English translation by Corey and Ves
Edited by Cog Gear Omega
Chapter 1 – A Chance Meeting in the Snow
Footfalls in the snow echoed throughout the mountains.
Steady and calm breathing could be heard, but it was clear how much strain was on that person’s lungs and heart. The girl making these noises was inappropriately dressed for this snowy and mountainous road. Perhaps that is why she was so overwhelmed. Her lightly tanned skin and thin clothing suggested that she wasn’t from the region. Her pale eyes contrasted with her skin tone, her dark grey hair resembled that of a snowy sky. It seemed that she was drawn to this place, as if it were destiny.
“Looks like there is enough to surround me… Judging by the wind, this road will continue for some time.”
The group of wolves chasing the girl was about three times the size of a normal pack, their bloodthirsty eyes affixed on her as they followed. Occasionally the girl would stop to shoot at them with her crossbow, but it seemed to have no effect whatsoever on their advance. After firing the crossbow, the girl would quickly leap backwards and twist her body, before resuming her run up the path without losing momentum. The strong and nimble movements of someone calmly traversing such a mountainous path showcased her gracefulness. The pack of wolves continued to chase the girl, ignoring their fallen brethren pierced by her arrows. She couldn’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for them. Their survival instincts kicked in because they were being chased away.
“We’re both pushed to the brink eh… Nonetheless I must…”
She clenched onto a metal tube around her neck and looked at the book hooked to her waist. While they were both desperate, she could not let herself lose. The mission at hand was to beat out the person responsible for driving the wolves away.
Unfortunately, the blizzard only grew in strength, temperatures and oxygen dropping the higher she went, sapping her strength and willpower. Although she could move her legs and feet, her upper body was stiff and cold, limiting her movements. Soon enough, she ran into a giant mountain cliff and the wolves soon had her surrounded.
“…how ironic, how even after I escaped, I still ended up in the same situation.”
The girl narrowed her eyes, looking at the tube clenched tightly in her hand. It was no doubt of great importance to her. Perhaps even more than mere importance, it seemed as if she were putting her faith in the tube.
“…This is going to be quite the big gamble…”
The girl thought over her options as the wolves began to encircle her. She showed no signs of giving up as they completely surrounded her. A crossbow alone wouldn’t be enough to get her out of this.
However, it seemed the girl’s perseverance beat out the wolf pack’s survival instincts in winning the favor of the Goddess. An explosion rang out, sending tremors through the snow, as blood sprouted from two wolves as they collapsed to the ground.
The wolves shifted their focus from the girl to the noise that felled their companions. In that brief moment, the blast once again rang out loudly. The lone wolf that had located the sound’s source was quickly felled.
The second blast alerted both the wolf pack and the girl to the source and its location.
“I’ve broken their formation! This way now, quickly!”
From the rock where the gunshots were fired came a young man’s voice, and a gap in the wolf pack’s formation appeared. The girl gave a small nod and fired her crossbow as she charged them. Gunshots rang out every few seconds, taking out wolves and protecting the girl as she advanced.
With each shot, more and more gunpowder smoke filled the snowy sky. It was clear that the man was using an old fashioned gun rather than an orbal rifle. But despite it being a gunpowder rifle, the time between shots was much shorter when compared to an average gun.
“Come this way! There’s a shortcut over here!”
The young man quickly made sure that the girl had escaped the wolves before leaning out from the rock and waving at her.
Given that the girl was a seasoned traveler, she quickly realized that this man was a skilled warrior experienced in the region. He was a handsome man with silver hair, although it was somewhat different from the girl’s– his looked more like a snow covered mountain ridge, a silvery-white kind of color. He had fair skin; sharp eyes; and a tall, slender, well built body. All of these elements combined harmoniously, as if his existence personified the beauty of this place. He stood there with a fur pelt on and an old fashioned rifle in his hand– a single rifle was responsible for all those shots. The girl definitely remembered seeing that style before.
As she slipped behind the rocks, her movement caused a book on her waist to fall out. With her hand on the crossbow, she quickly reached out to grab onto the tube.
The silver-haired man was loading his rifle at the time but managed to catch the book with the butt of his rifle, letting it fall onto his belongings on the ground, saving it from the wet snow.
“Thanks. It appears that I miscalculated my movements, thankfully you were there…”
She spoke faintly as she quickly bent down to pick up the book.
“You’re too kind, unfortunately that book is the only thing that’s safe right now…”
The man quickly looked and saw the wolves preparing to attack again, this time with help from another pack. The young man flinched as he saw the scene through his rifle’s scope.
He quickly pointed to a small narrow path to the left. Once the girl had nodded to confirm, he began to rush towards the path. With this many wolves chasing them, escaping like that was a gamble in itself.
“I’ve got no other options, I’ll have to take a chance on this.”
Sensing that the young man was having trouble deciding what to do, she quickly ran past him towards the wolves, holding up the tube hanging around her neck with both hands.
“What are you doing!? We have to get out of here, quickly!”
The young man tried to stop her with his voice, but he was silenced by what happened next. The tube the girl was holding began to emit light from the patterns engraved on it, and a dense fog suddenly began to engulf the wolves, so dense that one could not see anything. What was even more amazing was that the snow and wind had completely calmed in the direction they were escaping to.
“Alright, let’s head out. This way, right?”
“Yeah, this is the way.”
The young man was well versed with this land, but he was completely bewildered at what happened and the fact that the girl was leading the way.
“Is something wrong?”
“Nothing really, I’m just thinking about how lucky we were that a fog like that came down.”
“Lucky that this thing… led me here.”
The girl continued to follow the young man down the path until they found open flat ground without snow. There were trees sparsely dotting the place and mountains shrouded with snow in the distance. Once they confirmed that they were safely out, they sat down in the middle of the road.
“We got through that path pretty quickly…”
“We’re fortunate that we had good visibility throughout.”
The young man was still bewildered at what had just happened, but the girl maintained her nonchalant attitude. Having seen what the man is capable of doing and the fact that they met here made her convinced about something.
“I have to thank you for your help back there, but first may I ask you something?”
“Huh? Oh sure.”
The man’s perplexed face looked completely ordinary, at least compared to “those people” she had in mind. But his skills were definitely genuine, definitely on par with rumors she’s heard about them.
“You’re a… Matagi. Right?”
She asked the question in a direct, straightforward manner.
The young man paused for a moment, before simply nodding his head.
Chapter 2 – The Hunter on the Mountain
Northeastern Zemuria. He lived in an area where a unique culture had surfaced, untouched by the calamities of the outside world, instead receiving influence from Eastern traditions.
White Peak was an exceedingly harsh environment, yet, in spite of this, it had fostered a diverse ecosystem. It became known to many as a sacred mountain, where those who lived in harmony with such an environment had cultivated their own unique technologies and philosophies.
The Matagi clan were an independent group descended from a legendary tribe of hunters said to have even fought dragons. However, despite once being renowned, they were now little more than a forgotten legend whose remnants had scattered across Eastern Zemuria. Even Matagi Village was now severely underpopulated, with most of the few remaining residents being well into their years. The few young men and women left in the village continued to hunt beasts, though most of them left the village for better paying work as bracers or commercial hunters. The technology and culture that they’d inherited were both slowly dying out.
There were two symbols in Matagi Village’s central square. Firstly, a wooden statue known as the “Spirit of the Mountain”, which served as the central focus for the village’s annual festival. Second, a recently constructed stone monument inscribed with the name and family crest of Giun Orgis, a legendary Matagi warrior.
One afternoon a young man, now a rare sight in this village, stood before the two symbols. Though people with white hair were anything but rare in this village, his bright silvery hair and handsome features made him quite the eye-catcher. Laying his hunting gear on the ground, he leaned up against the statue’s base, paying its subject no heed. Instead he warmed his body with a swig of sweet sake from his gourd and gazed up at the cloudy sky.
“Well, if it isn’t Shunran. Already finish up your hunt for the day? As efficient as ever I see.”
The old man calling out to him was both healthy and dignified in spite of his age. He was the village’s “sukari”, a title bestowed to the village chief and commander of the village’s hunting group.
“A pleasure, Sukari. I’ve accomplished my main objective. Our source of income is secure for now, so no need for worry on that front. The Republic really has no shortage of merchants.”
The young man, Shunran, gave his reply as he hung his empty gourd on his waist.
Shunran Aysen was the last man in Matagi Village who could be considered young. From the chieftain’s point of view, burdened with the responsibility of the village’s continued existence, he was an asset more valuable than even the finest prey.
“I see, I see. Truly fine work as always.”
“I apologize, but please understand that no matter how much you continue to flatter me my answer will remain the same.”
In response to the sukari’s praise, Shunran gathered his gear and shifted his gaze to the edge of the village, a bit further up the mountain to where his home was.
“Shunran, please, that wasn’t my intention. I would simply be relieved if you would be willing to continue living here properly–”
It could be said that a man as powerful as the village’s chief paying attention to the well being of the youth was a commendable sight. In reality however, in this case it was mostly born out of desperation. The current sukari hadn’t gained the title in the manner he would have hoped to. He had always found someone else far more fitting of the position, but each of those people had left the village in such quick succession he now felt it more important than ever that he protect the young man most suitable to take the post for the next generation.
“Sure would be nice if I could.”
“I think that you can.”
“Well, if you’ve that much confidence, then perhaps I can live up to your expectations.”
Shunran’s tone remained cold and distant the whole time. He understood the sukari’s intention, though that was exactly why he couldn’t make him any promises.
“Have you forgotten what your father told you? It’s clear you’ve not thought about this one bit. Look, young man. Look at our village’s people.”
Though he didn’t much feel like it, Shunran listened to the old man’s advice, as if stirred by his blood to do so. He looked around at the villagers going about their lives, the drying fur, the old man tending to his gear, a group of men drinking while telling the heroic stories behind each of their scars; it couldn’t have been a more familiar sight.
“None of them understand any of what’s going on outside the village. Every day they simply live their lives, just as–”
“I’ll take it to heart. Until next time.”
Shunran rushed away toward the village’s exit. It was obvious to both him and the elder that he was merely running away, but so long as the proposition remained unanswered there was no need to burden himself any further. At the least, it allowed him more time to think.
Shunran lived in a western-styled log house overlooking Matagi Village. As it was only a short walk from town, Shunran had no intention of casting aside the home his parents had left for him. On top of this, the brief commute there allowed for the chance of discoveries and encounters along the journey back. Be it the subtle signs of spring’s arrival or footprints left by some rare beast, Shunran did not think such a modest discovery was without meaning. Or at least, he didn’t doubt the ideals that his father had instilled in him.
Yet what he encountered on this day was far different from the usual. He noticed a strangely high amount of wildlife on the opposite side of the road from his home and, as a Matagi, he could not simply ignore such an anomaly. Depending on the cause, it may have even been necessary to confirm what was going on and report it to the sukari. Shunran grabbed his “surube”, a modified version of an old-issue Calvardian rifle, and began running to investigate.
When he saw the scene, Shunran realized it wasn’t the sort of situation he could just casually look into. An absurdly large horde of wolves was running along in desperation, a sight that, on its own, shouldn’t have been possible on White Peak. To make matters even worse, they were chasing after a single young girl, one who was clearly foreign and draped in strange garb.
“Do you understand, Shunran? Being a Matagi means more than just being a hunter. It’s our duty to protect these mountains, for their blessings are the blessings of the Goddess. That’s why–”
His father’s words echoed in the back of his mind. Hiding behind a large rock, Shunran muttered to himself the words that came next.
“That’s why you have to wipe away the filth!”
He pulled back on the trigger, letting flames sputter from his rifle as a hot clump of lead came firing out in a straight line, evaporating snowflakes in its wake. The shot landed perfectly, piercing cleanly through one wolf and into another behind him, taking both down with one bullet.
The pack scattered in confusion, but Shunran knew that their survival instincts could lead a group of beasts to reorganize faster than man could dream of.
“I’ve broken their formation! This way now, quickly!”
Shunran called out as he unleashed a second volley, and in response to Shunran’s call, the running girl’s expression changed.
Though she was from a different culture, her eyes conveyed what she was feeling. Despite the crisis at hand, she held no confusion nor doubt.
It was clear that something was about to happen on this mountain, and this girl knew exactly what it was. Shunran was sure of it when he picked up her book.
“So the girl’s used it. I can’t call her patience particularly praise worthy.”
A pack of wolves with bloodshot eyes ran along a highway leading toward White Peak, illuminated by faint red tinges of sunlight. It was a massive group, seemingly multiple smaller packs that had merged together into one. The culprit causing the wolves to stir must have been a few selge behind. The area was littered with the corpses of wolves, bears, and wild boars.
“There are fewer creatures around here than I’d heard.”
A man muttered to himself, gazing down at the body of a beast growing cold at his feet.
He was a strange looking man, his sturdy body wrapped in a red coat and his black hair cut in a unique style. Even more noteworthy however, was his skin. His face, neck, and both sides of his hands– in fact, almost all of his skin that wasn’t covered by his clothes or his hair– were imprinted with mysterious tattoos, almost like incantations. Perhaps if he were to cut his hair or take off his clothes, even more would be revealed. The only part of his body to visibly lack these tattoos, his ears, almost seemed strange in comparison to the rest.
“White Peak… Tch, no matter…”
After a brief glance at the white mountainscape, he looked back to the corpse at his feet with a mocking grin.
“If you’re unprepared for the hunt, you won’t make it through winter. Am I wrong?” The man looked back toward White Peak, filled with emotion. It wasn’t just a single glance this time. For a time he stood there, fixated on the mountain enshrined in snow, a thin smile across his face. “I see. So it’s come to this…”
As insects cried around him the man abruptly stabbed a wolf that had begun to stir. He stepped over its body and continued his walk ahead, the wolf’s body skewered by a stone spear.
“Maybe I can expect a little something from all of this…”
The tattoos across his body glowed a faint red. His peaceful smile tried to mask his ferocity, yet his hatred and burning thirst for blood could not be contained.
Chapter 3 – The Hunter and the Wanderer
“You’re a… Matagi. Right?”
As Shunran made contact with this foreign girl, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something major was about to happen at White Peak, the mountain he called home. For now however, he was merely confused. This girl had traveled from so far away, yet somehow knew right away that he was a Matagi, a member of a clan that had fallen into obscurity. It couldn’t have been his clothes that gave him away, as they weren’t too different from those worn by other hunters in the region, those who used methods far different from those of the Matagi. It also couldn’t have been his physical features, as Shunran himself held doubts that he really looked like a typical Matagi.
The girl tilted her head to the side, as if awaiting an answer. Regardless of who she was, it was undeniable that the two of them had ended up in a rather peculiar set of circumstances. Shunran had no need to make things any more vague than they already were. After a moment of consideration, he silently nodded in affirmation.
“So you really are one…”
She seemed to have no problem believing him. Up until now her expression had remained mostly unchanged despite the dire situation that had been at hand, but, pleased with his answer, she gave a slight smile.
“You seem pretty knowledgeable.”
“I met one a long time ago. A traveling Matagi, that is.”
Shunran couldn’t help but find that odd. If it’d been in the clan’s prime things would’ve been different, but nowadays most Matagi had settled down– a Matagi traveling far from the village was a pretty rare occurrence. Furthermore, had such a trip happened, Shunran would’ve known about it, given the village’s small size. Maybe it had been some former Matagi that had abandoned the tribe for commercial work as a jaeger or private hunter? Regardless, now wasn’t the time to be thinking about that.
“For the time being I don’t sense any more wolves around us. Seems like we’ve managed to scatter them, at least for a while. That said…”
Thinking over the situation, the wolves weren’t their only problem and now was no time to settle down. Before Shunran could tell the girl that he was going back to his village, she was already on her feet.
