Side Story 17
To put it simply, Ann dispatched the humans in a blink.
A being of General-class strength herself, armed with the degraded Sacred Sword Leviathan and the sword of the Earth Dragon, there was no way mere humans, armed only with weapons, could match her.
In fact, it’s likely the humans didn’t even comprehend what happened before they died.
Their severed heads, with expressions of dumbfounded shock, were frozen in place.
Ann thought their attire was notably shabby, but that was hardly important now.
She orders the antlings and skeletons to disguise the bodies.
While they work, Ann approaches the fallen goblin.
『…Are you okay?』
The parent goblin looks at her curiously, as if surprised to be rescued.
It tilts its head, gazing at Ann.
From the protective hold of its arms, a little goblin pops its head out.
Tiny and gross.
『If you’ve learned your lesson, don’t recklessly leave the woods again. Getting killed would be pointless.』
The parent goblin nods solemnly.
The child goblin, perhaps not understanding the situation, giggles away.
Tiny and gross.
The adult goblin offers something to Ann.
『Is this… an herb?』
The goblin nods.
It must be a token of thanks.
She accepts it graciously.
With a bow, the goblin family disappears into the depths of the forest.
『Shall we resume moving?』
We’ve wasted enough time.
Finally, Ann and her group step into the forest.
It would take about thirty minutes of normal walking to reach the targeted cave.
Ann’s hometown should be nearby.
As they walk through the forest for a while, they come upon a small lake.
『Wow… there’s a lake here…』
Ann lets out a sigh of admiration while enjoying the peaceful scenery.
She had no idea there was a lake here when she lived in the forest.
Actually, since she was holed up in the nest back then, she didn’t know much about the forest, and she didn’t remember it because she was too preoccupied with her own survival after being thrown out.
『It’s a beautiful sight…』
The forest and the sky reflect on the water, creating an enchanting scene.
Was the forest I lived in always this beautiful?
Is this what they call nostalgia?
But she quickly snaps back to the present.
『I, I didn’t come here to enjoy the scenery! We must—』
She’s about to urge them to hurry on when suddenly, a splash rises from the lake, and something emerges.
A giant water serpent appears.
What species was it?
She can’t remember, but it’s surely one of the strongest monsters in the forest.
But that was then. As an evolved Imperial Ant, Ann knows this creature is no significant threat to her.
The magic power it emanates is weak.
At best, it’s of intermediate-class.
A few of the antlings in the back could take it down, but Ann steps forward, signaling them to stay back.
It must have mistaken them for intruders in its territory.
Ideally, negotiating would be best, but…
『It seems quite aggressive. A conversation… seems unlikely, doesn’t it?』
Ann draws her sword, ready to engage.
There’s no time to waste.
She should finish this quickly.
But just as Ann is about to charge…
With a thud, the water snake collapses on the spot.
Ann raises an eyebrow in confusion.
She hasn’t done anything.
Turning back, the antlings and skeletons also shake their heads as if to say, “We didn’t do anything, okay?”
So what happened here?
The water snake in front of her is lying there, tongue lolling out, twitching.
…Is that a look of ecstasy?
『What’s the matter?』
Ann asks one of the antlings that seems to be trying to tell her something.
Following the antling’s gaze, she spots an arrow lodged in the serpent’s side.
『…Ah, I see, it was already in a battle before we arrived.』
Upon closer inspection, she notices multiple wounds on the creature’s body, signs of a recent fight.
And this tremor — probably the result of paralysis or some other poison on the arrow.
A cunning human trick, no doubt.
But there’s no corpse around, so either the attacker fled or was swallowed whole.
Either way, it doesn’t matter.
The focus is on the snake before her now.
『Poisoned and immobilized, then you show yourself before us… quite foolish indeed.』
In such a state, it should have stayed hidden in the depths of the lake until the poison wore off.
It also failed to sense the strength of their magical power — a lack of awareness, or maybe the poison numbed its senses?
Either way, it’s a foolish predicament.
It probably let its guard down in the earlier fight as well.
