The mountains, which had been overflowing with green just the other day, were now colored by a blanket of snow.
But even the snow did not make it all the way down the mountainside.
Here, around this single house that stood isolated off the side of the mountain path, the snow rarely piled up even though it snowed often.
There was a lone old man sitting on a chair on the narrow porch of the house, which as not too different from a log cabin, looking over at the mountain as it was dyed red by the evening sun.
He had a lean figure as a result of the lean muscle resting directly upon his bones. His hair, which had once been jet black, was now whiter than it was black. He had grown old. Quite old, at that.
However, while his countenance was serene, he unfortunately was absolutely nothing like the good natured old men who populated the streets.
For example, on the occasion where he would go to town to shop, the residents who did not know him would move aside to let him pass. They avoided Hawke subconsciously upon seeing him approach.
This wasn't because Hawke looked grim or stern. As mentioned above, he had a kind and serene countenance. It was simply that everyone felt an invisible pressure from him as he leisurely walked along the road and felt the need to look away.
It was rare for anybody to look him in the eyes.
This was because (and this was true of any warrior above a certain level of skill) something akin to a kind of 'power' was imbued in his eyes, which caused people to hesitate when they looked straight at him no matter how calm he looked otherwise.
They likely saw the old man's history as a warrior reflected directly in his pupils.
This was the kind of old man Hawke was.
Hawke, who had been sitting a still as a stone statue for a while, finally shook out his shoulders a little.
Then, he slowly turned his head and moved his gaze to the mountain path.
A lone boy climbed into view as he did.
The boy was wearing black pants and a black shift. He was also wearing a thin jacket, which was also black. Since his hair was black as well, he was covered from head to toe in black.
Hawke could tell that the stranger was just a boy even from afar.
The boy was probably about fifteen years old, give or take. ……But, he could not see even a trace of the fickleness that he would have expected from any other boy his age in his face.
The boy drew closer as Hawke looked over him and finally veered off the mountain path and made his way to the hut.
Hawke quietly stood up without taking his eyes off of the boy. Then, as the boy drew close, he silently beckoned him over.
The boy of so thin that it was doubtful that he was eating properly, and he lacked the healthy color to his skin that a boy his age should have had.
It was easy to mistake the boy for a beggar if you weren't careful.
However, that was only if you did not pay any attention to his eyes.
Of his entire being, only the boy's eyes carried a strong presence.
His eyes were as still and tranquil as calm ocean waters, but something about them drew you in the more you looked at them. His mysterious eyes seemed to possess both severity and kindness simultaneously.
And, peering through from the depths of his eyes was unmistakable sorrow——
Hawke had no way of knowing what had caused that sorrow, but it made the boy seem much too mature for his age.
The boy stopped a short distance from Hawke. He kept his gaze focused tightly on the old man.
Hawke whispered to break the ice.
He smiled a little and gave a small nod as he continued,
"with a few exceptions, it's rare for visitors to stop by this mountain hut. ……I don't think we've met before?"
The black-clothed boy……surprisingly bowed a little. Perhaps it was his way of greeting the old man.
"No, we haven't. My name's Rain. ——You're Hawke Walton, right?"
"……I don't use my full name too often anymore."
Hawke laughed a little and continued,
"but Hawke works just fine. Rain, was it? I'd be happy if you just called me Hawke as well."
Ignoring what Hawke had just said, the boy pressed on,
"Hawke Walton, the "Sword-Saint of the Wind," former grand general of Leyfan? I heard that you taught swordplay there for a long time even after you retired from knighthood. Is that right?"
"You're definitely not wrong. But that embarrassing name isn't one that I fashioned for myself, you know."
Hawke made his rejection of his moniker very clear. He continued,
"and I haven't been a grand general in Leyfan ever since His Majesty Johann two generations ago. ……It's been quite a long time."
Hawke never once looked to the sword that was leaning upright against the door, and neither did he stop smiling.
For reasons that were unclear even to himself, he could not bring himself to see the boy before him as his enemy. Even despite the fact that the boy's aims had been evident in his actions ever since their interactions had begun.
It might have been because of the sorrow that clouded the boy's eyes, or it might have been because he had instinctively acknowledged the boy as another warrior like himself.
Indeed, the boy was undoubtedly a warrior.
"Hawke, I don't care about your personal evaluation of yourself. The only thing I wasn't to know——"
"What is it……that you want to know?"
Rain's black eyes glistened when Hawke asked.
"Who is currently the strongest warrior in the world? It's a simple question. And half of the people who answer say, "Hawke is the strongest." ……When I looked into you, I found that your military history was befitting of that title. Like the time when you drove away several thousand enemy soldiers all by yourself."
Hawke smiled wryly as he continued,
"it's not a lie, but it's also hard to call it the truth. I just so happened to have a bridge to my back as I fought. And there weren't several thousand enemies. It was only a thousand at most."
"I know. But I think it's impressive even still. Most people would have died as soon as the fighting started and that would have been it for them. You can never underestimate the power of numbers."
"……The enemy was also excessively wary of me, too."
"The truth about your abilities will be made clear soon enough."
Rain slowly drew his sword.
A bluish light suddenly filled the area that had been slowly encroached by the darkness of night.
A sound that was reminiscent of countless flying insects buzzing preluded the forthcoming battle.
The sword that the boy wielded was a magic sword.
Not only that, but one look at the powerful magical aura coming off of it made it obvious that the rune master who had imbued it with magic had been the best of the best.
He could have easily bought an entire village with money to spare if he had sold the sword, especially considering that mages had declined sharply in the current age.
Rain put his challenge to words, though both parties knew that his intent had always been clear from the beginning.
"I want you to show me your power, which people say hasn't declined even though it's been a while since you've retired."
"……You don't seem to be a member of Virgo. And I don't really accept duels anymore…"
Rain interjected him part-way,
"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm fully aware that I'm being a nuisance, but I'm not here for a duel."
Surprisingly, Rain bowed his head a little once again, perhaps because he was trying to apologize for his discourtesy. He was fully aware that he was asking for a lot. He continued,
"I'll stop my blade if I'm sure of my victory. But I want you to come at me with the intent to kill. Don't hold back on my account. I'm sure that the guards from the capital will acknowledge that my death was out of legitimate self-defense……"
Hawke had long since given up on persuading the boy otherwise.
This was because the gaunt boy had suddenly begun to exert a large amount of pressure.
The boy's fighting spirit increased exponentially, and he emitted an intense surge of power……
Hawke had never in his long history of battles met someone who had such 'power' that was comparable to his own.
Before he realized what he was doing, Hawke had walked over to the entrance to the hut to take hold of his favored sword that was resting there. Then, he walked a few steps forward until his feet reached the earth.
He could not help but do so.
Hawke had realized the boy's talents the moment that he had seen how Rain carried himself, but Hawke soon found that his initial impressions had been too shallow.
He felt like he was about to tremble before the boy's might.
Needless to say, Hawke didn't feel this way due to cowardice, but because he felt a kind of exaltation upon meeting a strong contender for the first time in a long while.
"……I'm glad that you agreed to fight."
Then, here I come!
With a battle cry, the boy shot forward with his magic sword in hand.
He was terribly fast.
He closed the distance between them with a speed that could have been mistaken for instant teleportation and swung his magic sword close to the ground upon invading into Hawke's space.
Hawke had already drawn his sword by the time that Rain had approached within his sword's reach. His magic sword, now freed from its scabbard, drew a radiant white arc in the air.
Rain's black eyes opened wide in shock. His sword-hand reacted a little the moment that they did. In turn, Hawke brought down his sword upon him.
A harsh sound cried out as magic sword clashed against magic sword.
Rain, unable to withstand the impact with his skinny body, was flung back.
Even still, he deftly twisted his body mid-air in a half-rotation and safely landed in a spectacular fashion.
He kept his stance while on his knees even as he looked over at Hawke in astonishment.
Hawke slowly lowered his sword after his perfect upward-diagonal slash.
Once he was back in his original, upright position, he calmly admonished,
"my sword is the wind. I'd advise you to stop before you get hurt."
Or at least, that was what he had told the boy.
On the inside, however, Hawke was astounded.
Rain had been completely unguarded when Hawke had drawn his sword because his speed had surpassed Rain's expectations. Thus, Hawke had planned to stop his blade right before it made contact and force the boy into admitting defeat.
But things hadn't gone as he had planned.
Even after being taken by surprise, Rain had still managed to change the direction of his sword. He matched the timing of Hawke's iai draw and defended himself by stepping to the side. Moreover, he had jumped backwards right before the two swords collided against one another, mitigating the damage he received to a minimum.
This was the reason why he had been thrown so far back.
If, by chance, those movements of his just now had been acted upon purely on reflex——
Then, he surely possessed a natural talent that could only be found in one in a million people.
Hawke was without a doubt that Rain had been learning how to use the sword since he was very young……and even then, he could hardly believe that the boy was so skilled for his age.
Rain, the boy in question, had been staring fixedly at Hawke ever since he had landed, but he gradually broke out into a smile. Eventually, he began to wrack his body with laughter.
He only stopped laughing after Hawke called out to him.
"This is the first…… This is the first time I've met someone who can keep up with me ever since I left home. Hawke, you're better than the rumors say!"
He ferociously kicked off against the earth as soon as he was done talking.
His skinny figure blurred and created an extended afterimage that melted into the darkness behind him. He was surprisingly fast.
"I see that you've undergone some very strict training. However!"
