Chapter 3: Sky’s Oath Legion

The subterranean labyrinth of unknown depth – the Magna PortaGreat Gate.

The first three floors of the labyrinth had been tamed by the Church of the Five Holies.

Light stone lamps were installed along the walls, and Church knights patrolled the corridors. What few Void Beasts could be found in these levels were easily driven off.

To the experienced adventurer, walking these halls was no more dangerous than a light stroll after dinner.

“W-Why? The…Shinki…originally…”

Tina was completely out of breath, but apparently not so much that she couldn’t complain. Even though her endurance was decidedly lacking, since the road didn’t have the uphill slope of the mountain they’d climbed, the trip had not completely exhausted her.

“Just…accepted…Reliquia… As offerings!”

“Well, no one’s giving you any offerings, now are they? That’s why you have to go and get them yourself.”

Yuuki had applied for a temporary adventurer’s permit from the Church on Tina’s behalf.

Temporary permits required that the holder be accompanied by the guarantor whenever entering the labyrinth. Requiring full adventurer permits of support staff such as construction workers or transport personnel was unreasonable, which had led to the creation of this system.

As they reached the third floor, Yuuki having indicated that she could now take a rest, Tina leaned against the stone wall before slowly sliding down to sit on the floor.

“J-just a…little…farther…”

“Here’s fine already. You know, didn’t you already wander the labyrinth once already? Those floors should have been much harder going.”

“You mean when I saved that thankless cur? I don’t really remember that much, to be honest; I was just so desperate. I don’t even remember how many floors I climbed…”

“And that’s exactly why you need to exercise a little. ——Tell me, how much do you know about the labyrinth?”

Tina took a moment’s consideration before responding.

“There’s Reliquia in here.”

“That’s it?”

“Um, Reliquia hold divine energy, which is Tina’s power.”

“How amazingly self-centered, but you’re right. ——Just one point of clarification, though: not everything you find in here holds divine energy. Also, the things that do can vary greatly when it comes to how much divine energy they possess. Normal people aren’t like you – we can’t simply sense divine energy, but by assessing the outward appearance of the Reliquia, we can make educated guesses about how much divine power is present.”

The city was filled with stores which both appraised and bought Reliquia.

The Church and the Oath Legions were, of course, the largest such organizations, but on occasion, individual stores could offer more precise appraisals resulting in higher prices for the seller. For this reason, small shopkeepers all relied on their skill at appraisal to garner goodwill – the catalyst for obtaining more customers and business.

“Some types of Void Beasts have a habit of collecting Reliquia. Generally speaking, the more powerful the Void Beast, the more powerful the Reliquia it likes to collect. It’s for the sake of obtaining those Reliquia that defeating Void Beasts is necessary.”

Accordingly, those who intended to get rich quickly necessarily sought out powerful companions in order to minimize the danger they faced. Consequently, high-ranked adventurers were in great demand.

“Hmm, so the reason Master enters the labyrinth alone is because you’re only a ninth-rank? There’s no one who will form a party with you?”

“…You really don’t hold back, do you? But yes, you’re right.”

A student with a low-rank might as well not exist as far as the other student trainees were concerned. It went without saying that he had never been invited to join a group.

The only exception had been Alfred, the weirdo.

“I’m fine with it. I’ve always been self-reliant. Anyway, my plan is to never engage a Void Beast in battle in the first place. ——Speaking of which, I hear the Shinki can’t harm others. Does that extend to Void Beasts as well?”

“Yes. There’s a powerful restriction against causing harm instilled deep within us. That said, we can still defend against them with protective shields, seal their actions with the power of miracles, or even teleport them somewhere far away——”

“And to do any of that, you’d need to consume Reliquia first. Hrm. ——I’d been wondering if there was a way to leverage your powers, but it seems like they’re ill-suited to raiding.”

“That’s why the Shinki have to rely on adventurers’ offerings of Reliquia. ——Right, that reminds me. The stronger the adventurer, the more powerful the Reliquia they have, correct? If that’s the case, then that Stefan guy from yesterday should be pretty strong, right?”

“Ah, you mean that spear?”

“Yeah, there was an enormous amount of divine energy within it. I think there was even enough divine energy to summon a Duelist…”

“That’s a celestial Dragon Fang weapon. Are you familiar with them?”

“I know them.”

There was a particular type of Reliquia known as a Dragon Fang Gem.

Their shape, the staggering amount of divine energy they held, the fact that there were but twelve of them in existence, or that they were each guarded by huge, terrifying Void Beasts known as Void Dragons – these things were the stuff of legends. Yuuki, of course, had no more idea than anyone else how to go about obtaining one.

The celestial Dragon Fang weapons were crafted by the Shinki, whose use of divine energy coupled with a Dragon Fang Gem resulted in the creation of the aforementioned weapons. These were legendary Reliquia weapons of the utmost rarity.

The hallmarks of such weapons included their supernatural sharpness, light weight, and durability. They were normally formless, but would manifest in accordance with their master’s will.

Perhaps the greatest testament to their awe-inspiring power was that these weapons could penetrate even the ScutumHoly Shield.

The Shinki, their Duelists, and some high-ranked Void Beasts possessed an invisible protective shield known as the ScutumHoly Shield. As their name suggested, these were almighty shields. Unless a Reliquia possessed an abundance of divine energy, it could not pierce through a ScutumHoly Shield. The ScutumHoly Shield of the Shinkis was of the highest order, and it was rumored that only a celestial Dragon Fang weapon was capable of damaging one.

The personal weapons of the five Duelists were celestial Dragon Fang weapons. If there were additional celestial Dragon Fang weapons to be had, it was said that the Shinki would bestow them upon adventurers of exceptional power and ability. From the perspective of an adventurer, the granting of a celestial Dragon Fang weapon was evidence of both one’s absolute strength as well as the trust of the Shinki – an honor above any other.

The spear wielded by Stefan was likely a gift from the “Shinki who Supports the Sky.”

This meant that the Shinki in question felt him worthy of such a weapon. In other words, that eerily detached man was truly the best of the best.

“That’s… probably very expensive, right? That spear?”

“That is without a doubt, the very top of first-grade Reliquia – a priceless treasure. Not that anyone would ever sell one in the first place. I could sell every item I own, everything in the store, and it wouldn’t be worth the ornamentation on that spear’s hilt.”

“Oh…”

“That is to say, stop dreaming, and work hard at earning money little by little. The labyrinth has medicinal herbs and other things of great value. First, focus on learning what those herbs are and where they grow. ——Okay, it’s about time for us to get going again.”

“Ah, w-wait for me, Master!”

Tina propped herself up with a large stone by her side and, standing, frantically chased after Yuuki.

 

The pair continued on until finally arriving at the stairway to the fourth level, eventually running into several groups of unhappy adventurers on their way back.

“Did something happen? Did a Void Beast appear or something?” Yuuki grabbed someone and asked.

Mishaps weren’t common on these floors, so when large accidents or strange things occurred, adventurers were to do their best to spread the news. This was an unwritten rule for them.

“Ah, no. Some adventurers have gotten in a fight in front of the stairway. Both parties are from the Oath Legions. There’s no getting through.”

“Oh, wow. That sure is a pain.”

Yuuki thanked the leaving adventurers and turned to Tina.

“It’s not a Void Beast, but a fight between adventurers.”

“Why would adventurers ever fight each other? Did someone try to steal something from someone else?”

“That does happen on occasion, but this time——”

Yuuki thought for a moment, and then continued.

“You know what? Let’s check it out. It’s probably best if you see something like this at least once.”

As the two traveled a short distance into the fourth level, they heard the sounds of an ongoing commotion.

Just as they’d heard, there were two parties glaring at one another, on the verge of attacking one another.

Because this was one of the earlier floors, there was quite a crowd assembled.

Finding a crack in the wall of onlookers, Tina squeezed her way to the front for a better view—— Suddenly, she frowned.

