Early, before the rising of the sun, a lone girl walked the road to the labyrinth.
Stefan had said his party’d set out in the morning. If she left now, she could beat them there.
Franka hoped to negotiate with her brother, to have them take her with them.
She wanted to demonstrate her abilities, to be acknowledged by them.
Stefan and Bertolt were both adventurers who respected only power. Thus, as far as they were concerned, she had no value.
“Where I stand is a place you can’t even dream of challenging,” her brother had said.
So she’d show him. Afterward, when she stood on equal footing with him as his peer, they’d be able to have a true dialogue.
——Franka suddenly noticed several figures farther down the road, blocking her path forward.
She was instinctively wary until one of the figures called out to her with a voice familiar to her ears.
“See? Here she comes. What did I tell you?”
It was Alfred, with Yuuki and Tina standing by his side.
“Wha? You guys…? Why?”
“Your master saw right through you,” Yuuki said with a shrug.
“You weren’t thinking of doing anything rash, were you, Franka?” Tina said, with a look of unease and concern.
Caught off-guard by the unexpected turn of events, Franka’s gaze strayed.
“So what was the plan? Beg Stefan to take you with him? Or perhaps you were planning on tailing him? That’s what Uncle guessed.”
“Well, both, I guess. If asking him failed, then I’d follow——”
“Let me be the one to tell you: you can’t go. You simply don’t have what it takes yet,” Alfred said with a heavy sigh. “You want an open conversation with him about your father, right? There will be many more opportunities after today. If he won’t talk to you unless you’re of equal standing, then it can wait until you’re stronger. I can tell you right now that you have that potential.”
“I appreciate your words Master… but I’ve waited long enough.”
Franka smiled sadly.
“Father was the most important person to me. He was so strong and kind; we shared so many precious memories. Although as an adventurer, he was in the labyrinth more than he was home, but every time he came home, the first thing he’d do would be to wrap his arms around me in a hug. He made me so, so happy. That’s why——”
How her expression had twisted as she spoke, she herself was more aware than anyone.
“I can’t forgive those who stole that happiness from me, nor any who would dirty those memories. I know what you’re saying but, still, someway, somehow, I have to——”
“You asked a Shinki, didn’t you?” Yuuki murmured.
Franka lifted her head and looked at him.
“Yesterday, you were so combative… The way you interrogated him, it was almost like you knew for sure, like you had some kind of proof. You’re the kind of person who suffers quietly on her own – who won’t let anyone know what bothers you. Am I wrong?”
——He wasn’t wrong.
“For you to have gone after him so aggressively means that you’ve already decided. Moreover, it’s happened recently.”
“Although offering Reliquia to the Shinki is the domain of the Oath Legions, it’s not like anyone else is forbidden from doing so. Anyone can make an offering, and anyone can be rewarded for doing so, whether that reward be money or a miracle. ——You asked the Shinki to reveal the criminal’s identity, didn’t you?”
“…More accurately, what I asked was to ‘see my father’s last moments.’ It was the day before; I went after parting with Tina-chan once the show was canceled.”
Franka’s father had also been Stefan’s mentor in spear combat.
Even if she and her brother were estranged, it had been the earnest hope of her heart that he would have approached her on his own, and openly and candidly shared the details of her father’s death.
It had been then – when Stefan had affirmed that he saw Bertolt as a companion of his, and made light of her father’s death – that that hope had died.
Afterward, she’d visited the Sanctuary of the “Shinki who Supports the Sky” and, offering up one of her father’s Reliquia, had been bestowed with a miracle in turn.
Her actions had been more than hasty, to be sure, but – what had been seen could not be unseen. Now that she knew, she could not not act.
“What did you see?”
“…Something I had no desire to ever see, though it wasn’t all that unexpected.”
“It doesn’t matter what you do now; it’s too late to change what you saw. There’s nothing whatsoever to be gained by taking these risks now.”
“——At the very least, my conscience will be clear. Yuuki-san, can you possibly understand the feelings of my father as he was murdered?”
“I’m sorry. Please move.”
Sighing in resignation, Yuuki gave in to her request.
Franka sensed that if she left now, it would be the end of their friendship.
He would not approach her again. Of this, she felt certain.
Sighing, she was struck with a deep feeling of loneliness. Nevertheless, she pressed on.
“I did what I could. Things turned out as I knew they would, though,” Yuuki said softly.
It had been hopeless from the start. It was meaningless to try to convince someone of the folly of their ways when they had chosen to act despite knowing that very thing.
With a quick “I’m sorry for the trouble,” Alfred left to follow her. He intended to follow her and try and convince her once more.
“Alright Tina, let’s go——”
“You big duuuuuuuuummy!”
Accompanying the yell was a vicious kick to his calf.
“And here I thought you had some other plan in mind. The hell do you mean ‘things turned out as I knew they would’! Have you no heart at all, Master?! Just how cold-blooded can you be?!”
“Well, they did, didn’t they? I tried. You saw it yourself – she didn’t want to stop. What else could I have done?”
“…Forget it. You’re not the person I thought you were.”
Tina gave him a piercing glare and then turned.
——Toward the labyrinth.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
“To stop Franka, of course. And if I can’t stop her, then to help her.”
“Are you planning to tell her you’re a Shinki?”
“If it comes to that. I’ll just ask her for a Divine Pearl, and once I work a miracle, then it should all be clear. At the very least, I can still be a shield; it’s not like those Void Beasts can hurt me.”
“You’re violating the terms of our agreement. You promised me you wouldn’t reveal your identity, remember?”
Tina stopped and looked back.
“Who gives a damn about your agreement?! ——You need to understand something, Master. Tina is a Shinki, and it’s only for that purpose that she’s even here. The very reason I exist is to protect the city and its people. If I can’t even save someone in front of me who needs my help, then how could I possibly call myself a Shinki? If food and housing have to come at the cost of denying my very self, then forget it!”
Having screamed that out in a single breath, she panted for air.
“That’s gonna be a problem for me.”
“…Don’t worry – I won’t cause any trouble for you.”
Tina’s breathing returned to normal, and she continued.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Now then——”
“That’s not what I meant. Business is founded on the principle of investment – you spend money in hopes of earning more money. I have yet to receive anything from you. Are the Shinki really the kind of people who would forgo repayment of a debt?”
“T-Then what do you want? I have no money…”
“And that’s why canceling our agreement right now is unacceptable. So let’s meet halfway, alright? It’s not like there’s any other choice.”
Tina blinked vacantly, puzzled.
“You mean… you’ll help?”
“Let’s just say it’s a compromise to further the value of my investment. In any event, I think I know how to help Franka.”
“What’s that – so you did have a plan!”
“That’s Master for you! Sorry for calling you cold-blooded.”
You’re right on that point, Yuuki thought to himself. I’m not cold-blooded… just a coward.
Without finding some sort of excuse with which to rationalize his actions, he couldn’t bring himself to involve himself in others’ affairs.
“So? So? What’s the plan? Hurry up and tell me!”
Facing Tina, whom was leaning in eagerly, he gave a wry smile and answered.
“Franka’s goal is to have Stefan acknowledge her strength, but that guy’s a rank one adventurer – Franka’s only a fourth-rank. Even if we tried to help, Uncle Alfred’s only a third-rank, and I’m a ninth. Trying to beat that group to the punch is impossible. ——So we’ll rely on the privilege of the weak – trickery.”
“And that would involve… what exactly?”
“We’re going to deliver Franka one heck of a meritorious deed – courtesy of your powers, O Great Shinki-sama.”
Tina could only stare in response.
Stefan double-checked that everyone was ready before nodding.
The party had arrived at the labyrinth. The forward guard consisted of Stefan, Bertolt, and Jahar – these three. The two clerics taking up the rear brought the total to five.
Their raid today had several goals.
- The 62nd floor was far as anyone had explored so far. They aimed to exceed that.
- Confirm the existence of Bertolt’s humanoid Void Beast, and defeat it, if possible.
- Most importantly: to find and retrieve the Snow-white Dragon Fang Gem.
- And last, but not least, a newly tacked on goal: to find the counterpart to the stone discovered the day before.
The investigations by the Sky’s Oath Legion had determined that the stone was more than likely a teleportation device. It seemed to be part of a set of connected stones that enabled travel between them.
If the teleportation device had the ability to warp between floors, it would be a momentous discovery. If adventurers could instantly move between the upper and lower floors, then the efficiency with which raids were performed would increase dramatically. Accordingly, further investigation was an absolute necessity.
Abruptly, Stefan flashed a sign to his party members, and they all pulled to a stop.
At the stairway leading from the first floor to the second, several familiar figures stood, barring their way.
“Morning there, Stefan.”
“…What do you think you’re doing, Alfred? Are you planning on getting in our way?”
From the looks of things, they’d been waiting for him. Although the labyrinth had many entrances, there was only one stairway connecting the first and second floors – all adventurers had to pass through here.
“Of course not. I’m not crazy enough to interfere with the Oath Legions’ raiding. ——This girl has something she wants to say. Will you hear her out?”
“This some kind of joke?! Get the hell out of——”
Stefan raised his right hand, silencing Bertolt.
Franka stepped forward.
“Please, take me with you.”
“I… want to demonstrate that I have the ability to stand on equal footing with you.”
“That’s not even worth responding to,” Stefan answered coldly.
Franka inhaled sharply.
“The purpose of the Oath Legions is to serve the Shinki, as well as to explore the labyrinth – to search for a way out of this doomed world. That is our raison d’être. You are a freelancing adventurer – just how self-serving is your need to prove yourself?”
“——! T-That’s why, let me come——”
“Okay, okay. Let me interrupt for a bit.”
An easygoing voice cut in.
“——A breakdown in the negotiations, right?”
Two figures walked over, pushing Bertolt aside.
It was the owner of the store which peddled the garbage of the labyrinth and the young girl that was his assistant.
“Y-Yuuki-san? And Tina-chan…”
“What do you want?” Stefan asked.
