Dia, who was smiling so happily for some reason, explained to Loren and the others as soon as they stepped onto the ground that the distance between her base and Mt. Fire Flute was not very great.
Loren did not notice it until he was told, but when he looked in the direction Dia was pointing, he could indeed see a rocky mountain standing alone at a distance that was not close but also not that far away. After looking intently at what Dia was pointing at for a while, he muttered to himself.
“There’s no smoke.”
Given the name and the information that dragons were said to live there, Loren’s image of Mt. Fire Flute was that of a volcano with black smoke rising up here and there and bright red flames occasionally erupted. However, even though the mountain that stood alone at the end of the road was indeed a steep-looking mountain with bare rock surfaces from a distance, there was no black smoke or even white smoke rising up anywhere from it. In other words, it was just like what they had been informed about the mountain before they accepted the commission.
As Loren thought that it was only natural that he didn’t notice this mountain the last time he came to Dia’s base, the Elder withdrew her pointing finger and scratched her head.
“That’s right. It’s not an interesting mountain.”
She then walked to the wagon that Loren’s party had come on and hopped on to the back, taking up a position right behind the driver’s bench. She was dressed in the same dress she had been wearing at the base, which, although unadorned, did not look like something for walking outside. Loren, who was impressed by how lightly she could move in such an outfit, sat down next to Lapis, who took the reins, while Gula and Nim sat at the back.
Nim might have sat at a distance from Dia purely because she was afraid of the existence of the Elder, but Gula apparently chose to keep her distance because she felt threatened by what Dia might do if she sat too close to her. As Loren thought that she was only being treated badly because she deserved it, Lapis lightly pulled the reins and began to drive the wagon.
“We’re within sight of it. We’ll be at the foot of the mountain by nightfall.”
“If nothing happens.”
After arriving at Dia’s base, they had spent some time resting and chatting there. The base was located a short distance from the road, and Loren estimated that if they returned to the road and then went to Mt. Fire Flute, their destination, they would arrive by evening. He had also considered the possibility of heading straight for the mountain from the base without returning to the highway, but that would require driving the wagon over very bad terrain and would take too much time.
He thought that he was probably not wrong, but then he suddenly became aware of the stares coming from behind and turned around to see Dia, Gula, and Nim all looking at him with somewhat reproachful stares.
“If you keep talking like that, something will definitely happen.”
“Loren, that was careless. You should be careful with what you say.”
“On the contrary, I’d prefer it if something does happen.”
Loren turned his head in the direction they were going and lightly rolled his back lightly, trying to escape the gazes of the three girls. Lapis was watching him with a chuckle.
Despite such incidents, their group returned to the highway and continued southward toward Mt. Fire Flute after leaving Dia’s base.
Nim and Gula were bracing themselves for something to happen, but contrary to their mild accusation of his slip, their wagon was able to make its way along the road without encountering any obstacles, and the rest of the journey was uneventful.
The truth was, Loren had been worried that something might have happened, but their group proceeded smoothly and finally arrived at the foot of Mt. Fire Flute.
Nim and Gula each looked in the opposite direction, trying to escape Loren’s staring eyes. Only Dia was looking back at Loren with a frustrated look on her face.
“Isn’t it strange? Won’t saying something like that absolutely make something happen?”
“It’s no use complaining to me. Isn’t it good that nothing happened…? Dia, are you bored that there is nothing to do?”
“Well, the experience of traveling by wagon under the sun was a good way to pass the time.”
Dia chuckled as she uttered the words that no one could expect to come from a highest-ranked vampire.
“It’s much healthier than shutting myself in a basement. From now on, I’ll try to go out more often.”
“It’s horrifying to have a top ranking vampire like an Elder wandering around. Have some self-restraint.”
Vampires walking around in the daytime was something that could strike fear into the hearts of most humans. But if it was an Elder, it was easy to predict that there would be a commotion as big as if the end of the world was coming.
There were apparently about ten or so other Elders in the world besides Dia, but Loren had never heard of any of them going out to kill time without a purpose. In other words, the other Elders had some other reason or method to pass the time, and they did not simply go out and about. He would like to see Dia learn from them in that area.
“I don’t think there are any other Elders as harmless as I am.”
Dia said in a slightly disappointed voice and looked up at Loren. He glared at her, feeling strongly that if he really showed any sympathy right now, she would really go out during the day.
Dia kept looking at Loren for a while, and when she saw that his expression had not changed at all, she turned her back on him. Her expression changed to one of annoyance, and she let out a small, sharp click of her tongue. Loren hoped she would give up on the idea, but inwardly he was nervous.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your pleasantries.”
