Voice: Gee! What took ya so long!?
Azhure: Stress, and college. Also, I got exams and you know the drill. So I decided to publish this Memory all at once.
Voice: This memory!? Oh…
Year 1396 in Manegia
Where the carved-out base of a willow tree was, several brown-robed figures short and tall stood in front of it.
“Well then,” Isaac, the Ice Guardian, with his cane firmly stuck to the ground spoke in a low tone. “Shall we?”
As to why the Ice Guardian was here? To put it simply, he quoted, “It is only appropriate for the ones who struck this gravel to execute it themselves.”
And just a little over an hour ago, the Guardians (less half of them) had struck the gravel on the fate of those living in the network under this tree, the assassin group called the Willow Tree.
“Very well,” Gertrude, the dwarf Fire Guardian, who was present too, stepped forward, looking down upon the large hole and…
WHOOSH CRACKLE CRACKLE
…erupted flame from it.
“The plan is quite simple,” Isaac began, though pausing for a bit. “Set fire in every route the Willows could escape from and seal it out.”
“What the hell, we’re smoking them out!?” Joshua exclaimed.
“To put it simply, yes,” Isaac lightly coughed, rolling his eyes.
“Which is also why all of you are here,” Gertrude stated, looking at the many Court Wizards, with fire the most naturally, the Guardians decided to gather them in the courtroom instead of one of the chambers.
“Right then, prepare yourself,” Isaac said, looking back at three other Court Wizards, “…Willows.” Well, to one of them specifically.
“Wait! What about my sister!?” Emilia demanded for obvious reasons.
“I was getting to that.” Isaac then turned to one of the Court Wizards in attendance. “Fujiwara, you will infiltrate the network with your Order and ensure miss Ashe escapes, understand?”
“Is that why I got an oxygen canister strapped on my back?” Daisuke Fujiwara, a Light Court Wizard, deadpanned as he pointed his thumb to the tube attached behind him. “Wait, I’m supposed to get her out while everything’s on fire!?”
“What!?” Emilia exclaimed.
“Precisely, the Willows may catch on to our plot if we wait for miss Ashe to be escorted out first, so both will be carried out simultaneously,” Isaac explained while firmly holding his cane in front of him with two hands. “Also, I suggest that you make use of that compulsion sorcery you have.”
“It’s not a compulsion,” Daisuke complained. “It’s…”
“Daisuke, you better get my sister out safely,” murmuring silently, Willow stepped forward, manifesting her Cherished Armaments to her hands. Her expression was unseen under the dull mask she wore, but her partners could imagine what’s underneath it.
“Are you sure you… don’t want our help?” Joshua tried asking, knowing full well what will come next. He even wore the robe for this occasion.
Stopping for a moment, the traitor of the Willow Tree looked back at them and simply said, “No, just… be here for me.”
With both Ronald and Joshua conceding, Willow strode forward once again, to the base of the willow tree, not the one they had once escaped from three years ago.
“And such, we…”
Hah… Sitting cross-legged on the soil at the most back row, Ashe Willows internally sighed as she rested her cheek on her clenched fist, not paying much attention to what the elders were droning about. Not that I want to listen to them, anyway…
It was the annual gathering of the entire Willows clan to discuss various things. While she was supposed to listen as it was an important event, to the young assassin, it has become… suffocating, with what happened in one of those meetings.
Big sis… Ashe somber within her melancholic heart, looking to her side at the empty space that was once occupied.
Three years ago, her older sister of the same mother, Emilia, was accused of colluding with another organization by the suspicion of her unexplained absence that happened throughout the year prior.
What happened to you, big sis…? was the next in Ashe’s forefront mind.
She could only vaguely reminisce the elders interrogating Emilia for answers to which she didn’t even put up so much of a defense while maintaining an unusual calm despite her situation.
Ashe didn’t know why she couldn’t remember exactly, but No, that’s not it, Ashe shook her head as she knew in her mind all along. I just don’t want to remember it.
After all, she looked up to her sister; she was a prodigy, a once in a hundred years of her kind, an exemplary shadow weaving the threads of the world, and most importantly the best big sister you could ask for.
Ashe just couldn’t believe her older sister would do such a thing. Yet, I still clearly remember what happens next, she sighed internally again.
In the end, the elders decided to execute her on the spot. It was then that happened.