“Well, yesterday you claimed all the credit for our hard work. That doesn’t sit too well with me, so I thought I’d come watch—— Watch Franka find that teleporter’s counterpart before you, that is.”
Stefan frowned. What madness was this man rambling off now?
“You Oath Legions have checked it out already, right? That teleporter on the third floor has a pair somewhere else. Finding it would be the discovery of a lifetime – an act worthy of distinction.”
“Now, my dear Lord Stefan, didn’t you just say that the Oath Legions’ power is for the sake of serving the Shinki – for the purpose of exploring this labyrinth? In that case, if you were to play second fiddle to such an important discovery as this… wouldn’t that imply that your ‘power’ was inferior to hers?”
“Such an occurrence is simply impossible. She lacks the strength to even reach the deeper floors; the addition of an inconsequential ninth-rank adventurer doesn’t change a thing.”
“Oh my, you know my rank?”
“…As the sole failure of a student within the advanced class, you are, of course, well-known.”
“Then there’s nothing for you to fear. Why not join us in this little wager?”
“There’s nothing to wager on. I don’t have the authority to restrict the movements of another adventurer, nor do I have the authority to deny the fruits of their labors. If you somehow manage to do something of note before me, then I’ll acknowledge it.”
“That’s all I ask. Right then, sorry for the delay.”
Having said what he’d wanted to say, Yuuki stepped off to the side.
“The hell do you mean ‘sorry’!? Ugh, this stupid piece of shit!”
Bertolt angrily stepped forward and grabbed Yuuki’s shoulder.
“You’ve really stepped in it now. To shamelessly get in our way like this. You really stand out – as a troublemaker!”
“Bertolt, leave him be.”
Stefan ordered him to stop before continuing on.
“That’s an order.”
Bertolt clicked his tongue in displeasure, but let Yuuki go.
Their party started down the stairway. Out of the corner of his eye, Stefan noticed Franka, whom he could tell wanted to speak to him, but he ignored her.
Their raid this time would require their all. He couldn’t risk being distracted by something inconsequential.
As they descended the stairs, Bertolt whispered to him.
“I have to say I’m pretty grateful to you. Because I was able to join your party, my arm was healed and I have this chance to clear my name. In truth, this party of yours is many times stronger than that useless bunch of misfits I used to run with. However——”
He intentionally lowered the volume of his voice yet further still.
“To give me an ‘order’ – who the hell do you think you are? Believe me, you don’t want to get on my bad side. I’m sure you understand – it’s best for everyone if you’re in my good graces, no?”
Was Stefan’s sole response.
Once the silhouettes of Stefan and his group had disappeared entirely, Yuuki sighed.
“We’ve got his promise. It’s our turn to go now.”
“T-To go… Yuuki-san, why…?”
“And can I ask what’s brought on this change of heart?”
Yuuki answered in a fiercely oversimplified manner as he started to walk.
“I’m pretty confident in our chances, even if I’m the only one. I’ll explain as we go.”
“But… it’s too dangerous. For Yuuki-san and Tina-chan both.”
“That sure is ironic coming from the one who’d planned to follow them by herself.”
Franka couldn’t respond.
“Care to explain the reason for your confidence?” Alfred inquired.
“I already know where the other half is.”
Franka and Alfred stared dumbly.
“…Really? Er, not that I don’t trust you, but…”
“Gramps left behind some notes about it. There’s no way he’d bother to record information that wasn’t reliable, so it ought to be quite trustworthy. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a bit complicated getting there. We’ll take care of it, but we’ll need you guys to protect us in the meantime.”
Franka turned to Alfred, her eyes pleading for help.
“So how about it, Uncle? I think it’s worth a shot.”
“Master?!” Franka yelled.
The key lay in whether or not Franka would be able to pull herself together.
Truth was, setting aside whether or not victory over Stefan was even possible for the moment, it was vital that Franka be given the opportunity to exert her all.
If the process required that Franka focus on “protecting Yuuki and Tina,” and not on what had been unsettling her, then so much the better. What was most important here was restraining her recklessness.
——That was likely what Alfred thought of their plan. Yuuki felt similarly.
“It’s decided then. That said, Tina’s with us as well, so we’ll have to pace ourselves. I’ll let you know when we’ve picked up the trail, so let’s take it easy for now.”
Let’s rewind a bit.
Before the sun had risen, Yuuki and Tina walked the path back to their shop.
“So Master, exactly what kind of valorous deed did you have in mind?” Tina asked Yuuki, her eyes glittering.
“What do you think?”
“Hmm? Oh… I know, the Oath Legions think Tina’s a Void Beast, right? Well, I can put on a robe, and then when Franka defeats me before their eyes…”
“That’s way too suspicious. Your body can’t even be hurt; like hell you’d get defeated like that.”
“Hrm… How about I, um, play dead?”
“And if they insist on inspecting the corpse? In any case, trying to fake something like that is way too hard. Whether it be swordsmanship or cleric skills, one’s abilities can be gauged during training. When an attack that isn’t actually all that powerful defeats a mighty Void Beast, anyone could tell that something was up.”
“Well then, why don’t we try raiding then? We can go explore a floor farther down than anyone’s ever gone before. With my help, of course.”
“Even if we could pull it off, how could we prove it? Maybe if we were front-line adventurers, someone would believe us, but our party consists of a third-rank, a fourth-rank, a ninth-rank, and a child. If we claimed to have expanded the current map, who’d believe it?”
Tina sank into silence.
Once they arrived back at the store, Yuuki made his way to the storehouse. There he pulled out several Reliquia and began to carefully choose between them.
“…Then what can we do?” the Shinki asked despairingly, having followed him into the room.
“——Before we get to that, there’s something I want to ask you. Why are you so insistent about helping her?” Yuuki asked without stopping what he was doing.
“I told you already, didn’t I? Because Tina’s one of the Shinki. That’s why it’s my desire that all the people of this city, and adventurers in particular, can be rewarded for their efforts. That should be obv—— Actually, no.”
Cutting herself off, Tina paused for a moment before she continued.
“Perhaps that’s not quite right… Maybe it’s simply that I don’t want to see darkness and gloom engulf the face of someone I know. I don’t want to see them get hurt. Franka is my… friend.”
“In that case, are you willing to work hard on her behalf?”
Tina nodded energetically.
“Okay. I’ll explain then. We just need to find the teleporter.”
“The one on the third floor? But that one’s already——”
“It’s already under their control, yes. However, the two only operate as a pair. It’s only once both have been activated that they can do any good. That’s why finding the other half is huge. I fear that’s the purpose of Stefan’s party. ——That’s where you come in – you can skip the looking and go straight to the finding.”
“We just have to let Franka ‘come across it.’ I’ll just make up something about Gramps having written some notes on its location. Even Stefan won’t be able to just ignore her after this.”
“I see! That’s amazing, Master! ——Oh, but…”
Tina’s face was beset with concern. Indeed, there were still many problems.
“Tina doesn’t remember on what floor she was born…”
“Right. We can’t do this the way a normal adventurer would; trying to figure it out as we go won’t work. There’s still a way, though. ——When you woke up, you heard the words of a prayer, and using your Shinki powers, teleported over to the source of that urgent prayer. Do I have that right?”
“Okay, when you described teleportation to me before, you said that in order to teleport, you first had to have a sense of both distance and direction. In other words, using the source of the prayer as your guide, you were able to determine both those values.”
“Do you still remember those things?”
Tina pointed roughly straight up.
“About sixty or seventy meters upward.”
“The upper floors of the labyrinth have already been completely surveyed. According to those measurements, from the floor to the ceiling is roughly fifteen meters or so. Extrapolating those numbers, we can assume that the place where you were born was roughly four or five floors away from the place where Bertolt’s party was attacked.”
“Ohhh,” Tina called out, her eyes wide.
“Next, according to what Uncle Alfred said, the place where the humanoid Void Beast – that is, you – were sighted was the sixtieth floor. From that, we can determine that you were born on either the 64th or 65th floor. This is, of course, all assuming those floors aren’t particularly short and don’t have anything otherwise strange about them.”
“It’s just a little math. Anyway, your praise is premature; there’s still another problem to take care of.”
“Ah, right. Yeah, even if we know the destination——”
“——We can’t get there. Exactly. We need to think about that part.”
The room in which Tina had been born was on a level even deeper than the one which had led to the destruction of an elite adventurer party. Ordinarily speaking, it was simply impossible for them to make their way there.
“Oh, that reminds me. Let me confirm something first: if you had enough divine energy, could you warp directly there?”
“…Uh, without a clear target, I can’t.”
Teleportation required a precise knowledge of both the distance to, and the direction of, the destination. When she’d saved Bertolt previously, his prayer had served as the target. When she’d demonstrated her ability to teleport in the store before, she’d targeted the divine energy contained within the Reliquia hidden among the tree branches.
“Because the prayer was spoken directly to the Shinki, Tina could hear it. Also, because I’d seen the Divine Pearl before, I recognized the signature of its divine energy. That’s why even if I didn’t know where it was, I could still find it.”
This meant that if they wanted to teleport to the room in question, they’d either first need someone to make their way to the room where she’d been born, and then to pray in earnest or to place a Reliquia she’d once seen in that room.
“If the device in that room was activated, then it’s possible that I could home in on its signature, but unfortunately, I never activated it before arriving here. I won’t be able to use it as a target.”
“I know. ——I guess there’s nothing that can be done then?”
“Ahh! Don’t tell me you’re giving up, Master?!”
“Of course not. It just means we’ll have to rely on rather… unconventional methods. ——Here, look.”
From among the pile of Reliquia he’d taken from the storehouse, he pulled out a box and opened it.
“That’s the Divine Pearl from the other day? The one you used when testing Tina’s powers.”
“Yeah, this is the high-grade one of the pair. The only grade one Reliquia in this store. ——To be truthful, this is one of Franka’s father’s Reliquia.”
This was one of the items Franka had put up as collateral, and so it had always been stored and never made its way to the storefront. Because it was such a valuable item, Franka had yet to buy it back.