“Aren’t they… the guys from yesterday?”

“Looks like it.”

The first involved party was the Sky’s Oath Legion, or more specifically, the party of them that had visited Yuuki’s store the day before.

Stefan, the party leader; Jahar, with his enormous sword; Bertolt, gaze as ferocious as ever; and two clerics.

“The other side seems to be from the Star’s Oath Legion?”

In other words, they were the direct subordinates of the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” or so Yuuki determined, judging by the emblem emblazoned on their armor. Three stood together in front, with two taking up the rear. Their party composition was identical to Stefan’s.

“While none of the unaffiliated, freelancer adventurers share these feelings, the Oath Legions are highly antagonistic toward one another. Within the labyrinth, their respective territories are clearly defined. For the most part, the Legions make every effort to avoid entering another Legion’s territory, and try to be on their best behavior whenever circumstances necessitate they do so. That notwithstanding, however, small conflicts break out all the time along territorial borders; this is something that happens a lot.”

“How foolish…”

“I think so too, but these conflicts never cease. Perhaps it’s mankind’s karma. ——Anyway, this area should be under the jurisdiction of the Sky’s Oath Legion – Stefan, in other words. Those Star guys must be the ones trying to provoke a fight.”

Although the Church publicly advocated cooperation between the Legions, in several different ways it actually encouraged conflict between them. It was a simple fact that competition drove up the rate at which Reliquia were collected.

The Church was fully aware of the movements of each of the Legions. That was to say that the annihilation of Bertolt’s party, the incident from which only one person had returned – and that by sheer luck, was of course known to all other factions. Even Yuuki, a smalltime merchant, had heard the news, so in that respect, what was even now taking place had been inevitable really.

It wasn’t as if they were really looking for a fight; they were simply exploiting the opportunity to mock the other party – to humiliate them. That there were those who were motivated by such things wasn’t hard to imagine.

The reason “small” conflicts were common was because neither party involved wanted to let things get too far; they knew when to stop… but now——

“What the hell did you just say, you bastard?!” someone from the Star’s Oath Legion screamed.

“Nothing more than the truth. For someone like you to try and stand in my way is a vast overestimation of your ability. Move,” Stefan commanded dispassionately.

He hadn’t bothered to mask his contempt.

“——Just try me then. Warning, though – you might just lose your life, you stupid brat.”

His lips curling mockingly, the other man brandished his sword.

Yuuki noticed that he recognized the people from the Star’s Oath Legion. It was Jumbo and his buddies – the Legionnaires Yuuki had encountered when he’d brought the beginning-class students to visit the labyrinth.

The shouts and cheers of an irresponsible crowd gave him a sense of foreboding, and he frowned slightly.

Shouts of “Die, you bastard!” and “I’ll kill you!” were all too common in these settings, though things never turned out that way, of course. If every dispute turned into a massacre, no one would stand for it. Killing aside, no one wanted to be killed over something so trivial either.

People knew when enough was enough, and so these conflicts were generally kept within reason. The two parties would endlessly probe the limits of one another’s patience, making sure to reach a compromise before things ever went too far. This, too, was an unwritten rule.

That said, there were times when one party simply didn’t know when to quit.

“The Shinki emphasize cooperation between the Legions, so are we not comrades? Must there be this hostility?” Stefan asked softly.

“Comrades? Screw that, moron. The only way you’re getting through here is over my dead body!”

Perhaps intending to intimidate Stefan, Jumbo charged, his sword raised.

He never had the chance to lower his weapon, for in the next instant, he was transformed into two chunks of lifeless meat.

“Too slow.”

Jahar had taken a great stride from behind and unleashed an unimaginably swift strike with the large sword resting on his shoulder.

“——!”

Yuuki heard Tina, standing beside him, inhale sharply.

The fellow from the Star’s Oath Legion had chosen the wrong opponent.

“Drawing a weapon means you’ve prepared yourself to die as well!” Jahar laughed.

A few onlookers frowned and left, but the majority remained, breaking out into excited cheers. “Death” was nothing new to an adventurer. Moreover, what they’d just witnessed was a one-sided execution by one with overwhelming power, and one without the least impact on them – in other words, entertainment.

The two remaining forward guards from the Star’s Legion were struck with fright, but eventually they drew their swords as well. The courage to resist in the face of threat to life and limb was the hallmark of an adventurer, and in their case, a measure of their pride as Legionnaires.

In this instance, however, it was simply a demonstration of their foolhardiness. The difference between them and their opponents wasn’t one that could be surmounted with a little bravado.

Not a moment had passed before the two had also been slain. The first had been quartered, armor and all, by Jahar. His compatriot’s arms were sliced clean off by Bertolt’s scimitar. Begging for mercy, his head was severed in two with a stroke that started at the mouth and cleaved clean through his skull.

The two surviving clerics from the Star’s Legion had collapsed to the ground, frozen in fear.

“Hey Stefan, let’s kill these two as well. That alright with you?”

Stefan sighed, wordlessly expressing his understanding and agreement. Bertolt raised his weapon, still bloody, as his lips curled into a sadistic grin. When compared with Jahar’s hot-blooded battlelust, the impression Bertolt gave was much more sinister.

“Right then. Which of you two is first?”

The clerics, frantically trying to flee for their lives, were madly flailing in an attempt to struggle up the stairs. At this distance, they wouldn’t be able to activate an Orison in time. Close-combat was even less of an option. Unfortunately, even if their entire being desired escape, the fear running through them had stolen the mastery of their bodies.

Seeing their wretched state, Bertolt was filled with deep satisfaction, laughing as he raised his weapon——

“Stop! You fools!”

“…Huh?”

Suddenly, a small figure dashed forward, placing itself between the scimitar and its intended victims.

Bertolt immediately altered the arc of his swing, preparing to cut the interloper in two, and a silver flash leapt toward Tina’s throat.

“——That idiot!”

With every ounce of strength in his body, Yuuki grabbed Tina by the nape of her neck, and hauled her back. At the same time, he kicked the flat side of the downward-swinging blade with one foot, throwing it off its intended path. Bertolt’s scimitar whistled past Tina’s hair as it finished its downward motion.

“You do NOT harm someone who’s lost the will to fight!” Tina screamed as she struggled wildly in Yuuki’s grip. “If you’re an adventurer, then you compete as an adventurer competes – with results! Have you no pride?!”

“The hell do you think you’re doing, you dumb kid. …Wait, haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”

“I’m not a kid!”

Tina broke free of Yuuki’s hold, and with chest thrust out and head straight, she met Bertolt’s glare head on.

“…”

Bertolt blinked twice, thrice—— He busted out laughing.

“HAHAHAHAHAHA…I remember now. You’re that little girl from that rundown shop. You had, what was it again, amnesia?”

“I don’t have——”

Bertolt ignored Tina’s ever more hysterical cries, and walking up to Yuuki, he grabbed him by the lapel.

“Do you remember what I said to you then, Mr. My-Store’s-a-Piece-of-Shit? Did I not warn you to teach her better?”

Just as Yuuki was about to respond, he was struck in the face, and his mouth filled with the taste of iron.

“And didn’t you kick my weapon just now?”

“That, well, I was just trying to protect this girl, and hit it by accident…”

“I know THAT! Like you could hit it even if you wanted to! Get this straight, though – I don’t care why it happened. That your filthy feet touched my weapon is not something I can overlook!”

His fist swung once more.

“Seriously, just who do you think it is that keeps this city going?! Hurry up and teach that girl already!”

His mood having passed, Bertolt let go of Yuuki. Spitting, he turned and walked away.

“M-Master——”

Tina watched Yuuki with a face on the verge of tears before turning to give Stefan a ferocious glare.

“Aren’t you the leader here?! How could you allow something so cruel?!”

She hadn’t expected an answer, but the frozen-faced Stefan replied nonetheless.

“Power is everything. ——That’s the kind of place this labyrinth is.”

