheek on a human being.
He was glad that he had managed to evade the knife-hand thrust that had been intended to gouge out his eyes. He was wounded, but not deeply, and he could continue fighting. He thanked his tribe’s spirits for protecting him, and—
Maybe I evaded it because the ancestors of Crusch’s tribe protected me too.
Zaryusu was grateful, but Zenberu was grumbling instead.
“Come to think of it, if I beat you without making you use that move, it’ll feel like you’re going easy on me.”
Zenberu clenched his fists and pounded his chest several times.
“Sorry, but I don’t intend to use that move.”
“Oh? Then don’t say you didn’t go all-out after you lose.”
“Do you think I’m someone who’d say that, after fighting me?”
“...No, I don’t. Forgive me, I misspoke. Just… if you’re not using that move, then here I come!”
With a whoosh, Zenberu’s leg cleaved through the air at Zaryusu.
There was no hesitation in that movement.
Zaryusu slashed at Zenberu’s leg with Frost Pain while evading the kick, but a metallic clang rang out, and the strike bounced off.
Zaryusu’s eyes went wide.
When a sword blocked flesh, the flesh should have been wounded. That was the way of the world. Yet, the monk's’ ki turned that precept on its head.
This was the result of [Iron Skin]. That skill could shroud the body in ki before any attack could touch it, making it as tough as steel. Much like [Iron Natural Weapon], the more skilled one was, the harder it would become.
The fact that his opponent had repelled a magic sword with his bare flesh spoke volumes of his monk skills. However, Zaryusu still felt that he had a chance of victory.
It was not that there was an overwhelming difference between their combat skills. It was only that the circumstances had been against Zenberu from the start.
♦ ♦ ♦
He came with a bewildering series of strikes.
Flying kick. Tail sweep. Straight punch. Knife hand. He attacked with all these and more.
Every blow Zenberu struck was both fast and weighty. All Zaryusu could do against a foe like that was adopt a total defense.
Combination followed combination.
If he did not defend against his foe’s destructive strikes, Zaryusu’s defeat was assured. Confident in their chief’s victory, the surrounding Lizardmen cheered as Zenberu sent forth hit after hit.
Zenberu’s claws occasionally grazed Zaryusu, easily scoring his scale-sheathed body and leaving wounds which wept blood in their wake. Those injuries could not be considered light in any sense.
Zaryusu’s body was covered in those wounds. His life hung in the balance, and it would not be strange if he surrendered at any time. The joyful looks on the spectating Lizardmen’s faces only proved it as they prepared to celebrate their chief’s imminent victory.
However — that was not the case for Zenberu.
Every time his strikes were blocked, Zenberu felt victory slipping further and further away from his grasp, and it made him anxious.
Frost Pain was imbued with cold, and it inflicted additional cold damage whenever it wounded a foe. A side effect of that was that it dealt cold damage to anyone who touched the weapon. In other words, just touching the weapon was enough to slowly wear away at Zenberu’s body with its cold damage.
His hands were freezing, his legs were numb, and his movements were slowing down.
Dammit, I lost too quickly in the previous fight… so I didn’t know it had a power like this too! So it didn’t just have that move alone! That’s one of the Four Treasures for you!
Zaryusu had adopted a defensive stance because he knew the item had an effect like this. Or rather, he had done so because he knew it was an assured way to deal damage. That was probably why he had not dodged Zenberu’s attacks.
He had chosen a steady path to victory.
This lack of openings made him Zenberu’s greatest enemy right now.
Zenberu used his trump card on Zaryusu, who was rushing in. If he managed to block that move as well, Zenberu’s chances of victory would be slim at best.
He felt like he was charging an impregnable fortress alone.
Ahhh, dammit, can’t I beat him — But! I’ve waited too long for this!
His battle with that Lizardman from the past flashed through his mind. He was stronger now than he was then, and he had trained nonstop in order to attain victory. Even when he heard that the person who had defeated him had been killed, he might have felt regret, but he never stopped training.
He had been waiting for this day.