The slash of his sword was like the wind itself——
His enemies of the past had not extolled him so greatly just for show.
Hawke had caught the exact 'moment' had Rain had entered his reach and responded with a side-slash.
The speed of the tip of his sword was faster than was possible to see with the naked eye, and the radiant magic sword left behind a trail of white light in the darkness.
Naturally, he thought that Rain would be thrown back yet again.
But, was the figure before him——an illusion!?
"Hmph, you dodged!"
By the time he had noticed, Rain's image had wavered and disappeared without a trace. Hawke leapt back from where he was to escape the sword strokes that suddenly showered down on him from Rain's right hand.
The magic sword left behind trails that were much too close to him for comfort.
Rain and Hawke distanced themselves from each other, both parties having failed to ensnare their opponent.
Rain did not press his advantage as if on purpose, perhaps because he had seen Hawke's breath grow a little ragged.
"I won't fall for the same trick twice. No matter how great of a trick it is."
"I see that you've figured it out."
Rain nodded lightly in response.
"People think that your greatest weapon is that fast sword-drawing attack of yours, at least from what I've heard. But, the truth is, that's not all. You're only able to make the most out of that attack because you have a full grasp of the area around you. Am I wrong?"
"You're absolutely right,"
Hawke replied, as he had no intent of hiding that information from the boy.
It was the first time that anyone had seen through his skill so readily.
Indeed, Hawke's greatest strength lied in his ability to have a precise understanding of the immediate area around him (down to the millimeter) and crush any enemy who entered that space.
It was his one-hit kill, so to speak.
Hawke could split anything, even a fly, exactly in two the moment that it entered that space before his opponent even saw his hand move.
That attack, which was likened to the 'wind,' and his perfect grasp of the area around him created a sort of invisible barrier around him.
Hawke had boasted being unrivaled in battle with these two skills.
"Still……to think that you'd see completely through it after just one bout. I'm terrified of what you'll grow up to be, my boy."
"——I'll take that as a compliment!"
Chunks of earth were sent flying as the boy kicked off again.
His slim figure audibly cut through the wind. Even Hawke, the "Sword-Saint of the Wind," was finally forced to meet him head on.
Crackle crackle crackle!
They faced off two, three more times as the magics imbued within their blades repulsed each other. Then, they distanced themselves again and began running and running side-by-side.
They both ran into the forest of Jura trees nearby.
"even if you've figured out the secret behind my skill, it doesn't change the fact that your attacks are slower than mine!"
The edges of Rain's lips curled up at Hawke's provocation and, still running, he called back,
"it's too early to decide that, Hawke. I haven't gone all-out yet!"
He took a large step as he spoke and his magic sword became a flash of blue light that rushed at Hawke.
The blue light drew a perfect arc, which Hawke dodged by the hair, and deftly cut through the trees behind Hawke horizontally.
Rain's body looked like it had wavered gently before Hawke, who was jumping around to avoid the fallen trees.
Hawke's eyes, which failed to focus on the boy's figure, mistakenly perceived that Rain's slender body had suddenly grown in size for a moment. Moreover, an extended afterimage tailed after him.
In the next moment, Rain seemingly ignored the dangers of Hawke's sword draw and held up his sword high as he approached Hawke directly from the front and unleashed his sword with great strength. Hawke's sword was repelled as he naively met Rain's directly. In a moment, Rain turned his wrist over and attacked Hawke again from the side.
His speed had not decreased in the slightest. His skill with the sword made his attacks seem almost phantasmagoric.
If he had been even a little weaker than Hawke, he would have been split in two before he could even begin to retaliate.
Their shadowy figures approached each other and moved apart, as if being repelled, numerous times within the forest that was silently beckoning the night. Five times, ten times, fifteen times…… Sparks crackled and scattered, illuminating the twilight forest each time the magic swords crossed.
(His attacks are getting faster! He was being serious when he said he wasn't going all out yet!)
"Your movements are getting dull, Hawke!"
Rain, who had repelled Hawke's attacks, used the tiny window between the latter's attacks to spin around. His foot grazed Hawke's chin when Hawke instinctively jerked back. Rain seamlessly followed up his gymnastics with a sword slash and locked swords with Hawke, who had run up to him.
From across their blades, Hawke said,
"to think that you'd use your entire body as a weapon! Impressive."
"I'm not a knight. I don't care about that over-rated knightly etiquette of yours!"
"I wasn't condemning you; I was commending you!"
After he spoke, Hawke stopped pressing against their swords and abruptly pulled away. Rain, who had barely been keeping up with Hawke in their contest of strength, wavered a little as he was taken by surprise.
Capitalizing on the moment when his opponent's stance had crumbled, Hawke abandoned his sword and moved in fluid motion. He jumped at Rain's chest and swapped places with the boy, then grabbed Rain by the collar as if he was about to pick him up and threw him high into the air.
As soon as he threw him, Hawke flipped up his sword by his toes, secured it in his grasp, and immediately began to sprint. He was running straight for Rain, who had rolled once in the air and had landed in spectacular fashion.
But no matter how nimble he was, as long as he was human, he could not choose where he fell. And he could not be expected to be able to defend himself perfectly during his landing because his movements would be limited.
"This is it!"
Hawke's timing was perfect.
He lunged at Rain with great force, as if his entire being that become a single lance. He did not intend to skewer the boy, of course. Someone as skilled as the boy would be able to fully understand his defeat even if Hawke stopped just before the attack hit.
At that moment, Rain's right hand reacted once again. His hand slid in motion and brought his magic sword vertically before his body like a shield.
Sparks flew magnificently as a distorted sound rang out.
Hawke's thrust had been blocked by the radiant magic sword's blade.
Rain danced through the air again due to the impact, but this time he was able to land gracefully.
As for Hawke, he was stiff in a lunging posture as he put a hand to his cheek in astonishment. Rain had kicked him as he flew into the air. Luckily, the kick had only grazed him, but it would still leave a bruise.
The problem……was that there was nothing Hawke could do about that kick. It had only missed by sheer dumb luck.
But Rain, on the other hand, had been able to successfully defend himself against Hawke's thrust——
Hawke finally lowered his sword before him and looked toward Rain, who was on the other side of a grove of trees.
The boy was still standing uninjured and was waiting for Hawke to collect himself.
"The fight's only getting started. If you're ready, here I come!"
Hawke knelt with one knee on the ground and placed his sword horizontally in front of him. Then, he gently lowered his head.
This was an ancient ritual that had been passed down among Leyfan knights from time immemorial, though it had been lost to the passage of time.
It was a courtesy that one paid only to someone you truly respected and acknowledged the strength of. Rain was the second person that Hawke had ever paid this courtesy to, the first being the master who had taught him the sword.
With his head still lowered, he said,
Rain denied Hawke's statement in a surprisingly harsh tone and drew closer in long strides. He continued,
"you were the one on the offensive this entire time, Hawke! The fight isn't over yet. It's barely even begun!"
Hawke shook his head and breathed with ragged breaths.
"Didn't you say so yourself? That you weren't going all-out? That was because you just barely managing to hold back in order not to injure me, no? But I've lost the leeway to hold back against you. ……So this is it."
Upon seeing Rain's anger wilt away, he continued,
"besides, look at me. I'm so out of breath that I can hardly talk properly. I've used up too much of my stamina."
Rain's countenance turned melancholy as he fell into silence.
He had probably been so focused on the fight that he had forgotten that Hawke was an old man.
"Still, I don't intend to use my age and an excuse for my defeat. My skill was supposed to be a one-hit kill to begin with. The outcome of this battle was decided the moment I realized that your attacks were faster than mine."
Rain completely regained his composure and lowered his black eyes. He looked dispirited rather than satisfied that he had won the fight. Then, as if he was talking to himself, he whispered,
"that's too bad…… I wish I'd met you when you were younger, Hawke."
He returned his magic sword to its scabbard with a click.
"I'm sorry for the discourtesy I've shown you today."
Hawke cried out to Rain in a panic as the boy turned around without any further lingering attachments after a low bow.
"It's already night; are you planning on descending the mountain right now?"
"……Yeah. Is there a problem?"
"Thieves and orcs are known to appear around these parts. Well…"
Hawke beamed as Rain raised his eyebrows in a quizzical manner and continued,
"I suppose they won't pose a problem for you. But I've taken a little interest in you. Won't stay over for at least one night?"
Seeing how Rain wasn't about to bite, the old man craftily added without skipping a beat,
"well, what if I say that you can play along with my selfishness as an apology for your "discourtesy"?"
Even Rain had no choice but to fold after that.
He let out a sigh and said, "alright," as he nodded.
Hawke smiled and beckoned the boy over to his cabin.
"My house is a tad shabby, as you can see. But I got my hands on some good vegetables today. I can't offer you much, but I'd like to have supper with you."
Hawke had thought that the boy wasn't getting enough food ever since he had seen Rain climb up the mountain path, but the truth was that the boy was close to starved.
He had completely devoured the soup, which Hawke had made more of, and a lot of bread with tremendous speed.
The boy's appetite made Hawke wonder if he'd had anything to eat for the past several days.
Rain made an expression befitting of a boy his age for the first time after finishing every last drop of soup and seeing Hawke's smiling narrowed eyes looking over him.
In other words, he had lowered his black eyes in awkward embarrassment.
"……Would you care for seconds? I'm a light eater, so don't mind me."
"Now, now. Don't say that, just eat. You should listen to your elders."
Hawke took the boy's dish and filled it up with food before the boy could protest. Since he still had some bread left, he gave Rain some more of that as well.
