Thinking it had heard the cry of a beast in the distance, the figure pulled back with a start.
After taking the time to slowly survey its surroundings, it began walking again.
However, its steps were unsteady. Swaying like a branch in the wind, it limped on, one step at a time.
She was wearing a flight suit for riding in an airship. It was torn all over, but the reason the skin was completely exposed at her arm was because she had ripped the cloth herself. She had wrapped it around her head. There were faint bloodstains through the cloth.
Even her sense of time was vague. She felt like she had been walking almost forever, but also like it had been less than an hour since she started.
But the darkness had certainly increased.
Which means… At least ten hours. A mist seemed to be hanging over her consciousness and she was just barely able to muster that thought in a corner of her head.
It was certain that the fighting had broken out just before dawn. She had tried to stop the war, but her abilities had not been up to the task. In the end, gunfire had been exchanged near the border.
Even so, she had unable to give up. She had flown an airship. To dampen the enemy’s spirit, she had gone so far as to pretend to hurl herself at them.
But, as she had been turning around to put some distance between them, a stray shot had hit the ship’s stern.
It could be called good luck amidst misfortune that she had not picked up too much altitude because of the need to threaten the enemy. One moment, she had been thrown from the cockpit and into the air, the next, she found that she had rolled to the bottom of a mountain path.
When she recovered consciousness, the cacophony of battle had completely and utterly disappeared. Nothing but quiet mountain scenery spread out all around.
Dragging her aching body, she started to make her way back to the airship. If she followed the path upwards, she should find the ship and in it, a map and a compass.
But, no matter how much she climbed, the reality was neither the shadow nor shape of the airship could be seen. And although there had been a battle, she didn’t come across any corpses. By the time she realised that she was moving away from the battlefield, she had already lost all sense of direction.
Her head throbbed with pain. Putting her hand to it, she noticed for the first time that it was bleeding.
Although she tore her clothes into shreds and wound them around her head, it couldn’t erase the uneasy feeling of having been thrown, alone, into an unknown land.
When she remained still, a strange feeling welled up from the bottom of her stomach. Her body trembled and she instinctively wanted to scream.
So she pressed forward aimlessly. If she stopped, she would have to recognise that the feeling could only be called fear. By now, the path had started to go downwards. Even though she had decided to continue down when she had been looking at it from above, as she walked along it with unsteady steps, for some reason she found herself walking along an upwards sloping path again.
There were no signs of life.
Even when she strained her ears, all she could hear was the chirping of birds. The echoes of swords and of gunfire didn’t reach her at all.
Thinking about it, changing direction back there had been a mistake. In the end, she was just getting more and more lost.
Her surroundings were gradually enveloped in darkness. Noticing that, her fretfulness increased. At night, this was the kind of scenery that was meant to be gazed at from inside, through a window. But now, she was in the middle of it. The light was gone and she had to continue walking alone, in this cold world, without a scrap of warmth.
Wasn’t there a light to be seen somewhere?
Wasn’t there even a single fire lit by human hands flickering somewhere?
As though trying to escape from the night that was looming closer by the minute, she quickened her steps. But she wasn’t used to walking such long distances. Although she had confidence in her physical strength, her joints were heavy and she was already panting raggedly.
She felt overwhelmed.
Was she really this helpless, she wondered. A proud heart, a strong-willed gaze, able to throw out her chest and face any kind of difficulty at any time. That was the kind of person she was supposed to be. And yet, as soon as she took a single step away from human dwellings, and as soon as the people who protected her were all gone, she was in this state.
Her headache kept getting worse.
When she became aware of it, she stopped and leaned against a nearby tree. She had intended to start walking again after she had caught her breath a little, but she slowly started sinking down. Even though there had still been some daylight until a moment ago, in this area of close-growing trees, it was already as dark as night; or perhaps the sun had sunk without her noticing. As though lulled by the darkness, her eyelids involuntarily dropped.
I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep. I can’t go to sleep – she thought, but her body already felt far away. Her legs wouldn’t listen to her, exactly as though they belonged to another person; and the unbearable pain in her head was gradually fading into the distance.
In its place, innumerable waves as black as night were creeping into her consciousness. There was no fighting against the exhaustion of both body and mind; finally, her posture collapsed completely, just as her eyelids had done, and she remained unmoving.
Far away, a beast howled again.
The night wind blew as if to spread the darkness in every recess.
Who could say how much time passed.
The rustle of footsteps pushing through the undergrowth approached.
But the figure leaning against the tree didn’t stir. She had entirely lost consciousness.
At the same time, at the Dragon God Shrine in Solon, the imperial capital of Mephius – a woman who was known for being a more pious devotee than anyone else in the palace stood, alone and immobile, before the altar. Her eyes were closed and her head bowed as though she were offering up a prayer.
Empress Melissa Mephius.
Her plump red lips stood out in her lovely face which, in spite of her age, was like a young girl’s. Those lips seemed to move into the shape of a smile and, there where no one was, they whispered,
“The hunting dogs have been released.”