Chapter 1: The Saplings Experience the Labyrinth

Lost to the world of dreams, the young girl’s quiet breathing was steady.

She looked to be not-quite fifteen, and boasted a head of luxurious golden hair. She was quite cute, really. Her face revealed an expression of absolute fulfillment; her journey through Morpheus’ realm had made her jubilant indeed.

At her side was a young man with arms crossed, watching her wordlessly.

He looked to be about twenty, and was slightly taller than average, with black hair.

After some time, the young man – Yuuki – sighed.

The girl was lazily asleep atop the store counter, where a puddle of her drool had collected. He’d entrusted the store to her before heading out; it was immediately clear to him that she hadn’t been the least useful while he was gone.

“…Hey, Tina. ALBERTINA.”

“Hmm…?”

The girl yawned languidly.

“How was the store? The store!”

Reaching out, he gave her a light shake.

This time she yawned and muttered something incomprehensible. She didn’t appear to have truly awoken.

“…”

Yuuki thought for a moment before leaning in near her ears and inhaling deeply.

“WAKE UP——”

“Eh? …Wha? Oh, it’s morning!”

The small head raised sharply, crashing directly into Yuuki’s chin.

 

“…Sorry about that, Master.”

Tina was seated at the dinner table, her body bent as she pleaded forgiveness.

“I didn’t mean any harm. I was just woken up so suddenly, you know…”

“——Your head slamming into me I can forgive,” Yuuki said, as he rubbed his chin unhappily. “However, what I can’t forgive is the way you simply ignored your store duties. Weren’t you the one who told me that you could handle things over here? In fact, weren’t you looking at me with an expression that said not to look down on you even as you swore you would take care of things?”

“Uh…”

“If all that happened was that we missed out on some potential customers, then that’s one thing. The bigger issue is that there have been many thieves and other unscrupulous adventurers on the prowl recently. What would you do if our merchandise had been stolen?”

“Umm…”

“If such a thing were to happen, we’d be out several hundred, if not several thousand, denar. Even if you didn’t eat or drink for a month or two, that wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost.”

“Ohh…”

“Anyway, what did you mean by ‘Oh, it’s morning!’? Most people sleep at night, wake up in the morning, and work during the day. It’s the middle of the day right now – you should be hard at work.”

“Um, well… It’s that, you know? ——It’s because you’re my sun.”

“…What?”

“Oh, my love! Each time we meet, every time I see your face, it’s as if the night has broken at last and the dawn has come!”

“…”

Yuuki frowned.

“I’ve always thought you were pretty weird, but I guess you’ve finally gone over the deep end?”

“No good, huh?”

Tina looked gravely disappointed.

“But those were such stirring lines in the story…”

“Story…?”

“Yeah, I borrowed a book from Franka. I guess it’s what you’d call a romance novel? It was super interesting, you know; I read it all in one go without even sleeping!”

“…And there we have it. It all makes sense now.”

Yuuki collapsed lifelessly atop the table.

“Oh, forget it. It’s a waste of energy getting mad at you. Let’s eat.”

“Ooh, sounds good to me. Tina’s more than happy to help out. Eating is definitely one of life’s great joys – a moment of joyous, radiant light.”

At Tina’s overjoyed reaction, Yuuki could only sigh once more.

“——To be honest, compared with the current situation, the thing with the store is really of little consequence.”

“Hmm? I don’t really quite get it. Why don’t you explain further? The ‘Shinki who Dwells in the City,’ Albertina, will be happy to advise you on your worries.”

Tina stuck her chest out proudly.

“Sure, why not? Let’s talk.”

“Right, right.”

“Right now, I find myself in pretty dire financial straits. To be blunt, business is poor.”

“You shouldn’t aim at changing your fortunes in a single night. It doesn’t matter whether it be the size of your business, your skill as a merchant, or anything else, really – that applies to everything. You’re worrying too much, Master. You need to face life’s problems one step at a time.”

“The thing is, if we continue down this path, then starting from tomorrow, I’m going to have to ration our food portions to a third of their current size.”

“TODAY! WE NEED TO FIX THIS TODAY!” Tina shouted in a panic.

“It’s because I don’t know how to fix it that we’re in this problem in the first place.”

“H-How… No, calm down, CALM DOWN, Master! H-How did things become like this?!”

“You’re the one who needs to calm down. ——Anyway, to answer your question, it’s simple – we’ve spent all our money. Moreover, today, taxes are due, which pretty much leaves us penniless. This is all because of that incident. Just thinking of how much we wasted that time is painful.”

Yuuki was terribly dispirited.

“That’s why if we eat what little food we have left, we’ll simply starve. ——Or wait, actually, you should be fine; you’re a Shinki, after all.”

“N-No one’s going to be fine! Even if I can’t actually starve, I get hungry just like anyone else. It’s too hard, Master! Too hard!”

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard on me.”

“…”

“…”

“…Is there no other way? What can we do?”

“Weren’t you the one giving advice here? ——Well, if we can somehow sell everything that’s up for sale, then we ought to be good for a while longer, but only a month at most. The problem is, we’d then have to close up shop, which would kill our income. It’s a real conundrum.”

Yuuki managed a small store for adventurers, the “Shoppe Boris.” Because he’d inherited it from its former owner, an old man, its name was unchanged.

The store carried several types of merchandise such as Reliquia, those mysterious tools which housed divine energy, weapons and armor, and various medicinal items like herbs and bandages. In short, the tools of the trade for an adventurer.

Even if medicinal herbs and the like were something he could gather on his own, but without any spare capital, there wasn’t much he could about procuring any other goods, particularly Reliquia. If things continued, circumstances might force the closure of his store not long from now.

“I’ve got it, Master! Why don’t you just venture into the labyrinth and bring us back some high-grade Reliquia? With your skills and a celestial Dragon Fang weapon in your hands, even the lower levels should pose no threat——”

“No thanks,” Yuuki replied sternly.

“W-Why not?”

“First of all, I’m just a ninth-ranked adventurer. If I were to walk around with such a high-grade Reliquia weapon, then people would be very suspicious of how I got it. Even if I were to try and sell it, people would either turn me down outright or, suspecting I obtained it via illicit means, intentionally lowball me. ——Do you really want to raise questions about our true identity?”

“Oh…”

“Secondly, and most importantly – I don’t want to.”

Tina frowned, sure she’d misheard.

“…Say that again?”

“To put it simply, if the store is to do any better, I want it to be because of my mercantile skill. If I have to rely on the strength of a celestial Dragon Fang weapon to keep us afloat, then it’s entirely meaningless. After what happened last time, I’ve determined I need to increase my skills yet further.”

“You’re stubborn about the strangest things…” Tina said worriedly. “Seriously, how could there be a Duelist who’d let their Shinki go hungry?!”

“I’m not a normal Duelist, you know? ——Anyway, when it comes to the store, I’m the master here, and you’re just a salesclerk. Shouldn’t you be following your boss’ orders?”

“If the store owner’s command is to ‘starve,’ then any employee would mutiny.”

“…”

“…”

The two began a staring contest as the atmosphere grew tense.

“…The Shinki Albertina commands you – bring forth the food!”

“The fact that I can’t do that is the reason we’re worrying about this in the first place.”

“It’s not that you can’t do anything about it! It’s that you won’t——”

“Um…”

The pair shut up as a voice called out from the entrance to the store.

A familiar young girl stood there, watching them.

“Although the store’s open, I didn’t see any customers and I thought I heard you guys inside… Are you busy?”

“Oh, no. Did you need to make a purchase, Franka?”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that. I just happened to get some fruits and veggies from my neighbors. I can’t finish them on my own, so I thought I’d drop by and share some with you.”

“A Goddess!”

Tina’s eyes shined as she shouted, surprising Franka.

“A Goddess has descended, Master!”

Aren’t you the Goddess here? Yuuki thought, though he kept the thought to himself, expressing instead his sincere gratitude for Franka’s generosity.

 

※※※

 

Solitus.

This empty world, encroached upon by “The Devourer,” consisted of a single city.

This city had been constructed in honor of deity: the Heavenly King, who orchestrated all things, as well as his five subordinate Shinki – the “Shinki who Supports the Sky,” the “Shinki who Raises the Sun,” the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon,” the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” and the “Shinki who Guards the Earth.”

 

Below the city was a labyrinth of unknown depth, the Magna PortaGreat Gate.

In order to obtain that mystery of mysteries, the tools which held within them divine energy – Reliquia – those with confidence in their own prowess challenged the labyrinth day and night.

There were those who dreamed of instant wealth.

Others sought to demonstrate their faith in the Shinki.

Others still had no higher goal than to ease the aching of their bellies.

——Adventurers.

 

One day, the adventurer Yuuki Takamagihara had stumbled upon, and taken in, a young girl who’d fainted deep within the labyrinth.

Her name was Albertina.

——An existence which should not exist – the sixth Shinki of five.

 

※※※

 

“Wow, that’s definitely rough.”

Once they’d finished lunch, Franka heard them out over tea, and expressed her wholehearted sympathy.

She was fairly tall, with a full figure. The expression on her face gave one a rather cute, if slightly shy, impression.

She was a frequent customer of Yuuki’s store, as well as an adventurer with a bright future. On her sixteenth birthday, several days before, she’d finally attained the qualifications for a third-rank. It was an astounding deed given her age.

She was an amazing individual even when it came to other aspects of her life. The lunch they’d just finished had been prepared by Franka using the vegetables she’d brought with her as well as some salted pork. Not only had it tasted great, but she’d done a fantastic job of cleaning up afterward as well. Yuuki simply couldn’t compare.

“If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“You’ve already done more than enough. I’m grateful for your concern, really, but this is something I need to take care of on my own. If there’s one thing you can do, it’s simply to keep on buying what you need as a customer. Are you okay on Divine Pearls?”

“Yep. It’s something clerics need to pay special attention to, after all,” Franka said with a smile. Frantically, she added, “Oh, but if I ever need more, I’ll be sure to buy them here. Definitely.”

Clerics were one type of adventurer. They utilized divine energy for offensive, defensive, and restorative Orisons. They used the Reliquia known as Divine Pearls – crystals formed from the source which powered all miracles – to power their skills.

“That reminds me, Yuuki-san. I haven’t seen you around the school recently… Are you still taking a break from things? Or rather, is it because of this financial trouble that you’ve been too busy to come?”

Solitus was home to several adventurer training schools.

Yuuki and Franka were both advanced class students, and he was also employed by the school as an assistant instructor for the beginning class from time to time.

However, as Franka had just described, of late, he had neither attended class nor taken any part-time jobs from the school.

“Yeah… Some things have come up, so I’ve been busy.”

