Chapter 5: Just to Protect

His vision quickly cleared.

“——Whoa.”

After a couple steps, Yuuki regained his balance.

He gripped one of light fixtures on the wall to steady himself. This was definitely the third floor.

From what he could see of things, he placed himself just in front of the stairway up to the next floor, and close by the teleporter.

Before him was a young boy staring at him in wide-eyed shock.

“Er, wha? Yuuki-sensei…? From where… you…?”

“Get out of the way!”

Yuuki threw himself to the floor, grabbing the boy to his chest as he did so. An enormous snake’s head snapped at the spot the boy’s head had been a moment prior.

If he’d been even a second later, the boy would even now be missing his entire upper body.

“W-what’s going on…?” the boy wailed, looking down the road in fear.

He was looking at an enormous snake with many heads, its body as thick as a tree trunk, slowly slithering over. It didn’t really need to be said that this was no native inhabitant of the third floor.

“Edgar, why are you here?” Yuuki asked the beginning trainee student calmly, making sure to never take his eyes off the enemy.

“Uh, well, today we came to visit the labyrinth, and… um, I saw the stairs for the third floor, and thought I’d come take a look… by myself…”

“So everyone else is still above us, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Head back to the second floor, gather everyone, and get out of here. Find the knights guarding the entrance and tell them Void Beasts are here in number. ——Now go, on the double!”

Edgar ran.

“…Now then, what should I do next?” Yuuki muttered to himself as he studied the large snake.

Raising a disturbance here would draw the attention of the surface. The Oath Legions and even the Duelists would be sure to act. Things were far from irreparable. The problem was… how many sacrifices would there be before things finally came to an end?

If he were to make a simple calculation of costs vs. benefits, then the obvious decision would be to make a break for the surface. Nevertheless, he hesitated.

“——Oh, over there! Master!”

A familiar voice called out from behind him, interrupting his train of thought.

Yuuki turned to look and instantly regretted his actions. Tina was running excitedly toward him – with three energetic Void Beasts in tow. They looked like enormous bulls, except that——

“Uwa! Hyaaaa!”

Tina screamed as she was thrown into the air.

——Bulls didn’t normally breathe fire. Well, they were Void Beasts, after all.

As the petite young girl fell back down, she was hit by the horn of one of the beasts and tossed back into the air.

Yuuki rushed over to where she was falling and caught her.

“Oooh, nice catch!”

“…You know it’s impossible to escape them on foot, right?”

“I saw a party under attack, so I attracted their attention. Tina has the ScutumHoly Shield, so she makes excellent bait!”

It was definitely true that she hadn’t suffered any injuries despite having been attacked countless times.

“…”

Bait, was it?

Helping others was a matter of course to her. She’d do so without a moment’s hesitation. Without a single thought toward what would be gained and at what price it would come.

——Dammit. This feeling, what was it?

“Now then, given the circumstances, the Shinki have to take action… Er, huh?”

Yuuki took Tina in his arms and ran straight forward. The fiery bulls, their prey poached right before their eyes, roared as they angrily gave chase.

“M-Master! There’s more in front! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah——!”

Yuuki paid no heed to the wails coming from the girl in his bosom as he increased his speed.

The many-headed serpent targeted the prey which, for some unknown reason, had decided to run straight at it, and charged toward it.

Its enormous mouth, boasting two venomous, razor-sharp fangs, closed the gap in an instant. Right as it was about to bite him, Yuuki leapt to the side. Jumping off the wall, he passed through the extremely narrow gap left by the serpent.

The fire-breathing bulls, chasing at full speed, as well as the serpent which flew past him, failed to take notice of his movements.

With a tremendous crash, they collided into a close-quarters frenzy.

The sound behind him growing ever fainter, Yuuki ran toward safety.

“What amazing dexterity! You’re too cool, Master!”

“…Thanks. Anyway, let’s check out the situation at the teleporter itself.”

Yuuki confirmed that he’d left the Void Beasts far behind before slowing.

The vast majority of Void Beasts weren’t only hostile toward humans. When large Void Beasts such as those collided, a vicious battle would break out.

The two made their way to the stairs to the second floor.

Many people had witnessed the enormous Void Beasts, and were even now making a mad scramble for the stairs. Edgar and the others seemed to have already escaped.

“——Oh, that reminds me: after we and the Void Beasts were teleported, it seems we were all split up?”

“About that, well, it seems to be a built-in precaution. In order to ensure that objects don’t materialize into one another, the teleported bodies seem to be divided up when they’re reformed. That way you won’t end up in a wall or something. That said, I’m not entirely sure on the details,” Tina answered from her spot on Yuuki’s shoulders.