"You should eat whenever you can. Especially since it seems like your head's so full of thoughts about your training that you're putting off eating for later."
Rain looked a little hesitant at first, but he eventually ended up following Hawke's advice. It wasn't because he'd relaxed his guard around the older man, but simply because his hunger had won out.
It must have been agonizing beyond imagination for a boy in the middle of puberty to skip meals. Why was he so obsessed about his sword training that he would go that far? Hawke waited for the boy to finish eating before he candidly asked.
Rain's answer shocked him.
"It's not like I was solely focused on sword training or anything. I want to get stronger——that's really it. At the sword, at martials arts, and at magic. ……But still, it hasn't been easy to find someone to teach me magic."
Hawke slowly stood up to add more firewood to the humble fireplace and asked again,
"Why……do you want to get stronger?"
The boy did not answer at first. He only answered, in a disgruntled manner, after Hawke had returned to his seat and patiently waited a while.
"It has nothing to do with you."
"I somehow knew you'd say that."
Hawke leaned back against his chair and smiled faintly. He continued,
"still, while it's fine to keep honing your skill the way you've been doing, you might encounter an opponent that's out of even your reach one day. I understand that you've been through strict training ever since you were very young, but even still."
Rain interjected, still sulking.
"Wrong? About what?"
"You're mistaken. I only started training……during the winter of last year. I'd never had any interest in the sword before that."
His words shocked Hawke numb.
Hawked moved his hands atop the table like he was swimming and barely managed to confirm in a hoarse voice,
"you mean to say, that it's barely been a year since you began training?"
Hawke could hardly believe the contents of Rain's confession. But Rain, the boy in question, tilted his head as if nothing was wrong.
"……It hasn't even been a year, actually. My old man had me do basic stamina training for over half a year. He only let me hold a sword after that. I built up my explosive power and endurance thanks to his basic training, so I guess I can't really complain."
His tone was a little discontent, perhaps because he had his doubts about his father's training.
However, that wasn't what Hawke had wanted to confirm.
"So then, it's only been a few months since you first picked up the sword?"
"……That sounds about right,"
Rain readily nodded.
Surely, what Hawke was feeling was what others would call 'to be at a complete loss for words.'
Rain scowled and stirred.
"Is it really that surprising? I've only trained for a short period of time, sure, but I barely gave myself any time to sleep or anything else during that time either."
Hawke shook his head multiple times and rejected the boy's accusations.
"I see…… I lost because I was meant to lose. To think that I would meet a warrior overflowing with the most talent that I've ever seen, who could even be called the strongest, right at the end of my life."
After he stopped talking, he deliberately stared at Rain.
The boy looked truly uncomfortable. He looked down at his now-empty plate in sullen silence.
Perhaps…… Hawke suddenly thought. This boy might have the same markings as the heroes of the past who have left their name in the land's history. To say, ——that is, there existed people of genius ability who could establish their own countries with only their skill with the sword and their wits.
For example, the founder of the Leyfan Empire had been one such hero.
However, the opposite was also just as possible.
There was no guarantee that superior talents would always point to the right direction. There were also cases where it pointed toward the negative.
He could one day be the character who would involve some country, or even the entire continent, in a whirlpool of chaos in the future. Indeed, like how the daemons once had.
In truth, Hawke had already experienced the boy's genius ability with the sword firsthand with his body, whether he liked it or not.
Should the boy be blessed with cleverness as well on top of everything else…… And, should the boy hold ambitions that were greater than the average man's——
Rain had raised his head by the time that Hawke had realized. A small shadow of anxiety colored his black eyes. He continued,
"are you feeling unwell? ……I don't think I wounded you…"
"……No, of course you didn't. It's nothing, I was simply surprised."
Hawke returned to his senses and regained his composure.
He was probably over-thinking it. He was probably being a little too vigilant about the gem-like talent before him.
In an effort to change the subject, Hawke pointed at the elaborate hilt of the magic sword resting against the wall.
"By the way, what is the epitaph of that magic sword? Won't you tell me?"
"It doesn't have one,"
Rain replied curtly. He continued,
"but, it's probably still pretty famous, just in a different sense. The sword used to be sealed, after all."
A cold chill ran down Hawke's back this time.
Thinking that it could not possibly be true, Hawke jokingly asked,
"don't tell me that you're going to say that——you brought that sword out from the ancient ruins deep within the forests of Mount Delado."
"It makes things simpler if you already know. Yeah, that's this sword."
Hawke quietly looked at the magic sword in question. At the Siren's Blade, which was said to have been sealed at the very ends of hapless fate.
"……What of the guardians? There were supposed to have been countless guardians that were created by mages of the ancient past."
"Not countless. There was only a couple dozen,"
Rain coolly denied Hawke's claims. He continued,
"in exchange, those couple dozen guardians kept reviving one after another no matter how many times I defeated them…… I see, they were moving because of magic. No wonder they were immortal."
"You speak like this had nothing to do with you……"
Hawke furrowed his brows and sighed.
He was about to ask Rain how he had broken past the guardians, but then realized that it was definitely possible for the boy. Or rather, he had actually succeeded and had taken the magic sword out with him.
"To think that there would be a day when I saw the Siren's Blade of all things with my own eyes."
Hawke stood up as if dispelling his doubts and pointed at the magic sword.
"……May I take a look?"
"I don't mind, but……you'd best be careful,"
Rain replied, as if he was telling a riddle.
Hawke took up the sword with doubt still in his heart and pulled it out of its aged scabbard.
The flawless blade reflected the lamplight in a charmingly silver manner.
"——? How strange; the magic sword is missing its magical aura. Hmm?"
Hawked instinctively frowned.
It had only been a simple normal sword when he had first drawn it.
However, the very moment that Hawke had voiced his doubts, the entire sword was suddenly covered in a magical aura as if to reply otherwise.
Now, it clearly sounded the humming that was characteristic to magic swords. In addition, he felt like small electric shocks were running through his hand from the hilt……
"How can this be? It was just a normal sword when I drew it."
"But it's functioning properly as a magic sword now, right? You have the ability to draw out the sword's true power. Well, that much was obvious."
The boy peered into Hawke's face and explained, "it's just something I learned in the ruins," like an excuse. He continued,
"it seems that the wielder also needs a certain level of ability in order to be able to use that sword as a magic sword. In the hands of anyone deemed unworthy, it won't function as one, it seems."
Then, after a moment of hesitation, he added,
"there's still something else that's weird. That magic sword seems to absorb its owner's power. I think that might be why its ranged attack is possible."
He spoke such eerie words with a solemn countenance.
Hawke knew of the Siren's Blade's ranged attack, that is, the "invisible slash," from the legends, but…… He felt that he now truly knew what it meant to be troubled for an answer.
Then, the magic sword, which had been firmly in his grasp, quite literally vanished like smoke.
Just as Hawke was about to voice his questions——
The sword had reappeared just as suddenly as it had disappeared.
……It had transitioned in front of Rain, who was still sitting in his chair, and was floating before the boy without any support.
The boy grasped the magic sword's hilt as if nothing was out of the ordinary had happened and extended a hand out toward Hawke.
"——The scabbard. As I'd thought, it seems that this sword has chosen me."
When Hawke had handed over the scabbard as asked, Rain readily replied,
"I'd thought that it was just a lie until just now. But apparently, this sword chooses its master of its own accord. It's set its sights on me. You were able to draw out the sword's 'power,' but you weren't able to become its master——I think it's something like that."
The boy's face was the very picture of composure.
He was not nervous at all, despite having the most infamous "cursed magic sword" in all of history in his hands.
Hawke's apprehension finally peaked upon looking back into the boy's silent eyes.
Even knowing that it was impossible, he still truly wanted to know.
Which side would the boy stand on in the future?
Would he stand as a hero showered by the cheers of the people, or——
Eventually, it was time to turn off the lamps, and Hawke retreated to his bedroom and fell into a light slumber characteristic of the elderly. He was tired after the vigorous exercise he had endured during the evening, so he fell asleep immediately.
However, he woke up in the middle of the night.
He had heard subdued whispering outside of the hut.
(——? Hmmm, I wonder if they're here,)
he thought as he quickly got out of bed. He quickly readied his clothes and armed himself, and left the room and headed for the door. He was off the mark.
When he carefully cracked opened the door, he found Rain sitting down on the corner of the porch.
Hawke opened the door wide in relief.
Rain placed a hand on his waist and swiftly turned around.
"I'm the only person living in his hut,"
Hawke gently reminded the boy.
The boy let go of his sword and apologized awkwardly.
"I seem to have woken you up…… Sorry."
"It's fine. The elderly are light sleepers, after all."
He idly drew closer and sat down next to Rain. He asked,
"I thought I heard a voice?"
"Oh, I just tried talking to them. I thought that they might reply."
Hawke knit his eyebrows at what Rain had said.
He slowly surveyed his surroundings, but as far as he could see, he could only see the black branches of the Jura trees.
You would reach the village if you climbed the mountain path a little further, but its residents were likely asleep at this time.
"……I don't see anyone here,"
Hawke concluded; in turn, Rain doubtfully replied,
"Really? Someone of your caliber can't feel them? I think you should be able to feel their presence even if you can't see them."
"No, I don't really feel——"
Hawke felt a shiver down his spine the moment he spoke.
