Chapter 38 – The Charred Region

Julius crashed straight into the chimera, charging low as it met his advance with one of its own. He had to move to avoid the horns, move to avoid the teeth, and drove his fist hard with all the rage he had into the side of the beast’s head, knocking it off to the side and immediately moved right under its guard, grabbing it around the chest and running hard with a rough roar of rage as he forced it straight out of the cave and back into the open, smoky air.

Even as the beast pushed back, Julius would not give an inch. Even as the snakes bit into him, their fangs pushing deep into his chest, he held form. But before he could feel the venom rush into his veins, he felt weightless as he pushed his foe straight off the edge and fell with it.

Ignoring the pain as they fell, Julius continued to beat on the beast, even as his fists grew bloody and his knuckles tore. With the tusk from his necklace in one hand, torn free in an instant, Julius stabbed deep into the chimera’s eye, all while ignoring the hot sensation of blood on his hands. Continuing to stab and cut all down the beast’s body as they tumbled and rolled down a rocking incline, Julius dug his hands into the slashes that formed in its flesh and ripped them open further–

Claws raked across his torso and sent him flying backward, where he felt the fang fall out of his hand as he crashed against the tilted ground. On his bloody hands and knees, Julius glared at the monster as it turned its back to him, shaking the blood from its ruined eye, glaring away from him, blood beating in his ears as its tails hissed in blatant rage. Ignoring the blood he threw up, pouring from his mouth, he charged the beast again, grabbed those glaring tails, and yanked it back. 

Glaring down at the tails as they bit into him, deep into his wrist and arm, Julius brought up his hand to strike the snakes, and, in a single motion, his sword sliced through them. Roaring back at the Chimera as it roared in pain, Julius continued to slash at the monster in a flurry of blood as it turned once more, half-blind and yet still defiant. 

And with one fell, leaping thrust, he stabbed down into the Chimera’s remaining, horned head as a scythe pierced its side. 

Falling to one knee as he tumbled off the chimera, Julius pointed at the lone figure with his sword, his hand trembling as he kept himself steady. He refused to die, it didn’t matter who was in his way and who wanted him gone. He would live. He would not give in. He would not- 

Julius dropped his sword and threw up all the blood in his mouth, his hands pressing against the ground, shaking as they alone kept him up. Not now. He couldn’t fall here. Away from everyone he knew. About to die at the hands of a stranger. 

Feeling something grab him, Julius struggled in their grasp, to no avail. Were it not for the blood in his eyes, he would have glared at whoever was dragging him. And when he was set down, Julius felt his mind go- 

Julius bit down hard on his lip. He refused to let someone take him in his sleep. 

“…You shouldn’t do that. It’ll only hurt more,” came the feminine voice of the figure, as his mind once ag- 

Biting down again as blood leaked past his lips, Julius heard the figure sigh. 

“Jeez, you’re a stubborn fool, huh? Well, guess you’ll just have to endure the pain.” He suddenly felt them grab his arm and had to stop biting his lip to grit his teeth instead as she wiped down his broken arm. “Hm…that’s odd. It doesn’t look like the poison is affecting you. Are you a blood mage?” 

He didn’t respond. He received another exasperated sigh.

“If you are, you need to be more careful. If you keep trying to force the poisoned blood out of your body, you’ll die without even realizing it. I know you freaky berserkers can pretty much fill yourselves up with blood until it geysers out of you, but it still puts a bad strain on your heart, so how about you stop being so dumb? Deal?” Gritting his teeth, he tried to ball up his fists. But he still wasn’t able to do a thing as the figure held him and bandaged him. They were surprisingly gentled about it…

And once the blood was out of his eyes, he looked up at the black cloaked figure just as they walked out of the cave. 

Try as he might, he couldn’t stand up to leave the cave he was now in. So all he could do was brace himself for whatever the person did next. 

That being said, he was pretty surprised to see the figure walk back with the chimera corpse over their shoulder. His sword was still stabbed in it, while his necklace was in their free hand. 

