Under the moon, four riders left the castle: Oscar, Art, Doan, and Suzt. They rode to the East, with Suzt in the lead. Normally it took three hours to get to the lake in question, but if they hurried, they could reach it in two hours.
There had been a large bird silently taking flight in the darkness when they had left. Oscar had drawn his sword, but he immediately realized it to be Naak. It had cried once, then landed on Oscar’s shoulder.
“Wh-what is that thing?”
Suzt had nervously pointed at it; he had never seen a dragon before. Naak had stretched its neck, and Oscar had scratched its throat.
“She has probably sent it because she’s worried.”
Naak had cried in a low tone as if to confirm that.
By the time the group came near the lake, the sky had begun to turn white. When they came out of the grove of trees and saw the lake, Doan sighed in wonder at the scenery.
“This is… marvelous.”
There was a forest on the western half of the large lake, and its eastern half touched a hill, on which there was an old castle. The castle’s forgotten garden extended down to below the hill, half-immersed under the lake water. The pillars lining up in the water gave the group the wondrous impression that they were already in a different world.
For a moment, Oscar forgot what they had come here for and thought about how happy Tinassha would have been if she had been here. But behind him, Suzt was at a loss for words.
“Wh-when I came here last time, the water didn’t come this far east…”
“I’m sorry… For some reason, those stones looked so unpleasant then…”
Suzt hung his head; he probably had realized how serious the situation really was. Art patted his shoulder as if to cheer him up.
Oscar dismounted and tied the rein to a tree.
“Well, do we have to go down there by any chance?”
“No. I sense strong magic from the direction of the forest. Let’s go and check it out first.”
As if to demonstrate the credibility of Doan’s statement, Naak left Oscar’s shoulder and began to fly slowly towards the forest. Oscar muttered ‘I see’ in a low voice and followed it.
The forest was dense and dark; even the rising sun couldn’t really reach the place. Naak continued to fly forward in the trackless forest. To follow it, Art, who was in the lead, had to draw his sword and cut off branches.
“Your Highness, please watch your step.”
Oscar replied ‘Uh huh’ while still looking up to check the forest’s condition.
“Magic power is very strong here… It’s like a fog.”
Said the magician said, but the other three didn’t understand this at all. Art reminded everyone to not stray off at any rate, and they nodded.
An extracted soul had at most three days; those words of Tinassha came to Oscar’s mind again.
But it wasn’t even a day yet. They should still have a lot of time. They couldn’t possibly lose Razar in such a place. Memories about the boy who had grown up together with him since childhood, who had always followed after him and who didn’t know how to doubt others flashed through his mind.
“…I know you have bad luck, but why do you have to drag me into it?”
He smiled bitterly; his chest ached with regret. His childhood friend was that scared of ghosts; he had been attacked before his eyes, but he couldn’t do anything. Feeling irritated at himself, Oscar grinded his teeth.
― Just then, Naak came back and bumped into his head.
Naak clung to his head, and Oscar had to pull it away by hand. He looked around; before he knew, there were only Naak and him here.
He didn’t know how, but seemed like they had been completely separated.
Art aside, would the other two be alright? Oscar drew his sword to cut off the branches while worrying about his subordinates.
Feeling strange, Art turned around to look and was shocked to realize that there were no one behind him.
He took a closer look; he was sure he had cut off branches to move forward, but now there were no traces of it. He already didn’t know where he had come from or where he had been heading to anymore.
He sighed and looked up at the sky.
In his field of vision, he saw three shadow-like things swooping down on him from the sky.
Doan and Suzt reflexively exchanged a look.
In front of them was the horse that had been tied to a tree a while ago. And nothing else.
When they had suddenly lost sight of Art, who had been leading them, they had hurriedly pushed through the trees and moved forward, and had come to this.
And of course, Oscar wasn’t behind them either.
“What do we do now…?”
Suzt let out a stupefied mutter.
For the time being, Oscar headed in the direction Naak stretched his neck to, cutting branches to make ways while avoiding the roots under his feet. He really appreciated having Naak at his side when he had been separated from Doan, who could sense magic. He gave this thanks to the little dragon and its master.