This feeling……wasn't bloodlust, but was a presence that emitted a terrifyingly large 'power.' It was similar to the pressure given off by the boy when they had fought……
"Oh? So you can feel them. I can even see them. Around there——"
Rain pointed in an unexpected direction,
"there's a woman standing with long hair. No, I should say that she's a girl, based off of her age. Anyway, for some reason, she's started to appear and disappear around me as of late."
Hawke stared at where Rain was pointing for a while, but, unfortunately, he could only see the spreading darkness.
"……I only feel her presence. But even that is rapidly fading."
"I think that's probably because she's hiding her presence on purpose. Though I couldn't tell you why."
Hawke cast his gaze at the dark night for yet another while and then turned back to Rain.
He sounded worried despite himself as he said,
"she's not a ghost or a wraith, is she? She's not trying to harm you in any way?"
"She's not like that,"
Rain said decisively as he shook his head. He continued,
"her presence isn't like that of some sort of formless monster. She's probably a human……or something close to a human, with an actual body somewhere. If anything, I feel like she's been the opposite with me."
The opposite? Did he mean that she was affectionate toward him by that?
However, Rain said nothing more and cut off the conversation. He said,
"well, whatever. It's not like I've been troubled when she's nearby or anything. She eventually gets bored and disappears off to somewhere."
Hawke let out a bittersweet smile at the boy's cheerful words, prompting Rain to ask,
"……what is it?"
"No, I wasn't laughing out of spite. I was just thinking about how you're acting completely fine even after confronting something that would cause any other ordinary human to get cold feet."
"I……guess. It's true that there's nothing in this world that scares me. That's probably why I'm fine even after stuff like this happens."
"Do you not feel fear? Even if, for example, you face certain death before you?"
Rain nodded silently.
Rather, Hawke's intuition told him that the boy seemed to welcome 'death,' if anything.
Just what kind of hell had the boy seen in his past……?
Rain stood up next to Hawke, who was deep in thought.
"Let's go to sleep, Hawke. If we stay up too long, we won't be able to sleep at all."
"Ah, yes, you're right……"
Just as Hawke stood up, he had a coughing fit and a sharp pain pierced his chest.
He accidentally staggered because of it.
Rain immediately reached out a hand to support him.
"My apologies. Haha……it's a terrible thing to age. You can no longer trust your own feet."
The boy's visage abruptly clouded over.
Naturally, Hawke's off-handed answer had not been enough to deceive him.
"……This isn't like you. Are you feeling ill somewhere? I thought you were pretty normal when we fought…"
"……I seem to have problems with my chest."
Hawke had no choice but to confess. He continued,
"nothing happens when I'm feeling fine, but——. Now, you don't have to look like that. It's quite all right, it wasn't too bad this time. I just had a little coughing fit."
This time, Hawke was successful in his deceit.
They returned back into the hut as Hawke urged the boy forward from behind.
He knew that he was being stubborn……but he did not want the boy to worry in vain after knowing of his condition.
An energetic young girl's voice reverberated throughout the hut where sunlight was filtering through the windows.
Hawke's eyes opened wide at her florid voice.
He immediately knew who the voice it belonged to, of course.
The image of a girl of ten with chestnut colored hair and lovely eyes floated into his mind.
She had apparently come to play again at this early time of day.
"I'll be right there, Hannah!"
he replied and changed his clothes in a hurry.
Upon leaving his room, he found Hannah standing ramrod straight with her eyes open round.
Naturally, Rain stood at the end of her gaze.
She had not expected there to be a boy she had never seen before here, so she was rather surprised.
She was currently frozen in place after opening the door and looking up at Rain while holding her breath with a shocked expression. She was so nervous the she looked like she was about to burst out in tears at any moment.
Hawke hurried over and stooped down next to her and introduced Rain.
"There, there Hannah. This young man isn't related to them. I was the one who asked him to stay the night. He's a guest, so relax."
He stood up and looked to Rain next.
He took one look at Rain, who was at a complete loss, and spontaneously burst out into laughter.
"No, no. It's nothing."
Or so he said, but he couldn't stop laughing.
Evidently, even the genius swordsman could show signs of bashfulness that were appropriate for his age.
"Rain. This child's name in Hannah. She's a resident of a neighboring village that's made up of nothing but woodcutters and hunters. She comes here to play almost every day."
Was Rain trying to ask if she was his granddaughter?
Hawke interpreted it as thus and shook his head.
"No, no, she's not. She's simply a neighbor. And a dear friend of mine."
He placed a hand on top of Hannah's chestnut colored hair. He had meant to relax her, but her nervousness did not show signs of fading. It was because she had yet to decide if Rain was someone who would become her friend or not.
As if to determine that, she continued to stare hard at Rain with childlike impropriety.
And, Rain, the object of her focus, nodded at Hawke's reply and returned his gaze to Hannah.
After a bit of hesitation, he knelt down on the floor on one knee with such awkward movements that Hawke had a hard time believing they had been made by the very boy who possessed superior reflexes.
He had a tall figure, so he could not see her eye-to-eye if he did not kneel. There weren't many who would go out to their way to kneel before a child that they'd never met before, but Rain apparently fell under the minority.
Timidly, he smiled.
He didn't smile the bold smile that he occasionally displayed, but smiled a smile that made onlookers suddenly feel warm in the heart.
Hawke was pleasantly surprised to find that the boy was capable of smiling like that.
Rain ignored Hawke and smoothly extended a hand out to Hanna while still keeping his smile and greeted her, "nice to meet you……"
Then, Hannah, who still looked troubled, said, "……oh," as if she was sighing.
Her cheeks faintly blushed red and she looked at Rain's smile as if she was bewitched. She slowly drew closer and took his hand in both of hers.
"It's nice to meet you."
Hawke smiled wryly and shook his head.
"Good grief…… It seems that, unbefitting for your age, you're the type who easily attracts women……"
In a moment, Rain pouted again and stood up.
Hawke raised a hand at Rain, who looked like he was about to begin complaining at any minute.
"By the way, Rain. You're here today, so I was thinking of going shopping at the town at the base of the mountain for the first time in a while."
He had probably meant to say that he was about to set out, but Hannah shyly, while still brimming with expectation, offered to take him somewhere where the scenery was nice before he could, causing him to sullenly hold back.
Hawke had a difficult time reigning in his laughter.
"Then, I'll leave it to you two. Please look after the place while I'm gone. ……You're okay with this, right, Hannah?"
Hannah shyly replied before Rain could. The boy had no choice but to nod as well.
"Fine…… Well, it's not like I was traveling with a destination in mind anyway."
"Then I'll leave the place in your hands. Or so I say, but I won't be leaving until after breakfast,"
Hawke said, but then he stopped smiling and mysteriously added,
"……it's a relief that you're here."
"What do you mean?"
With Rain's voice at his back, Hawke went back into his room in order to prepare for breakfast.
Hawke had a lot of places to visit because it had truly been a long time since he had last visited the town at the base of the mountain, so it was considerably late by the time he returned.
When he came close enough to see the hut, he saw Rain and Hannah sitting on two chairs they had brought out to the porch and talking animatedly.
Or rather, Hannah was talking animatedly, and Rain's stance was to just calmly place interjections here and there.
Hannah was a cheerful girl, but the village she lived in was extremely small and she did not know anyone other than the villagers. ……At the very least, that was how it had been until recently.
This, too, was likely the product of the inexplicable charm that the unsociable boy carried. Speaking of which, Hawke, who was not very sociable either, had begun thinking——that he wanted for Rain to stay a little while longer.
"Is something wrong?"
Rain asked, looking up at Hawke.
"No, it's nothing. That aside, did anything strange happen while I was away?"
As Rain shook his head, Hannah suddenly reported with her eyes sparkling,
"hey, grandpa! I'm gonna take Rain to the waterfall in the woods tomorrow!"
"Oho. That's nice."
He shot a glance at Rain as Hannah nodded in assent.
"No……I didn't mean to impose on you. If you'd prefer, I can camp outside,"
Rain mumbled apologetically.
"What are you saying? Stay for as long as you'd like, and don't worry about causing me trouble. I was actually about to ask you to stay myself."
"There's no way I couldn't worry about that. ……I'll leave the day after tomorrow——"
Hannah began to tear up in the blink of an eye the moment that Rain said this.
"Rain, you're not gonna stay with Grandpa forever? You're going away somewhere?"
The boy became visibly flustered when Hannah started crying.
His bewilderment was that of a normal boy's, and did not make him seem like the unparalleled swordsman that he was.
Hawke felt that he had finally caught a glimpse of the boy's true nature.
However, the short-lived boyish expression left Rain's face and his black eyes began to sharpen.
He drew his magic sword in his hands closer and stood up.
"You have guests, Hawke. I see, so this is what you meant by 'them.'"
"——Hmm. But I don't…"
Hawke felt it as he spoke.
A group of people boiling over in bloodlust was climbing up the mountain path.
Nevertheless……the lag between the time that Rain and he had felt their presences likely demonstrated the difference between their respective abilities.
That was what Hawke thought, at least, as he sighed bitterly.
He threw his luggage on the porch and stood up with his hand on the sword at his waist. Rain left his seat as well, as if he had been pulled along.
"What's the situation?"
"There's a group of petty scoundrels at the town at the base of the mountain. They're an organization small enough not to catch the attention of any actual guilds. But, on the other hand, they don't have the same amount of regulations as a guild would, so they're play rather dirty. ……They're trying to take money from the village on top of this mountain under the pretense of collecting protection fees."
"I see, I get it now. They came here before, and you chased them away, right?"
When Rain guessed what had happened, Hawke spread out both of his hands for the boy to see.
