The next day, Harold was quite in a hurry to solve the miasma problem, so he decided to go explore the mountain with Liner and the others from early in the morning . While Lifa was all done with her preparations, one of the main reasons Harold chose to depart so early was that he did not know what kind of flags he would trigger if he overstayed his welcome in the Sumeragi family’s residence .
Harold took the vanguard position to depart towards the restricted area, while looking with cold eyes at Itsuki, who was getting excessively worried for him and Erica, like a mother finding herself unable to let her son go to take a train for the capital . However, before leaving, there were some things Harold wanted to say .
【”Why the hell are you here?”】
【”Because I am Erica-sama’s attendant . ”】
Juno was present among the group . That was not strange considering her position and her capabilities, but she was still wearing her cooking apron, same as usual . Her outfit was probably not going to be suitable to push her way forward between the mountain’s recesses .
That could be said to apply to every female member in the team, as Erica was wearing a kimono, Lifa was wearing a miniskirt and Colette’s exposed clothes looked like they came from a southern country . Every one of them was wearing the exact same clothes as they did in the game .
But Harold forcefully convinced himself not to bother with these kinds of things anymore .
Rather than that, it was more useful to once again confirm the actions and the precautions the team was going to take in the restricted area .
【”…Whatever . Now, all of you bastards, take this . ”】
【”What is this?”】
【”It’s the medicine that alleviates the effects of the miasma . Drink it before entering the restricted area . ”】
Harold gave each member some of the antibody drugs that were stocked in the Sumeragi family’s reserves . He had brought some more of it, so there probably wouldn’t be much of a problem even in the unlikely scenario where the expedition would last longer than expected .
But did that mean that the miasma wasn’t a problem as long as that drug existed? Well, that matter was not so simple . No matter the amount of drugs available, the more someone consumed it, the less effective it would become . It seemed like there were no signs of damage on a person’s health from inhaling the miasma after taking the drug for the first or second time, but the risks would naturally increase if they had more occasions to inhale it . So at the end of the day, this meant that the Sumeragi territory’s forests would be useless as long as they weren’t free of the miasma .
This information had been obtained by the Sumeragi family through their multiple investigations aimed at somehow finding a solution to the miasma problem . Moreover, it was a fact that was not depicted in the game where all that had to be done was to make the medicine and drink it so as to clear an event .
【”But, like I warned you yesterday, this doesn’t mean that you’ll be alright if you inhale the miasma for too long . So we’ll finish quickly before the medicine stops being effective . ”】
【”I can do that . But the forest where the miasma’s spreading is pretty wide, isn’t it?”】
【”I already have a rough idea of where the target is . ”】
【”…Damn, you sure do know a lot…”】
Although Hugo was looking at him like he was an alien, Harold had simply obtained this information from the original story . He had confirmed in advance that there was a place on the territory’s map that overlapped with one of the original work’s dungeon maps, so he decided to aim for that location first .
Of course, there were some places where this world’s maps were completely different from the game’s maps because they were on completely different scales, but Harold’s method was still likely to be more efficient than taking a shot in the dark and searching around with no clues .
But well, perhaps Harold’s knowledge about the original story seemed uncanny to Hugo and the others, who would not be able to even imagine that this world closely resembled a game which Harold played in the past .
That being said, given the circumstances, this was no time to hold his personality back, so Harold had no choice but to take on a defiant attitude .
【”Of course I do . Who the hell do you think I am?”】
【”It’s pretty frightening that I actually think you’re making a good point . ”】
【”That aside, Liner . ”】
【”You better still recall real well what I told you yesterday . ”】
【”Hmm, hmmm… . The miasma is dangerous, so it would be no good if we breath it in too much, and since the monsters are in a frenzy, we should be careful of that… is that it?”】
【”You get 30 points on a 100 . “】
Harold completely discarded Liner’s answer . What Liner had spoken of was just the premise of the talk from the day before, where he had been told about the best ways to avoid the dangers he had just mentioned, but it seemed like that part had not really taken root in his memory . The foolish ways he had as a child were still going strong .
This was the actual plan that Harold had told everyone about in the previous night: “For now, we’ve got to emphasize on speed . I want to shorten our stay in the restricted area as much as possible so that we won’t inhale too much of the miasma . For that purpose, we must ascertain the location of the device without losing our way, and you must not fight any more than necessary .
If you do fight, you’ll need more oxygen than usual, so you’ll end up breathing more . What’s more, the miasma has a bad influence on monsters and pushes them into a frenzied state . Therefore, you have to avoid combat no matter what, except if you have no other options .
Hence why you must exercise maximum caution when looking for monsters, and you have to sharpen your senses to always stay aware of your surroundings . ”
That was what Harold had said, and in reality, Liner probably remembered all of that somehow and was just having a hard time rearranging the information in his head and putting it into words .