Asl chief, he could not abandon everything to indulge in battle, so he had been delighted when he heard that the bearer of Frost Pain had come to his village.
He could not let this long-awaited battle end like this.
Zenberu began losing the feeling in his punches and kicks, and his ki could no longer reach his limbs. Still, he kept attacking.
He’s strong, stronger than that guy from last time!
Just like he had honed himself ceaselessly, the Lizardman before him must have trained himself without slacking off until now.
While he could have said that he could not narrow the gap between them because of Frost Pain, he had no desire to spout quitter talk like that.
Amazing! He truly is the master of Frost Pain! The mightiest Lizardman ever!
Zenberu did not halt his combination attacks, even as he praised Zaryusu, who was blocking his strikes with Frost Pain.
♦ ♦ ♦
Wounds, blood and more wounds.
Crusch had devoted all her attention to witnessing this intense back-and-forth struggle, and with her outstanding druid skills, she had already seen how the battle would end.
Incredible… he must have predicted all this when the battle started.
Crusch was in awe of Zaryusu’s outstanding warrior skills.
The cheers continued from all around.
They were cheering for Zenberu, who was attacking non-stop and seemed to have the upper hand. None of them realised that Zenberu’s limbs were gradually growing sluggish.
Zaryusu was very strong. Crusch was certain of that.
Almost all Lizardmen did battle with their bodies and brute strength, but Zaryusu — and Zenberu — fought with skill, and Frost Pain aided that fighting skill.
Therefore, Frost Pain was a major factor in the development of the present situation — of the gulf between them. However, it was not the sole reason for it.
If one gave Frost Pain to an ordinary warrior, could they fight with Zenberu like this?
The answer was no. Zenberu was not some two-bit mook.
The weapon was powerful, but the fact that Zaryusu could exploit it to its full potential because he was a first-rate warrior.
But more outstanding than that was his perceptive and analytical mind.
Zaryusu had evaded the strike when Zenberu had cast down his halberd because he had been on top of the situation and had been closely observing it. He had sensed the presence of his foe’s ace in the hole and that the halberd was a mere distraction.
When he went on that journey as a branded traveller, what else had he brought back with him besides the knowledge of fish-rearing and these battle techniques?
Before she knew it, Crusch had become certain of Zaryusu’s victory. Now, she merely watched the profile of his face, her heart pounding in what was no longer anxiety.
“He really is an impressive specimen of a male…”
♦ ♦ ♦
Time seemed to fly past for those watching this exciting battle, but the two participants felt otherwise. The toll on their bodies and spirits caused by their panting was more intense than the passage of time.
Despite being covered in blood, Zaryusu’s fighting spirit was still strong. For that, the surrounding Lizardmen congratulated him. After all, nobody else had lasted this long against their chief before.
And then, just as Zenberu seemed on the verge of claiming victory, he dropped out of his fighting stance.
The audience waited with bated breath. Zenberu ought to be declaring his victory anytime soon.
However, the opposite happened.
But their chief should have been the winner.
Even so, why had he announced his defeat? Only Crusch had foreseen this. She raced into the fighting ring.
“Are you alright?”
As he heard those words, Zaryusu exhaled and lowered the sword in his hand. In a very tired voice, he replied:
“It’s nothing fatal… I should be able to fight in the upcoming battle.”
“...Mm. In any case, I’ll use healing magic on you.”
Crusch’s grass costume rustled, and she poked her head out.
Zaryusu felt a comfortable warmth suffusing his wounds, different from the searing heat that had made them. As he luxuriated in the sensation of vitality flowing back into his body, he turned to look at the gigantic Lizardman with whom he had just fought a life-and-death struggle.
Zenberu was surrounded by his tribemates. He was explaining the situation to them, and the strategy Zaryusu was using.
“That’ll do it.”
Crusch declared that his treatment was complete after casting two spells on him, and Zaryusu looked down on his body.
While the clotted blood still stuck to his skin, the injuries beneath had completely recovered. There was a certain tension over the former wounds when he shifted his body, but at least they did not look like they would open up.
Crusch smiled brightly, and the pearly teeth she exposed were very pretty.