Suddenly, there was a splashing sound at his feet.
Taking a look, he saw that there was some water gathering between the gaps of the winding roots. It seemed like the lake’s invasion into the forest had started from here. He continued on with even more caution.
Just then, he felt something approaching from behind with terrible force. Oscar stooped down, and a wind passed over his head. ‘It’ was stopped by a branch, and screeching laughter echoed; it was a green imp, with bat-like wings. He could also hear several more noisy laughter from behind.
Oscar checked the tree roots and his footing on the water-covered ground once more, and got Akasshia ready. As if waiting just for that, the imps jumped at him.
He held his empty right hand towards the one coming at him from upper left. Right before it collided with his hand, it met his protective barrier and staggered in the air. Then, Oscar swung his sword down on the imp coming from his front.
He took one step back, lowered his center of gravity and warded off the imp coming from the right. He was fed up; each of them was weak, but they kept following him like small winged insects. Oscar selected a root several steps away and moved on. Naak pointed him in the direction and let out a small cry.
“Do we just keep going?”
Avoiding imps and branches and cutting down whatever in his way, he continued on while searching for stone footing. The water gradually became deeper, and only thick fat roots could be seen above the water. The number of such roots also increased. At the same times, the imps that had been following him were also mostly gone.
When he finally stopped to take a breather, Naak left his shoulder and flew forward wobbling. Inside small red dragon’s head, master’s beautiful voice could be heard:
『― Destroy the barrier.』
At that command, the dragon took a deep breath and breathed out a fire that burned down the place.
After the fire had cleared up the space, Oscar could see a clearing between the trees.
The fire didn’t burn down the trees; it burned away something that made him unable to see the clearing, but there were not even the smallest scorch marks on any of the huge tree trunks.
“Amazing. What kind of construction is this?”
Oscar admired the scenery as he stepped into the clearing. It was a small plaza; clear water filled its even ground to as high as his calves, and it was surrounded by trees.
On the driftwood in the center of the plaza sat a beautiful green hair woman and his childhood friend.
Razar slowly looked at Oscar when his name was called. His body was at the witch’s place in the castle, so this was not real; Oscar affirmed in his head and reached his hand out towards him.
“I come to pick you up. Let’s go back!”
The woman looked uneasy at Razar’s murmur. Her fine pale hand grasped his arm. Razar gazed at the woman’s sad face, and his look was filled with a gentle emotion. When he once again returned his eyes to Oscar, he casted his eyes down and shook his head.
“I am extremely thankful that you have come all the way to this place for my sake… But I won’t go back. I am sorry.”
At Razar’s unexpected reply, Oscar couldn’t believe his ears for a moment. He frowned and asked:
“What are you saying? If you want to joke around, stay alive first.”
It must have been a joke. But it was unacceptable, here and now. Gripping Akasshia, he took one step forward. Frightened, the woman clung to Razar. Razar squeezed her hand once as if to reassure her, then came off the driftwood to stand in front, as if to protect her.
“Please wait, Your Highness… She was betrayed by her lover. He promised to marry her, but with another woman, he…”
Oscar grimaced unhappily. He didn’t come here to hear about the water spirit’s past. No matter what misfortune she had experienced, it was definitely no reason to kidnap Razar. Razar was still being too nice even though he was the victim here; Oscar spat out at him:
“Then shouldn’t she take that lover?”
“It was hundreds of years ago. You’ve seen that ruined castle. He already died a long time ago. But to her…”
Razar turned around and looked at the woman. The woman returned his gaze and smiled. It was like the smile of a lost child that had finally been found; it made people feel pity for her. For hundreds of years, searching and yearning for the man she loved, then hating, waiting, and becoming worn out; there was the spirit and the soul of all that in her smile.
Razar looked at her smile adoringly.
“…You will die.”
Hiding his uneasiness, Oscar said.
― He had used to think that one day, Razar’s kind nature would be fatal to him. However, he had been confident that nothing could happen if he was by his side. He hadn’t expected him would reject his offered hand like this.
Razar looked at his master and smiled apologetically like he always did:
“Even so, it doesn’t matter. She has been alone all these hundreds of years. Wanting to die, then not… Wanting to kill her lover, then not… I want to help her. If I can’t, then I will comfort her.”