“Hey, wait just a minute.”
“I appreciate the help, but since I used that earlier I really need to get going. He may have seen it, and now if they’re starting to convene…”
She kept her hand wrapped around the tube hanging from her neck as she walked away. It was a large cylinder, around the size of a flute, with a mysterious pattern engraved into it. Shunran remembered the fog that had cut off the wolves’ pursuit.
“It’s hard to believe, but did that little thing really produce all that fog earlier?”
“Don’t worry about that. More importantly, will you come with me? I’m sure help from a Matagi would be a real lifesaver.”
Shunran realized he’d been caught up in the conversation and had already started walking along with her on instinct. Perhaps this was a bad habit of his.
“That depends on the circumstances.”
He let out a sigh as he gave his response, continuing to walk alongside the girl. Though she put up a calm and collected front, Shunran couldn’t pretend not to notice that she was at her wits’ end. If something were about to happen on this mountain, he couldn’t just overlook that either.
“Alright… how far do you think we’ll need to go?”
The girl scratched her head in thought, looking down at her tube. Having already seen the girl’s gambit from earlier, the tube’s ability to produce a thick fog, Shunran couldn’t help but find the item even more mysterious.
“Fine, you don’t have to tell me that for now, but will you at least tell me who you are? I’m Shunran. Last name Aysen. Just as you guessed, I’m a Matagi. At least, I’m one for now anyways…”
Instead of looking at the girl as he spoke, Shunran instead looked at the rifle clasped firmly in his hand.
“…Sayu. My name’s Sayu.” The girl, Sayu, paused for a second before looking straight at Shunran, who finally looked at her in kind. She didn’t hesitate to follow up after giving her name. “I’m a Wanderer of the Woods. There’s your answer.”
“A Wanderer of the Woods… Is that the name of some clan? I’ve never heard the term before, but it sounds foreign.”
In response to his inquiry, Sayu left him confused by using a word he’d never heard before. Between that word and her appearance however, Shunran was able to confirm that she was definitely a foreigner.
“Not quite. It’s more that I always feel I’m just moving along mountains and rivers. If I had to say where I live, I’d probably say that I just live along the path I travel.”
“So, you’re like a nomad? Do you travel all by yourself?”
“Well, for now we’ve all had to spread out. I was supposed to meet someone on this mountain, but… I’m pretty worried that I haven’t found him yet. He’s pretty overprotective and can be quick to get into fights.”
Sayu finished her explanation, then stopped walking and quietly looked back toward Shunran. By now, Shunran had followed her quite the distance without noticing. He felt as if she was warning him with her expression, and that if he wanted to know more about what was going on he’d have to prepare for the worst. It wasn’t going to be pleasant.
He stopped himself. Perhaps another bad habit of his. What could he possibly do? He, who still wasn’t even sure if he wanted to continue his life as a Matagi? He, who would still continue to display such hesitation in a crisis such as this? Sayu should have been in a hurry, but she waited patiently as Shunran continued to falter. In the time the two passed silently, they could hear a change in the wind. A blizzard, and a dangerous one at that, was fast approaching.
Yet he didn’t have time to finish that sentence. Shunran and Sayu both felt the signs of the storm, as well as the presence of a fast approaching monster. Moments later, a harsh roar reverberated around them.
Shunran knew this presence, there was no way he could ever forget it. The roar’s ferocity was unmistakable. In that instance, the winds brought to Shunran an awareness that he hadn’t known for years; an awareness that a certain thing was still out there.
Sayu, on the other hand, was focused on the tube around her neck, which had begun pulsating light in response to the monster’s howl.
“It’s resonating! This really is the mountain I’ve been looking for!”
Without the need to exchange additional words, the two understood that their goals were aligned. After exchanging a single look, they began chasing that invisible storm up the mountain. The closer they got, the brighter the tube began to glow.
“I thought it was strange that her tube was able to produce that fog before, but now it’s resonating with that monster? Just what exactly is this thing?”
How could the mysterious tube Sayu possessed, something brought in by an outsider, be related to Shunran? Could this be destiny?
“To think it’d be possible to meet again like this. Thank the Goddess for her guidance.”
The two continued sprinting for a while before it finally came into view. The beast’s strength of spirit was incredible, overwhelming them from tens of arges away. Before them stood the King of the Mountain, a boulder as his throne, and the summit of White Peak as his backdrop. A massive brown bear clad in lightning, this was the beast they’d sought. He was even larger than the typical ursine monster, his pale fur continuously shedding sparks in a fierce display of power. The beast shined radiantly, enraptured in a halo of light.
“So it really is you! It’s been five long years you damned bastard! Let’s do this, Raijuu!”
There he was in all his glory. The fated rival that had turned the young Shunran Aysen’s life on its head.
Chapter 4 – Double Threat
Fate is a mistress that can be strange, cruel, and incorrigible.
Waiting just ahead of the foreign girl that led him here stood the very symbol of pain and vexing punishment. Faced with that monstrosity after such a long time apart, the urges the young man had kept locked up inside him were about to erupt.
Raijuu — There was not a single soul living on White Peak who did not know his name.
Since its appearance decades ago, it had used its ability to manipulate lightning to slaughter countless people and animals, throwing the balance of power in the mountains into utter chaos. Many Matagi had challenged the beast, but most had been driven back, and none had yet succeeded in locating his den. He had been dubbed the False King of the Mountain. He was destruction and avarice given flesh, the embodiment of calamity for all living creatures on White Peak.
This walking calamity now stood before Shunran, instilling in him an excitement he hadn’t felt in ages. That eagerness was his greatest self-contradiction. Before he realized it, he’d raised his surube, holding it shakily. He craved the continuation of their old battle.
Sayu was perplexed by her tube, which had begun to shine even brighter. Her expression, so calm just moments ago, suddenly seemed confused. It was the first time her expression had changed so dramatically.
“Wait, you came all this way and hadn’t heard of him?”
“No… I’d heard that there was a fragment here but… I didn’t think it would have taken the form of a monster.”
“‘Fragment’? Does that have something to do with that tube of yours?”
The tube had begun glowing as if to announce Raijuu’s arrival, and the closer it came to the beast the stronger the light grew. There was definitely a connection between the two. However, if Raijuu was a “fragment”, then perhaps it meant that their nature was that of one object that had been split in two. Yet it was hard to imagine such a relationship could truly exist between a large bear monster and a tiny, seemingly man-made item.
“Just what is that tube?!”
Raijuu howled once more. Knowing such a powerful being took priority over his questions, Shunran his weapon on the beast.
“Come on! You want to settle this here too, don’t you?!”
Raijuu leapt from his boulder, his entire body sparking as he ran.
“No, wait, that monster’s not challenging us, he’s–”
In the next moment, a spear of rock the length of a full grown man came flying onto the scene with an unpleasant screech, as if it were cutting through the wind. It drew a straight arc in the air, aimed straight for Raijuu. Raijuu tried to jump to the side, but the powerful spear managed to tear off a chunk of flesh regardless, leaving the beast’s pale fur with a blackish-red stain. He stopped his advance and began his retreat, glaring at something far off, and with a dazzling flash of light, he quickly disappeared into the mountain’s depths.
“Wait, damn it! I’ve finally found you after all this time!”
Shunran understood that Raijuu was merely making a strategic retreat in order to survive, but that was all the more reason for him to find it outrageous that an external threat had caused the beast to run from him after all these years.
“Shunran, watch out!”
Another massive stone spear flew just in front of Shunran’s face, who had laid down to try and hide. It impaled itself in a tree right beside him. The same force that had just driven away Raijuu had begun to relentlessly assault the pair.
“What’s with these spears? They don’t seem to be arts…”
“It’s him… He’s finally here.”
“You know the person attacking us?”
The two hid themselves behind a boulder.
Since Raijuu had fled, the light from Sayu’s tightly gripped tube had begun weakening. Shunran pointed his binoculars in the direction the stone had come flying from, trying to assess the threat.
“He came here to steal the artifacts that we Wanderers of the Woods possess. He’s a berserker, a man of endless destruction and slaughter.”
As she spoke, Shunran saw a strange man in the view of his binoculars. He was large, with a pattern engraved all over his body save for his ears, with a rather unique haircut. His expression was one of complete joy, obfuscating his inner bloodlust.
“…That face he’s making is just a facade. He’s fully intent on killing us both. I still don’t know who he is exactly, so that’s why we just call him a berserker.”
The large man in the lens responded to Shunran with a sharp gaze, far more intense than any face Shunran could have made himself. His murderous intent could be felt clearly, even through the binoculars. Suddenly, he disappeared from sight.
“The demon’s here…” When Shunran lowered his binoculars, he saw the demon standing just a few arge in front of him. “…and the bear got away. Fine then, we can deal with you first.”
It only took a moment for the boulder to shatter to pieces, but the demon smiled when he found no blood in its wreckage. His expression remained unchanged as he heard the echo of gunfire.
“That’s some interesting help you’ve found, you mountain apes.” He remained calm under fire, his overflowing greed unshaken. Before the bullet could reach him, it was blocked by a wall of stone.
“I’m tired of your damn magic tricks! Who the hell are you?! What are you doing on our mountain?!”
The demon shattered the rock they were hiding behind. Shunran called out to him as he deftly moved to a patch of tall grass and took his aim. Though dismayed by his first volley being blocked, he confidently honed his senses, ensuring the shaking of his body didn’t affect his shot’s trajectory. You must never show your back to a fierce opponent– that was one of the Matagi tribe’s most ironclad rules.
“I’m a Geomancer. That’s all you need to know about me. That said, I really don’t appreciate being called a demon.”
“You’re a ‘Geomancer’? So what? What’s that have to do with you attacking Sayu? Why are you after Raijuu?”
As he asked this, Shunran loaded another bullet into his chamber and moved sideways to a more favorable position.
“Is it not already obvious? I’ve come here to destroy those mountain apes as an offering. It was for that purpose alone that I attained this power.”
Shunran felt instinctively that the man’s words were at least partially a lie. He recalled the rapturous expression he had when attacking Raijuu. He had made a sacrifice in order to gain this power… Shunran wasn’t certain of the intent behind his lies. In truth, the real reason may have been a mere desire for deception and an evil appetite.
“I get it, that’s the real reason… Fine then, I hope you’re ready for this!”
Shunran fired his hunting rifle, then immediately leapt from the grass and toward the demon head on. In response, the demon slammed his fist into the ground, forming a wall to stop the bullet once more. Yet with that wall, he blocked his own field of view.
“There’s our chance!”
Shunran hid behind the wall the demon made, pressing his body hard against it. Clasped in his hand was a special blade handed down in the Matagi clan, a nagasa.
“Heh, how naive!”
The moment Shunran drew his blade, he felt a dull pain throughout his body and began to lose consciousness. It was only when he had been flung to the ground a few arge away that he realized a stone gauntlet had formed around the demon’s left hand.
“Heh, you actually got me. It’s been so long since I’ve received so much as a scratch.” The wall crumbled, and in its wake the demon now stood with a twisted grin. He tore the sword, warm with dripping blood, from his side. “Cunning. Plus you’ve got guts. I’ll give you that much. You’ve made for a good warmup before the bear, at least.”
“Yeah, we Matagi are known for our cunning. Sometimes I even fool myself!”
Arrows began to rain down over the demon before he could close the gap to Shunran. He managed to stop them with another slab of stone, but by the time he looked back to Shunran he was already gone.
“Damn, he blocked it. Hey Sayu, I really owe you one.”
“Same to you. Thanks to all this, I think I’ve managed to gather some clues. Being able to confirm that his stone wall’s defenses aren’t perfect is enough for me.”
After firing the arrows at the demon, Sayu had quickly grabbed Shunran and hid him with her in the bushes. She was back to her usual composed self. Needless to say, Shunran was doing fine, having been saved in the knick of time.
“Look over there! That’s my family, reliable as ever. Looks like they saw what just happened.” She pointed toward the towering cliff across from the demon.
There, Sayu’s so-called reliable family stood.
Chapter 5 – Sayu’s Battle
Sayu was pointing to a towering cliff behind the demon. Atop it, a single man’s shadow.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Sayu! Not to worry, your trustworthy big brother’s here to save the day!”
“There’s the guy that never fails to piss me off!”
The man stomped on the cliff as he drew the demon’s attention with a high-pitched call. Behind him, the sun’s light was consumed by the shadows of the cliff. He was a young man a bit taller than Shunran, clad in a coat of animal fur. Between the fur hood covering it and the darkening sky, it was impossible to make out his face. What was clear, however, was his physical abilities, having been able to jump over the demon’s head.
“As persistent as ever, but you’re still just another impudent little monkey!”
The demon created a small round shield of stone, blocking the drop kick that was about to land a direct hit on him. However, using the shield as a foothold, the young man jumped into the air once more.
“Your back’s wide open, tattooed freak!”
The young man landed right behind the demon and began pummelling his back, as sturdy and towering as a stone wall, with an endless flurry of fists. It was a storm of blows so furious that it seemed as if his fists were beginning to split apart.
“Not bad, but not good enough!”
The demon staggered a bit from the attack, but quickly managed to kick the ground to create a rock wall behind him. The young man stopped his barrage and quickly dodged backwards, narrowly avoiding the attack.
“Dao! Did you know we’d be here?”
“Nope, just a lucky coincidence. I’d actually just found what I was looking for though. Hyah!” The young man, apparently named Dao, deftly avoided the demon’s counterattack while maintaining his composure. “That said, I’m glad I came! I managed to see some pretty nice stuff during your fight just now.”
Shunran had a good guess as to what Dao was referring to. It was probably the moment he’d gotten the demon to make a rock shield, then used it as a blind spot to attack, when he managed to land a blow using his nagasa. It was then that Sayu had also realized that the demon’s defenses weren’t perfect. It also meant…
“So it’s not just that this guy’s rock walls create a blind spot. It’s also that he can’t just activate them whenever he wants!”
“Exactly! And that ‘s how we can win this!”
Sayu quickly stood up and blew a finger whistle at Dao, then gave him some sort of short signal with her hand. He nodded under his hood, then immediately unleashed sporadic attacks to distract the demon.
“It’s almost like you two are reading each other’s minds. He seems pretty reliable.”
“My brother and I’ve been through a lot together. Now come on Shunran, let’s go.”
Sayu led Shunran off to a hill overlooking a steep slope covered in snow. Atop the slope was a large slab of ice, though it hardly seemed stable. It was probably formed from snow brought down by an avalanche that had absorbed a lot of water… and it seemed that Dao was trying to guide the demon toward that slope.
“Ah, so that’s what he’s planning. That said…”
“It’s not going to be so easy to pull off, yeah?”
Sayu responded to Shunran’s concern with a small but proud smile, lifting up her tube and showing it to him.
“That tube again…”
“There’s no point in hiding it anymore. I’ll go work on the preparations. On my signal, I want you to shoot that.”
“Hm… Alright, I’ll trust your plan.”
Looking through his binoculars at what Sayu was pointing toward, Shunran couldn’t help but think her methods were unorthodox, although he attached his scope to his rifle regardless. Meanwhile, Dao was gradually guiding the demon toward the bottom of the slope, trading blows all the while.
“Sure would be nice if you’d make this a bit easier on me. The one thing I respect about you damn apes is how you just don’t know when to quit.” The demon proudly fought with his stone gauntlets, clearly oblivious to the intent behind his opponent’s slow retreat.
“That’s great, but big bro’s getting tired of playing around. Let’s end this! Hyah!”
