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    “Then I’ll take my leave for now. Rest well and recover during the remaining time. Ah, I’ll post two Sentinels outside. If you ever need anything, please let them know.”

    Leaving those words behind, Irian completely left the lodging.

    As soon as he disappeared, I felt the tension release from my entire body, and a sensation of strength draining out of me. My vision inverted and I couldn’t help but slump into the chair, lacking energy.

    Dizziness spun around, and I tried to get up from my seat but couldn’t.

    “Son? Are you alright?”

    “Ah… I just want to rest a bit. It’s nothing.”

    I naturally played it off as sitting down due to dizziness.

    Perhaps it was convincing, as understanding was evident in Mother’s voice.

    “Instead of staying here, let’s take a look at the rooms. It seems this will be our home for the time being.”

    “Shall we?”

    Then, as the dizziness subsided and my vision somewhat returned, I groaned and stretched.

    As I slowly tried to get up, Mother asked me.

    “Alright. Which room will you use? There’s only one room left.”

    “Oh… is that so?”

    As Mother said, there were only two rooms in the house.

    The one where Cerisne’s sisters were and the empty room Mother mentioned.

    Well, if there are two rooms, of course I should use one separately…

    “Is that elf gone?”

    “Oh, you startled me.”

    The door suddenly opened and Esrin peeked her head out, asking in a cautious voice.

    I chuckled and told her.

    “Yeah. He’s gone. You can come out.”

    As soon as I finished speaking, the four cats swarmed out of the room.

    They looked so much like real cats that it was both cute and amusing, making me laugh spontaneously.

    “Wow, Sir Eldmir, you were so cool. It was moving.”

    “I saw you in a new light, Eldmir.”

    “I also… agree with Sir Eldmir’s thoughts. …You were awesome.”

    The three sisters spoke in turn, excluding Cerisne.

    Stunned by the sudden reactions, I asked in disbelief.

    “Were you all listening?”

    “Of course, when you’re talking loudly right next to us, you think we wouldn’t hear it? We’re beastmen. Did you forget?”

    Esrin, wiggling her cat ears with a triumphant expression.

    Her older sister Ersi also spoke with a faint hint of pride, shedding her usual expressionlessness.

    “It seems you still have a lot to learn about us. You’re probably the first among the elves to become friends with beastmen, so study hard.”

    “…What confidence, you little ones.”

    These kids seem to regain confidence in strange ways. What’s with this complacency just from eavesdropping once? I couldn’t follow their train of thought at all.

    “Hoho, you shouldn’t carelessly listen to adult conversations.”

    Mother, who had approached at some point, spoke while pinching Esrin and Ersi’s cheeks as if scolding them.

    It was a gesture filled with affection and playfulness rather than reproach.

    “Ouch! But Eldmir hasn’t even gone through the coming-of-age ceremony yet!”

    “…Hurts.”

    As Esrin cried out, flailing her hands and feet, Mother widened her eyes as if realizing it for the first time.

    “Oh my, that’s right? Then let’s say you’re only half guilty?”

    Saying that, Mother released her hands and gently caressed the two cats’ cheeks with her palms as if kneading rice cakes, then let them go.

    The cats, holding their cheeks on each side, grinned.

    “…Mother.”

    Seeing them now completely getting along, I was at a loss for words.

    Cerisne, who had quietly approached me, sat down next to me.

    “Did you mean it, those words?”

    “Hm? Which words?”

    “About becoming friends with all the nearby races. Including the orcs.”

    “Ah… that.”

    Come to think of it, these children were driven to extinction by the orcs.

    Cerisne, without looking at me, quietly waited for my answer while staring at the desk.

    “I meant it. If it’s for the sake of the forest, I can extend my hand to anyone.”

    “…Is that so?”

    Cerisne bit her lip firmly.

    Seeing her like that, I tried to say something, but Cerisne abruptly stood up from her seat and spoke again.

    “Then you must have meant it too. When you said you helped us purely because you wanted to, unrelated to the forest’s well-being.”

    “…That’s right.”

    At those words, Cerisne had an expression of self-realization.

    “You’re not treating other races with a calculative purpose simply for the sake of the forest. Right? Regardless of various conditions and interests, you’re doing it because you want to. Everything else follows.”

    I widened my eyes at her words. The content of her words proved that she had seen through me to a certain extent.