“Because there were so many targets to be teleported this time, the range of dispersal was quite large.”

In other words, Franka and Stefan were around here somewhere.

Continuing on to the stairs, they finally arrived at the stele that was the teleportation device, now covered by a large piece of cloth. It looked to be there to prevent people from coming into contact with the device. Strangely, there weren’t any Void Beasts or people standing guard in the vicinity.

Tina climbed down from Yuuki’s shoulders, and lifting up the piece of cloth, patted the stone to survey it.

“How is it? Is it possible to send just the Void Beasts back to the 64th floor?”

“Sorry, no can do. Although it’s still activated and the flow of divine energy is still going, it seems like this device can only receive, and not transmit.”

“So it really is a one-way trip. Guess it’s going to have to come down to humans taking them down after all.”

“Our first priority is the survivors. I’m worried about Franka and the others.”

“Right.”

Yuuki sighed.

“——Ok, let’s get things sorted out before we take action. First up, Tina, I want you to consume the device.”

“Eh…?”

Tina blinked, seemingly confused by his command.

“What use is a Shinki without any divine energy? If the teleporter has divine energy flowing through it still, then it’s the same as a Reliquia, is it not?”

“Ohhhh… You know, you’re right! You’re so smart, Master!”

As the Shinki laid her hands atop its form, the stele turned into particles of light and faded.

“Hmm, it’d spent a lot of its energy on teleportation, but I should still be able to do some stuff. I feel positively full of power! Now what’s next, Master?”

“Can you trace the flows of divine energy throughout the floor?”

Yuuki picked up the cloth that had covered the teleporter and rent it in two.

“If you’re asking whether I can, then I can, but… what am I looking for? Adventurers carrying Reliquia, the light fixtures on the walls – Tina counts numberless sources of divine energy. Don’t tell me you want to take this opportunity to collect all those things for money——”

“Don’t be stupid. Well, it’s not like I wouldn’t, given the chance. ——No, what we’re looking for are massive batteries of divine energy. There ought to be two sources of overwhelming energy.”

“Hmm…”

Tina closed her eyes and began to focus.

“Y-You’re right. Ah. One is Stefan’s celestial Dragon Fang weapon. The other——”

“The Snow-white Void Dragon. That’s the distinctive signature of a Dragon Fang Gem, after all.”

Yuuki handed one piece of the torn fabric to Tina. It was large enough to wrap her body in.

“First, find Franka. It’s more than likely that the Snow-white Void Dragon is beyond the abilities of the Oath Legions to handle, so we’ll need to figure out a way to deal with it. We can’t allow it to go up any farther than this.”

This feeling was terribly nostalgic; he’d thought he’d long since forgotten such things.

He felt completely at peace. Franka and the others, his students, and the unable – this was all just to protect them.

Please forgive me, he whispered to the one who had taught him how to live a normal life, and who at the very end, had freed him. “Her.”

——Just this once, I must again be who I once was.

 

※※※

 

Bertolt gritted his teeth and leaning against the wall for support, slowly advanced.

Though he’d just barely managed to avoid being crushed to death, his right leg had been stepped on and shattered. If he gave up on the Dragon Fang Gem now, he not only wouldn’t have a weapon left, but he’d have to forego his right arm as well.

“Shit! Ithurtsithurtsithurtsithurtsithurtsgoddammitjustdiediediediedie…”

Bertolt cursed endlessly as he slowly made his way forward. The current situation did not allow for him to simply leisurely await rescue.

Dangerous Void Beasts were everywhere.

Just a moment ago, he’d been on the 64th floor. He was certain of that.

And now he was on one of the uppermost levels. A quick glance told him he was more than likely on the third floor. He didn’t know why, but something had apparently teleported him and all the Void Beasts here.

There’s no way I’m going to die here, Bertolt vowed to himself.

There was still money to earn, food to eat, wine to drink, and women to hold.

Right, he was one of this city’s precious few elite. Like hell he’d die in a place like this.

Encouraging himself to press on, he continued around the corner bend – only to come face-to-face with an enormous centipede.

It was, of course, another of the Void Beasts from the 64th floor. It was roughly three meters long.

“AH——”

Bertolt tried to retreat, only to trip and fall on his rear.

The centipede confirmed its target. Lifting its huge body into the air, it came crashing down. Bertolt struggled with all his might, but the centipede’s innumerable legs held him bound.

“AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

As its venomous mandibles drew ever nearer, Bertolt loosed a horrible scream—— Suddenly, their surroundings were hit with a deep chill.

