In the end, Loren decided to accept Karl’s proposal.
As he had said beforehand that he didn’t want to participate in the war, he decided that he would just feign ignorance till the end no matter what he was told. Should anything happen in the forest, it would be a merit to have more people – that was the reason why he accepted the proposal.
He had been supposed to confirm with Klaus first, but since Klaus himself just approved it readily, the other girls also had no complaints. And things just went along like that.
“Will only us walk?”
“I apologize for it, but we don’t have horses to lend you. Since we’ll move slowly in the forest, you walking probably wouldn’t be a problem.”
Talking about borrowing horses, Loren actually had no experience riding a horse. He had never ridden a horse during his mercenary days, and horses were extremely expensive to be of practical use to begin with. Moreover, horses that had been trained for battles were also rare; one wouldn’t be able to ride them unless one belonged to the army.
It was the same for Klaus and the others. The only ones who had ever ridden a warhorse were Layla, a knight and for some reason, Lapis.
“How did you ever ride a horse?”
“That is, well, a secret of the maiden.”
Lapis laughed mysteriously. He could have pressed her for an answer, yet since they wouldn’t be lent horses anyway, Loren just stopped the conversation there. Without horses there was no difference whether she could or couldn’t ride a horse.
Karl decided to leave some troopers in the village in case any villagers return. At the same time, he let the two return to the main force to report about the unusual happening here.
Loren thought that the kingdom’s involvement might improve the situation. Nevertheless, there was no way back anymore, unless the state of affairs changed.
“So, let’s go.”
At Karl’s command, the cavalry slowly advanced into the forest. Loren’s group was at the front, walking near Karl.
The forest was quite gloomy inside, but the trees didn’t grow too thick to hinder riders’ pass. There were also paths formed by villagers coming and going, so there seemed to be no issue for the slowly-moving cavalry. The biggest problem was their width. Human footpaths weren’t wide enough for horses to line up side by side. Thus, Karl instructed the troop to advance in two columns.
“How long does it take to pass through this forest?”
“About two hours on foot.”
Military personnel were generally the ones who knew most about topography details. There were maps on the market, but the information they recorded were very vague; in many cases, the country concealed the exact distance and location.
“For some reason, the atmosphere here is a bit strange.”
As they went forth on the forest paths, Karl looked around and muttered.
“Have you noticed? There are no signs of birds, animals or even insects in the forest. It’s too quiet.”
Loren had also noticed without Karl pointing it out. A forest was a place where various creatures lived. It wouldn’t be strange to see the signs of their presence, to hear their sounds or to catch a glimpse of their shapes. Yet there were no birds and not a single animal he could find when he looked around; it wasn’t normal.
“If there are deserters or villagers here, it wouldn’t be strange to have signs of them.”
“On the other hand, having no signs of them so far is rather eerie.”
Lapis, who was walking next to Loren, voiced her feelings. Not just Loren group, the soldiers were also having the same thoughts. Some of the troopers looked around with anxious faces, representing the uneasiness they felt.
“I’ll want to investigate this if we have time, but I can’t say that.”
“It’s not a good tendency for soldiers to be anxious.”
“It’ll end once we leave the forest.”
Karl said, but the whole group had to stop just a short while later.
“Messenger here! There’s people ahead!”
When the news came from the group that had gone ahead of them, it had been about one hour since they had stepped into the forest.
Karl immediately ordered the whole troop to stop and rode ahead himself to check what the messenger had reported. Loren’s group also followed him.
When they arrived at the vanguard, a bewildered-looking soldier pointed to a human figure standing alone on the path ahead and reported to Karl, who was approaching him.
“Captain, there’s a person.”
The human figure looked to be female; she didn’t show any reaction even after seeing a cavalry. She wore the common clothes of villagers, and didn’t appear to be armed. They couldn’t see her face due to the distance and the gloom of the forest, but her just standing straight without even swaying was quite unsettling.
“Is it human?”
As Loren muttered, Shayna’s voice spoke up in his mind.
[‘Doesn’t seem to be an undead, onii-san.’]
[‘Any signs from the surroundings?’]
[‘That… I don’t know for sure. There seems to be some, but at the same time doesn’t…’]
Loren heightened his alertness at Shayna’s vague words. If even the King of the Dead couldn’t be sure of the situation, then it couldn’t be normal.
[‘It feels like something is hindering me. Please be careful, onii-san.’]
Loren didn’t need Shayna to tell him that. Seeing Loren laid his hand on his greatsword, Klaus group and Lapis also became tense.