If it had made better use of its environment, it likely wouldn’t have ended up like this.
『Really, what a sorry sight…』
For one of the strongest creatures in this forest to end up like this is beyond pathetic.
If left alone, it wouldn’t last long.
But that’s the law of nature.
The careless and the weak are culled first.
It’s an inevitable process.
After all, this creature attempted to attack them.
There’s no obligation to help, and they should just leave it be.
That would be the right thing to do.
―――Before she knows it, Ann is pulling out the arrow and tending to the wound.
In the end, the water serpent survives.
The herb given to her by the goblin earlier turns out to be an antidote for the poison.
The serpent is now lively, a stark contrast to its earlier state, nuzzling against Ann with renewed vigor.
Stop that, you’re getting me wet, it’s uncomfortable.
『Be calm, you’re still recovering.』
The serpent stops and looks at Ann, seemingly placing complete trust in her.
『…Do you understand? Let this be a lesson. Do not pick fights recklessly. It’s good to be proud of your strength, but misjudging your opponent and dying would be pointless.』
The serpent nods earnestly.
『What is it?』
Ann inquires, as the serpent offers something with its tail.
It’s a massive egg, about the size of a basketball.
『Is this… an egg from a Marbled Water Turtle?』
She remembers seeing them when she lived in this forest.
Marbled Water Turtles are inhabitants of this lake.
They’re about four meters long, not particularly strong creatures, and very cautious, spending most of their time at the bottom of the lake.
Their eggs are a rare delicacy, seldom tasted.
Ann recalls the delicious flavor from the one time she had the chance to eat one.
It must be a gesture of gratitude.
She accepts the gift graciously.
The serpent bows its head and returns to the depths of the lake.
『…Well, we’ve made another detour.』
We’re behind schedule, significantly so.
But at least I’ve secured a fine souvenir for Lord Earth.
With renewed urgency, she quickens her pace toward the designated cave.
Pushing through a beast trail, they’re getting close.
Just a few more minutes and they should arrive, she thinks, when suddenly…
Another animal’s cry reaches her ears.
Ann looks in the direction of the sound.
There, she finds a small gray wolf pup.
It doesn’t seem hostile.
『…A Gray Wolf pup, huh? Did you get separated from your parent?』
The pup shakes its head, and then from its belly comes a pitiful rumble.
It seems to be hungry.
What to do?
This little wolf seems to be expecting them to feed it.
Where’s the wild caution? It doesn’t seem to want to leave.
But right now, the only food they have is…
Ann glances at the egg carried by one of the skeletons.
No, that’s not an option.
That egg is meant for Lord Earth, not for some dirty stray wolf.
…At least that’s what she tells herself.
The pup looks up at her with those big, irresistible eyes.
Darn it, that’s unfair.
―――Before she knows it, Ann is cracking the egg and offering it to the wolf pup.
The pup is now full of energy.
It rubs against Ann, tail wagging, having taken a liking to her.
『Hey, stop that! Where are you licking…? Hyah! …No, I said stop!』
Lick, lick, lick.
It’s hard to believe this is a wild animal given how affectionate it is.
It must have really taken to Ann.
『Haa… What to do? I wish it would leave…』
She mutters, though she’s clearly enjoying petting the soft fur, making her protestations less than convincing.
Then, the pup leaves her arms and darts off.
Ann lets out an almost regretful “Ah” as the pup stops a short distance away and turns to face her.
『Are you telling me to follow?』
It barks, as if confirming her guess.
“What should we do?” Ann looks back at her companions.
The antlings and skeletons seem to be giving her a “Let’s follow, it’s cute, right?” kind of look.
Well, there’s still some time left.
No help for it, she convinces herself it’s the only option and follows the wolf pup.
The place they arrive at is right near the cave.
It’s the biggest tree in the forest, with a hollow at its base.
The pup sits down with a “woof!”
Ann’s eyes widen in shock at the familiar location.
It’s not just a vague memory.
Because this place is ――― where her old home used to be.
Beneath that giant tree.
The hollow at the base served as the entrance to the nest.