Afterwards, having lost all interest, he turned and left. Jahar gave Tina an interested glance before turning to follow. The two clerics went next, with Bertolt taking up the rear. He kicked the corpses of the two he’d killed before disappearing down the path to the next level as well.

The surviving clerics from the Star’s Oath Legion had taken the opportunity the earlier commotion had provided to run away.

As the boisterous crowd dispersed, the labyrinth returned to its normal state. Aside from the blood and corpses littering the floor, that is.

“…Have you calmed down?”

As Yuuki finished his question, Tina raised her head, her face indignant.

“H-How could I possibly be calm?! Why didn’t you say anything? T-T-That arrogant, unreasonable——”

She couldn’t even finish her sentence in her extreme rage.

“Because it’s only through their efforts at retrieving Reliquia to offer the Shinki that this city even exists. When confronted by the almighty Oath Legions, no one would dare to talk back.”

“And you don’t care that they insulted you, Master?!”

“A businessman only acts after having first weighed the pros and cons. Standing up to one’s superiors won’t earn you a penny.”

“Then!”

Tina stamped her small feet over and over.

“Even if you didn’t want to do anything, you didn’t have to stop Tina! Why did you stop me?! It’s not like that Bertolt guy could have hurt me!”

It didn’t matter how strong an adventurer he was, without a celestial Dragon Fang weapon, he simply could not have harmed her. Even if he’d attacked with all his might, the most he would have accomplished would be to numb his own hands.

“Stefan had one, though – a celestial Dragon Fang weapon.”

Not that he thought Stefan was the kind of person who’d openly stab a young girl in front of a crowd of onlookers.

“Anyway, if you’d been attacked and come out completely unharmed, it’d be extremely strange, wouldn’t it? Humans fear those things they do not understand. Just like before, when you helped Bertolt; now he thinks you’re a Void Beast. Do you want that to happen again?”

“…”

“The idiot who pulled his weapon first died because of it. To go on killing and killing after that, though – that was going too far. If no one had done anything, then I probably would have thought up a way to draw their attention – to stop them. ——Point is, you saved two lives today. That should be enough.”

“…But…” Tina protested, tearful, unsure what to do with her rampaging emotions. “But humans were massacring humans, and the crowd was delighted even! Before Tina’s eyes! Before Tina, a Shinki devoted to the protection of humanity! ——Is this the true face of adventurers? How can I possibly accept that? Must I really just accept that this is the way things are?”

“…”

Yuuki had no words to offer. Tina’s question wasn’t one he had an answer for.

Some time passed before Tina sighed.

“…I’m sorry. You protected me, Master. ——Does it hurt?”

Reaching out with her tiny hand, she gently wiped the blood from his lip.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.”

“If I had any divine energy, healing it would be a trifle. Tina really is useless right now.”

Tina’s smile was filled with sorrow.

“…To bring forth such tragedy – will there be no punishment?”

“That’s the kind of place this labyrinth is.”

The killing of another was strictly forbidden within the city. The Church’s knights would immediately arrest the criminal and begin an investigation into the matter.

Alas, the reality was that the vast majority of laws that governed the surface held no sway down below. It had become custom that anything that happened within the walls of the labyrinth would be considered an accident. Even when murder occurred, it was simply too hard for the knights of the Church to descend into the labyrinth to search for the perpetrator. Asking them to investigate the numerous deaths that took place within the labyrinth was even more impossible.

“Strength is everything. ——That’s the kind of place this labyrinth is.”

Stefan’s words had been accurate. At the very least, they revealed the true nature of things.

“That said, I’m not so great at this whole kill-and-be-killed thing, so I just wander around, earning a little here and there instead.”

Yuuki laughed, mocking himself.

Though things hadn’t always been that way——

“…Master? What’s wrong?”

Hearing Tina’s voice, he was brought back to the present.

“Oh…it’s nothing. Let’s go, okay? There’s no point in sticking around here. This is one of the upper levels of the labyrinth, so the Church’s knights will be along shortly to take care of the corpses.”

The corpses of those who died within the deepest reaches of the labyrinth weren’t so fortunate – they became food for Void Beasts.

Neither human Orisons nor the miracles of the Shinki could bring back the dead. That, too, was one of the truths of this world.

“Um…in these kinds of situations, how do people pay their respects to the dead?”

“Well, I only know a pretty simple way. Let’s give it a try.”

Yuuki faced the three dead adventurers, and drawing a pentagram, offered a short prayer.

“O Lord of the Heavens, God of all creation: Please take these thy valiant servants into thy bosom. May their names be written in the Book of Life that they may be granted eternal rest——”

 

※※※

 

“…How tragic.”

Franka expressed her sympathy as she walked.

She was giving an attentive ear to Tina, whom was sharing with her the happenings of a few days before, when they had gotten caught up in the incident between the Oath Legions.

“Franka… d-do you, um, do you get into fights with other people like that too?”

“Of course not.”

Franka gave a wry smile.

“I’m sure Yuuki’s told you before, right? The only ones who feel so antagonistic toward one another are the Oath Legions. The rest of us are freelancers, and so we stick to small tasks. You have to understand, though; even if adventurers never fought one another, there’s always the risk of death. The labyrinth is a dangerous place.”

Ambushes by Void Beasts, unnoticed traps, unfortunate accidents – death took many forms.

On the other hand, however, the potential rewards were great. Take a young girl like herself, for example, who was able to earn enough to provide for herself. ——That was how Franka felt.

The two girls were walking side-by-side along the main road. Their destination was the upper part of the city, or more specifically, the large public square before the Cathedral.

Because Tina had previously expressed the desire to watch a puppet show, the two had consulted and decided on a time to go together. There was likely just such a show ongoing at the central plaza at this time, and so the two were leisurely making their way there.

Because the road eventually led to the mountains, there was an incline to the road, though slight enough to not cause undue strain.

“My father was also a member of the Oath Legions. However, he was caught in an accident while raiding… It’s been three years since then.”

“I see…” Tina answered with a pained expression.

Although her demeanor could be a bit strange at times, Franka felt nonetheless that she was a good girl.

“Ah, sorry about that. Please don’t worry about it. It’s already become just a memory for me by now. However, at the time, I was drowning in grief and sorrow. ——That was when Yuuki helped me.”

“Master did?”

“My mother passed away when I was still very young, and my siblings had already left home… It was right then, when I was left all alone, that I got caught up in something bad.”

It wasn’t anything that she had to keep secret; it’d be alright to tell her. Having come to this conclusion, Franka continued to speak.

“My father owed money.”

Franka’s father loved to take care of others, and would frequently lend his aid to his subordinates, to the extent of even shouldering their debts. He was the kind of person who would freely spend money if it was for the sake of others. It must be said that he wasn’t foolish enough to simply lend money to others without care, but given his unexpected and premature death, he hadn’t been able to repay his debts in full.

As a consequence, the inexperienced Franka had been left behind to bear the burden of debt by her lonesome, and had found herself in a pit of misery from which she could not extricate herself.

After some time, the creditor showed up at the door. When Franka saw the amount owed, she nearly fainted.

“…Although he explained that it was due to interest, I had no way of knowing if the amount he alleged was correct or not. Even if they had intentionally tried to defraud me, I had no proof. Moreover, I was very ignorant as to the ways of money. Day in and day out they’d hound me, asking for money; I was so frightened… What’s more, I simply didn’t have the money. Whatever we had in the house that I could sell, I sold.”

Their home also had a few Reliquia her father had left behind. He’d likely prepared them for Franka’s welfare, to be used in the event anything untoward happened. The creditor insisted she had to sell these items in order to make payment. Because the items technically still belonged to her, when the items were to be appraised, she went as well. The problem was, the shop owner contended that the items were worth but a pittance.

“I thought that such a thing was impossible. Father was an exceptional adventurer, there was no way he could have made such an amateur mistake. I knew nothing of Reliquia, however, and was unable to refute his words.”