【”You’re a wild pig . If anything happens, you’ll rush ahead without even looking at your surroundings, and there is a risk you’ll disturb the whole front line in the process . ”】
【”Uuh-… . ”】
Liner seemed like he was at a loss for words, which was probably because he was self-aware enough to realize that Harold had hit the bull’s-eye . Well, on top of those flaws of his, Liner was also stupidly direct due to his sense of justice, but that trait of character could be said to be fitting of a hero . His straight-forwardness was surely going to become a force to pull his companions forward in the future .
However, this time, the whole matter would quickly and smoothly be resolved as long as Harold could get Liner to follow his instructions properly, so he gave him a warning .
【”If you encounter a monster, your priority will be to shake it off, not to recklessly fight it . You got that?”】
While the answer itself was affirmative, whether Liner would actually follow the order or not was a whole other story .
On the side, Colette let out a large sigh, it seemed like she was also well aware of Liner’s personality .
Well, Harold didn’t think there was any real danger since the team was stronger than it had been in the original story, nevertheless, it was probably better to be careful anyway . The group kept walking ahead for a little while until they arrived at the mountain, where entry had been prohibited for several years .
There was a fence and a signboard that were set up there just in case, but it was a sorry excuse for a barrier . Anyone who wanted to enter could enter .
However, that couldn’t be helped since the surface that was occupied by the miasma was too wide to be entirely enclosed . On the other hand, it seemed like the defenses around the residential areas had been strengthened so as to prepare against the threats of monster attacks and the like .
【”You’ve all taken the medicine?”】
Everyone nodded to Harold’s question .
Having confirmed that, Harold stepped towards the mountain .
The mountain’s entrance looked like an ordinary forest, it was not yet polluted by the miasma . However, for some reason, it was ominously quiet .
The only setting that had come up in the original story was that the miasma made the monsters violent, but given the bad effect it had on the human body, then the bodies of the monsters, who were also living creatures, were likely not unaffected by it either . So, in addition to pushing them into a frenzy, perhaps the miasma also shortened their lives .
That would explain the silence . If this was really the truth, then it was a pretty frightening one .
As he advanced for some time while keeping an eye on the map, Harold soon reached a place that was covered in some sort of light purple haze .
【”So this is the miasma…”】
【”This amount should have little to no effect . But if your body feels heavy or numb, report it immediately . ”】
【”What should we do in that situation?”】
【”We’ll use some first-aid treatment, however, healing magic would also be effective . ”】
Harold had already explained before that since Juno and Erica were there, then for the time being, the group would have no problems getting access to healing magic .
When he thought about it, it was possible that Juno had been dispatched with the group precisely for that reason, and since she was Erica’s attendant to begin with, sending her was like killing two birds with one stone .
Although advancing through this haze did not feel all that great, the efficiency of both the antibody medicine and the healing magic had already been proven in the past, so Harold had no other choice than to believe everything was going to be all right .
“Let’s get done with this quickly” Thinking that, he stepped forward without any hesitation and pushed his way through the vegetation in front of him, while aiming for the backwoods of the mountain .
From behind, she could see Harold in the vanguard position, advancing while cutting his own path forward through the vegetation . Even though the miasma was rapidly growing thicker, his walking speed was not slowing down at all; it seemed like he knew where he was going . He had said that he had a rough idea of where the target was, but coming from him, that basically meant he knew almost certainly where the machine was located .
That was what Erica believed, because his situation was the same as always .
Harold knew a lot of things and always kept that knowledge all to himself . It was very unusual for him to borrow other people’s strength like he did this time . Or rather, was he really borrowing their strength? Erica wondered .
The miasma’s outbreak was the Sumeragi territory’s problem, and their problem alone . In the past, one could have speculated that Harold had taught the Sumeragi family the process of making the antibody medicine so as to curry their favor . But now, he had officially broken any relations he had with them, so that no longer meant anything .
Besides, while Lifa was apparently indispensable to deactivate the device, Harold by himself would probably have been enough to escort her . He would naturally be able to prepare antibody drugs for himself, and he didn’t really need healing magic users such as Erica and Juno . His personality would not allow him to do anything unnecessary, and it would absolutely not let him do anything useless .
In other words, didn’t that mean that Harold simply wanted the present people to solve the miasma matter together with him? At that moment, Erica couldn’t really tell what that meant, but she could at least tell that there was a reason why Harold had gotten personally involved with this matter .
He was putting himself at risk to help the suffering people in the Sumeragi territory, and yet Erica could barely offer any help, that reality wrenched her heart .
She had put in some great efforts, wanting to become Harold’s strength and to support him .
