“It’s s-so cold…”
“Put this on.”
Shin took out a fur-lined coat and gave it to the shivering Tiera. On the other side, Yuzuha cuddled closer to her to warm her up.
Thanks to Kagerou’s limitless energy, the horse carriage kept running onward, at a speed surpassing even that of a car. Because of this, they had already traveled a considerable distance.
According to Mitsuyo, they had already covered half of the distance from Fuji to Kunitsuna’s location.
As they proceeded northward, they began to see traces of snow two days after leaving Fuji. Now, a silvery white world spread all around them and the scenery around the carriage became visibly different three days after their departure.
They couldn’t even see the bare ground because of the snow, but Kagerou had no trouble proceeding.
“To think that we had to turn the carriage into a sled…”
“Looks like our destination will be covered in snow.”
Shin had moved to the coachman’s seat and exchanged words with Schnee. Both were wearing heavy, furry coats and thick trousers. They also wore gloves and anti-freezing boots, making them well-equipped for the cold from head to toe.
No matter how resistant the body was to the cold, even if it didn’t hinder movement, the feeling of being cold would remain.
Schnee claimed to be perfectly alright in her normal clothing, but the other party members protested that just looking at her made them cold, so she wore thicker clothing too.
Furthermore, to ride through snowy landscapes without any countermeasures for the cold would make them look unusual in any strangers’ eyes; especially Filma with her high ratio of exposed skin.
The inside of the carriage had been remodeled and was warmer than outside, but because of the materials used it still felt chilling. For these reasons Tiera, Filma, and the others wore warmer clothing too.
On the other hand Shibaid, who equipped a low-quality full body armor to hide his identity, simply wore a coat over it.
Mitsuyo, being a weapon, said she would not need anything, but Shin and the others forced her to change her attire and wear a coat. A kimono and winter coats would be an absolute mismatch.
“Oh, a pack of Snow Fangs…just ran off.”
A group of white wolf-type monsters appeared in Shin’s detection range, but ran off scared of Kagerou’s presence. Their course until now had been a continuous series of such events, as Shin’s party proceeded straight ahead towards their destination, without the smallest skirmish.
“Mitsuyo, is this the correct direction?”
“Yes, straight ahead. Is there something wrong?”
“Looks like we need to pass through a forest. Everyone, we’re getting off for a while.”
The carriage stopped just before the forested area and the party started walking.
Because of the heavy snow, the party proceeded at a relatively slow pace. From the depths of the forest, from inside the snow, monster eyes were fixated on them. They seemed to understand that they would be no match for the group: after a short glance, they all quickly left.
Among them, certain presences kept following them at a distance.
“Yes. They’re maintaining a circle surrounding us. Their presence suppression and coordinated movements are far too good for mere robbers.”
Shin and Schnee, while continuing to walk on, verified the numbers of the group chasing after them.
Filma, Shibaid, and Mitsuyo acted naturally, but were ready to draw their weapons at any time.
“There aren’t supposed to be any villages around here, right?”
Tiera, being sensitive to other people’s gazes, also noticed that they were being observed. Speaking without letting her breathing become irregular, she tightened the grip on her bow.
“There might be something near our destination. Or maybe they’re just a band of thieves. We’ll see when we get there. If we keep going forward like this, there’ll be some reaction sooner or later.”
Reassured by the optimistic Shin, the party continued to walk through the pathless forest.
Their surrounding continued for about another 15 minutes: as they arrived close to a mountain, an arrow struck the snow next to Shin’s feet.
“Looks like they won’t let us go any further.”
“Hmph, if they’re thieves they will just taste our blades.”
“Well, let’s hear what they have to say first. One of them is getting closer.”
After trying to make the hot-blooded Mitsuyo cool down, Shin faced towards the approaching presence.
What appeared from between the trees was a young girl, dressed in black and red ceremonial garb, which Shin felt he had already seen before.
She was also wearing an overcoat on her robes.
Well-defined facial features and animal ears on her head. The young maiden’s ears, colored light brown like the hair tied behind her neck, pointed straight up because of her nervousness.
“That’s an “『Immaculate Robe』, isn’t it. It’s my first time meeting an Onmyoji here.”
“As I thought, you are not simple travellers who got lost in the forest.”
The young girl wearing black priestess clothing seemed to have heard Shin talking to himself and replied, her diffidence clearly expressed in her tone of voice.
“——Rindou Suzune Level 210 Onmyoji”
Shin’s 【Analyze】 showed the girl’s information. Based on their level, she was probably the most experienced in the group surrounding them.