Yuuki lifted it out of the box. Its shape was that of an elongated oval, about half as long as his thumb.
“This can be used as a guide?”
“It has enough divine energy for it, yes. You ought to be able to feel it no matter the distance.”
“That’s certainly true, but… just who is going to take it there?”
“Why, Stefan will, of course.”
Just now, standing before the stairway from the first floor, as Stefan and Franka had spoken, Yuuki had stealthily placed the Divine Pearl in Bertolt’s waist satchel. It wasn’t so much that he’d targeted Bertolt specifically as that he happened to be a convenient target.
In this way, Tina would be able to trace them.
Even if he discovered it partway through, it wouldn’t change things one bit. There wasn’t a soul alive who would casually discard an unused Divine Pearl simply because they hadn’t noticed it before. The fact that it was a high quality item only made that a certainty. He’d either save it as a trump card to be used when necessary or pocket it to be sold. Either way, that he would continue to carry it on his person was beyond question.
All that was left was to wait for them to reach the necessary depth of a kilometer; in other words, the 64th or 65th floors.
Upon discovering a vast room with a large tree planted within, it was an inevitability that they’d stop to investigate its presence. Whether their movements took them through narrow passages or into a large room, they’d be able to judge by tracing the Divine Pearl.
At which point, they’d use Tina’s powers to teleport to their destination.
The third floor teleporter would never have activated without Tina’s touch.
It was probably safe to assume that its counterpart far below was the same. There was simply no way for Stefan and his party to know for sure whether anything they found was truly the teleportation device or simply another large stone.
Once Tina activated the device, they’d teleport back to the third floor, concluding the duel.
From what Tina had gathered from the third floor device, it seemed it was possible to configure both the number of targets for, and the range of, teleportation. In short, they could leave Stefan’s party behind and return alone.
Additionally, given that the third floor teleporter was likely guarded by members of the Sky’s Oath Legion, once they teleported, both the guards and Stefan’s party would be made witnesses to their success.
Be that as it may, it wasn’t like there weren’t any uncertain factors.
First of all, this all hinged on whether or not Stefan and his party ever made it to the room in question. It looked like they had made all necessary preparations to do so, but he could only pray that they made it safely there.
The other variable was Tina. Even though she’d consumed a fair amount of items from his store, she hadn’t accumulated all that much divine energy regardless. Teleporting a far distance consumed a great amount of divine energy, and reserving enough energy for four people to both go and come back – a worst case scenario – was simply an impossibility.
For that reason, they’d decided that only Tina and himself would go. He obviously preferred to allow Franka to be the one to make the discovery, but given that party achievements were recorded on a per-party basis, it didn’t truly matter in the end.
The second they disappeared, Alfred would undoubtedly notice and return to the surface for help. They’d wait for the rescue party at the third floor, explaining that they’d been teleported to the sixty-somethingth floor where they’d stumbled upon the device enabling their return.
Not a word of this had been spoken to either Franka or Alfred. There was simply no way to explain the plan without first explaining both Tina’s powers and her connection to the room in question – both things that Yuuki would prefer went unmentioned.
“Get back!” Franka yelled.
At the same time, a Void Beast – a rabbit with long fangs – burst into flame.
Alfred stood in front, preventing the Void Beast’s forward movement as Franka sought the appropriate moment to use an Orison to end the beast. This was a very basic style of combat. The teamwork of the two was wonderfully fluid, their coordination perfect.
Yuuki, who had no experience working with anyone else, couldn’t help but feel sincere admiration at the sight.
Neither he nor Tina were taking part in the battle, and had taken the role of wards to be protected. Their job was instead to keep watch over the rear as needed.
They were currently on the 15th floor of the labyrinth.
Once the tenth floor had been reached, it was rare to encounter another adventurer. Additionally, the danger posed by Void Beasts gradually, but steadily, increased. That notwithstanding, they were still feeling fine.
The party easily dispatched the few Void Beasts that crossed their path as they continued forward.
“…You understand that you’re to avoid rushing to the front at all costs?” Yuuki whispered to the person beside him.
“Right now I’m trying to save divine energy, not avoid using it entirely. Even if, under the restrictions imposed on the Shinki, I can’t attack, I can at least help restrict the movements of the Void Beasts,” Tina said somewhat reluctantly.
Although her breathing was slightly faster than normal, she nonetheless seemed to be able to handle things. Because the three other members of the party were adapting themselves to her pace, she was able to keep up.
“The sentiment’s what’s important here. If they discover that you can’t be hurt, things could get a little bothersome. If it helps, think of it this way – any divine energy you waste here puts you that much farther from ever summoning your Duelist.”
“I’ve said it before, haven’t I? What kind of Shinki would I be if I couldn’t save the people before me? Franka and Alfred are good people; I like them. After my divine energy returns and I summon my Duelist, I plan to let them continue to work under me. ——Oh, you too, if you want to, Master.”
“So I’m just an afterthought, huh. Anyway, allow me to continue to state my preference for tangible rewards. Plus, you’re better off not having me as a subordinate.”
In order for things to work out, the reward from the Church of the Five Holies had better be substantial. Just the sunk cost of the items Tina had consumed had been beyond hefty.
After they’d walked for some time, Alfred turned to face them.
“Are you fine if we continue like this?”
“I’m fine up until the 25th floor. However——”
Yuuki spared Tina a quick glance. It was probably about time for a short break.
Honestly speaking, the only thing that mattered was whether or not Stefan’s party made it, so it wasn’t like they were in any particular hurry.
“Ah, right. Let’s take a breather then.”
Hearing that, Tina sat down on the ground, taking some unknown dried fruit from the wryly smiling Alfred. The sour-sweet taste helped to relieve her exhaustion.
“——You feeling okay, Tina-chan?”
Franka walked over to Yuuki’s side. She, let alone Alfred, didn’t look the least bit weary.
“She was the one who wanted to come along, so there’s no need to worry.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“I was too reckless. Everyone’s been dragged into this because of me…”
“Reckless is right,” Yuuki readily acknowledged. “If running off on your own like that isn’t recklessness, then what is? If you were gonna regret it this much, you should have just not done it in the first place.”
“I guess that’s true, huh…”
“But—— We all followed you of our own accord. Don’t forget that. Oh, myself included, of course.”
Franka lifted her head in surprise. After a short moment, she uttered a soft, “…Thank you.”
Yuuki sighed. He’d been thinking this entire time that he’d been acting very much unlike his normal self. Perhaps Tina’s personality had been rubbing off on him.
——Well, if he was gonna meddle in someone else’s business anyway, then this was a good opportunity. Might as well have what needed to be said, said.
“So, in the end, who was the one who killed your father? Stefan?”
Franka’s eyes opened wide at Yuuki’s question, and she answered, her words coming forth a little at a time.
“…Not long after I had become an adventurer, I heard a rumor from others I had begun to associate with. ‘Among the Sky’s Oath Legion, there’s an arrogant bastard who claims to have slain the master of a celestial Dragon Fang weapon.’ Because there wasn’t any evidence to be found, his claims were taken as mad ramblings.”
Franka’s father had been the previous master of the AmnisBlue Water Pike. This, Yuuki had heard before.
“Father passed away on the 52nd floor. At the time, he was the leader of a party of five or six. Of their number, the ones who were witness to his final moments were Bertolt and Stefan, those two. ——Oh, did you know he’s my brother?”
“Uncle mentioned it. Same mother, but different fathers, right?”
“Yes. My mother was a former servant of the Klose house, a concubine of the previous head of the house. Even before my brother was born, he was already getting on in years. Before long, he passed away. Nii-san was allowed to remain in the household, but my mother was cast out. My father, who was a combat instructor of the Klose’s at the time, saved her. Many things happened, and eventually I was born.”
“I heard your relationship with Stefan used to be pretty good when you were young?”
“Every now and then, Father would secret him over to meet Mother. We’d play together often. Even if he was a bit distant, he was still very kind. Yes, back then, he was very kind.”
The scene of that man playing joyfully with his young sister was impossible to imagine. On every occasion he’d seen Stefan, the man’s face might as well have been crafted from iron.
“Even then, however, he was already like this; you could never tell what he was thinking. When it comes to his emotions and other things, he’s a rather unreasonable person.”
For a brief moment, a look of pure nostalgia filled her gaze, and then vanished.
“When it came to the man who claimed he had ‘killed Father’; well, who that was was immediately obvious. Rumor had it that all it took was the least bit of alcohol to loosen his lips and he’d share the story. Nii-san has never been the kind of person who’d boast about that sort of thing, so that left only one person.”
Yuuki looked up. Both Tina and Alfred were listening attentively, though neither spoke a word. They’d relegated themselves to the position of an enrapt audience.
“…And so you requested certain proof using the Shinki’s power of miracles?”
Franka shook her head in response to Yuuki’s question.
“No. I’d already heard such rumors two years ago. ——You know, aren’t plays always saying things like, ‘Revenge doesn’t gain you anything,’ or ‘The one who died wouldn’t want you to do this either’?”
Yuuki frowned. Such sayings sounded noble, but were ultimately not only hollow, but easier said than done.
Seeing Yuuki’s expression, Franka chuckled.
“Yuuki-san, it seems those sayings offend you. I know how you feel. Emotions are, by their very nature, not things that are that simply controlled. However——”
Her voice dropped to a whisper.
“I wanted to try.”
“It was incredibly painful. I was unable to suppress my raging emotions and unable to simply accept what had happened and move on, but I wanted to try. To leave hate and resentment behind. To let go of the past and focus on the joy available to me in the present.”
Yuuki held his silence as Franka continued to speak.
“You know, I think that way of living is correct. The rescue by Yuuki-san, Boris-san’s consideration, and Master Alfred’s instruction – even if the pain and sorrow never disappeared… I’ve still been very happy, you know?”
She smiled faintly.
“And so Nii-san and I grew apart. The rare occasions when we’d run into one another at the training school, I always felt rather awkward; I didn’t know how to act around him. ——Then on that day, when I saw him in your shop… Bertolt had become a companion of his – a comrade.”