"I'm a bit of a hermit, so I try not to stick my nose into other people's businesses. But, the villagers from up the mountain have been kind to me, you see. Besides, the people who live there live very frugal lives, and they don't have even a single taran to spare. They had no choice but to refuse."
"Hmmm……that's a pretty easy story to understand,"
Rain replied indifferently. Then, just as easily, he proposed,
"shall I kick them out for you, in place of lodging fees?"
"Indeed. You'd be able to take ten or twenty of those ruffians without breaking a sweat."
Hawke pat the boy's short-trimmed hair and abruptly laughed. He continued,
"but, I'd like to settle this with words if at all possible. I'd welcome your assistance if it came down to that, but I'd like you to refrain from hurting them too badly."
Rain cried out in a surprisingly harsh manner and glared at Hawke. He continued,
"why do you want to hold back against scum like that? If it were me——"
While bewildered by the normally cool-headed boy's violent rage, Hawke strongly restrained him with both his eyes and his words.
"……I don't know why you're so angry, but reign it in for now. You're scaring Hannah."
Rain immediately extinguished his anger, shook his head, and returned to the composed expression that he had worn before.
He knelt down and placed a hand on Hannah's, whose eyes were wide open in surprise, cheek.
"……Sorry for surprising you. I didn't mean to scare you, Hannah."
Hannah smiled in relief.
At the same time, Hawke spotted the group coming up the mountain path.
"It seems that they're here."
Indeed, it was just as Hawke had said.
None of the members had been the same ones who had visited him earlier, but they were undoubtedly members of Virgo.
They came in a drove of over ten people, and each and every one of them had a scary-looking face and emitted a presence which suggested that they threatened people on a daily basis.
Hannah hurriedly grabbed on to Rain's leg.
Rain pat the girl's head and kindly said,
"it's alright. It'll be over soon."
"……Really? Neither of you'll get hurt?"
"Neither of us will get hurt facing the likes of them."
The boy exchanged looks with Hawke and smiled wryly.
Indeed, Rain aside, even Hawke knew that he would not fall behind the likes of them.
Hawke exchanged another look with Rain and left the porch as if he was shielding Hannah from them.
As he did, they had veered away from the mountain path and were swaggering their way over.
They spread out as they caught sight of Hawke's group. They at least seemed to be better prepared than the previous group that Hawke had fought…… Many of them were carrying bows this time.
There were fifteen of them in total.
"I do quite believe that we've already talked about this matter before?"
Hawke took the initiative and broke the ice as the men silently glared at him.
The most atrocious-looking one of the bunch spat at his feet.
He looked like he was the leader of the group, and he frowned heavily as he replied,
"quit blabbering in your sleep, old man. Listen here, if we let anyone who dares oppose us off easy, others will start thinking we're pushovers too. How are we supposed to do business if we let that happen, huh?!"
How is any of what you're doing considered business?
Hawke wanted to retort.
As he was fretting about how he should go about persuading them, Rain cut in from the side, saying,
"hey, Hawke. Do they not know about you? Or did they come all the way here even despite knowing, just to get beaten up?"
"……Who can say? I'd think that they don't know about me. It's not as if I carry around a sign detailing my personal history on my back,"
Hawke replied without delay and looked to Rain.
The boy had long since released his tension and looked truly disappointed as the chagrin failed to clear away from his face, as if he had been expecting to chase down great, ferocious prey but was met only with a simple rat during the hunt.
"I see…… They don't know anything, and they don't feel anything even after looking at you. I wasn't any different from them a year ago. It disgusts me just thinking about that. I really don't want to become some pathetic yelping dog with all bark and no bite……"
he said heartily in earnest.
A faint, but cold, smile was carved upon the edges of his lips as he looked down upon and glared at the men.
"And by pathetic yelping dogs, I meant you guys, you know?"
It was obvious to everyone present that that was what he had actually wanted to say.
Naturally, the men were furious.
the sturdy man who first replied to Hawke called out in a low voice.
If you looked carefully, there was a scar on his chin that he was touching subconsciously.
"I was gonna let you off 'cause you're just a kid and all, but you've just changed my mind."
He twisted his lips into a scowl and waved at one of his comrades. He continued,
"hey, Bessie! It's time for work. We were gonna use it on the old man, but I don't care. This brat just said he liked dogs. Why don't you indulge him a bit?"
Then, he turned back to Rain and snickered.
"You're gonna regret this, brat. Try not to wet yourself 'cause you're scared……. If you even can, that is."
"Unfortunately, I forgot that feeling. And your face is so ugly that I'm too busy trying not to laugh to be scared,"
Rain replied calmly, making his opponent grind his teeth in detest.
Then, Rain crossed his arms and looked over to the guy named Bessie. Evidently, the boy was interested in what the men were planning to do.
Hawke, who had been content to play the bystander, finally began to feel a little bit of danger.
The man called Bessie, who had narrow eyes and hollow cheeks, moved around his hands as if he was drawing sigils in the air.
At first, Hawke had thought that the man was a mage……but his spell suggested otherwise.
Could he possibly be——
"……A summoner! To think that one existed in a countryside town like Teto!"
It was too late to try and persuade them now.
Hawke made his decision at once and attempted to draw his sword.
However, he was stopped by Rain.
"This is my first time seeing a summoner. I want to see what he summons."
"Daring, aren't you……"
Contrary to what his words may have suggested, Hawke let go of his sword's hilt.
There would be no problem regardless of what was summoned as long as the two of them were here, and he was interested in seeing the boy fight.
A shining white magic circle appeared beneath Bessie in the sunset glow as he chanted his incantation in a mournfully low voice and moved his arms as he had been taught. HIs comrades quick~ly stepped away from the gloomy summoner.
Bessie's spell was completed before long, and a ferocious howl suddenly cried out from the magic circle.
Everyone present, save Rain, jumped a little at the sound. In the next moment, something jet black smoothly rose up from the circle.
Two sharp ears appeared first, and then a large body covered in a purplish aura slowly rose up after it. It was easily three times as big as a timber wolf.
When it fully manifested inside of the magic circle, is barred its row of fangs and growled a low growl……grrr.
It's scarlet eyes, reminiscent of that of a dragon's, glowered at Hawke and Rain.
Hawke promptly placed a hand on the sword at his waist.
"——! A dog from Hades, a hellhound!"
"What is that? Was it really summoned from Hades?"
Rain asked in a completely affected tone.
Even the enemy men were unable to fully hide their fear, but the boy's face did not change in the slightest.
"No, I doubt it. Not to say that it's not possible, but I doubt that our summoner is strong enough to do it. It's a type of monster. I don't know if it really lives in Hades, but that's what people have been saying since ages past. More realistically speaking, it's a species of monster that can be found in tall mountainous areas."
——They attack travelers often, and devour even their bones,
Hawke added as he relaxed his shoulders and simply sighed.
"……What, so it wasn't actually summoned from Hades? That's a bummer."
Rain took his hand away from Hannah, who was at his feet, and pushed her in Hawke's direction, saying,
"take care of Hannah."
"I will. Be careful."
"Rain! Y, you can't fight something so huge!"
Rain simply smiled gently at Hannah as the young girl began to tear up, fearing for his safety. She immediately stopped trembling, as if she had been enchanted.
Apparently, the boy carried some sort of mysterious charm that spread to Hawke as well. As proof, Hawke had begun thinking that everything would work out well if it left things to Rain.
Then, the hellhound suddenly roared.
It roared a howl so fierce that it perturbed the listeners' insides, causing everyone to take a step back.
Except for Rain, who remained so calm and upright that it was almost arrogant.
A hellhound's howl had the effect of stealing one's life force and evoking instinctive fear, but it didn't seem to work on the boy.
The mythical canine, which had cast a green aura upon its entire body, had apparently finished its pre-battle evaluations, and was now baring its sharp fangs at Rain's direction.
It had determined that Rain was a far 'stronger enemy' than Hawke. After all, it was a monster, which, unlike humans, were sensitive to 'surges of power.' Its judgement on that front was always correct.
Hawke looked to the sky……well, it's only natural.
Rain, on the other hand, looked almost serene as he silently stared at the hellhound just a few meters away from him.
Then, he called out to it in a low and collected voice.
"I'm ready whenever. Come at me? Are you strong, black dog?
Are you strong enough to stop me?"
The boy stopped talking and leisurely took a step forward.
He had yet to draw his magic sword.
"Or, are you strong enough to kill me? You can try, if that's the case. Come defeat me if you can!"
The boy had yelled his last few words in sharp rebuke. No……could that have been…his wish?
At the same time, a gigantic wave of power violently burst out from Rain's scrawny figure. Hawke could see the intangible aura literally cover Rain's entire body.
While they could not see it nearly as clearly as Hawke had, even the outlaws appeared to have felt something.
They looked amongst each other with ashen faces.
"Well, what's wrong?! If you're not coming, I'll go to you!"
Rain declared for good measure.
And then, he took another small step forward.
It had a dramatic effect on the hellhound, the mythical canine.
The monster, which was sensitive to 'power,' could not possibly ignore the enormous surge of pressure that caused even humans to tremble. The infamous mythical canine could not even growl, let alone howl. It lowered its posture, collapsed its ears back, and tucked its tail, which was covered in sharp bristles, between its legs.
Its scarlet eyes, which had been glaring daggers until just then, were now avoiding Rain completely.
It had already been frightened before the fight had begun, and now it was already in a state of surrender.
