“The Giant Hornet colony. From General Kiroumaru,” Satoru answered.
“Huh? B-but, the Giant Hornets are loyal to humans, aren’t they?” Mamoru asked with a dubious expression on his face.
“That’s why they’re dangerous,” Satoru said, then fell silent abruptly.
Squealer was within earshot. We needed to be careful not to let slip exactly why we were going to be eliminated.
“I’ll explain everything later. Just trust me.”
The three of them looked skeptical, but nodded wordlessly. We had unwavering trust in each other. This was the first time I found that fact so reassuring.
Soon, we rounded a bend in the river. As Squealer had said, our field of view widened considerably. Just a little farther, the valley would end in a flat plain. And another kilometer after that, we might be able to see the lake of Kasumiga Bay, its water glittering in the sunlight.
Our spirits rose considerably, but it was too early for that. Ahead, Squealer suddenly stopped and cocked his head, listening carefully. We soon realized why.
From the valley behind us came a strange birdcall.
My earlier assumption was proven correct. That was no wild bird. It was a spy sent by Kiroumaru to follow us.
“Run!” Satoru shouted.
Although there’s no point in criticism after the fact, I still wonder whether the decision Satoru made at that moment was the correct one. Kasumiga Bay was still quite a distance away, and even if we got there we would need additional time to find the canoes we had hidden among the reeds. Plus, running away would make us look guilty (thus giving our pursuers even more reason to come after us), and it may as well be an announcement to the world that we couldn’t use our cantus.
But since we had already started running, there was no time to stop and discuss this. We fled down the valley to the plains, running until I thought my lungs would burst.
“Wait, a minute. I can’t, run anymore!”
Embarrassingly, I was the first to stop. I was never a distance runner to begin with, and after all things I had gone through in the previous days, I was completely exhausted. Five humans and one queerat stopped, panting wildly.
“Just a bit more. I kind of remember this area. The shore should be behind those trees,” Shun pointed to a grove two or three hundred meters ahead.
“Let’s keep moving. Even if you can’t run, just keep walking,” Satoru said, taking my backpack from me.
I started forward, leading the way.
“What was that thing that sounded like a bird cry?” Maria asked.
“A nightjar. Spying for the Giant Hornet colony.”
Maria looked like she doubted what I said.
“It’s true. They have good night vision so they’re used for night reconnaissance.”
She seemed to accept Squealer’s explanation. I thought it was kind of terrible of her to believe that ugly creature over her best friend.
“But it’s already bright out,” Mamoru looked up at the sky.
Under our feet, blue dayflowers were starting to bloom, still wet with the morning dew.
“They use different birds during the day, right?” Satoru asked Squealer.
The woods were starting to come alive with various birdcalls.
“Correct. I’ve heard they use crows during the day because they’re more intelligent.”
As if to interrupt us, a crow cawed loudly.
“Where did it come from?” Satoru looked around wildly.
“There! On that tree.”
Maria had the best vision out of all of us. A hundred meters ahead was an ominous black shape perched on a withered tree.