Her tail swished, and splashed against the water.
The two of them gazed silently at each other.
Crusch’s silence was because she had no idea why this male would casually mention something like that. She was not used to such compliments, so hearing Zaryusu say things like that was not good for her heart.
Meanwhile, Zaryusu had no idea why Crusch was being quiet. Did I do something wrong? Thoughts like that ran through his mind. The fact was that he had little experience with females, so he had no idea what he should do. Zaryusu was surprisingly tense as well.
Just as the awkwardness between them reached its height, a voice saved them.
“Oi oi oi, are you trying to make me jealous, you bastard?”
The two of them looked to the source of the voice — to Zenberu.
Their simultaneous and identical reactions left Zenberu momentarily speechless.
“Hm! Oi, whitey, how about some healing over here?”
Zenberu seemed quite nonchalant about Crusch’s albinism. However, Crusch recalled the Zenberu’s branded body and realised why he reacted that way.
“Fine, fine, fine… but shouldn’t you let the priests of your tribe heal you?”
“Ahhh, it doesn’t matter. Enough talk, it really hurts. Feels like even my bones are frozen. Could you hurry it up a little?”
“Just remember to tell your priests that you were the one who asked me to do it.”
“It’s fine, I’ll say I forced you into it, as a request.”
Crusch sighed, and worked her healing magic.
Zaryusu noticed that the hostile glares around him had diminished somewhat, and that there were a few friendly eyes looking upon him.
“Alright, it’s done.”
Crusch had cast more healing spells on Zenberu than on Zaryusu. That implied that his injuries were not external, but internal.
“Ohh, you’re better than our priests.”
“Thank you. Still, I don’t usually heal members of other… never mind. Thank you for your kind words.”
“Now then, since we’re both healed, why don’t we talk about the main topic. Might be a bit of a rush, but you don’t mind, right?”
“Oh! Then let’s hear it — although I wanted to say that…”
Zenberu stopped mid-sentence and then smiled.
“But first, let’s drink!”
Zaryusu and Crusch had no idea what those words meant, and their faces were equally confused.
“Troublesome business should be discussed over wine. You know that, right?”
Zaryusu understood the meaning of the life-and-death duel. After all, it proved their respective strength, which was useful in negotiation. It was the Lizardman way of life. Drinking parties, on the other hand, were alien to him, because the Green Claw tribe had no such practice.
People who went drinking right after fighting for their lives seemed terribly sad to him.
“I don’t get it…”
The strength drained from Zaryusu’s body and his face was one of frank surprise as he muttered his response. However, it was immediately drowned out by a surging wave of regret in his heart, regret for behaving so childishly in front of a chief with whom he had not even allied with yet. In fact, he felt Crusch looking at him with a strange expression in her eyes.
Zaryusu had no experience with love, so he had no idea Crusch had been studying him all this time. He was seeing a new side of his beloved, and he found it both curious and adorable.
“No, I mean, if we drink a lot, our heads won’t be clear, which would be troublesome for us.”
Zaryusu hurriedly tried to amend his words, but Zenberu brushed it aside with his reply:
“Oi oi oi, you’re a traveller, aren’t you? Don’t they say that if you want to learn something, go to the Dwarves?”
“No, I didn’t learn from the Dwarves, but from the people of the forest.”
“Really? Then all you need to know is this lesson of the Dwarves: friends who drink together become firm friends. Maybe we won’t have much time together, but we ought to discuss things frankly and openly. Shouldn’t we, Zaryusu Shasha?”
“I see… yes, I understand, Zenberu Gugu.”
“Good! Come on, everyone! Time to drink! Bring it over! Get everything ready!”
♦ ♦ ♦
The pile of logs resting upon the ground stood nearly two meters tall, and the crimson flames upon it burned fiercely, as though they were reaching to the sky. This massive red blaze chased away the dark of the night.
Near the log pile was a large vessel that was over a meter tall and about 80 centimeters wide. A fermented scent wafted out from it.
Several dozen Lizardmen took turns scooping out liquid from the vessel. However, the wine within did not seem to deplete.