Even if she sold the items in question, the bulk of the debt would still remain. All that was left to be sold would be the house… and Franka herself. This they informed her.

To “sell yourself.” This was a phrase of which Franka had only a loose conception of, but she more or less understand what it was they were asking. Her legs threatened to give way.

At that moment——

“Oh wow, that’s some pretty nice stuff.”

A voice suddenly sounded from behind her.

Turning her head, she saw a young man, standing in the doorway of the appraiser’s store. He looked to be no more than two or three years her senior – a stranger.

“These are all second-grade Reliquia, aren’t they? How much did this place offer you? That gauntlet especially should be worth a lot. To a warrior, it ought to be worth about 2000, no, 3000 denar.”

“Hey, who the hell are you?!” the appraiser cried out, reaching for her father’s Reliquia at the same time.

He seemed to be trying to block the young man’s line of sight.

“Oh, I work over at the store over there. I was just passing by and saw you guys were doing some appraising. I’m in the middle of learning to appraise myself, and thought I’d drop by and see what I could pick up, haha.”

The youth laughed lightly. Franka felt something unfathomable in his laugh.

“We’re busy! Scram, you brat!”

The creditor, a large man, shouted threats at the youth as he walked over and gave him a fierce shove. With a loud crash, he tumbled and fell to the floor.

——The large man, that is.

“Oh my, that was a nasty tumble; are you alright? ——Oh no, he seems to have fainted.”

It sure didn’t look like he’d tripped, but it was true that he was now unconscious.

“…You’re that brat from Boris’, aren’t you?” the appraiser asked viciously.

“Yep. And I know you too. ——Right, the Reliquia – hurry up and tell me what your offer was. Whether my appraisal or yours is more accurate – why don’t we take things to the association and find out?”

 

“That was Master?”

“That’s right; that was Yuuki. ——Apparently, when you receive a commission for appraisal, it’s common to take the Reliquia to many different places to seek a second opinion.”

In order to ensure that Franka did not do so, the creditor had intentionally come along, and directed Franka to this appraisal store in particular. From the very beginning, the money lender and the unscrupulous appraiser had been in collusion.

In the end, Franka paid off 60% of the debt. The creditor promised not to come after her for money again.

——This was the agreement that had been reached after the money lender and Boris had talked things over.

The money for the debt had come from Boris. She’d given her father’s Reliquia to Boris as collateral, and the money for repayment had been lent to her in exchange.

It was then that she heard from Yuuki that it was possible to make a living as an adventurer; indeed, Yuuki himself was enrolled in the adventurer training school. Franka had proceeded forthwith to transfer schools, and begun training as an adventurer. It was not long after that Yuuki first introduced Franka to Alfred.

Franka was now in the process of slowly buying back her father’s Reliquia. There were still more than a few which remained, however.

“And that brings us to now. And that is why I am forever indebted to Yuuki-san and the late Boris-san.”

“I see now…”

Tina had been a most attentive listener to Franka’s story, and now she nodded her head in understanding.

“So that’s why Franka likes Master.”

“Eh——”

Franka blushed to the tips of her ears.

“W-wha? W-w-w-why, why would you…”

“Whenever Franka talks to, or about, Master, you always look really happy. It’s a pleasing sight. Watching you makes me happy too.”

“T-Tina-chan, you, um… do you not like Yuuki-san?”

“Tina likes Master too. Although he’s not the least bit gentle, I’ve realized recently that he’s actually quite kind. Master is really an interesting person.”

Franka felt that Tina’s appraisal of Yuuki’s character was amazingly spot-on.

Even so——

(It seems that Tina-chan’s usage of ‘like’ is a little different from mine, huh?)

She’d felt for some time now that Tina’s emotions were still a bit immature.

——Although that was a relief to her, she also felt slightly guilty.

It was a fact that Franka felt rather envious of the fact that Tina was able to live together with Yuuki.

“…There wouldn’t happen to be any other openings for a live-in store attendant, would there?”

“Hmm? Do you want to be a merchant too, Franka? It seems like a pretty rough life. Master watches the books from morning ’til night, always muttering about money and taxes or something.”

“Sharing a burden is another form of happiness, you know?”

“Sorry to take your time like this,” he’d say.

“Not a problem. As long as I can be by your side, that’s enough,” she’d laugh.

——Ah, how wonderful.

Simply wonderful. Through these small exchanges, the seeds of love would be planted. Of the numerous times she’d dreamed of “Our Happily Ever After,” this definitely ranked among the top three. She had to make sure to remember this one.

Franka giggled to herself.

“——Hey, is it really that fun… being an adventurer, that is?”

“…Huh?”

Tina’s sudden question startled Franka out of her reverie.

“Oh, that, hmm. ——Well, it’s not like I’m doing it because I particularly enjoy it, so no, I don’t think it’s all that fun. Why do you ask?”

“Well, weren’t you forced to become an adventurer because of your father’s death? Have you ever had times where you’ve cursed your fate – cursed the Shinki? There should be other ways to provide for yourself, ones that don’t require setting foot in the labyrinth.”

“Oh, no, no. This is something I chose for myself. Not only is this a way for me to make money, but it’s a chance to follow in my father’s footsteps, so it’s a happy thing. There are other reasons as well.”

Franka smiled. It was true that she’d never once regretted the choice she’d made.

“Entering the labyrinth is work; in other words, a part of life. The Shinki-sama bless our lives, including the labyrinth—— Something like that?”

“…So everyone’s different. I see,” Tina mumbled.

Franka felt that Tina’s pensive mood had been brought about by her presence at the slaughter of the Star’s Oath Legionnaires at the hands of the Sky’s Oath Legion party. Had she been witness to the death of others, than she, too, would feel grief. Such things simply ought not to be.

(The Oath Legions, huh…)

Franka felt a deep gloom take hold of her.

Recently, any time she’d hear the term, she’d remember. That thing which she had no desire to recall, that thing which she had no desire to consider. As the memories came, feelings rose unbidden within her: doubt and distrust, rage and sorrow, as well as all sorts of other dark, negative emotions.

(No, no. Today’s reserved for taking Tina-chan to watch the puppet show – for happy things.)

As Franka tried to convince herself of that, she also spoke aloud.

“Look, you can see the public square already.”

“Ooh… You know, the scenery here looks pretty different from the part with all the stores.”

“Oh, right – you lost your memories. The public square runs along the side of the Cathedral. On the mountain there are the temples where the Shinki-sama live. Notice how there’s five of them?”

“I see, so that’s… Franka, have you ever seen the Shinki before?”

“Not a chance. Not only have I never seen the Shinki-sama before, I’ve never even seen a Duelist before.”

Franka couldn’t keep the smile from her face.

It was unlikely anyone had ever seen the Shinki before. She’d heard tell that the Duelists could occasionally be seen within the labyrinth itself, although she had never witnessed one herself. It seemed more likely than not that they could only be found by the very highest ranked adventurers or deep within the lowest levels of the labyrinth.

That said, she’d always felt their presence by her side.

Whether it was the barriers that held the Devourer at bay, the unchanging climate, or the abundance of food – all these things bore witness of the miraculous power held by the Shinki. Rumor had it that those who offered Reliquia directly in their temples could request personalized miracles.

The lives of the Shinki and the lives of the people were inseparably intertwined.

“Ooh, it doesn’t seem to have started yet!” Tina cried happily, increasing her pace.

“The afternoon show doesn’t begin until after the 1 PM bell toll. There’s no need to rush,” Franka called out as she gave chase.

 

 

“Hah——I’m exhausted——” Jahar complained loudly, as he exited the Cathedral. “What was with that? Document this, document that, stamp this, stamp that, process this, process that – why the hell does entering the labyrinth need so much freaking paperwork, anyway?”

“Because we are the Sky’s Oath Legion,” Stefan answered.