Loren felt a slight sense of discomfort when Lapis interrupted the conversation. The tone of her voice was one that was not intended for engaging in or making fun of the talk, but to make the listeners uneasy. When he turned to Lapis to see if something was wrong, she was holding the reins and staring straight ahead, but Loren’s eyes could not see what was worth staring at. All he could see was a continuous stretch road and the gradual thickening of trees as they approached the mountains.
“What’s wrong, Lapis?”
“The wind has a strange smell to it. Do you know the geography of this area well, Dia?”
Lapis glanced behind, and Dia, who was leaning forward from the back of the wagon, nodded.
“It’s right around the corner. I’d like to think I know it reasonably well.”
“So, do you know what’s up ahead?”
Lapis pointed to the end of the road. Dia closed her eyes as if recalling something, then quickly opened them and nodded again.
“I believe there is one farming village. There are several farming villages scattered around the foot of Fire Flute Mountain, and this road should have led to one of them.”
Loren wondered if it was because his previous experiences had been so bad that he felt something ominous about the word ‘farming village’.
Even though the sun had begun to go down, the sky was still blue, and the weather was very nice. But Dia said there was a farming village ahead of them, and Lapis said she smelled a strange smell coming from that direction.
“I hope it’s not a sign for this one to come out.”
After concluding that looking up at the sky won’t make things any better, Loren pointed to the greatsword that used to be slung on his back and said.
Lapis glanced at the sword, which had been laid down because it would get in the way of sitting on the bench otherwise, then slightly tilted her head.
“I wonder? But not yet, I think.”
“Is that so?”
Loren had thought that with a farming village at the end of the road and the strange smell Lapis had sensed probably coming from there, they would eventually end up fighting a battle, but Lapis seemed to think differently.
“There is definitely a strange smell, but it doesn’t seem to be new.”
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
Interrupting Loren’s words, Lapis lightly adjusted the reins on the horses and sped the wagon up a bit. Although the road was maintained for being a highway, it was not even, and there were many bumps and dips; as the wagon started running at a high speed, it started swaying violently.
Loren and the others endured the jolting, clenching their teeth lightly so as not to bite their tongues, and not long after Lapis noticed the anomaly, they arrived at one of the farming villages that Dia had mentioned.
After pulling back on the reins and stopping the horses, Lapis took in the scenery of the village that awaited them, and realized what the anomaly she had felt was all about.
“It wasn’t an abandoned village, was it?”
There had indeed been a village there. Because there were traces of what might have been a village in the past.
It was a farming village, and there were fields around it, but they were so overgrown with weeds that it was hard to believe that anyone had ever touched them. The fences that were supposed to enclose the village grounds had been destroyed here and there, rendering them useless. The buildings inside the fences had also been so badly damaged that they did not appear to be inhabited.
Their wagon was able to enter through a break in the fence, revealing an even more terrible situation.
The walls of the destroyed buildings were covered with blackened liquid splattered here and there, and in some places there were burn marks. The ground was covered with disordered footprints, indicating that the inhabitants of this village must have been in a great hurry to get around.
They stopped the wagon and peeked into some of the buildings to see destroyed furniture and debris, probably food, scattered on the floor. The food was either dried out or beginning to rot, indicating that this state of things had not occurred recently.
“It looks as if something attacked them.”
Lapis pointed to a wall of a house that had deep scratches on it, likely the result of some sort of blade being driven into it.
“Some kind of bandits?”
Nim mentioned a likely cause, to which Gula shook her head.
“If it were bandits, there would be a corpse or two lying around. Why are there no dead bodies in the house after all these signs of attack?”
“Maybe they were all taken?”
“I don’t think so. This black spot on the wall is a blood spatter, right? If the wounds were large enough to cause that much blood to splash, there would definitely have been a death toll.”
It was not unusual for bandits to carry off villagers from the villages they attacked. Men were taken as simple labor, while women were taken as objects to satisfy various tastes. There was always a certain demand for both from the not-so-proper class of people, and that meant money, and it was not uncommon for bandits to raid villages for it.
But if, as Gula had said, some of them were so badly wounded that they were bleeding enough to splatter the walls, it was strange that there were no corpses lying on the ground. It was unlikely for the bandits to carry the corpses with them; after all, dead people were not worth money, and bandits were not in a profession where they could afford to carry around things that were not worth money.
“Let’s look into it a little more closely. Maybe we can find out something.”
The day was still bright. Loren believed that if they did not finish their investigation while there was still light, they would not be able to find any good clues after the darkness of night had fallen. That was why he sounded a little rushed, and Lapis and the others, without complaining, immediately scattered to various places in the village to carry out his instructions.