And of course, Karl also began to give orders seeing them like that.
“Be alert! We don’t know what will happen!”
The change happened right at that moment.
The first thing Loren could sense was a sweet aroma tickling the back of his nose; it felt just like a flower’s nectar was mixed into the air. Loren reflexively covered his mouth with a hand, but he couldn’t stop breathing.
“Wh-what is this?”
Noticing that Karl’s confused voice seemed to be strangely faraway, Loren beat at his chest. Every time he breathed in the heartburn-inducing air, a haze shrouding his consciousness. Loren fell to his knees.
It also appeared to affect the cavalry; some began to fall from their horses with a confused expression on their faces.
“Loren-san, are you alright?”
He couldn’t help breathing but every time he did, his consciousness became hazy. Loren could feel an alarm bell ringing somewhere in his head, telling him to run away from this place immediately. But his arms and legs just wouldn’t do what they were told.
Just when he thought how ugly it was to be like this, Lapis, who was standing beside him, put her hands under his arms and helped him up. The tone of her voice was unexpectedly calm.
“Things seem to have become strange again.”
Even though she was talking right next to him, her voice also seemed to come from a distance. It was just like getting drunk on some strong wine. Loren desperately shook his head to maintain his consciousness, but the drunkenness became stronger every time he breathed; so that just standing by himself became a difficult thing.
“Lapis… Are you alright?”
“Yeah, of course I am. Won’t you praise me?”
Lapis said with a grin. As Loren staggered on his feet, she kept a hand on his waist and lent him a shoulder to help him stand. But he couldn’t even reply to that; his consciousness had begun to dim.
“What about Klaus and the others?”
“Seems like the ladies are no good. They have all gone down. Klaus-san is… amazingly, he seems fine.”
“All are no good. Most have fallen from their horses and just lied there.”
“Is that… so…”
He couldn’t collect his thoughts at all; just breathing had become a rough thing to do.
Loren suddenly became very aware of Lapis’ body pushing against him. As he grasped her free hand for a moment without really knowing what he was thinking, he got a punch to his face. The pain radiating from his cheek and the taste of blood inside his mouth woke his mind for just a moment, and his awareness immediately turned hazy again.
“Just what is this, really…?”
“Well? This… seems to have become a critical situation.”
Lapis’ tone changed, which signaled Loren once more that they were in a really bad situation. But even as he thought about options, the sweet scent pouring into his mouth and nose scattered all thoughts away.
“I don’t think so. To be able to penetrate Loren’s protection that easily, the culprit seems to be quite brutal.”
Lapis answered. She looked around and quietly clucked her tongue.
“And, we’re surrounded.”
Numerous human figures began to emerge from the shades of the trees. Where had that many people hidden up until now? They looked like villagers and soldiers, and their appearances and genders varied. They slowly walked up, grabbed the immobile soldiers that had fallen from their horses and dragged them into the depth of the forest.
Would the horses panic and go on a rampage? Strange, wondered Lapis, while casually waved her arm at an approaching human figure. The head of the figure that had been trying to grab her was shredded just by that action, with the pieces flying up and disappearing into the trees. Blood squirted up from the headless body.
The scent of blood woke Loren’s mind a little.
“It’s difficult to. Klaus!”
Lapis called and Klaus, who was keeping the girls up, turned around. His face was painted with surprise: at the unfamiliar expressions on Lapis’ face or at the change of the situation, no one knew.
“Can you run?”
“I-I’m not sure. I can’t leave the rest behind.”
“You’re right. Let’s see if we can use the horses for transportation.”
“What about the soldiers?!”
“Let’s abandon them. It’s impossible to save everyone anyway.”
Lapis hurriedly gave Klaus instruction, and he immediately began to load the unconscious girls on the back of a horse that wasn’t shifting around.
Lapis kicked down one approaching figure and grabbed the collar of another and shoved it into a tree. Then she lightly lifted Loren, who was still leaning on her shoulder, to a horse’s back and nimbly sat astride it herself.
“It’ll be nice if we can escape by running away, but that must be impossible.”
“Where can we run to?!”
With three people on a horse, there was no more space for a rider. Klaus had no choice but to take the reins and pulled the horse along. Lapis shrugged at him.
“Well, where to, I wonder? Away from here at least. Let’s go.”
“Understood. I’ll leave the destination to you!”
Lapis wondered what to do if the horse wouldn’t run, but it obediently broke into a run with a light kick to the stomach. In order to keep up with the horses, Klaus activated a <Strength Boost> on himself and followed her with enhanced speed and vigor.