——Ah. Now things made sense.
The brash murderer of her father and her gentle, beloved brother had formed a party together. Such a scene would shake anyone to the core.
“I know that professionalism requires that personal feelings be kept separate from duties, but when I heard that he’d join their party at Nii-san’s request! I couldn’t understand what he was thinking. I ran to confront him, and do you know what he said? That Father died because he was weak. ——That was when I went to the Shinki, and petitioned to see what had truly happened.”
“…And what did you see?”
Franka took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She looked Yuuki directly in the eyes and answered.
“The 52nd floor. Their party had split up, and my father was exploring with the other two as a three-man group. They were ambushed by a Void Beast, and my father was injured while protecting the others. Despite his wounds, he nevertheless dispatched the Void Beast – only to be run through by the sword of the very man he had been protecting.”
Her voice trembled.
“He mocked him as he killed him, insulting him even as he stabbed him over and over. Finally, he laughed loudly as if filled with joy. How he must have loathed my father. Although I could not smell, hear, or feel – only see – I wanted to vomit.”
“And that person was…?”
“Bertolt. Exactly who I thought it’d be. It wasn’t surprising in the least.”
Her voice had already returned to normal.
“But it’s not like I wanted to know who killed him; I’d already known all along. What I desired to learn was what Nii-san was doing as that went on. Nii-san, he——”
Franka gave a light smile, looking as though her heart had been rent in twain.
“He did nothing at all. Even though he was there, weapon in hand, he didn’t try to stop him at all; he just stood there, watching. Watching as my father was murdered.”
Alongside the unenthused shout, four dog-like heads flew. Spraying blood, their carcasses fell over.
“——What the hell – they’re so weak,” Jahar said, bored, as he rested his sword against his shoulder.
The Void Beasts of the fortieth floor, though not few in number, were nonetheless slain by a lone individual. They had, after all, been enlisted into the ranks of the Oath Legions on account of their stunning strength.
“…Don’t be so pleased with yourself, brat.”
Bertolt clicked his tongue. Because his entire party had been lost, Jahar constantly mocked him, labeling him a beaten dog. The relationship between the two was extraordinarily poor.
Even given the circumstances, however, Bertolt was definitely not someone to be taken lightly. Although inferior to Jahar in both range and raw destructive power, the unpredictable nature of the swordsmanship with which he wielded his scimitar nevertheless left his prey in equally dire straits.
The problem was that he thought nothing of exploiting or sacrificing others – an attitude highly unsuitable for a leader. The fact that his party had been annihilated was something he bore responsibility for, Stefan was sure.
“So are we just going to keep an eye out for the stone monument as we progress?”
“No, that comes later. First, we need to descend as far as possible in one go.”
They wouldn’t need to stop until the fiftieth floor, since those floors had been mapped by the Oath Legions already. He’d taken a look at the maps before setting out; no record of any device like the one found on the third floor existed.
For that reason, spending any amount of time in these floors would simply be a waste of time. No, they needed to focus their time on those deeper floors where the maps were lacking. Moreover, if they intended to concentrate their efforts in the deeper levels, they needed to reserve their energy and items. Simply put, their immediate objective was simply to continue forward.
To press continually forward was a guiding principle for the Klose. From the moment they were born, the men of the Klose house were thrown into the deep end, and this concept instilled in them. This was true even for Stefan, whom was both the youngest child as well as the son of a concubine.
Yes, discard fear, seek strength, and press forward.
“Please, take me with you.”
At that moment, the image of his half-sister flashed through his mind.
——Too foolish. Such an act hadn’t been inspired by courage but by rashness.
The owner of that garbage shop had mentioned something about beating them to the teleporter; surely they didn’t actually believe such a thing was possible? For a party like that to reach even the thirtieth floor would be no small feat. It wasn’t anything he needed to concern himself with.
“Tch. Here they come again,” Bertolt growled.
The Void Beast this time had the body of a snake, two heads, and eight slender legs, like an insect. It wasn’t alone either, though they’d already encountered into several packs of Void Beasts hunting together.
Stefan exhaled lightly, and the AmnisBlue Water Pike appeared in his hand.
The second he felt the sensation of the weapon in his hand, he felt its presence deep within his heart. Use me, it said. Slaughter our enemies.
For the space of a breath, he swung his weapon without pause. In that brief instant, six beasts were killed.
The AmnisBlue Water Pike pierced through the scales of the Void Beasts like a hot knife through butter. In a blink, the serpentine Void Beast became nothing recognizable.
Void Beasts appearing on the fortieth or fiftieth levels simply did not have the power necessary to stand as his opponent.
Rather, he was fairly certain that there wasn’t anyone or anything that could stand against him anymore.
His companions quickly dealt with the Void Beasts they were facing, finishing just a bit slower than Stefan.
“Good. Let’s continue, but we need to pick up the pace,” Stefan called out as he started walking once more.
——I’ve become strong.
Yes, when compared to that time—— when compared to that time, I’ve become much, much stronger.
The structure of the 31st through 35th floors was special.
They consisted of a large, cylindrical tor standing five floors high.
Adventurers who reached the 31st floor had to descend roughly 75 meters down the nearly vertical cliff face.
“…Are you going to be alright?” Franka asked Tina worriedly.
“N-No problem. I-I can k-keep going. A c-cliff of this level i-is nothing!”
Tina alternated between gasping for air and trying to put on a brave face. Although they’d made sure to take frequent breaks, she was nearly at her limit.
“If she can’t go any farther, I can carry her on my back, Uncle.”
“Are you really okay, Yuuki-san? You’re not tired…?”
“You guys have been protecting us the entire time. I’m completely uninjured, so I’m still completely rested. I climb mountains frequently when I head there to gather herbs. When it comes to this, I don’t think I’d lose to another adventurer. Moreover, there’s still a bit of a path we can take.”
Because of the constant raiding that went on in this labyrinth, the road down this tor – that is, the road to the 36th floor – was well-established. One simply had to follow the anchored chains marking the path, making descent a much easier task.
Although at first glance, the path seemed so treacherous as to be impassable, the truth was that several flat terraces protruded from the cliff face like steps, providing places to rest. It thus did not take a superhuman constitution to traverse.
“…I think knowing when to give up is also a kind of courage.”
“We’re almost there. Let’s keep going,” Yuuki replied in response to Alfred’s comment.
He wasn’t lying. He’d heard from Tina just a moment before that Stefan’s party had just sped their way through the latter half of the fiftieth floor. It was just a matter of time now.
“Is that so? Well, I’ll leave it to the two of you then. Oh, one more thing. Though they’re rare, Void Beasts do appear here, so be careful.”
As Alfred finished speaking, the party began to descend as one.
“…Didn’t you say you’d carry Tina on your back, Master?”
“I said I would if it proved absolutely necessary. You still look lively enough to me.”
“So not gentle. ——Oh well.”
Tina’s face showing her displeasure, she walked the path leading down the tor.
Of the five floors, the first floor was still relatively easy going; the hardest being the third floor. The third floor was a nearly vertical precipice, requiring all limbs grasping the cliff face. Even experienced adventurers would occasionally run into accidents here.
It was definitely impossible for Tina to cross that portion of the trip; Yuuki figured he’d carry her on his back during that part, but——
“I-I-I-I can’t! Can’tcan’tcan’tcan’tcan’tcan’tcan’t!”
Tina shook, her eyes filled with tears.
“Forget the third floor, we’ve only taken three steps. C’mon, let’s go.”
“B-B-B-But… it’s t-t-t-oo h-h-high!”
“Well, we’re five floors up; of course it’s high. It’s just that, unlike hiking in the mountains, the drop’s pretty vertical, so it looks pretty scary.”
It wasn’t like she’d get hurt even if she fell, but a fear of heights wasn’t rational anyway.
“L-L-L-Looking down, t-t-the floor… it’s too f-f-far away!”
“It’s only scary if you look down. Stop that.”
“…I know how you feel,” Franka said admiringly.
In the end, Yuuki had borrowed some cord from Alfred and tied Tina to his back.
“W-When we get to the bottom, let me know, okay, Master?”
“Sure, sure. Just don’t move around, alright?”
“No problem. My eyes are gonna be closed super tight. ——Yeah, as long as Tina doesn’t look, then no matter what kind of terrifying, hellish scene awaits, Tina won’t be scared. Fufufu, now all that’s left is to deceive myself. Alright, Tina, let’s imagine this. It’s nice and flat here, nice and flat. Flatflatflatflatflatflatflat…”
Hah… If she was happy distracting herself like that, then that was up to her.
Yuuki suddenly noticed Franka’s envious gaze, fixated on Tina, whom was strapped to his back.
“You’re not afraid of heights, Franka?”
“Ah. No, I’m not. What a waste.”
“Er, nothing. *Ahem* A-Anyway, I’ve already been here many times, so no, I’m not afraid.”
Her steps were indeed steady. Although endurance wasn’t a requirement for clerics, she appeared to be in very good physical condition.
The dark atmosphere that had hung around her when she’d been discussing the circumstances of her father’s passing earlier was gone. She was back to her normal self – a serious and determined young girl.
But that didn’t mean the problem had been resolved.
Even if she finally attained the opportunity to speak to Stefan and Bertolt on equal terms, how would things turn out for her? How would even that help her find peace?
No, it’s better that I not get involved in this any more than I already have, Yuuki warned himself.
Even what he’d done so far had already pulled him in too deeply.
Don’t forget. Don’t think too much. You don’t have that right.
——Suddenly, his hair was yanked.
“What’s up? We still have a long way to go.”
“Master… The Oath Legion party has stopped moving,” Tina whispered into his ear.
His expression sobered instantly.
“How far are they?”
“About 500 meters down – about the 64th floor.”
Both the size and ferocity of Void Beasts directly correlated with the depth of the labyrinth.
By the end of the thirtieth floor, Void Beasts began to be of a size comparable with humans. By the fortieth and fiftieth floors, it was common to have to look up at them.