This was one of the Four Treasures that was ranked alongside Zaryusu’s Frost Pain — the Great Wine Cask.
While it could produce an infinite supply of wine, the taste was passable at best, and anyone who knew their wine would turn their noses up at it. However, it was delicious nectar to the Lizardmen.
Therefore, the guests kept coming.
There was a quiet region some distance away from the wine cask. The reason why this place was quiet was simple enough — because it was littered with the bodies of many drunken Lizardmen, who lay insensate here.
All the Lizardmen who had gotten so drunk that they had passed out were dumped here.
Having shed her leafy costume, Crusch carefully — taking care not to step on the tails of the fallen Lizardmen — made her way to this place, paying close attention to the ground. Her footsteps were even, so she looked like she was still sober, but it was hard to say that she was not drunk.
Her tail seemed like it had a life of its own, energetically flexing here and there. Sometimes it curled, sometimes it stood straight and sometimes it drooped. It behaved like an excited child.
The fact was that Crusch felt something like a cool wind coursing through her soul. While part of that was because of the wine, that was not the sole reason. The liberated feeling of her body had also contributed to it.
This was the first time she had shown her albinized body to so many people. However, their leader was a monster in his own right, so while the people around her had been startled at first, she soon blended in with them.
With both hands full of food, a bliss-filled Crusch continued forward.
She reached the place where Zaryusu and Zenberu were sitting on the ground and hoisting a glass to each other.
Said glasses seemed to have been made using coconut shells, and the liquid within was transparent, but it emanated a thick fermented smell.
Crusch laid a pair of raw fish in front of the two of them — snacks to go with the drinks. Zenberu smiled and greeted Crusch.
“Yo, plant monster.”
“...Could you not call me that?”
She had already shed her costume, so why did he insist on calling her that? It would seem he planned to amuse himself in that way. Once she realised it, Crusch decided to cease her pointless resistance.
“Have you finished your discussions?”
Zaryusu and Zenberu looked at each other, and nodded.
“For the most part.”
The two of them wanted to speak in private, so they asked Crusch to leave them be. Since they had said as much, all she could do was leave and bring some food over, but within her heart, she was hoping to be part of their conversation. After all, if they were discussing the upcoming battle, then she was certainly involved in it.
She was hoping to be allowed to skim the essentials, even if she could not listen in on the inconvenient parts—
“This is a conversation between males.”
—But Zenberu shut her down with those cold words. Crusch expressed her displeasure on her face, but she had no choice but to change the topic.
“So, what do you plan to do? Fight shoulder to shoulder as allies?”
“Wha? Oh, as if you had to ask. Of course we’re going to fight. Or rather, even if you didn’t come, we’d be fighting anyway.”
A sound like sticks scraping against each other came from Zenberu’s maw.
“You really are a battle maniac.”
“Aw, don’t praise me like that, now I’m all embarrassed!”
Zenberu paid no heed to Crusch as she rolled her eyes, but made a request of her.
“Oh right, help me talk some sense into him, plant monster. No matter how I ask him, Zaryusu won’t accept the position of our chief.”
There was a weary, despondent look on Zaryusu’s face. Judging by the fatigue there, Crusch could tell that he had repeated his answer many times in her absence.
“He can’t accept that position. After all, you’re from different tribes, and he’s a—”
Crusch was about to say “he’s a traveller”, but then she considered that Zenberu was also a traveller, and decided to change the topic.
“So why did you become a traveller, anyway?”
“What? Oh, after I lost to Frost Pain’s previous owner, I was devastated, and wanted to become stronger. That being the case, why not leave this place and go somewhere else? That was why I became a traveller.”
Beside him, Zaryusu rounded his shoulders in powerlessness. It was then that Crusch recalled what Zaryusu had told him about his own travels.
In the past, when he had left on his journey, the only thing keeping him going was his determination, resolve and his sense of duty towards his tribe. Zenberu — as a fellow traveller — ought to have felt the same way… but right now, he could not sense any of that from him.