Truth be told, her guess had been spot on, but he felt too embarrassed to admit as much, and so he held his silence.

“On that note, there was a post about an offer for job. The task is to escort the students of the beginning class around the first few floors of the labyrinth. They’re looking for a party with experience.”

“They’re recruiting? That’s rare. Don’t they usually just give those jobs directly to school-affiliated parties?”

“Yeah, but there was that huge incident just recently, right? Many people who were caught up in it haven’t yet made a full recovery, and so they’re short on people.”

“I see…”

Monsters of countless types and shapes, known as Void Beasts, resided within the Magna PortaGreat Gate. Each floor was an ecosystem of its own, and generally speaking, Void Beasts never ventured past the limits of their natural habitats. However, a month ago, a large and terrible Void Beast had suddenly appeared in the upper levels. Although the incident had eventually been resolved, numerous people had been wounded in the process.

Yuuki and company had happened to be in the vicinity at the time of the episode, and had gotten drawn in. In fact, the cause of the predicament he now found himself in was none other than that very incident.

“The pay looks pretty good, so what do you think? Plus, the kids are still young, but they’re future adventurers. If you develop a good relationship with them now, they might just become your customers in the future. ——A-Also, if I might, I’d like to take part as well; I’ll ask Master too.”

“Sure.”

The training school was quite generous – not only would they cover any and all expenses incurred, but they’d pay out immediately after the task was done.

He was hesitant to leave the store unmanned, but this was a real opportunity.

“I’ll definitely give it some consideration,” he said at last.

“Nice!” Franka whispered, clenching her fists in victory.

 

“Fruits, veggies, and oooh, cheese! This will definitely do for now. This is great, simply great. A real savior, she is.”

After Franka had departed, Tina picked over the food she’d left behind with a radiant smile.

“How unlike a certain Shinki that comes to mind.”

“…Even the Shinki have things they can’t do.”

In this city of Solitus, the five Shinki were objects of reverent worship.

The barriers they maintained halted the advance of The Devourer, and the power of miracles they wielded both held natural disasters at bay as well as ensured a favorable climate for agriculture. Simply put, they were directly responsible for providing humanity somewhere to live.

Divine energy was the source of their power, which they gathered by breaking down Reliquia and absorbing their stored energy directly.

As the result of certain events, Yuuki found himself unexpectedly caring for this young girl who possessed the power of the Shinki – the sixth of five. However, her store of energy was almost completely gone, and she had no subordinates, and as such, was essentially incapable of using her powers.

In any case, Yuuki had no desire to rely on the powers of the Shinki to pour life into his floundering business. This was a burden he had to carry alone.

“So Master, what do you plan to do about the job Franka mentioned?”

“I’m going to take it. I need money, after all.”

“That’s great. I guess I can look forward to things improving then.”

Tina nodded spiritedly.

“Good luck, Master.”

“The way you speak… it’s almost like you have nothing to do with this. You’re coming too, you know?”

“——Wha?”

The Shinki blinked in shock.

“As you’re an employee of this store, it’s necessary for you to understand the adventurer life at least a little. This is a great opportunity to train both you and those beginning class brats at the same time. Training an employee is an employer’s duty, after all.”

“T-Tina’s no adventurer, though. If anything, I should simply be on the receiving end of adventurers’ efforts.”

Laying hold of Reliquia was no simple task. Generally speaking, they could only be found in either the lower levels or protected by Void Beasts. Bringing Reliquia back to the surface was an adventurer’s duty, the elite of whom would then offer these Reliquia to the Shinki.

Tina’s identity, however, was a secret from the public at large, and so there were none to make her offerings.

“Wait until someone’s actually willing to do that, then we can talk.”

“A-Also, you know as well as I do that I’m unsuited for raiding, Master! I can’t fight! I’m weak! It won’t take long before I can’t walk anymore and I’ll need you to carry me!”

“No need to worry about that. I’ll be more than happy to kick your lazy behind as many times as necessary to keep you moving along. ——Speaking of which, during the incident last month, you sure were proactive about venturing in yourself? What happened to all that motivation?”

“Oh, well uh, that was because of Franka…”

“And that’s exactly why it’s best to train yourself so you’ll be ready if anything happens, right?”

“Ugh…”

“That’s why I’m exercising my authority as the one who bought your body. You’re coming!”

“…I understand. I’ll go…”

Tina bowed her head dejectedly, seemingly resigned to her fate.

(——Everything else aside, the fact that she needs to train herself is certainly true.)

Her physique was frail even by the standards of girls her age, and utterly unsuited to physical labor. A simple trip to the mountains to gather herbs had left her so exhausted she’d been useless the rest of the day. It’d be bad if she was left like this.

Although if he had to be honest, his desire for her to accompany him had another reason behind it.

More specifically, he didn’t want her out of his sight if he could help it. If she wasn’t by his side, then he’d be unable to protect her.

The Church of the Five Holies taught that the Shinki were joined together in working to save humanity.

Unfortunately, this was a lie.

They were instead engaged in a savage, zero-sum free-for-all. As they were unable to harm one another directly, it instead became a proxy battle where one’s subordinates were sent out to gather as many Reliquia as possible, both to one’s benefit and to the others’ detriment.

Only one would be allowed to ascend to the throne of the Heavenly King and lead humankind to salvation; only she who had forcefully suppressed her fellow Shinki would qualify.

Once a Shinki had perished, after a number of months or even years, another would be born in her place within the corresponding temple. As far as the public knew, the Shinki were immortal. The fact that there was an occasional changing of the guard was the greatest secret of the Church.

The sad truth was that these violent struggles to the death weren’t actually all that uncommon.

With that said, it must be noted that the Shinki were instilled with an overpowering mental restriction against harming another individual. This sealed their ability to directly attack one another.

For that reason, the existences known as the Duelists served as both their sword and shield.

These Duelists were called forth from other worlds, and possessed frightening martial ability. They existed solely to fight on behalf of their respective Shinkis.

Each Shinki was allowed but a single Duelist; they were singular existences to the Shinki – lifelong servants and companions.

Summoning a Duelist to one’s side was both the right of every Shinki as well as the first step for each newly born Shinki.

Yuuki Takamigahara was a former Duelist, now nothing more than a simple shopkeeper. His former master, the one who had called him to this world, was no more.

Albertina was a newly born sixth Shinki of mysterious origin; the reason for her birth was yet shrouded in mystery.

Left with nothing, she’d sold herself to Yuuki, pleading for his help in return.

Yuuki had accepted her offer, and under their agreement, he served as her substitute Duelist.

In order to make full use of his half of the deal, Yuuki had her help around the store. That notwithstanding, the thought constantly ran through his mind that he needed to keep her safe – that he would have to do his utmost to meet her expectations.

She had, after all, foregone the opportunity to summon a Duelist of her own, choosing Yuuki instead.

“…The fulfilling of a contract is a merchant’s duty.”

Above all else, that required keeping the secret of her identity under wraps. To that end, he needed to ensure that she learned to live as a normal girl would. Helping out in the store would be the first step in that process.

“Hmm? Something wrong?” the Shinki asked, staring at him oddly.

“It’s nothing. There’s a reason I want you to come with me.” Catching Tina’s gaze which struggled to stray, he continued, “However, our purpose this time is simply the job at hand. I’m not expecting any fights. We’ll just wander around the upper floors a bit; nothing’s going to happen. You can think of it as exercise, if you want. Do your best to keep up – you don’t want to fall behind the kids, right?”

“Right…”

Tina met Yuuki’s gaze through tear-filled eyes.

 

Several days after, Yuuki and Tina made their way to the training school.

There was yet some time before they were to visit the labyrinth, but there was something they needed to see the children about first.

The training schools were operated by the Church of the Five Holies, which was a theocratic organization in charge of both the worship of the Shinki and the management of the city.

Given the circumstances, the job of adventurer – who provided the means whereby the Shinki held their world together – was held in high regard.

Unfortunately, as the only requirement made of adventurers was that they have the necessary skill, and moreover, because in their world, strength directly translated into wealth, there were more than a few thuggish types among their ranks. ——All that aside, it is sufficient to say that no cost was too great when it came to raising future adventurers – a flawless system ensured that any who desired to become an adventurer did, in fact, do so.

After graduation, the most common path involved gradually building experience in the labyrinth while attempting to obtain the necessary qualifications to enter one of the organizations which served the Shinki directly – the Oath Legions.

“Thanks for coming by, you two,” a voice called out as they crossed the gates of the school.

The speaker was a tall man in his thirties with a saber at his waist.

He was a freelance adventurer named Alfred. He’d been a frequent customer of “Shoppe Boris” dating back to when its namesake had still been around. He was also Franka’s mentor.

He continually bore a languid smile and an easy demeanor, but he was an experienced veteran who had formerly served in the Sky’s Oath Legion.

Yuuki and Tina greeted him in unison.

“I have to say, for you to proactively accept a job for adventurers is pretty rare, Yuuki.”

“Yeah, I was pretty worried you wouldn’t accept, to be honest…”

The voice this time came from the person at Alfred’s side, Franka. Smiling brilliantly, she continued, “I want to thank you again for taking the job, Yuuki-san. It’s a pleasure to be working with you.”

“I’m doing this for myself; it’s not like circumstances left me with any other choice, really.”

Yuuki shrugged. Even if he considered himself a merchant first and foremost, he acknowledged that it was rather hard to do business when one was starving.

“As luck would have it, I also received this request from the school.”

After Alfred had parted ways with the Sky’s Oath Legion, his primary occupation had been the mentoring of inexperienced adventurers. In addition to the slaying of Void Beasts and the gathering of Reliquia, this activity formed the final pillar of adventurer activities in the labyrinth.

“Now that you’ve joined, Yuuki, we can finally form a balanced party. This is fantastic,” Alfred remarked, with a calm smile.

Adventurers could largely be divided into three categories.

First, those who wielded swords, axes, spears, bows, etc. – physical attackers.

Secondly, those who employed Orisons in battle – clerics.

Finally, those engaged in all non-combat roles such as Reliquia appraisal and the gathering and selling of labyrinth intel – the support specialists.

Each type of adventurer had their own specialties. In this way, they’d be up to the task no matter what was required, whether that be combat or exploration or anything else.

Their party was in charge of supervising three students. Each of the beginning class trainees was around ten years of age, and having frequently served as an assistant instructor, Yuuki knew them all.

“Oh, Yuuki-sensei! How’s it going?”

“Regards.”

The energetic voice belonged to Edgar, while the calm words came from Selim.

“P-Pleased to be in your care…”

The final greeting, only barely louder than a whisper, came from a young girl named Kaya.

Although Kaya ought to be oldest of the three by a year or two, she was a timid girl, eternally lacking in self-confidence. An unremarkable student, really.

