Interlude: Heretic (Part 1)

“Please wait on the ship, Lord Kazuma! From here on, we will check ahead!”

As Mitsurugi Kazuma arrived at the Green Woods Island’s dock and attempted to disembark from the ship, a young subordinate appealed to him with a look of determination.

In response, Kazuma lightly shook his head.

“I cannot just stay back. I have returned to this island to see with my own eyes what has happened.”

“But if something were to happen to you, Lord Kazuma, we would be scolded by Lord Jin—!”

Seeing the young man’s earnest plea, Kazuma raised his index finger to his lips.

Realizing his lord’s intent, the young man hurriedly covered his own mouth.

Jin, the younger brother of Mitsurugi Kazuma, was dead. He had recently perished in a goblin extermination mission, his body half-burned in a cruel act of desecration. Kazuma had reported this to the Fangxiang Clan. Enraged by his brother’s ignoble death, he erased Jin’s existence from the Mitsurugi family records. He declared that he had no foolish brother who could be killed by mere goblins.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Jin’s reluctance to practice the Nanashiki style was well known, which helped to spread the scandal without raising suspicion.

This incident became a source of mockery among the Fangxiang Clan, and the Mitsurugi family often faced contemptuous gazes from other houses. Therefore, within the Mitsurugi household, discussing Jin had become a taboo.

Only those closest to Kazuma, excluding his brothers, knew the truth. The young man present was one of these confidants, but even so, he should not utter anything that might suggest Jin was still alive.

Ashamed of his thoughtlessness, the young man from the Kumon clan bowed his head.

“I am truly sorry!”

“As long as you understand. Since the elders and the Nanashiki users are not moving from the continent, our voices might not reach them here on Green Woods Island. But words have wings. Keep what should be secret, always and everywhere, and take it to the grave if possible.”

“As you command.”

With such an exchange, the Mitsurigi lord and his retinue disembarked from the ship, stepping onto the soil of Green Woods Island.

Recently, the warriors of the phantom burial, along with allied forces, had launched a total offensive to slay the mythical snake-bodied, human-faced creature that emerged from the dragon’s lair on the island.

After ensuring that all the island’s residents had evacuated, the final battle commenced.

The intensity of the battle reached across the strait to the mainland, with the roar and tremors continuing for days, as if heralding the end of the world.

That night, the turmoil suddenly ceased. Since then, Green Woods Island has been eerily silent, with no sound reaching from it. The gigantic body of the mythical creature, visible even from the continent, had vanished, and although this might suggest the warriors had won, none of those who had set out to fight had returned.

A reconnaissance team was decided upon by those stationed on the continent, and it was Mitsurugi Kazuma, leading the Mitsurugi family, who volunteered for the task.

To be precise, it was the higher-ups of the Fangxiang Clan who volunteered, and the Mitsurugi family was assigned the dangerous mission. However, Kazuma accepted this without resistance.

Originally, Kazuma himself was fully intent on participating in the final battle. At this time, he had secretly mastered the art of Soul Equipment under Jin’s guidance and possessed the strength to confront the mythical creature.

However, Kazuma’s request to join the battle was flatly denied by Jin.

The death of both brothers would mean the end of the Mitsurugi family’s direct line – a scenario that must be avoided at all costs. Jin, having already taken on the family’s disgrace, urged his brother to be cautious.

Having been told this by his brother, who had willingly accepted shame for the sake of their family, Kazuma had no choice but to agree.

As a result, Kazuma returned home only after everything had ended.

After surveying the island, Kazuma confirmed that the mythical creature had indeed disappeared. As expected, there was no sign of Jin and the other warriors.

He had anticipated this much. The problem was that the source of the mythical creature’s appearance, the dragon’s lair, had also disappeared.

In its place was an unusually large pool of magical energy. The scale of it was so vast it distorted space, appearing suddenly where the dragon’s lair once was.

To find out what exactly had happened here, investigating this pool of magical energy seemed the most direct approach.

Just as Kazuma thought to call one of his subordinates knowledgeable in magic…

“Who goes there!?”

A subordinate raised an alarm and reached for his sword hilt.

Kazuma looked in the direction of the voice and saw a woman in priestly robes. She shouldn’t have been there when he last checked the surroundings.

“It’s been a while… or rather, not much time has passed since our last meeting, Lord Kazuma.”

The female priest, unbothered by the wary subordinate, introduced herself. Kazuma knew her.