“…Who are you?” 

Letting the corpse drop to the floor, the figure pulled down her hood and revealed…that she had blue skin. Huh. And dark red hair, tied back in a ponytail, though a few strands hung loose. Not exactly ‘blood red’–and Julius would’ve been mildly annoyed if everything had kept up with the ‘blood’ thing, even though he caused it–but more like a…burgundy, maybe? It kinda contrasted with her pale blue skin and blue eyes. Well, mostly black eyes. They were demonic, so the whites of her eyes were black and her blue irises glowed slightly.

“Seona,” she answered. Sitting down, she took her pack out from under her cloak and started to pull out what looked like cooking implements. “And you?” 

“…Julius.” Looking over at the chimera corpse, Julius tried to reach out to grab his sword. He didn’t have much luck with it, but bizarrely, the sword actually disappeared and reappeared in his hand.

“Huh. Congratulations, it looks like your sword is gaining sapience.” Seona said as she selected a knife and dug it into the chimera’s side. “Hm. You really did a number on this pelt…”

“…What.”

“Well yeah, you stabbed it a bunch all over the place and even started ripping into it with your hands. That’s not really conducive to maintaining the-”

“Not that,” he interrupted, a little busy staring at his sword. Which was now partially red too. Yup, those were definitely strands of red mixed into the purple and yellow steel, not just blood dripping from it…Julius glanced over at Seona. “You said my sword’s gaining sapience?”

“Yeah? You didn’t notice? You’ve fed it demonic essence already, so-”

“I did what now.”

“Ah, dangit,” Seona muttered as she cut a little too far, clearly focused more on her task than the conversation. “Okay, so, this is a lot of metaphysics, but demonic souls, and mortal souls and all the other options, leave residue around, got it? It’s like biological waste but spiritual. Your sword there ate some from the chimera you brutalized, and I can tell it’s done something with a superbian before now. Speaking of, why did you go after a chimera on your own? I’m not saying you weren’t justified in killing this huge goon, especially considering how many of them there are around the mountains and how he definitely would have killed you if he had the chance, but going after one with only a sword and your shirt off seems like a bad idea.”

“…” 

“Well, I guess you had your reasons. You’re just lucky I was nearby to help out.” Considering he’d already stabbed his sword through the chimera’s head when she intervened, Julius was pretty sure he didn’t need that help…

Anyways, silence quickly fell over the cave as Seona continued to cut away at the chimera, all while Julius began to consider his current situation. As far as he could see, Seona didn’t seem to have any bad intentions towards him…Then again, neither did Vocula, and that turned out bad.

He’d be careful then. He did need to rest anyways, and she didn’t seem to expect anything of him, so that gave him time to just observe the strange woman as she went about her work. She definitely knew how to use the hunting knife in her hand, deftly slicing through flesh and sinew as she peeled back the furry skin.

Based on what he could see of her dark clothes under her cloak–which consisted of a buttoned vest, an undershirt with a high collar, pants, and decent climbing boots along with her gloves and what might’ve been a watch in her vest’s pocket–she was a wanderer, but a decently well off one. There wasn’t a lot of wear and tear to her clothing, and she didn’t even seem dusty from the ash outside…Actually, hm. Her cloak should’ve shown some of the ash.

Black cloth was good for hiding dark stains, but the ash outside was a light gray. Light enough to stand out far more against a black surface. And considering she had a bag of holding for all her cooking utensils–including a very large pot she was setting up–she was clearly someone with access to decent goods. Blue-skinned vampires were a thing, weren’t they? Though would they have demonic eyes? Jonathan hadn’t, but maybe it was a racial difference…

As Julius wondered and pondered and just generally tried to figure out the enigmatic darklander, Seona started humming to herself, actually smiling even as she rendered the chimera’s cadaver into smaller chunks with a practiced ease and a very large cleaver. At one point, she even pulled its severed tails from her pack–so that’s where they wound up–and began cutting them apart too. Julius watched the whole time. For some reason, it just felt…right, to watch. Like he was showing at least some respect to the chimera he’d…hm.

