"Here, Aoi," Saki spoke as she handed over a skewer of roast meat to Aoi, "it's hot, so be careful when eating it."
"...Ahh...at last..." Aoi sniffed the food with great excitement, her saliva already overflowing from her mouth.
"And here's for you, Brother Ren," Saki said to me. "I'm sure you heard my reminder just now, right?"
"Of course, I'll be careful. Thanks," I replied to her.
It's our first time the four of us to eat dinner in the wilderness, the starry skies bearing witness to this special moment. Before we continue our journey at the break of dawn, a respite such as this is more than welcome.
While fanning the flames with his hand, Saku spoke: "You see, my sister...she actually wanted to prepare a feast for everyone, a celebration for our first adventure outside the town. Too bad however, because we can't bring that much ingredients with us."
"That's right. Aoi, Brother Ren, I'm sorry!" Saki spoke regretfully.
"...What are you saying? This much is already enough," Aoi said to her, "besides, I love to eat skewered meat. Eating skewered meat with humans--er, people that I trust is more than a feast for me."
"Yeah, yeah. It doesn't matter whether we're having an extravagant feast or not right now, it will all come out the same the next day anyway," I added.
An outburst of 'Ew!' and 'Yuck!' came from the siblings almost instantly after I said that, followed by 'big brother, sometimes you disgust me' from Aoi. Realizing the inappropriateness of those words even in a very informal dinner setting, I quickly retracted my statement.
"Ahem...let's leave it at that. Why don't you tell us some stories during your past travels? We haven't heard anything from you regarding that," I asked the Rainens so as to change the topic.
"Our journeys in the past?" Saku stared at Saki for a moment then answered, "Yeah, looks like we haven't told you any stories from our trips before. What do you need to know?"
"...Oh, oh, oh!" Aoi hastily raised her hand. "Have you two gotten in a road accident before?"
"Aoi?!" I slapped her knees while giving her a sharp stare.
This girl--ain't her words more inappropriate than mine?
"I'm sorry. Looks like it's my fault that our discussion fell this low."
Saku laughed and said, "It's fine. Compared to our past travels, having someone else to talk to other than my sister is a good thing in my book."
"...Did you try hiring someone to accompany you?" Aoi asked.
"Um...Big Bro and I want to, but hiring an adventurer to protect and accompany us during our journey is too much of a hassle for us. Not only their fees are expensive, they also treat us like stupid little children," Saki answered while sulking.
Yeah, that's really a hassle. I myself can't stand such people, so why would I spend a large resource just to get someone who doesn't show even an ounce of professionalism? Does the sense of security they provide justify that kind of treatment they give to their clients?
"Anyway, it's all in the past now. With Brother Ren and Aoi around, we feel more safe and secure than before. Well, it would be better if you also stop treating me like a child as well," Saki said before sipping her tea.
"What do you mean by that, Aoi?!"
Chewing her food noisily, Aoi said: "...You shouldn't rush yourself into becoming an adult. Look at me, you may believe it yet but I had this same form for thousand of years now. Even if I want everyone to treat me like an adult it's impossible, since I look, think, and act otherwise."
'Also, being young is a bliss!' Aoi then raised her cup and said, "...Cheers to being a little girl forever!"
With the three of us raising a roast for Aoi's perpetual youth, Saki on the other hand...
'Is it really that good...being forever young?'
I say, you shouldn't think on becoming like Aoi, Saki. Having one immortal girl is already hard for everyone, what more if there's two of them?
After dinner everyone felt tired and sleepy, so we called it a day and immediately retired to the carriage. Well actually, it's just the three of them, as I remain on the campfire while reading the paper I bought from the shop earlier.
I heard a faint whisper calling me, then I saw Aoi standing in front of me, her untied blue hair swaying lightly against the night breeze.
If not for her being my sister, I would be frightened with the appearance of a beautiful girl with unnatural features as she walk slowly towards me.
"What are you doing here? You're not feeling tired yet?"
"...I can't sleep," Aoi said with a faint yawn. "Saku snores very loud, and Saki keeps on hugging me so tight that I can't move."
"Ah, that's very uncomfortable indeed," I muttered as I shook my head in dismay. "Do you want to sleep here instead?"
Aoi then hurried to lie down beside me, her head resting on my lap. Though I somewhat expected her to do such thing, it still surprises me every time how much she wants to be pampered by me.
"What a hopeless girl you are."
"...If loving big brother is the same as being hopeless then you're right. I'm the most hopeless girl in the world. Hehe~"
Hearing her say that she loves me makes my heart skip a beat. She's aware of it, and she keeps on using it to her advantage.