The centipede’s main body was frozen solid, its movement stopped. The force it had exerted with its legs had ceased.

“Hurry up!” a female voice cried.

By the time she finished her words, Bertolt had already scrambled away.

The Void Beast suddenly burst into flame and swiftly turned to charcoal.

“Are you alright?——”

His savior approached three steps, and then suddenly stopped talking as she stared at him.

“Yeah, thanks. You’re a cleric? If you could, would you mind healing…”

Bertolt was struck by a sudden realization. The light from the fixtures on the wall had illuminated her face – it was her.

His heart twisted within him.

He was unarmed and defenseless and, caught on his rear as he was, a literal sitting duck. Moreover, the girl was but a mere ten steps away from him, watching him.

She could burn him alive, break his neck, cut off his limbs… At this range, Orisons made any of those things a mere triviality.

“Ah, um, your name was Franka?”

“…”

“W-Why don’t you calm down, and we’ll talk? L-Look, I-I’m hurt.”

“…Shut your mouth.”

“I, I regret my actions! I just got a bit overexcited, that’s all! Right! You wanted me to stand trial, right? I-I promise I’ll turn myself in the second we get out——”

“I TOLD YOU TO SHUT YOUR MOUTH!”

Bertolt fell silent.

Franka ground her teeth and glared murderously at Bertolt before finally lifting her head——

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

She wailed as if weeping, as if to give release the emotions that raged within her.

After a moment had passed, she again spoke.

“…Your wounds?”

“Eh, huh?”

“I asked where you were wounded. Where are you hurt?”

“M-my arm and my leg.”

Franka took out a Divine Pearl and strode toward him. He panicked for a moment but she simply healed his wounds as normal.

“…I’ve stopped the bleeding and cut off the pain. This is just emergency first-aid, but you ought to be able to move now. Please head to the stairs and escape.”

“Uhhhh, c-could you lend me your shoulder? I can’t feel my leg; I can’t stand. I’m unarmed too, so I can’t defend myself against the Void Beasts; I’ll die. If that happened, then all you’ve done here would be a waste, am I right?”

“…”

“Just as far as the stairs. Please, I’m begging you.”

He bowed at the waist and clasped his arms, pleading exaggeratedly. He knew his current situation was an advantageous one, but to travel alone was simply too dangerous. Unacceptable, really.

Franka didn’t speak. Finally, she sighed.

“…I understand it. Here, hold on tight.”

“Eh? Er, sorry for the trouble.”

Even if he’d been the one to ask, he couldn’t believe his ears – was she stupid or something? Had she seriously forgotten that he’d been about to kill her down below? With the two of them positioned as they were, it would be a simple matter for him to snap her neck with his left arm. She was too defenseless.

——No, better hold that thought. Escape’s the first priority.

He’d better wait until his survival was ensured before settling things with this girl.

The two walked in silence.

The light fixtures had all been wrecked, and so the path was dark. Judging by the fact that they hadn’t seen anyone else around, it seemed the other adventurers had safely made it out. Before long, they arrived at an intersection.

“…Hold up,” Franka said.

Bertolt had noticed as well. Something lurked around the corner.

The noises it made, the sound of its footsteps, its presence – all these things bore witness that it wasn’t human, but rather a Void Beast. Perhaps a large one.

Can this girl’s Orisons really deal with something like that? Bertolt flashed the girl a quick glance out of the corner of his eye.

The girl wasn’t weak by any means, but if she failed to kill the beast in a single blow, he’d be the one to suffer the consequences. Perhaps it was best he left her here as bait while he made a run for it. With any luck, the Void Beast would be hungry too; that’d give him some extra time.

“…I’ll stall for time. You should go.”

Franka drew her short sword.

Bertolt couldn’t believe his ears; surely he’d misheard? How could such a person possibly exist?

“You can’t fight right? Then this is the only way.”

“A-Are you sure?”

“I already said there was no other way!” Franka half-sobbed, half-shrieked.

“I can’t forgive you, but if I just let you die here, then what right would I have to talk to Nii-san as I have? ——Leave. I hope you keep your promise to turn yourself in.”

Keep his promise? What was she, stupid? Although Bertolt was just about to scorn her foolishness, he found himself hesitating.

For as long as he could remember, Bertolt had always been alone. He’d eaten dirt in back alleys because it’d meant survival. In this bleak world of gray, his existence was the only one of importance. To protect himself, he would do – and had done – anything. That was simply the way of things – a truth he’d never once doubted.

But this Franka girl was different. She’d grown up in a world of many brilliant colors, under the care of many who loved her. This much he understood. The worlds seen through their eyes were simply different.

