9 – Take Two
Aria woke to the sound of a crackling fire and the scent of roasting meat. It was nostalgic, reminding her of a time long in the past. Perhaps because of that, Aria was slow to gain her bearings. Bleary emerald eyes scanned her surroundings, taking in the environment.
Towering ancient trees, giant roots, and darkness. From nearby, a fire crackled, tended to by a man wearing a gray cape over black clothing. By his side, there was a pail filled with water, along with some cups made of a dark material. His back was turned, preventing Aria from seeing his face, but she recognized him as the one who saved her earlier.
Over the fire, meat was being roasted upon skewers. From those skewers, a savory and rich scent drifted by.
Aria’s stomach rumbled when the scent reached her and for some reason she felt her throat tighten up. Her vision blurred. Confused, she blinked and found a trail of tears streaming down her cheeks. She flushed and quickly brushed them away.
At that time, an emotionless voice said, “The elf is awake, my Master.”
Aria flinched and scrambled towards the man at the fire. Her eyes flitted towards the speaker to see a beautiful woman with silver hair standing not far from where Aria woke up. That woman was dressed in a simple black dress, but one that didn’t detract from her beauty.
At that time, the man turned around and his eyes met Aria’s own.
For the first time, Aria managed to get a clear look at the face of the one who saved her.
Average. There was nothing special about his appearance. One could even argue that it was a face that wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. Or rather, that it was a forgettable face with no distinguishing features.
Even so, Aria knew that face. Knew that man. It was a feeling that came from deep within, somewhere beyond her memories. Yet, she couldn’t remember. She knew him, and yet didn’t know him. Staring at that plain and forgettable face, indiscernible emotions settled in her heart.
Before Aria could sort them out, the man spoke. “Relax,” he said. “You’re safe now.”
Safe. The word seemed foreign now after everything that had happened to her. Yet, when it was spoken by the man, it was familiar and calming.
The man brushed the ground on his right and said, “Have a seat. It won’t be much longer before the meat is cooked.”
Aria sat beside him.
Seeing that, the man nodded and went back to tending the fire with a black stick. During that time, the silver haired woman walked over and knelt on the man’s left.
For a while, there was only the sound of crackling fire. The man seemed content with the silence while the silver-haired woman simply acquiesced.
Aria stared into the fire, occasionally casting glances towards the man.
Eventually, the man said, “Nowun.”
Nowun. Hearing that name caused her heart to race. But she didn’t let that show on her face. Instead, she smiled and said, “I’m Aria. Thank you for saving me.”
It was a redo. The events that should have unfolded the first time were playing out now that I was strong enough to face what came next.
Aria let out a pleasant smile from beside me and then shifted her gaze back towards the fire, the tips of her ears flushing red.
…She was stronger than I thought. Or was this the effect of my title? Either way, it seemed that I wouldn’t need to console her over what happened.
That was good. I wouldn’t know what to say if I had to.
Still, this development… it was ‘that’, right? The cliché of saving the beautiful heroine not long after entering the world and then having her fall in love with the protagonist.
…Well, in this time, I suppose I’d gone with a devoted slave heroine initially instead of that.
It was cliché, but hopefully it wasn’t predictable. That goddess seemed to at least be intrigued by the developments unfolding if she took the time to leave a message in the status screen of Aria’s eldest sister.
Time passed in comfortable silence until the meat was cooked. While it had been in dubious condition when Saphira returned, it was (thankfully) still Black Steel Boar and so shouldn’t taste too bad.
“Here.” I offered a skewer to Aria and said, “You’re hungry, right? Eat up.”
“Thank you.” She accepted it with a bright smile. Holding both ends of the skewer, she carefully blew on the meat to cool it and then took small nibbles, her eyes lighting up with every bite.
It was adorable. The pure actions of a beautiful maiden, unblemished by the cruel world. At least, that should have been the case. But with such a crappy goddess in charge of this world, scenes like the one before me were but fleeting dreams.
Aria caught me staring and then said, “Aren’t you going to eat, Nowun?”
“I’ll eat after you’ve had your fill. Ah, don’t hold back. There’s still plenty more to cook if need be.”
After all, Saphira had been a bit enthusiastic in fulfilling my request…
“Okay. Then… I’ll help myself.” With those words said, Aria continued to eat, enjoying each bite.
I poured a cup of water and set it beside Aria before turning my attention back to my faithful companion bathing in the flames.
Although once an ordinary stick, it had long been dyed with my mana and turned into a weapon rivaling divine armaments. I was tempted to examine its status, but considering that it would definitely be visible by the goddess, I refrained. The time for that would come later, after I ran some trials with Information Concealment.
For now, I tempered my faithful companion in the flames, slowly weaving it with darkness and chaos to strengthen its form.
“Alright. I’m finished.”
Aria’s voice drew me out of my thoughts.
The young elf smiled and bowed her head slightly. “Thank you again for the food.”
Aria nodded. “Yes. It was delicious.”
Silence again. I wanted to avoid it, but in the end, I had to address the issue even if I didn’t want to. “Aria.”
I gently set my faithful companion down and then turned towards Aria.
She was smiling. Content, happy.
But I had to burst her bubble.
“What do you plan to do next?”
Aria’s smile froze.