Ashe just wanted to close her eyes as a Willows approached her bound sister while brandishing a blade. With the elders making their judgment, the Willows motioned to end Emilia’s life and…
…barely backed away due to the tight space as a fireball zipped past where they were.
The fireball then hit a Willows in the crowd who already prepared to take the hit seeing as they couldn’t dodge it with how packed it was.
“Who did that!” an elder Willows howled in anger with the brazen attack.
Then, the sound of foreign magic echoed the network as the murmuring and on guard everyone looked to its source to find two figures, in brown and light blue (who was really tall), practically flying to who was to be executed. None risked intercepting them.
“Wh-What are you two doing here!?” Emilia exasperated in confusion. For some reason, there was… power within her voice.
“Isn’t it obvious!?” the brown figure chastised before facing the executioner…
WHOOSH CRACKLE CRACKLE
…and summoned a wall of flame, separating them.
“We’re getting you out of here!” At the same time, the taller light-blue figure spelled it out for her as he conjured a small crystal blade that he used to cut off her bindings.
“W-What!?” Emilia exclaimed.
Then, one of the elders broke out of his stupor and pointed at them. “K-Kill them!” he shouted. “Don’t let them get away.”
“You know what? Just carry her!” the brown figure suggested in his shout.
“Good idea.” In comical fashion, the light-blue figure unceremoniously picked her up by her waist and slumped her on his shoulder.
“H-Hey! Let me go!” Emilia exclaimed, hammering her carrier with her fists like a child in a tantrum.
And then they went off, with multitudes of assassins on their backs.
The sudden inclusion of the interlopers’ kidnapping/rescuing had left an impression on the girl, mostly because of how shocking it was that those two men’s audacity to somehow infiltrate the network with all of its occupants present.
But even so, Ashe somber in her mind. But that makes it irrefutable proof that big sis is…
And with Emilia’s apparent betrayal, it had made ripples throughout the clan: her branch of the clan’s standing plummeted; Ashe herself being sneered at for being Emilia’s full-bloodied sister; her relationship with her parents turned sour as they themselves approved of their own daughter’s death.
Good thing I’m sitting here, Ashe mused, peering at her parent’s hoods within the crowd. Mom would scold me for not listening. Not that I care anyway.
Again, ever since Ashe realized that her parents cared more about the clan’s order than their own daughters, the distance between her and her parents ever so slightly drift further apart every day.
It did not help that her parents also put her on a tighter leash, fearing that she would follow her older sister’s oath – so it was a lucky occasion that Ashe was able to sit here.
And well, I did help big sis and her friends escape, Ashe thought.
“A-Ashe?” Emilia, her older sister, widened her eyes.
After amateurishly stepping on a dried root that it snapped, Ashe took a good look at her big sister and the people who rescued her and gripped her fist in determination.
Beckoning them with her hand, she whispered loudly, “Big sis, misters, this way!”
Rolling her eyes. I will never regret doing that, she determined.
“Stay safe, big sis.”
“You too, Ashe.”
Even though Ashe could have joined her sister, but still loved her clan that tried to kill her sister. Despite everything, she lived there for all her life; growing up, living, eating, training, and going on missions together with her brethren.
While recent events ruined that, Ashe was still optimistic that things will get better – for one, her relationship with her friends was starting to get better.
And after all, the Willow Tree is a force of good, guiding the world to become a better place, the purpose of our sole existence, Ashe smiled. And who knows? The elders might welcome big sis back.
And because of that, she continued to hope.
Looking at the elders droning on, specifically their attire, Ashe pondered of the clothing the two boys who rescued her big sister wore.
I don’t know about the tall guy’s cloak, it’s too bright. It feels like it was never supposed to be used as field garb, Ashe analyzed, especially said cloak showed their emblem: a scale over a spear and shield. But as for the other, I think I’ve seen it before… Ah! From that drawing!
Once she was little, Ashe happened to stumble upon a record in the clan’s library. It spoke of a Willows encounter with a particular individual on a mission.
While she no longer remembered the details aside from the fact that they hit it off pretty well, going so far as to invite that person into the Willow Tree base, Ashe still distinctly remembered the matching illustration of the robe the individual wore, complete with the same straps holding it together.
So were they from the same group? Ashe wondered. Then how did big sis-
“..!” Then, Ashe widened her eyes at the sudden voice she heard. It was soft, but not unnoticeable, not with her training anyway. Yet, when she looked in front of her fellow Willows, none of them seemed to hear it.
