༺ S1.5. A 400 Kilometers Escape Journey – 3 ༻
“Hold on tight, Pero!”
“B-But there’s nowhere to properly grab onto…..!!”
“If you don’t want to die, grab onto anything!”
Clenching his eyes shut, Pero grabbed onto anything he could. In a less dangerous and more comfortable situation, preferably one where he could leisurely enjoy the texture, Pero would have been feeling extremely fortunate.
However, in their current situation, being chased by a giant Variant that was unusually persistent, there was no time for such luxuries.
Elaine was using all the power in both her arms and legs to flee from the Variant, which was bellowing with its three heads. Even as she was running on two legs, when a giant tentacle struck down── She would punch the ground to instantly change her direction of escape by nearly 90 degrees.
If she briefly lacked acceleration, she would run on all fours. Adding the power of her arms to that of her legs, she could move faster, after all……! Elaine was grateful for her talent in using her own body. Even though it was her first time running like a beast, she never got the order of moving her limbs confused.
A rapid maneuvering that utilized all limbs. Naturally, there was no leisure to hold Pero tightly so that he didn’t shake. For Pero to survive, he had to hang on by himself.
The result of that was…… the sight of a princess running on all fours and a boy desperately clinging in front of her.
It was by no means a beautiful sight. But in this world, there were things that could not be helped. As a princess, it may be damaging to her dignity, but survival was far more important than that.
Elaine raised her voice in frustration.
“‘Plains of Meeting’ was supposed to be relatively safer with fewer Variants, wasn’t it-!”
“Even if you bury your face in my chest and speak, all it does is make me ticklish! I still can’t hear anything, Pero-!!”
The boy, Pero, was also engulfed in frustration. He couldn’t understand why such a huge Variant, which he had never seen before in his life, appeared in this peaceful land and why it was only chasing them.
The giant Variant also seemed quite frustrated just by the sound of its cries. Was it complaining about why something that smelled so delicious appeared in front of it, or was it cursing at them for being disgustingly fast even though they were mere humans?
“⋯⋯ ⋯⋯⋯, ⋯⋯!!”
“I told you, all it does is make me ticklish!”
“Puhah, bag, in my bag……. Emergency bait…..!”
“I’m using all four limbs to run, so I can’t afford t──”
Once again, Elaine’s body rapidly changed direction and the boy was once again subjected to a physical version of Silence Magic.
“──o get it!”
“You have to do it, Pero!”
Whatever it is, do it now, or I’ll use you as bait and escape alone!
She didn’t say the last part out loud. After all, in Elaine’s mind, the part of her brain responsible for her sense of reality was screaming. Screaming at her to eject this approximately 46 kg weight so that she could gain more speed.
The 8 minutes of hesitation that she carried Pero was indeed a matter of the heart.
Pero put all his strength into the legs wrapped around Elaine’s waist. And to not lose it due to the acceleration, he reached for the place…… where he guessed the bag that he had squeezed between himself and Elaine would be.
But it wasn’t the texture of the bag.
“Not there, lower!”
“The bag is above that!”
“Pero, you’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?!”
But he did not fumble for a fourth time. Pero took out a sphere wrapped in cloth from the bag and Elaine took that sphere and sent it flying far into the sky with a picturesque somersault kick.
The giant Variant’s response was immediate. It turned direction with a mournful noise and Elaine continued to flee for about 5 more minutes before gradually slowing down.
Elaine lay sprawled on the grassland, breathing heavily. Pero, too, did the same. After such a wild ride that would make a roller coaster pale in comparison, he was completely limp in Elaine’s arms.
“……It’s hot, so can you move away a bit, Pero?”
“M-My a-arms and legs aren’t listening to me. I’m sorry, Elaine……”
“You think I’m not the same? If I had the strength, I would have thrown you off myself……”
Elaine was too exhausted to even perform the simple action of tossing Pero off by the nape of his neck, so she decided to just…… bear with this little human blanket.
After catching her breath for a while, Elaine looked up at the sky.
The sun was nice and the day was clear. If she pushed aside the fact that the world was occupied by strange monsters and humanity was on the brink of extinction… Surprisingly…… it was quite nice.