Could it be that the wolf pup lived in her mother’s community?
It’s not impossible.
Ann vaguely recalls her mother’s community being diverse, though she doesn’t remember much from her reclusive days, various monsters used to come and go from her mother’s nest.
They were mostly lowest-class, weak monsters, but they lived together, helping each other out.
Could it be that her mother sent the wolf pup after sensing Ann’s return?
―――Before she knows it, Ann is running.
She’s so frantic she nearly trips, but she forces herself to keep her balance.
She runs with all her might, reaching the base of the tree in no time.
Now that she’s here, her old kin should recognize her instantly.
What expression should she wear?
What should she say?
Will they even recognize her at all?
She was so intent on showing them up, but now that she’s here, that feeling has vanished.
All that’s left is anxiety and anticipation.
Ann’s heart races with the thought of showing her mother how much she has changed.
She looks inside.
And she’s speechless.
There’s ――― nothing there.
Not a single ant.
No sign of any other monsters.
No trace of anyone living there.
No magical presence.
No hint of any souls.
There are signs of battle here and there.
Human weapons are scattered all around.
Just from that, Ann understands.
The cold part of her mind gives her the answer.
That’s what it means.
Her mother’s community was hunted.
―――Ann’s former home had long been gone.
The pup rubs against her leg, but she don’t have the energy to push it away.
Her heart is too worn to care.
It’s surprising to her, just how much she had been holding on to thoughts of her old home.
She thought it didn’t matter.
She wanted to show everyone up.
But those aspirations were unfulfilled.
Her old kin are gone.
―――Well, it doesn’t matter anymore.
She briefly thinks.
That’s right. The trip home was only a side quest.
Her main mission is the cave with the teleportation gate.
She should just get it over with.
Switching her focus, Ann and her companions begin to move.
The antlings watch her forlorn figure in silence.
As they get closer to the cave, Ann senses something odd.
And not just a few.
There’s a considerable number. Not only that, but she senses many monsters as well.
And that sound. The clashing of blades, the impact noises, the screams of humans and monsters alike.
Could it be!?
Ann and her group dash forward and quickly arrive in front of the cave. There, as expected, unfolds a scene.
『…Thieves in the end, huh?』
Ann’s eyes, about to burst from a variety of emotions, take in the scene of thieves fighting the cave’s monsters.
『Now it all makes sense. They’re the cause of the disturbance in this forest…!』
Their appearance resembles those humans who were tormenting the goblin earlier.
They must be part of the same group.
The goblin at the forest entrance, the water serpent at the lake, and her former nest.
All the pieces come together.
It wasn’t just the monsters that wanted to make the cave their base.
Indeed, it would serve as a fine hideout for the humans as well.
They were the reason for the conflicts with the forest’s creatures.
What to do?
Looking over, she sees among the humans one particularly skilled fighter, but the cave’s monsters seem to be holding their own.
If things continue, they might just wipe each other out.
Ann sharpens her gaze on the battle.
She can’t help but exclaim.
But it’s no surprise.
Because there, fighting among the monsters, are Killer Ants.
And one with a magically familiar presence, a dearly familiar presence.
No doubt about it.
That battling Killer Ant is unmistakably one of Ann’s former kin.
If there’s a soldier ant, then the queen… perhaps mom, too?
She searches for the presence.
She feels her kin’s presence from deep within the cave.
A wave of relief floods her, overwhelming any other feeling.
Suddenly curious, she glances back.
『…What are you all grinning about?』
The antlings and skeletons seem to be smiling, as if they’re in on a private joke.
Well, ants and skeletons don’t really have expressions, but that’s how it seems to her.
『I have no intention of mixing personal feelings with duty. This is a mission. Just a mission.』
The antlings nod in agreement.
『So, let’s quickly go to their rescue.』
―――And with that, Ann charges forward with her sword drawn, full force.
Of course, the antlings and skeletons eagerly follow right behind her.
Sub29: I’ve not been feeling well recently and need a bit more time to recuperate. So the chapter released may not be on schedule. I appreciate your understanding if there’s a delay.
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