While she could nudge one of them to ask if they have heard it, there’s a good chance she will just be told off considering the importance of the elders’ charade and obvious reasons.
There it is again… Ashe glanced at the others, they still didn’t notice.
The rate at which the voice shouted out even increased and supposed master assassins still didn’t pick it up.
…Then, should I investigate it myself? Ashe asked herself.
It was a bad idea though, she could get into a lot of trouble for sneaking out of this conference due to her… status. It’s also why no matter how much she explained it, the others wouldn’t even bother to investigate unless she can prove it which she most likely won’t.
But even so… There was something about this voice that nagged her, she felt compelled to follow it. Ashe also felt she needed to do so.
Well, it wouldn’t hurt to have one less Willows here, right? Against her better judgment, Ashe made up her mind.
With the strange voice drowning out the sermons of the elders, with none the wiser, the young assassin paid attention to where the elders were looking and slowly crept her way to the tunnel where the voice seemed to originate.
“…So hear me, brothers and sisters…”
Reaching her destination, Ashe wasted no time bolting off into the network quietly, removing one more sister in the crowd.
“And because we will only start sealing the routes when miss Emilia’s sister has fled, you will have to eliminate every Willows that is not her coming out on your way,” Isaac continued. “Understand?”
She’s almost out, and no one else is with her. (Daisuke)
Noted, keep watch of her until she has absolutely escaped. Everyone, maintain the current engagement until then. (Isaac)
Got it/Understand/Okay. (Everyone else)
And so, with masterful dexterity, Emilia somersaulted, cutting down two more Willows coming her way; the first Willows with an upward thrust and the second with an overhead slash, all while avoiding their blades.
While all the Willows were expert assassins, Emilia Willows was particularly the cream of the crop. Also, with conditions unfavorable to the Willows, having to jump out of a burning tunnel and smoke in their lungs weakening them further, picking them off was not too hard.
This meant the two fallen Willows simply ragdolled onto the pile of their brethren behind their slayer.
7 Willow Tree assassins finished off in this side, ??? left.
Man, Emilia’s really good. (Joshua)
Yeah, she’s not a prodigal assassin for nothing. (Ronald)
But even so… (Joshua)
Within a closed [Telepathy] conversation, so as to not distract Emilia, Ronald and Joshua winced as they stood and watched her throw one of her daggers straight to the forehead of one assassin just as they peeked their head out of the fire, tumbling them back in.
8 Willow Tree assassins finished off in this side, ??? left.
She’s pushing herself too hard. Our suppression being off screams that much. (Joshua)
Right after Gertrude lit the fire, Emilia had flawlessly taken out every assassin, members of her own clan, trying to escape. Sure, they did try to execute her three years ago, but they’re still her family.
So Ronald and Joshua couldn’t fathom why she would kill her own family on top of reluctantly agreeing to their genocide in the first place.
And she didn’t even let master Gertrude and master Isaac help her. (Ronald)
Yeah, master Isaac even made all that bravado of being ‘appropriate to do the deed’ earlier and she didn’t let him have any. (Joshua)
The two looked at the other participants of this massacre. Despite under their robe, they could tell that the noble Guardian watched all of this stoically while the shorter Guardian clearly looked worried for the girl.
On the other side, Emilia simply recalled the dagger she’d thrown, manifesting the ice blue dagger once more only for the icy intricacies of the dagger to dissolve, turning the dagger back into its original form.
Wait a minute, did she turned her Armament back into when it wasn’t? (Ronald)
Yeah, you can do that in case you need to. But it is weird that she did here. (Joshua)
I see. Then why did she…? (Ronald)
The two pondered Emilia’s happenstance of the reversion of her Cherished Armament into its original form in their minds as two more Willows came out of the burning stump of the willow tree. Emilia, meanwhile, simply prepared her stance and daggers for them.
Just before, Ashe snuck out of the elders’ lectures to follow a voice that reverberated her eardrums that no one else seemed to pick up.
‘I see something!’ Ashe exclaimed to herself as she squinted her trained eyes in the dimly lit tunnel.
There was a faint shimmer in the aid deep inside the tunnel which. It was as if the space around it was slightly distorted while gradually becoming smaller and small-
‘Wait a minute!’ Ashe realized. ‘It’s running away!’
And so, she did the most sensible thing to do: chasing after it.