In response the demon, starting to show signs of frustration, clad his arm in a heavy stone gauntlet. Using this, he delivered a deadly blow that would be difficult to follow up. A direct hit from it would easily be far beyond what the human body could endure, yet when his strike landed the demon’s face was twisted in disappointment. Dao was gone, and instead of a corpse all that hung from the demon’s fist was a fur cloak.
“Heh, even I can pull off some little evasive tricks like that! Impressed, buzzcut?”
He’d flung off his cloak, and now seemed to dance through the air with a taunting grin on his now exposed face. He had a dark blue crew cut, and a long face that seemed handsome yet feral. His body’s reckless movements seemed somehow captivating.
“Of course, you mountain apes have just enough wit about you to make this fun! Fine then, let’s play around as you want until we get to the slaughter!”
The demon’s next blow went straight to the ground, flinging fragments of stone into the air which he then sent ruthlessly flying towards Dao. Dao took the hit, but kept the damage down by retreating further, giving him more space from his opponent. At the same time, a sign came that Dao had gotten the demon onto the desired path. The demon however was too wrapped up in the fight and Dao’s shifting fighting style to consider what the three arrows that flew overhead were supposed to mean.
“I’m all set!”
Shunran had his rifle’s sights set on a small icicle-filled block of ice which was supporting the larger ice slab. His gun spit flames into its most vulnerable side, a perfectly placed shot through its weak point that caused it to collapse under the mass of the larger slab it had been supporting. The slab, unable to support its own weight, began rolling down the slope while collapsing in on itself. Some of the snow covering the slope was caught up in the collapse and began flowing down as well. Normally this sort of collapse would be of no concern for the demon, but right now he had essentially transformed into another bloodcrazed mountain beast.
Light and fog had begun to appear at a few points across the slope, the source seemingly being where the three arrows Sayu fired earlier had landed.
“Come on, slip already!”
As the light and fog coming off of the arrows faded, the earth itself began to tremble as if a dragon below it had awoken. What had actually awoken however was one of the greatest threats to a mountaineer; an avalanche. While before it had just been a small scale snowslide, now all the snow covering the slope began tumbling down at once.
“Heh, a clever play! But–”
Though the demon realized the extent of the avalanche, it was already too late. His legs were trapped in the torrent of snow. As the torrent grew deeper and deeper, it became impossible for even the demon to make any stone walls of worth. The cold attack of nature was relentless, swallowing the demon whole. Finally his creepy tattooed figure was completely encased in silver, and the demon was sealed off from the outside world.
“Did we do it?”
“Honestly, I doubt this’ll kill him. At least we’ve managed to trap him for a while…”
“But there’s still always the chance he’ll come back… I’m impressed though, just how exactly did you pull that off?”
Though Shunran had played a hand in creating the snowy natural disaster before him, he still couldn’t believe that such a large-scale collapse had been triggered by his shot alone. It was because he knew this mountain so well that he could tell the link between cause and effect didn’t line up.
“I created the best possible conditions for the snow to slip by adjusting the amount of moisture.”
Sayu spoke as she returned the tube from a depression in her specially made crossbow to her neck. The three arrows she’d shot into the snow must have been given some sort of special power by the tube before being fired. Apparently, even after being shot, they maintained that power despite having no physical link.
“So it’s really all thanks to that tube… I can see why that guy wants it so bad. Even so, adjusting that much moisture on the mountain’s surface? That’s just absurd.”
Shunran grew increasingly certain that he couldn’t just overlook what was happening here. Maybe if there was some paranormal cause behind this series of events, investigating it would lead him to learn more about Raijuu’s origins.
“Great job Sayu, brilliant as always! You unhurt?” The young man Sayu had referred to as Dao came rushing toward the pair. Now that Shunran could finally see him more clearly he noticed that, while his hair color was much different, he had a slight tan and was dressed in similar clothing to Sayu. Also noteworthy was his painted skin and the fact that he was holding a leaf in his mouth.
“I’m fine. I was actually more worried about you, Dao.”
“Ah, sorry about that. I was off gathering info, so I made a quick stop at a nearby village. At least we’ve managed to deal with the wolves and the demon for now, so all’s well that ends well. Anywho…” The young man grabbed Sayu by the shoulders, looking her over and making sure she wasn’t hurt before turning his gaze toward Shunran.
“You from around here? You look kinda like a hunter. Either way, I wanna thank you for helping out Sayu.”
“I’m the one who should be thanking you. I’m Shunran. Dao, right? Are you Sayu’s older brother?”
“That’s right. Don’t think I’ve got anything to hide from you. I’m Dao the Whirlwind. As for Sayu, well, I’m technically her cousin, but we’re more like siblings. Hope we can get along, Shunran!”
“Thanks, the same to you. I don’t think I’ve ever heard your nickname before though.”
Dao accepted Shunran’s outstretched hand, though in the brief moment of shaking hands he pushed Sayu with his other hand as if trying to get her away from Shunran. “Alright, there’s a ton I want to ask you, but why don’t we get going for now? Things’ll only get more dangerous when night falls.”
Shunran looked up to the darky sky above, watching as it became filled with snow clouds. They seemed to be a sign that the mountain’s spirits were growing restless.
Chapter 6 – A Talk With the Wanderers of the Woods
Northeastern Zemuria’s White Peak, with its unique culture and ecosystem, was a place of hardship even for its natives. At the same time, it was filled with legends that had been left to rest, accepted as unsolvable mysteries. Some naively accept them as true, while others ridicule them as mere children’s stories. Some even attribute the disappearance of Giun Orgis, strongest among the Matagi, to these mysteries. Yet on this very day, a certain young man was witnessing one of those mysteries, as well as the threat it posed, first hand. Furthermore, he was beginning to learn how it was tied to his own destiny, thanks to the outsiders he had encountered.
“So the item at the center of all this is called the Tube of Condensed Sky, hm? An artifact… I’ve heard rumors about them, but that’s about it.”
As the sun finally set, the fierce blizzards of White Peak seemed as if they were trying to block out the outside world. In a small cave at the mountain’s center, a group of three people sat huddled around a bonfire while waiting out the storm. Shunran, Sayu, and Dao were all safely there, with Dao, who’d lost his fur cloak, prodding at the kindling flames.
The pair revealed to Shunran the cylinder’s true name, the Tube of Condensed Sky. According to them it was an artifact capable of freely manipulating the water condensation in the atmosphere, so much so that it could even control the local weather. If true, that would have explained its ability to create fog and mitigate the blizzard’s strength.
“So that’s why you were able to just cause an avalanche like it was nothing?”
“Yeah, I used the arrows as relays to control the moisture on the ground. Since you can use it together with your weapons, it’s pretty useful once you get the hang of it.”
“This is all so absurd…”
Shunran’s disbelief wasn’t limited to the artifact’s power, however. In addition to this, there was also a group hunting down artifact wielding wanderers, and this young girl with wisdom beyond her years. It was all so unlike anything he’d ever seen in White Peak.
Just what sort of things had his childhood friends who’d left the village encountered? Realizing his own ignorance of the outside world, Shunran was overflowing with curiosity.
“Hahah! Isn’t my little sister just the greatest? Every single time we’re in a pinch she comes up with some crazy new way to use that thing!”
“Please stop saying stuff like that…” Sayu pushed Dao away as he proudly moved in an attempt to give her a hug.
Shunran imagined that even this sort of relationship, and the repetitive interactions that came with it, must have been cultivated through the experience of traveling a world far different from his own. Thinking this, he once again felt how miniscule his own existence was compared to the vastness of the mountains. Nonetheless, it was his duty as a Matagi to face the threats of the outside world, and while a part of Shunran loathed the weight of such a duty, something deep within him was beginning to spark.
“We’ve been chatting for a while now. You two are planning to go after Raijuu, right? You called him a ‘fragment’, afterall.”
Shunran tried to get the conversation moving again in order to bury his own internal conflict, to find a goal to focus on. Just how should he act in the face of the new reality before him?
He needed an answer to that question.
“Yeah, we need to unify them again so that we can enshrine them. Not to mention, uniting the two is the key to beating that demon once and for all.”
As for the answer to why they referred to Raijuu and the tube as “fragments”, Shunran needed to look to the beast’s origin. Apparently, at one point the artifact had been brought to White Peak and, against all expectations, had fused with a local monster, a bond that persisted to this day.
Shunran felt like he was losing his sense of reality. Just when he thought he’d finally have his rematch with his fated rival, a stranger from the outside had revealed that rival’s true identity. It was as if the things he’d left in the past were now taking form, like they were trying to grab onto him before he could forget them.
“As for the demon…”
The demon on the other hand seemed as if he were trying to destroy Shunran’s destiny and bring his dreams to an end. A man filled with murderous intent, driven only by bloodlust. He couldn’t be allowed to get his way.
Shunran picked up his hunting rifle and quietly slipped away from the bonfire. Outside, only the swirling white blizzard and the black void of night could be seen.
“Hey man, what are you planning on doing?”
Dao grabbed Shunran by the shoulder. Shunran realized that his and Sayu’s expressions were far different than what he would have expected.
“I can’t let that guy be the one to hunt down Raijuu. It needs to be me. I’ll go get that fragment of yours. Just wait here for me.”
The pair smiled at him. Not a foolhardy one like the two were willing to go marching to their deaths, but an encouraging one, telling Shunran that they weren’t going to stop him.
“Hey man, if you want to get to Raijuu before that demon does, we’re on the same page. I’ve got faith in these legs of mine. If we hurry, there’s no way we’ll lose, right?”
“Not to mention, you’re on the side that’s got an artifact. I have one of the fragments, as well as my own knowledge. There’s no way that he’ll beat me.”
It only made sense. Shunran had no reason to monopolize his prey, so working with two people who had a common purpose was the only logical choice.
“Thanks, but… Raijuu’s mine.”
He had no good reason to refuse the help of others to settle his fight with Raijuu. In fact, the Matagi were traditionally known for hunting as a group. For some reason however, Shunran was impatient, ready to jump out on his own. The reaction of his companions, which should have been obvious, instead bewildered him.
“Why do you want to head out on your own so badly?”
“How can you two be so confident?” Shunran answered their question with a question.
Perhaps he was looking for some guidance, some answer as to how to handle the challenge he so detested.
“I guess I’ve never explained it before, but… all our work hasn’t been for nothing. At least, that’s what I believe. I’m not just working towards the clan’s goals. I have things I want for myself. That’s how.” Sayu showed no sign of hesitation in her response. The only challenges she seemed to be facing were in the present.
Shunran didn’t know what the goals she had in mind were, yet from her answer he could tell that what she was looking for wasn’t the sort of thing you could see.
Or perhaps, if you could see it, it would cease to be?
That much was certain.
“Hey now, don’t overthink it too much. Sayu’s special even among our group. Hell, even I don’t know what her goals are. That doesn’t matter though– we’re your friends now right? So let’s get going.”
Dao, who’d been preparing to head back out, patted Shunran on the shoulder and stepped out into the snowstorm.
“Fine… You’re right. For now…”
Shunran had yet to notice that, for as much as he had tried to deceive himself, a new desire was beginning to form within him.
Chapter 7 – A Single Journey. A Single Challenge.
The moon was hidden by snow clouds, which made it difficult to see anything, even the back of a person walking before you. The violent winds were cold enough to sneak into the crevices of even the most reliable winter gear, chilling anyone with its shards of frost. The heavy snow reached up to the knees, draining one’s stamina as if sapping away their soul. The February storms of White Peak’s summit rejected all human life, like a barrier protecting an inner sanctuary.
In recent years it had become even more intense, thought by some Matagi to be a sign of the mountain spirits’ wrath against men that had eaten offerings for the Goddess. It was easy to think that such ideas were mere superstition until one had been wrapped in the ferocious winds that sounded like furious shouting. The sound of the blizzard drowned out the pleas of any who begged for salvation.
Yet, in the middle of White Peak’s most vicious of storms, a single lamp light shone.
“Goddess be damned it’s cold! Argh, I wish I hadn’t lost my fur…. Gahhh…. Achoo!”
“Want to use my coat, Dao?”
“Are you stupid, Sayu? I can’t just let you freeze! I’ve got a dry towel to rub myself with, I’ll be fine!”
The three, led by Shunran who had the only lamp, were not suitably dressed for their environment. Shunran had lent Sayu his coat, leaving him with just a sweater. And if Sayu just having a coat wasn’t bad enough, Dao was left with only a hempen shirt.
“There’s a Matagi supply hut just a short way from here, we can make it!”
Against all odds, the three of them had persisted this long, traveling at a decent pace on foot. Though Sayu and Dao had no real protection against the cold, their experience as Wanderers allowed them to move only slightly slower than they would on normal ground, even in spite of the poor footholds. Thanks to their skill, the three were able to arrive before their body heat had been completely drained, and it was around midnight when the group arrived at the Matagi supply hut. It was a supply building that could be used as a base of operations for exploring the upper layers of the mountain.
“We made it, somehow. It looks like you two need a rest. Sorry, this isn’t exactly the most comfortable place.”
It was an old wooden shed, with a door that creaked so badly as it opened that you could feel the vibrations through your gloves. However, the fact that it was still standing strong in a storm such as this meant that it was still being regularly maintained, even if it seemed decrepit and worn out.
Given the direction that Raijuu went when fleeing the demon, it seemed likely that it was now hiding near the summit. If so, that would explain why Raijuu had never been found around normal brown bear habitats, as well as why many signs of damage from lightning had been found near the mountaintop.
Considering this, the group had decided to stop here to replenish their supplies and make preparations before heading for the summit, hoping to arrive by dawn.
“There’s a lot more stuff here than I’d expected. Let’s take as much as we can.”
“Oh, this is interesting. This little dagger’s kinda built like a spear, with a stick as the handle.”
“Yeah, that’s a fukuro nagasa. It’s a smaller version of the sword I keep on me.”
Despite Shunran telling her she should get some rest while he gathered equipment, Sayu was too interested in all of the hunting gear and contraptions around the supply hut. Her innocent curiosity seemed well in line with her earlier inquisitiveness and reasoning skills.
“Yo! A blanket! A fur one too! Where’ve you been hiding all this time, you bastard!” On the other hand, Dao was making himself at home faster than Shunran, already covering his eyes with a fur blanket and curling up in the back of the shed.
“Oh, I see there’s a hearth over there. I’ll light a fire, you just focus on making preparations.”
“Ah, thanks. I’m surprised you can recognize a Matagi hearth by sight though. Come to think of it, you seem to know a lot about us.”
“Well, there’s stuff about Matagi hearths written in this book here. Like I said, the traveler that gave it to me also seemed to be a Matagi, so this stuff is in my wheelhouse.”
Sayu pulled out a book from her bag, the precious item that Shunran had protected when the pair first met. Though the binding was old, as Shunran flipped through it, he got the impression that the book was in good condition in spite of years of travel.
“‘Indigenous Cultural Groups and Their Spirits’. Interesting… Skimming through it, the information seems somewhat dated. Oh, looks like it was published more than two decades ago.”
Though the information was old, the text also made it clear that things hadn’t changed much as the years had passed. It was filled with descriptions of various cultural and ethnic groups that Shunran had never heard of before, its descriptions personal and moving while remaining objective and logical. Among the groups described was Sayu’s tribe, the Wanderers of the Woods.
“Looks like there’s a whole section on you guys, though the description’s pretty… light.”
Just why were the Wanderers stewarding such rare artifacts?
Shunran had gotten the gist of their objective while traveling with them, learning that they’d apparently made an agreement with the Septian Church to manage and deliver artifacts in regions outside of the church’s jurisdiction. This task had been passed down for generations and, in exchange for carrying it out and safely transporting the artifacts to their shrine, the group was allowed to benefit from their powers.