"What's wrong with you?! Hurry up and attack! Rip him to pieces!"
Irritated by the mythical canine's attitude, the gloomy summoner chanted a command word and waved his twisted wand. However, the canine's fear of Rain had won out against the binding force of the summoner's spell.
With a hint of disappointment in his face, Rain took another step forward.
Finally, the ferocious mythical canine had been completely reduced to an underdog.
In other words, it had turned its large figure around and had run away. It completely ignored the summoner as he tried to pull the beast back and scampered back into the magic circle in a panic.
Just like that, it quickly vanished. It had fled to where it had originally come from.
It had felt the pressure that the boy had released and discerned that it had absolutely no chance of winning. However, unlike Hawke, who had a long military history, the outlaws did not know this. They had watched the mythical canine flee in dumbfound amazement, but became furious all at once when the hellhound had vanished, magic circle and all.
"The fuck was that?! Bring out something that actually gets the job done!"
"You bastard, we paid you good money, so what the hell was that about?!"
The summoner, who was receiving complaints left and right, shook his head because he had no idea what was going on.
"Th, this wasn't supposed to……. Hellhounds are bloodthirsty monsters that like the taste of human flesh. I can't believe it just ran off like that. And it was bound to my spell, too."
"Then why the hell did it run away like a coward!?"
The summoner let out a feeble scream as the leader, with the scar on his cheek, grabbed him by the collar.
"I, I don't know either, Zanji. It might have been because that brat's stronger than we think. Strong enough that the hellhound chose not to fight him——"
The man called Zanji was not pleased.
"You think you're being funny?! We'll be having a nice, long chat after this…… And I'll have you return the money we paid you up front too!"
He was a rather petty man.
As Hawke watched over them in delight, Hannah, who had final regained her vigor, pulled at the hem of his shirt.
"Hey, grandpa. Why did the big dog run away?"
"It's simple, Hannah. It knew that it couldn't beat Rain, so it prioritized its own safety. It was a matter of its life or death, so the spell's binding power couldn't hold it back——that's why."
"Huh……. Rain's really strong……"
Zanji was quick to start grumbling, almost as if he was jealous of the admiration in the girl's eyes.
"Hey, old fart! Stop spewing out nonsense while looking so happy for yourself! D'ja really think that we'd just up and run away 'cause of that bluff of yours?!"
"No, not really,"
Hawke calmly refuted. He continued,
"but I did think that you could really learn a thing or two from that hellhound. Well, I'm sure my warning falls on deaf ears."
"Course it does, you goddamned fool!"
Zanji replied without missing a beat while baring his uneven teeth and raised an arm.
"Ready your bows! Listen up, aim for that brat first. We'll spit all over his corpse later!"
Following his command, about six people with bows nocked their arrows and aimed at the boy a few meters in front of them.
They maintained a stance that would allow them to fire at a moment's notice and awaited Zanji's next orders.
Rain, however, did not move to guard himself, but simply smiled at them wickedly.
"I thought it was strange that so many of you had bows when I first saw you guys——. Is this how it is? Hawke beat you guys up in a straight sword fight before, so this time you thought to use ranged attacks? Did you think that arrows would get the job done somehow? Pft, you brainless idiots are the epitome of shallow thinking. You're so stupid that I think I might actually start crying……"
Deep wrinkles burrowed between Zanji and his crew's brows as the boy quipped at them mercilessly.
Zanji spat and yelled,
"kill that fucking braaat!"
The sound of arrows cutting through wind merged into Hannah's heartbroken scream. As they did, Rain's hand blurred slightly.
"How's that, huh——"
Zanji froze up mid-sentence. With his mouth still wide open.
Rain was standing up, as unharmed as he was before, before him.
However, there were arrows in between the fingers of both of his hands.
He had easily caught all of the arrows that had come flying at him all at once with his bare hands.
The boy did not even look particularly proud of himself as he tossed the arrows, his prizes of battle, aside.
"……Arrows are too slow for me or Hawke. You're wasting arrows."
"No, I can't stop them as cleanly as you do."
Naturally, it was Hawke who had interjected with a smile. Rain looked to him and Hannah and flashed a smile.
——In the next moment, his smile vanished as he turned back to his enemies and kicked the earth as he dashed toward them at lightning speed.
The wind whistled, and Rain quite literally made a sudden appearance before Zanji's eyes.
He twisted his body as he approached his enemy and spun his left leg to kick Zanji squarely in the chin.
The squalid man spat out fragments of his shattered teeth and droplets of blood as he fell back heavily into his comrades behind him. His life wasn't in danger……but he would probably have to stick to eating soft foods for a while.
A shiver broke out among the men as they lay witness to Zanji's unsightly state.
"B, bows, ready your bows! Shoot him again!"
Someone shouted in the lieu of their tragically fallen leader, and a few people loosened their arrows once more.
Rain drew his sword this time.
The bluish magic sword danced, rending the darkness, leaving faint traces of light to the left and right. Piles of ruined arrows, cut cleanly in two, piled up one after another by his feet.
The boy had caught the arrows precisely as they flew at him and had bisected each and every one with his magic sword. Not a single arrow could reach, let alone harm, his slender figure.
"They're too slow! I already told you this was pointless!"
Rain looked disappointed, as if he was about to click his tongue at them at any moment.
The enemy had stopped firing arrows at some point. They looked back at Rain without a word.
No one tried to draw their swords in a new display of hostility.
Rain, who was loosely holding on to his magic sword, quietly asked,
"——and? Are you done already?"
No one answered.
Rain surveyed through their numbers and suddenly brought up his magic sword diagonally up into the air. Then, he brought it down in a sharp diagonal slash with perfect form.
In Hawke's eyes, it had looked like the very space itself had been bisected by the magic sword's trail of light for a moment.
What actually happened was made clear soon enough.
The moment that the magic sword had been swung down, a portion of the earth before the men's eyes was split open, stirring up a cloud of dust.
A large fissure had been carved into the earth by the feet of the men in the front of the group. In a long, straight line.
The Siren's Blade's "invisible slash," which had been passed down the ancient legends alongside fear, had been activated.
The infamous ranged attack, which had shaken the capital of the ancient kingdom of Celestia, had crossed the span of a thousand years and was brought before their very eyes.
Naturally, the men realized the identity of the magic sword in the boy's hands.
Their legs gave out and the blood drained from their faces.
"A, a ranged attack……"
the summoner, who had been long since forgotten, moaned silently, and the few men who were supporting their knocked-out leader began to speak out one after another.
"The cursed blade…… Wasn't it supposed to be sealed away?!"
"Th, that's what I heard. It was sealed away deep in some mountains somewhere, and no one's seen it for the past several hundred years, or something like that——"
As they were protesting, Rain simply pointed the tip of his magic sword in the direction of the town and curtly commanded,
He hadn't yelled at them or anything, but the men reacted as if something had kicked them in the ass.
They were so desperate not to worsen the boy's mood that if he had commanded them to start singing, they would have done so immediately.
"——Hey. Don't forget the fatty on the ground over there. You'll bother Hawke if he ends up freezing to death!"
At Rain's rebuke, the men who were in the middle of running away flew right back around.
"O, okay. We got it, so please put away your sword!"
Someone answered on the verge of tears, and a few men collected their sprawled-out leader in a panic. Then, they simply ran away in spectacular fashion. They ran down the mountain path with their feelings laid bare——that every single one of them was trying to flee as fast as they possibly could.
Rain, looking sullen and displeased, did not look away from them until they had completely disappeared from his field of view.
However, when Hannah happily drew closer, he blinked his black eyes, as if he was waking up from a dream, and looked down at the girl with a troubled expression.
Rain, who had definitely meant to leave soon, had actually ended up staying at Hawke's place ever since that day.
There were several reasons for his stay, but the biggest was because of Hannah's wishes. Whenever Rain mentioned or made to leave, the girl would slowly begin tearing up without fail and grabbed onto the hem of Rain's clothes and refused to let go.
"Hey, listen, grandpa."
After spending most of the free time that her mother had allowed her with Rain, Hannah talked only of the boy with Hawke even during lunch.
"When I told Rain that I lost the pendant that Mama gave me in the woods, Rain said he's find it for me, and he looked for it all day! And then, he walked all around the woods until dinner and he finally found it!"
"Did he now……isn't that nice? Did you make sure to thank him, Hannah?"
As she nodded cheerfully, her cheeks flushed slightly and her black eyes sparkled radiantly, just like how the maidens who had once fallen in love with the legendary hero, "Joe Jervael," had.
Rain was as kind to Hannah as he had always been, but his bewilderment seemed to grow day after day.
Isn't it nice that the two of you are getting along so well? ……Rain hadn't played along even when Hawke had teased him thus.
"I don't have that right,"
was the sullen boy's only answer, and he refused to tell Hawke the reasons behind it.
Hawke had had many opportunities to catch a glimpse of Rain's hidden side while living with the unsociable boy.
The boy evidently suffered from frequent nightmares all night long. The reason that he had been outside on his first night at the hut, other than because of the mysterious presence, was because he had woken from a bad dream.
Hawke was certain that he jolted up almost every night covered in sweat because of a nightmare.
The bold boy with a genius sense for battle must have experienced something terrible in his past.
Once, through his window, Hawke had seen Rain sitting outside after waking up from one of his nightmares——
As unbelievable as it was, Rain had been trembling. The boy, who had claimed not to be able to feel fear, had wrapped his arms around his body, clearly terrified of something.