But as she strayed further and further into the network, chasing after the shimmer that did nothing but repeating the same words, Ashe felt something was wrong. That feeling came true when she heard a familiar sound behind her.
The sound of fire. And it was raging towards her fast.
I have to get out of here! Ashe panicked in her mind when she looked back. And so, she ran. Away from the burning network behind her through the only path she knew best.
It was as if the shimmer had led her out for this exact reason, and it was either it knew or coincidental that it lured her to the part of the network where her secret pathway was. Speaking of said shimmer, it was gone. But Ashe didn’t have time to ponder further when her life was at risk.
There’s the exit! Eventually, Ashe saw the familiar light at the end of a tunnel only she knew (such was her boast). The secret exit that she had used to get her sister out of.
“Pwah!” She breathed a sigh of relief as she popped out of the decrepit hole under the base of the secret willow tree and skid her body across the grass under the sea of trees that was fortunately distant enough from the willow tree.
Turning her back, Ashe saw the fire creeping out of the tunnel. Getting up, she put a few distances away from the willow tree as the fire will soon burn it down.
“This is horrible…” she muttered out loud, watching willow tree slowly succumbing to flames. “How did this happen?”
Had someone accidentally dropped a candle? No, an ordinary fire wouldn’t have swept through the network that fast. Then was it fire magic? But those were forbidden inside the base for that reason. So the only plausible reason was-
An attack on our clan! Ashe realized, concluding the worst. Was it the shimmer? But it led me away, then… what about the others!?
If the shimmer had gotten only her to safety, what was the fate of the rest of the clan – her parents, her cousins, her friends, her family – stuck in the deepest part of the network?
I have to see if they are safe! Turning her body, Ashe immediately dashed to the nearby willow tree she knew from here.
Breathing raggedly, she soon found herself at the edge of the forest where a large willow tree in flames lay.
Where a petite figure in brown cut down two of Ashe’s parents.
Two more assassins were quickly cut down by Emilia. They both tumbled down in the same manner as the other eight who went ahead of them.
10 Willow Tree assassins finished off in this side, ??? left.
Incidentally, both of the two Willows happened to fall down facing up, on top of another assassin, causing their hoods to come off.
And it took one good look from Emilia’s eyes to know that she knew them when she looked back for inexplicable reasons.
M-Mother… F-Father… Ashe stared in horror as her parents limped lifelessly on another Willows, hoods opened.
Even though their relationship has turned bitter over the last few years, it still did not undo all the love and care they had for her and her older sister prior. Seeing their deaths had struck grief to the young girl.
And then rage as she locked on to their murdere- Wait, why are those daggers look familiar?
With her eagle sights, Ashe noticed the daggers the murdered held. Even at this distance, she could tell it was no ordinary blade. Their form was practical, yet elegant and the craftsmanship was not something common among bladesmiths.
I think I’ve seen these before… when big sister was gifted with…!
And then the young assassin locked eyes with the petite murderer’s behind her dull mask.
Uh, guys? I lost track of her. She- (Daisuke)
No need, miss Ashe has already escaped. You may extract now.
And to all squads, start sealing the entrances. (Isaac)
With that, the Ice Guardian lightly tapped his cane to the ground and…
CREME~ CREME~ CREME~
…covered the burning exit in unmelting ice, shutting in a Willows about to escape. The Willows could do nothing but chink their seal uselessly as the flames consume them.
11 Willow Tree assassins finished off in this side, ??? left.
Emotion suppression lifted.
And as the wind flew by, Emilia peered to her right, locking eyes with a figure at the edge of a forest, “..!” and gasped in surprise.
With her hood blown off, the other Court Wizards can see from the distance the pigtailed hair in the same shade as Emilia’s to know the identity of this girl.
Hey, isn’t the willow tree we got out of three years ago from that forest? (Joshua)
I believe so. (Ronald)
Well, then I think I get why it’s a ‘secret exit’. (Joshua)
I can see that. You’d certainly want to enter and leave in a bigger hole than squeezing through a smaller one nearby. (Ronald)
And the tunnel she guided us through is pretty obscure too. People are bound to forget it exists real fast. (Joshua)
And we just had to pick a willow tree close to that exit. (Ronald)
The Court Wizards may murmur in their minds as much as they want, but it will not stop the young girl from faltering back, shaking her head in denial before turning her back to flee back into the forest with tears in her eyes, all while her older sister could do nothing but reach out her bloody hand in futility.