The book barely hinted at such an arrangement, however. Instead it talked about their mundane lives, their jobs as woodworkers and role facilitating trade, their relationships with other ethnic groups, and their cultural ornamentation.
“This barely mentions any of the interesting stuff about you Wanderers. Why’s it so special to you?”
“Well, this book and the person who gave it to me made me who I am today. It’s like a part of me.”
“The book is?”
A young man searching for a sense of purpose.
A young girl who believes in what Shunran can’t yet see.
If this book was her origin, then what was Shunran’s? He closed his eyes and thought for a bit, but turned up nothing.
“Don’t worry too much about it.”
Shunran must have been reflecting for longer than he’d thought. By the time Dao’s voice snapped him back to reality, Sayu had walked away and was now crouching by the hearth.
“Sayu’s kinda a rare sight among the Wanderers, being a reader and all, but that’s not all she can do. She’s great at taking info from all different sources and putting stuff together from there. Not to say her talent’s anything too crazy.” Dao stood up and put his hand on Shunran’s shoulder. “Still, she’s blown my mind more than a couple times, so I feel you. For now, just keep doing what you’ve thought is right up to now. Might surprise you how much you’ll learn.”
“Thanks Dao… I guess… Nevermind, you’re right. For now I’ll just keep moving forward.”
Shunran still didn’t know what his destination was or what challenge he had to face. For now all he knew was that, even if that challenge had changed, these two could help him out. That was enough of a guidepost to help him along his path for now.
“So in the end, what I’m actually doing isn’t changing at all. Kind of ironic.”
As soon as their voices fell silent, the supply hut was filled with the sound of the roaring blizzard outside. Yet, as he listened to the crackling of the hearth, Shunran began to feel that breaking through this storm wasn’t such an insurmountable task.
Chapter 8 – From Memory’s End
“Shunran, there’s something you need to keep in mind when you face off against Raijuu. As Matagi, it is our duty to pay respect to the creatures of the mountain as we protect it. That’s why we continue to uphold our traditions. Do you understand what I mean by that?”
That day, a young Shunran stood around, annoyed by his father’s barrage of questions. Even the legendary former sukari, Giun Orgis, had failed in hunting Raijuu.
“This mountain’s blessings are the blessings of the Goddess. We protect the mountain in order to show our gratitude, right? Our ancestors would…”
The young boy answered the same way he had dozens of times before, wondering why he was being asked the same question again and again. Yet the wisdom of that long gone sukari, now passed down by Shunran’s father, was not meaningless.
“Exactly right, Shunran. That’s what we all believe, and we’re not mistaken. However, I think there’s also something a bit more important to consider. I want you to think about it when the time comes for you to challenge Raijuu.”
“What’s that? Have you just been making stuff up until now?”
“Heheh, sorry about that, but not quite. I thought I’d tell you everything when you became an adult, but before I knew it you were ready to challenge Raijuu with me. Not to mention, this hunt just feels like the right time to let it all out.”
The two continued walking along the mountain trail as they talked. They were about halfway up White Peak, not too far from a brown bear habitat. Given that they were hunting for Raijuu, whose den still hadn’t been found, their best bet was to go straight to where he was most likely to be seen and search for tracks.
“Are you ready, Shunran? We make our living by taking the lives of beasts. We live just as the animals do. They fight back to stay alive, and sometimes they hunt us in kind. Raijuu, though we consider him a threat to the mountain, is no different. Are you following?”
“To put it simply, so long as we live on this mountain, you could start to think that our position is no different from the beasts, right? Yet as humans, we aren’t just the same as animals. Therefore, we only have one choice; to face life head on. After 20 years of hunting with Giun, I’ve become certain of that truth.”
“To face life head on?”
Not to pay respects. Not to humbly accept. To face it. Frankly, it was a notion far too abstract and broad in its meaning for the young Shunran to fully grasp it.
“What does that even mean?”
The boy always liked to walk a straight path with a purpose clear in sight. At the same time, doing so wasn’t always so simple for him. He was always scared of the possibility that he might falter.
“There’s no one meaning to it. What’s important is the path you take to find the answer. That’s how you can make sure your life isn’t meaningless.”
“Making sure life isn’t meaningless…”
“That’s what I said. Face life head on and take what it throws at you. That strife will become a guidepost that only you can see.”
The boy reflected on all of his life’s difficulties. At the same time, he remembered all of those who’d chosen to take different paths. How did they view this challenge? Had they left as a way to run away from their obligations? Or was it a choice to search for a new value?
He thought that, at a minimum, those that had chosen to become poachers or wealthy sport hunters didn’t have what it takes to see it.
“I still don’t get it…”
“Realizing that’s a good start. It’s always the overconfident that lose sight of what’s important.”
Though his expression was usually harsh, his father gave him a tender smile, gently embracing his conflicted son.
“So then, what does all of that have to do with hunting Raijuu?”
“Well, I don’t think I have to explain how dangerous it’s going to be for us to fight him.”
The sound of footsteps on snow came to a halt. Shunran took a moment to realize why his father had stopped walking.
“Today it could be us who gets hunted. We’re even more equal than usual, or in this case we might even be at a disadvantage. We’re gambling our lives. Do you really understand what I mean by that, Shunran?”
The boy remained silent. The mere thought of answering that question terrified him.
“If you think you may be about to lose a battle for your life… That’s when it’s most important not to look away from reality. I thought this might be my last chance to tell you all of this.”
Up until then the boy had been chasing after some innocent dream. He would hunt Raijuu with his father, be the mountain’s savior, and surpass Giun. He would prove his choice not to follow in the footsteps of his peers had meaning. He had been training tirelessly for that goal. Yet now of all times, his father presented him with a new challenge.
Was it to offer Shunran a new goal? Or was there some other purpose behind it?
Regardless, the boy lost everything that day. His goal, his dream, and his father.
What Shunran Aysen took from the wreckage of that day was the thought that he should not hold onto the grudges of the past, but to instead find a way to face the present.
The summit of White Peak was dyed like honey by the morning sun. A single Matagi hunter climbed the golden mountain road with a large bag of supplies strapped to his back, accompanied by two Wanderers.
While the blizzard had subsided, the mountain’s downwinds were especially strong, and the fresh snow covering the slope shined brilliantly, to the point that it felt like an assault on the climbers’ eyes.
As they had planned, the group reached the area around the summit just before dawn. Fortunately, the Wanderers weren’t slowed down by their heavy load. Equipped with winter gear, they may have been able to conquer the mountain faster than the Matagi.
The exact location of Raijuu’s den was still unknown, though it must have been near the mountaintop. It was possible that it would be best to seek it out and launch an immediate assault, but in the meantime Sayu and Shunran weighed their options.
Shunran’s heart was racing. It wasn’t that he lacked faith or that he couldn’t trust Sayu, but that no matter what plan they chose, all roads lead to facing Raijuu.
“So it’s finally time. It’s been quite some time since these two split apart.”
“Sure has, and if this goes well you can finally kiss that stubborn bastard bye bye. You’ll be able to face your whole tribe with pride!”
“I’m looking forward to seeing this artifact in its complete form. The ‘Tube of Condensed Sky’… It’s got a really important-sounding name, but I wonder just how far its power can go.”
“Heh, maybe you can use that ear freak as a test dummy. Would be pretty ironic.”
Sayu and Dao were the exact opposite from Shunran. They were moving forward with no doubts at all. Sayu wasn’t just a naive optimist, yet the two seemed brimming with confidence, certain they’d be able to deal with whatever threat they faced. Only an absolute faith in their own values could have supported such confidence.
The Wanderers of the Woods, a group who patrolled Eastern Zemuria in accordance with their pact with the Septian Church. Though they followed their own set of rules and customs passed down through the generations, Sayu and Dao did not seem bound by them, and instead lived in harmony with their obligations.
“As for values…”
Watching them, Shunran was reminded of his hunting trips with his father. In those days, he had a goal. He was still pure. He didn’t have any complaints or hesitations about what it meant to be a Matagi.
“What have I been…”
But his goal had been shattered, leaving him with only an unmet challenge. Just enough inertia to continue on his course of habit. Shunran was still reliant on that force.
Maybe, just maybe, his meeting with these two that had given him what he lacked. That which could help him to put back together his sense of purpose, which had fallen apart. If that became the guidepost for him–
“Watch out you two!”
Dao’s scream, accompanied by a mildly painful shock, snapped Shunran back to reality.
Dao pushed Shunran and Sayu away just in time for a flash of thunder to explode right next to him.
“Gah… SHIT that hurts! What the hell!”
Dao collapsed as if being hit by an invisible wall, smoke rising from his convulsing body. Shunran knew he had messed up. He was so caught up in the past that he’d grown completely careless. It was his own lack of vigilance that had allowed Raijuu to make the first strike.
“Dao, please! Are you okay?”
“Fine enough… Thank the Goddess you’re okay, Sayu… My body’s a bit numb, but Granny Haku’s spells aren’t just for show. I should be able to stand.”
“Ah! That paint, so it’s a ward against lightning? It must have some sort of insulating resin mixed into it.”
Relieved that Dao had survived the attack and was now wiping off his chest, Shunran quickly raised his binoculars and started searching.
“I’m sorry about that, I let myself get distracted.”
“Don’t worry about it. Even if we’d noticed I probably couldn’t have dodged that one. Just focus on finding our target.”
Shunran resolved not to make the same mistake twice. If the enemy had Shunran in his sights, then this was his chance to turn things around and catch him.
“There he is!”
Shunran soon spotted his rival in the distance, upon the perfect throne for the manipulator of lightning, the king on high. Raijuu gazed down upon them from the mountain’s very peak.
Chapter 9 – The Fated Hour
“There’s what’s left of the avalanche. How terrible…”
“How’d such a localized event happen out of nowhere?”
The snowstorm had subsided, and the morning sun began flooding new light over White Peak’s fresh snow. A pair of men, one tall, one short and plump, were walking through the mountains with confused looks on their faces. They were two typical Matagi, donning straw coats and round hats, one carrying a hunting rifle and the other a spear.
Avalanches weren’t exactly uncommon, and for that reason people in the area were familiar with such calamities, causing them to grow restless if something seemed off about them. They had to make sure that some impurity threatening the mountain wasn’t the source of the natural disaster. Thus, these two hurried as soon as they could to investigate the avalanche’s remains.
The seemingly unnatural avalanche would only serve to strengthen their fears.
“You know, didn’t Shunran head over this way yesterday after talking with the sukari? I think I heard he uses this area as his hunting ground sometimes.”
The plump Matagi spoke. Though Shunran was prone to returning late they had heard that he hadn’t returned at all this time. They were beginning to grow suspicious.
“The kid’s Giun’s grand-disciple. I’m sure he can handle himself… But I am a bit worried. He seemed to be brooding about something, and I hope whatever it is doesn’t spell us trouble…”
“He probably refused the sukari’s offer again. There’s that whole deal with his dad, so I can’t really say I get how he’s feeling but… Well, it must be tough being young in this day and age.”
Even to other Matagi, Shunran’s situation wasn’t simple enough to form an opinion on. The flight of young people from the village wasn’t the only crisis the Matagi faced, as more and more people were starting to have doubts about continuing the Matagi way of life. The current situation was the result of both of those problems.
“I heard some people say they saw some crazy thunder last night. There’s no way Shunran actually set out to get his revenge on Raijuu, did he?”
The two finally arrived at the avalanche site as they talked.
“Yeah, this definitely wasn’t natural. But who could’ve caused it, and how?”
“You think Raijuu did this? He’s a monster that can control lightning, there’s no way to know just what he’s capable of.”
“Either way, I’m starting to get a bit more concerned about Shunran…”
As members of the village, the two had to consider the worst possible outcomes while investigating. Yet they were completely unaware of the threat posed by the outside world that was now beginning to awaken beneath the snow.
“Shunran… Raijuu… The name of the one who got me stuck here… The name of my prey…”
Deep beneath the ice and snow, the demon rambled on, repeating the names that had reached his tattooless ears. The tantalizing names of the crashing thunder and the annoying brat.
Those names were the best stimuli to return the demon to his normal, ferocious, self.
“Hey, do you see that? What’s that light?!”
“Th-There’s something under the snow!”
The demon’s body overflowed with a burning hatred, vibrating with an insatiable craving. The patterns covering his body radiated a sinister light once more.
“SHUNRAN… THOSE MOUNTAIN APES… RAIJUU… SHUNRAN… APES… RAIJUU!!!!”
The demon was awakened by his own passions as his impulses flung out of control. Steaming like a geyser, his strange, light-enveloped body was exposed to the outside.
“What’s that?! S-Something’s coming out of the snow!”
“What the– S-Some sort of monster?!”
Faced with a monstrosity scattering steam and ice shards in all directions, even the two battleworn men of the mountain let out a pitiful yelp and fell to the ground. The demon gave them a dreadful glance.
“Shunran… The apes… Raijuu… Tell me where they are.”
“Wh-What? You know Shunran and Raijuu?!” The tall Matagi shouted out in response to the man who had suddenly appeared before him as he took aim with his rifle.
“Raijuu… Shunran… They’ll make a satisfying main course. Heh, you two look like you’ll be hardly enough for a side dish.”
“I d-don’t know what you’re after, but if you plan to harm one of my comrades… Then you’re nothing but filth! Leave our mountain at once!”
The tall Matagi fired his gun as his round companion rushed to pick up his spear. However, the bullet was easily deflected by a stone wall, turning into nothing but a harmless spark.
“Where’d this rock come from? It’s blocking my surube!”
“This guy… is he an actual monster?!”
“We can’t let a guy like this get near the village!”
The rock wall limply cracked and collapsed in front of the terrified pair of Matagi. It wasn’t intentionally released, but had simply been strong enough to take the force of a bullet.
“Looks like I’m still not back to full strength… Whatever, it’s good enough for now. There’s plenty of food around. Guess I should warm my body up a bit before setting out.” The demon channeled his adversity and craving into fighting spirit, directing his crazed rage toward the two mountaineers as he formed a spear of rock.
“How is he… A curse must have befallen our mountain!”
“We can’t back down now! Think of what will happen to the village if we don’t fight back!”
Flickering with maddening red light, the overwhelming demon now held in his hand a mighty spear fashioned of what had been ordinary rock. The very image of a devil rising from the depths of Gehenna.
A single gunshot rang out through the morning air of White Peak, followed by the throes of an agonizing death. Yet the mountain winds mercilessly swept away those cries.
“There he is…”
Shunran was positioned in a cave near the summit of White Peak, right in Raijuu’s blindspot. As he laid there he felt the winds of disaster, a warning that another crisis was unfolding. Another threat to all life on the mountain.
“The mountain spirits are clamoring… Over something besides Raijuu.”
“I felt it too… I’ve sensed this enough times to be used to it by now.”
“That piece of… He’s already awake?!”
While the group had finally found Raijuu, they found themselves in a situation where most of their original plans were useless. This terrible omen now came in the middle of that.
“We’re running out of time, fast…”
“That we are, but we need to focus on hunting Raijuu before that crazy bastard can get his hands on him!”
They had no way of knowing how long it would take for the demon to reach White Peak’s summit after breaking out of the snow. In other words, while their battle with Raijuu had become a battle against time, they did not know what their time limit was. The demon could show up at any second, but if they were lucky he could take a full day.
“We need to hurry. We can’t afford to wait this out.”
“Going back to the supply hut to resupply or stopping for a proper strategy meeting are off the table…”
Shunran looked back over the gear he’d brought with him. Though he could only carry so much, he’d carefully selected items that may be useful to counter Raijuu. He hoped they could take advantage of this equipment to eke out a victory, but this was where he would have to rely on his knowledge as a Matagi, which he had spent years wondering how to come to terms with.
