The Strongest In The World Doesn't Have Any Abilities? Book 2 Chapter 74
I immediately recognized their faces the moment they revealed themselves into plain sight: eight of the ten people surrounding us match the facial features drawn on the wanted posters I saw yesterday at that gift shop's porch. I don't know where the others are, but that's not important anymore. Eight wanted criminals, dead or alive, constitute a very hefty sum of money. Although at this moment I'm not actually in need of money, I think such amount would greatly help Sandy Fish in its future endeavors.
Good grief. It's just absurd that, even in the face of danger, one would still think of opportunities to capitalize on the situation. It's not greed or anything, rather, it's human nature to seek whatever gains they could find.
Hearing my declaration the dark-skinned guy with golden teeth stared at me with utter disbelief, then laughed loudly. His subordinates also joined him shortly, turning this desolate strip of road into a rowdy place.
"'Reward moneh', ya say? Don' joke wi' us. Many fools trynna catch us--knights and bounty huntahs alike--but they all failed."
As he grinned, the shine of his gilded teeth dazzled my eyes so bad that I found him hilarious instead of menacing. Geez, cover your mouth already for heck's sake.
Raising his sword up, he said: "Ya see this thing? As long as I hav'a this sword, no one can stop us."
Pretending to be intrigued, I asked, "No one? Even gods?"
"Gods?" He raised his eyebrows and replied, "Damn all the gods. All of them should just die already."
"...H...How dare yo--"
'Temper, temper,' I reminded her. Looking straight into her eyes, I implored her to leave everything to me and do as what I told her earlier. She promptly complied, but not without a hint of dissatisfaction showing on her face.
Continuing with my ploy, I said: "I guess you're right. I've never seen such weapon that could easily destroy anything before. How about I give you an offer? We'll give you our carriage and everything inside it, in exchange for that sword of yours."
Saku and Saki almost instantly voiced out their objection to exchange our carriage for the sword. You two...haven't you realized I'm doing my best to protect both of you?
"As if I'll do tha'!" he roared angrily. "If ya think I'd be fooled by ya tricks, ya'r wrong! No one dared foolin' me came outta here alive, and I'll make sure no one will!"
'Kill 'em!' He said to his men.
As usual, in times like this the bad leader would use their numerical advantage to spread terror to their opponents, and will only observe from the sidelines as his underlings do all the dirty work. It's somewhat a staple nowadays in action films or stuff, that I unconsciously prepared myself for such event.
"Brother Ren...they're already coming at us..." Saki spoke worriedly, clinging tightly to her brother. Saku gritted his teeth, frustrated that he doesn't have a weapon to defend her.
"...Big brother, there are several more humans hiding somewhere...ten humans," Aoi informed me of their presence with a faint voice, calling them 'humans' instead of 'people'.
"Ten more..." I sighed.
"Oi, stop blabbering with each other!" one of them, a man with an eyepatch, yelled at us. He held his weapon--a miniature version of the dark-skinned man's sword--in a dagger grip, aiming at my neck.
'How many throats have been slitted with this weapon?' I wondered to myself.
"Heh...you didn't even flinched. Are you not scared to die?" The man with the eyepatch asked me.
"I've died a few times already," I replied.
"T-This brat?!" Annoyed with my response, he said, "Hey, kill those three in front of him, show him what fear of death feels like!"
As one man tried to seize Saki away from her brother, Aoi gripped his arm and said: "...Don't you dare touch her."
"Haaah? What are you--"
A faint sizzle, then an acrid smell came out. The man looked around where the smell came from, only to find out that the place where Aoi has touched his arm start to blacken and rot.
"W-W-What's going on? My arm--my arm's rotting...?!"
With all of his companions looking at him in shock, I used the opportunity to shove Eyepatch away from me. Another tried to stab me in the eye but I landed a right straight into his face, knocking him out.
"Wha' a' ya doin'?! Kill 'em!!!"
At their leader's frantic command all of them started ganging up on us, but Aoi--
At her word a black magic circle appeared under our feet and released a shock wave, with such force that all of the attacking men got blown away and crashed into the nearby trees.
"...Big brother," Aoi looked up to me and said, "you deal with these humans. I'll take care of those guys that are still hiding!"
"...Nn. Let's go, Saku, Saki."
Speechless after witnessing Aoi's power, the two nodded in unison and followed her into the forest.
"Kuh! I won' let ya run away--"
"Like hell I'll let you stop them either!"
In order to divert the dark-skinned man's attention towards me I tried to attack him with the dagger, but he blocked it with his already unsheathed sword.
"Hah! Not only ya have th' backbone, ya also have th' guts to attack me!"
"Yeah, but that's not the only things I have in me," I said to him. "I also have the [eyes]."
He unleashed a devastating volley of wind in an upward trajectory with his sword, and it almost hit me as I jumped back. He released more attacks at me, without regard of his subordinates' safety.