Once things hit that point, it took some effort even for the very best of the Oath Legions. However——
The spear flashed, and a hole appeared in the head of the three-eyed lizard. Having lost its control center, the large body collapsed upon the ground.
“Haha, very nicely done there, Stefan – killing three by yourself, eh?” Jahar praised him cheerfully.
The power of a celestial Dragon Fang weapon was simply unparalleled. When facing well-armored beasts like the lizard he’d just killed, their most effective formation had Stefan as a lone vanguard with support provided by the two clerics.
The complete opposite of Jahar, Bertolt was fuming, having realized the gap in power between Stefan and himself. His own party had fallen at the sixtieth floor, but they were even now before the stairs descending down from the 63rd floor, which was already one floor below the farthest reached to date.
Stefan didn’t particularly care one way or another, though. Comparing oneself with another was a waste of time. The only thing that mattered was determining how to push his limits yet further still.
——This way of thinking had been taught to him by the previous master of the spear he now wielded.
“Any hint of the Dragon Fang Gem’s location?” Stefan asked Bertolt.
“…No clue. It definitely wasn’t on the floor above, though.”
“What an unreliable eyewitness. Speaking of which, are you sure you even know what you saw?” Jahar interrupted.
“If you want to know where it went, then you should ask it. How the hell would I know where it went?”
“Enough. ——Let’s go,” Stefan announced to the four others, heading for the stairs.
Suddenly, as he reached the next floor, he came to a stop with an odd look on his face.
“What is this…?” Bertolt whispered from behind him.
A miraculous scene unveiled itself before their eyes.
Reaching out from the end of the stairway was an enormous room. It was utterly unlike any of the other floors they’d ever seen, which were all twisting, winding paths. It was an unimaginable sight.
The floor and walls were covered with glowing moss, providing enough light to see even unaided by a light stone. Other types of lush vegetation similarly draped the walls and floors. Nor was there so much as a hint of Void Beasts in the area.
“…Stick together,” Stefan reminded his companions as he entered the room.
Within grew an enormous tree. Utterly belying its location, situated in the deepest reaches of the labyrinth, the tree and its thick trunk, mass of branches, and luxurious green leaves looked as if it had bathed in the sunlight for years.
The trunk sported a large hole positioned around waist-height. Taking care, Stefan peeked in – it was empty.
“Hey, Stefan. Look; over there.”
One of the clerics pointed at a wall.
There stood a large vertical piece of stone. Its shape was reminiscent of a stele – yes, just like the teleportation device from the third floor.
Stefan approached it and gave it a gentle tap.
——The cold rigidity of normal stone passed through his fingertips. He felt nothing of the pulsing warmth of the device on the third floor.
“Is that not it?” Jahar asked.
“It doesn’t seem to be, no. ——Still, it’s probably best to investigate this room further. Let’s set up camp by the wall and then we’ll resume exploration,” Stefan directed.
“——At the room already? They’re faster than we expected,” Yuuki murmured as he carefully followed the path down.
His original estimate had placed them at the room about the time they finished descending this rocky pillar. They were even more capable than he’d thought.
“What should we do, Master?”
“Well, most importantly, keep an eye on the road. Once we descend another level, there should be a place to rest. We can make for the 64th floor once we’re there. Perhaps we ought to hint to Uncle that they should head back first——”
Yuuki suddenly stopped as he realized that Tina was looking at him strangely.
“You’ve been here before, haven’t you, Master? You sure seem familiar with the area.”
“You know, considering their skills, wouldn’t a ninth-rank adventurer usually operate solely on the upper floors?”
“I heard about this place from someone else.”
Hmmm, Tina murmured, sounding utterly unconvinced. She continued, “You know, I’ve spent some time thinking about the labyrinth, and there’s one thing that really strikes me as odd. ——At the beginning, Tina ran without stopping, before collapsing after running out of strength. You picked me up then, right, Master?”
“I have to admit that I don’t remember much from my attempted escape, but… The last time we came together, didn’t I run out of energy at the third floor? Even if I was far more desperate back then, and continued until I was completely spent, at most I could only have crossed six, maybe seven floors. Furthermore, the floor that Bertolt guy was attacked on was the sixtieth floor. If we count seven floors up from that—— Master, you were traveling entirely by yourself – just what floor did you find me on?”
Just as he was about to answer, a voice sounded in his ear.
“Watch out on the left! Three Void Beasts incoming!”
Alfred drew and swung his sword as he shouted the warning. One of the Void Beasts, beheaded, fell down the cliff.
It was bird-like, with a wingspan of three meters. It had razor-sharp talons and its beak was filled with teeth.
Although the path was dangerous, Alfred’s move to action was as speedy as ever.
“There’s no time to dodge; attack it, Franka!”
One hand gripping the support chains tightly, Franka withdrew two Divine Pearls with her free hand.
Practically simultaneously, two orange balls of flame flew at the Void Beasts.
The first hit a Void Beast directly, and it plunged to its death below.
The other missed the main body of the next Void Beast, striking its wings instead. Losing its balance, it changed direction – straight for Yuuki.
Yuuki kicked off the wall and grabbed hold of a rocky outcropping above him. Ignoring the frightened cries of Tina, swinging wildly on his back, he took a tremendous leap, landing on another rock.
The Void Beast grazed past his leg and slammed into the cliff wall. A close call indeed.
“T-Thank goodness! I’m sorry; it’s my fault for missing it!” Franka exclaimed.
Alfred’s face showed his relief.
——At that moment, two unexpected things occurred.
First, the support chain anchored to the cliff wall suddenly gave way, torn apart by the Void Beast.
Secondly, the Void Beast, its wings flaming and its head concussed, flailed wildly against the cliff wall.
With a roar, the rock face shook wildly – leaving Franka standing on nothing but empty air.
Yuuki instantly thrust out his arm. Though the speed of his reaction far surpassed that of an ordinary individual, it was late nonetheless. Furthermore, not only did he fail to catch hold of Franka, he lost his own balance in the process.
——If they fell, it would be to their death.
He made a snap judgment. He leapt into the open air, and gave a command to Tina.
“Tina, teleport the three of us now!”
The scenery warped before their eyes.
There were two secrets to a fulfilled life.
The first was to thoroughly enjoy those things that you liked. The other was to thoroughly eradicate any trace of those things you despised.
——That was the creed of one Bertolt, first-ranked adventurer and member of the Oath Legions.
What he enjoyed was the sight of human flesh tearing apart in a spray of blood.
What he hated were people who were hardworking or otherwise exceptional.
That’s why, from his point of view, the killing of his fellow humans was a two for one deal, really.
His goal was but some thirty meters before him. He walked without fear, as though he were in the city, slowly closing in on his target. He didn’t seem to have been noticed.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Bertolt thought to himself.
——Yes, the target was that prissy party leader of his, Stefan Klose.
When Stefan had joined the Sky’s Oath Legion at the age of fifteen, Bertolt had first met him. Although he’d been both young and skilled, he was nonetheless just another inexperienced little brat.
But out of nowhere, he’d become a rank one adventurer and his party leader.
And now he even dared to order Bertolt around, as if he were some kind of subordinate.
How could he possibly stand for such an affront? ——Simple – he wouldn’t.
Be that as it may, a frontal approach at that brat from the Klose house who wielded both power and authority was dangerous.
Despite his coarse nature, Bertolt was quite skilled at planning. He’d never forget to account for his own safety first and foremost. Even when it was time to act, he’d need to be careful. If he couldn’t control himself, couldn’t hide his distaste, then he’d risk being found out by Jahar. That was what he’d repeated to himself over and over again——
But this opportunity is too good to waste.
Deep within his heart, he laughed.
They’d just about finished examining the room, having found nothing of note, and were resting. Stefan, however, had for some unknown reason, left the camp and wandered off on his own.
For some strange reason, this 64th floor didn’t seem to be home to any Void Beasts. The large and spacious room took up approximately two-thirds of the entire floor, with the remaining third belonging to the corridor encircling the room. Its design was simplistic indeed. Because of the large number of plants in the area, there were many spots in which to hide, making it a trivial task to tail Stefan without his knowledge.
He’d sneak up on him once he’d reached the appropriate location and then sever his limbs in one go. He’d stuff his mouth full of his hand or something, and with his prey unable to cry out, take his time chopping him into pieces.
As he imagined the look on Stefan’s face just before death, he was filled with an overpowering ecstasy. The only thing on his mind tonight was murder.
He was suddenly struck, however, by the impression that something was strange.
His target didn’t seem to have been looking for a place to relieve himself – just where the hell was he going, anyway?
——Then again, who cared?
He was moments from death anyway; there was little point in exploring his motivations.
They’d finally gone far enough away from the camp. No one would hear any noise they made now.
Bertolt licked his lips in anticipation as he drew his scimitar. He was now at a distance to cut the other man down.
At that moment——
“Nii-san! Watch out!”
A voice cried out from behind him.
Franka clearly recalled falling from the cliff face, and the terror of impending doom.
But in the next instant, the scene before her eyes changed…and then she was standing here, her feet planted on solid ground.
A different scene was now playing out before her – Bertolt, his sword drawn, attempting to cut down Stefan from behind.
By the time she regained control of conscious thought, she’d already screamed.
Both Stefan and Bertolt turned to face her.
“…Franka, is it? Stefan’s sister?”
Bertolt frowned, not believing his eyes.
“How long have you been standing there?”
She must have been teleported. Though she had no proof, how else could she explain her sudden appearance here after her treacherous fall?
——No, that wasn’t important right now.
“You—— You dared ambush Nii-san from behind?”
“The hell are you talking about, girl?” Bertolt countered, a look of indignation on his face as he shrugged.
“Don’t play dumb! Your sword——”
“Our party leader wandered off alone; I was just making sure he was safe. When you’re in this labyrinth, you can’t let your guard down for even an instant, you know? I’m not like Stefan; I don’t have a weapon that can just appear at will.”
Franka, wordless, looked to her brother for help.
“…What do you think you’re doing?” Stefan asked emotionlessly.
——Asking not Bertolt, but Franka.