“We came here to find a certain katana located somewhere ahead. We have no hostile intentions towards you all. Won’t you let us go?”
“A katana? …ah!? Do you mean that your target is that? In that case, we cannot let you pass.”
For reasons unknown to Shin and his party, Suzune took an enchanted charm from inside her robe and assumed a fighting stance.
Her reaction told Shin and the group that trouble was brewing.
“A fighting stance so suddenly? That’s quite aggressive of you.”
“I had predicted that someone would come for Onimaru. But as long as we stand, you will not do as you please!!”
Suzune’s tone became more and more belligerent. Having clearly heard her say the name Onimaru, Shin realized they wouldn’t have been able to avoid having to deal with her.
The surrounding circle gradually grew smaller and smaller. Figuring it was the only way, Shin talked again to Suzune.
“You, could you be from “Black Priestess Shrine”?”
“Do not feign ignorance. Who else would wear robes such as these!?”
“Black Priestess Shrine” was the name of a guild in the game era, hence Shin’s question.
“I just wanted to make sure. If I was wrong, it’d cause trouble. Let me ask one more thing, then: is Kuchinashi still around?”
“!? How do you know that name!?”
Suzune’s expression became even sharper because of her heightened surprise and caution.
The name Shin had mentioned, Kuchinashi, was the name of Black Priestess Shrine’s guildmaster. She was one of the players who had died during the Death Game, so Shin mentioned it thinking that it might be connected to the present situation.
Judging from Suzune’s reaction, it was clear that she at least knew the name.
“For now, we will not go any further than this. In exchange…yes, please report that the master of “Demi Eden” has come with his entourage.”
After finishing his request, Shin took his hand off the hilt of his weapon, showing his lack of hostility. He wouldn’t go as far as put the weapon away, though.
“….fair enough. Ayame, you were listening, right? Go!”
“I request you to, by my authority.”
Following Suzune’s order, one of the units surrounding the group left towards the direction Shin’s party was headed in.
“Is it okay to just let her go?”
“The Kuchihashi I know wouldn’t resort to violence. Let’s just take a short rest.”
“….if you say so, then all right.”
Mitsuyo saw Shin relax his stance and sighed; she had grown tense for nothing.
“Let me make some tea, so that we don’t get too cold.”
Schnee proceeded to take a teapot and teacups from the item box.
Suzune was surprised to see that, but Schnee paid no mind to her and went on to create an oven with earth magic, then lit a fire to boil water.
Shin took out a table and chairs and the whole party sat at leisure. Only Tiera was still a little tense.
“What is wrong with you people…”
Suzune looked absolutely perplexed at the group’s nonchalance, despite the fact that weapons were still pointed at them.
“I said that we have no intention of fighting, didn’t I? Do you guys want a cup too? I bet the cold is chilling you too.”
“Nonsense! Who would ever accept that offer!?”
Suzune’s retort was almost a roar; she probably thought they were making fun of her.
After about 30 minutes of waiting, the girl called Ayame returned.
“….Really? Understood. Thank you.”
Ayame related her report without letting Shin and the others hear. Suzune thanked her and let her go back to her post.
“Lady Kuchinashi will see you. Come with me.”
Her dissatisfaction clearly visible on her face, Suzune turned her back to Shin‘s group and ran off.
“Looks like she’ll be our guide, let’s go.”
“Does this mean that lady Kuchinashi crossed “over here” too?”
“Judging from their reaction, looks like she did. Kuchinashi is a high elf like you, Schnee, so even if she arrived here 100 years ago, it wouldn’t be strange for her to still be alive.”
Shin and the others talked between themselves while following Suzune. She was clearly used to traveling through the forest, as she chose the easiest courses to proceed on.
As they emerged from the forest, the scenery changed completely.
“Looks like the guildhouse never changed.”
Shin reacted plainly to Tiera’s utter surprise at the view before them..
What surprised Tiera so much was that, signaled by a Torii gate, there seemed to be an invisible wall, beyond which the scenery changed completely.
There was not a single trace of snow in the area beyond the Torii, which instead showed an idyllic spring-like scenery.
Production facilities could be seen such as fields and rice paddies, then buildings reminiscent of smithies too. Thanks to it being located at a slightly higher altitude, Shin and the group could see a shrine’s main building and prayer hall in the distance.
“Mitsuyo, what’s Kunitsuna’s direction?”
“Straight this way. Beyond the large building over there.”
Mitsuyo replied while pointing towards the shrine. Shin thought at first that the presence of the guildhouse in the direction they were heading could have been a coincidence, but now changed his mind.
At the very least, Suzune must have known something.
“I see the entrance is still the Torii.”