    Surprised yet readily, I gave her an answer to her thoughts.

    “Those words are half right and half wrong. The initial reason I started thinking this way was purely for the sake of the race. It began with an entirely calculative mindset. But as my thoughts continued and continued, in the end… well, as you said, I did come to want it myself.”

    She gazed intently into my eyes at my answer.

    Those transparent eyes turned to me as if to discern the truth of my words.

    After holding my image in her eyes for a while, she soon formed a faint smile.

    Her tail swayed side to side as if wagging once.

    “Then that’s enough.”

    Saying that, she returned to her sisters’ side.

    Her tail swished gently as she returned to her three sisters, who were laughing and chatting with Esiria.

    “Oh, you.”

    I smiled, watching them.

    That cat tail somehow looked like a fox’s tail.

    ***

    Some time later, we gathered around a small table and engaged in conversation.

    “So, you see. In the end, raising a son is all for naught. Can you believe he’d hide it so tightly from me, his mother who raised him, fed him, and put him to bed, only to suddenly tell a complete stranger and smile, saying, ‘You’re the first to empathize with me.’? My heart felt like it was being torn apart.”

    “Eldmir, that’s too much.”

    “Tsk tsk, Eldmir did something wrong.”

    “Um, quickly apologize, Sir Eldmir.”

    “…Sir Eldmir, that’s mean.”

    And it turned into a disastrous party for me.

    I was dumbfounded inside, but without showing it outwardly, I put on a smile.

    “I’m sorry, Mother. That’s not what I meant, I just…”

    “Oh my, Eldmir, this isn’t the time to make excuses, but to simply apologize.”

    “Not manly at all.”

    “…”

    No, what’s this?

    I had plenty to say, but in the end, I had no choice but to raise both hands in a gesture of surrender.

    “Yes. I apologize.”

    As I lowered my head, elongating my words, I felt a hand patting my head.

    “Oh dear, good boy, good boy.”

    Unable to stop my expression from souring, I lifted my head to see Esrin grinning.

    I let out a strange cry like a beast and pounced on Esrin’s small body.

    “Eek!”

    “You little one, who dared to make fun of your heavenly big brother?”

    “Kyaa! Kyaa! Kyahaha!”

    As I tickled her sides, Esrin collapsed and squirmed.

    She tried to resist and escape, but who did she think she could escape from?

    No way.

    “An elf is catching a catgirl!”

    “An evil elf disguised as a beastman!”

    “Uh… don’t bully our big sis…”

    Each of the sisters also patted my body, laughing.

    Considering my injuries, their assault was at a level too ambiguous to even call an impact, but I pretended to be in pain, released Esrin, and retreated.

    “Tsk, ganging up on me, how cowardly!”

    “Bleehh~ The fact that Eldmir resorted to force because words didn’t work is not only cowardly but also unmanly!”

    Ah, I was just playing along, but I’m taking quite a bit of damage.

    In the end, Demon Lord Eldmir, failing to make a fierce expression, had to declare defeat with a bitter smile.

    “Fine. I lost, you cunning cats. I lost.”

    “Kyahaha! You should have sought an apology from the start.”

    The four cat sisters started teasing me cheerfully, laughing boisterously and patting my head.

    Mother watched them with a warm smile.

    ‘Feels like looking at my nieces and nephews from my past life.’

    Although they weren’t as innocent as these kids and were troublemakers who gave me more than a headache.

    Anyway, they were fun kids to play with.

    Of course, I couldn’t help but feel my body and mind getting tired dozens of times faster than usual since I had to match the kids’ energy.

    Nevertheless, I chose the thorny path of playing with them, burning with the spirit of an injured warrior.

    Because these children, despite losing everything just a few days ago, were maintaining such a bright demeanor, weren’t they?

    It couldn’t be described simply as children’s purity or cheerfulness. It could be expressed as these children’s strength.

    I wanted these children to maintain this bright appearance.

    Above all, although she was smiling so warmly now, I couldn’t forget how she was sincerely lamenting to these little ones just a moment ago. I mustn’t sin against Mother again. Otherwise, I won’t be able to live properly.

    “Now, kids, it’s about time to go to bed. Shall we stop here for today since your brother will be tired too?”

    Anyone seeing this would think these kids were really our family.

