Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
Fort Lotus was an abandoned stronghold on the brink of collapse, its stone walls crawling with lush ivy.
The once-important defensive base that drove countless enemies away was now in a ruined state. The massive door guarding its entrance was rotten and blackened, held together only by pieces of scrap wood nailed onto it. No trace of the structure’s past glory remained.
As we stepped inside the fort, the gloomy atmosphere grew stronger. The moment we entered its halls, my body instinctively froze at the smell of death hovering in the air. I felt all my fur bristling.
“Is this really a bandits’ hideout?” I said in a tight voice. “There’s just no way.”
Among the multitude of people sitting or slumped in the hall, there was not a single person who could even remotely be called a bandit.
There were too many women and children, and all the men were either sick or injured. Those who were healthy tended to their sick wives and children. They didn’t seem like the type to ravage and pillage.
The men who kidnapped the saints looked like bandits, but apparently that was simply a coincidence. They just happened to be assigned to the task.
“That’s right. This is Fort Lotus,” Cal the hawk Beastfallen said. “The headquarters of the heinous bandit gang that plotted to assassinate the saint. What do you think?”
“Well… They’re quite different from the bandits I know of,” I replied.
“What a coincidence. The bandits I know are different as well. But despite their looks, they’re a pretty active bunch. Those who can still move attack merchants’ carriages, and as you guys know, they also ambushed the saint. It’s a group of fine villains. All in all, there are about fifty of them.” Cal waved his arms, laughing merrily.
So bird Beastfallen have hands, huh? I had seen a glimpse of their kind somewhere before, but this was the first time I saw one up close.
His hands resembled a bird’s claws more than a human’s hands, but they moved nimbly nonetheless. The talons on his feet clicked whenever he walked. A pair of wings stretched from around his shoulder blades, and the huge feathers that covered his back looked like a fine-quality cloak.
Wait, can this dude fly?
Then, Zero crept up to Cal and grabbed his wings. She spread them wide, closely studying their structure.
“What is it, young lady?”
“Can you fly?” Zero asked.
“I can. I’m a bird, after all.”
Apparently he can. That’s so cool.
Zero breathed a sigh of admiration. “So your bones are as hollow as a bird’s? You would not be able to fly if you were too heavy. You are as big as Mercenary, but you do not weigh half as much, do you?” She was practically burying her face in Cal’s feathers. “So warm and fluffy,” she muttered.
Cal peered down at her with a blank look. Actually, with his beak and bird’s eyes, he was fundamentally expressionless. Instead he expressed his emotions through his voice.
“Heh. You sure are knowledgeable.” He sounded incredibly impressed. “That’s right. My bones are hollow like birds. Although I didn’t know that until I broke them.”
Those who did not cook might not know this, but bird bones were light and brittle and basically hollow on the inside, making their body light, allowing them to fly.
“Don’t let my features deceive you, though. My body’s quite fragile. Please warn your Beastfallen friend not to hit me even as a joke, okay? Humans are no problem, but a blow from a Beastfallen could easily kill me. Even when they hold back.”
“Look, I’m not some ferocious wild beast, okay?” I spat out. “Besides, I don’t resort to unprofitable violence, so don’t worry about a thing.”
“Spoken like a true mercenary,” Cal said with a pleasant smile. His facial expression remained unmoving, but I could tell from his voice that he was laughing.
“You have extremely beautiful feathers,” Zero muttered as she stroked Cal’s wing. “Mercenary’s fur is also beautiful, but your feathers possess a different charm. I love them.”
“Why, thank you. And for your compliment, you can have this.”
Cal pulled out one of his own feathers and offered it to Zero, who happily accepted it. He brushed her hooded head gently, then stopped. He finally had a good look of Zero’s face, apparently.
“Now this is a surprise. I was gonna say you’re pretty as well as a compliment, but it’s more than that. You’re not just pretty, you’re unbelievably beautiful.” There was great admiration in his voice.
Zero lifted her hood, a smile dancing on her red lips. “Why, thank you,” she said, mimicking Cal’s tone. “And for your compliment, I have nothing.” She chuckled.
“Don’t your wings get in the way?” I asked. “You can’t sleep facing up.”
“You guessed right. They cause too much trouble, in fact. That’s why I sit when I sleep. When I fly low, my wings get caught in trees, and most of all, getting my own clothes is next-to-impossible. My wings are longer than my arms, after all.”
Cal spread his wings wide. One wing alone was as big as an adult-sized human. I sighed in admiration, and suddenly Zero spread her arms and embraced Cal’s body.
“Whoa! What are you doing?” Surprised, Cal’s feathers bristled.
Zero buried her face in his wing. “I have always wanted to sleep on a bird,” she said in a childlike tone. “I once considered catching a thousand birds and plucking all their feathers, but a live bird has to be the best. Ah, this marvelous texture! So smooth, and fluffy, and warm.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“Whoa, stop it! Quit molesting people!” I stepped in. “He may be a pretty bird to you, but deep inside he’s a man!” I quickly pulled Zero away from Cal.
“My feathers!” Zero cried, acting like a child whose toy was taken away. “My smooth and fluffy feathers!”
“Sorry about that,” I said. “She’s got a few screws loose.”
“It’s fine. Thanks to her, I was able to experience the fear that birds feel when they are killed for their feathers. I’m gonna have nightmares every time I see someone using a feather pillow in the future.”
It was probably the same feeling I got whenever I saw carpets made of fur. While our human half was more dominant, we felt a strange affinity to the animals that resembled us.
“Anyway.” Collecting himself, Cal looked at the priest on my shoulder. “We should let the priest rest first. Someone get a doctor in the guest room!” His voice rang clear as a bell.
“I’ll go!” someone answered and ran off.
I glanced at the direction of the voice and saw that it belonged to a child.
“There sure are a lot of kids here in this band of scoundrels,” I said.
“Yup. The kids are rascals as well. Terrifying, huh? Out of everyone in the fort, kids are the ones I’m most scared of. They have no sense of modesty or restraint.” Cal laughed.
“This is the guest room right here.” He stepped out into the hallway and opened the nearest wooden door. It must have been a bedroom used by soldiers in the past. It was bleak, furnished with a clean bed perfect for the priest.
I lay the priest down on the bed and covered him with a blanket. Then I heard footsteps approaching the room, probably the doctor that the kid called. I thought doctors were always pompous and slow-moving, but judging by the footsteps, they were running as fast as they could. A man in a black cloak—an attire that doctors wore—barged into the room without even knocking.
“Bloody with grave injuries? Why bring him here?!” Medical satchel in hand, the doctor approached with heavy steps. “He could’ve received proper treatment at a church! Don’t you care about his life?!”
He was short, but had a solid build, and his left hand’s pinky and ring finger were missing.
He looked familiar. A short grunt escaped our lips as our eyes met.
“Weren’t you the guy at the inn?” I asked.
“You’re that Beastfallen!” he cried.