“I’m not sure if I hit some sort of teleporter or something… But what’s important is that he had his sword drawn, about to attack——”
“He said it was for protection.”
Stefan’s cold words made Franka’s blood boil.
“Why? Why are you always protecting that man?! He’s the one who killed Father…”
Franka was so infuriated she couldn’t even finish her sentence. Bertolt stared at her with a searching expression before finally breaking out into a smile.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh. I remember now. You’re that man’s daughter.”
“…The thought of killing my father brings a smile to your lips?”
“What are you going on about now? ——Anyway, let me teach you something important. What matters isn’t the ‘dead,’ but the ‘living.’ I, who am alive, am able to offer Reliquia to the Shinki. Your father, who is dead, is worthless. ——You should try and do your best to forget him too, you know?”
Enraged past the point of rationality, Franka forgot herself for a moment. Unconsciously, she pulled out a Divine Pearl for attack.
Her action was interrupted partway through.
——Stefan’s AmnisBlue Water Pike was leveled at her throat.
She blinked in shock.
Compared to being interrupted, the shock from having her brother point his weapon at her was infinitely greater.
Deep within her heart, Franka had always believed that her gentle brother still loved her, but was simply awkward when it came to expressing those feelings. That illusion had just been shattered.
“I don’t care what you want. As I’ve already said, strength is everything in this place. Do you have the strength to show what you believe is right?”
“I have no desire to speak with you further. Leave.”
Franka’s eyes had filled with tears, but she continued to stare at Stefan.
“Didn’t you respect Father, Nii-san? How could you——”
As if to deny her right to speak, the spear flew forward. Franka, unable to watch, closed her eyes tightly.
Perhaps he’d showed her leniency or perhaps he’d never intended to pierce her from the beginning, intending only to threaten her.
Whatever the reason – the spear’s tip never touched her skin.
“——That’s enough, Stefan.”
Yuuki, standing off to the side, gripped the shaft of the spear with one hand.
When they’d fallen from the cliff face, Tina had teleported the three of them to the 64th floor.
In their desperate circumstances, Tina hadn’t been able to execute the teleportation as neatly as she might have otherwise done. As a result, Tina and Yuuki had been teleported a short distance off from Franka. Returning to her side had taken some time.
“Why are you so mad? She’s harmless, so there’s no need to get so excited. Don’t tell me it’s the hobby of front-line adventurers to pick on the weak?”
Yuuki had originally assumed that Stefan would simply ignore him. He certainly never expected the strong, steely gaze that was leveled his way.
“And you, Mr. Trash Shop Owner? Are you confident enough to step in, to do more than talk?”
Yuuki frowned. Something was off; this degree of stubbornness was utterly unlike Stefan’s normal unfeeling self.
“——Sure, why don’t we give it a shot?”
In response to Yuuki’s words, his opponent’s bloodlust intensified. At that point——
“There’s no need to worry… uh, Stefan, was it?”
An unexpected voice sounded out. Tina walked in from behind, an innocent look on her face as she continued, “Master and Tina are both Franka’s friends. That’s why you don’t need to worry; we’ll protect her no matter what happens. There’s no need to be so guarded.”
An atmosphere of stunned silence took hold of the scene.
“…Oi, you. What the heck are you saying now?”
“I should ask you that, Master,” Tina replied, smiling. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed? There was never any reason to fight. The reason that Stefan guy hasn’t raised a hand against that detestable adventurer and the reason that Franka’s father, an exceptionally skilled man, couldn’t defend himself… if you think about it a little, you ought to understand. The answer is right before your eyes.”
Before his eyes…? Yuuki frowned.
“Just a moment ago, did you really think he was about to hurt Franka? If you ask me, I think it was quite the contrary; he was protecting her.”
“Protecting… Why protecting?”
Tina turned to face Bertolt, giving him a withering glare.
“Huh? The hell are you talking about, you little brat.”
“…Huh. So that’s how it is.”
Yuuki finally grasped what Tina had been trying to convey.
It didn’t matter who the true instigator had been; the second Franka attacked Bertolt – or even displayed the slightest degree of hostility – he’d cut her down in “self-defense.” To prevent that from happening, Stefan had intervened.
“Once you understand that, it all makes sense, right? ——Why this man runs free.”
If you couldn’t defeat someone in a straight fight, you’d try to take control of the situation in other ways. Simply put, you’d target your opponent’s weaknesses.
“——For example, something like this might have been said. ‘If anything were to happen to me – anything whatsoever – then the person you hold most dear will die. Even if I’m caught and imprisoned, you can be sure that my subordinates will kill her. I don’t care how many years it takes – sooner or later, she will be killed.'”
As Yuuki finished speaking, Bertolt clicked his tongue.
To be honest, it was quite possible he’d never actually said those words out loud. When it came to someone like him, some things didn’t need to be said; the second those thoughts crossed the mind of his opponent, the damage was done. Even if you were 99% sure he was lying, bluffing, as long there remained even the slightest possibility the life of your most important person rested in his hands, you couldn’t put your all into a fight.
“Yeah. You know his subordinate organization of ‘Rats’ is immense, right? To watch the actions of all of them is simply impossible. Given the inability to stop them, letting the target know her every movement was being watched would only serve to fill her life with fear.”
There was only one person whom both Stefan and her father held as their “most precious person.”
Everyone’s gaze turned to the person in question.
“Eh…?” Franka murmured unconsciously. “Don’t tell me… it’s… me?”
Stefan didn’t respond.
Franka’s father had been killed three years ago. At the time, Stefan had only been fourteen or fifteen.
Although he’d already been a member of the Oath Legions back then, but having been an eyewitness to an unprecedented scene, would he really be able to stand as a witness against a senior of the Legion – especially when he needed to protect his sister at all costs?
“Hey hey, how dare you speak that kinda crap without any evidence? The bond between Stefan and I is born of trust. ——Speaking of which, I hope you still remember the cost of crossing me, Stefan?”
Bertolt rested his drawn scimitar on his shoulder as he laughed mockingly.
Stefan exhaled slowly, before speaking.
“…You have no proof. In any case, it’s not like any of this has anything to do with you in the first place.”
“You really shouldn’t talk that way. Yuuki and I aside, you know you’re hurting her when you do this, right?”
Tina completely ignored Stefan’s rare look of bewilderment as she spoke.
“That said, given what a busybody I am, I have more to say. Stefan, I understand why you seek so desperately after strength and obsess over results. First of all, you know that if you make an offering to the Shinki, you can receive a miracle from them. You wish to borrow the power of the Shinki to learn a certain thing.”
Franka had wanted to see the scene of her father’s passing.
So what Stefan desired to know was——
“——The relationship between Bertolt and the Rats, right?” Yuuki filled in.
“That’s right. Now then, the second reason for his actions. If his standing among the Oath Legions rose to prominence, he’d have many men under his command. ——Taking these two things together, we can see that his plan was to grasp the movements of Bertolt’s subordinates, the Rats, and eliminate them in a single strike.”
The smug look on Bertolt’s face faded.
“If we put it all together, then the reason Stefan’s sought after strength so desperately is simple indeed. ——To bring that man into the labyrinth, and eliminate the threat with his own two hands.”
——Even now, the memories of that time were crystal clear.
His master had been wounded protecting Bertolt from an ambush by a Void Beast. After the battle was over, Bertolt had made his way to his master’s side; originally, Stefan’s thought was that he intended to care for him. However——
“The sight of you makes me sick.”
Bertolt took hold of his beloved scimitar and ran his master through.
“You’re such a busybody; always sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Not to mention full of hot air.”
Again and again his master was stabbed.
“Oh, you still plan to fight back? That’s fine. Just know that if I don’t return, my comrades have orders to kill that cute little girl of yours. Her name’s Franka right? She’s what, twelve? Thirteen? They sure are cute at that age. ——You know, from the very start, I’d planned on ending you on this trip, so I made sure to make some… preparations.”
His master’s hands fell powerlessly to the ground. Stefan’s heart filled with despair.
He was only fifteen. His master aside, he wasn’t even fit to be Bertolt’s opponent.
Be that as it may, if his master asked his help, he would join the fight in the next moment. It wasn’t as though he didn’t fear death at Bertolt’s hands, but he would fight nonetheless.
Alas, his master never asked. He simply lay there helplessly as Bertolt stabbed him time and again, his gaze fixed on Stefan and his lips mouthing the words, “Do. Not. Help.”
Bertolt gave his master one final stab before turning to laugh at Stefan, his face drenched in blood.
“He died because he was too weak, right? Don’t you agree?”
If he were to kill a child of the Klose house, the incident would explode out of control. Bertolt’s goal was thus to intimidate him into never speaking. This Stefan understood. Perhaps Bertolt also thought to bind him by tying him in as a co-conspirator.
Truth be told, Stefan was very much afraid. He was terrified of this man who so casually robbed others of their lives.
Returning to the surface, he broke the news of her father’s death to his master’s daughter, his sister.
She’d simply held her silence, not uttering a word, until finally, she asked, “…Why?”
Why… did Father have to die?
Why… didn’t you save him?
Why… did you just stand by and watch?
Why… why… why…
Thus echoed the sounds of a guilty conscience with words Franka had never spoken. Nevertheless, the sound of her voice resounded in his ears over and over.
From that time forward, his half-sister became a symbol of both his weakness and his sin. Each time he saw her, he was brought back to that moment. Thus, unable to stand being near her, he deliberately maintained his distance.
Stefan desired vengeance. He needed it.
“He died because he was too weak.” ——There was certainly an element of truth in that statement.
And so it would be an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. This he vowed.
To that end, he trained ceaselessly. He never let go of his spear for a second, even as his hands sweat blood. Even as the skin on his hands regrew, calloused and tougher than before, he continued to swing his spear until his hands bled once more.
Only one thing was on his mind – to take what Bertolt had done to his master, and return him every iota. With his own two hands, he would visit an end both humiliating and tragic on that man.