    Their reluctantly yet obediently following Mother’s words was unmistakably the appearance of four sisters who listened well to their mother, bringing a smile to my lips as well.

    “Come on, let’s go inside.”

    “Aren’t you coming with us, Esiria?”

    In response to Ketrit’s wide-eyed gaze, Mother chuckled.

    “I’ll talk with your brother for a bit and come in soon. You go ahead first. Say goodnight to your brother too, okay?”

    “Yes! Goodnight, big brother!”

    As Ketrit smiled brightly and waved her hand, I also responded with a smile and waved lightly.

    “You little ones sleep well too.”

    As I waved and bid them goodnight, Cerisne suddenly stopped in her tracks and scurried over to me. She gestured to me discreetly, letting her sisters go in first.

    Wondering what was up, I bent down to lower my height, and Cerisne whispered in my ear, slightly standing on tiptoe.

    “If you call me little one one more time, I’ll call you El.”

    “…Huh?”

    Cerisne grinned mischievously and quickly went into the room.

    “Goodnight!”

    Seeing that, I let out a chuckle.

    “Yeah. Sleep well.”

    You clever little one.

    “Well then.”

    After confirming that all the sisters had gone inside, Mother closed the door and said,

    “Our son, let’s have a little chat.”

    “Oh, um.”

    Can’t we just go in and rest, Mother?

    ***

    Eldmir and Esiria entered the other room, the one not occupied by Cerisne’s sisters.

    This time, in case someone might eavesdrop again, Esiria formed a barrier of wind using spirit arts to completely block out external sounds.

    In that space where external sounds were cut off, Esiria spoke.

    “Son, you know what I want to talk about, right?”

    “Yes.”

    Eldmir nodded at the topic that seemed all too familiar.

    He knew, and she knew, but because of that, neither of them could easily open their mouths first.

    In the awkward silence, Eldmir quietly waited for her to bring it up first.

    “Harmony with the forest is not compliance. The forest’s teachings are not isolation but unity.”

    Finally, her lips parted, and she uttered the words her son had spoken.

    “Hoho, since when were you able to have such thoughts? Goodness. Our son has grown up so much.”

    Her eyes held a look of amazement and pride at the same time.

    However, Eldmir knew that sadness was also present behind it.

    “Mother, I…”

    “Son, you know better than anyone how arduous and difficult it is. Perhaps that’s why you didn’t directly mention it to me or the villagers.”

    “…”

    “So that’s why? You vented your complaints and dissatisfaction to the villagers, even accepting the label of a heretic, as you went around insulting the spirit of the forest.”

    Eldmir’s words were caught in his throat.

    He felt as if he was standing naked in front of her, unable to say a word.

    No words came out.

    Eldmir’s ideology was noble.

    Because it was noble, it was idealistic.

    The fact that elves yearned for the First Era was tantamount to envisioning a utopia, and Eldmir’s ideology of wanting to realize such a First Era made him appear as an idealist.

    However, Eldmir was not an idealist.

    Although he wasn’t pessimistic enough to be called that, he was sufficiently realistic and even cynical in some ways.

    He denied and mocked himself for his own ideals, and complex conflicts constantly arose within him.

    “I was angry at myself. Because I had ideals but knew better than anyone that they were absurd… I even mentioned a compromise to Irian, saying that even if coexistence wasn’t possible, we could at least establish a non-aggression pact. But if you had that in mind from the beginning, you wouldn’t have been so angry at yourself.”

    Concession, compromise.

    Eldmir disliked such words.

    Because he knew they were insufficient.

    Why should he make concessions to the nobility of his ideals when he well understood their greatness?

    Why must there be a compromise when ideals can be achieved if everyone makes small concessions?

    It’s stupid. It’s absurd and ridiculous.

    But that’s why he had to deny his own ideals.

    “My kind-hearted and nice son, Er. My son.”

    Esiria’s eyes glistened with tears.

    She hugged him tightly.

    She was sobbing and weeping faintly.

    “M-Mother…”

    “Don’t say anything. Don’t say a word…”

    “Mother, I… I…”

    Eldmir told Cerisne that she didn’t need to bear the sins of her race.

    He could say that because he knew how painful it was.

    Because he knew how heavy a burden she was trying to carry, he could stop her in advance.

    “I… I just…”

    He wanted to save the elves in the Race War. But he couldn’t do it alone.