“Alright, I think I’ve got a plan.”
It was a plan that Shunran hadn’t used for years, not since his final hunt with his father. The fact that this was the sole plan he could think of to finally settle the score was nothing short of ironic.
“We’re going to start by surrounding him.”
A technique employed by the Matagi, whose traditional focus was on group hunting. When surrounding their opponent, the Matagi employed a complex strategy led by a ‘Seco’, one that would ensure the target could not retreat by utilizing restraining attacks or threatening the target until it reached a certain destination. Meanwhile the ‘Buppa’ lies in wait, ready to finish the target off when it reaches that point.
Since this method was originally used by people born and raised in the same village, it was developed with a strong degree of cooperation and social trust in mind, where the sukari guided the group to victory. It would be difficult to use with people from a different culture who were used to different hunting styles.
Nonetheless, Shunran dared to use this tactic.
“So what makes you want to try it?”
“It’s our traditional hunting style… A long time ago I used it when trying to hunt Raijuu with my father. I should have been able to drive him to the perfect spot, but… This time we have more people and better equipment. I think it’ll go better this time…”
In reality, Shunran couldn’t actually think of any other strategies. HIs companions had grown up in a completely different environment with a completely different style of fighting. No matter how reliable they were, it would be difficult to pull this off with them.
“Sounds good, Shunran. We’ll use your strategy.” Sayu agreed to his proposition with surprisingly little hesitation. “So it’ll be a traditional Matagi strategy, except we’ll combine the abilities of the equipment you’ve assembled and our artifact.”
Shunran had been thinking to himself that Sayu, in all her rationality and ability to think outside of the box, would reject his proposal and come up with a different countermeasure. His surprise at her acceptance showed on his face.
“It shouldn’t be too tough. We can cover each other’s weaknesses, anything that’s left exposed can be dealt with by the countermeasures we prepared. It’s all toward the same end.” Sayu gave Shunran a supportive smile, as if she had the utmost faith in his strategy. Of course, should the peculiarities of the situation cause any issues, there was no need to stick to the Matagi method for the entire hunt. The unique skills offered by the Wanderers and their Tube of Condensed Sky should have been enough to compensate for any errors.
“When your expectations are shattered, shatter the expectations. That’s what that Matagi traveler told me.”
“Well, you’ve got the Sayu stamp of approval, so have some faith in your plan. Come on, if the guy who proposed the strategy’s looking so glum about it, how are the rest of us supposed to pull it off?”
Shunran seemed not only surprised, but at a complete loss. Seeing that, Dao pressed him to make up his mind. It became clear to Shunran that he really was related to Sayu.
“Yeah, you guys are right. I’m the one that dragged you into this afterall. I believe in you two, so I’ll give it my all and make sure we pull through. Let’s get going– this will be our hunt.”
Chapter 10 – The Hunt
A black thundercloud swirled like a crown over Raijuu. His ability to sit atop the mountain and constantly manipulate the clouds was part of what made him the top of the food chain. When hungry, he could simply use thunderclouds to strike down whatever animal he wanted to eat from afar, and all he would have to do after that was bring it back home.
However, he was unaware of an impregnable and easy to use area near the summit. If that point fell into the hands of a clever group of humans, he would be vulnerable from all sides..
There were two ways to reach the peak, first by following the mountain road which came up to the summit in a spiral, and second by taking a steep road straight to the top, surrounded by rock walls on either side. Atop the spiral trail, the first of the hunters aiming for Raijuu appeared with a loud cry.
“Heyo! Hey you! You big sleepy bear! I’m still up and moving! Come ‘ere!” His voice reverberating with these playful shouts, Dao leapt out at the summit and joyfully jumped up and down atop a boulder. “Hmph, doesn’t seem to care quite as much as a fox or a rabbit would. Fine then!”
Dao’s shouting didn’t intimidate Raijuu as it did the small prey he was used to hunting. Of course, he’d already expected that. He pulled out a small single-shot gun from his pack and fired it from his position atop the boulder.
Raijuu seemed to stop moving for a moment, but then let out a mighty roar while sticking out the fur covering its body. It clearly recognized the close range shots as a threat, perhaps remembering the shots Matagi hunters had fired at it in the days when it was just an ordinary bear-monster. Regardless of why, he knew they were a sign that he was now being hunted.
“Hah! You can finally drop the tough-bear act! Take this!”
Dao jumped from rock to rock, using the physique he’d built as a Wanderer to deftly avoid bolts of lightning. He then thrust one gun down into the ground before firing off a round with another, causing Raijuu to roar in pain.
This time, it wasn’t just a warning shot.
However, since Dao was many arges away, his gun’s small spherical ammunition was unable to pierce the beast’s thick hide. Raijuu counterattacked with a lightning strike at Dao, but the attack didn’t even come close enough to singe him.
“That went perfectly! Sayu really is a genius! I never would’ve thought to make a lightning rod like that!”
What had protected Dao was the gun that he’d stuck into the ground. By using the expended single-shot gun’s barrel as a lightning rod, he could face Raijuu at close range.
“Man, these things are great! I get another lightning rod for every bullet I fire! Come here big guy, I’ll show you just what a Wanderer of the Woods can do! Let’s go!”
Dao’s body became lighter as he thrust another gun into the ground before continuing to jovially mess around with Raijuu. As he finally finished circling around the beast, he reached a narrow path between the mountain’s walls.
“I made it, Sayu! This guy’s really just a normal animal after all!”
“My preparations are done as well. Keep driving him on just like that.”
Charging up for a counterattack, Raijuu dashed along the narrow road. However, he was suddenly blocked by a wall and wrapped in an eruption of sparks and smoke.
“We got him!”
The barrier that had caught Raijuu was formed from a number of arrows stuck into the walls on both sides of the passage. A mesh had been created where the arrows intersected, with condensed moisture running along it.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever tried controlling so much at once, but I pulled it off!”
Combining her talents with the tube’s power, she had managed to create a cage of fog. The more Raijuu tried to break out, the more he was hurt by his own electricity coming into contact with the moisture, causing him to short circuit.
“He’ll have to retreat this way!”
Sayu shot another arrow behind Raijuu, activating the Tube of Condensed Sky. Raijuu turned to escape from being hurt anymore by his own shocks, but found his route had already been closed.
“Hell yeah, he’s stopped dead in his tracks! Great work Sayu, are we good to go as planned?”
“It won’t last long, but we can hold out until Shunran’s signal!”
Raijuu now found a fog cage behind him as well, completely trapping him on both sides. However, a beast is a beast; and even against the power of artifacts, Raijuu had no concept of surrender. His survival instinct was unparalleled, and even if it meant getting scorched by his own power, Raijuu fought to survive.
Battering himself with an endless barrage of sparks, he began to ram himself repeatedly into the cage while letting out a crazed roar.
“Damn, this dude’s crazy!”
“I’m sure… it’ll hold until Shunran’s signal!”
The tube, which was currently strapped into Sayu’s crossbow, would occasionally lose its glow and emit a faint blue light, as if in sync with Raijuu’s expenditure of energy. It was likely a leakage of spiritual power due to the burden placed on both of them, meaning that if Sayu poured any more into the fog cage the recoil could spell trouble for her.
“Alright, leave going overboard to your big brother!”
“Wh-What are you saying?!”
If Sayu was about to be hurt, Dao wouldn’t allow himself any rest. Dao had an insulating robe wrapped around his waist, made by applying glass powder and his paint to some leather he had found in the supply hut. Draping it over his head and wearing gloves coated the same way, he leapt into the fog cage and closed in on Raijuu. Dao stood face to face against the beast, even as his robe was singed by bursts of lightning.
“Dao, you can’t just–”
“You’re the one that made this cage Sayu, I’ve got nothing to fear! Now come show me what you’ve got, Raijuu!”
Dao rushed at the beast, striking him with his gloved fist. Just one blow wasn’t enough to injure him, but as Dao’s flurry of blows and the shorting out continued, Raijuu began to show signs of fatigue.
“Heh, this is way more my speed than shooting. There’s no backing down now! Uwoooooohh!”
Dao stomped his foot into the ground, turning his entire physique into a spring. Then, syncing his breathing with the energy of the mountain, he released it as his focus came to a peak.
As Dao kicked the earth below him, it became evident from the snow’s movement that the air was trembling around him.
Xin, the peak of all Wanderer techniques.
A word that meant to them “heart”, “core”, “quake”, and even “divinity”, among other things, Xin was a technique that involved synchronizing one’s flesh, muscle, and bones like a massive spring, then concentrating all of that energy into a single point and striking with it. It was a skill developed by the wisdom of those who had no home to return to and only continued to live through the fruits of their journey, passed down from generation to generation.
“Amazing, Dao! You’re actually able to use Xin!”
Not wasting a moment, Sayu fired a volley of arrows at Raijuu from atop the wall as he staggered. As he was prevented from regaining his footing by Sayu’s arrows, Dao landed a follow up strike right into his throat. Raijuu carelessly tried to retreat once more, only to find himself again burned by his own power clashing with the fog cage.
“This won’t be fatal, but it should keep him in check for now! Are you still good to keep going, Dao?”
“I wish I could say I was, but my gloves are pretty much worn out. I’m sorry, I don’t think I can keep fighting much longer.”
“Got it… Leave the diversion to me then. I’ll keep him busy.”
Sayu could say that, but she was already exerting herself by operating the tube at full capacity. If Dao’s Xin was no longer an option, Sayu wasn’t sure how long she could keep Raijuu distracted with just her arrows.
However, the pair soon realized that their attrition had paid off. They heard a deep noise echo out through the highlands, powerful in spite of how low it was, seeming as if it would reverberate forever. It was the sign that the two had successfully completed their duty.
“That conch! Shunran must be done with his preparations!”
“Heh, the bastard sure kept us waiting! Thanks to that I was able to put on a nice performance myself! Let’s give him one more for the road, Sayu!”
Sayu jumped down from the cliff, releasing the cage of fog blocking the peak as she did. With the path to their backs, the two began a coordinated assault against Raijuu. Sayu, having released one side of the cage, was attacking by condensing water on the arrow already driven into Raijuu’s body. The next step in their operation was to force their prey back to the top of the mountain, where Shunran now lay in wait.
A perfect execution of group hunting.
Soon would be the moment that the king’s throne would turn into his gravemarker. The pair fought on to bring that moment to fruition. The two believed that their friend waiting for them at the peak could grasp that future.
Chapter 11 – Keeping Track of Time
Those two will lead Raijuu here without fail — This unwavering faith in his comrades steadied the shaking hand holding his surube and gave him peace of mind as he awaited the fated moment.
When Shunran blew his conch shell, he remembered Sayu and Dao’s trustworthy smiles. He knew that blowing a conch shell in the territory of a beast like Raijuu was an act of suicide, and yet he blew it so confidently that it overcame the monster’s roar and echoed through the whole mountain.
Those two will absolutely wear Raijuu down and come back here safely — It was because of this belief that he so willingly gave away his position.
If those two were with him, even being found by Raijuu wasn’t the least bit frightening.
What the ring of that conch heralded was nothing short of hope. Soon came the sound of his prey’s footsteps, followed closely by the calls of his companions.
Sayu and Dao had been entrusted with the task of shepherding Raijuu by laying down a trap before leading him into Shunran’s range. At the junction of the spiral mountain road Dao had followed, a trap that would spray water and scraps of metal when stepped on had been prepared. It was a simple device, made using a bear trap, but it would be effective in disrupting Raijuu’s abilities and restraining him.
When Raijuu was driven away and his path of retreat blocked, the beast would be forced to jump from the mountaintop’s cliff into the spiral mountain road, where Shunran lay in wait with a number of traps and weapons at his disposal.
“It’s almost time… Fate really is a funny thing.”
All sorts of emotions were welling up inside of Shunran. He didn’t have time to worry about identifying all of them. However, there was one thing he could say for certain.
“Even now, I really don’t feel any hatred toward Raijuu. Still, I want to be the one to hunt him.”
Shunran never resented Raijuu even after he had taken his father from him.
Of course, Shunran felt the pain and loss that came with losing his sole relative, but at the same time his father had lost his life fighting on equal ground against a beast of the mountain. A true Matagi to the end.
He gave his life following his sacred duty to defend the mountain, but was unable to overcome his opponent’s instincts to survive. How could Shunran hold a grudge over something like that?
The revenge that drove Shunran now was only his craving to complete the mission his father had left unfinished. That was enough for him.
“I’ll finish the job!”
Shunran, having lost his goal, had been afraid of the person he was becoming. Afraid of forgetting the challenge left by his father, of being consumed by anger toward Raijuu.
“I’m not aiming to avenge my father… Instead, I’ll fulfill his goal in his place.”
A Matagi fought by facing life head on, and Shunran had not yet answered the challenge his father had left for him. However, it hadn’t shriveled up and been forgotten. For now, that was enough for Shunran.
This was his proof of his existence.
The moment that he would end his days of going through the motions as a Matagi. The outsiders he’d befriended had brought hope, hope that the past wasn’t worthless.
Hiding behind a boulder on the mountain road, Shunran heard the sounds of lightning striking on the mountain top, as well as the voices of Sayu and Dao as they pressed Raijuu onward. This was their signal in response to his conch.
Shunran waited a few seconds after hearing their approach and, when he felt Raijuu’s presence directly above him, he pulled the rope held in his hand with all his might, almost throwing himself on his back.
The edge of the summit’s cliff collapsed as a boulder, which was jammed into a crevice beneath it, was pulled out from its position. With this pillar of stability gone, the boulder acted as a trigger to destroy the cliff’s balcony-like ledge. Ironically, the stone that was torn out was around the same mass as the creature that had used the ledge as a throne.
“Sayu’s plan of burying the demon in the snow really gave me some good ideas!”
Shunran’s prep time hadn’t just been for setting up the trap blocking the road. Instead, it had been to turn the area itself into one giant trap. It was easy enough to just set up a single rope, but sliding a stick under a boulder and connecting it to the path under the cliff in order to create leverage was a different story. Yet Shunran had managed it within the short period of time that Sayu and Dao had kept the beast distracted.
The bear began tumbling down the road along with shards of rock and snow. It was a fifteen arge drop, probably not enough to kill him. Shunran had set various traps such as spikes and caltrops around where he expected Raijuu to land, eager to seal Raijuu’s movements and wrap everything up.
The world is an unpredictable place, however, and things do not always go as planned. Raijuu had collided with the wall while he fell, changing his trajectory and placing him closer to Shunran in an area where he hadn’t set any traps.
“Here already, huh… Fine then, I won’t stray any longer!”
This development only seemed to motivate Shunran. It was time for the final act, time for him to reach out with his own two hands and end Raijuu’s life himself. It felt like everything was leading him to this moment.
“False king of the mountain, Raijuu! As a warrior of the Matagi, I will settle this here and now!”
Shunran called out ferociously. This battle was the continuation of the events from five years prior.
On a spiral mountain path leading to the summit of White Peak, Shunran and Raijuu stood face to face, nothing to get in their way. Shunran stood across the remnants of the cliff further down the path, while Raijuu was atop a collapsed part of the cliff wall closer to the summit. The perfect image of a brown bear and a Matagi, their murderous, starving eyes locked head-on.
“Let’s end this!”
Shunran made the first move. He had to take this opportunity, had to press the advantage while Raijuu was exhausted with his back to the wall. From his hempen bag, Shunran pulled a number of arrowheads and other small blades, throwing them in a flurry at Raijuu, who had begun charging power. Raijuu seemed equally intent on bringing everything to a close here. As Shunran finished scattering the pieces of metal, Raijuu unleashed a massive strike of lightning.
However, this proved to be fatal.
“We got him!”