He himself knew better than anyone just how obsessed with revenge he had become. Perhaps there was a way to see Bertolt arrested and have him pay his dues to society; certainly there were cases where criminals had reformed.
That notwithstanding, he wanted nothing more than to see Bertolt dead by his hand.
Stefan deflected the silvery flash of a blade with his spear.
“I see. I’ve underestimated you. And here I was, wondering why you’d wander off on your own like that… To think that you were baiting me.”
Bertolt had again taken up his scimitar. Stefan settled into a stance to prepare to meet his enemy head-on.
“Nii-san… is that true? You want to kill him?”
Franka’s voice shook.
“You can’t! If you do that, you’ll simply be the same as him!”
“And why should I care about that?” Stefan replied, his eyes never leaving Bertolt.
His sister was left speechless.
“I’ve long since been resolved. Even if I must dirty my hands, I will see this deed done. And you? What have you decided for his fate?”
“I… I want him to be put to trial…”
“What court would try him? How would you get him to confess anyway?”
Franka had no answer.
“You can’t forgive your father’s murder and yet you’re unwilling to dirty your hands. You haven’t even bothered to think up a way to make this man face his crimes. You lack determination as well as resolve. You’re just throwing a tantrum like a spoiled child. ——If that’s how you’re going to be, then just shut your mouth and watch!”
Stefan charged toward his master’s enemy and thrust his spear forward.
He’d barely blocked the first attack. Against Stefan’s relentless flurry of attacks, he found himself being slowly pushed back.
He’d underestimated the man. He’d underrated both Stefan’s resolve and skill.
The owner of the garbage store and the others were no threat. Once he’d killed Stefan, he’d simply dispatch the others to shut their mouths and things would be alright. That had been his plan as he’d begun the fight—— However, Stefan was far, far stronger than he’d imagined. Bertolt felt himself sinking into his opponent’s pace.
(If I just had a celestial Dragon Fang weapon as well——)
Bertolt gritted his teeth and focused entirely on defense. Yes, this wasn’t a difference of strength, but merely one of weaponry. It had to be.
No matter the reason, unfortunately, the fact of the matter was that he was at a disadvantage. He needed to find the opportunity to retreat——
“——Stop! Nii-san!” Franka screamed.
“Shut it! Stop getting in my way! Are morals and the law really that important to you?!”
The movements of Stefan’s arms hadn’t slowed one bit. Bertolt thought to circle around, but the razor point of Stefan’s spear cut off his escape.
“Scum like this doesn’t deserve the right to a fair trial——”
“That’s not it!” Franka retorted. “I don’t want you to become a murderer over someone like him, Nii-san!”
Stefan hesitated for a moment.
Bertolt didn’t miss his opportunity. Rather than charging toward his opponent, he instead dashed to the right——
Where Franka was standing, wide-eyed.
His intent was nothing so tame as merely attempting to secure a hostage. No, he thought to carve out a hole from her stomach, thus restricting Stefan’s movements with a threat to her life. That’d give him the opportunity he needed to strike back, or at the very least, escape.
(You are, after all, nothing more than a naïve little brat who can only think of his sister!)
Brother and sister are both morons, Bertolt mocked in his heart as he readied his scimitar. In his mind, he could already envision the feeling of his blade tearing through her tender flesh, and of Stefan’s stunned horror. However——
Along with the tinkling crash of metal on metal, his blade was stopped before it reached her body.
“…The way you think is despicable.”
The words had come from the garbage shop owner.
“Then again, I, who knew your mind, have no right to say that.”
In that brief instant, Yuuki had drawn the short sword at Franka’s waist and obstructed the path of the scimitar. Franka, finally realizing what had happened, fell to the ground ashen-faced.
Bertolt was, however, a veteran of many battles. Before his shock had even registered, his body had already moved.
He pulled his sword back ever so slightly, and altering its trajectory slightly upward, slashed at Yuuki with blinding speed.
Or rather, he feinted a slash. In a blink, the sword again changed direction.
By subtly manipulating his shoulder, elbow, and wrist, his sword was ever-changing. This was Bertolt’s specialty. Even among rank one adventurers, there had not been a single one who had ever managed to escape this technique the first time they’d witnessed it.
Yuuki failed to react. The blade’s edge sought his throat like a snake.
Once he’d killed this one, then he’d be able to make his escape.
Bertolt rejoiced as he saw blood fountain out upon the ground, blood that surely belonged to his target.
——Instead, a gust of wind had blown by, taking his hand with it. His hand, scimitar still locked in its grip, flew through the air and crashed into the wall before falling to the ground.
Bertolt’s expression was one of utter disbelief as he stared at his stump of an arm.
Franka and Stefan were similarly stunned speechless.
“Aaaa…aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! M-My arm…. MY ARM! W-W-What did you dooooooooo——?!”
“God, you’re noisy.”
Yuuki irritatedly grabbed Bertolt by the jaw and slammed him headfirst into the wall. Bertolt’s body slid to the floor disturbingly.
“What did I do? I cut it off, of course. That’s all. It’s just one arm; compared to what you’ve done, this isn’t anything at all.”
Yuuki turned to Stefan.
“I have no interest in this farce of yours. ——Please refrain from getting my party wrapped up in your butchery. It’s a pain in the ass.”
“…Move, you trash shop owner.”
“Is that so?”
Yuuki looked at Franka.
The young cleric girl finally pulled her wits together and rose.
“Thank you, Yuuki-san. ——Nii-san, I apologize, but I refuse to move.”
“It’s not that I feel pity for him or that I’ve never thought of killing him… I just don’t want you to become like him, Nii-san. If you do that, I feel like we’ll grow even further apart.”
“So you intend to let this scum go free?”
“You just want to forget everything; pretend nothing ever happened. ——I won’t blame you for that, but neither do you have the authority to stop me. Move.”
“——I refuse. It’s my fault for getting the order of things wrong. Before we ever grew apart, I should have asked you what was on your mind.”
“It’s already too late for that. This is already the end. ——Now move, Franka.”
“Um, I have a question.”
At this time, Tina raised her voice as if completely oblivious to the strained atmosphere.
“Stefan, that you are filled with rage and sorrow is to be expected—— It’s just that, why didn’t you ever think to tell Franka how you felt?”
“You could have raged together and cried together. If these thoughts took hold of your heart upon your master’s death, then could you not have together contemplated the meaning of strength? Of revenge? ——Why did you distance yourself from her?”
Tina’s words were without the slightest hint of reproach. On the contrary, her voice was filled with an unfathomable dignity as if delivering a revelation from on high.
Awed by Tina, Stefan answered.
“I never wanted to… reject her…”
“And yet it is undeniably the truth that you have distanced yourself from her. To be honest, there is not the slightest difference between you and her. Both of you suffered alone and decided to resolve matters on your own. ——Tina is an outsider in this matter, and so she has no desire to condemn you. However, if you feel guilt over her father’s death, was that not all the more reason to hold her close?”
“You know, Tina thinks there’s still time?”
Franka didn’t speak, instead quietly waiting for her brother to speak first.
Stefan raised his voice, wavering with uncertainty, to speak. At that moment, however——
Yuuki noticed that.
He had no strength to stand.
(Dammit, dammit, Goddammit——!)
His consciousness hazy, Bertolt swore.
How the hell had this happened? There had to be a mistake somewhere. If he’d lost to Stefan’s celestial Dragon Fang weapon, that’d be one thing. But for him to lose so disgracefully to the owner of that garbage shop of all people; to even lose an arm! How could he possibly accept such a thing?
I have to correct this mistake. I want revenge. I need power.
Right, if I just had something like Stefan’s celestial Dragon Fang weapon——
Suddenly, Bertolt noticed a small organism looking up at him.
It looked to be some kind of rodent – a squirrel, almost. It was painfully obvious, however, that this was no ordinary animal.
——Inlaid in its head was an enormous white gem.
“Ohhhhh…!” Bertolt couldn’t help but exclaim.
He knew what this was. This was what his party had glimpsed on the sixtieth floor before being wiped out.
Moreover, he’d seen this white gem before, in the pages of a book.
The squirrel or whatever looked at him with interest, blinking at him questioningly.
“Give me——” Bertolt said. “Give me that power! The Snow-white Dragon Fang Gem!”
“——Grab him!” Yuuki shouted.
It was already too late, however. The small animal disappeared into Bertolt’s chest as if melting into him.
He began to change.
Stefan, sensing the abnormality, immediately thrust his AminsBlue Water Pike in Bertolt’s direction.
His strike, fast as lightning, was easily curtailed.
Bertolt’s right hand, which should have been chopped off by Yuuki, had stopped Stefan’s attack.
“Hahahahahhahahha. This sure feels great.”
Laughing loudly as he spoke in a voice that was somewhat murky as well as strangely off, he casually waved the arm that had taken hold of Stefan’s spear.
Stefan was definitely not small in stature, but he nevertheless flew, eventually smashing into the wall.
In his current state, Bertolt was now as much dragon as he was man.
Looking closely, his naked body was now covered in a layer of bony armor.
“You’re so light. You should eat more, Stefan,” the dragon-man mocked, raising the AmnisBlue Water Pike grasped in his right hand.
“A Void Dragon,” Yuuki answered unhappily.
“When you say Void Dragon, you mean the Void Beasts that protect the Dragon Fang Gems?”
“More accurately, a Void Dragon is the organic form of a Dragon Fang Gem. It’s not your run-of-the-mill mineral. No, it’s sentient, and wanders to and fro as it wills, testing humanity, looking for a suitable master.”
“T-Then has he been acknowledged as its master?”
“No, they don’t place their trust in others so easily. It’s merely lent him its power for the time being in order to test him.”
It was only after they had submitted to another’s will that they could take on the form of a celestial Dragon Fang Weapon. It was likely that Stefan’s AmnisBlue Water Pike had been subjugated by the Duelist belonging to the “Shinki who Supports the Sky.”
The reverse was also true; if the Dragon Fang Gem failed to accept the one being tested, it would not take on this highest form of Reliquia.