She was one of the two women who had accompanied Jin when he secretly visited Kazuma on the eve of the final battle. She had mentioned that her father had recently passed away. Her name was, if he recalled correctly…

“Lady Sofia. You are safe.”

Responding to Kazuma’s words, Sofia Azurite smiled. Her radiant smile, like a blossoming flower, left several of the subordinates spellbound.

However, Kazuma’s gaze remained filled with deep suspicion, unwavering.

He had met Sofia only once, but the Sofia who was with Jin was more reserved and subdued. He remembered her having a somber expression, perhaps due to her father’s recent death.

Now, this same woman was smiling meaninglessly in such a situation. Kazuma’s wariness intensified as he continued to speak.

“Lady Sofia, what happened in the battle with the mythical creature? Are Jin, Lady Atori, and the other warriors safe?”

Hearing this, Sofia’s smile faded, and she replied in a calm voice.

“The battle with the dragon has ended. Atori risked her life to seal it in another dimension.”

“A dragon? So that was the name of the mythical creature. I don’t understand what this other dimension is, but I gather it has something to do with that pool of magical energy, right?”

“Yes. If you step into it, you can be transported to a completely different land. The surviving warriors have all gone there. I came out to check on the outside situation.”

Sofia’s expression clouded as she continued.

“Lord Kazuma, I regret to inform you that Lord Jin lost his life in the battle with the dragon.”

“…………I see.”

Hearing the news of his brother’s death, Kazuma involuntarily closed his eyes tightly. His subordinates also groaned in grief.

He had been prepared for this outcome when he sent his brother to the final battle. Still, the pain pierced through Kazuma’s heart, unbearable.

“―So I am the only Mitsurugi man left now.”

He murmured to himself in sorrow when suddenly, Sofia clapped her hands.

Instantly, the subordinates who had been surrounding Kazuma to protect him fell to the ground like puppets with their strings cut.

It didn’t take long for Kazuma and Sofia to be left facing each other alone.

“―What is the meaning of this, Lady Sofia?”

“I couldn’t allow anyone other than you, Lord Kazuma, to hear what comes next.”

“Hmm. Just out of curiosity, what is this matter you speak of?”

Although his voice was calm, Kazuma was already in a battle-ready stance.

Aware or not of this fact, Sofia continued in a measured tone.

“What do you think, Lord Kazuma, about how the relationship between humans and Kijin will change from now on? Until now, humans have feared the Kijin for their otherworldly appearance and abilities, keeping them at a distance. The Kijin, in turn, harbored resentment towards humans, creating a deep rift between the two. However, the recent battle against the mythical creature has seen both races overcome past grievances and collaborate, achieving significant success.”

Under normal circumstances, this would be cause for celebration.

However, the alliance was formed due to the presence of a common enemy. It was the presence of the powerful mythical creature that forced both races to put aside their differences and unite.

This doesn’t mean humans and Kijin have truly reconciled. While individuals like Jin and Atori have built trust, this trust is personal, not a representation of trust between the races.

Now, with the mythical creature’s king sealed away, the reason for their unity has vanished.

It was inevitable that past conflicts would resurface.

“The main force of the phantom burial warriors was composed of Kijin skilled in Soul Equipment. Furthermore, with a Kijin, Atori, sealing away the king of the mythical creatures, their contribution is clear to everyone. In the upcoming reconstruction of the continent, they will undoubtedly have significant influence. And the first thing the Kijin will likely address is retribution against those who have persecuted them.”

This meant vengeance against the Fangxiang Clan, who had long been the nemesis of the Kijin. Naturally, this included the Mitsurugi family, which was aligned with the Fangxiang.

From the Kijin’s perspective, there’s no reason to forgive those who even developed a Kijin-killing sword technique like the Nanashiki. The Fangxiang Clan is unlikely to apologize to the Kijin now.

So soon after the battle with the mythical creatures, a conflict between the Kijin and the Fangxiang Clan was imminent.

The real question was how other human powers would react.

Most likely, the majority would choose to be bystanders. The fear of the Kijin’s power – the Soul Equipment – as demonstrated in the battle against the mythical creatures, was deeply etched in people’s minds.

Any sensible ruler would do everything possible to avoid a situation where such tremendous power was turned against them. Especially for the sake of the Fangxiang Clan, a clan with unknown origins and motives.

That would be problematic enough, but even more troublesome is the possibility that other humans might join forces with the Kijin to destroy the Fangxiang Clan.

Why? To shift the blame of past persecutions onto the Fangxiang Clan and prove that they themselves harbor no hostility or prejudice against the Kijin.

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