The area erupted in a curtain of flashes, sparks, and steam, woven between the countless blades stuck in the ground and other pieces of metal still flying in the air, each bursting with energy as the lightning struck them. Shunran dashed through, closing in on Raijuu, even as sparks singed the hair on his body and the remaining electricity in the air zapped at his flesh.
“Have you ever been driven into a corner like this before, Raijuu? Not fun, is it?!”
Shunran understood why Raijuu’s eyes shone with a look of wonder and terror, despite being a monster. It was the panic of any creature that had just seen a man, smoke rising from his whole body, shove a gun in their open mouth.
“It doesn’t matter how tough your hide is! If we’re at point-blank range…”
Shunran’s rifle erupted in flames inside of Raijuu’s mouth.
Fresh blood redder than Shunran’s gunfire sputtered from the beast’s mouth, like a coat of paint covering Raijuu’s fur and Shunran’s white skin.
Even so, Raijuu seemed to grasp onto life with an unshakeable tenacity. The beast still drew breath, and his eyes and front legs began to move.
Shunran drew back the gun and moved to withdraw. Yet Raijuu, his jaw now free, struck Shunran faster than he could escape.
When was the first time he had been bitten by a beast? Shunran couldn’t help but wonder to himself despite the intense pain in his shoulder, seized by Raijuu’s fangs. Had this pain too been something he’d long forgotten?
I won’t let you escape. Shunran felt like he heard a voice saying that. Despite his jaw being soaked in blood from the gunshot wound, this strange bear had launched a counterattack. It was only because the two were this close that Shunran could understand the persistence that entailed.
“Neither of us plan to let the other one go, huh?!”
Shunran didn’t tear Raijuu off of him. Instead, he adjusted his stance and posture before repeatedly thrusting his nagasa into Raijuu’s neck. Bolts of lightning arced along the blade and crackled. Their desire for their opponent’s life swirled together as the two rolled on the ground, entwined in a back and forth of fangs and blades.
After some time, the two finally stopped moving, still tangled together on the ground.
A brief moment of silence passed. Then, finally, Shunran rose to his feet. His white skin and coat were stained red with both of their blood. The mud beneath the snow had mixed in as well, as if baptizing him in the wild.
Yet he stood.
His body swayed.
Blood dripped from his forehead, blocking his vision. His shoulder, torn open by fangs, would not move as he wanted it.
And yet, he was still alive and kicking.
He reached for his gun. There was something in his line of sight urging him to do so. The flame of Raijuu’s life had still not yet been exhausted. Glaring at the man who had wounded him so, his limbs twitched. Even as he sputtered blood with every breath he took, his heart kept beating. As long as he clung onto life, this beast had the will to stand and fight again.
Shunran loaded a bullet into his rifle’s chamber, pressing it to Raijuu’s forehead.
A sound rang out once more, and a life came to an end.
Chapter 12 – A New Path
On that day, one threat to the order on White Peak was brought to an end.
Raijuu, the unwelcome false king. In spite of the cursed way he had come into being, a young man guided by fate confronted him, and slew him as providence had ordained.
“Great work, Shunran!”
“Congratulations. We’ve managed to accomplish one half of our goal with our heads still attached.”
His newfound friends, who had helped him in hunting Raijuu, congratulated him. As he heard their voices, Shunran noticed his appearance.
Convinced that Raijuu’s life had ended, Shunran was laying on his back resting. As he returned to his senses, he found himself huddled together with what had been his long-time rival and target. Even here at the cloudy summit, the sun’s light shone upon the two. Shunran felt his body, which had been burning with the ferocity of battle, begin to quickly cool off, perhaps due to the large amount of blood he’d lost. Now, he sat peacefully with Raijuu at his back, gazing up at the sky.
“Ah… I feel like I’ve finally been able to start moving forward after all these years. Of course, this isn’t just my victory. If it hadn’t been for you two…”
First and foremost, this was a battle to finally move on from his past. Yet even if it was, finding new friends and joining forces with them hadn’t been meaningless.
“If you really want to say that, it’s the two of us who should be thanking you. Dao and I couldn’t have completed the artifact on our own.”
“That’s right! Actually, wait just a second. I’ll grab it now.”
Shunran took up his nagasa in his hand before once again facing the body of his opponent.
Shunran and the Wanderers of the Woods.
If one hadn’t been there, the other could not have claimed this victory. They shared a common goal and had been able to supplement one another’s abilities. It was a valuable thing that Shunran had long forgotten about.
“He really is tough…”
Shunran tore open Raijuu’s stomach with his nagasa. Now, having accomplished his goal, he intended to help the pair that had helped him in their battle against time.
So this is what it was like to find value in life. He couldn’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, even as he started carving into the monster’s stomach. At least the blood splattering on his face was able to hide his blushing.
“Seems like a pain in the ass, want a hand?”
“No, that’s fine Dao. I’m used to this sort of thing. If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep an eye on our surroundings. It probably won’t be long until our next battle.”
“Got it. By the way, you’ve avenged your old man’s death now, yeah? Glad you were finally able to settle the score.”
“I wouldn’t quite say I was avenging him… At least, my dad wouldn’t have wanted this fight to be anything that simple-minded.”
“Has Sayu been rubbing off on you? Alright then, if it’s not vengeance, what is it?”
“I guess… I’m still not sure. Maybe trying to find the answer has meaning in and of itself.”
As he considered the challenge left for him once again, Shurnan pulled a piece of metal from Raijuu’s innards.
“This time it’s my turn to lend you two my aid.”
He held a small blade that had fused with Raijuu’s stomach wall, stimulating the beast’s peculiar growth. Though small, it was heavier than his nagasa and couldn’t really be called a dagger. It was similar to the gladii used by Western swordsmen.
“So this is the fragment of the artifact that turned this bear into Raijuu, right?”
“Yep, it looks just like it was described in the scroll at the shrine. Must be the Lightning Blade.”
“This little blade really caused all this…”
Cleaning it of Raijuu’s blood and guts, Shunran handed the Lightning Blade over to Sayu. The blade fit perfectly into her Tube of Condensed Sky. It would seem that the tube was meant to be this blade’s hilt.
“I’d thought it was supposed to be some sort of flute at first, but I guess it’s actually an ancient sword…”
“Yeah, this is the artifact we’ve really been after. The Heaven-Rending Blade.”
As the two artifacts combined into one, the Heaven-Rending Blade released a spout of steam and flashing light. As it cleared, one would not have thought the item in Sayu’s hands had been a rusty old tube and a gore-covered blade mere moments ago. It had a powerful golden sheen, and beauty enough to make one think they were beholding some ancient wisdom.
“An artifact that can control both lightning and water… It should let us defeat that demon, though it sure is a strange combination. Do you get what this means?”
“Well, the scroll didn’t go into that much detail, but I think I have the idea.”
“The original power of an artifact finally unleashed… I’m sure this will give us the upper hand against that demon. But just how…”
Raijuu, now the Heaven-Rending Blade.
The goals sought after by Shunran and the Wanderers of the Woods had finally taken shape. Yet there was something out there that could still crush their hopes, something that still yet lived, even though they had hunted Raijuu first.
“Hey Sayu, Shunran… You know I hate to say it, but do you really think we’ve got time to stand around in wonder here?”
“Of course, I haven’t forgotten.”
“Our fight’s not over until we beat him…”
The three all looked in the same direction.
The mountain was in an uproar. Even from this distance, his craving for blood could be felt.
“He’s climbing faster than I’d expected. What to do now…”
The demon entered the center of their vision, staring straight back at them. When it came to murderous intent and desire to fight, more was held within that pair of eyes than in his three opponents combined.
Chapter 13 – Unending Battle
One of White Peak’s greatest threats, Raijuu, had finally been felled, and the Wanderers of the Woods had finally attained the Heaven-Rending Blade.
Yet even with their goals fulfilled, one final threat still loomed, and it was fast approaching our heroes.
“Found you… Looks like you’ve already got the goods, which saves me some trouble later. I’m fine just feeding on you three, who’ve taken down Raijuu.”
“Heh, well aren’t you a fast climber. Use some magic trick to fling yourself up here?”
Dao’s suspicions were within reason. Even with how strong the demon was, it hadn’t been long since the first signs that he’d awoken. Likewise, Shunran noticed the unfamiliar terrain that had been formed in the path the demon had taken.
“I guess that’s what we should’ve expected from a Geomancer…”
“Of course, you think all I can do is make some walls?”
The demon bared his fangs in a wide grin. Using his ability to create rock walls, he had made a set of stairs with which to easily overcome the difficult terrain.
“Anyways, it’s time for me to get hunting. Matagi brat. I’m especially interested in you, actually managing to take down Raijuu. Wanna be my main course?”
“It’s all about eating with this freakshow!”
That was what the demon fought for. It was clearly not just about stealing some artifact.
To battle. To slaughter. To eat.
Those were the reasons he sought power. Just what drove such voracity?
“We don’t plan on becoming your dinner! It’s not our job to be another outlet for your anger, either! I’m fighting for something important here, so don’t expect me to change my mind!”
Sayu called out to the man who had pursued her for so long, her will unwavering. Even so, her gaze was bright and clear as she held the Heaven-Rending Blade in hand. Steadily, it felt as if it was growing stronger.
“Hah, do you think that just because you have some artifact you’ve already won? Pathetic. At the end of the day, that sword’s going to end up with my boss.”
“This sword isn’t all I’ve got! I’ve found a new purpose, learned new things, made a new friend… I won’t lose this time!”
Sayu aimed her crossbow, the Heaven-Rending Blade strapped into it, straight at the demon. As he watched her, Shunran felt a part of himself that he had wanted to reclaim return to him.
“A new purpose, new things, new friends… I’ve found those things today too. Now I need to do my part as well.”
Shunran forced his body to move despite his exhaustion, aiming his surube at the demon, standing alongside the comrade who had helped him hunt Raijuu. Why would he bet his life after the injuries he’d incurred from that beast? The fact that he was still standing here wounded after defeating his prey was proof of the bond he had formed.
“Shunran… The Matagi who hunted Raijuu. I’ll do with you as I wish. You took my other prey from me, so you’d better not disappoint.”
Shunran was not afraid. With his allies by his side, he was able to overcome Raijuu. The demon may have been a serious threat, but with them and the new things he’d gained along the way, he was sure he could defeat him and return home alive.
“Don’t count me out either! Sayu’s going all in, so I can make myself useful too.”
Dao was the first one to make his move. He jumped into the air and immediately started pressuring the demon by kicking himself off the wall of the cliff. With the demon distracted for a moment, Sayu and Shunran were able to prepare their weapons.
Dao used the cliff to perform an aerial roundhouse kick, delivering it straight to the demon’s spine. Of course, a shield of rock blocked the attack.
“Do you think the same sleight of hand will catch me off guard a second time you imbecile?”
“It’s a slight of foot, dumbass!”
Just as he thought Dao was going to withdraw after having kicked the shield, an arrow shrouded in fog came flying at his flank.
The demon shifted the rock shield from his right hand to his left, catching the arrow just in the knick of time. Just as he caught the arrow however, a bullet struck him. He narrowly weakened the attack with a small impromptu shield, but the shot managed to pierce in and crack it.
“Heh, I’m just a diversion, idiot. Looks like the sleight of foot worked after all! Is your head filled with rocks too?”
“Your taunts are meaningless. You won’t defeat a geomancer!”
In an instant, the arrow that had pierced into the rock shield erupted into a flash of light and heat, similar to a bolt of lightning. The resulting shock wave shattered the shield along the crack created by the bullet as the demon himself was scorched by a blazing wind.
“That was just a test shot, but it seemed to pan out. I think I’ll be able to get the hang of it easily enough.”
The attack was thanks to her newly acquired Heaven-Rending Blade. The arrow was once again coated in condensed water, allowing it to act as a conductor for long-range targeted lightning strikes. However, no one other than Sayu noticed that there was more to the explosion than just a simple bolt of lightning.
“This really makes for a great weapon. Can’t believe Raijuu got to keep something like this all to himself.”
“Even so, this isn’t the Heaven-Rending Blade’s true power. That explosion was the result of water and lightning coming together. But maybe its original purpose was to–”
Just as Sayu was about to convey something important, she was cut off by the demon rushing at her.
“We’ll start with you!”
The demon, wanting to deal with the long-ranged attackers, formed a rock wall behind him and kicked off of it to close the distance with a horizontal kick.
“Dammit, Sayu! Watch out!”
Shunran managed to block the demon’s stone blade before it could strike Sayu, but the impact completely annihilated the nagasa he had relied on for years, crushing both its handle and blade.
“You think you can defend yourself with a little thing like that?”
“I’ll use whatever I can to defeat you!”
As Shunran lept away, he saw the shards of his sword falling through the air like flakes of snow. Catching one in his hand, he threw it at the demon’s face.
“GAHH! MY EYE…! You’ve done it now, kid…”
“Tricks like that are my specialty! Let’s do this!”
Shunran and Sayu jumped further away from the demon to regain their distance as Dao attacked him from behind.
“Got one in!”
His fist landed a clean strike to his opponent’s back. However, it was stopped before it could send the demon flying.
“Dammit… I screwed up… Tch!”
“Dao! What happened?!”
A sharp spire of rock pierced into Dao’s side, an unfinished stone wall that the demon had been forming. Dao’s agile attack against an unguarded area had only resulted in injury from the opponent’s incomplete defenses.
“You’re still naive. Now, wallow in despair as you draw your last breath!”
“Gh… It can’t end here… I need to at least… Sayu…”
Dao fell to his knees. Though the strike missed his vitals, such exhaustion and blood loss at his enemy’s feet would prove fatal. He rolled on the ground desperately trying to avoid the demon’s assault, aided by Shunran repeatedly firing his rifle in an attempt to prevent his attacks. Seeing the situation growing desperate, Sayu spoke up.
“Hey, is there an old tunnel or well that goes straight down anywhere on this mountain? I need to get somewhere deep.”
The question almost seemed underwhelming in these desperate circumstances, but surely it had some purpose if that was what was on her mind.
“If you just need to get somewhere underground, there should be a cave nearby. It’s a bit less than ten arge deep, but it should be a straight shot.
Shunran answered without question, preoccupied with keeping Dao safe from the attack. At that moment, the demon was focused on pursuing him. This may have been their only opportunity to formulate a plan without being heard.
“What are you thinking?”
“Well, it’s a gamble, but…”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ve been doing nothing but gambling up to now. I trust you.”
“Shunran… Thank you. If the Heaven-Rending Blade’s true power is what I think it is, then I need to try using it in an enclosed space.”
“Do you mean… Ah! I get it!”
Shunran reached the same conclusion as Sayu. A long time ago, he learned about a certain natural phenomenon from a traveling priest. If it was anything like Sayu had planned…
“Let’s throw our chips in. Go straight down the path you used to distract Raijuu. You’ll see a cave a tiny bit down the way. You two should go on ahead.”
“What are you planning on doing?”
“You need time to prep, don’t you? I know this place well, I should be able to keep him busy for a while.”
Now was the time to put his faith in Sayu and repay the debt he owed her.
Chapter 14 – Unbelievable Ferocity
There was no more reason to falter. Shunran, finally released from his own fate, was set to lend his power to his newfound friends.
He began assaulting the demon with his surube as he told his friends to flee. Understanding his intentions, Dao responded to Sayu’s calls, putting all he could into his legs and jumping up, piercing through a gap in the demon’s pursuit and disappearing.
“Hmph, all you damn apes can ever do is run away.”
“Hey, eyes on me, Demon! I’m the one who hunted Raijuu, and I’ll be the one to take you on right now!”
