3 – 13
The cavern began to collapse entirely.
Following Nicole, people began to flee as they screamed. Miasma exploded into light, the walls collapsed, the ground beneath their feet ruptured.
“If you are able, carry the injured to safety! Keep an eye on the children! Lend a hand to the elderly!”
Through the chaos, Camilla shouted out orders. Helping one another, even the injured and the children were able to make their way out of the cavern.
“Has everyone escaped!?”
Once everyone had passed her by, Camilla breathlessly looked back at the cavern as she yelled. Anyone who hadn’t made it already probably wasn’t going to make it at all. There was no one back there still moving… No, there was.
“Wait, please wait! Someone, help!”
Squirming in the shadow of a recent collapse, someone moved. Beside them, another person stood, crying out for help.
As another explosion lit up the cavern, she could see who they were in the flash of light.
It was that girl, Irma… As well as that other girl with brown hair and skin like a porcelain mask. A maid with a beauty spot under her eye.
“Frida was caught under the rocks! Please don’t leave her here! Help!!”
Frida’s foot had been completely pinned under falling debris from her ankle down.
Trying to escape together, Irma had taken Frida’s hand to run. Frida had never been a fast runner, so Irma stayed alongside her to try and make sure she got to safety.
But, as the two were running, an explosion flared up right next to them. It wasn’t a massive explosion, but it was enough to knock rocks loose from the ceiling.
Irma had been right in front of that sudden reaction of magical energy. Shocked by that sudden explosion, Irma had come to a stunned stop. It was then that Frida had seen it. Purely on instinct, she had pushed Irma out of the way.
Irma fell, and by the time she had gotten back up, she could already see Frida pinned under the debris.
Irma rushed over to her in a panic. The rocks that pinned her wouldn’t move no matter how much strength she pushed with. There was nothing Irma could do to help her alone.
Frida’s face twisted in agony. She couldn’t see what had happened to her foot that had been caught under the rocks, but she didn’t want to imagine it.
Irma cried out in desperation as she shoved her body against the biggest of the fallen rocks. But, as everyone fled, no one stopped to help. They just got further and further away. The quaking ground and explosions rocking the cavern made it obvious that their time was running out.
“Irma, stop. Go already.”
As Frida said that, that once expressionless face was tinged with sorrow. It was hopeless. She couldn’t free herself at all. Her fate had already been sealed.
But Irma shook her head, tears in her eyes.
“No! Someone, my friend is…! Help, please!!”
She screamed at the top of her lungs until her voice went hoarse. Her voice even carried above the booming explosions. But everyone had already escaped, just why would any of them come back?
“Frida! No! Please, someone help!!”
The damp cold of the rock seeped into her palms as she threw her weight against it. Irma didn’t know what more she could do. The cavern was getting hotter by the minute due to the explosions, but her body felt nothing but a dreadful chill, as the terror ran her veins cold.
As a voice full of resentment sounded in her ears, Irma lifted her head to look. There was a shadow of a person next to her, throwing their weight against the rock as well. Those thin hands of hers were planted on it, trying to move it in the exact same way she had. Those hands… Those pale and gentle hands that had never known such heavy labour before.
Irma blinked as she stood stupefied, wondering if she was hallucinating.
“What are you doing!? Stop gawking at me like a fool!!”
“…Y-You… Why… Why would you…?”
“What do you mean, weren’t you yelling out for help!?”
The owner of those slender arms didn’t even look at Irma. All she did was press her hands against the rock and push with all the strength she could muster.
“But… You… Why would you ever help me?”
“What, you’d rather I just leave you two to die then!?”
“Stop being ridiculous!”, she yelled out as she pushed even harder.
“I took responsibility! So if you die, I will be the one at fault!!”
Even after joining forces with the maid called Irma, their combined strength wasn’t even enough to budge that boulder.
More and more, that cavern was beginning to fill with collapsed debris. If things continued like this, won’t she be crushed alongside her responsibility? A rock of this size wasn’t something that two girls would have been able to move in the first place.
– Jeez, we’re already running out of time…
As she grew more and more anxious, a pair of hands reached out to press against the rock above Camilla’s head.
“Let’s put all of our strength into the next push.”
It was an all too familiar voice. As the sound of another explosion peeled through the cavern, this time Camilla thought that she was seeing things.
However, that person’s voice rang out before she had time to be confused.
“One, two, threeeee!!”
Camilla instinctually threw her weight against the rock on that voice’s final count. Putting every ounce of strength she had left into her arms, she threw herself against it.
And that boulder, that hadn’t budged an inch, moved. It rolled completely on its axis, falling into the pool of miasma next to them.
Camilla, who had thrown her full weight into that effort, couldn’t stop her momentum. Completely focused on moving that rock, she didn’t even think about cushioning her fall. But just before she fell, something stopped her.
Something caught Camilla’s arm before she fell into the pool of miasma herself. Stepping back from the edge of that pool, Camilla only found her voice after she found her feet again.