Sigh. If only I'm as expressive as her...
"...Hm? What are you reading, big brother?" Aoi asked upon seeing the sheet of paper I'm holding.
"Ah, this? It's about a group of young people who are protecting the world from the forces of evil. I got curious from their heroic deeds, so I bought it from the shop earlier."
Up until now I haven't told Aoi anything about them; that they are my classmates, and the world where we came from is different from this world. Well, what does she know about the concept of 'class' anyway? For sure she'll get more confused if I explain it to her.
Pursing her lips tightly, Aoi spoke: "...'Curious'? More like 'envious'."
"What makes you think I'm envious of them?"
"...Oh, I know it all too well," with a wink, she replied, "I've told you many times already: big brother's heart is very honest."
An honest heart. It's been a while since I heard those words.
Maybe because of my constant denial, that my hidden inferiority complex is starting to claw its way out of me. I can't help it: those young people--my classmates--are adept in any role that are given to them, whether in academics or here in another world. Unlike me who is mediocre at best, those people are indeed worthy of being called [The Promised Ones].
I let out a sigh and asked, "Is it bad for me to feel that way?"
I felt like a loser asking her that. Aoi knows and understands my weaknesses, and yet I still couldn't bring myself to bare all of it to her.
"...'Bad'? That's right," Aoi answered after a moment of thinking. "Feeling envious is bad, but I believe it can be a good thing too."
"What do you mean?"
"...I believe that one's insecurities can be used to change that one person in a positive way. If everyone becomes content with the things they have, with who they are--what would happen to this world? Jealousy, envy, insecurity...they are all bad, but the world won't progress as it is without them. That's why feel insecure all you want, for it's the fuel that makes you strive to be a better person. Tee-hee~"
How do I say it? I do understand her intended message, but it feels...you know, unsettling? I think when you're being surrounded by evil all the time that you've already gotten yourself used to it, the line between right and wrong just disappears and the two start mixing up.
"...I-I'm sorry, big brother. Did I made you upset?"
I shook my head. "Not at all."
"...I couldn't think of better words to use at the moment. I should've thought twice before saying it."
Setting aside the paper, I pressed my finger on the tip of her nose and said, "It's alright. I'm feeling better now because of you. Thanks."
While her opinions and advices are questionable in a moral standpoint, she makes up for it with her ability to cheer people up. That is something she's not aware of, and I want her to realize that talent.
"You should sleep already. We'll leave this place at the break of dawn," I told her.
"...Okaaaay..." Aoi replied dozily, before closing her eyes to sleep.
Because Aoi slept while using my lap as a pillow for the whole night my legs felt numb, as if both of them are made of nothing but static. It sounds embarrassing, but the Rainens had to carry me on their shoulders to the carriage so as not to cause further delay on our trip.
"Hey man, can you feel your legs now?" Saku asked, his eyes fixed at the road.
"I can feel a prickling sensation on my legs, yes, but other than that it's still numb," I replied while stretching my legs.
"Should it gets worse, we have no choice but to amputate both of them."
""What?!"" Aoi and I exclaimed at the same time. Aoi looked at me with teary eyes and said, "...I'm sorry, big brother..."
Saku laughed loudly and said, "Just kidding, of course it won't end up like that. Bend them your legs a few times, they'll be fine after a few minutes."
"...You're the one that'll be amputated here, not big brother!" Aoi spoke to him in a threatening manner.
Hearing that, Saku's grin instantly disappeared on his face. He can play jokes with me, but not with Aoi. That said, he reminded himself not to test the waters too much.
"Have you really done things like that before, Aoi? Cutting limbs and stuff?" Saki asked, feeling morbidly curious for some reason.
"...Eh? A-Ah, yes! I did that countless times before!" Aoi replied, clueless as to what has gotten into her mind all of a sudden.
"Uwaaa...can you tell me more details?"
"...A-Are you really sure?"
"I want to know Aoi more, so please!" Saki held her hands together as if praying.
One would expect that at the age bracket of nine or ten years, their topic of discussion would often revolve around about dolls, plush toys, or other mementos of their childhood--but these girls are having fun discussing about mutilated body parts like it's the normal thing to do. It's like playing house, but instead of house they're playing Murdertown.
"Really? Human heads can still blink for a few seconds after being cut off from the body?"
"...Nn," Aoi nodded her head fervently. "Not only that, I also noticed that they could still respond to other people's stimuli, such as calling their names, before finally expiring. It's uncomfortable, but anyone can get used to it, I guess?"
"So that's the reason why that pervert is still looking at me despite being decapitated...that information's quite helpful," Saki muttered to herself.