“They’re also dressed the same as before.”
Shibaid and Filma casually commented after seeing the guildhouse. All of Shin’s support characters, Schnee included, knew the Black Priestess Shrine’s guildhouse from the game era.
“Kuu, shrine, good.”
Yuzuha, whose territory once hosted a shrine, seemed happy at the sight.
As the group followed Suzune through the gate, the stinging cold instantly turned mellower. The winter wear worn by Shin and the group was excessive now, so they all took off their heavy coats and other gear, returning to lighter attires.
“Lady Kuchinashi awaits here. Be sure to show proper respect.”
Suzune had led them to the shrine’s prayer hall, as Shin thought she would.
Only its external appearance was that of a prayer hall, though: the interior was completely different. Being a guildhouse, it contained several facilities such as warehouses, and of course traps to hinder monsters and enemy attacks.
Even under many pairs of watchful eyes, Shin did not miss this opportunity to map the interior of the building.
After turning several corners, following a maze-like course, they arrived in the room farthest from the entrance, the guildmaster’s quarters.
Suzune spoke to the priestess in charge of security, and after a few seconds of silence the door opened.
The room, decorated with Japanese-style ornaments and objects, was immersed in silence. The footsteps and rustling of clothes Shin and the party caused echoed louder than normal.
The room’s owner was sitting at a small table, apparently engaged in battle against paperwork.
“Welcome. I thought it was someone pretending to be you at first, but I see we have the real Shin here. I’m glad to see that your support friends are well too. Two of them I’m not familiar with though.”
So spoke the woman as she wrapped up the paperwork: Kuchinashi, former player and guildmaster of Black Priestess Shrine.
Her waist-length red hair gently waved as she stood up. Eyes black like the night, resembling obsidian gemstones, looked straight at Shin from behind under-frame glasses.
Looking at her, Shin thought that while she was originally pale-skinned, her complexion was somewhat sickly.
——–Kuchinashi Level 255 Purification Priestess
The information displayed by 【Analyze】 was just as Shin remembered.
“It’s been a long time. I did not think I would have the chance of meeting you again. Did you lose some weight?”
“I believe that’s where you ask “Aren’t you more beautiful than before?”, instead.”
Kuchinashi raised her eyebrows and rebuked Shin. Her expression showed that she hadn’t expected Shin to notice.
“Anyway, I know it’s strange for me to say this, but was it alright to let us inside? I think that you know me from when I was in a rather dangerous state…”
“That’s right…concerning when I last saw you. But I knew that deep inside you, there was no hate.”
Kuchinashi’s judgment had been caused by her seeing Shin before and after the change.
“Even if you were an impostor, if you meant to harm me within the guildhouse, you’d need to at least be on par with Schnee, as far as fighting prowess goes. In the current world, it’s pretty impossible for many people of that level to be in the same party. They would become famous in a flash too. And well, my woman’s intuition told me so too.”
Raising her index finger in a told-you-so gesture, Kuchinashi chuckled.
Guildhouse masters’ abilities were powered up inside their guildhouses. Kuchinashi had realized that this Shin was not an impostor thanks to the name and level displayed by her reinforced 【Analyze】.
Facing a fully prepared guildmaster inside their guildhouse would be very difficult without a large difference in stats.
“So, I heard that you’re looking for a katana?”
Shin knew Kuchinashi and what kind of person she was, so he briefly explained that one of the Five Supreme Blades was supposed to be in the area.
“I see…when I saw the name of the ponytail girl I had a hunch, but in this case, I’ll tell you what I know. In short, we know where it is. But some time ago we made a series of mistakes and…were now undecided about what to do. Now that you’re here, though, we should be able to solve this.”
“Leave it to us. By the way, the girl that guided us here seemed to know about Onimaru too.”
Suzune had mentioned Onimaru’s name, showing great hostility towards Shin. Maybe she was connected somehow.
“Suzune, right. OK, I’ll explain about her too, so will you stay and listen?”
Kuchinashi motioned to Shin and the others to sit down and ordered the priestess outside to bring something to drink.
After the priestess brought tea with sweets and left, Kuchinashi started talking.
“First, we confirmed the presence of 『Onimaru Kunitsuna』, one of the Five Supreme Blades, around 5 years ago. It was in the depths of “Cadaver Realm”, a dungeon that appeared close to our guild house. It’s a dungeon with an entrant limit, only 4 people are allowed inside at the same time.”
In the game era too, dungeons that could be explored only by obeying specific conditions (limits on party members, weapons, etc) existed. The dungeon where Onimaru was located appeared to be of this type.