There was no one else it could be. It had been Alois who had caught Camilla before she fell, and still held her arm.
– Just how was he here? And why was he alone?
To Camilla’s question of only a single word, Alois replied briefly as well.
“The exit is just ahead. Everyone else has already gotten to safety.”
“I-Is that true!?”
“We have to get out of here too. Can you escape on your own? I need to carry her or else she won’t make it.”
There was no time to celebrate. As Camilla battled to subdue the nearly overwhelming sense of relief that was about to rob her of her sense of urgency, Alois scooped up Frida in his arms. Then, he looked at Camilla one more time to make sure.
“We can’t stay here long. Are you sure there’s absolutely no one else still here!?”
Just as she was about to finish saying ‘yes’, Camilla took one final look around the cavern. The people that had been laying down from the beginning still hadn’t moved and never would again. There was no one trapped under any rocks either from what she could see. There wasn’t a single sign of movement.
But, Camilla saw it.
Right in the middle of the cavern. A cane fallen to the ground. The silhouette of a small person, hunched over on the ground without moving. After everyone else fled, that old woman hadn’t said a single word at all.
Camilla yelled out in exasperation.
That elderly body of hers didn’t have the strength to stand anymore. It was all she could do to keep breathing those ragged and painful breaths.
Martha was convinced that she would die here. It seemed fitting, as someone who had lived her whole life in that town. A citizen of a mining town shouldn’t really begrudge the idea of meeting their end in a mine. When Martha was a young girl, it was common for men to pass away like that. And as one of the people that ran the city, she had spoken to many bereaved families over the years who had lost loved ones in the mines. Someone would die, another would take their place, that was the way of things.
Martha was the same. If Martha died, someone would take her place. That was how things had been in this town all the way back to the beginning.
Then, she should face the end without being unsightly. Do not give in to emotions at the last moment. Never forget the pride of Einst.
That’s what she thought.
“At least move your feet just a little! You’re too heavy!”
“How can you say that to an old woman!? Don’t you have any compassion at all!?”
Martha felt herself walking, being supported on either side by two women. Rather, it was closer to being dragged than walking. One of them was the maid, Irma. The other was Camilla, the soon-to-be wife of that hateful Duke. In her hand, Camilla also held Martha’s cane.
“I was thinking this for a while, but you really are bull-headed, aren’t you!? You were even like this with the children before!”
“It can’t be helped! If I had to choose between being considerate and dying, then that’s an easy choice to make!”
Irma and Camilla shouted back and forth. For some reason though, although the two of them would definitely deny it, their bickering was slightly more amicable than before.
“…I don’t need your sympathy.”
Martha muttered, her voice faint. The two women dragging Martha alone looked at her but didn’t stop moving.
“I’d rather just die here than be helped by an enemy.”
“Then that’s all the more reason for me to help you! I’m utterly furious with you, after all!”
Camilla yelled angrily, but she didn’t show any sign of letting go of Martha at all. Through the rocking sounds of explosions, they managed to press forward and reach the opening to the cave that lead to safety.
In front of them, they could see the back of a man who led the way, a magical light shining from his hands. Sometimes, he would turn around and shout something to encourage them. Camilla and the others followed along behind him as best they could.
“If you truly wanted to die that badly, then why did you come so far with me in the first place?”
Martha faltered as Camilla stared at her dubiously.
Back in the tunnels, Martha had trekked an utterly gruelling path just to follow Camilla, hobbling on her cane across that treacherous ground until her legs had given out. Sometimes she was supported by others, sometimes she virtually crawled in the dark, yet why?
Martha knew it well. To cling so desperately to life at her old age, it was shameful.
“…I showed an unsightly side of myself.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being unsightly in such a place. It’s a much healthier thing than to just long for death.”
Camilla said that, facing forward. That girl probably hadn’t ever carried something so heavy in her life before now. Sweat poured down her forehead. She likely hadn’t had time to think about it, but her face was covered in dirt and her dress was in tatters. Her makeup had long since become a casualty of the miasma, mud, and heat, whilst her hair was completely dishevelled. She looked ugly and dirty, a shameful figure.
“Wanting to live, that’s only natural. Everyone else is the same.”
– The unsightly one…
Martha lowered her head. She couldn’t move her legs anymore. The only reason she was still alive was because of the two girls either side of her, supporting her weight as they carried her forward. Even though she had said she didn’t want to be helped by an ‘enemy’, she didn’t resist that help either.
– The unsightly one has been me.
“Please pass me my cane.”
Martha said sharply, glancing at the walking stick in Camilla’s hands.
“I don’t need help anymore. If I have no choice but to live on, I will walk on my own two feet.”
Hearing Martha’s words, Camilla snorted derisively.
“Suit yourself. I won’t help you anymore, then. We are almost there, so do your best on your own, if you would.”
Raising her head, Martha saw a light at the edge of her vision.
It wasn’t a magical glow. It was the dazzling light of the sun.
Double chapter day.
Edited by ApoPie