༺ A Smile Like the Sun ༻
I dug up the soil in the flower bed and helped Titania plant the seedlings.
When the work was finished, the area around the dormitory definitely felt more colorful and bright.
I started helping Titania just because I thought she needed help, but it wasn’t as bad of an experience as I expected.
Titania said the soil around here was rich in nutrients, so plants grow well. Maybe later, it would be nice to create a vegetable garden and plant some potatoes and beans.
As I brushed the dirt off my arms and legs, Titania cautiously asked.
“The people targeting me were from an organization called the Empire’s Future, right?”
I froze for a moment at Titania’s question.
I had a rough idea why she was asking this.
Titania must have seen the newspaper. It was a story related to her, so she must have read it with keen interest.
I nodded my head nonchalantly, trying not to look awkward.
“And ‘The Empire’s Future’ was wiped out by a man named Malevolent Star last night.”
“You, Instructor Eon, happened to be away last night too, right?”
As the questions continued, I felt lightheaded and disoriented.
The more her questions went on, the more an unknown anxiety and tension burdened my shoulders. I felt like I knew what Titania was thinking.
I braced myself and nodded.
“I knew it…”
Titania’s expression brightened as if her suspicions had been confirmed and the puzzle in her head was complete.
She looked at me with a very serious face, and my shoulders tensed up as well.
Finally, Titania asked loudly.
“Instructor Eon, did you meet the Malevolent Star yesterday!?”
Suddenly, the tension was gone and my shoulders relaxed.
I found it somewhat funny that I had been so tense, and I answered with a shaky voice.
“…You could say that.”
“Wow! So you met one of the Seven Heroes of the Continent! I heard that a huge skeleton monster appeared, did you actually see Malevolent Star fighting it!?”
“Well, something like that…”
Titania’s misunderstanding was bewildering, but it was fortunate for me. The situation where I would say I met myself was extremely awkward and strange.
“So, Instructor, did you ask Malevolent Star for help because you knew him?”
I had no idea how to explain the situation, so I just remained silent.
However, Titania, who was closely observing my expression, seemed to interpret my silence in her own way and nodded her head. Then, she asked in a serious tone.
“Can I express my gratitude to him as well?”
“He’s the one who helped me. I’m grateful to you too, Instructor, but I want to convey my thanks directly to the Malevolent Star. Can’t I?”
It doesn’t matter, but how?
Should I briefly leave Titania’s presence only to reappear before her as Malevolent Star?
Objectively speaking, that would be an absurd situation.
And aside from it being ridiculous and cumbersome, I wasn’t particularly eager to do it.
I shook my head and said.
“He’s not someone who would appreciate that.”
“Still, I think it’s really important to convey my feelings. If it’s difficult to meet him, will you please convey my message on my behalf later? That I’m truly grateful.”
Although it felt a little strange for me to convey a message to myself as Malevolent Star’s identity…
“…Alright. I can do that much”
In the end, I had no choice but to agree with Titania.
After helping Titania with her work, the sun was setting before I knew it.
I had a simple dinner at the dormitory and returned to my room.
Although the original plan was to check on Gwyn’s sword next, Gwyn still hadn’t fully recovered from muscle pain even after two days due to overexerting her muscles the day before yesterday.
Yet, Gwyn insisted she could move and stubbornly tried to go to the training ground, but there was no persuasion in her appearance, walking with her sword as if it were a cane.
I forced Gwyn to rest in her room, saying that rest is also a part of the training. If she doesn’t rest properly when she should, her injuries won’t heal. If she rests well for two days, she’ll probably be able to get up just fine tomorrow.
The Sun had set completely, and night had fallen on the Opal Black Dormitory.
Curfew time was approaching. As usual, it meant it was time for me to patrol the dormitory.
I thought Oznia would come to my room, like she always does, for the night patrol.
However, even after a few minutes, Oznia did not appear.
Until now, Oznia had never been late even for a single minute. I waited a little longer in my room just in case, but there was still no sign of her.
Could something have happened?
I grabbed my coat and headed to Oznia’s room along the dark, unlit corridor.
When I reached the door, I sensed a faint presence inside the room.
It was quiet as if someone was sitting still and not doing anything, but there was a faint movement. It seemed like she was indeed inside the room.
I knocked on Oznia’s door.
However, no matter how long I waited, there was no sign of the door opening.
Wondering if she hadn’t heard me, I knocked on the door a bit harder this time.
Just as I was contemplating whether to forcibly open the door, it creaked slowly open, revealing Oznia with a blank expression on her face.
In a whisper so soft that it would be inaudible if you didn’t strain your ears, Oznia said,
“Oznia. It’s time for the patrol.”
As I reminded her of today’s schedule, her eyes widened and her small mouth opened in surprise.
It seemed like she had genuinely forgotten.
“It’s fine if you were in your room. Put on your outerwear and come out.”
At my instruction, Oznia nodded, put on her uniform coat, and slowly walked out of the room.
As always, we headed to the Forest of Wandering, but Oznia’s condition seemed much stranger than usual.