    He wanted to save Mother. But she would die someday.

    He wanted to save Teacher. He wanted to receive his teachings longer. But that person would also die soon.

    He wanted to keep living in the forest he loved.

    But that forest would soon be destroyed.

    He wanted to live.

    And he could live. If he gave up everything.

    If he could abandon everything he loved.

    If he gave up on the elves, if he gave up on Esiria, if he gave up on Teacher, if he gave up on his friends, if he gave up on his new home.

    If he gave up on this world he had lived in for 20 years.

    “…Ugh!”

    A stifled sob burst out.

    “Son, our kind son, my kind son.”

    “Mother… Mom…! Everyone will die. Everyone, everyone will die…!”

    “Shh… Don’t say anything.”

    “They’ll die, sob… I’m telling you, they’ll die. You too, this forest too, the World Tree too, everyone! Sob… They’ll all die!”

    That’s why he wished for ideals.

    He had to impose ideals on himself.

    If the ideals weren’t realized, the elves would perish.

    And at the same time, knowing how absurd it was, he gave up.

    But simultaneously, he couldn’t give up.

    “E-Everyone… calls me a heretic. W-Without even, knowing…! Idiots, morons…! They’ll all die! If they remain so foolishly, they’ll… die…!”

    He knew the future.

    It was both a blessing and a curse.

    Knowing a future with nothing but destruction made him unable to truly live. Because it forcibly placed the fate of the race on his shoulders.

    He told himself dozens of times a day to just give up.

    He mocked and disparaged himself, saying it was an unsuitable task, questioning what right he had to play the savior when he had only learned to live a pathetic life as a game addict even at the age of 30.

    He held complaints against himself, insulted himself, and laughed at himself.

    Because it seemed like he could give up that way. Because otherwise, it felt like he would have to continue bearing the sins of this damn race.

    He didn’t want that.

    It was a new life he had finally gained.

    Wasn’t this world just a game in the first place?

    Why couldn’t he play as he wished, why couldn’t he enjoy himself as he desired?

    It was his life, his game, his story.

    Wasn’t it natural for him to live as he pleased?

    However, he couldn’t do that.

    His 20-year-old self denied the utterly pessimistic life of 30 years.

    It made him harbor ideals.

    Esiria’s love, the teachings of the existence called Teacher made him embrace ideals.

    The forest’s teachings, the forest’s spirit, the conflicts with the spirits, the daily life with his kin.

    He ended up loving all of those things.

    That’s why he couldn’t give up.

    That’s why he ended up thinking he had to do it.

    Because he was… the only player in this world.

    “Sob, wah!”

    “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, our son. I’m sorry for not understanding you all this time…”

    “M-Mom… Mom…!”

    “Cry to your heart’s content, Er. My son.”

    Everyone dies. It’s destruction.

    Everyone dies in a way that’s all too easy to understand.

    Because it was so easy to understand, the solution was also all too simple.

    So he embraced ideals.

    If the ideals aren’t realized?

    Everyone dies.

    It was an all too,

    all too,

    all too easy to understand future.

    “Aaaah!”

    He tried to find a way.

    He agonized for 20 years and tried to find a way to avoid the Race War.

    There were ways to end the Race War midway, but they couldn’t even be considered alternatives.

    It would be no different from destroying the continent in order to prevent the elves’ destruction.

    “What, what should I do…!”

    “Don’t think about anything. Don’t suffer, Er. Don’t suffer now…”

    Eldmir kept crying.

    It felt like the tears he had held back and endured for 20 years, the tears he had been on the verge of shedding countless times, were all bursting out at once in this moment.

    He was not a hero.

    He was not a warrior, and even less so a sentinel.

    He wasn’t an elf in the first place.

    He was just an ordinary, average human you could find anywhere.

    “I…! I… I!!”

    The why didn’t matter.

    He had long cast away such doubts.

    That’s why he focused on the fact that he had to live, and next, he thought about the how.

    How to live.

    In what way to live.

    How did he himself want to live?

    “Shh, Er, don’t think about anything and cry. Let it all out. Don’t suffer, just cry.”

    Esiria whispered in his ear.

    So he decided to follow those words.

    He no longer thought about anything.

    He just cried. He cried and cried some more.

    He cried so much that he was exhausted and didn’t know when he fell asleep.

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