At least, having that much comfort was good.
Razar took the woman’s hand. The hand, as chilly as water, squeezed back. Her eyes were as green as her hair; there was tranquility in there. His chest was full of love.
The voice of his master came, cold and oozing impatience.
“Don’t be conceited. Is it something for you to do?”
Razar smiled bitterly at his harsh words. He looked into his master’s blue eyes and asked the question he wanted to know most:
“Your Highness, when you look at her, don’t you think of someone?”
Not knowing the intention of that question, Oscar was puzzled for a moment. But he immediately understood.
Hundreds years of solitude.
Human, but not human.
Razar had implicitly asked him if this pitiful water spirit reminded him of his witch, who had been living alone with her tremendous power.
Spontaneously, Oscar let out a sigh.
He closed his eyes.
The sorrow he had seen in the tower, the lonely smile when she had left for the magic lake, all reappeared under his eyelids.
She only showed such expression very rarely, so Oscar had treated her like someone who had needed to be protected, like she had really been a little girl. But now, he realized that she hadn’t been someone like that for a long time. After all, she was different from other people.
Oscar slowly opened his eyes and fixed his grip on Akasshia. He walked towards the woman; she was looking at him with eyes as pure as those of a child. He glanced at Razar, who was standing next to her; he looked extremely sad. He wouldn’t be able to forget those eyes for his entire life, Oscar thought.
“If you have complaints, I’ll listen to them in the castle.”
There were no replies.
And then, he raised his sword.
※ ※ ※ ※
When the group returned to the castle, there were about ten people coming to greet them at the gate, with the witch in the lead.
“You’ve worked hard. The soul has returned.”
She smiled, as Naak landed on her shoulder. She looked at the proud-looking dragon and said ‘Thanks for the trouble’, and patted its head. Art sighed while giving the horses to the soldiers.
“I was wandering around the same place again and again. I almost cried.”
“You were splendidly caught, didn’t you?”
Oscar thanked the dispirited Doan and Suzt, who seemed to have gone through the same thing, then asked Tinassha about Razar’s whereabouts. She said he was at the same sickroom, where she also had to return to right away.
Razar half rose up when he saw Oscar entering the room. His movements were still clumsy, probably because of the soul extraction.
“Just lie down.”
Oscar stopped him, but Razar got off the bed and came to kneel before him. He bowed deeply.
“I am sorry… for my insolence.”
“I have no intention to apologize. …You also don’t need to.”
Razar didn’t raise his head. Instead, he uttered in a tearful voice:
“Starting tomorrow… I will again do my best to serve you.”
“Take a break until you’re back to normal.”
No matter how close you are, there are still a lot of things that cannot be put into words. So, Oscar just replied shortly, but in a voice thick with deep affection.
“He’s still not in good shape yet, so don’t wake him up.”
When the witch came in with a bowl of water, Razar had already gone back to bed and slept, unable to fight against the fatigue anymore.
Oscar watched her wringing the towel in the bowl and said to her back:
“Why don’t you marry me and live in Farsas permanently?”
“I won’t! …What’s the matter?”
Sensing that it was different from their usual banter, Tinassha turned around. He looked into her dark eyes with a serious expression.
“You’ve been by yourself for hundreds of years. Don’t you feel lonely?”
At his question, she looked blank for a moment, but then smiled wryly.
“Well, I am a bit lonely, but I think that’s just the way it is.”
‘Why so suddenly?’, she asked, and Oscar saw a bit of melancholy and harshness in her eyes.
Unlike the pitiful water spirit that had disappeared in that forest, this witch didn’t have anyone who she couldn’t live without, who had captured her heart forever, who she couldn’t be parted with.
That was why she could live for a long time.
Beautifully, calmly, and lonely.
She looked at the fleeting lives of humans like some incidents happening at a faraway place.
There were separations, deaths, and sorrow, but she wouldn’t go crazy over them.
Rather than her tremendous power or her solitude, that harshness was what made her a witch.
And maybe, she herself understood that harshness of hers.
Oscar closed his eyes and saw her smiling face; he wanted to touch those cheeks.