The lowest level of the labyrinth known so far was the 62nd floor. That was what the Sky’s Oath Legion records showed.

They’d just handed in the necessary paperwork to the Church of the Five Holies to make their next trip one to that area. Their stated purpose was to both map out the area as well as confirm the existence of the humanoid Void Beast Bertolt had witnessed. The elite of the Oath Legions could be considered an invaluable commodity as far as humanity’s continued survival was concerned. As such, in order to avoid preventable losses, they were required to inform the Church of their plans before taking action. Because the Church was thus forewarned of their movements, if contact was lost or a party suffered serious injuries, rescue would be able to arrive in a timely fashion.

“If we want to go, we should just be able to go. Those dudes at the Church are relying on us either way – why should we have to bow our heads and ask for help?”

“Our mission this time is of the utmost importance. Anything that will raise the probability of success – no matter how inconvenient – is worth it.”

Their claim that they intended to map the region and seek out the new Void Beast wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the true goal behind their trip either.

——No, what they sought was the single greatest prize that could be found in this world – the Snow-White Dragon Fang Gem.

Bertolt, the sole survivor of his raiding party, had reported that his party had verified its existence.

Stefan had added him to his party, and requested permission to hunt down and acquire this most precious of all Reliquia. That request had been granted. For that purpose the “Shinki who Supports the Sky” had restored Bertolt’s arm and placed him within the ranks of Stefan’s group.

The knowledge of the existence of the Dragon Fang Gem was, of course, kept under the utmost secrecy. The other Oath Legions could not be allowed to make the first move.

“I have to ask: do you really believe Bertolt? The Dragon Fang Gem is just a legend, isn’t it?”

“He is a man who prioritizes himself above all else. If he’d wanted to lie, there are much safer lies he could have told.”

Although he had been present at Bertolt’s report, the ones to make the call had been his superiors. He was simply a soldier following orders.

“I see… Still, it feels like a colossal waste of time, if you ask me.”

“You were the one who said you wanted to come because you were bored. ——Let’s go home.”

This warrior with the enormous blade had been an all but unknown adventurer just a short time before. Exhibiting stirring swordsmanship completely at contrast with his slender physique, he had won every fight during his entrance exam in rapid succession, climbing his way to the top relying solely on his strength. He was now a third-ranked warrior adventurer.

His temperament, on the other hand, left much to be desired, and he was constantly the impetus of violent conflict. It wasn’t that he easily provoked such incidents, but rather that he actively sought out such things. There was definitely a need to keep a tighter grip on his reins.

The public square at noon was incredibly lively. Exiting the Cathedral, they saw what looked to be the stage of a puppet show set up before them. Judging by the gathering crowd, it looked like things were just about to begin.

 

 

At the same time, Franka and Tina had taken their places as spectators before the stage.

The play about to be shown was “The Snow Blade King vs. Black Demon.”

“So Franka, Master tells me you really know these stories well…”

“Yeah. I’m not sure that I’d say I know them that well, but it’s true that I love them. I often come here to watch the shows.”

“So what’s the story behind this one? By the time I started watching last time, it was already half-over. I was pretty confused,” Tina commented.

Her eyes opened wide as she came to a sudden realization.

“Actually, it’ll just ruin it if I know the story beforehand. Forget I asked.”

Franka couldn’t stifle her laugh. Although amnesia was anything but a laughing matter, but watching Tina’s fresh reactions to something she must have already seen was uniquely endearing.

“You may be right. In that case, why don’t I just give you a little background about the Snow Blade King?”

“Please.”

“The stories say he was around about a hundred years ago. He had a slender physique, and was always lightly armored. From the records we have, he was apparently quite young – just a boy, really.”

For that reason, actors portraying his character were often young, with neutral features. The depiction was rather at odds with Franka’s own tastes, however.

“You wouldn’t guess it from his appearance, but he was fantastically strong. He was so fast that you basically couldn’t follow him with your eyes. By the time anyone had realized he’d moved, Void Beasts would already have been slashed to pieces. The weapon he used——”

“Oh, I know that one. A sword, white as snow.”

“Right. Immediately after being called by the Shinki to serve as a Duelist, one of the first things he did was slay the Snowy Void Dragon, from whom he acquired a Dragon Fang Gem. The celestial Dragon Fang weapon NixSnow Blade crafted from it thus became his signature weapon.”

“Ohhh~”

“Because the Duelists do not age, up until some decades ago, it was quite common to run into them. Telling the full saga of their lives would take an incredible amount of time. Of those, the stories of the Snow Blade King are particularly plentiful, ten of which are especially well-known. The story this time is his last of those – an account of a battle between him and his greatest rival; it’s a thrilling tale! Among the Duelists that are popular these days, he’s definitely either number one or number two. Consequently, many different troupes present their different takes on the same stories. Getting to enjoy these legends from different viewpoints is really wonderful.”

“I see——”

“To be honest, though, supposedly the Snow Blade King’s ending is rather tragic. The stories say he provoked the wrath of his Shinki, and died in disgrace. That’s why there aren’t really all that many portrayals of that particular event. Watching it is an invitation for heartache. Oh, by the way, allegedly each one of the five Shinki-sama right now have a respective Duelist. Ah, I wish I could see them just once; who knows if I’ll ever get a chance in this life? Their strength is on an entirely different level from that of rank one adventurers. No one knows where they come from or where they eventually go – they’re truly heroes of great mystery. It’s that mystique they have about them that has everyone so fascinated, and so we do our best to pass on their legends to future generations—— Hmm, is everything okay?”

Franka realized Tina had been watching her with a most peculiar expression on her face.

“You… have no need to be so modest. I think you know a great deal.”

“I-Is that so? You know, I——”

The solemn tolling of the cathedral bell cut Franka short.

“Oh, it’s starting.”

The sound had yet to finish before one of the male puppeteers walked out and began narrating the preamble.

At that precise moment——

The lightning flash of a silvery blade thundered down.

——Straight toward Tina’s head.

 

 

The tolling of the Cathedral bell proclaimed the time an hour after midday.

Stefan idly glanced at his surroundings, bored. ——Suddenly he noticed – Jahar was gone.

“…Just where did that man go?”

This wasn’t the labyrinth – it was the city. He surely wouldn’t create a disturbance here? ——Just as that thought ran through Stefan’s mind, he was struck by a deep-seated feeling of regret at his own naïvety.

He raced toward the screaming where he found Jahar charging into a crowd of people with his favored weapon drawn.

The sound of an explosive gust rang out, and a wave of dust flew into the air.

As the air cleared, he saw Jahar, sword raised, standing there. Facing him was a small, young girl glaring murderously back at him.

“Haha, you won’t turn your back for even a second eh, little lady. You’ve got grit, I’ll give you that. I believe your name is Tina?”

“…What do you think you’re doing?!”

“Nothing, nothing. Just thought I’d say hello. I like people with a little backbone. When you called out that fool Bertolt earlier, I decided you were worth keeping an eye on.”

His slippery tone evoked an expression of deep loathing from the girl.

Stefan recalled her now – the girl from that trash shop.

“…Don’t cause trouble in the city, Jahar. Let’s go.”

Fine~ Jahar replied, obediently trailing after him.

“Wait——”

“Stop right there!”

Tina’s words were drowned out by another voice, calling for Stefan to stop.

——A familiar voice. From the start, Stefan had been intentionally ignoring this person’s existence, but now he had been spoken to directly.

The owner of the voice walked slowly forward before stopping directly in front of Stefan, barring his way.

“Your subordinate over there tried to hurt one of my friends, and you’re going to leave without so much as an apology?”

“No harm, no foul,” Jahar chimed in from beside Stefan.

Franka ignored him, continuing to stare Stefan down.

“No one was hurt, so what would there be to apologize over? Move.”

“I refuse!”

Her tone was forceful, completely at odds with her usual self.

“——While I’m at it, let me ask something else. Bertolt joining your party – was that your idea?”