The demon looked back as he heard the sound of Shunran’s voice and a bullet coming his way. After searching around for Dao for a moment, he responded to Shunran’s challenge with a cruel smile.
“How interesting… Is the Matagi brat looking for a one on one?”
“That’s right. It’s my duty to protect the mountain, so I’ll be taking you on first!”
“Keheheh, how amusing. You know, I don’t actually hate impudent kids like you. Alright then, show me the power that defeated Raijuu!”
The demon fell for Shunran’s taunts. His opponent’s simple nature was almost creepy, to the point that it made Shunran feel uncomfortable.
“For him, this is a battle to steal that artifact. Of course, he’s also aiming to kill the Wanderers and make himself stronger. I still can’t really figure out what his priority is…”
As Shunran began running to guide the demon to a more favorable position, he once again considered just how strange his opponent was. He seemed to be working for some organization to obtain the artifacts, though that seemed to mix in with his own personal goals of hunting the Wanderers of the Woods and using them as prey by which to get stronger. It seemed as if the goal he was prioritizing was constantly in flux.
“I can’t just let him run around freely if I don’t even know what he’s really aiming for.”
That left Shunran with only one option, to defeat the demon. However, he did feel some pity, watching a man driven by a twisted mixture of pugnacity, voracity, and obligation.
He would not let himself lose to such a pitiful beast.
Pulling the demon along with well placed shots, Shunran eventually reached an uneven slope with few trees. The area was covered in deep snow, however, which created a smooth surface. It would be the perfect place to go sledding, but remained undeveloped.
“Tch, knowing you underhanded Matagi, I was wondering what sort of maze you’d guide me into. But I guess you’re underestimating me.”
“Oh, am I?”
Shunran fired at the demon, and the demon responded by punching the ground. As the bullet came flying towards the demon, a rock wall jutted out of the ground and turned it into a worthless spark. At least, that was how their battles had gone up until now.
“Huh? What happened to my wall?!”
The wall was far too low to block his entire body. The bullet knocked against the top of the wall, but merely had its trajectory changed and pierced through the demon’s shoulder.
“Why aren’t my powers working right… What did you do, you bastard?!”
“Nothing at all. Why don’t you take a look around us?”
Their entire battlefield was covered with heavy snow. The demon had been led to a place where snow would block his attempts to utilize the ground as he pleased.
The demon twisted his tattoo-covered face into a scowl. However, Shunran wasn’t in so favorable a position that he could afford to show his hand.
“Let me ask you again. Just what exactly are you? You seek more and more power without even considering how much you already have. Yet it’s like claiming the artifact is your secondary objective. You seem way more focused on wiping out the Wanderers. I know that you’re not exactly right in the head, but even then…”
Shunran’s pity and disdain for his opponent showed at once. It was because he too had once lost his way and found it again with that girl’s help that he could understand this madman’s distorted nature.
“The reasons you fight, the goals you’re after, your purpose in life… None of it’s in harmony.”
The demon’s expression only twisted further. In spite of the distance and the tattoos covering his face, Shunran could tell that the blood was rushing from his face, that he had begun to break into a cold sweat.
“That’s not entirely it though… I was going to say that your power had been merely given to you, but that’s not all. Your reason to fight, hell, your reason to live, all of it was given to you by someone else. Maybe it wasn’t even given to you, it’s almost like you’re just borrowing it.”
“Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”
The tattoos covering the demon shined with a red and black light hotter than any before. Even the demon himself, the source of the terrifying radiance, began to burn.
“Hit the nail on the head…”
“I SAID SHUT UP! What do you think you know about me, you little shit?! Me, who ‘deserved’ to have my hometown, my everything stolen by those crooks? What’s wrong with wanting power? What’s wrong with wanting to feast?!”
“The Wanderers of the Woods took your home from you? They’ve never really struck me as the sort… Ah, maybe that memory’s just being lent to you too. I really feel for you.”
The demon’s words stopped sounding like that of a man’s and more like the howls of a monster. His motivations finally exposed, he went wild and grew increasingly reckless.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll hunt you down! I’ll hunt you down and eat you up so that I can hunt every last one of those Wanderers! Do you understand?! You’re a hunter! Surely you know my hunger!”
“Just what do you think hunting is?! You’re way off! I’ll never recognize whatever it is you do as hunting!”
They began a back and forth of offense and defense. Even as the demon lost his sense of superiority and reason, his burning urges were not quelled. Though deprived of his ability to easily make stone blades, he rushed forward, throwing everything he could into making stone walls.
The demon was empty. He fought merely to eat, driven by lies and a craving that would never be sated.
“We fight to live, to accomplish our goals! We face life head on! It’s nothing like your mindless impulses! Don’t lump me in with your selfish, empty violence!”
Shunran was convinced once more that he could not lose this fight. To find new things, to protect something, to carry on tradition. Someone who had a reason to fight would never lose to an opponent that just destroyed without purpose.
“Then, I… Just what is it that you think I’ve been destroying, you brat?!”
The demon managed to clad himself in a rock wall designed for defense, letting it weigh him down as he began bull-rushing up the slope. Maintained only by self-deception, the demon felt himself swelling with pressure as he moved to obliterate Shunran.
“Do you think I care? You’re not even able to fight to find that answer yourself! That’s why I’ll defeat you, right here on this mountain!”
Shunran could not be crushed by something so hollow, not after learning what it was that sustained people as they fight for their lives, not while he was working to help someone who knew that better than he did.
The demon struck out vacuously with a pillar of stone, but his hard and heavy strike wasn’t enough to catch his opponent, only stirring the air and snow around them in vain.
“You dodged it?! Where are you?!”
“It’s like you’re never even looking at what’s in front of you!”
Shunran was using a plank of wood, likely a relic of times long past when a hut had stood in this remote field, to glide away on the snow. The demon had let his rage take control, blocking his vision with a stone pillar and causing himself to not even see Shunran make his move. Swiftly sliding away over the snow, Shunran turned around and fired at the demon a few times as he got some distance.
“Heh, but if the snow gets any more shallow, I’ll be able to turn things right around!”
As soon as the demon found they’d reached a point where the ground was once again covered with dirt, he began to bluster once more. If he could just hunt this young man, the one who had uncovered his self-deception… Yet he did not know why Shunran was so confidently heading toward a place that gave the demon an advantage.
He did not know that Shunran had comrades lying in wait to support him. Something so valuable and meaningful that it was worth having faith in. Seeing the sign he was looking for, Shunran cast aside his board and poured all his remaining strength into his legs.
However, just as hope was in his hands, Shunran felt something was off.
“White mist… No way, have they not…”
The cave was filled with a fog that should not have been there.
One had to wonder whether the demon was triggered by Shunran’s panic or by the changes in their environment. Regardless of the reason, without a word, the light from the demon’s tattoos was pulsing like a living creature and had now engulfed him completely, even shrouding the glint in his eyes.
Chapter 15 – The Geomancer’s Fall
“Sayu, I see Shunran! The demon’s here too! It all comes down to this!
This was the place Shunran and the Wanderer siblings had decided they’d use to end things with the demon. Standing at the mouth of the cave and watching the mountainside, his trusted friend and their opponent both came into his field of view. Dao called out excitedly to his sister despite the pain in his bandaged side. Fortunately, the bleeding had stopped.
“I’m sorry, Dao. I guess we underestimated him…”
Sayu replied with an uncharacteristic bitterness. She examined the arrows driven into the cave walls one by one, occasionally pulling one out or shooting another in. Though her eyes were calm, she broke out in a cold sweat as she ran around in the mist with the Heaven-Rending Blade.
“What’s wrong Sayu? This isn’t like you. If something’s wrong we’ll figure it out. That’s my job after all.”
Dao, being higher up, couldn’t see Sayu’s face. He wasn’t even entirely sure what she was setting up. Still, he was sure that whatever his little sister was worried about, the two of them could overcome it.
“It’s about the Heaven-Rending Blade… It’s taking me more time to get used to it than I expected. Its use is about what I thought it would be, though it seems to have changed a bit from its long time inside of Raijuu. Its output seems to have changed to match his lightning strikes.”
“Not sure I grasp the details, but I get the idea. Is it really that far off from what you expected though?”
“It’s not, but I wish I had just a bit more time… For now…”
Sayu continued to deftly use her arrows and the artifact to match the fog and electric discharge to her needs. Though she knew it would make her less accurate, she was in a hurry and couldn’t afford any time to wipe off her hands, coated with sweat.
“Well, if they’re here too early, I’ll go meet up with Shunran and buy you some more time. Once you’re all set we can just push that bastard into this hole and wrap it all up!”
Dao jumped from the mouth of the cave and ran waving to Shunran, who was already within shouting distance.
“Dao, what about your injuries?!”
“The bleeding stopped, so if it’s just one more little fight I can pull through! It’s my job to do all the stupid shit that’ll let you fulfill your dreams!”
Dao showily slapped his bicep. It was a reminder to Sayu that he was a pro at manipulating his own muscles thanks to his skill in Xin, his own unique way of putting her fears to rest. For that matter, the reason he could even still run was that he’d tightened his core muscles before applying bandages and medicine to his wounds, helping to reduce bleeding and to stop them from expanding.
“Plus I’ll have Shunran with me! You’ve gotta focus on all your calculations and planning, so don’t look so down! We’ll take care of everything out here, so you just keep a level head and make sure you get everything right!”
Despite his injuries, Dao started accelerating toward Shunran and the demon, who finally noticed his presence. No matter what Sayu said to him, he was going to fight.
“Dao… why are you always so… Some day I need to be the one who does the stupid stuff for your sake…”
Sayu grumbled to herself, but didn’t stop her work. She would do just as Dao said and keep believing in her intellect as she set everything up just right.
Dao was always reckless. In spite of that, he was still with her after all this time. That was why Sayu could entrust herself to him, and follow on the path he believed was right.
“Dao, is it fine for you to be moving like that?”
“Hey, that’s my line, Shunran! Doesn’t really matter though, looks like we need to fight anyway!”
“You’re right on that one…”
Dao’s appearance here meant Shunran’s intuition had been right. The two of them fighting the demon together again and the fog in the cave meant something had gone wrong. It was enough of a sign for Shunran to know what needed to be done.
“The mountain ape. Perfect, I can kill you too. I can kill you all… End it all… Destroy it all… I’ll destroy everything!”
The demon’s eyes were empty as he approached. His murderous intent and desire to fight made visible by the pulsating black and red aura around his tattooed body.
“Hey now, hey now, you’ve got quite the look there buddy. Did someone take to the ‘demon’ nickname a bit too much?”
“He’s gone completely insane. His power’s going out of control, so be careful!”
“Hey, if he’s like this, shouldn’t it be easier to catch him in a trap?”
“Sure would be nice, but I can’t say for certain!”
As the demon formed a massive blade of stone on his right arm, he let out a roar that could have come from his throat or from vibrating the very air around him. The blade was triple his own height, likely carving into his own body. It made a strange noise as it cut unevenly through the air toward Shunran and Dao. As the two leapt away to either side, a nearby tree exploded as if hit with a bolt of lightning.
“Why’re you so stupidly strong all of the sudden? Were you just messing around before?!”
“It’s like a load has been released, and his true potential was unlocked with it. We probably can’t just hope he’ll destroy himself with this much power though…”
Even were the light in his eyes to fade, such a will to fight and slaughter would continue to drive the demon’s body forward. A burning fire that wouldn’t be quelled until it destroyed everything. There was no way to know when someone who had already surpassed all limits would reach their new limit.
“That’s fine, I’ve got a short fuse. I don’t much feel like sitting around waiting for him to blow himself up. Let’s finish him off ourselves, right here, right now!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice!”
Shunran fired at the base of the demon’s right arm, a signal that the battle had begun. His shot was blocked by a wall the demon created with his left hand, however, failing to neutralize his stone blade.
“So he can still defend like this!?”
“Dammit, he still acts rationally about the strangest shit!”
“If it’s come to this, we’ll have to use his swings to our advantage!”
“With you there!”
It seemed as if even the demon’s breathing was being controlled by his tattoos. Still, he once again brandished the sword with his blood-stained arm.
“Leave this one to me!”
His next attack came horizontally. As it cut through the air the distorted wind scraped the top of their heads.
“His flank’s exposed, I’ll get him there!”
“No, Dao, wait! He’s probably–”
Dao ignored Shunran’s warning and attacked the demon, delivering a strike to his side that pained and enraged him.
“Haha, landed another one on him!”
As soon as he felt his strike land, he tried to deliver a roundhouse kick to the demon’s shin.
However, this follow up proved futile.
It was not the demon, but Dao who found himself flying raggedly through the air before collapsing to the ground. The demon still had the strength to unleash a counter with his left hand, despite having just launched such a massive attack.
“Gah… So he’s still able to counter even when he’s rampaging…”
“He’s able to defend against my gunfire too. We’ll have to use his swings as a lead. Look at that.”
Unnatural footprints had been formed by the demon’s feet, as if they were scooped from the ground. He was trying to swing a massive boulder, bigger and heavier than his own body, at a speed he could not control. Each time he swung, he unintentionally dragged his body as it swung in the opposite direction.
The demon unleashed his third attack. Shunran jumped the opposite direction from Dao, towards the cave where Sayu was waiting.
There, he saw the fog beginning to fade.
“We’ve bought a lot of time, we should be almost done here!”
“Gotcha, so we’ll beat him just as she planned. If that’s out of the way, we can wrap this up real quick!”
Understanding Shunran’s intent, Dao jumped in front of the demon. He prepared to charge his opponent head on, or so it seemed.
“If only you knew!”
The demon’s sword cut through empty space. His fourth attack had been aimed at Dao, who seemed poised to attack, but by the time the blade came down, Dao was already gone.
“Hehe, are you really falling for such easy feints now? Even if you’re my enemy, I’ve gotta pity you a bit!”
“If you get hit you’re done for, Dao! Don’t lose focus!”
Shunran fired another shot as a diversion. The demon reflexively directed an attack at Shunran in response, but as he was already a fair distance away he had no problem dodging.
The two alternated the role of grabbing the demon’s attention and making him counterattack, working together as they gradually led him toward the cave. Their strategy was intended to both buy Sayu time and mitigate risk to themselves, repeating the same pattern over and over as they steadily got closer to their destination. Finally, a deep noise rang out signaling that their battle was about to come to a close.
“That’s the conch! Sayu’s finished her preparations!”
There was no more haze in the cave, and the conch indicated that Sayu had already fled.
“Come on, Geomancer! Your grave’s over this way!”
Shunran stood directly before the cave, taunting him to make one last strike. However, the stone blade on the demon’s right arm suddenly crumbled to the ground. He leapt forward, just a small shield of rock on his hand, and grabbed Shunran himself.
“He’s not giving up!”
Yet Shunran did not fear. “When your expectations are shattered, shatter the expectations.” Sayu’s words came to mind naturally, as if they were a distant memory that had finally returned to him.
Shunran used the demon’s momentum against him, holding his breath as he grabbed the man and rolled into the cave.
Dao immediately jumped into the air, grabbed Shunran’s arm as he lay on the ground grappling with the demon, and launched an attack with Xin.
“It’s been fun, dumbass, but this is where we part ways!”
Having been struck by the Xin attack, the demon released his grasp on Shunran and fell away. Using the force from his strike, Dao leapt out of the cave with Shunran in tow.
“This is the end for you!”
Shunran fired one last bullet into the cave as Dao carried him through the air.
Despite being fired in such an unsteady way, the bullet was on course to pierce through the demon’s skull, as if guided by the Goddess herself.
The bullet ripped through the frigid air, Shunran fell to the ground, the demon tried to raise his shield, sparks scattered through the air… and in an instant, it was all covered by a flash of light as bright as the sun.