The future was bleak. This world no longer held a place for elves save for as humanity’s tools and playthings. Perhaps there was a resistance hidden somewhere, but if there was they would fail to restore the Ancient Forest and Alvheim to their former glory.
Aria was silent, her smile slowly slipping away. Eventually, she said, “…I don’t know.” She sighed. “When Alvheim was attacked, I didn’t think. All I did was run. Run, and not look back. Seeing what was happening to my sisters, I couldn’t bear to think of that happening to me. I couldn’t care to think of anyone else. I just… ran.”
What could I say to that? Console her? Any words I said would come off as pity. Rebuke her? How could I when I agreed with her course of action? Affirm her decision? Even if I could ignore the weight of her actions, she would never be able to.
Aria continued. “I… want to make it up to them. Or… I wanted to. But my eldest sister… Tani. She… doesn’t even…”
Was she going to cry? She was going to cry. A beautiful young woman was going to break out in tears right next to me.
I sighed and reached out to pat her left shoulder.
Aria tensed, but then she leaned her head and rested it on my hand.
I froze, but didn’t pull it away.
“…Thank you, Nowun.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure that your sister will come around.”
Aria shook her head. “Scattered leaves forever scorn the wind. My sister and my people… they will never forgive me. Since that’s the case, I…” Aria shook her head. “…What do I do, Nowun? My home is gone, my family hates me, and humans are hunting my kind down to the last. What do I do? …What can I do?”
Aria’s voice came out in a soft whisper. Lost. Alone. Melancholic. That beautiful voice was tinged in despair.
But it shouldn’t be? The impact of having her eldest sister reject her with such malice must have been greater than I thought. Or were such feelings present in the other times as well? In that case, then did I send her even deeper into despair by leaving her behind?
I sighed. “…If you don’t have anywhere else to go, would you like to come along with me? It’s probably going to be a bit dangerous but-“
Aria lifted her head and stared at me with bright eyes.
I suggested it because I felt like I had to take responsibility, but it seemed like Aria was looking forward to it?
“Finally, we can travel together! I promise that I’ll be of use to you this… time…? Eh? What did I… just say?”
Aria was pale, a sheen of sweat appearing on her forehead. She blinked and looked around, her emerald eyes rapidly scanning the surroundings. “This… that’s strange. Why does this seem so familiar… ah! My head…!”
Aria’s cry of pain brought me back to reality. “Calm down,” I said. “Your memories are probably jumbled because of stress and trauma. Don’t think too hard about it.”
“…Okay.” Aria let out a long sigh. “I trust you, Nowun.”
“Just breathe. Take deep breaths. Relax.”
Aria nodded and did what I said.
In the meantime, my brain worked overtime in analyzing what she just said.
This time. Aria had definitely said ‘this time’. That meant that she remembered the other times, even if just subconsciously.
My eyes flitted towards Saphira.
The silver-haired woman… no, the silver-haired dragon was still kneeling on the ground. She noticed my gaze, but perhaps sensing my mood, she quickly averted her eyes.
…Did she remember as well, somewhere deep down? No, more importantly, that goddess!
My heart skipped a beat.
“Nowun? I’m sorry to have worried you, but I’m fine now.”
Aria’s voice drew me back to the present. While a bit of sweat still shone on her forehead, she didn’t seem as pale.
I let out a long breath and then smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. Then, put this on.” I reached beside me and picked up a bundle of clothing before tossing it at Aria.
The young elf was surprised, but she managed to catch it in time. Unfolding it revealed a form-fitting dress of dark violet threads with a couple of straps around on end to loop around the shoulders and hold it up.
Aria blushed at first on seeing the design, but her embarrassment soon turned into shock. “This dress… Nowun, I can’t-“
“We don’t have much time.”
I grabbed my faithful companion and put out the fire, erasing all signs of our presence with Information Concealment. “Saphira. Help Aria change.”
“Understood, my Master.” The silver-haired woman rose to her feet and walked towards Aria.
The young elf flinched and took a step back. “W-Wait a minute…”
“Be still, elf.” Saphira reached out with her hands. “It will be over sooner if you do not resist.”
I closed my eyes, quickly running over the clues I had found. However, I didn’t dare voice them. Even now, my thoughts could be heard, could be seen.
Low moans sounded from nearby, but I ignored them.
Entertainment. That was what I had to provide.
Information. That was what I lacked.
“Uuuuu… that was mean, Nowun.”
I opened my eyes.
Aria was standing nearby, having changed into the dress I gave her. The dark violet clung tight to her body, leaving almost nothing to the imagination, and accentuated her curves. At the same time, the magic woven into its form concealed Aria’s ears, replacing them with human ones. That magic also granted her a physical and mana resistance equivalent to my own.
Barring a truly ‘cheat-level’ attack, she was safe as long as she wore that dress.
Aria shifted side to side. “Uu… it’s embarrassing if you look at me like that, Nowun.”
“…Good. It fits you well.”
“D-does it?” Aria rubbed her hands against the fabric of her dress and said, “I’ve never worn anything like this before, so-“
“Like this, you won’t die from our travel speed.”
“Saphira. Carry her and follow me.”
The silver-haired woman nodded. “Understood, my Master.”
“We head north, to the Human Empire.” I kicked off the ground, blurring through the Ancient Forest.
Behind me, Aria’s screams echoed without end.
…Of course, I stopped them with Information Concealment, so it was fine.