Its fangs, claws and horns were all set in one pile, all in a bowl that she also pulled from her bag, while she set out a small cutting board and started placing chunks of its meat on there to keep them off the floor. It was actually a little interesting to see her work. She definitely had experience cooking–she even had some jars of seasonings that she pulled from her bag too–and one quick tap on her pot suddenly caused some crimson runes on it to light up. And soon enough, their purpose was made clear as she lifted the board and started scraping the mixed cuts of lion, goat, and snake meat, after cleaning them of the blood, into the obviously heated pot. 

They certainly sizzled quite pleasantly…And now his mouth was watering. Hm. 

At the very least, it didn’t seem like she’d try to poison him with the food with how roundabout that would be. That being said, his arms were pretty out of commission, so he wasn’t sure how this was going to go down. 

Thankfully, she seemed to be mixing some broth into the bot to make it a stew, so eating would be pretty easy–…

“…You’re not planning to feed me, are you?” he asked, frowning a little.

“Eh? Uh, do you need me to? I know your arms look bad, but I didn’t realize-”

“No, it’s fine.” It…would probably be fine, right? Yeah, it would be fine.

It was not fine.

Julius winced as Seona dabbed at his chest with a small towel, trying her best to clean the stew dripping down his bare skin. 

“You’re kinda clumsy for a monster hunter, huh?” she said as she set his spilled bowl down on the cave floor.

“Ngh…Not a monster hunter.”

“Eh? You sure?” She tilted her head in obvious confusion.

“…I’m pretty sure I know what profession I have.”

“Ah, right, but that’s not quite what I meant. It’s only…I don’t see why you’d be hunting a chimera if you’re not in the business of doing such. They’re not exactly the prey you’d go for if you’re hungry. Well, maybe you would go for it, but a rational person, no.” As she said that, she leaned towards the pot to refill his bowl. “And even then, you don’t have anything to cook with, so unless you were planning on eating it raw, I have no idea why you were so focused on killing it.”

“…It tried to kill me, and I killed it first.” 

“You’re really set on not telling me anything, huh?” Seona frowned, then shrugged and held out a full bowl to him, though she pulled it back slightly when he reached for it. “Can you actually hold it this time? I’m fine with feeding you if you need it, but you have to tell me.”

“…” Julius sighed. “…I think I need your help to eat. Please don’t make it weird.” 

“Uh…I don’t know how it would be weird, but okay.”

Suffice to say, Julius did not enjoy the meal. Well, he did, it was delicious, but he felt incredibly awkward during the whole thing–mostly because of her feeding him, partially because of a slightly building sense of guilt–and it was almost worse that Seona didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.

Once that was done with though, she moved right into binding up the pelt and collecting all the claws and organs together. She had more pots for those, though these seemed enchanted to give off cold instead of heat, based on the icy-blue runes they had on them. Well, at least she was keeping everything? Nothing was going to waste.

“You don’t want any of these, right?” she suddenly asked as she kept shoveling bones into another bag. 

“No,” he answered, deciding not to ask why she had so many containers on her at once.

“Not even a tooth? You have that necklace. Or is that only for sapients?”

“…What do you mean?”

Seona shrugged, pointing to his necklace. “Orc tusk, vampire fangs, dragon teeth. Those are all sapient races. Well, what we call ‘sapient’. There’s plenty of debate out there about the intelligence of animals and all, but society has generally accepted it to mean any race capable of reasoning beyond-”

“I meant how do you know what kinds of teeth they are?”

“Oh, I thought that’d be obvious. Well, I suppose most people wouldn’t necessarily associate teeth with death, but when you see as many corpses as I have, you tend to pick up a decent ability to recognize even small details.”

He didn’t really know what to say to that. “…Is this a vampire thing?”

She blinked. “‘Vampire’? Why would it be–Wait, you don’t recognize…Huh. That does explain why you don’t seem as panicked as most people…” She tilted her head, apparently considering something, then sighed. “Uh, sorry for not saying so earlier, but I’m not a vampire. I’m a dullahan.”