What do you mean by 'helpful', Saki? Are you planning to test that for yourself?!
"Aoi, don't you dare try corrupting her mind with your ideas," I warned her.
Shaking her head, she replied, "...B-But she's the one who asked for it, I'm not actually planning on doing it!"
"Aoi's right, Brother Ren. It's my fault," Saki defended her: "I thought that if I were to become friends with the Death Goddess, I have to get accustomed to the things I'm afraid of. That way, I won't look away just like before."
When Saki reached for Aoi's hand, Aoi reached back, and they both smiled happily.
Seeing these two girls getting along with each other very well (albeit for all the wrong reasons), I can't help but to show a wry smile as well.
"I'm also happy for you girls but please, keep those kinds of topics within yourselves. I can't concentrate while driving this carriage for a while now," Saku said.
'Get used to it,' I keep telling to him many times. With each passing day, it's getting more and more difficult for both of us to keep up with that mantra.
In life, death, and in business: the least thing we can do for ourselves is to endure.
"Big Bro, look!" A few minutes later, Saki pointed her finger and said, "there's another carriage over there!"
Aoi and I also looked at the direction ahead of us, and we also saw the carriage from far away.
"Looks like they're going to the capital just like us...but why are their carriage not moving?"
"Maybe they had a problem with the wheels or something. Can we help them, Big Bro?"
"I'm not sure if I can, but I will try if that is the problem," he replied.
"...Stop the carriage!"
Aoi yelled all of a sudden, causing the horses to become distressed as they stopped moving.
Surprised, Saku asked: "W-Why did you tell me to stop? Is there something wrong?"
Without saying anything, Aoi jumped out of the carriage. Clueless as to what she's up to, the three of us also followed suit.
'What's wrong with her, is her bladder about to burst now?' Saku whispered to me, trying not to let either Saki or Aoi hear it.
'If she really is, she won't act like that.'
One thing is for sure: something's not right.
Upon arrival we noticed that the horses that are supposed to be on their yokes are nowhere to be found. The carriage's canvas walls are also damaged, as if slashed by a sharp object.
"What in the world happened here..." Saku spoke grievously.
"Bandits, no doubt," I replied, showing them a ripped piece of brown cloth stained with blood.
"T-That's..." Saki placed her hand on her chest, shocked.
Meanwhile Aoi kept a vigilant gaze as she looked around her surroundings. Then, suddenly--
"...Everyone, get down!!!"
At that moment a violent gust of wind came swiftly from the opposite side of the road towards us, and passed over our heads, rending the trees behind us into shreds.
What in the--
Two more swift gusts came from the same direction, one hitting the abandoned carriage causing it to be blown away, and the other went astray of its straight path and headed towards the trees on our right instead.
"You two--stay behind. Aoi, protect them," I spoke to them softly.
"...Nn," Aoi nodded in agreement.
"Ren, Aoi--what's going on?!" With the sudden display of destruction showing in front of them the Rainen siblings became perplexed, and their bodies quivered with fear behind us.
I can see that it's their first time being caught in a situation like this. Of course--because unlike the usual route, this road is devoid of any guarding knight's presence, and criminals thrive in such kind of place.
Taking out the dagger from my back pocket, I yelled: "Show yourselves already, there's no use in hiding at this point!"
Even though I'm not expecting any of them to respond, a dark-skinned man appeared from the thick vegetation, wearing nothing on his upper body as he proudly carried a strange sword on his back.
Embedded on the handle of the sword, is a shining black crystal, and for some reason there's an ominous feeling when I look at it.
"Ah--'nlike tha first group from earliah, ya bunch hav'a lot mo' backbone. Int'resting."
His way of speaking features some accent that I couldn't recognize, that I find some of his words unintelligible. Nevertheless, I could still detect the sarcasm behind it.
"Where are those people that you said?" I asked, looking at him with a serious expression.
"Why wou' I tell ya?" He raised his eyebrows at me. "A' ya a rel'tive?"
"Then I won' tell ya w'er they a'," he showed his teeth as he grinned wide. Gold teeth. Such sight made the girls look away from the man in revulsion.
"I see," I nodded slightly.
Taking his sword from his back, he said: "Quit pretendin' to be a tough guy fo' ya friends. Hand o'er tha' carriage o'er there, and no one will be hurt."
As soon as he said that, a group of ten or so people appeared around us, each holding a smaller version of the sword he's holding. All of them are eager and itching to ransack our carriage.
While carefully looking at each of their faces, something came out of my left field.
"Those guys...are those your subordinates?"
"Tha's right. What of it?" He asked.
"Nothing," I took a deep breath and said, "I just feel like collecting some reward money today."
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