Crusch placed a gentle hand on Zaryusu’s shoulder, as if to say, “he’s him, and you’re you.”
At this moment, anyone observing them would probably conclude that they were lovers. As she realised this, Crusch’s tail curled up, while Zaryusu’s tail swished back and forth.
The two of them gazed at each other, and smiled shyly.
Zenberu pretended that he had seen none of that and continued:
“I thought there must be someone pretty strong inside that mountain, given how big it was. So during my travels, I met the Dwarves and learned a lot of things from them, and I got that halberd too, I didn’t want it at first, but since they asked me to keep it as a memento of our meeting, I had to hang on to it.”
“...So that happened. That’s nice.”
Crusch’s answer seemed a little slapdash, or rather, somewhat cold.
—Sarcasm did not work on him either.
Now that the good mood in the air had been ruined, Crusch picked up her wine and downed it in one gulp. She felt it burn as it went down her throat, and the heat seemed to radiate from her stomach throughout her entire body. Zaryusu polished off his wine in one go as well.
Just then, a quiet question made its way through the air. It seemed completely different from the voice just now, and for a moment it made them wonder who had asked it.
“Say, do you think we can win?”
Zaryusu quietly replied:
“...I have no idea.”
“Mm, same here. After all, there’s no such thing as a battle where victory is assured. If someone actually dared brag about how he’d win despite not knowing his enemy’s strength, I’d beat the crap out of him to shut him up.”
Crusch had no response to Zenberu as he chuckled.
“Still… our foe’s gotten a little careless. The changes here ought to affect our chances of victory.”
In place of Zaryusu, Crusch looked at Zenberu with a puzzled look on her face.
“Could you recall what that monster said?”
“Sorry, I was sleeping then.”
“...Surely you must have heard of it from someone else?”
“Hmph, I couldn’t be bothered to remember something like that, so I forgot it. In any case, the important thing is that if they come looking for a fight, then we’re going to give them one.”
There’s no hope for this guy — Crusch decided to abandon her attempts at explanation with that. Zaryusu grinned wryly, and answered.
“...He told us to struggle with all our might.”
A dangerous expression came over Zenberu’s face, and his features twisted savagely.
“Well, that just pisses me off. To think they’re sneering at us from the beginning.”
Zenberu roared with frightful anger.
The cry carried with it his wrath and displeasure.
“That’s right, they’re turning their noses up at us. The fact they’re so arrogant… probably suggests they’re powerful enough to break our resistance easily. But we’re going to crush their self-assurance. We’re going to gather the five tribes and show them our full power. I want to beat back their assault and show them that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
“Hmph, well put. I can understand that. I like it.”
Just as the two males were eagerly discussing their battle plans, Crusch rained on their parade.
“I doubt there’s much merit to wounding their pride. All we need to do is prove our worth to them, right? Perhaps if they know that, they won’t exterminate us.”
“Oi oi oi, are you telling me to bow to annoying people like that?”
“Zaryusu… I know fleeing is dangerous, but I think it’s better to live on, even in bondage,” Crusch quietly said.
The other two did not deny her or tease her for her slave mentality.
It was not that they wanted to be ruled, but being slaves had more of a future than being corpses. As long as there was a future, there was infinite possibility.
For instance, they could teach the method of fish farming to everyone, and that might allow them to abandon their homes and flee elsewhere.
Any leader who abandoned that possibility and ordered everyone to die was not worthy of his position.
“Now, listen closely, you all.”
As they heard Zaryusu’s calm voice, the three of them pricked up their ears, and they heard the sounds of mirth coming from the party.
“After we’re ruled, we might not be able to laugh and rejoice like this.”
“The operative word being might, right?”
“Really? I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone who would take pleasure in watching us die would be so compassionate. After all, if there was any mercy in their hearts, they would not plan to exterminate us in such a playful manner.”
But even so—
“Still, what I want to say is… please don’t die.”
“—I won’t. Not before I hear your answer.”
Crusch and Zaryusu exchanged passionate looks under the night sky.
And then, they made their vow.
—Paying no attention to Zenberu, the bored outsider.