Shunran’s bullet turns into a sweltering ball of fire, swallowing the demon whole.
Chapter 16 – Finding Value
On this day, another wretched fate was averted.
Shunran’s bullet transformed into a massive fireball, swallowing the wicked creature enclosed in a narrow space, and burning him alive. The burst of flames and shockwaves were unending, shaking the cave’s very foundation and causing fragile bits of rock to start collapsing.
“Huh?! What the hell’s happening?!”
Even as Dao slammed back-first into the ground, his pain was overshadowed by his shock. What he saw next however, astonished him even further. The cave, which had seemed to be collapsing due to the explosion, suddenly began to deform at a rate that could not possibly happen naturally. In an instant the cave’s balance was completely lost as it collapsed under its own weight.
“Hey hey hey hey hey, just what exactly is going on here?”
“This is the end for the demon. No matter how good he is at making rock walls there’s no way he could have defended against being surrounded by explosions on all sides. In the end he was probably stuck trying to manipulate any rock he possibly could.”
“So that backfired and caused him to be buried under there? I don’t really know if I get it, but whatever. Aside from that, just what caused that explosion? Was that the Heaven-Rending Blade’s true power?”
“Well, I think your little sister’s the one who could explain that one best.”
At some point Sayu had come over and sat down next to them. She was surveying the damages just as Shunran and Dao were, except she looked way less surprised.
“It was a hydrogen explosion. It’s pretty simple in theory. The true power of the Heaven-Rending Blade is to collect and deconstruct water molecules. All we had to do was collect a bunch of those in the cave then light them up.”
“Sayu, thank the Goddess you’re safe! You didn’t get hurt, did you? I really don’t get it, but as long as you’re safe I’d say your plan worked out!”
“It’s always in one ear and out the other with you… Well, whatever. Are you okay? You ended up using Xin again…”
“Ah, yeah. It hurts, now that you mention it! Dammit…”
Dao looked down at his side, his expression agonized as he remembered his wound. The snow around him was dyed red.
“You need treatment!”
“Gah, yeah, this wound from that rock is really… Ouch… Man, I look lame right now!”
“Calm down! Fortunately it’s only reopened a tiny bit. You shouldn’t move for now though. I’ll give you first aid, so you can just relax and let yourself fall asleep, alright?”
“Got it, thanks. Er… sorry for the trouble.”
Sayu took out some bandages and medicinal herbs from her hemp bag. Shunran, feeling he should do something to help, tried to rise to his feet. However, he realized after a few moments that he was stuck on his back, his legs too weak to move.
“I’m fine. I’m just worn out after going through two tough battles in a row. Dao’s situation’s a lot worse right now.”
Looking over Shunran’s movements and wounds, Sayu decided Shunran was right, but kept a careful eye on him as she hastily continued to treat Dao.
“For now, just let me rest for a bit… since we don’t have any… stimulants… at least… I shouldn’t die if I… fall asleep here…”
Shunran looked to Sayu, the sun to her back, as his vision began to fade. As he did, he felt the comforting, and somehow nostalgic, presence of his two companions. Despite laying in a cold pile of snow, he felt strangely warm as he dozed off.
“So after all this, we still don’t know who that guy was.”
“Nope… He seemed so pitiful at the end though Like he had been dragged along so far that he could never go back.”
“So you were thinking the same thing. Well, I guess it’s no matter to us anymore. We acted in self defense against him. That’s all there is to it.”
A few hours had passed and Shunran, now awake, was sitting with Sayu in the shade of a tree looking up at the clearing sky. For now it felt more comfortable to look up at the sky than to face each other.
Dao, meanwhile, was sleeping on some straw they had found nearby. According to Sayu, his condition had stabilized.
Just a bit down the slope from them one could see the remains of a collapsed cave. There was no sign of the demon coming back, and it was as if White Peak had once again regained its peace.
“Sayu… When we first met, I kept wondering to myself, ‘How can this girl always keep moving ahead so confidently?’ I think I’ve finally found my answer.”
“Have you figured out what to do with that answer?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
During Shunran’s brief rest, he had been reunited with his father. They exchanged a few words, and neither got emotional. His father merely said, “Good work son. Now you just have to find what you want to do next,” and patted Shunran on the head.
It was a very simple dream.
Regardless, it was enough to let Shunran reflect on the words his father left him, the words that had been weighing on him so heavily, as well as the person he had become.
“I’ve always wanted to find some sort of value in my life. Something that makes me truly say that I’m facing life head on as a Matagi.”
When he felt he had lost everything it was as if his will and courage to search for meaning in his life had been robbed from him.
“But, thanks to this opportunity to help you two on your mission, now that I’ve been able to use my life to protect something, I finally understand. What I was looking for was something I could look back on and be proud of. I think I can say now for sure, there was a reason I was born a Matagi.”
The girl next to him took a moment to examine her own path in the same way. Afterall, Shunran’s path had been illuminated because of her.
“Oh? Hehe, so maybe our way of doing things is the opposite.”
Sayu gave Shunran the brightest smile she could.
As he looked down from the sky and realized that she was looking at him he wondered how she could make such a smile so quietly. Although, the reflection in her eyes showed him that he himself had a similar smile, one even more out of character than Sayu’s. Growing embarrassed, he quickly tried to face away.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it’s like, for me the meaning is what comes first. That way I can make sure everything I do isn’t meaningless. I believe that if I do, I can create my own worth beyond that.”
“I see. I guess you’re right.”
Sayu could believe her future would have value because she knew there was meaning in everything she did. It was somehow both similar and opposite to Shunran, who had looked back on his past to find a foundation for his path forward.
“So I’m still just acting on things I’ve learned from hindsight. I still have a long way to go…”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
Sayu pointed the Heaven-Rending Blade at Shunran.
“This victory couldn’t have been achieved with just Dao and I. It’s thanks to you, Shunran, who was searching for meaning in the present, as opposed to me, who takes that meaning for granted and is always looking forward to the value I’ll find later.”
Both of them had used the lifelong skills they had nurtured to compensate for each other’s weaknesses and get over the barriers in their path.
It was anything but easy.
“Our goals and the meaning we found in life complimented each other. That’s how we were able to fight together. I was able to find the value I was searching for, and you were able to find your meaning.”
So it all came together as they walked alongside each other, facing forward.
“So, you’ve come to an answer now, haven’t you?”
The answer he’d found was but one of many. He wondered whether it would be enough to guide him as he continued to search for his value.
“I think I want to just keep moving forward. The same way you have.”
“I’m sure you can. You really remind me of both the Matagi I met all those years ago, and how I was when I met him.”
The traveling Matagi who had guided Sayu. Shunran still did not know what sort of person he was or why he had been traveling. Yet he had given her something that had changed her. Being told that he was similar to him helped Shunran to understand a bit more.
“I wonder what that guy found; what he was looking for…”
Shunran once again felt that he had reached the end of a journey. Though it had only lasted for two days, he had made new friends, overcome great obstacles, and broken customs. The trails he now followed felt newer and richer than any he had walked before.
Finding meaning, attaining value…
“This might be a gamble, but… Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to try walking a bigger path. Like you two.”
And so, Shunran decided on his path.
A path with no fixed route, traveled for a reason he still hadn’t decided.
Final Chapter – Matagi
It had been one month since Raijuu’s defeat.
It was March, a month often thought of as the beginning of spring, but here on White Peak the snow was still piled so high that an outsider might think spring did not come to these mountains.
To the residents of White Peak however, it felt like a much earlier and milder spring than usual. There were fewer snowstorms to prevent mountain hiking, and a few small buds had already begun sprouting from the ground. Most of Matagi Village’s residents would remember this mild season as how spring should be.
This was when Shunran would prepare his bindle and set off from home.
The road from his home to the village, where he learned that even the smallest of discoveries were not meaningless, and this year there was even more to discover than usual. This time, he would walk a much wider road, longer than any hunting ground in White Peak.
“Leaving right on schedule. You’re just as punctual as ever.”
The sun had not yet risen as Shunran passed through the village, but he heard the sukari’s voice call out to him as if he had been waiting for his arrival. Since he had been planning to leave when most of the villagers were still asleep, they had already said their goodbyes the night before.
“Oh, Sukari, you didn’t have to go out of your way to see me off. I gave you my regards last night to avoid troubling you.”
“Now now, don’t treat me like I’m an old sack of bones. You know how many years I’ve camped out hunting, don’t you? It’s no problem to get up early for such an important moment.”
“My sincerest thanks to you. I know that it’s not what you had in mind, but I want to do some personal training and studying.”
Shunran expressed sincere gratitude toward the sukari for the first time in a long while.
He was lucky that the area was so dark that his face wasn’t visible. He had felt like the old people of the village had treated him almost like a pesky tumor. He was the only young man left in town, the son of the late previous sukari, and the grand disciple of the legendary hunter Giun. In spite of all those qualities, he still hunted with an unclear sense of self.
Understandably, they had a hard time figuring out how to deal with him.
Even so, when he told them he planned to set out on a journey, they were all led by the sukari in trying to get him to stay. They questioned his motives and tried to convince him to agree, but finally realized that it would help him to grow into a better sukari, sending him on his way. It was a show of parental affection that the whole village harbored for him.
“Just don’t get too greedy now. If you’ve really come to accept the fact that you’re a Matagi, then I’m satisfied. If you can’t do that, I don’t know how I’ll face your father or Giun. Take your time and think about it a bit based on the answers you find.”
“Yes, you’re right, Sukari. An answer I need to find for myself, something that will help our village…”
Matagi Village needed to bet on something new. Though he still wasn’t certain that he was ready to take the post of Sukari, that was the conclusion Shunran had reached. Perhaps, if the value Shunran found aligned with that goal, it would herald in a new era.
“Last month I was able to fulfill my greatest wish and eliminate a menace to our village. I was able to save people and protect their livelihood because I’m a Matagi. If I can find such valuable experiences around the outside world…”
“You really haven’t changed, have you? Of course, I mean that in a good way.”
Shunran was puzzled, having expected to be told he was showing a new side of himself.
Personally, he thought that he’d widened his horizons and found a new perspective on life.
“Well, you’ve always been a meddlesome kid. Always helping people out just because you can, right? That part of you hasn’t changed at all.”
Perhaps it was a bad habit. That was how his encounter with the girl started, too.
There may have been a way to find harmony between his impulse to help people and his struggle to find value– maybe such a thing had already begun to sprout within him when he fought alongside those two.
“Come to think of it…”
Looking at Shunran, his face still shrouded by the darkness, the sukari changed his tone.
“We’ve finished taxidermying Raijuu, but you don’t want to keep him, right? This was your– well, you and your father’s greatest wish. You have the right to keep him, if you so desire.”
“Well, about that…”
After Shunran defeated Raijuu and the demon, a group of Matagi retrieved the beast’s body and stuffed it. It served as a sign to the people that a great threat had been dealt with, a symbol that humans had cleansed the mountain of impurities. At the same time, the Matagi had no gripes with handing it over to the man responsible for that achievement.
“Are you really sure you want to leave it at Village Hall?”
“Yes, I’m fine with that. It’s not as if I have much room for him at home. Besides, I hunted him in order to overcome my past.”
“I see… Well, if that’s your decision, I understand. We’ll take good care of him for you. That body’s a sign that you protected our village, something we should pass on to future generations.”
“Thank you very much. If you’ll excuse me then…”
Shunran no longer had any more worries about the future. All he had to concern himself with was what sort of meaning and value he could find in the outside world, as well as a bit of unease as to whether or not they would find him worthy.
With that, Shunran departed.
Regardless of what barrier he found in his way, he knew he could find a way to get over it. After all, he was a Matagi; a man who crossed mountains, faced life head on, and hunted for value.
“Of course. Good luck, Shunran. We’ll all be waiting for you.”
The sukari watched him leave until even his back had disappeared over the horizon. When the young man’s figure had finally disappeared from the village, he turned his gaze to the statue beside him. He took a flask of sake from his pocket and poured it over the statue, that of the sukari of two generations ago, Giun Orgis, before taking a seat beside it.
“It’s been a while, Giun. I bet he hardly remembers your face, but that grand disciple of yours has really started talking a lot like you did. Now he’s off on a journey.”
The sukari’s smile was a bit different from the one he had used to encourage Shunran. He didn’t seem to feel young again either. It was the smile of a man reminiscing over a certain invigorating time from his youth.
“You once said to me that you viewed the whole of Zemuria much like a mountain, and that you were searching for a meaning in living here, for the true reason why we should hunt. I could never really understand lofty ideas like those, but… Regardless of the reason, I don’t mind protecting the village for now.”
The monument began to shine, bathing in the rising sun.
“He hunted Raijuu, defeated a demon… Shunran’s come a long way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds what you were looking for.”
Two days after they defeated the demon, Shunran saw Sayu and Dao off on their journey. They had to meet up with the rest of their tribe, tell them about the demon’s downfall, and report back to their shrine as soon as their injuries had healed.
In the two days that Shunran spent at his home with them, he learned even more.
It was strange, in hindsight. These were a group of companions who had fought together, learned each others’ combat styles, and built a great trust among one another, and yet as things calmed down and they sat around Shunran’s table, they learned many new things about each other both as comrades and as friends. Shunran learned more about both the Wanderers of the Woods and about the pair themselves, and in turn they learned more about both the Matagi and Shunran.
It was those things that sparked Shunran’s determination to set off on his journey.
One of the main reasons Sayu had set off on her path was the book she had received from the Matagi traveler, a single item that changed her whole world. Where she belonged, how she should live in this world. Those questions sparked Sayu’s curiosity, and led her to both accept her role as a Wanderer of the Woods while also leading her to search for her own way of life, creating her desire to bring new things to the tribe.
Shunran was a Matagi just like that traveler, and had finally found what had changed Sayu. He wondered whether by the next time they met he’d have found a meaning and value that could let him elevate her himself.
Shunran made a vow to himself when he saw the two off. He would catch up to them someday. Not just on their journey, but as a person who had created his own value in life.
That’s why he decided to travel. That’s why he would find his value. Even after only a few days fighting alongside the Wanderers, Shunran had learned so much. Maybe it would be best to follow in the footsteps of the traveler who inspired her, to look at the world as one big mountain, and to thoroughly and recklessly explore it. To run through the mountains in search of some invisible prey.
Wasn’t that the essence of a Matagi?
That’s why he swore to himself. He would run all through the vast mountain that was Zemuria, and when the day came that he met Sayu again, he would show her the value he had found and become the next great Matagi.
No Matagi could rest when they heard the cry of a beast.
The traveling Matagi, Shunran Aysen, was lost deep in thought despite the orbal truck’s shaking and the mutter of its engine. Yet when roused, Shunran quickly took up his trustworthy surube in hand and stood up in the back of the truck.
The caravan of small trucks Shunran had been traveling with came to an abrupt halt, causing most of the other hitchhikers to stir. Some of them even crashed into each other.
One thing caught Shunran’s attention.
At the head of the caravan, a group of unusual bear monsters had begun surrounding the first car. Rifle at his side, he climbed down from the truck without hesitation.
Far in the distance a minuscule outline of White Peak could hardly be seen. Shunran was not preoccupied by looking back at his hometown, however. Instead, he focused on the crowd in front of him and the merchants being targeted by the beasts they had not yet seen.
Helping people as if it were nothing.
It was an old, meddlesome habit.
Yet Shunran searched for something greater, even in such a cliched impulse.
As a Matagi he would travel, fight, and hunt all over this continent, this world, until he attained the value and meaning that only he could reveal.
Whatever that entailed, Shunran would face it head on.
Until the day this brave mountain-dwelling hero could meet his friends again, and until the day he died.