Suddenly, he felt a strange pain in his heart, a deep unease. Could he perhaps have committed sins that simply could not be forgiven? ——This feeling of doubt and fear snared his heart in a vice-like grip.

“What’re you doing?! GO!”

As Franka urged him on once more, Bertolt finally began to move——

“Guaaaaa!”

A terrible death cry sounded followed by the maddened thrashing of an enormous object.

As the two stood rooted to the spot, the blob of flesh, having already lost its shape, shuddered and dropped to the ground.

“Nii-san…”

Catching sight of the newly appearing figure, Franka finally relaxed. It was Stefan, holding his spear.

Stefan watched the two expressionlessly.

Bertolt felt his body tense up before coming to the realization that Stefan would not need to approach him if he meant him ill. Feelings of shame and humiliation ran through him.

“——You’re in the way. Hurry up and leave.”

“A-And you, Nii-san?”

“I’ll be helping adventurers escape, as well as suppressing any rampant Void Beasts. This is the duty of the Oath Legions.”

“But you’re hurt! And alone! You’re being too reckless; I’ll go with you!”

“You’d only be a hindrance.”

Stefan’s response was frigid.

“You’ve already used up your supply of Divine Pearls, correct? Your bag looks empty.”

Bertolt stared at Franka in shock.

Indeed, the bag at her waist appeared empty, shrunken as it was, and swaying as if weightless.

“You… Did you really use your last Divine Pearl to heal me?”

Moreover, she’d thought to stall the Void Beast without any Divine Pearls to do so with?

All to give her father’s murderer a chance to escape?

Her silence was all the answer he needed.

——Just how naïve could a person possibly be? Bertolt wasn’t someone who understood the meaning of gratitude. For her to act in this way was just asking to be exploited; did she really not understand such a simple thing?

This girl wouldn’t live long. No way, no how.

“You should try and meet up with the owner of that junk shop. Even with you getting in the way, he’ll protect you.”

“But, Nii-san——”

Franka tried to rebut him when suddenly Stefan’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

“Behind you! Get down!”

Franka’s mouth gaped open wordlessly as she froze.

Bertolt moved first. This was the practiced motion of a reflex instilled through countless hours of training and numerous life-and-death battles – a skill which could be honed only through experience.

——I don’t want to die.

That thought flashed through his mind.

——I don’t care what happens, or who I have to sacrifice – I don’t want to die.

Or so he had always thought, but now…

Reaching out with his only remaining arm, he pushed the girl at his side out of harm’s way, with all the strength he had left in him.

At long last, he understood. So that’s why… You know, I rather like this feeling.

The last scene to pass before his eyes in mortality was awash with vivid color.

 

※※※

 

“——Ow!”

Franka crashed into the floor, having been shoved with great force.

A moment later, a gust of wind blew by her followed by a sound reminiscent of a large canteen of water being punctured. Bertolt was gone.

To be precise, he hadn’t exactly disappeared per se. Rather, attacked by the tail of a gigantic Void Beast, his body had been tossed into the air. It carved out a long arc before slamming into the floor and bouncing three times – with accompanying crunches – before coming to a halt, unmoving.

Had he intended to push Franka in the way of the monster, as bait, while he alone escaped? ——Or had he, perhaps, intended to save her? Whichever was the case, it was too late to worry about such things now.

“M-May his name be written in the Book of Life——”

Franka raised her upper body and unconsciously whispered a prayer. A wrathful roar shook the room.

“On your feet! Get up, and get out of here!”

“Ah…”

Along with an earsplitting burst of violent wind, an enormous claw came rushing down toward her head before being deflected off-course by Stefan’s spear.

“——Return, AmnisBlue Water Pike.”

The spear, embedded in the wall, disappeared and reappeared in Stefan’s hand.

Before the pair stood a gargantuan dragon.

It stood at least ten meters tall, and the aura which radiated from every inch of its body! This was anything but an ordinary Void Beast.

Its colossal body was covered in scales of a pure-white of ethereal beauty. It appeared to have acknowledged its prey’s desire to resist; its body shook in displeasure as it approached.

Stefan silently gripped his spear even tighter.

 

※※※

 

The focus of Stefan’s dark emotions for so long now had simply disappeared.

Bertolt’d been killed by the Snow-white Void Dragon now before him.

Although he didn’t have the luxury of a leisurely examination of the monster before him as he’d had in the lower levels, standing before it now, face-to-face, he was struck by its overwhelming presence.

“I’ll stall for time; get out of here!” Stefan yelled behind him.

A voice from behind conveyed protest.

“Please don’t make my resolve go to waste.”