Kuchinashi continued by saying that when the Black Priestess Shrine members explored the dungeon, they didn’t know about Onimaru’s presence.
“Shin, do you know the word “Chosen One”?”
“Yes, it refers to whoever has a resurrection bonus, right? The stats change from person to person though.”
“Exactly. The members who explored the dungeon that time were all Chosen Ones. The War Priestess Kotone, especially, had STR and DEX over 700. It was supposed to be a party of considerable fighting power, and yet…”
Despite this, only one member returned alive.
According to the survivor, although they suffered casualties they managed to defeat the boss that wielded Onimaru, but the boss’ corpse released a black mist-like substance, which swallowed both Onimaru and Kotone.
“After that, I chose other members and had them inspect the boss room again; they reported seeing Kotone, Onimaru in hand, standing in the middle of the room. It looks like she has been made part of the dungeon and acts as its boss now. When they tried to talk to her, they were attacked.”
Kuchinashi had ordered the scouting members to come back as soon as anything happened, so they retreated right away.
Defeating her could probably bring her back to her senses, but because of the combination of Kotone’s abilities and Onimaru’s stats, no one could best her.
Kuchinashi could be considered an advanced player, but because of the large difference in equipment, she didn’t have enough confidence to step up to the challenge.
Furthermore, there was also the possibility that what happened to Kotone could affect Kuchinashi too, so many were against the idea of the guildmaster facing Kotone in person.
“Some members tell me that they would like to try to face her, but only 3 of them could be suitable, ability-wise. Suzune, the girl who guided you here, is the most able of the three. Suzune is also Kotone’s younger sister, so she trained desperately to hone her skills, in order to save her..”
“I see. When we were surrounded, she was the only one to show a kind of excessive reaction…so that was the reason.”
Freeing Onimaru meant defeating Kotone. Shin’s party, ignorant of her circumstances, could have dealt with Kotone thinking she was just a monster.
Shin thought that Suzune’s concern about this risk had been expressed through her reaction.
“This is all the information I can tell you. And so, there is something I would like to ask you to do, Shin…”
“To recover Onimaru and save Kotone, I guess?”
“Yes, exactly, but I would also like you to bring Suzune with you. She is one of the Chosen Ones with the highest abilities here and can also use 【Dispel Omen】, so I am sure she can prove herself useful for the rescue.”
Being an Onmyoji, she could prove herself useful in various ways, commanding spirits both to locate enemies and in battle. Kuchinashi reassured Shin that, at least against the monsters in the dungeon, she wouldn’t be a burden.
“If possible, I would like for all 4 members to be from my group though.”
Shin, obviously, then the all-purpose type Schnee, Mitsuyo from the Five Supreme Blades, then Tiera, who succeeded in purifying Yasutsuna. These would have been the best members.
“I thought that the Supreme Blade counted as weapon, though.”
“….I wonder. I don’t know how that works either. If Mitsuyo is not counted as one of the 4, we can take Suzune with us. After all, someone under foreign control could wake up if a family member calls to them. Thinking about our current situation, I don’t think that things like that can be disregarded.”
Shin was experiencing a real world created exactly like a video game after all.
No one can tell what might or might not happen. Thus a miracle like that was very possible.
“Let us verify if Suzune can come with you or not first then. If it’s possible, we can discuss how to work together later.”
Kuchinashi called to someone outside the room, ordering them to lead Shin’s group to the dungeon.
The priestess in charge of guiding them, Ayame, exited the guildhouse grounds via a Torii gate located opposite from the one Shin’s party used to enter.
Taking a long time just for a confirmation seemed pointless, so they started running and arrived at the dungeon in about 15 minutes.
In the middle of the forest lied a run-down fort. Possibly to contain the effects of the miasma, the trees all around the fort were tied together with votive rope and blessed charms were attached to their trunks.
“If you enter the fort and proceed straight you will find the entrance to the dungeon.”
Ayame informed the group in detail about their destination and they headed towards the entrance.
In order to check what Mitsuyo would be classified as, Shin, Schnee, Tiera, Shibaid, and Mitsuyo tried to enter the dungeon together.
“….doesn’t look like there are any problems, right?”
“Indeed, it appears lady Mitsuyo is not counted as a person.”
Shibaid looked around and answered Shin’s question.
They were 5, Mitsuyo included. Yet the dungeon supposedly identified them as 4 people and 1 weapon.
“So this means that we can take Suzune with us too. Well well, let’s see what happens next.”
Shin mumbled to himself as they traced back their steps out of the dungeon.
The entrance to “Cadaver Realm” remained fully open, as if inviting Shin and the party inside.