"Y-Ya bastard! I will kill ya...--"
He tried to swing his sword at me, but he noticed that he can't move his body all of a sudden.
"Oh don't worry, I'm not as cruel as you guys," I said to him, and to his subordinates that have already regained their consciousness. "It's just a weak curse, enough to disable you all for a few minutes."
I'm a bit disappointed that it took long for the curse to take effect. Had the curse got delayed for a couple more minutes, I would've consider it as a dud.
Still, I made the curse work in a way that they could still be able to speak--or scream, whichever they like.
"Now," I faced the dark-skinned man and asked, "where are those people that you've attacked earlier?"
Inside the forest, Saku and Saki are resting on a fallen tree stump, feeling tired and unsettled after being chased by a group of armed men.
"Big Bro...is it really right for us to leave Brother Ren behind? Those people...what if they hurt him? What if they..."
"I don't think that will happen, Saki." Saku gently brushed her hair with his fingers. "Remember, he's Aoi's big brother."
It's his first time seeing that side of Ren: subtle, but impulsive and brutal. 'More or less just like Aoi,' he remarked.
"...Oh, I've been looking for the two of you," After a few minutes Aoi came rushing towards them, panting as she spoke. Her white clothes are clean, but her hands are covered in blood.
Saku asked her. "Those people chasing us, are they..."
"...I killed them all, yes," Aoi smiled with satisfaction. "It's just that, my hands are all sticky."
"I have a towel here!" Saki said as she beckoned Aoi to come and wiped the dripping blood off her hands.
'If only there's a water source here, I could clean Aoi's hands easier,' Saki muttered in regret.
"Thank you Aoi for protecting us," Saku said to her.
"...Big brother told me to protect both of you, so I just did what I was told to do. You don't need to thank me."
"...But you know," Aoi looked at him and said, "even if big brother didn't tell me to do it, I would still protect the two of you."
After her hands already got cleaned, Saku suggested that they should go back and look for Ren, and assist him if necessary. Saki agreed, but Aoi suddenly told them to stop.
"...Wait, I could feel a presence coming towards us."
"Is that also one of those bad guys?" Saki asked, worried.
"...No," Aoi shook her head. "I can't feel any killing intent coming from that person."
'It's not big brother either,' she thought. The presence must be coming from the opposite direction from where they entered, so she quickly dismissed that possibility.
"There's a man over there!" Saki exclaimed upon seeing a wounded man walking towards them with unsteady footsteps, before slowly collapsing.
"What happened to you?! Hey, hey!" Saku managed to catch the man, and he helped him lie down on the ground.
"B-Bandits..." the injured man struggled to speak, groaning as he pressed his hand on the wound on his abdomen.
"Bandits? Could it be, that carriage was yours?"
The wounded man nodded feebly. His bleeding hasn't stopped yet, and his chances of survival are getting slim.
"Hang on, Mister!"
Saku hurriedly took his bandanna off and wrapped it around the man's abdomen, applying pressure so as to stop the bleeding. The wounded man drew pained breaths, as he looked at the young man trying to save his life.
"It's getting cold...is it winter already? I should've prepared for hibernation..."
"It's not winter yet Mister, please don't go to sleep yet!" Saku spoke to him in exasperation.
The bleeding, so much blood...
"Aoi, please...do something!" Saki held Aoi by her shoulders and frantically shook her body.
'Do something?! You're asking me to do something about him?!' she felt greatly offended by Saki's words. She's the Death Goddess--why would someone like her prevent a person from dying--an obvious violation of the rules of nature? Why would she do something she know that won't bring any benefit to her in the end? Why--
'Why am I...such a hypocrite?'
Had she remained the same as she was a long time ago, she won't be concerned about other people's lives, perhaps she will laugh at them and savor their suffering as they struggle while in their final moments.
Those were the times--and now everything has changed. If not for her hypocrisy, the ones she cherished the most would already be gone by now.
"...Bring him near a tree."
"...I said bring him near a tree!" Aoi unconsciously yelled at her.
Hearing that, the Rainens nodded and they brought the man near the nearest tree they could find. With her mind crammed with doubts, Aoi placed her one hand on the man's hand, and the other on the trunk of the tree.
'His life force's already weak...I need to act fast.'
Although none of his major organs are affected, he has lost a considerable amount of blood by the time they found him. Within hours--or minutes, he will die from blood loss.
"...You two, move away. I don't want you to be harmed by this."
After they took distance away from them, Aoi immediately began with the ritual of Life Transfusion.
"...I don't think this will work, but--[O holy Tree of Life, roots and leaves full of mercy: I hereby command thee to submit to the inescapable abyss...and offer thine lifesap to this dying being. Now!]"
An impromptu ritual. As soon as she finished the short incantation two small magic circles appeared from her two palms, each wreathed in the baleful color of the night. Using these magic circles as conduits, Aoi can absorb a healthy living organism's life force and transfer it into a dying organism.