Hawke had rushed outside at once, fearing that some kind of outrageous monster had attacked, but Rain had simply shaken his head in awkward embarrassment.
"No……this is because I was remembering something that happened in the past. I said that I don't feel fear, but this is the only exception,"
the normally detached boy had mumbled with his dark eyes to the ground, as if he was embarrassed that Hawke had seen him.
Raid hadn't said anything else when Hawke had gently urged him on, but……he had simply added,
"I'm in the deepest reaches of Hades even as I'm alive. ……The scene that I once saw long ago won't leave my head."
He had no idea what had happened to the boy. He could make a decent guess, but Hawke purposefully did not ask any further.
In any event, a severe experience from his past had instilled something extreme within the boy and had completely changed the course of his life.
"I want to become stronger than anyone else,"
he had heard the boy whisper multiple times, and Hawke was sure that the boy's wish wasn't unrelated to his past experiences.
——Hawke had once talked with the boy about the latter's obsession at the table.
By that time, the cool and unsociable boy had begun to make idle chat with Hawke.
It was then that Hawke had warned him,
"strength is relative. No matter how strong you get, there'll always be someone stronger. Power is destined to be destroyed by a stronger power. This is a bit of an extreme example, but no matter how strong a person gets, it's impossible for them to defeat the strongest mythical beast……a dragon, no?"
The boy had stared at Hawke and declared,
"I think otherwise, Hawke. The title of being the 'strongest' is only given to a special someone——or something. If a dragon is the strongest being there is, I'll take it down."
……The boy was thinking something that no normal person would ever think. And seriously, too.
It wasn't even as if his goal was to become a legendary Dragon Slayer, which was said be able to be granted superhuman strength, but——. At this rate, he would seriously challenge a dragon one day. Was the reason that he was searching for a magic teacher, aside from simply seeking even more power, because he was preparing himself for that day?
Hawke had never been as worried about the skinny boy's future as he had been then.
The boy carried a pure and serene heart that forever captivated Hawke and Hannah, but in the deepest depths of that very same heart, he hid away something so truly fervent.
In truth, Hawke had a friend who could be called the strongest rune master in history.
If Rain was a genius of the sword and martial arts, his friend was a genius of the now-lost secret arts of what people called "magic."
However, Hawke was still hesitant. Should he introduce the boy to his friend or not……
Rain would surely learn magic in no time at all. Hawke was sure of it. Hawke predicted that the boy would grow even stronger, just as the he wished.
However, Hawke remembered something that he had personally experienced——
The stronger a person grew, the lonelier they became.
He did not wish for the boy to walk the path of solitude.
That was why Hawke was hesitant. If possible, he wished for the boy to live out a normal, peaceful life……
The boy wasn't all talk, and he silently continued to train himself.
When he wasn't playing with Hannah or helping Hawke by cutting firewood and doing other chores……he spent the entirety of his free time training. At full strength, at that.
It went without saying that his practice swings were something that no other swordsman could possibly execute, but the boy had also devised a way of training that no one would have ever thought of, or would never have attempted even if they had.
Hawke had witnessed him do 'just that' deep in the woods.
He had stumbled upon it by chance upon being lured over by a strange noise he had heard while he was gathering firewood.
The boy was standing at the bottom of a cliff covered with boulders and had destroyed the earth above his head using his magic sword's ranged attack.
Naturally, large clumps of rock came falling down upon him like a torrential downpour.
He was evading them one after another.
A heat haze-like afterimage formed behind him as he slipped through the spaces between the rocks.
It looked like he was training to improve his reflexes and defensive body movements……but his methods were too dangerous.
Even Rain, with his superior reflexes, could eventually get hurt badly if he continued training like that. Rather, he had already gotten injured. When they had bathed together, Hawke had seen that the boy's slender figure was covered in cuts and bruises.
Ultimately, however, Hawke kept his mouth shut.
He knew that the boy would not stop even if he admonished him.
Just like Hawke himself hadn't in his younger days——
Just as he himself hadn't in the past, Rain would not be choosing for a peaceful and uneventful life any time soon. He would continue to seek out strong foes and fight them one after another.
When Hawke had asked him about it, Rain had told him about the opponents he wished to seek in battle while counting them on his fingers.
All of the names that he had listed belonged to warriors who were the best among the best.
Not only that, while mercenary warriors such as Zagan and Roy were one thing, the boy also planned on challenging knights——including even Joe Lamberck, the 'Fearless God-General' of Chandrys.
Rain was certainly an unparalleled genius swordsman……but to challenge that man the way he was now——
Having reached a point where he could do little else, Hawke made up his mind.
He would not admonish the boy, but would aggressively lend him his strength——indeed, that was what Hawke had resolved to do.
It was true that he was worried for the boy.
However, there had been a time when Hawke himself had once wholeheartedly pursued the 'ultimate strength.' There had certainly been a time when he had single-mindedly endeavored to reach the furthest peak.
The reason that he had not stopped the boy from continuing his life-threatening training was because a part of him had sympathized with Rain as a swordsman.
Hawke immediately told Rain about his friend the very night that he had made up his mind.
The boy slammed down the bowl of soup on the table and hurriedly asked,
"really? Are you sure that this friend of yours is a first-rate mage warrior?"
"Not only are they first-rate——"
Hawked recalled his friend and shook his head,
"but I think they're probably the strongest rune master in history."
Rain jumped up, as he had expected.
It seemed that Hawke's words had roused him.
"Please introduce me to them!"
"That's what I plan to do……but there are a few things I'd like to warn you about first,"
Hawke said honestly, now that he had the chance. He continued,
"this friend of mine is female. Also, strictly speaking, she's not human."
"I don't mind. I have no problems as long as she'll teach me magic."
Rain's expression did not change.
He was completely calm even after being told that Hawke's friend was not human.
Feeling a little relieved, Hawke revealed an even larger secret.
"Even if she's a vampire?"
Even Rain blinked his black eyes upon hearing that.
However, he had not flinched. He simply looked as if he had heard something strange.
"I don't mind, but——. Unfortunately, I don't intend on having my blood sucked and being forced into subordination. If I feel like I'm in danger, I might turn my sword on her even if she's your friend. Are you okay with that?"
Having heard the boy's extremely serious answer, Hawke burst out into laughter before he could catch himself.
"Hahaha! ——Do excuse me. But relax. She's not the type of person to drink the blood of someone unwilling to give it,"
Hawke firmly assured the boy. He continued,
"besides, she's capable of eating normal food. I believe that she usually follows a very normal diet. The only problem is whether or not she'll like you enough to teach you magic."
"……Is she hard to please?"
"Well, I think she might be just as bad at interacting with people as you are."
Rain frowned heavily when Hawke had said that.
Hawke's smile broadened upon seeing the boy's face and he crossed his arms in a relaxed manner.
"I didn't mean to tease you, so I'll apologize if I've dampened your mood. In any case, the rest is up to you. I'll send her a letter of introduction at once……"
Just as Hawke had said he would, he had written and sent her a letter about Rain the very next day.
He had thought that the boy would use this chance to leave his side.
To the contrary, Rain continued to stay under Hawke's care.
By and large, there were two reasons behind this, and one of them was naturally Hannah. It was plainly obvious that she would be deeply saddened, so as always, Rain kept his eventual departure a secret from her.
The pure and cheerful girl grew to adore Rain evermore as they spent day after day with each other, and she had finally begun to think about the future.
Even Hawke had been reluctant to answer her immediately when she had asked him to teach her sword skills.
"Why sword skills? You weren't interested in them at all until now, were you?"
"Nope, not until now."
Hannah opened her bright and large eyes wide and nodded with a serious expression on her face.
Then, with and equally sincere look in her eyes, she said,
"but I have to be able to fight too if I want to go traveling with Rain……. Right now, I'd only be a bother to him."
Hawke was surprised.
The girl seriously wished to stay by Rain's side forever. He perceived this for the first time upon peering into her eyes, brimming with deep resolve.
He brought to attention that she had not asked Rain's opinion on the matter, and he kept it a secret from the boy.
If Rain had known about this, he would have left Hawke's side that very day.
He was not the type of boy to involve others in the danger and struggle that he always carried with him.
And the other reason.
There was another reason why Rain was so hesitant to leave.
That reason was Hawke himself.
Hawke's condition deteriorated as the winter grew colder. He began to have more coughing fits, and he would sometimes cough so hard that he would spit out a little bit of blood.
Hawke had also started to go outside less often, and he began to stay closed off in his room reading all day long.
It went without saying that he was in no state to teach Hannah sword skills.
Fortunately for Hawke, Rain wasn't one to meddle excessively in other people's affairs, but even Rain had, albeit nonchalantly, pointed it out when Hawke began to skip meals with greater frequency.
When the boy had realized he was falling on deaf ears, he began to advise Hawke to consult either a pharmacist or a doctor with fervor.
On the outside, the boy was technically taking the stance of someone trying to repay his debt to Hawke.
However, he was not yet experienced enough to be able to successfully hide his true intentions, and his true feelings on the matter were readily evident to Hawke's eyes.
When he boy finally looked like he would physically drag Hawke to the doctor's if he had to, Hawke resigned himself.
He had planned to keep silent about it until the very end, but there was no helping it now. He had no choice but to confess.
Looking at the boy face to face across the table for the first time in a while, he came clean.
In the most indifferent manner he could while drinking his coffee so as not to fill the air with a sense of tragedy.
"……This hut is actually the place where I've decided to die. I've been living here for that purpose."