This time the voice fell silent. He felt her run off into the distance. Good.

Stefan felt an immeasurable calm settle over him.

He’d hated Bertolt to the very depth of his soul. However, it seemed that that hate hadn’t been the true origin of the feelings which had held him bound for so long.

No, it was resentment. Resentment against his own powerlessness which had rendered him unable to protect those most dear to him.

It had been to free himself from that feeling that he’d fought until now.

——He thanked the Shinki for this second chance.

Stefan strode forward, and exhaling sharply, brandished the AmnisBlue Water Pike. His intended target: the Void Dragon’s legs. He needed to halt its advance.

The spear flashed, but failed to penetrate the beast’s scales. With a clank, it bounced harmlessly off.

ScutumHoly Shield, huh…”

Stefan recognized what had happened. Although he’d been able to at least give Bertolt a minor injury, but his attack just now had left no mark whatsoever. Was that because the AmnisBlue Water Pike was simply unequal to the task, or was it because he was simply lacking as its master?

The Void Dragon lowered its head, its eyes revealing its unnatural intelligence with an irreverent look.

“…You think you’ve found a new toy to play with, don’t you, monster?!” Stefan spat, taking up his weapon anew.

Just as he did so however, he found himself flung into the air.

It was only after the fact that he realized that he’d been kicked. The speed of its movements were more or less indiscernible to the naked eye.

“Guha…!”

Groaning, Stefan forced himself to his feet.

The dragon’s enormous mouth gaped wide. Within its gullet, he could see a brilliant white light begin to gather.

“…I guess this is as far as I go,” he murmured.

 

※※※

 

Franka ran – not in escape, but to seek help.

(Please, Yuuki-san – save Nii-san!)

The face that appeared in her mind then was Yuuki’s, which, though eternally lacking in motivation, was ever so reliable.

She hadn’t gone far, however, when she was forced off her feet by an enormous explosion.

Her vision turned white as she was assaulted by a howling, glacial squall.

Tossed back and forth against the walls and floor by the gusting winds, she eventually came to a stop.

Franka raised her head, coughing. A loud buzz echoed in her ears and her consciousness was hazy.

——But she could still move.

Franka drew out the very last strength remaining in her body, and managed to rise to her feet.

Her vision, which had been simply a cloud of white until just now, slowly began to return.

The walls had been utterly wrecked, and the shape of the road was now completely changed.

“Breath”: the breath of a Void Dragon was an attack far surpassing anything an offensive Orison might accomplish.

“No… Nii-san…”

Simply the fallout from the attack had already been sufficient to cause damage of this scale. Then her brother, who had bore the brunt of the attack——

Franka felt her knees give way. Just as she was about to give in to the despair threatening to paralyze her body…

“…Fufufu. Like the huffing and puffing of an overgrown lizard could possibly harm a Shinki.”

“Stop bragging; it was closer than you’d like to admit.”

As the white haze cleared, the silhouettes of two unknown figures stood between herself and the dragon.

The two were dressed in long robes – or rather, long pieces of fabric – and thus their faces went unseen and their identities unknown. Nevertheless, from their general size, one appeared to be an adult and the other a child.

Resting atop the shoulder of the slightly larger figure was… her brother?

“Whatever. I still saved him, didn’t I? I did a pretty good job there, so don’t feel obligated to hold back on the praise.”

“I’ll save that for once this is all over, thank you very much.”

Had they perhaps blocked the attack with a defensive shield?

That was impossible. It didn’t matter how skilled or talented the cleric might be, it was impossible to defend against such unearthly power. If it had truly been done… then the caster could not have been human.

No, wait—— That child… what was it she said just now? A Shinki? No way…

“…A Shinki… and her Duelist…”

 

Her childhood.

Her oft-bedridden mother had a certain habit. Lying in bed, she’d gather Franka and Stefan, whom’d often come to visit, at the foot of her bed and tell them stories.

Her brother loved the stirring tales of the Duelists’ heroics.

At first, these stories had held no draw for young Franka. She tolerated storytime only because it meant she had that much longer to spend with her beloved brother whom came only infrequently.

Gradually though, she too, came to love these enthralling accounts of derring-do.

As adventurers in the labyrinth found themselves in times of deep crisis, they would surely and inevitably appear – those heroes of old.

 

Ah… It’s all going to be fine now…

——That was the last thought that passed through Franka’s mind as she faded into unconsciousness.

 

※※※

 

The two’s pulses slowly settled. She’d only fainted.

Yuuki sighed in relief. It was finally time to settle things.

“There’s no time to waste, Master; I don’t have much divine energy left. I can only stop a few more attacks.”