She couldn’t explain what was nice with words. It was just…. nice. All of it.
As Elaine suddenly started laughing, Pero looked at her in startlement. After realizing it wasn’t a delusion caused by extreme fatigue, he laughed along with her.
In a world where survival was the first priority, the title of Imperial Princess lost its meaning. In the wilderness, she was simply Elaine and the boy, too, was simply Pero. The raw interaction had a rather refreshing taste.
From their chests that were pressed together, it seemed like they could feel each other’s heartbeats. The distance between their hearts was about 20 cm.
It was a pretty amazing day.
The sunset began to smolder as it set.
The journey in the ‘Plains of Meeting’ was definitely more comfortable than before. Their mouths did not feel scratchy with every breath and it was easier to find edible things. Apart from the giant Variant, they didn’t encounter any other Variants either.
Along the way, they even found blackberries and ate a handful each. When Elaine discovered she felt both moved and thrilled by the sourness of the wild blackberries, she also had a rather strange inspiration.
The dishes carefully and laboriously prepared by the imperial chefs were often left uneaten, so to think that she would feel such joy over a mere wild berry. It was both amusing and interesting.
Pero looked around and cheerfully spoke.
“Today, we might even be able to make a salad!”
“……What about the dressing?”
“If we add a few ants, there will be some sourness!”
“Mm, I’ll pass on the ants, so…… Just give it to me plain.”
While Elaine gathered tinder to start a campfire, Pero busily went around the vicinity, starting to collect ingredients. Fortunately, there was a broad leaf suitable as a dish, and on it, he put various edible grasses to complete today’s meal.
The party looked at the grass topped with grass and decorated with grass, before whetting their appetite.
“Here, let’s eat together!”
Elaine picked a thin stalk of some plant and chewed on it. The molars crushed the tender stalk and juice oozed from inside. There was a hint of bitterness, but the freshness was far more overwhelming.
She put a red flower petal in her mouth to taste it. It didn’t particularly have a distinct texture or a flavor that popped, but the scent that spread from it wasn’t too bad. It seemed like it might even be nice to brew some tea.
Elaine looked at the watch tattoo on her wrist. Five days had passed since she fell into the wasteland, with about seven days remaining. So far, she had been surviving quite smoothly. There hadn’t been any major threats and their journey had a clear destination.
Elaine considered telling the imperial chefs to research recipes using plant stalks when she returned.
While Elaine was thinking this and also playing a game of wit over who should eat the last leaf in the bowl, Pero abruptly stood up.
Pero was staring intently into the distance somewhere in the plains. He seemed deeply absorbed. It sort of felt like he was tense or, perhaps, focused. The boy’s pupils were slightly dilated and his mouth was marginally open.
For some time now, the young boy had been occasionally showing such peculiar signs.
When Elaine carefully tapped the boy’s shoulder, he snapped out of it as if waking from a dream.
“……Ah. I’m sorry, Elaine. Did you call me?”
“Since you were staring blankly.”
“I heard a strange sound again, you see. As if something was… calling……”
Hearing this, Elaine concentrated mana in her ears. Her soul’s color was aggressive, so the effectiveness of her mana was relatively lacking for purposes other than combat── But still, her hearing was significantly better than that of an ordinary person.
She heard nothing. At least, not in the direction Pero was looking.
On the contrary, she sensed the presence of someone from the opposite direction. The unique noise of bipedal walking. Steady footsteps. Elaine judged that, unless there was another hidden member of their party…… It appeared to be a well-trained adult male.
“There’s someone coming from that direction, Pero.”
“Oh, from that side? Maybe I heard wrong…….”
Elaine soothingly stroked the visibly disheartened Pero’s hair.
As the day darkened, it seemed someone had seen the light of their campfire and was approaching. She relaxed her hand, waiting for the guest’s arrival.
Was he a looter or not?
Was he strong or weak?
Would he result in a gain or a loss……
Right as the human shadow grew closer and the scarlet light of the campfire lifted the shadow cast on the stranger’s face, thin eyes appeared between long, ash-gray hair.
It was a young man dressed like an adventurer.