Tina watched her curiously before clapping her hands.

“I remember now! I’ve seen you in town before!”

Tina’s tremendous shout left Kaya trembling in shock.

“T-That’s right; I remember you too. The Onee-san from the puppet show…”

“Yeah! Thanks for your help that time. I’ll be in your care this time as well!”

“…Listen, you’re the one who’s supposed to be taking care of others here,” Yuuki whispered.

Generally speaking, the further one descended into the labyrinth, the more vicious the Void Beasts encountered would be.

On the other hand, any Void Beast that could be found in the early levels didn’t really constitute a threat. That said, prevention was the best cure.

Because Kaya and the others were here simply to observe, he wasn’t going to allow them to fight. Even then, however, he wanted to make sure they knew how to keep themselves safe.

The party ran through several drills where they imagined enemies had attacked from the front, the side, and behind.

The first to tire was, as expected, Tina.

“W-What… hellish… training…” Tina gasped out, one painful word at a time, while greedily gulping down oxygen. “It’s… exhausting… being… an… adventurer…”

“Man, you sure are weak, Onee-chan,” Edgar, still full of energy, teased Tina. “You’re just fodder for Void Beasts like this, you know?”

“You’re being rude, Edgar!”

Selim grabbed his companion’s collar in concern. Selim, too, was in much better condition than Tina.

Tina borrowed Franka’s water canteen. After moistening her throat, her breathing and pulse finally returned to normal.

“You need to understand something, kids. Tina’s true faculties don’t lie in raiding.”

“Faculties?”

“It means an ‘ability’ or ‘aptitude,’ Edgar,” Selim explained.

“Then what are you good at, Tina-onee-chan?”

“I’m glad you asked.”

Tina stuck her chest out proudly.

“Know this – Tina’s original duty is to watch over and protect this cit—— Ow!”

“…You. Come over here for a moment.”

After thumping her soundly atop the head, Yuuki dragged Tina over to the corner.

“You stupid Shinki! Again! You did it again!”

“B-But… he made me do it!” Tina pouted. “If I just had enough divine energy, then I could show him what I’m really capable of!”

“I will allow no such thing. Are you trying to give away your true identity? ——Anyway, is it really appropriate for one of the Shinki to argue with a young child like that?”

“Hmph.”

“…Do you really understand? Our goal here is to teach those kids. If you’re going to lower yourself to their level, just how are you supposed to do that?”

“…”

“You need to be more tolerant; don’t get mad over such petty things. There’s no need to fight back. Listen calmly and gently and then they will follow. You’re like a big sister to them, after all.”

“A big sister…” Tina repeated softly. “A big sister, is it…? Hmm, I like the sound of that. ——Alright, I’ve got it. It’s a big sister’s job to have a big heart and be forgiving, I guess? Okay.”

In a flash, her mood had improved. Yuuki sighed.

Although Edgar could be a bit careless with his words, he wasn’t a bad kid. He was certain they could get along.

As he was thinking this and pacing back toward the students, he noticed Kaya staring at him.

Their eyes met for just the slightest moment before she quickly turned away.

(…That girl sure seems pretty dispirited today.)

Although it had to be said that even on a normal day, she was quite timid, but today, she was strange even by those standards. She hadn’t spoke a word to anyone all day.

“Perhaps something’s bothering her?” he thought to himself.

Well, there’s no need to make a big deal about it yet. I’ll keep an eye on it.

 

※※※

 

The doors of the adventurer training school were open to all.

Kaya had entered the school under the premise of being an orphan.

Because adventurers were necessary for the city’s continued survival, the trainees – future adventurers – were treated well. Room and board were both provided; there wasn’t really anything to complain about.

After finishing dinner in the cafeteria, Kaya returned to her room.

Usually, residents were two to a room, but because she’d been unable to find a roommate, she currently lived alone. For this introverted girl, unskilled in human communication, that was a small blessing.

(Today was so tiring…)

Both body and spirit were weary. I think I’ll turn in early.

Kaya opened the door to her room. To her shock, someone was sitting on her bed.

“You’re back.”

She yelped in surprise at the voice.

“…There’s no need to be so scared, Shinki-sama. I’m positively wounded.”

The dark-skinned young man feigned offense as he shrugged.

“J-Jahar… You gave me a heart attack.”

Kaya sighed and entered the room, closing the door behind her. Her heart pounded in her ears.

Although she pretended to be nothing more than a simple trainee, her true identity was none other than one of the five Shinki protecting the city, the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon.”

This young man – Jahar – was her Duelist.

“Um, the dorm forbids strangers from entering, you know… How did you get in?”

“Window.”

“This is the third floor…”

“And your point is…?” Jahar responded calmly. “Don’t get caught up in such trivialities. Anyway, why the surprise? I told you before there was something we needed to talk about. Plus, when I’m nearby, you can feel my presence, right?”

A special bond existed between Duelist and Shinki.

If they focused, they could feel the other’s presence. Furthermore, within a certain range, they were capable of telepathic communication as well.

“S-Sorry. I was a bit out of it.”

“If you’re going to be that unmotivated, then this is going to be pretty hard on me. You need to try harder.”

Jahar sighed in disappointment.

“You Shinki are ever in the middle of a battle to the death. If you’re careless for even the slightest moment, someone will seize the opportunity, and that will be the end of you. Since I’ll be dying right alongside you, please try to avoid such a death at all costs, would you?”

“I-I understand.”

“Do you really?”

Jahar crossed his arms, looking askance at her.

“Kaya-chan, you’re simply too timid. You would do well to pick up some of that Tina girl’s fearlessness.”

“S-Sorry.”

Kaya shrank from him as she answered. I wish I could just disappear.

When a Shinki initiated the summoning for a Duelist, the Heavenly King would select the person most appropriate to serve them and call them forth from another world – or so it was told.

However, Kaya had always felt that she simply could not get along with Jahar.

Truth be told, she was terrified of his savage and barbarous demeanor. Absolutely terrified. Their personalities could not have been less alike.

She’d come into this world but three years prior; after Tina, she was the youngest of the Shinki.

The moment a Shinki was born, they’d come into being with knowledge on several topics:

The world, slowly approaching death at the hands of The Devourer. The existence of the barriers preventing its advance. The town of Solitus and the labyrinth, Magna PortaGreat Gate. Reliquia and divine energy. And finally, their mission and the nature of their enemies——

Yes, the very moment she’d entered this world, she’d been thrust into the heart of this cruel battle to the death.

The reason Kaya, the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon,” had been born was due to the death of the previous Shinki of that title. In order to avoid the fate of her predecessor, victory was necessary.

That knowledge, however, didn’t make things any easier.

Generally speaking, not only did the Shinki have a Duelist at their command, but also a company of elite adventurers known as an Oath Legion, whom were relied upon for their ability to retrieve Reliquia from the labyrinth with great effectiveness. Unfortunately, the previous “Shinki Crowned with the Moon” had, prior to her death, disbanded the Moon’s Oath Legion for some unknown reason.

Thus Kaya and Jahar had had to start entirely from scratch.

The first step would be to rebuild the Moon’s Oath Legion, but the problem was she had neither divine energy nor money, let alone a network of contacts. For that reason, she’d been forced to hide her identity and live among the people, gathering intel by hand.

When it came to gathering intel firsthand, obviously the nearer she was to the labyrinth itself, the better. However, given her physical age, if she were to move about in the labyrinth, her actions would draw attention. Consequently, she’d enrolled in the training school as a trainee and Jahar had pretended to be an adventurer.

The Shinki did not age, and so if she stayed at the training school for too long, she would eventually arouse suspicion. She’d already been a student here for two years; she didn’t have much longer. Just as she was worrying about the impending necessity of producing at least some results, she’d heard news of a sixth Shinki – Albertina.

In the month since, her primary duty had been to observe Tina.

Tina’s cheerful innocence was radiant like the sun; she was practically the embodiment of Kaya’s ideal self. She’d long thought that if she could be like Tina, then all would be well. Kaya mused to herself that if she wasn’t continually mindful, then she’d likely find herself growing fond of her fellow Shinki.

Kaya had thus forcefully cut off her feelings and done her utmost to avoid thinking about what relationship they might have in the future.

“So? What’s the situation?”

“Oh, um, as you asked, I registered for the event and have been placed in their party. We met and practiced just earlier.”

“You’ve done well. And the Snow Blade King?”

“Yuuki-sensei? He’ll be coming as well…”

“Of course. Man, how great it would be to fight him… Anyway, for victory’s sake, we’ll need to go after them one at a time.”

Watching him, Kaya had an ominous premonition.

“About that… what do you plan to do exactly?”

“Oh, the Star Shinki’s asked me to end the lives of Tina and Yuuki.”

“Wha——”

Kaya froze.

Kaya and the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” Elfriede, were allied. At the very beginning, the other party had come to her with the proposal.

Jahar had noted that Elfriede likely felt there was little value in simply killing Kaya, as a new Shinki would simply be born again some time later. When it came down to it, she’d much rather have another Shinki under her instead.

At the time, Kaya had only just been born, and without even an Oath Legion to serve her, she’d had no room to refuse the offer.

Even now their relationship was anything but equal; if anything, Kaya was now essentially a subordinate of hers.

“You can’t kill anyone, Kaya-chan, so I’ll have to handle this one. When it comes to splitting the two of them up, though, please do your best,” Jahar remarked cheerfully.

The Shinki and their Duelists were protected by an aura of divine energy known as the ScutumHoly Shield, and were impervious to harm under most circumstances. Penetrating this shield was possible only via a very limited number of methods, one of which Jahar possessed – a celestial Dragon Fang weapon.

“K-Kill…?”

“Huh?”

“When you say k-kill, do you mean now? Why?”

Kaya, finally finding her voice, spoke.

“Apparently it’s ‘for the world.’ That vixen wouldn’t explain in any greater detail, though. ——In any event, Shinki-sama, that girl’s another Shinki-like existence – our enemy, in other words. No matter how you look at it, this is good for us.”

“B-But, I can’t do anything like that.”

“No worries; I’m the one doing the killing here, not you.”

“I-I don’t want to help, either…”

Kaya found it hard to speak.

Jahar narrowed his eyes and gave a bitter laugh.

“In other words, Kaya-chan, you’ve given up on victory – on life?”

“U-um…”

“If you refuse to allow me to do this, then all that awaits us is death. Hate conflict if you want, but do you have the resolve to bear the consequences? Are you ready for you and your Duelist to die a dog’s death?”

“…”

Kaya couldn’t speak.

“If you understand, then that’s great.”

Jahar smiled. His previously dangerous expression had disappeared without a trace.