“…”

“Why?” taking Stefan’s silence for confirmation, Franka questioned.

This time she received an answer.

“Because I need to know.”

“——!”

Franka held back her tears with all her might. With eyes brimming with rage and sorrow, she continued to stare at Stefan.

“…”

“…I’ve always felt that it couldn’t be helped that we’ve grown apart. The worlds we live in couldn’t be further apart, after all. ——This entire time, I’ve been telling myself: look forward, move on, let go of your hate. But this – this I can’t understand!”

“…”

“Why would you take him as a companion? How could you allow him to become a member of your party – someone whom you would trust with your life?”

Franka continued to speak, forcing the words out.

“Don’t tell me the two of you plotted together to kill Father? ——Answer me, Nii-san!”

“A formal accusation was never raised, and so I have no opinion on the matter.”

“The only one with the authority to charge him was the party leader – was Father! How can the dead charge someone with a crime?! Nii-san—— Why didn’t you do anything, Nii-san? My father was your teacher! Weren’t the two of you close? Do you really feel nothing?”

In response to the torrent of accusations, Stefan had but one reply.

“…It doesn’t matter what the precise cause of death may have been. Those who lose their lives within the labyrinth have only one thing to blame – their own weakness. That’s all there is to it.”

Stefan’s cold voice was as emotionless as ever. Turning, he left the speechless Franka behind.

 

 

“Ah, they’re here. Yuuki-san, over here.”

Franka stood at the labyrinth entrance, energetically waving Yuuki over.

As Yuuki was about to head home, having finished his work for the training school for the day, one of the instructors had handed him a message from Alfred. Accompanying him was Tina, who had been dying of boredom back at the store.

“Sorry for making the two of you run over here on short notice,” Alfred apologized.

“This is a kind of work, too. As long as I get something in trade, there’s nothing to complain about. ——On that note, what can I do for you? It’s rare for you to call for me like this, Uncle.”

“I found something in the labyrinth I’d like to have you take a look at.”

“Oh. Couldn’t you have just brought it to the store then…?”

“It’s because I can’t do that that I called you over. This isn’t something that can be moved.”

“Can’t be moved? What is it?”

“It’d be simpler for you to see it yourself. Why don’t we head there now? I’ll pay you for this. Our destination is on the third floor… ——Er, where again?”

“Near the stairwell,” Franka added, checking a map.

“So that’s where we’ll have to ask you to go, Yuuki-san, Tina. Oh, don’t worry though; we’ll protect you.”

 

“Sorry about yesterday… Why don’t we go back some other time?” Franka said to Tina as they walked.

“Don’t worry about it. You weren’t at fault,” Tina said angrily.

As a result of the incident, the puppet show had ended up being canceled.

When Jahar of the Sky’s Oath Legion had brandished his sword at Tina, a large commotion had been caused. The resulting chaos enveloped the entirety of the public square, and the puppet show troupe had called off their daytime showing.

When Tina had returned, steaming mad, Yuuki had asked about the situation. The entire thing seemed to be the fault of the other party, though he had to admit he wasn’t sure if the same thing would have happened had he been there.

Before the tense atmosphere between Franka and Stefan had abated, Franka had informed Tina that she wasn’t feeling well, and was heading back first—— was Tina’s report.

“Are you feeling better now, Franka?”

“Ah yes, I’m fine. Sorry for making you worry. I’m perfectly fine, see?”

Franka twirled on the spot as if dancing.

“Even if this is still one of the early levels, we can’t afford to be careless. Remember, we’re also responsible for protecting these two,” Alfred warned.

Franka seemed a bit off. She was too happy, which felt strongly of pretense.

——Was it just his imagination?

After traveling just a short while, they arrived at the third floor without incident.

“Now then – what was it you wanted me to see?”

“This, this. The stone monument – I think it’s a stele? – here.”

Alfred was pointing at a large, slender piece of stone resting near the wall. It was about as tall as a full-grown adult. Completely covered with moss, it looked to have lain there for decades or perhaps even centuries.

Although its appearance almost perfectly matched that of a stele, it lacked the engravings one expected to see.

“I was the one who noticed it,” Franka offered, raising her hand. “Try giving it a touch.”

Yuuki reached out as she’d suggested, and his eyes widened in shock as he made contact.

It hadn’t felt like the cold stone he’d expected, but rather warm to the touch. It had even seemed to throb a little.

“…What the heck?”

“It’s weird, isn’t it? Are there any legends about what it might be? I figured you’d know.”

“Hmm, I can’t think of any at the moment… Let me see what else I can glean.”

Alfred gave him the go ahead, and moved off to the side.

“It’s really exciting, isn’t it? Discovering something new like this.”

“If it really is a new discovery, then there might even be something in it for you.”

When new mechanisms or apparatuses were discovered, the Church would give the discoverer a small reward. Information which should be shared was thus shared, which in turn furthered the adventurer knowledge base.

The one requirement was that for a discovery to be reported to the Church, one first had to know what it was that had been discovered.

Yuuki called Tina over, and knelt down on one knee before the monument.

Yuuki had explained that, unsure of the object’s function, it was best to stay back. Alfred and Franka had thus backed away some distance.

“…Do you feel any divine energy from it?” Yuuki whispered directly into Tina’s ear.

Tina nodded her assent.

“Not just that, it’s very strong, too. However——”

Tina shook her head in puzzlement.

“The last time I was here, I didn’t feel anything like this.”

“Last time?”

“The last time Master brought me here. The day those awful people from the Oath Legions fought each other.”

Yuuki nodded in understanding. A few days before they’d come to gather some herbs. Tina had gotten wrapped up in Stefan’s fight, and he’d gotten punched by Bertolt.

“Honestly, just thinking about their merciless brutality makes me so mad——”

“Oi oi, we’re not here to talk about that again. We’re here for the monument, remember?”

“Oh, right. ——Do you not remember, Master? Tina rested here last time.”

Now that she mentioned it… Completely exhausted, she’d rested here for a short while.

“Tina rested right around here.”

Her delicate finger pointed straight at the stone piece.

“I would definitely have noticed anything this close with divine energy.”

“Could it have slipped your notice because of how tired you were?”

“Master, if someone were to strike a bell a meter away from your ears, is there any way you wouldn’t hear it? Even now I can feel divine energy surging up from it. It’s simply impossible for me to have missed it.”

“If that’s the case, then it means that this happened recently – since we left. It has to have started operating since then.”

They were pretty close to the stairway. This was a place that adventurers passed by all the time. Even if it were just human adventurers who lacked Tina’s sensitivity for divine energy, if it had always been like this, it would have long since been found.

“Seriously, though, just what is this thing? Everything that stores divine energy has a specific function… Any ideas, Tina?”

“Hmm… You know, it feels awfully familiar…”

The Shinki pondered deeply.

“The flow of divine energy seems to be directed. It feels like it bubbles up from deep below before finally reaching the stone…”

“Reaching——”

The phrase set off a lightbulb in Yuuki’s mind.

“Tina.”

“W-what is it, Master?”

“I need you to think long and hard, okay? The last time we came here, did you touch that piece of stone?”

“Hmm? Okay…”

Tina mumbled a reply as she circled around the side of the monument and knelt.

“Yeah. Last time Tina sat right here, and then Master said it was time to go, so I got up in a hurry—— Oh.”

Her hand had unintentionally grasped the stone monument for support.

“As I thought. You’re the one that caused this. Do you remember? The room where you were born probably had something just like this.”

“Eh? ——Ah, you’re right!” Tina clapped.

“Near the wall where Tina was born. I see, so that’s why it felt so familiar.”

“It should be some kind of teleport apparatus. Half of a pair. My guess is it was meant to allow you to reach Solitus directly after being born. ——Do you think you could search out the source of the divine energy?”

“Sure! Leave it to me!”

Tina nodded with enormous enthusiasm, and placed her hands atop the stone monument.