His impression was sly like a cunning snake, the eyes that appeared between his narrow slits were a green that seemed rather poisonous. The same green as Pero’s, but this young man’s was darker.
He was well-armed. He wore a rather sturdy-looking leather armor and through the gap in his cloak, a longsword and a crossbow hung at his waist were visible. He raised his arm in a friendly manner.
“Wow! Finally, I meet someone. Hahaha! I was worried that the ‘Plains of Meeting’ was past its glory days, but this is truly fortunate!”
A somewhat frivolous voice.
As the Imperial Princess crossed her arms and watched, the young man’s pupils flitted by Elaine’s chest and the frozen Pero beside her, before smirking. And then, he greeted them warmly, as if he knew them.
“Little Espero, nice to see you again. How long has it been?”
The relationship between the two didn’t seem particularly cordial. After all, guilt and gloom brushed by Pero’s eyes and the eyes of the young man called Learo didn’t smile at all.
“You can’t take away my chance to introduce myself to such a fine lady, Little Espero…… Nice to meet you, Lady. May I have the opportunity to introduce myself?”
Learo extended his arm in a jesting manner and bowed his upper body. His etiquette seemed somewhat decent, but to the eyes of the First Princess, it couldn’t be more awkwardly executed, as if a caterpillar had learned from a sideways glance.
One more thing. Even while bowing, the young man kept his gaze straight ahead. He was on guard for attacks from blind spots. He, too, was a survivor.
Elaine thought perhaps he could be a kindred spirit.
It was the way of the world that clear hierarchies prevented disputes. Elaine slowly extended her hand towards the young man. Learo happily smiled and took her hand.
And then, a grip strong enough to crack stone was applied on him.
“Consider this the price for your rude gaze.”
Learo grimaced from the pain of his hand being squeezed, shrinking his whole body, yet maintained his smile with the corners of his mouth lifted.
“…….Ha, haha. If that’s the case, I got off rather cheap. It’s the first time in my life seeing such……beautiful hills and valleys.”
“Should a price be paid for your rude tongue as well?”
“I can only beg for mercy. I’m not one to say empty words, you see── May I borrow your campfire just for tonight? I shall pay for it……”
“What do you think? Pero.”
Elaine asked for Pero’s opinion. Since they seemed to know each other, she thought he might have valuable information about this man.
“……L-Learo is a c-childhood friend from h-hometown…….”
Elaine narrowed her eyes. She waited patiently for a bit longer, but no further explanation came from Pero. She quickly pondered whether allowing Learo to join them by the campfire was a gain or a loss.
It was a loss. After all, inviting an armed stranger into their living space was considerably risky.
However, she also considered it an opportunity to resolve the various questions surrounding Pero. Where he lived, how he survived. What secrets he was hiding and whether they were a threat to Elaine.
If those secrets were harmless, maybe, just maybe, she could truly trust Pero…… And they could become friends.
Even as she thought this, she did not plan to directly open her heart and have a candid conversation with Pero. That was the selfish and weak part of Elaine. In the end, she permitted the narrow-eyed young man, Learo, to join them.
“Since I have made such a good fateful connection, if you permit me to join! I shall use some salt!”
The power of salt, tasted for the first time in five days, also contributed significantly to her permission to join.
The young man, Learo, whispered a few words to Pero, hooking his arm around Pero’s soldier, as if they had things to discuss among people from the same hometown. Elaine infused her ears with mana and eavesdropped on the conversation.
Learo spat out venomous words with a smiling face.
“Why did you come back, Espero…… You’ve got some nerve. Did you think there would be a place left for you to return to?”
“……It’s not like that, Learo. I’m looking for Paradise.”
“If that’s a joke, it’s not funny at all. If there was such a thing as paradise, it was our homeland…… And you destroyed it. All of it.”
Why didn’t Pero make any excuses? Did he bear a sin that made it all but necessary to endure such biting remarks without a single retort? If that was the case, did that── threaten my survival?
A phrase from the old Emperor flashed through Elaine’s mind. It was a desperate voice that endlessly repeated…… from the day she met the Emperor until now.
Like this, an uninvited guest joined their campsite.
Along with a small ember.
Distance remaining to Paradise.
About 250 kilometers.