She lacked the energy to either bind or teleport away the Void Dragon.

For that reason, it’d been decided that she’d devote what little remained to defense. Throwing up a defensive barrier that could completely nullify their opponent’s attacks could only be done a few more times before she’d be at her limit.

“I’ll take care of it. By the way——”

Yuuki eyed the gargantuan white body standing before them.

“Can you feel that thing’s divine energy?”

“Of course. At this distance, I can even feel the pulsing of its energy.”

“Where is it concentrated the most heavily?”

“In its neck. Why do you ask?”

“The origin of its strength is also its greatest weakness. ——Alright. Let’s get started,” Yuuki called out, as he charged toward their foe. “You’ve been far too brash rampaging around this floor as you have, Snow-white Void Dragon. If you understand the need to reflect on your actions, then let me defeat you, alright?”

The Void Dragon responded with a hostile roar.

“I knew that’s what you’d say. Although I’ve definitely gotten more than a little rusty, but there happens to be a pretty fantastic weapon conveniently available. Let me borrow it for a bit——” Yuuki muttered as he twirled a pike. In his hands was gripped Stefan’s spear – the AmnisBlue Water Pike.

“Let’s begin,” Yuuki said to the spear, smiling faintly. “Hey, don’t be mad. Just lend me a little of your strength, alright? A second-stage transformation should be plenty. ——If we don’t send Whitey over there packing, then your master’s going to die without ever having attained his potential, you know?”

The pike trembled reluctantly before gradually changing its shape.

Just then, the Void Dragon rushed forward and swiped with its front leg. The AmnisBlue Water Pike flashed and blood spurted as the dragon howled in pain; its toe had been severed.

duelist1_ci1

“From this point forward, it’s not enough to simply rely on your ScutumHoly Shield. We’ll decide this with our full strength.”

The pike in his hand had already completely transformed. Its unadorned, inorganic appearance had since grown to twice its former size and taken on a curved, almost living form.

The celestial Dragon Fang weapons came in many shapes and sizes, though they all shared one trait: the existence of three stages of transformation. The first stage already stood beyond human ability to replicate, though it was only from the second stage on that divine energy began to envelop the weapon, granting it the ability to pierce through the ScutumHoly Shield. It went without saying that this raised its destructive potential immeasurably.

The Snow-white Void Dragon glared at Yuuki with hate. It had started to take things seriously.

“Now then, let the true battle begin.”

The dragon’s arsenal included its claws, its fangs, its tail, and its Breath.

The path here was wide enough for it to move freely while the scattered rubble restricted Yuuki’s movement. The setting gave the dragon the decided advantage.

That being the case, Yuuki felt no need to seek after victory. His goal was merely to gain time enough for Tina and the others to flee.

“Hey, over here!”

Yuuki dashed over to its side and unleashed a flurry of blows on its left rear leg. The Void Beast howled in anger, and counterattacked with its fangs and claws, pulling back slightly each time it did so. This repeated itself a few times; Yuuki had succeeded in drawing it back.

Drawing it away by tempting it with his own body was extremely dangerous, but it was worth it. The necessity of doing so in this battle would prove itself. After some time, he’d managed to pull it a good distance away from the wounded pair.

This should be far enough.

His plan shifted into its next phase: it was time to go on the offensive.

Yuuki leapt forward and stabbed the Void Dragon in the thigh. Crimson blood dyed its white scales as it shrieked in pain.

If he’d been fighting as he had been before, now would be the time for retreat. This time, however, he instead stepped in yet further.

‘The next attack depends on how it counters——’

A gigantic claw lifted into the air. Yuuki, watching the Void Dragon’s breathing, readied his weapon.

Suddenly, the dragon’s foreleg bent, and it whirled a half-revolution with terrible speed.

A ferocious tail sweep.

“——!”

He and his opponent seemed to be pulling from the same playbook: they’d both feinted and waited for the opportunity to counterattack.

Due to the suddenness of the unexpected attack, Yuuki couldn’t react in time. Would he be able to dodge it——?

The dragon’s tail slammed into an unseen wall, deflecting in another direction. Running into this unforeseen obstacle, the dragon’s entire body shook with the impact.

Yuuki seized the opportunity to kick off the ground and circle around to the other side.

“——Are you alright?!” Tina yelled.

She was far closer than the two whom had fainted, having been anxiously watching the engagement the entire time.

“You idiot! Don’t come any closer!” Yuuki screamed.

The dragon, encased in an aura of divine energy as it was, was an existence on an entirely different level from other Void Beasts. Its attacks were more than capable of hurting the Shinki. Without the protection of the ScutumHoly Shield, Tina was nothing more than a frail young girl.