“…Nice?” Julius replied as he wracked his brain for some hint at what that was supposed to mean.

“…” And now she was staring at him like he was a weirdo. “…I…I guess it is? Uh…you’re a very stoic guy, huh?”

“I’m stoic?”

“Well, yeah. Again, people tend to get wary about the ‘death demon’ thing?” What.

“What.”

She blinked again, then suddenly furrowed her brow and leaned towards him. A little too close, actually–And she just sniffed him. Hm. 

“Bleak’s Eyes, you’re a lightlander,” she murmured, staring at him with wide eyes. “How are you–How did you–How???”

“Uh…is that some kinda vam–I mean, ‘Dullahan’ power or something?” 

“What? No, don’t try to stumble me up. How are you here? Lightlanders who come to live here never go past the border regions, so why are you this far east and attacking a chimera!?” 

“…I already sa-” 

“That doesn’t tell me anything!” 

Julius sighed. “Okay, fine, you want to know more about me? You talk first. Why are you here?” 

“Cause I’m headed to Brunzaba!”

“…Okay I did not expect you to answer that, and I also am not sure where that is.” 

“That just gives me more questions!” 

“And? I still don’t know what a dullahan is, so I ha-” Seona suddenly undid the top button of her collar and pulled her head right off her neck, leaving a stump that leaked blue smoke. “Oh…I see.”

“Why are you being so stoic about this!?” asked the dullahan, who was still holding her severed head up by her hair.

“I-” A pulse went through Julius’s body. “-have just gone through a completely emotionally draining situation so–wait, what the fuck am I saying?”

Seona frowned as she set her head back on her neck and buttoned the collar of her shirt back up, hiding the visible line where her head and neck separated. “Could you please just answer one question honestly? I know you have no reason to trust me, but I have so many questions at this point and no answers for any of them!”

“…What question.” 

“What are you doing in Maleficaba?” she immediately asked.

“…I got exiled by an angel.” 

It was almost funny how quickly she went from interested to exhausted as his answer obviously raised even more questions. After a few seconds of staring at him in silence, Seona just turned away and went back to storing the chimera’s pieces as Julius settled in as best he could. He needed to feel comfortable enough if he was going to call on the Butcher. Though, first…

“Hey.”

“Hm?” Seona didn’t pause in her work, but she seemed like she was paying attention, so…good.

“…Did I…Was it wrong, that I killed that chimera?”

“Wrong?” She glanced back at him with an eyebrow raised. “Why would it be wrong?”

“…I invaded its territory first. I hid out in the dungeon it…he was using to eat from. He was protecting his place.”

“And?”

Julius frowned. “What right did I have to take that from him? I just…showed up and killed him, because I was pissed off.”

“You did, sure. And he would’ve killed you just for being in the wrong place. ‘Right’ isn’t a thing when it comes to fights to the death, trust me on that.”

“…But I started it-”

“Sure, yeah, but also that’s just life. Sometimes people, or monsters, pop out at the wrong place at the wrong time and that’s just that. Fair and right don’t matter then and there. Fair and right comes with making sure that situation doesn’t happen in the first place, y’know?”

Huh. Huh… “I…think I get it. Sure.”

“So don’t worry about it. Besides, speaking as a dullahan, all felines get nine chances to reincarnate as another cat before plopping out into all of that chthonic samsara-wheel stuff, so just pay it back by being nice to all other cats out there.”

…Okay, so he didn’t get it at all. But…Well, fuck it, it wasn’t like he didn’t have a ton of other deaths on his conscience anyway. “Sure.”

Julius sighed and tried to relax. He still needed to try contacting Marrow, so he might as well go for it now that he’d successfully repressed–worked through his issues. Again.

So he relaxed. A little too much, because the instant he closed his heavy eyelids, the events of the day abruptly caught up to him all at once, and he was out like a wet candle.

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