“It flows up from down below. As it hits this point, it disperses before slowly drifting back down. I can’t get a good feel for a specific origin for it down below – it’s very indistinct. ——Oh, I think I get it now. This is the exit. Activation requires contact by qualified individuals. The number of people to be teleported and the range can both be set.”

“If both sides were running, you’d be able to teleport straight to the third floor from deep within the labyrinth. From what you said about the flow of divine energy, it’s probably a one-way trip. That’s why it can’t do anything right now.”

“So Tina’d have to touch the other one to make them work?”

“More or less. The one in the room where you were born should be the main one; this one would likely start on its own if you were to touch that one. You’d have been able to head to Solitus then.”

“…So Tina took the loooong way round?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Summoning her Duelist after birth, she’d use the teleporter to reach the city. That was the path intended for her. Instead, however, she’d rescued Bertolt and been rescued by Yuuki in turn. Definitely the long way round. It wasn’t her fault, though.

“Instead I had to wander the labyrinth, lost. What a waste… Oh well. A Shinki doesn’t dwell on the past.”

“That’s not a Shinki thing but a you thing.”

“Go ahead and praise me more.”

Just as he was about to retort that there was nothing to praise, he suddenly noticed something about the monument.

“…What’s this?”

Far down the lateral face of the monument, the stone was marred. It was almost as if someone had carved into it with a dagger or something. The mark was new.

Looking closely… was that not the emblem of the “Shinki who Supports the Sky?”

“So, what did you guys find?” Alfred called out from a fair distance away.

“Oh, we’re done. You guys can come on over.”

After the two walked over, Yuuki filled them in on the situation: that it was part of a teleporter, and that this was just but one half of the equation – useless on its own.

“So this is part of a pair with another far below, huh. There’s nothing we can do then.”

“That’s pretty bad luck,” Franka said with a wry smile.

“I think the Church will want to look into it as is. I’m pretty sure they’ll still reward you for this discovery. ——On a different note, though, Uncle – were you the one who made this mark?”

Yuuki pointed at the engraving on the monument with his finger for the others to see. Alfred frowned.

“I would never do anything like that, nor would I let anyone else.”

When investigating an unknown object, it was best not to touch it if at all possible. Any damage to the item might lower its value, and even if that didn’t occur, there was also the possibility of activating some unknown function through carelessness.

“When we first found it, that definitely wasn’t there. We found an adventurer making his way back to the city and had him carry the message to you for us. After that, we inspected it a bit more before heading back to the surface to meet you… Wait, don’t tell me——”

Alfred seemed to have realized something as he suddenly frowned. From not far off, the sound of footsteps carried over, followed by a toneless voice.

“Please leave. This area is under our jurisdiction.”

Stefan looked at them with an emotionless gaze. Aside from Bertolt and his other party members, he was also accompanied by a handful of other adventurers as well.

“…”

All expression vanished from Franka’s face.

“We found this first, you know?” Alfred replied calmly. “Those who make the first discovery have claim on the discovery.”

“Except, unfortunately for you, we were here first, Alfred-san,” Bertolt responded, with a nauseating grin.

Yuuki clicked his tongue. He knew what was going on.

“——Ah. A Rat, no?” Alfred said softly, looking at the bedraggled adventurers standing behind Stefan. They shrunk from his gaze.

“Rat” referred to the low-ranking adventurers who specialized in selling info on their peers, or who’d sneak in from the side to steal the fruits of others’ labor. It was possible to hire their services: either to spy on other adventurers or to sabotage their efforts.

They’d been following Alfred’s party and had discovered the stone monument’s existence from their actions. When Franka and Alfred had left the scene, they’d carved the mark into the stone monument and scampered off to report to their masters.

“How terribly unfortunate indeed. The mark carved into the stone there is all the proof we need, however. Now, why don’t you obediently take your leave?”

“T-this is ridiculous!” Tina shouted, charging to the forefront.

Yuuki had been unable to restrain her in time. Growing ever more enraged, she continued to yell.

“What gives you the right——”

“Haha, you sure are cute when you’re mad as hell, little lady,” Jahar laughed.

Tina swallowed the words she’d been about to speak and shrank back a step. She didn’t seem to know how to deal with the man.

Yuuki stood in front of her protectively and sighed.

“Would you not scare her like that? We’re just here for a consult; we’re nobodies.”

“I heard you. This is a teleportation device of some kind. Thanks for saving us the trouble,” Bertolt called out mockingly.

It hadn’t been his intention to investigate on behalf of that guy, but that was how things had turned out.

“Don’t think I’ll let you fiddle with this any longer. Shut your traps and get lost.”

“Hey, that’d mean I’d have worked for nothing. At the very least——”

Suddenly, blood spurted out from Yuuki’s left ear.

“Master!”

“Yuuki-san!”

The two voices cried out in unison. Bertolt’s scimitar was drawn, he having been the one who’d struck Yuuki.

“Did I not tell you to shut your mouth? A dog that can’t listen to its master deserves to be taught a lesson!”

His actions made no sense. Yuuki sighed again, giving up on trying.

“I guess when you see a dog even weaker than yourself, you have to make a real show of it eh, you washed-up pup.”

“The hell did you say?! Do you want to die, Jahar?”

“Stop.”

Stefan impassively reined the two in before turning to face Alfred.

“Regardless of what other circumstances may be at play, locking down the area where a new discovery is made comes first; investigating the item can occur after that requirement is met. That is something you freelancing adventurers can’t handle. This is a job for those with strength – for the Oath Legions. ——You people need to leave.”

It was maddening to hear, but it was nonetheless the truth.

Despite the fact that Alfred and the others were the discoverers here, but if they were left in charge of the investigation, progress would be slow. There wasn’t much they could do but leave it to the Church and the Oath Legions.

The real heart of the matter was – were they willing to forego the honor and prize given for first discovery?

“…In any case, it’s true that it’s my fault for never expecting that someone would try to rob us of something like this,” Alfred sighed.

Left with no other choice, he shrugged.

“Forget it. There’s no point in trying to fight over this.”

“My thanks,” Stefan replied disinterestedly.

This was an unavoidable result. Even if they’d been willing to challenge the Oath Legion party in battle, there wasn’t anything they could have gained from it. Yuuki grabbed the unhappy Tina and, following the others, turned to leave.

At that moment——

“Power, right?” a voice called out.

“It’s your favorite word, isn’t it? Power is the most important thing, right, Ste~phen-san?”

It was Franka who’d spoken.

Yuuki forgot to breathe. Of their party, she ought to be the one who despised conflict the most, and yet she now faced the others with open hostility.

Stefan frowned. It was almost imperceptible, but his expression changed.

“——Here, power is everything. I have certainly said so before, yes.”

“Then if I defeat you, are you willing to abandon those idiotic words?”

“Even if I lost, all it would demonstrate is that I was too weak. It would not mean that the pursuit of strength was incorrect. ——Either way, this is a moot point – you can’t win.”

“How can you say something’s impossible without trying it first…”

Stefan spoke over her with his next words.

“Tomorrow morning, my party will raid the sixtieth floor. Where I stand is a place you can’t even dream of challenging. Know your limits.”

“…”

Franka continued to glare at him ferociously, but she couldn’t refute his words.

“As long as you continue to be an adventurer, you will forever remain beneath me. The only way you will ever escape that will be by ceasing to be an adventurer.”
“…This is the worst.”

“Well, if I have to be honest, then yes, I agree. Here, eat.”

They were seated in the corner of a restaurant. On the table before them was a huge dish.

“——Whoa, these skewers are amazing, Master! Way better than what we eat at home!”

Tina, who had never been one for restraint, was tucking in like she hadn’t seen food in days. Just a moment ago, she’d been infuriated by the actions of Stefan’s party and grumbling endlessly. Now she was in rapture.

This Shinki sure doesn’t give a damn about manners… Yuuki grumbled inwardly. Perhaps he needed to give her some lessons on proper etiquette.