She would lag far behind while walking or occasionally veer off the path and head in a completely wrong direction. Even though she had always seemed somewhat absent-minded, today she looked like she had left her mind somewhere else entirely.
As we walked, I grabbed Oznia’s shoulder to keep her from tripping over a tree root and said,
“Oznia, get a hold of yourself.”
Oznia blinked a few times and slowly said,
“…Ah, I’m sorry.”
“You seem a bit off today. Are you feeling unwell?”
I asked while examining her complexion.
If Oznia wasn’t feeling well, I had no intention of forcing her to tag along. If she had even the slightest signs of illness, it would be better to send her back now.
With a worried heart, I placed my palm on Oznia’s forehead. Then, tilting my head slightly, I looked into her eyes and examined her face more closely.
However, contrary to my concerns, her skin wasn’t flushed, and there was no sign of fever on her forehead.
At my actions, Oznia had completely frozen, even forgetting to blink and seemingly stopped her breath.
“Hmm… It doesn’t seem like a cold. Are you really okay?”
As soon as I said that, Oznia suddenly hiccupped.
Oznia, with a bewildered look in her eyes, covered her mouth.
However, there was no way that the hiccup, once released, would stop there. Upon closer inspection, both of her ears seemed to be tinged with sudden redness, as if the heat was rising.
“It seems you really are unwell. We should stop the patrol here for today.”
I approached her to support her, but Oznia, on the contrary, moved further away from me at an urgent pace.
“…Don’t come near me. Hic!”
At that moment, I realized I had been careless.
Even though I’m an instructor, it would be uncomfortable for her if a man casually touched her body. Realizing that I’m still inexperienced as an instructor, I took another step back from her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that on purpose.”
Oznia shook her head vigorously.
“It’s not that… Hic!”
She showed an expression as if she didn’t know why she was hiccupping herself. It was as if she couldn’t understand the changes happening to her own body.
“It’s not because I’m sick- Ah.”
Suddenly, Oznia turned her head towards the forest and opened her eyes wide in surprise.
It was a very rare sight for Oznia, who seldom showed emotions.
I looked in the direction Oznia was staring at. There was nothing but a dense forest and complete darkness, and nothing else could be seen.
However, Oznia uttered strange words.
“…I hear a voice.”
I furrowed my brow in confusion and questioned her.
I couldn’t hear the voice that Oznia said she heard.
I closed my eyes and focused on my senses to listen to the surrounding sounds.
No matter how hard I strained my ears, I couldn’t hear anything that resembled a voice. Only the rustling sound of leaves brushing against the gentle night breeze could be heard, and there was no one around except for the two of us.
Oznia mumbled to herself in a barely audible voice.
“This voice… It’s calling me, calling me. Could it be… You are…?”
I felt a growing sense of unease as Oznia’s behavior became stranger and stranger.
Come to think of it, it was a bit odd. Although I couldn’t hear the voice that Oznia mentioned, the forest today was eerily quiet, even without considering that.
The sound of insects chirping. The sound of bees flapping their wings. The sound of owls hooting. None of the sounds of life that should be present in a forest could be heard.
An intentionally created, unsettling silence.
This was definitely not a normal situation.
I cautiously backed away from the forest and warned Oznia.
“Oznia, never leave my side.”
However, there was no response.
When I turned around, there was no one there.
Oznia, who had been there just a moment ago, had vanished without a trace.
Dean Heinkel had said,
When passing through the Forest of Wandering, never stray from the path.
In case you take the wrong path, you might find yourself endlessly wandering through the forest.
However, I had no other choice if I wanted to find Oznia.
Thinking that there hasn’t been a single quiet day since I became an instructor, I let out a deep sigh and followed the direction where Oznia had disappeared.
Although I still couldn’t hear any sounds around me, it would have been impossible for Oznia to have gone far enough in that short amount of time without me noticing, unless she had used magic.
I carefully examined the ground as I walked through the forest.
It would have been difficult for an ordinary person to discern in the dim darkness, faintly illuminated by moonlight, but I noticed the shallow traces on the ground were Oznia’s footsteps.
It wasn’t magic. These were traces of walking.
So, there was only one answer.
This forest was disrupting our senses.
I traversed the forest, following Oznia’s traces such as her footprints and broken branches. Her traces led deeper and deeper into the forest.
Oznia’s behavior just before she disappeared was certainly strange. She seemed to be hearing things that were not audible and seeing things that were not visible, as if she was having hallucinations.
Could something in the forest have bewitched Oznia and taken her away?
Unaware of what might lie ahead, I became more cautious and continued to follow the traces.
Suddenly, a soft and feminine voice called out to me from behind.
My heart raced at the familiar voice.
I stopped walking and slowly, very slowly, turned around.
Golden hair that shone brightly as if it were squeezed from honey and blue eyes as clear as the sea.
The girl I had tried to forget several times, but ultimately couldn’t.
Ella stood there, just as I remembered her.
“I’ve missed you, Eon.”
She looked at me and smiled brightly, like a ray of sunshine.
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