“Our enemies still have no idea who we really are. Moreover, Yuuki ‘saw me die’ in the incident a month ago, so I should be pretty free to move around. If we were to fight out in the open in the city, then cleaning things up afterward would be a problem, so we’ll need to end this in the labyrinth itself. We’ll decide which one to kill first as circumstance allows. ——When do you leave?”

“Huh?”

Kaya was lost for a moment before realizing that he was referring to the trainees’ trip to the labyrinth.

“Ah, um, the exact time hasn’t been decided yet, but I’ve heard it’s going to be four or five days from now.”

“Good, that gives us time to plan. We’ll continue this conversation later, okay, Kaya-chan?” Jahar said happily.

 

※※※

 

“Yuuki-kun, what do you think about changing things up a little?” she asked, her hands crossed behind her back.

She appeared slightly displeased, but about what, Yuuki had not the slightest idea.

So he asked.

“What exactly?”

“My name!”

“Your name…?”

“…That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

She frowned. That was a bad omen.

“A name’s really important, you know? A name means that ‘you’re not just anyone, you’re you.’ It’s a very important sign.”

She was slightly taller than Yuuki, who’d been frozen at his thirteen-year old height, and so when they spoke, she had to stoop slightly to speak to him. He didn’t mind, though.

“I don’t quite understand. Could you explain?”

“——Oh, you!”

She shook her head in surprise.

“This child is just too slow. ——Yuuki-kun, you’re always calling me ‘you.’ You have a name, Yuuki Takamigahara, and your Onee-san does too! I’ve told you before, you know! Simply put, when you don’t use my name, I feel lonely. It makes me sad.”

As she spoke, she held his cheeks in her palms and laughed.

“So, call me by my name, alright?”

“If that’s what you want, then okay.”

“Oh, and it’d be great if you put some feeling into it. Feel free to add ‘beloved’ or ‘beautiful’ before my name too.”

Yuuki sighed. She was always like this, never hearing a word anyone said.

“Or you can add ‘onee-chan’ to the end if you want. Now, why don’t you give it a try?”

“Muriel-onee-chan.”

“…”

Her mouth snapped shut and she blushed to the tips of her ears.

“W-What are you saying all of a sudden?! This kid!”

“You were the one who wanted me to call you that.”

“R-Right. I really shouldn’t be the one saying this, but that sure makes me embarrassed. Much more so than I expected. It’s almost like I’ve done something I shouldn’t have. ——Anyway, from now on, it’s not ‘you,’ it’s Muriel, okay? You don’t need to add anything after that. Okay, give it another try.”

“…Muriel.”

“Again.”

“Muriel.”

“Mm. That feels right. Simplest is best, I guess. Alright, make sure to call me by name from now on, okay?”

Having finished saying what she wanted to say, she laughed aloud.

Yuuki couldn’t tell what the difference was.

But seeing how happy it’d made her, he kept that thought to himself.

 

※※※

 

The cheerful sound of chopping filled the cramped kitchen.

Yuuki was making a stew with the vegetables Franka had brought a few days prior. If they were careful about using ingredients, they’d be good for a while longer. They’d been lucky.

Yuuki cut the vegetables with a deft, practiced hand—— Suddenly he stopped.

(…That memory again.)

His dream from the night before came to mind once more.

That had been the first time he’d called “her” name – a pure, blissful memory untainted by negativity. Alas, it hadn’t been until long after things had concluded that he’d come to that realization.

He exhaled slowly and deeply. He knew what had brought on the memory.

More likely than not, it had been those words he’d shared with Tina – of what it meant to be a “big sister.”

As far as he was concerned, there was only one “Onee-san” – “her.” When he’d spoken to Tina, he’d also thrown the inner sanctum of his heart into disarray.

The mere thought of Muriel brought with it a deep pain.

——That notwithstanding, it was no longer of a degree that he could not bear it. On the contrary, some of that pain had now been replaced by a gentle warmth.

Perhaps this was “her” influence.

But was that a happy thing…?

“——Ow!”

Suddenly, a sharp pain ran through his finger.

“Are you alright, Master?”

Tina, who’d gone out back to draw some water from the well, had returned.

“…I cut myself.”

“Oh, you weren’t paying enough attention, huh? You need to be more careful.”

“…That sure is hard to swallow, coming from you. I need to cover it; would you mind grabbing some bandages for me?”

“Mm… Let me take a look first, actually.”

Without waiting for an answer, Tina grabbed his hand and assessed the wound.

——In the blink of an eye, the cut was gone and any blood that had spilled forth had disappeared as well.

“Hmm, not bad if I do say so myself, especially considering I’ve never done this before. ——What’s the matter? Hurry up and praise me, Master!”

Yuuki ignored the indignant Tina, instead continuing to stare at his hand.

“…This wasn’t a healing art. You turned back time, didn’t you?”

Rather than stimulating the body’s natural healing processes for recovery, she’d instead restored his finger to the state it’d been in before it’d been cut.

“Oh, you know? Yeah, this way it won’t leave a scar. It’s completely—— Ow!”

Yuuki had flicked her forehead with his finger.

“W-What do you think you’re doing?!” Tina asked with tear-filled eyes, rubbing her head.

“Didn’t I tell you before not to use your powers without permission?” he replied.

The miracles of the Shinki – effects far beyond the ability of humans to replicate.

Divine energy, the fuel which powered such miracles, had to be slowly accumulated through the collection of Reliquia found in the labyrinth.

When Yuuki had first found her, she’d pretty much exhausted her internal supply. In the time since, however, he’d provided her with Reliquia to partially replenish that reservoir. She’d just wasted some of that store.

“It’s fine. There’s no one else here besides you and I, Master,” Tina retorted.

“It’s a waste of divine energy either way. You scamp – you’re the kind who spends all their allowance the second they get it, aren’t you?”

“I’ve never had any allowance, so I can’t tell you. ——Oh! How would you like to give me some, though?”

“I refuse. I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Hmph. Master’s such a scrooge.”

Tina sighed.

“——But what did you expect? Helping people with the power of miracles is the responsibility and privilege of the Shinki. If someone needs help, then Tina will help them. If someone gets hurt, then Tina will heal them. Even if that person is stingy Master!”

“That last sentence was unnecessary. ——I get what you mean. But more seriously, setting the matter of divine energy aside entirely, I don’t want you doing anything too flashy when we don’t know who may be watching. I’m very grateful that you’ve healed my wound. Thank you.”

Yuuki stooped over and patted her on the head.

“Ah…”

Tina reddened. Trying to hide her embarrassment, she proudly stuck her chest out and spoke.

“I-If you understand, then that’s good. I give you my permission to express your gratitude.”

Yuuki mused to himself that her personality was straightforward indeed. In any event, he hadn’t been lying when he’d said he was grateful for her help. Her reaction had been pretty adorable, too – like a small puppy.

“What’re you so distracted by, Master?”

“…Distracted?”

“Yeah. No matter how I look at it, I can only conclude that your mind is somewhere else. If that wasn’t the case, you’d never have done something so silly as cutting your finger like that. What’s wrong? Something bothering you? Are you worried about something? Come, share with Albertina.”

“No, it’s nothing like that.”

He poured water into the stew pot and then adjusted the stove as he spoke.

“I was just reminded of some things from long ago.”

“Long ago?”

“I was remembering the Shinki whom I served as a Duelist.”

“Oh…”

“What’s wrong?” Yuuki asked, noticing that her expression had suddenly changed.

It was almost like she was upset… or hurt.

“I-It’s nothing; never mind. ——It was definitely a good memory, right?”

Tina’s words came in a flurry, and she continued.

“So, um… how was it?”

“How was what?”

“Your Shinki. What kind of person was she?”

“Oh. Very different from you. She was tall, with a very mature feel about her.”

Not that a Shinki’s age meant anything.

“She loved to laugh… In that respect, the two of you are quite similar, actually.”

“Similar… A-And in other areas?”

“Hmm? You seem pretty concerned about all this. ——Oh, the fire’s too weak. Why don’t you go clean the store and I’ll call you when I’m done cooking.”

As he finished speaking, Yuuki left to gather firewood.

(…I was able to talk about it calmly.)

That he’d been able to keep his calm as he spoke about “her” was a surprise to him.

Last night’s dream had been the same. As he thought of the past, he found that the feelings his memories stirred were no longer solely those of pain. He, too, was slowly changing.

“——Memories had best stay as just memories.”

Yuuki intentionally spoke aloud to disrupt that chain of thought. The gloomy feelings dissipated a bit.

What he needed to focus on now was how best to help Tina.

Yuuki walked up to the pile of firewood stacked up behind the store.

Double-checking to make sure no one was around, he kicked a log high into the air.

“Yah!”

With a shout, the log split into ten pieces which fell to the ground.

At some point in that brief instant, he’d drawn his weapon.

A Reliquia of the highest order, a celestial Dragon Fang weapon which could slay even the gods – the NixSnow Blade.

A normal person would not only have been unable to trace its arc through the air just now, but would not have even noticed he’d moved.

“…I’ve gotten slow,” Yuuki muttered, taking the firewood into his arms. His sword had vanished as suddenly as it had come.

——Yuuki was a former Duelist once known as the Snow Blade King.

The Duelists were frighteningly powerful bodyguards to the Shinki. They were untouched by the hands of time and could not be wounded by most weapons; in this respect, they were like their masters.

However, Yuuki’s master had since passed on, and he’d lost the special traits of a Duelist.

He was now as susceptible to time and harm as any other.

All the experience and skills he had accumulated during his time as a Duelist, however, were yet his. He was definitely at a disadvantage, but he felt confident that should he regain his previous condition, he would be a match for other Duelists.

With that said, did he have it in him to keep Tina safe?

She was the sixth Shinki, an unnatural existence.

Even if her foolish actions were decidedly out of the ordinary, her true nature yet remained a secret. As the other Shinki were unaware of her, they did not need to fear an ambush.

——Or so he desperately hoped, recognizing that such a thought was nothing more than a vain wish, subject to his personal desires.

If knowledge of Tina’s existence had already spread to the other Shinki, and they were even now under watch, what should he do?

The matter bore consideration.

“In the end, whether they be friend or foe, contact with the other Shinki is inevitable…”

Yuuki thought back to his time as a Duelist.

When it came to battles between the Shinki and, by extension, their Duelists, a straightforward battle was far from the only strategy.

If one blindly charged into battle, it was possible that even non-hostile factions would consider one too much of a threat to be left alone. In such an event, even if you triumphed over the opponent before you, that was hardly the end of your troubles.

It went without saying, of course, that the other Shinki were in the same position.

For that reason, it was very common for Shinki to join hands – to form an alliance, in other words.