“Oh, don’t worry about money, you guys. It’s my treat.”

“What I’m worrying about is what comes after that. Making sure things add up is a merchant’s way.”

“I wasted your time. Consider this my apology.”

“Well, I appreciate it, but if that was truly your intention, you wouldn’t have sent Franka away.”

As Yuuki and Tina had headed back to the shop, having been summoned for nothing, Alfred had dropped by and invited them along for dinner. There was simply no way this was just an apology meal.

Alfred stopped to consider for a moment. Pausing, he asked, “Yuuki, what do you think of revenge?”

Yuuki frowned and looked at Alfred’s face, looking for a hint in his expression. His face was was as relaxed and languid as always, not the least bit different from normal.

“Why’re you asking that all of a sudden, Uncle? Don’t tell me you’re thinking of killing someone.”

“Exactly. Let’s say, for example, that a family member of mine had been killed and I was thinking of revenge. Would you stop me?”

“No. As long as you didn’t involve anyone else in your actions, then go ahead and do it and get caught. The only regret I’d feel would be over losing another valued customer.”

Alfred gave a wry smile.

“That answer sure suits you, but unfortunately, I’m being serious here. ——Let me ask directly. I want to know – Yuuki, if someone close to you was seeking revenge, what would you do?”

“…If their hostility runs so deep that killing is on their mind, then that’s their own choice. The only one who can call an end to those kinds of thoughts is the person in question. At the very least, I wouldn’t tell them to stop.”

Hah… Alfred scratched his head with a groan. He continued, “Hey, don’t you think Franka’s pretty cute? Her personality’s great and she cooks pretty well. The guy who lands her is definitely a lucky one.”

“The heck are you talking about now? I’m lost.”

“Even if her thoughts are her own, but if someone important to her were to say something, I’m sure she could change.”

“…So she’s the one who wants revenge?”

“I don’t know if she’s thought things through quite that far yet.”

Alfred took a deep gulp from his cup of juice. Yuuki’d heard before that he wouldn’t touch alcohol.

“You know her father died in the labyrinth, right? Well, the truth is, people say he was murdered.”

The public security arm of the Church of the Five Holies wouldn’t intervene in affairs taking place within the labyrinth. Among those incidents where adventurers had lost their lives inside, there were undoubtedly at least a few “accidents” or “Void Beast attacks” that were, in truth, murders.

“And the culprit?”

“Unclear. There hasn’t been any real evidence found. At the time, however, both Stefan and Bertolt were in that party.”

Yuuki thought of the stone-faced spear wielder and the brutal scimitar user. It was true that they weren’t exactly the kind of person that wouldn’t harm a fly.

“Especially Bertolt. That guy had a horrible reputation at the time. Although his swordsmanship wasn’t anything to laugh at, but he was known for stealing Reliquia, hindering his fellow adventurers, and really just being willing to dirty his hands for the least advantage. I’m pretty sure the Rats from today work for him. His realm of influence both within the labyrinth and the city is large. That said, I don’t think we’re noteworthy enough to be spied on; today was just an unlucky coincidence.”

“You sure seem clear on the matter.”

“Yeah, I don’t really care to hide it, so let me be straight with you – I used to be a member of the Sky’s Oath Legion.”

As he spoke those words, Alfred looked as if he’d intended to give a mocking smile… but he didn’t smile.

“There were too many things I wasn’t willing to do, so I left. During the time I was there, Franka’s father often watched out for me. The reason I decided to become a mentor was because of him.”

“When Franka heard of her father’s death, wouldn’t she have been told it was just an accident? Where’d she get the idea that he was murdered?”

“Well, there are ways. The thing I’m not sure about is whether she only found out just recently or if this is something she’s known for a long time now. The problem is, recently, she’s been acting really strange. She even outright provoked Stefan on her own today. ——As far as I know, they don’t interact much these days.”

“——By which you mean that, once upon a time, they did?”

“They’re siblings, aren’t they?” Tina suddenly piped up, her cheeks filled with chicken skewer. “Yesterday, Franka called him ‘Nii-san,’ though with a really scary look on her face.”

“Yes. Franka is Stefan’s half-sister by her mother. I believe he’s two years her elder. Their mother was originally a mistress of the Klose household, but she eventually married Franka’s father. She passed away a long time ago from illness.”

“Ohh…”

“Although Stefan was raised in the Klose household, while his mother still lived, he’d often visit, and would thus run into Franka. At the time, their relationship was pretty good, it seems.”

“So how come she spoke to him like that then?”

“That’s why I said she’s been strange of late. When he came into your store the other day, she didn’t react that way. They run into each other every now and then at the training school, but I’ve never heard of any conflicts between them. They certainly don’t interact enough to warrant this level of hostility. ——I’ve always thought their relationship was a little unstable, but today… she was so openly accusatory…”

Indeed, her words today were more condemnation than accusation.

“Hmm…”

Yuuki thought for a moment.

“Perhaps she found some sort of conclusive evidence that Stefan was involved in her father’s murder?”

“He’s very suspicious, to be honest. Not only was he present at the scene of the crime, but the previous owner of the AmnisBlue Water Pike was Franka’s father.”

The spear in question was the celestial Dragon Fang weapon wielded by Stefan.

“That weapon is the property of the Sky’s Oath Legion as a whole. Every one of its masters has been chosen from the Legion’s ranks by the Shinki.”

“And when its current master dies, it passes on to the next candidate. In other words, he was the next in line at the time.”

“Right. Simply put, there was motive. That said, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence. ——However, judging by Franka’s actions, it’s not just at the level of ‘suspicion’ anymore so much as conviction; she must have found something. After all, that girl’s always felt rather insecure, and not combative in the least.”

Just what on earth had she learned of late? In any case, was it really that easy to learn something new about an incident which had taken place years ago? Was there some method for investigating?

——Yuuki suddenly realized. There was.

“…Let’s not focus on that for the moment. What do you want from me? Are you asking me to tell her ‘Don’t worry about your father’s death or his murderer – just forget about it.’?”

“Are you not willing to be her chain?”

“Chain?”

“This is simply a matter of pros and cons – your specialty. When it comes to revenge, it doesn’t matter whether you kill or are killed; once you set foot in that blood-soaked world, there’s no turning back. A loss is a loss. If we can somehow tether her to this side, then that’d be best. ——So, how about it? I know you’ve deliberately maintained your distance, but why not try and get a little closer to her? She really likes you, you know. I’m sure you’ve noticed?”

“…”

He said it. Yuuki knew he’d long since seen through him, though.

At first he thought he’d try to muddle the issue, but reconsidering, he decided it was best he didn’t.

“I’m going to have to say no.”

“Why?”

“She’s indeed a valued customer of mine, and it’s not like I hate her. That said, there’s no reason for me to get involved. Simply put, there’s nothing in it for me.”

“——Master!”

Alfred hadn’t managed to say a word in reply before he was interrupted by Tina’s yell.

“You’re too much! That way of speaking… is too cold…”

“How do I put this? The thoughts residing in people’s hearts and the way of life they’ve chosen for themselves are much more complex than you imagine, Tina. Franka’s desire for revenge because of her father’s murder… If you’re asking me to bear the responsibility for wiping away that hatred then I don’t have the confidence that I can do any such thing. Nor do I have any reason to do so.”

“B-but——”

“Forget it, Tina-chan. I was the one asking for too much,” Alfred said with a bitter laugh. “Asking someone to accept someone else’s feelings isn’t something you force, and yet I asked anyway. ——I’ve discussed this with her already, but she stubbornly insists that ‘it’s nothing.’ I didn’t know what else to do. She seems determined.”

“…”

“In any event, promise me you’ll at least talk to her?”

From beginning to end, Alfred had been in complete control of the conversation. Tina, too, was now giving him the evil eye.

Yuuki could only sigh.

 

Translator notes and references

None.