Only through the death of one comes the survival of another. That is the Death Goddess' way to keep the balance in the world.
At first the siblings were worried that Aoi's short ritual might not work, but shortly afterwards they noticed that the tree beside the man started to lose its leaves, its bark turning brittle and gray, and the whole trunk slowly losing strength and stability. A few seconds later, the tree that once stood proud withered into a hulk of porous wood and detritus.
"...Can you get up now, Mister?" Aoi asked the injured man after the ritually ended.
The man, clueless as to what happened--touched his wound--and got surprised to find out that it doesn't hurt as bad as before.
"Aoi!" Saki hugged her. "You did it! You saved his life!"
"...I-I didn't," Aoi quickly dismissed her words, "I merely prevented his death, that's all."
"But...aren't those two the same?"
Then, as if remembering something, the man exclaimed: "My family! I need to see my family!"
"Mister, please calm down..." Saku said to the man as he helped him up.
"No. I can't rest easy yet," the man shook his head. "My family! I need to go to my family--kuh!"
"Mister, don't force yourself! You need to rest first!" Saku held the man's shoulder to prevent him from falling.
The man met Aoi's gaze, and with unexplained agility he rushed towards her and said: "Please! Please save my family!"
"You saved my life, but my family's still in danger! Please, young lady...I beg of you..."
Out of desperation, the man started to prostrate in front of her. The Rainens tried to raise him up, but Aoi just looked at him in shock, or rather, in awe. She knelt on the floor and said:
"...Alright, Mister. I'll save them."
The place where his family are hiding isn't far away from where they currently are, and they reached the place not long thereafter.
A woman, wearing a shawl on her head, quickly held the man tightly in her arms while sobbing. "I got worried about what happened to you...I'm not prepared to be a widow yet..."
"Setta, I'm already fine," The man, who is apparently named Ras, replied. "I was about to die earlier, but this girl saved my life."
"T-This girl...?" At first, Setta didn't believed his words but after seeing his condition, she asked: "Can she also cure our son?"
"...Is your son the one behind that tree over there?"
"H-How did you know that?"
Aoi didn't answered her question.
She walked towards the tree where the boy is resting, followed by the siblings, then the couple. The boy is about six years of age, frail, and shivering in cold even though his body's already wrapped with several blankets.
Placing her hand on the boy's forehead, she spoke: "...His fever's too high."
"We had brought him to several doctors already, but they couldn't find what caused his disease. They also said that he...that he..."
'Five minutes. Perhaps even less than that,' Aoi thought while checking the boy's pulse.
"We can't give up yet, Setta," Ras gently patted her back. "We can't lose our son yet."
Saku and Saki, standing beside them, only looked at the poor child in pity. 'Such a fragile soul,' they thought, 'that he'll leave the world earlier than his parents.'
Not only that, but they were also attacked by the bandits while on the way back to the capital, the man injured by the encounter.
If both father and son were to die here, the woman might have no choice but to follow them as well.
Hearing their circ.u.mstances, Aoi asked the parents, "...How much do you love your son?"
Ras replied firmly, "More than our lives."
No time to waste. Reciting the incantation in her mind, she performed the Ritual of Life Transfusion to the child. Unlike Ras' case, she realized that the child's condition is more severe than she initially thought, and using just one tree won't be enough to save him. She then asked Ras to carry the boy to the next tree then the one beside that, until she cleared an entire row of trees for the ritual.
A few minutes after the ritual ended the boy slowly opened his eyes, and the first thing he did was to look at his father's face.
"Junior! Are you feeling alright now?"
'Junior?' Aoi's face soured upon hearing the child's name.
"Nn. Where's Mama...?"
"I'm here," Setta replied, unable to hold back her tears. "I'm glad...you're fine now..."
Watching such scene unfold in front of them, Saku--
"K-Kuh...this scene...I can't stop crying too..."
"Big Bro...hey--don't wipe your tears on my clothes?!"
On the other hand Aoi, who just used a large amount of her divine power, felt dizzy as she fell on her knees. Seeing her collapse, everyone rushed to help her.
"Aoi, are you okay?!" Saki asked her.
"...I'm fine. I'm just tired..."
"Thank you very much, young lady!" Ras hurriedly kneeled in front of her.
"Yes, we owe our lives to you!" Setta also followed, while still carrying her son.
"...You..." Aoi frowned at them and said, "you don't owe your lives to anyone. You and your son desired to continue living, hence I only helped you achieve that purpose."
'Purpose. That's right. They still have a purpose in this world,' she muttered to herself as a sign of defeat. Whatever that may be, it's none of her problems now.
Saving two people with no strings attached? Her good deeds just keep on piling up.
While immersed in her thoughts Aoi noticed the way the boy smiled while being caressed by his parents. Innocent, genuine--pure.
A child. Having a mother, and a father. Smiling together. Family.
'Family. That's right...'
As Aoi looked down into the ground, she couldn't help but to let out a sigh.