If Tina were able to form an alliance with another Shinki, then at the very least, it’d be less one opponent they had to face.

“The problem is, we have nothing to offer.”

Yuuki returned to the kitchen.

Tina was gone. She had gone to clean the store, as Yuuki had directed.

To even hold a conversation with another Shinki, let alone form an alliance, first required grounds for meeting. That, of course, was true for both parties. If only one party had anything to offer, then such a thing would never happen; in this respect, it was exactly the same as doing business.

If they and another faction were to join hands, it’d do much for him and Tina, but what would the other side receive?

The gifting of Reliquia was generally enough to open a dialogue, but he had none to offer. His celestial Dragon Fang weapon was, of course, out of the question.

“That being the case, then all I have to offer is intel. ——Right now, the only one who knows the meaning behind the ‘Sixth’ is me,” he mused.

That there were five Shinki was a fundamental aspect of the system, and yet a sixth had now appeared.

Once others knew what he knew, others would understand the need for an alliance. The problem was, he didn’t know how to initiate contact with the other Shinki. Moreover, the others had no way to externally verify what he knew to be true.

——Whatever the case might be, he had no desire to simply complain or play the role of a passive spectator.

He would not lose another Shinki. No matter what it took.

 

※※※

 

“Good morning. ——Ooh, something smells good.”

Franka smiled as she stepped into the store.

“Breakfast, is it, Tina-chan? …Er, Tina-chan?”

The girl in question was holding onto a rag while completely spaced out in the middle of the store.

“Oh, Franka.”

Tina blinked, having only just noticed Franka’s presence.

“How long have you been here? Oh, right! Welcome! Welcome.”

“Um, I’d already greeted you. ——Is something wrong? You were quite out of it.”

“N-Nothing. It’s nothing.”

“You sure don’t look like it’s nothing.”

Tina was normally full of energy, to the point that she basically couldn’t stay still. For her to be like this was rare indeed.

However, if the person herself said she was fine, Franka wasn’t going to push the matter.

“Is Yuuki not here today?”

“He’s here; he’s in the kitchen, working on a stew. There was only a handful of meat left, though; if it weren’t for the vegetables you brought Franka, we’d have starved.”

“I-Is that so? I’m glad I was able to help.”

She’d had a sense that they were in pretty dire circumstances; that had been the reason she’d sent over the vegetables in the first place. With that said, things were apparently worse even than she’d feared.

“So, what brings you here today, Franka? Is there something you need?”

“Oh, I’m not here to buy anything. I was looking for Yuuki, actually…”

“If that’s the case, why not eat with us? The food ought to be just about ready.”

“Is that alright?”

“It was your food to begin with. There’s no need to be polite; Master will be happy as well. He worked on it to the point that he cut himself, after all——”

Tina suddenly stopped, and her beautiful eyebrows narrowed.

She seemed displeased almost… or perhaps confused.

“…Did the two of you have a fight?”

“N-No. We’re fine… Or at least, we should be…”

“In that case, what did Yuuki-san say?”

“No, it’s nothing he said——”

Her words were a bit vague. Tina sighed and continued.

“There’s no point in lying to myself. It’s true that it’s because of something Master said, but the fault is my own… or so I think. Lately, when I’ve talked with Master, something’s felt off. Actually, perhaps ‘off’ isn’t the right word either – annoying, maybe.”

“And why is that?” Franka asked, frowning.

As far as she could tell, the trust between Tina and Yuuki ran deep. Deep enough that it made her envious even.

What could possibly have happened?

“The second the conversation turns to a certain topic – or it’s even brought up, really – I start to feel really lost and confused. More specifically——”

Her next words were carefully chosen.

“Master, before… there was someone he was extremely close to – a woman.”

“…”

“Recently, she’s all he—— Franka?”

This time Tina was the one worried.

“You’re so pale… what’s wrong?”

“N-Nothing! Y-Y-Yeah. Yuuki-san’s so gentle, so of course there had to be one or two people like that.”

This isn’t anything that major. It’s just that kind of thing, you know. It’s definitely not the kind of thing that’d leave you feeling so shocked your knees’d buckle or so disappointed that you wanted to vanish. It’s nothing! I… am… fine.

——Tina’s worried gaze never left Franka, though.

“Um… does that mean that you find it strange too, Franka?”

“Uh, yeah. You could say that. At the very least, I think I understand how you feel, Tina-chan…”

Yes, she really, really understood.

“A-And? That woman – where is she now?”

“It seems she passed away some time ago.”

“Is that so…”

She felt herself calm down slightly.

She knew that this wasn’t something she could step into lightly. Feelings of curiosity or even sympathy weren’t enough. Especially since this was Yuuki they were talking about.

Who had she been? How had they spent their days together? Franka wondered, enduring the pain wracking her heart. She was undoubtedly someone who had greatly influenced Yuuki’s personality and perspective on life.

“This… gloom that feels like it’s suffocating my heart… what is it?”

Tina sighed.

“If I had to say, it feels like a mix of sadness and anger. But if I think about it, Master hasn’t done anything to warrant either of those feelings, you know? Maybe… I’m sick?”

“Yep, you could definitely say that.”

“Oh no?!”

“Moreover, this illness isn’t one that has a cure.”

“How can that be?! W-What should I do?!”

Unable to hold back her laughter, Franka giggled.

Tina, on the verge of bursting into tears, blinked in surprise.

“…Wait – were you tricking me?” Tina pouted. “That’s going too far! I’m being serious here.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it – you were just too cute.”

Franka stowed the smile and apologized.

“——But I have to say, I wasn’t fooling you; what I said was all true. What you’re afflicted with is very well-known, and I must confess I don’t know the cure either. You’ll just have to accept it. ——Oh, I should add, though, that it’s nothing that needs to be cured. There’s no need to worry.”

It seemed Tina had been infected by that affliction both joyous and painful.

“Oh… So there’s nothing I can do?”

“Right.”

“Oh…”

Tina looked utterly bewildered.

She really was too cute, Franka thought to herself. Her only sibling was her half-brother through her mother’s side. Having no sisters, she mused that this must be what it felt like to have a little sister.

“Hey, Tina. Food’s ready——” Yuuki called, sticking his head out of the kitchen. “Eh? Oh, Franka.”

“Pardon the intrusion.”

“Not at all. Have you eaten? I’ve made a stew with the ingredients you brought. If you don’t mind, why not join us? I’m eager to hear the opinion of a true chef.”

“You’re exaggerating, but I would be more than happy to eat with you guys,” Franka said with a laugh. “Oh, by the way – the school’s made contact. The date for the trip’s been decided.”

 

※※※

 

“We have three adventurers, and four with temporary permits. Please take a look.”

Yuuki handed the requisite paperwork to the Church knight posted at the gate.

Several of the labyrinth’s entrances were under the direct supervision of the Church. These entrances were enclosed on all sides by walls and sealed off with enormous iron gates; only authorized personnel were granted entry.

Yuuki, Franka, and Alfred held the necessary qualifications. The students – Kaya, Edgar, and Selim – held temporary permits allowing them to enter the labyrinth if escorted by a qualified adventurer. Tina, who was responsible for leading their group despite not being a certified adventurer, had similarly been granted a temporary permit.

The enclosure sealed off by the metal gates was a small plaza surrounded by a stone wall some tens of meters long. In the center of this plaza lay a stairwell descending into the subterranean depths below.

“Okay everyone, form up.”

Yuuki clapped his hands, signaling the children to take up their positions.

“Before we head in, there’s something you need to hear: the labyrinth is a dangerous place where your life is at risk; never forget that. Furthermore, the danger isn’t just to you, but to your party as a whole. In short, carelessness endangers not just yourself, but everyone around you.”

Sooner or later, there could come a time when they would experience this truth firsthand. By then, it would be too late to do them any good. Even if they felt it a hassle now, it was something that needed to be said.

“Although right now you are wards being escorted, make sure that you follow what we practiced the other day. If anyone acts up, discipline will be harsh.”

Simply because previous excursions had been safe did not guarantee the current trip would be as well.

Accidents could happen even in the upper levels of the labyrinth. When it came to the labyrinth, Magna PortaGreat Gate, no eventuality could be counted out.

All three students wore meek expressions.

“One other thing. I think you guys are already aware, but there are three types of adventurers. The warriors who face Void Beasts head-on, the clerics who employ their Orisons from the back, and the support specialists whose job is to keep their cool and provide situational analysis and intel. At the moment, you three do not fall into any of the above – you’re simply here to observe. Your training won’t split up by category for some time yet. That said, it’s not a bad time to decide what you’d like to be. Although you’re here today as guests, I want you to do your best to watch us and imagine what you would do were you in our position. ——Okay, let’s go.”

As prompted, they entered as one.

“For someone who hates the labyrinth as much as you, you sure are good at this kind of thing,” Alfred commented easily.

Because Yuuki was closest to the children, he’d been put in charge of issuing directions. Although he’d protested that he wasn’t qualified to do so, because he hadn’t been able to completely refute their reasoning, things had turned out in this manner.

“My way of living requires that I put forth effort commensurate with the reward, and the training school is compensating us most generously. That said, allow me to remind you once more, I’m a merchant. Neither working as an adventurer nor mentoring these children is my true calling.”

“Yep, yep. I understand.”

“Why do I doubt that…?”

Alfred seemed to find something extremely satisfying as he watched Yuuki, whom was filled with a deep antipathy at the sight.

“I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have suggested this job after all, I guess?” Franka asked.

Her apologetic look left Yuuki in a fluster.

“N-No, please don’t apologize. I’m very thankful to you, really. I definitely needed the money.”

“Yeah, it was really a big help. ——Putting that aside for the moment, when I see Master watching over the children, I get the feeling that he’s actually quite happy.”

“I think so too,” Franka agreed.

“Really?”

“It’s one of the things I really l-l-like about you.”

“Thanks. I have to admit, I rather enjoy it. That notwithstanding, I’m still primarily a merchant – not an adventurer.”

“Merchant…”

“Something wrong?”

“N-Not at all!” Franka denied frantically. “If you remember, Yuuki-san, it was your business sense that saved me.”

Franka had at one point been deceived by a loan shark, and on the verge of being sold into prostitution. Yuuki had saved her.

“It’s just that…”

“Yes?”

“The reason you distance yourself from adventuring work, and the reason you insist on being a merchant… Is it because of——”

Franka was unable to finish.

“Because of?”

“N-Never mind. I’m going to go to see how the kids are doing!”

She ran off.

She can be so strange at times, Yuuki thought to himself.

 

※※※

 

Divine energy powered light fixtures ran along the walls. The road was paved stone.

Maps were cheap and Church knights were on patrol.

The labyrinth had been tamed up to the third floor, making the journey an easy one for adventurers. The three trainees had also been here before as part of their training.