“Who are you calling an idiot! You should be more grateful, you stupid Master!” the Shinki pouted angrily.

“I’m thankful! You really saved my neck there, but you still need to get the hell away from here!”

The dragon’s gaping maw closed in on him. Yuuki vaulted backward, dodging by inches.

“Please, I’m begging you – don’t come any closer! Once… Just once… Would you please let me keep you safe?!”

Before he realized he’d even spoken, the words had already left his mouth.

Words that he’d never intended to speak – the honest feelings of his heart.

“…”

Having seemingly drawn something deeper from his words, she finally closed her mouth. Before long, however, she spoke once more.

“I refuse! Don’t insult me! ——You need to understand something, Master. Tina refuses to simply watch as she’s protected. I want to fight at your side!”

The claw came at him once more. Yuuki blocked it with the pike and then raced to Tina’s side.

“I can still open a protective barrier once, no… twice. If you’re willing to leave me in charge of defense, then I’ll do so. However, if you continue to insist that ‘it’s too dangerous’ or whatever, then I’ll do whatever I want. ——Now then, your answer? Which path will lead to victory?”

Tina continued to watch him as she gasped for air.

As he met her eyes, he thought to himself that perhaps he’d been charmed by her.

“… You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”

As he absentmindedly considered Tina, her eyebrows raised as she screamed “What did you say?!”, he also took in his surroundings. The broken rubble of what had formerly been walls could well serve as a foothold.

Alright. Let’s end it.

“…Tina, when I give you the signal, I need you to throw up two defensive screens at once. Aim the first to protect me, and no matter where I may be at the time, place the second exactly one meter from its face. Can you do that for me?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’ll leave it to you, then.”

Yuuki engaged their enemy once more.

First, he’d need to select the correct location, and then alter his combat style to draw it into a dead end.

This would be just like what he’d done earlier. He’d be the bait. He’d intentionally allow himself to be forced up against wall, and then he’d maneuver the opponent into the target location. Even if he succeeded, however, this would leave him with nowhere to run——

“NOW!”

The first barrier appeared. A claw was repulsed. The Void Dragon, having assumed that this would be the attack that sealed its victory roared in anger and impatience. Yuuki ran along the wall, maintaining his distance from the beast.

To a certain degree, he was able to predict its attack patterns. In close-combat, it’d attack with its claws and fangs; at mid-range, it’d use its tail; and finally, at long-range, it’d employ its Breath. Every time it fired its Breath attack, it’d draw its head near to the ground first. This was likely because it was much harder to evade than when compared to an attack from a higher angle.

Because its attack just now had failed, it went on the offensive, unleashing attack after attack without pausing to think.

The Void Dragon lowered its head and opened its mouth.

Just as planned. There was a foothold ahead. If he jumped off it and then kicked off the wall, he’d be able to reach the top of the beast’s head.

Here goes——!

Just as Yuuki was about to give Tina the order to throw up the second barrier, the dragon suddenly raised its head and flipped around.

Its Breath was now aimed at Tina and the two lying on the ground.

“——!”

Realizing its intent, Yuuki raced forward at full speed. Alas, he was already too late.

A blinding beam of white light flashed, freezing the air. Amid the cloudy haze left in its wake, he saw three figures tossed about like leaves in the wind, thrust alternately into the walls and floor.

Just as he was about to sink into the depths of despair, his feet stopped moving.

The fact that he could see them meant that Tina had noticed the dragon’s movements and thrown up a barrier in time. Had they been hit directly, there would be nothing left for him to see.

The problem was, given her dwindling supply of energy, it wouldn’t last long. What should he do?

Only one thing came to mind. As he turned to face his enemy once more, he realized – it was staring at him as well. He felt a chill run down his spine, and not from the cold.

“Aw, crap——”

He had been its target from the very beginning.

It had long since realized that his battle on two fronts – against itself and to protect the wounded – was highly disadvantageous. If it focused its attacks on the wounded, his focus would wander off the fight in front of him.

Even as he dodged its razor-sharp fangs, that attack was followed immediately by the swiping of its talons. Though Yuuki managed to jump under them, his movement was curtailed. His back was now pressed against the cold, stone walls.

The Void Dragon watched him scornfully.

At what was now point-blank range, its maw gaped wide. He could clearly see the white light gathering deep within its gullet.

——It was far too late to even dream of avoiding it.

 

※※※

 

“Ugh…”

Franka awoke from the shock of being thrown into the floor.