Understanding and sorrow filled the boy's face the moment the words had left Hawke's mouth.
It had only been for an extremely brief moment, and the boy had returned to his usual cool expression soon afterward, but the slight change in his face had not escaped Hawke's notice.
That simple explanation had been enough for the clever boy. Besides, he had anticipated Hawke's situation to a degree, and peppered him with several appropriate questions.
"……Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure that you won't recover? Have you tried a different doctor?"
Hawke said with a wry smile as he shook his head. He continued,
"no——. I may be calm now, but I struggled a lot more than you can imagine at first. I tried many different doctors and pharmacists, and I even tried magic. But……it was all for naught. Rather than anything to do with the illness itself, I've reached the end of my lifespan. It's time for me to face something that everyone must face one day,"
Hawke explained in an easy to digest manner as he slid in a small lie. Then, he said,
"I can see that my time is up. I'm sure that I will die soon……"
Rain did not ask any further questions.
Instead, he simply lowered his black eyes and whispered, "I see."
He offered no sickly-sweet words of sympathy or compassion.
……Though he was not quite able to hide his deep sorrow as well as he thought he was…
He's a kind child, thought Hawke.
But, ironically, he had been born with an extremely rare talent as a warrior. Would that fact work to bring the boy to a future that was good for him?
At the time, Hawke was more worried about Rain's future than he was about his own death, which he had already resolved himself for.
Afterward, to Hawke's great perplexity, Rain stopped showing signs of wanting to leave.
As Hawke began to spend more time in his bed, the boy began to take care of cooking and other menial chores. It was difficult to tell who was really the guest anymore.
It appeared had Hawke had been hasty in thinking that Rain had made peace with Hawke's impending death, as the boy apparently had not given up on the hope that Hawke would get better. Or, instead, he had possibly resolved himself to take care of Hawke as he lay on his death bed.
In any case——
Hawke felt that it was about time.
He was happier for the boy's feelings than he could put into words, but Hawke was still set on facing his death alone.
To his own surprise, he was more reluctant to part with the boy than he had thought, and, to be honest, he was lonely. However, he had no other choice at this point.
Hawke made a few preparations the next morning.
Gathering what little strength he still had left, he made use of the training he had undergone long ago and enhanced every last corner of his weakened constitution with Ekseed……in other words, with 'Ki.'
He was able to feign healthiness by doing so. It was something similar to the way rune masters enhanced the mana in their bodies when commanding magic.
However, while it was one thing to do this while being healthy, he would be hit with a sudden recoil later after doing this while disease-ridden. Still, Hawke had nothing to lose even if it meant that he would whittle down what little time he had left.
And so, Hawke got up early in the morning for the first time in a while and prepared breakfast like he had before.
Rain's, who had been practicing with his sword since before dawn despite how cold it was, black eyes opened wide as he returned inside. Then, for a moment, he smiled an unclouded smile. For that brief moment, he did not look like a warrior, but like any other boy his age.
He promptly returned to looking unsociable as per usual, but Hawke's chest had hurt a little upon seeing the boy smile.
However, his resolve had not changed.
Hawke immediately began conversation after breakfast.
"I know this is sudden——. But won't you resume your journey soon?"
Hawke raised a hand at the boy who abruptly looked up and looked back at him with a serious look on his face. He continued,
"you're the type of person who overthinks things, so let me say this first. ——I'm not saying this because I can't afford to feed you or because I've started to find you annoying or anything along those lines."
"You're not planning on staying here forever, are you? My health has taken a turn for the better, so I thought that now was as good a time to ask as any."
"Hawke, you're still underestimating me,"
Rain said slowly without taking his eyes off of Hawke. He continued,
"I see, when I saw you earlier, I thought that you had recovered for a moment. But that's not the case. You're deceiving my eyes with some kind of power. I have no idea what kind of ability it is that you're using right now, but I'm sure I'm not wrong. You're probably only going to be well for the time being, no?"
Hawke was astonished.
The boy was able to feel the wave of power and 'Ki' of experienced warriors without having been taught how to do so.
That alone was surprising, but he had also realized how Hawke had applied the 'Ki' at his disposal.
Hawke could only admit that he had likely still been underestimating the boy.
"Goodness. ……Then let me be frank. Just as you've deduced, I have not truly recovered. I've simply tricked you by enhancing my 'Ki' for the time being. In truth, my condition will worsen from here on out."
Hawke stopped Rain, who looked like he wanted to say something, and continued,
"eventually, I'll become unable to move from my bed, and I may not even be able to relieve myself alone."
Rain shot back angrily. He continued,
"there's nothing to be ashamed of if it's because your body weakened. That's not enough of a reason to drive me out."
"Then, are you saying that you'd take care of me if I get to that point?"
Rain nodded honestly as Hawke smiled wearily.
"I still have a debt to repay you for. And besides, it's not like the guys from before have given up yet."
"I'm happy for your feelings…… Thank you. But I think you've taught Virgo a lesson that's stuck. They haven't shown up ever since."
"You don't understand. Scum like that——"
Hawke cut Rain off, saying,
"let us cut our ties here. I have two reasons for this."
"I can't bear it, even if you can. Think about it. If you were in my shoes, would you be able to meekly accept someone else's care? All while knowing that you're beyond help?"
Rain did not answer.
But his anger died down little by little.
His silence was basically his answer, but Hawke knew that it would take more than that for the boy to back down.
With little other choice, Hawke brought up something that he had intended to keep quiet.
"Also……there's a matter regarding Hannah."
The boy knit his brows and silently prompted Hawke to speak.
Rain's countenance changed visibly when Hawke told him about Hannah's words of resolve.
Rain was more shocked than Hawke had anticipated and his initial anger evaporated at once.
A long silence fell between them.
The boy kept his eyes lowered and thought for a while before finally raising his head in silence.
"You're right. I've overstayed my visit. I should never have gotten that child involved……"
Hawke didn't reply.
It would have been easy to deny it, but doing so would have only amounted to hypocrisy.
Rain looked directly at Hawke with unclouded eyes and, for once, spoke with emotion.
He said but a single sentence:
"……Thank you for everything."
The boy acted quickly once he had made the decision to leave.
He drank the rest of his coffee in one gulp and stood up.
The sun had only just started to rise, so Hawke was surprised by the boy's hurry.
Evidently, the matter about Hannah had affected him quite heavily. He seemed to firmly believe that——anyone who was with him would inevitably be led to unhappiness.
In any event, he put on the jacket he had hung up on the wall and left his seat.
He opened the door and left looking exactly the same as he had when he had first arrived at the hut about twenty days ago.
He acted astonishingly quickly now that he had made his decision.
Surprised, Hawke chased after him and called after the back of the boy who had already begun waking toward the mountain path.
The boy turned around and looked to Hawke, who was standing on the porch.
——Hawke was troubled.
There should have had been something that he had wanted to say.
But he could not rid himself of the feeling that he had forgotten something.
Of this he was certain.
"……Hannah is helping out her mother right now, so you can still take it easy for a while."
Unable to recall of what he had forgotten, Hawke said something meaningless instead.
Rain responded as Hawke had thought he would.
"I know that. ……But it'll all be the same whether I leave now or later in the evening."
Turning around without any lingering attachments, the boy walked away into the morning mist.
It was probably because he had spent too much energy that morning.
Hawke was suddenly hit with the recoil after Rain had left and his coughing fits had not stopped for a while.
He remaining sitting in his chair because it was too difficult to push himself up.
His body felt strangely heavy, as if his weight had suddenly doubled. When he placed a hand on his forehead, he found that he clearly had a fever.
It was because he had squeezed out the few remaining drops of his dwindling stamina. The remaining time had lessened once again.
He had no regrets regarding that matter, but he could not help but regret that he had seen the boy off in silence.
He had known that the boy carried some doubts in his heart. There should have been something that Hawke could have said to him.
But, he had had so many things that he had wanted to say that when the time to part had come he had simply watched the boy go in silence.
"I've gotten old……"
Hawke whispered, lifelessly and in a hoarse voice.
Hawke remained at the table where they had eaten breakfast and had not attempted to move. Rather, it was more accurate to say that he could not move.
He felt like a large hole had opened up in his heart after the boy left. He had become used to Rain being nearby, and the hut, in which he was now sitting alone, was so quiet that his ears hurt.
How much time had passed as he simply sat there?
Hawke, who had been lost in thought, moved his shoulders a little. The tremors of his upper body grew, and coughs and laughter escaped his lips.
The boy was right all along……Hawke thought while laughing mockingly at himself.
He had always planned on taking care of things himself should it come to it, of course……but it seemed that he had finally met his fate.
Even in the grip of death, his 'senses' as a warrior had yet to waste away.
Just now, Hawke had noticed a large number of bloodlust approaching the hut.
According to the number of presences he felt, there were probably more people than there had been last time……
"Haha! ……How ironic. To think that they'd come at this time today of all days. Or perhaps they were simply planning to pass by. I'm sure this, too, is fate……"
Hawke stood up slowly after whispering that. For a moment, his feet faltered in a wave of dizziness, but he managed to keep himself from falling over by grabbing on to the back of the chair. When he did, his vision sudden~ly grew dark and his fever made everything look blurry——
But even still, he had no intention of abandoning the coming battle.
Hawke opened the door with his favored magic sword in hand.
He turned around and looked around the interior of the hut just before heading out.
He turned his head to look at the deserted room and gently smiled.
I will never again return here in this life——
Hawke quietly closed the door and stepped out into the chilly air.