——However, the female member of the three looked anything but at ease.

“I need to focus, I need to remember…” she reminded herself.

Because the members of the party knew Jahar, if he were seen, it’d arouse suspicion. Consequently, this task had been left in Kaya’s hands. She, of course, needed to be careful not to let on that she was actually the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon.”

Accordingly, there were several things she needed to take note of.

First, she could not allow anyone to notice that she could not be harmed.

If she emerged completely unscathed from an instance where she should have been wounded, the anomaly would arouse anyone’s suspicion. Furthermore, Yuuki and Tina would immediately understand the implications of such an occurrence – the ScutumHoly Shield which belonged only to the Shinki and their Duelists. Although they weren’t supposed to fight today anyway, it was still best to avoid any dangerous circumstances.

Second, she could not exercise the power of miracles.

The Orisons of human clerics and the power of miracles held by the Shinki were similar in nature, but vastly different in scope. Although she was nowhere near the level of the other Shinki, she had managed to accumulate a certain degree of divine energy, with which she could exercise this power. However, were she to do so, Tina would likely notice. The Shinki were capable of detecting when another was working a miracle, after all.

If her true identity was somehow leaked, she could still escape via teleportation. Unfortunately, that would be tantamount to accepting defeat. Neither Jahar nor the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars” would look lightly upon such an action.

“——I-I can’t help it.”

Selim’s voice sounded from behind her.

“Are you scared?” Edgar had teased, prompting the response.

“W-Well, didn’t something terrible happen here just a little while ago? What if something like that happens again?”

Just as Selim had said, a large incident had indeed taken place here on the third floor not long ago. Countless Void Beasts, normally found only in the lower depths of the labyrinth, had suddenly appeared and attacked, producing numerous victims. Although the threat had been dealt with, restoration was still underway, and traces of the battle still scarred the walls.

Edgar, too, was a bit frightened, but he put on a brave face and bragged, “Hmph. I-I saw a huge one with my own eyes, you know? But I came out completely unharmed, so I’m not worried!”

Kaya and the other trainees weren’t entirely clear on the particulars of the incident; the most rational explanation they’d heard involved a misfiring of a teleportation device.

Although, truth be told, Kaya knew that the tragedy had been man-made.

The instigator had been her aide, the swordsman Jahar. His goal had been to reduce the power of an opposing faction.

Even though he’d taken unilateral action in the matter, Kaya couldn’t say she was blameless. Each time she thought of the victims of the tragedy she was filled with deep remorse and sorrow.

“Hmm? Kaya, you’re shaking. Are you scared too?”

“…Mm, yes. I’m frightened.”

She answered honestly.

Frightened of what had happened before. Frightened of what would happen today.

Because of her, people had been hurt. Because of her, people had been killed.

And most of all, frightened of her destiny.

All of these things terrified her, to the point that she didn’t know what to do.

“Oh come on. You’re just being unsightly now.”

“If you’re too careless, then you’ll be the one regretting it,” Selim reminded.

Edgar snorted.

“Idiot. Like I’d do anything that stupid. You guys are just too cowardly for your own good.”

Selim sighed, giving up on trying to convince Edgar.

“…”

Kaya watched the two in silence.

From the bottom of her heart, she did not want to see them harmed. If she had any choice in the matter, she hoped they would not get caught up in what was about to happen.

However, the second she had been assigned to the same party as Tina and Yuuki, the scales of fate had dipped into the realm of inevitability.

(Ahh…)

Kaya sighed inwardly.

If only I weren’t the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon…” If I were just a normal person, just another adventurer-to-be, life would be so much easier…

Though fearing the labyrinth and the monsters within, she’d nevertheless press forward, exploring the unknown with a childlike innocence, walking the anxious path of an adventurer. That, perhaps, would have been her life.

Alas, the nature of things was such that reality paid her wishes no heed.

This time, she turned to look at Tina, walking up front.

Judging by her appearance, she looked only slightly older than Kaya herself, but she was, in truth, the cheerful “sixth Shinki.”

I wonder what she thinks of her position? Of what her existence means?

Is she worried by the fact that she shouldn’t exist?

Is she like me, struggling under the weight of crushing pressure? Does she seek escape?

——How she wished she could ask. How she wished they could talk.

Unfortunately, it was nothing more than an idle wish; she could not act.

Once this battle was over, either Tina or herself – perhaps both – would vanish from this world. To reveal herself was tantamount to death.

Tina was an enemy she had to defeat, and not a companion with whom to share her troubles. Definitely not.

“…Everything alright, Kaya?”

Perhaps Tina had felt Kaya’s gaze on her, because she turned and walked over.

“You look pretty pale. Are you tired?”

“I-I’m fine. I’m sorry for worrying you.”

“If you feel tired, don’t hesitate to tell us. I’ll let Master know, and we’ll let you rest. There’s still a long way to go. This is the worst.”

“R-Right. I understand,” Kaya replied. Without realizing that she was still speaking, she continued, “Even though you say ‘this is the worst,’ you look quite happy to me?”

“Oh?”

Tina stared.

“I look happy?”

“Yes. Even though I can tell you’re not familiar with the road, but as you walk, there’s such a bright expression on your face… Onee-san, you’re not a normal adventurer, are you?”

“Mm. Tina’s a store clerk.”

Tina nodded strongly, and then continued.

“But yes, when everyone’s together like this, it makes me happy. Even if we happen to be in the labyrinth. Tina loves to be with other people. To be honest, from the very moment I was born, watching over the city and its people has been my—— Oh, wait. Master said I shouldn’t say this part.”

Tina flashed a quick glance in Yuuki’s direction to reassure herself that he hadn’t overheard.

The second Kaya heard Tina mention her responsibilities as a Shinki, she thought Tina was greeting her as a fellow Shinki. She raised her guard. Seeing Tina’s innocent expression, however, she realized there’d been no ulterior motive behind the statement.

(Still… “Master,” is it?)

How strange.

From what Jahar had told her, Yuuki was no longer an active Duelist, though from the looks of things, he was more or less just that. What stood out to her, though, was how Tina referred to him as “Master.” Just what on earth was their relationship?

Well, no matter what their relationship might have been, one thing was for certain – it couldn’t have been more unlike her relationship with Jahar. After all, every time Tina either mentioned Yuuki or spoke with him, her happiness was plain to see.

“Am I, perhaps, jealous of her?” Kaya wondered.

“——Alright, hold up for a sec.”

As Yuuki had directed, the party came to a halt.

Before them lay the stairs leading down to the fourth floor.

“It’s been a pretty casual trip so far, however——”

“It’s going to get dangerous, right?”

“Exactly, Edgar.”

Edgar smiled proudly at the praise.

The fourth floor of the Magna PortaGreat Gate was something of a boundary line. From this floor on, the labyrinth would reveal its true face. This was something that had been hammered into all students of the training school from very early on.

From here on out, the labyrinth would become a twisting, winding maze – a world of darkness and terror.

Void Beasts beyond this point were both larger in size and more ferocious, always awaiting the opportunity to catch humans unaware and devour their prey. “Flight” was no longer a word that existed in the vocabulary of the Void Beasts at these levels.

“You are going to have to be extremely vigilant. Our goal is the sixth through eighth floors. Anyone who fails to keep a weapon at the ready from here on out risks their lives.”

Edgar and Selim swallowed loudly.

“If anyone is injured, or I decide we’re unfit to continue, we will promptly return. If you notice anything at all, let me know. ——Alright, it’s your turn now, Uncle.”

“Right. Form up. Just as we cautioned when we ran drills before, do not break formation and pay constant attention to your surroundings. This, you must remember.”

Finishing his words, Alfred led the way down the stairs.

“…Wuu, it’s so dark,” Selim cried out in panic.

From the fourth floor and beyond, the light fixtures attached to walls on previous floors ceased to be present. The only sources of light to be found were the light stones one carried as well as the soft illumination of bioluminescent moss lining the walls.

“Please take these. Don’t lose them.”

Kaya received a small hand-lantern with a light stone contained within.

“The three of you will have to share one. Take turns holding it, alright?”

Edgar shouted that he wanted to carry it first, so Kaya handed it to him. To be honest, she hadn’t particularly wanted to hold it anyway, although as she watched him excitedly turn the lantern this way and that, she was rather envious.

The party continued slowly forward.

They were arranged in the formation they’d drilled in back at the training school.

Alfred held his sword at the ready, the vanguard of the party. Yuuki took up the rear, keeping an eye on everyone. Tina and Franka kept watch over their guests while directing the beams from their lanterns forward, lighting the way ahead. This was a fairly basic party arrangement.

“Even if it’s just the teensiest, tiniest bit dark, there’s nothing there,” Edgar declared loudly, as if to convince himself.

“That’s because we’ve only gone a few steps,” Selim retorted.

“Please, this isn’t any different from what we were doing moments ago on the floors above. All we’re doing is following the road until we reach the stairs and then descending once more. Even I can——”

“Hold it!” a voice called out from the front.

Just then, they heard a slight rustling as something fifteen meters in front of Edgar suddenly charged at him. Alfred’s sword flashed and, with a spray of blood, it was flung in another direction.

“——Edgar, did you not see that just now?” Yuuki asked at last. “There are two dangers to casually chatting in these levels. The first is that you distract yourself, you lose focus. The second is that you are unable to hear what goes on around you over the sound of your voice. For this reason, any and all conversation within the labyrinth should be soft and to the point. Remember that.”

Franka gave a wry smile, and explained further.

“The Void Beasts around here are still pretty small, so they’re not really that dangerous. Take that carnivorous rat from just now, for example. Even if you were to be bitten, you wouldn’t suffer any grievous harm, although you might lose a finger or two.”

“L-Lose…”

Edgar was too frightened to finish.

“Oh, if it’s rats, then our house has them too. Master’s too careless with the cleaning. You’re so strict with other people, but so negligent yourself.”

“I definitely get that impression too.”

Alfred expressed his agreement.

“I-Is that so, Yuuki-san?” Franka asked.

“…Could you guys try not to destroy my serious image over here? This is one of those rare occasions where I’m even teaching seriously and everything.”

Yuuki sighed. Watching him, Kaya couldn’t help but smile.

A serious image – at least the kind that the instructors from the Church of the Five Holies exhibited – wasn’t something that Yuuki had. On the contrary, his familiar manner made him popular among the children.

Even though his expression made it seem as though he hated to be bothered, the fact was that he was always very warm to the students. He was a fantastic teacher.

Kaya’s smile faded.

This happy atmosphere wouldn’t last. She could not allow herself to forget why she’d come.

Indeed, the children who admired Yuuki were many in number. However, if their plan succeeded today, then he would no longer be around to teach those children.