However, each time she met him, she was once more made to realize the full extent of the distance that separated her from him . Could she ever catch up to Harold no matter how many times she tried to break free from this cycle? Erica had discouragingly worried about that many times within the privacy of her own head .
(Does Harold-sama actually need me for… anything?)
She was too afraid to even think about that question . Because if she ever made the mistake of dwelling on that, she would end up entwining herself in gloomy, retrospective thoughts, which would stop her from going forward; And that would make it completely impossible for her to ever catch up to Harold .
(That alone I wish to avoid at all costs, hence why I want to always stand firm and do my best, but then why is it so painful to keep going now?)
Erica was realizing that she was weak . She had thought that if she could become Harold’s strength, then it did not matter if he never looked back at her . However, that was nothing but a lie, she was just being hypocritical .
Whenever he went far off ahead, she wanted him to look back, she wanted him to look at her, and that feeling was growing stronger and stronger all the time . She was afraid that he would go out of her reach, and she was always shouting “Don’t leave!” within a corner of her heart .
She showed nothing on the surface, but it was simply too hard for her to hold back the love she felt towards him .
The more she thought of these things, the clearer her own incompetence became to her, and that cut right through her heart .
How could a weak woman like her, who could not even overcome her own weaknesses, ever be fit to be together with Harold ――
【”Hey . ”】
A seemingly ill-humored voice interrupted Erica’s thoughts . She felt her shoulder being lightly jolted, and Harold’s face suddenly appeared right before her .
That was so abrupt that Erica found herself unable to do anything other than blinking her eyes .
【”Hey, can’t you hear me?”】
【”…Ah, no, my apologies . I was just thinking about some things… . ”】
As she came to her senses, Erica was taken aback and gave an evasive answer to Harold’s question . Before she became aware of it, she had fallen all the way to the back of the group .
It seemed like she had been literally held back by her thoughts .
Harold didn’t say anything and just fixedly stared at her face . Which made her think, when was the last time he had looked at her in the eyes like this?
Although Harold started saying something, he did not get to finish his statement .
Suddenly, he powerfully pulled Erica towards him with his left arm . Then he put his arm around her back, and embraced her .
The moment she realized that, Erica was petrified from confusion and nervousness; she was unable to do anything . Her heart was beating so fast that it felt like it was going to burst . She thought she could hear the sound of her own heartbeat .
Within the confusion, Erica could perfectly feel Harold’s warmth . Her face was buried in his chest, and his left arm was around her back, tightly holding her and preventing her from moving . Although she couldn’t breathe well, she was still feeling quite comfortable in that position .
(――Wait, what’s with me?!)
She was feeling ashamed while her face was turning red from the rude thoughts that she herself was having, such as “if only time could stop at this moment”, and the like . She didn’t even know why this situation was happening in the first place .
【”Tsk, the miasma’s become so dense here, I don’t even know if there is any meaning to searching for the monsters anymore . ”】
Harold spoke up close to Erica’s ear . The miasma certainly did restrict the field of view to an awful extent .
【”Sorry, I failed to notice it . ”】(Francis)
【”Erica-sama, are you alright?”】(Juno)
Walking up to the two of them were Francis and Juno . Based on their words and behavior, it appeared that a monster had attacked from Erica’s back, so Harold had pulled her towards himself and then killed the enemy .
However, Erica could not look behind her to confirm that since she was still being embraced . Moreover, since this was far from being disagreeable, she could not possibly tell Harold that she wanted him to let go of her .
However, that hug did not last for long . Harold soon loosened the strength in his arm and separated himself from Erica .
She barely managed to somehow stop herself from letting a reluctant “Ah!” escape from her mouth . As for Harold, he was once again fixedly staring at her . From that alone, Erica’s face was almost boiling up .
【”Erica . ”】
【”Do you understand the situation you’re in? This is no time to get lost in your freaking thoughts . ”】
【”I am sorry…”】
That scolding was only natural . Erica became even sadder as she hadn’t even been able to abide by the warnings she had been given beforehand .
She felt like she would break into tears if she let herself go ever so slightly .
【”… . If you understand then hurry and move already . ”】
From his words, Harold appeared to be annoyed . However, at the same time, he grabbed Erica’s wrist and started walking ahead while pulling her by the hand .
【”What? H-hmm… Harold-sama?”】
【”Shut up . Just keep quiet and follow me . ”】
【”Y, yes . ”】
He’s so cunning, or maybe I’m just being silly? Erica wondered .
Even though she had been thinking of how painful and difficult it was to be by his side only, with just a few words, he had made her feel like she wanted to follow him anywhere in the world .
Harold probably had not intended to put any deeper meanings behind his words, but he had still filled Erica with energy .
【”… . He really is cunning . ”】
As Erica muttered that in a voice so low that nobody else could hear it, she looked down to the ground with tears in her eyes and a wide smile on her face .