For a brief moment, she thought she’d been called back to the side of the Heavenly King, but then she realized that the familiar scenery surrounding her was that of the labyrinth. It seemed she was still alive.

Ten meters ahead lay a cold corpse. As the thought crossed her mind that it might be her brother’s body, her blood ran cold. Just as quickly, however, she realized that it wasn’t her brother; no, it was Bertolt, whom had been beaten to death by the Void Dragon.

Looking ahead, she caught sight of the stranger who had saved her life.

His skill with the spear and martial ability were incredible, but what more amazing still was how he had not only engaged the Void Dragon in single combat, but had scarred it with numerous wounds. Unfortunately, he’d finally been caught at a disadvantage. Faced with an unending flurry of attacks from the dragons talons and fangs, he’d been forced into a desperate situation.

He needs my help. ——That thought brought with it the realization that she’d run out of Divine Pearls.

How could this happen?

Was there really nothing she could do? Was there not some other way——

“That guy’s waist pouch! Open it!”

From beneath a crumbling slab of rock by her side, a terribly familiar female voice called out.

That guy’ – was she possibly referring to Bertolt? His waist… what?

Franka struggled to rise and looked over. There was a pouch at his waist which had sprung a hole. Through the hole she could see light stones, flint, and other small tools. Actually, something else was there too——

“A Divine Pearl?”

Moreover, an extremely high-quality one; perhaps even a grade-one.

He was a warrior, so why would he be carrying something like that? She shook her head; there was no time to ponder the matter.

She tried to rush over, but her feet weren’t taking orders, and she tripped instead. Her body was completely drained.

Just as she was falling, however, a shadow flew over and grabbed the object.

“Nii-san——!”

Stefan silently tossed the Divine Pearl over to her. Catching it, she turned back to the scene of the engagement.

I have to help him! The person fighting needed her help.

Releasing the entire store of divine energy held within the Divine Pearl in one go, she shouted, “Barrier! Please keep him safe!”

 

※※※

 

He’d had several bits of good fortune.

The first was that the Divine Pearl he’d hidden on Bertolt’s person was still there.

The second was that it was Franka who’d taken hold of it, and not Tina.

The efficiency with which the Shinki performed their miracles and with which humans performed Orisons was incomparable. However, the nature of the Shinki’s powers necessitated that the divine energy hidden within Reliquia first be broken down and absorbed into their bodies before it could be used. Human clerics, however were different. Divine Pearls could directly utilize their divine energy as willed by the human in control.

And so, in this particular circumstance, Franka had been much faster than Tina would have been; that was to say, fast enough.

Forming in between Yuuki and the dragon, a meter away from each, the defensive barrier appeared just as the dragon’s Breath fired.

Although Franka had consumed the entirety of the Divine Pearl’s energy store, it nearly wasn’t enough to nullify a dragon’s Breath; it had simply bought a couple seconds. The barrier quickly warped, shattered, and disappeared.

——Those couple seconds had, however, been enough.

Given the immediate proximity of the blast, the Void Dragon’s breath had been blown back to encase its owner in a swirling eddy of frost. Such an attack was, of course, incapable of harming the beast.

That notwithstanding, the absolute chill it carried within it had also frozen the moisture in the air, filling the surroundings with a frosty white haze, obscuring the Void Dragon’s vision. In that brief instant, it lost sight of Yuuki.

“Over here!”

Yuuki had taken the opportunity to leap off the wall behind it, going clear over its back and onto its neck.

The dragon howled in fury and lifted its head angrily. Yuuki, following the motion, leapt into the air.

He confirmed his target, located about a quarter of the way down its five-meter long neck.

“And with this, it’s over.”

With gravity adding to the force of his thrust, he speared the AmnisBlue Water Pike straight through the targeted point with terrific precision.

The Dragon Fang Gem – the source of the Void Dragon’s power – flew out from its massive body, clinking as it hit the floor.

“The AmnisBlue Water Pike symbolizes flowing water. It’s only right that it should cut through the snow,” Yuuki murmured as he leapt down and picked up the gem.

Guaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa——

The Snow-white Void Dragon’s head flailed wildly as it wailed its death cries.

Before long, its movements had ceased entirely and it crumbled to ash.

 

※※※

 

Franka and Stefan sat beside one another on the ground, staring numbly.

The mysterious personage who had just laid waste to a Void Dragon slowly turned to face them before tossing the object in his hands over. The second the spear pierced through the wall above Stefan’s head, it lost its strange, curved form and returned to normal.

“Who are you…?”

Ignoring Franka’s question, the stranger grabbed the other mysterious figure, the child, and ran off.

Just then, the rescue party arrived.

 

Translator notes and references

None.