(…I don’t want to do this. Please.)

She couldn’t count the number of times she’d had this thought today alone.

When it came to Tina, there wasn’t much she could do. Although she wasn’t at all eager to see it happen, she could at least understand the necessity of it. She was resolved.

If Tina continued to live, it would be at her own expense. No matter how good their relationship, no matter how deep the feelings ran between them, this fact would not change.

Kaya did not want to die. No matter how much it’d cause her to hate herself, she was going to defeat her “enemies” and live on.

But Edgar, Selim, Alfred, and Franka – Kaya had no desire to see them harmed.

Even if the other party had requested Yuuki’s death, he wasn’t a true Duelist. Even if he’d been one in the past, he was now nothing more than a human playing guard to a Shinki out of happenstance. There was no need to deal with him in the same manner as Tina.

Unfortunately, Kaya was sure Jahar did not see things that way.

His personality was such that he felt the ends justified the means. If the death of his target required the sacrifice of hundreds of unrelated victims, he would not hesitate to do so.

(Still… I have to wonder what it is that Jahar plans to do?)

Kaya was responsible for keeping an eye on Tina and the others. When the appropriate opportunity appeared, she was to teleport Jahar over, whereupon he’d dispatch both Tina and Yuuki.

——This was what they had decided upon before setting out.

Their plans, however, had been extremely vague. She worried that Jahar had already decided upon all the particulars. If he had, though, he’d intentionally left her in the dark, saying only that they’d speak again later.

If a Shinki and their Duelist were to both open up a “circuit,” they’d be able to communicate telepathically regardless of distance. Kaya’s only experience with this ability until now had been to report on intel Jahar had demanded of her.

Jahar had not the least degree of respect for her, whether it be about her abilities, her conviction, or anything else.

“A Shinki who isn’t trusted by her own Duelist, huh?” Kaya thought to herself. She wanted to cry.

No matter how she looked at it, she was sure that Jahar did not intend an honorable, direct challenge. No, he’d create some kind of disturbance, and then seize the moment when opportunity arrived. This much Kaya was able to predict, although that was the extent of what she’d been able to determine.

At the very least, she hoped to avoid drawing in any neighboring adventurers.

Jahar had yet to contact her since they’d entered the labyrinth. Although it wasn’t like she’d been eagerly anticipating hearing from him, his continued silence nevertheless left her increasingly uneasy.

“Should I try and reach out to him?” she wondered before quickly cutting off that train of thought.

She was not only frightened that he’d scold her for acting on her own, but worse, that he might announce that preparations were ready, and their battle imminent.

Perhaps if she avoided provoking him unnecessarily, there might yet be a way to avoid the upcoming battle…

Suddenly——

「Yo, Kaya-chan. How’re things on your end?」

“——!”

Startled by the voice which she heard with her mind, not her ears, she forgot to walk.

Edgar, walking behind her, crashed into her back. Disgruntled, he complained.

“I-I’m so sorry!” Kaya apologized.

Shifting her focus, she continued, 「J-Jahar-san? Don’t just call out to me so suddenly.」

「This is the only way for us to speak. How exactly do you expect me to warn you before I’m about to communicate? ——Actually, forget about that for now; where are you? The fourth floor?」

「Yes. We’re roughly around the center of the floor, I believe.」

As she spoke, she did her utmost to ensure that neither did her gaze wander nor did her expression change.

The telepathic communications between a Shinki and her Duelist could not be sensed by other Shinki. That notwithstanding, were she to act strangely, she could draw unwanted attention.

「Got it. Okay then, we’re starting now.」

With a light tone, Jahar indicated that their murderous plan was now underway.

「Um, Jahar-san——」

Kaya rushed to speak, although she wasn’t quite sure herself what she was planning on saying.

Is it because I’ve been wavering this whole time that I accidentally blurted something out… or do I really want to call an end to this?

「Let me explain something real quick. I’m about to split the labyrinth up into different sections. Make sure not to leave Tina-chan’s side, Kaya-chan. That’ll be all.」

Without paying the least bit of respect due his Shinki, Jahar one-sidedly ended the conversation.

(S-Split…?)

What on earth does he mean by that…?

Suddenly, she felt goosebumps all over.

Accompanying the strange feeling was a terrible screech.

“Master! S-Something’s happening!”

“…Can you be a bit clearer, Tina?”

Although his tone indicated surprise, Yuuki’s expression was serious. It seemed he quite trusted Tina.

“I don’t know the specifics, but there’s a tremendous flow of energy——”

Before Tina could finish her sentence, their surroundings twisted.

The world around them spun, as if their sense of equilibrium had been thrown terribly awry. A fierce pain rocked her head, as if she’d been struck.

Kaya screamed and fell to the floor.

 

※※※

 

“——Is everyone alright?” Yuuki raised his lantern and asked, the phenomenon having drawn to an end.

The shaking; no, perhaps it was more accurate to say the vibrations rocking the entire labyrinth, left them uneasy. Although whatever it was had come and gone in mere instants, it was nevertheless apparent that something major had happened.

The three children didn’t appear to have been hurt. The two boys were confused, but better off than Kaya whom was kneeling on the ground, her hands pressed against the floor for support.

“U-Um, Kaya——” Edgar called out uncertainly.

“I’m fine,” she responded. “I just felt a bit dizzy, but I’m okay…”

“Kaya, come over here by the wall and rest for a bit, okay? Edgar and Selim, could you two give her a hand?”

After issuing directions to the children, Yuuki turned to face forward.

“Uwaaa… T-That was really bad…” Tina murmured, collapsed on the floor.

Alfred and Franka were watching their surroundings guardedly. Franka frowned.

“Franka…”

“I’m fine,” she answered, with an obviously forced smile. “About just now, I think something caused an immense fluctuation of divine energy. My head hurts and my ears are ringing.”

“…It looks like the effects vary depending on one’s sensitivity to divine energy.”

Alfred was completely fine.

Both he and Alfred, as well as Edgar and Selim, were completely unaffected. This appeared to be the reason.

Yuuki gave the three others a chance to rest and went off to scout out the situation.

Perhaps the entire party had just been warped to a different floor… Or not.

The road before them, the stone floor beneath them, the flora around them – everything belonged to the fourth floor.

That notwithstanding, the situation was definitely abnormal.

Without having to think, Yuuki realized what the oddity was. Just as the realization struck him, Alfred whispered.

“…Our surroundings have changed.”

“Yeah.”

This was undoubtedly the fourth floor. ——For about five more meters, anyway.

Looking farther down, he could see stone walls of a different type as well as other types of plants.

Yuuki walked forward to inspect the situation, looking for a boundary line.

The changes were seamless. The walls and floor were seamlessly connected, although the type of stone changed partway through. Walking forward another five meters, he found the anomaly repeated.

Furthermore, ahead of him lay a corner bend that had most certainly not existed there before.

“The way things look, it’s almost like someone broke the labyrinth up into pieces and them assembled them back in a different order. ——Have you guys ever seen anything like this before?”

Alfred and Franka shook their heads.

If they simply stayed here, confused, nothing would change. They needed to confirm the situation before thinking things through.

Just what on earth happened…?

“Franka, is it possible that this is all an illusion brought on by an Orison?”

“I can’t say for sure. There are definitely elements to this that suggest an illusionary Orison, but…”

Her headache having seemingly subsided, she slowly rose.

She reached out and grasped the vegetation on the walls. Yuuki heard the rustling of leaves as she made her inspection.

“Hmm, when you touch them, they certainly feel real enough. Even though our eyes could definitely be fooled in the way you describe, but to create an illusion of this scope – especially one which could fool all five senses – is simply impossible.”

“As I thought. This wasn’t the work of any human.”

That being the case, what other possibility remains——?

“S-Sensei, are we going to be okay?”

“W-We’re not lost, are we?”

Selim and Edgar raised their heads worriedly, and turned to Yuuki.

“This is something you’ve all learned in the training school before. ‘Anything can happen in the labyrinth.’ Well, even if I say that, this isn’t exactly normal even by those standards. As far as you kids are concerned, this is a valuable learning opportunity.”

Yuuki gave a loud, rude laugh. Intentionally.

It was of the utmost importance that they confirm the particulars of their situation and assessed the level of danger they faced. That would only further increase his wards’ unease, however. He had, above all else, been hired to keep them safe.

The silver lining in all of this was that the kids didn’t seem to have been too frightened by the event. As far as they were concerned, confusion was the dominant feeling. Things looked alright for the moment.

Yuuki pulled Tina over to a corner, and spoke to her in whispers.

“…So what’s your guess? What do you think happened?”

“The labyrinth’s gotten all messed up. It feels really strange.”

Tina’s face was stiff. She didn’t seem to have entirely recovered yet.

“I can tell that much with a single glance. I was wondering if you knew what the cause was.”

“Oh…”

Tina frowned, silent.

“Well, I can definitely sense divine energy at work here… but it’s not a miracle created by a Shinki.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Something like this would consume a terrific amount of energy. You’d have to exert your will over the entire labyrinth, divide it into sections, rearrange them, and then seal them in place. The amount of energy that’d take is simply incomparable to say, teleportation. If I had to describe it in a way you could understand, let’s see… If you were to work yourself to death for a hundred lifetimes, it still wouldn’t be enough.”

“…Such a clear method of explanation. Thank you so very much.”

Her manner of speaking aside, her explanation definitely made sense.

However, if this was neither the work of a human nor a Shinki… what other possibility was there?

Some mechanism of the labyrinth?

Or perhaps it was the work of a Reliquia? As he considered the possibility, he realized that he’d definitely heard of a handful of exceedingly rare Reliquia that possessed the ability to distort space itself. Of their current whereabouts, however, he had not the slightest clue.

The possibility that this had been someone’s handiwork, and intentionally done at that, could not be ignored. Unfortunately…

(I can’t determine the cause without more information.)

Yuuki sighed.

“Well, let’s leave further discussion on that topic for later. What’s important now is, can you fix it?”

The tiny Shinki pouted irritably.

“Tina cannot. Or rather, there’s no way she could!”

“…Yeah, I guess so. Sorry for asking.”

Tina’s store of divine energy was rather pathetic really. It was impossible for her to work any miracles on a grand scale.

Yuuki considered for a moment, deciding it best to change the direction from which he was approaching the problem.

“Assuming this is indeed the fourth floor, Tina, can you feel the divine energy of the light fixtures on the floors above us?”

“Mm, let me try.”

Tina closed her eyes.

The first through third floors were illuminated by a series of Reliquia known as light stones. Although they were extremely common, they nonetheless still carried within them minute amounts of divine energy.

Divine energy which the Shinki were able to trace.