Judging by its current form, where it was fused with Bertolt as opposed to having taken on the shape of a weapon, it seemed it had decided to grant his plea for power out of passing whimsy, leading to the current state of affairs. If that was indeed the case, things were about to take a turn for the worse.
“…Return, AmnisBlue Water Pike.”
Stefan spat blood, coughing as he spoke. Hearing his words, his spear disappeared from Bertolt’s hand and reappeared in his.
“Oh. Celestial Dragon Fang weapons are indeed amazing, although I don’t think I’d lose as I am now.”
As Bertolt finished speaking, he settled into a stance. At that moment——
“Huh? What’s going on here?”
Accompanied by the sound of footsteps, three men appeared: Jahar, who had shouted in surprise, and the two clerics.
The oddity turned toward them and spoke.
Jahar frowned slightly.
“…You’re that loser, Bertolt? You look a little different, don’t you?”
“You know, I’ve always hated you. Though you’re all going to die anyway, you get to be the opening act.”
Jahar somehow instinctively realized that Bertolt’s threat was serious this time. Not speaking a word, he drew his enormous blade and attacked. However——
Both the razor-sharpness of his sword’s edge as well as its massive weight were more than excessive when it came to cutting someone. However, his sword simply stopped at Bertolt’s neck; its only result the loud thud of impact. His target was entirely unharmed.
“Heh,” Bertolt sneered. “Die!”
Suddenly, he loosed a vicious roar. Jahar was slammed into the wall with tremendous speed, leaving a crater on impact before falling to the floor. That his body retained its original shape was already nothing less than a miracle; expecting him to move after that was asking too much.
Bertolt had simply struck him with his right fist. His speed and strength had long since surpassed the realm of humans.
“Now who’s next——”
The small-statured cleric had given in to his terror, and had unleashed a string of offensive Orisons. Sparks flew as numerous balls of flame scattered.
“Stop that, you fool!” Yuuki yelled.
Alas, it was already too late. Bertolt’s arm ran his body straight through where his heart had been.
The other cleric turned to flee.
With inhuman agility, Bertolt caught up to the man and tore a hole in his body from behind.
Drenched in the blood of his victims, the dragon-man slowly turned.
“It’s as you see. Do you really think you can escape? Come, entertain me.”
“…You guys had better get out of here. His main target is me, after all.”
Stefan raised his spear and strode forward with unsteady steps.
“Nii-san!” Franka wailed.
It was obvious to all watching that he wasn’t able to move as he desired. He was walking to his death.
Tina raised her head to look at Yuuki with a gaze full of expectation and pleading.
He knew what she wanted to convey; Franka would not be willing to leave her brother behind.
If that were indeed the case, then he wouldn’t have any choice. He sighed.
“…Oh, he can be beaten,” Yuuki said.
The real problem came after that.
Bertolt was intoxicated with the power he now wielded.
Simply swinging his arm was enough to destroy a person. Moreover, he was impervious to both Reliquia and Orisons.
He was, without a doubt, the strongest existence in this world.
There were only four people left: Stefan, Franka, Yuuki, and Tina.
They seemed to be deep in discussion; Bertolt intentionally let them be – for the moment.
Stefan and Yuuki were to be the main dish. To devour them too quickly would such a waste.
Would they run, or would they attack, he wondered.
——As he saw their expressions, he decided it was the latter.
With Yuuki’s shout as the starting signal, Franka began to unleash her magic.
A meaningless waste of energy, Bertolt thought to himself, smiling. Unexpectedly, however, her target had not been him, but the walls and floor surrounding him. Smoke, dust, and wooden fragments obstructed his vision.
“I see. So you want to hinder my sight?”
Bertolt didn’t mind.
If they took this opportunity to run, then he’d simply give chase. It would take but a moment to escape this fog of smoke. If they instead took the opportunity to attack——
“Then let them come.”
Right as he spoke, a short sword came stabbing toward him from out of the smoke. Bertolt blocked it with his fist.
The Reliquia in question was only a third or fourth-grade. It must have been the owner of that junk shop.
Because the stream of Orisons had yet to cease, it was as hard to see as ever. It seemed his style of fighting relied on guerilla tactics.
What a waste of energy indeed. It was quite possible that even Stefan’s spear would be unable to pierce his thick armor. The unending string of thrusts from that short sword were even less of an irritation than a mosquite bite.
Again, Yuuki appeared before him. He swung his fist; it was dodged. This time he was stabbed in the chest by the short sword; again, he was unharmed.
“What a futile struggle——”
As he spoke, he was attacked once more; he was stabbed twice this time.
Bertolt clicked his tongue. He didn’t know where the man had learned how to move like that, but that garbage shop owner’s movements were inexplicably nimble and fluid.
That said, it wasn’t like he could penetrate the Dragon Fang Gem’s armor anyway. His stamina would run out first.
Yuuki appeared once more. His right punch was dodged; he was stabbed twice. His left punch was also dodged; he was attacked three more times. Each blow simply scraped past his skin harmlessly, but each hit also increased his rage. Bertolt reached out to grab him as he retreated only to watch his prey escape once more. In that brief moment of time, he’d been dealt five blows.
“That son of a——!”
Infuriated, Bertolt took a giant stride forward—— Right as Stefan extended his spear.
That garbage shop owner had led him into a trap. This had been their plan from the beginning. However——
“Bahahaha!” Bertolt laughed.
The AmnisBlue Water Pike had indeed pierced his chest, but only just barely. It seemed he had nothing to fear from even a celestial Dragon Fang weapon.
The stream of Orisons stopped and the cloud of smoke cleared, revealing four silhouettes who apparently had not the least intention of escaping.
“Are you guys done? You know that means it’s my victory, right?”
“Yep, we’re done. Unfortunately—— Well, let’s just say that it’s because we’re done, that we win.”
Bertolt frowned at his words. Suddenly, he realized something was off.
“What on earth…?”
Wide-eyed and utterly dumbstruck, Bertolt fell to the ground with a thud – now returned to his original form.
The bone armor bestowed upon him by the Dragon Fang Gem was entirely gone. All that remained was a powerless man with a missing arm, unable to even stand.
“I guess you weren’t qualified, after all,” Yuuki muttered as he returned Franka’s short sword to her.
The Dragon Fang Gems were always looking for a suitable master. Bertolt’s intense will and overwhelming bloodlust had piqued the Dragon Fang Gem’s interest.
Is this man worthy of my power?
In the end, the result was that he was not. He’d been a disappointment. He’d failed to utilize the weapon correctly, and rather than drawing out its true potential, had simply relied on its power as a crutch. Not only had he failed to seriously wound Yuuki and the others, he’d even gotten hurt in the process. The man wasn’t even close to worthy.
Bringing about this circumstance had been Yuuki’s goal from the beginning. It wasn’t necessary to defeat Bertolt head-on; all that was needed was to separate the two. In this manner, they were able to resolve the issue in a completely unexpected manner. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean they were problem-free.
“Right then. The big room’s next; let’s go!”
Yuuki reminded them of the next step of the plan decided on beforehand. Franka supported her brother as they ran.
Having broken the fusion, the Dragon Fang Gem was returning to its original form.
In the space of roughly three seconds, it had regained its true shape – that of an enormous, snow-white dragon.
Bertolt struggled along the ground to escape. His cries soon ceased however, concurrent with the sound of an earth-shaking footstep.
“…Uwa, it’s so big.”
“That’s the original form of the Snow-white Void Dragon. Stop wasting your time admiring it and run faster. Unless you want to be its next victim?”
“Leave it to me! ——Fall!”
In accordance with her shout, the Void Dragon’s legs began to sink. Although it had only been a few meters’ worth, it was still enough to halt its advance. It wasn’t anything near enough to stop it, but they’d gained precious moments.
The Void Dragon howled in anger. Heeding its roar, the other Void Beasts in the region, having hidden out of fear, appeared one by one.
“——This is bad. Faster!”
Yuuki and Tina raced along, following closely behind Franka and her brother.
Tina lacked the necessary divine energy to teleport their whole party. Instead, she employed her rapidly depleting supply of divine energy to slow the monster down as they sought another means of escape.
Indeed, this floor housed a method to return to the surface. They could simply ignore the Void Beasts and the Void Dragon and return.
“I can feel the energy from the teleporter. ——Over there!”
Tina raced into the large room and then to one of its corners.
“Is… *pant*… Is there something… *pant*… there?” Franka asked in between gasps for air.
“It’s the other half of the teleporter. Look, that stone monument.”
“…We looked there already; there’s nothing there.”
“Activating it has certain requirements. ——Tina, if you would be so kind.”
“Got it. First it has to be activated, and then I’ll set it to teleport everyone on this floor to the third floor.”
As Tina finished speaking, Yuuki felt a sense of foreboding.
What? Just what was it that was nagging him?
The answer came to him in a flash of inspiration. This teleporter ought to be dormant, and yet Tina had said just a moment ago that she could ‘feel its energy.’ In other words——
“…How could this happen?” Tina murmured.
“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me you can’t activate it?”
Franka’s face revealed her anxiety.
“No. It can still teleport, it’s just that—— The process has already begun, and moreover, its settings have been determined already.”
It was as he’d feared. He fought to keep his cool as he raised his voice.
“Asking you why would be pointless, so instead, let me ask: what will happen now?”
“Its settings have already been configured. The destination is the third floor. The targets: everyone on this floor… as well as all Void Beasts.”
As the implications of those words passed through his mind, a chill ran down his spine.
Their party – alongside the horde of high-ranked Void Beasts and the Void Dragon – would all be returned to the third floor. In other words, their destination would put them within reach of the city – and surrounded by new, inexperienced adventurers.
“…It’ll be a slaughter,” Franka said, horrified.
As she spoke, the Void Beasts reached the room. Furthermore, the sound of the Void Dragon’s footsteps, each of which made the very ground tremble, grew ever nearer.
“Tina, can you either deactivate the teleporter, or reconfigure it?”
“There’s no time——”
In the next moment, the scenery around them began to distort, and the room filled with a burst of brilliant light.
Translator notes and references