“Oh… you’re right. I can definitely feel them. There are a bunch of tiny divine energy signatures spaced evenly apart. I’m guessing that’s what you were referring to.”

“I see. That’s good news.”

“Why do you say that?” Tina asked, clearly puzzled. “What have you realized, Master?”

“Oh, it’s nothing major. It’s just that we’ve managed to eliminate the worst outcome as a possibility.”

He now knew that the labyrinth’s entrance was where it had always been. In other words, where they were now was where they had been before the phenomenon had taken place. It wasn’t that their entire floor or even the labyrinth itself had been teleported to some strange dimension; the arrangement of the labyrinth had simply been thrown into disarray.

In other words, if worst came to worst, if they could provide Tina with enough divine energy, she could teleport them to safety.

Although the matter of whether they could actually find a way to gather that much energy was a whole other matter, it was still nice to have an idea of the scope of the phenomenon’s effect.

Yuuki and Tina returned to join the rest of the group.

The children were surprisingly calm. Kaya seemed to have recovered.

“I have to say, it seems like as long as we’re together, I’m bound to get caught up in strange things,” Franka commented with a wry smile.

“No kidding. Last time was the same, wasn’t it?”

Yuuki shrugged.

A month ago, Void Beasts which had no place being there had appeared on the labyrinth’s third floor, along with a Void Dragon.

As he thought on the matter, he realized that there was someone missing from that time.

“…That reminds me, Franka, have you seen your brother lately? He ought to have made a full recovery by now.”

“Oh yeah, Stefan. How is he?”

“He’s under house arrest. ——Well, to be honest, he’s locked himself up in his room in the Oath Legion halls and refuses to come out. He denied my request to meet.”

Franka’s answer was accompanied by a complicated expression.

With that said, the gloom which had previously rested heavily upon her was now gone. She seemed to have already resolved herself to some plan of action or another with regards to her half-brother.

“I’m going to take it slow. There’s so much I want to say, after all.”

This time, her words came with a firm smile.

Yuuki nodded, thinking to himself that it didn’t seem like there was anything to worry about anymore.

“Well then. We need to figure out a way to return to the surface… What should our next step be?”

“Hmm…”

Alfred scratched his head awkwardly.

“Well, first things first, we need to secure a base of operations and then we should locate a water source. As for food, well, there’s always the meat of Void Beasts and the vegetation around us, should it come to that.”

“I agree. If this is really the fourth floor, then there are ought to be a plentiful supply of water around us. Unfortunately, with the topography as distorted as it is, that knowledge is rather meaningless now.”

Yuuki couldn’t help but sigh.

“As before, there’s not much we can do without exploring further. We’ll have to continue on, protecting the kids as we go.”

“…Right.”

Yuuki expressed his agreement. It wasn’t like they had any other options.

After resting for a bit longer, their party set off once more.

They continued slowly through the fourth floor. The labyrinth’s layout had been drastically altered, a piece here and a piece there, such that their maps and knowledge of room and road positioning were rendered entirely useless.

As they made their way along, they ran into several groups as desperately lost and confused as they themselves were.

From what little info they’d managed to share, they’d come to the conclusion that the phenomenon had caused identical effects everywhere within its reach. Although everyone was frantically searching for an exit, not a single party they’d run into so far had yet seen the stairway up.

It wasn’t like their efforts had been entirely fruitless, though. From a party who had discovered a groundwater vein, they’d learned of a water source they could use.

“Hmm… Even though the labyrinth’s all messed up, the water still flows normally. Just how does that work?”

Tina leaned in near the stream, eyeing it suspiciously.

Their current location was, as might be expected, no exception to the changes in scenery taking place every five meters. The strange thing was, rather than simply collecting in a pool as one would have supposed, it instead flowed freely. It suddenly appeared at the beginning of one boundary line, and five meters later, simply disappeared into another.

“Be careful not to fall in, Tina.”

“Like I’d do anything that stupid—— Waaaa?!”

As she spoke, she lost her footing and was saved by Franka.

If nothing else, they’d at least managed to solve their water problem.

“Why don’t we eat here?”

Following Alfred’s suggestion, everyone refilled their water supplies and sat down to eat.

Yuuki offered to stand watch and sauntered off a fair distance from the party.

As he gnawed at his rock-hard piece of bread, he kept a constant eye on his surroundings, pondering anew their situation.

He came to the conclusion that the most effective plan of attack would be to leave the party here while he went off alone to scout.

Unfortunately, that plan had its fair share of problems.

If he were to break off from the party, there was no guarantee they’d be able to meet up again.

Were the phenomenon to repeat itself, even he might lose all sense of direction.

Furthermore, he worried about the danger the other party members might find themselves in were they to separate.

It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Alfred or Franka – far from it. That notwithstanding, they were exceptional “humans.” Here, in the labyrinth, there were a multitude of threats that were simply beyond their ability to handle.

One particular example came to mind – the legendary Void Dragon which had made an appearance just a short time before.

“If only I was still a Duelist…” he whispered to himself.

If he was a Duelist, their options would increase manyfold.

The minds of a Shinki and her Duelist were partially bound to one another. Regardless of the distance between them, they could both sense one another and communicate telepathically.

In this way, Yuuki had saved his previous master countless times, and she, in turn, had also saved him on numerous occasions.

The current Yuuki, however, was but a normal person. He had no master, no ScutumHoly Shield, and no protection from the effects of time. He was nothing more than a former Duelist, without the least trace of his former powers – nothing more than a normal human.

“…You can’t be chosen as a Duelist again, Master?”

At some unknown point, Tina had found her way to his side.

It seemed she’d overheard his words.

“The Shinki’s summoning calls forth a Duelist to serve as her companion. At that time, the person who is to be her Duelist is chosen by the Heavenly King himself. That person is the one determined to be most suitable for the Shinki in question, no? In that case, if Tina really, really needed Master, then couldn’t you be selected as her Duelist?”

“Unfortunately not.”

“And why not?” Tina pouted. “Tina is being serious here——”

“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s not because of you.”

Yuuki gave a wry smile and placed a hand lightly on Tina’s head.

“It’s because of me. ——As I am now, I don’t meet the necessary conditions to be chosen as a Duelist. That’s why such a thing isn’t possible.”

“I see. Can I ask why? Is it because you were already a Duelist for another Shinki?”

Tina’s earnest tone stiffened a bit as she spoke.

“No.”

Yuuki paused for a moment before explaining.

“To be honest, the Duelists——”

He suddenly froze.

“Master?” Tina asked, mortified.

Yuuki didn’t respond. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and dashed off with a shout.

“Uncle, Franka, it’s a Void Beast! A huge one!”

The two reacted instantly.

Alfred leapt forward, Franka behind him.

“Over here, kids! Hurry!”

Yuuki and Tina raced back, and placed the children behind them protectively.

Before long, appearing from out of the darkness was something greatly resembling a caterpillar.

One surpassing two meters in length, that was. Stretching out from its main body were ten slender, insectile legs, wriggling disturbingly. Its grotesque appearance filled one with a deep, instinctual revulsion.

Because its legs were so large, its speed of movement was many times that of a normal caterpillar.

“Uck——”

Selim vomited.

“From the look of it, that thing ought to be pretty nasty. I’m guessing it’s venomous, so make sure not to get anywhere near it as we kill it.”

Yuuki intentionally kept his voice calm as he explained the situation, as if this was just another day in the classroom.

They couldn’t afford to panic, nor was there any need to. This he wanted to make sure they knew.

And indeed, a Void Beast of this level was something that Franka could easily dispatch with her Orisons.

No, the real issue was——

“This bastard shouldn’t even be here; this Void Beast lives on a level lower than this. When the labyrinth rearranged itself, I’m guessing that included the Void Beasts contained within as well,” Yuuki thought to himself unhappily.

If that was indeed the case, then things could get much, much more troublesome.

——Worse still, he had the feeling that things were only just beginning.

 

※※※

 

A small hill outside of Solitus.

Three figures stood on the hilltop overlooking the entrance to the labyrinth.

“——Good. This ends the first phase.”

The “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” Elfriede, slowly lowered her arms.

She held a wooden cube gripped within her hand. Its size was roughly such that it could just about be enclosed entirely by a two-handed grip.

“Did it really work? That, what do you call it, ‘Void Marquetry’?”

Jahar squinted at it in disbelief.

“I’m different from you Shinki. I don’t really understand divine energy and whatnot, so I don’t quite get it.”

“If you’re so concerned about it, then ask your Shinki about it later. This thing only works on floors from the second and below. In this instance, the fourth through seventh floors are now a sealed space,” Elfriede answered emotionlessly.

The Reliquia, “Void Marquetry.” A most prized possession of the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars.”

Its ability allowed it to rearrange space within its area of effect. It could, for example, cause that which ought to fall down upon the ground to instead fall from the sky, or to cause someone to exit a room which they had attempted to enter.

This Reliquia was normally powered by a Divine Pearl, but in this instance, the enormous capacity of a Shinki had increased the range of its effects to rearrange the labyrinth itself.

This device acted according to its own will when producing its activated effect. For this reason, Elfriede surmised that its original purpose had been that of a toy which created a small-scale version of the labyrinth. It completely ignored the intended arrangement its wielder sought to impose.

For this reason, it was necessary to enact its ability more than once, starting from the largest scope and gradually narrowing its area of effect with each subsequent use, eventually trapping Tina and the others in a tiny, enclosed space.

“…It’s amazing how this thing poses no burden even with repeated use,” the Shinki murmured.

As compared to working a miracle directly, simply boosting the power of the Reliquia in her hand was far less draining.

Jahar would need to release his celestial Dragon Fang weapon in order to kill Tina and Yuuki. Such an action was extremely conspicuous. They could not afford to be seen, nor could they afford to allow their prey to escape.

For this reason, they had determined that the most effective strategy involved sealing them within the labyrinth, separating them if at all possible, and then dealing with them one at a time.

If all went according to plan, the next step involved Jahar teleporting over and executing the pair.

“For the moment, the divine energy possessed by the Sixth Shinki is pitifully small. However, if given more time, that will likely change. Contact that Moon Shinki of yours, and when the appropriate time comes, quickly end those two with the utmost haste. If others must be similarly dealt with in the process, then so be it. ——Am I clear?”

“…I don’t take orders from you, Shinki of the Stars. I’m the Moon Duelist.”

“Elfriede-sama can’t seem to help but put on airs,” Kai, who had been silent until now, interrupted. “You’re better off just thinking of it as the barking of a dog or the chirping of a bird. You’ll find it stops bothering you that way.”

In response to Kai’s abusive words, which paid not the least bit of respect to his Shinki, Elfriede glared at him. His warm smile never wavered.

“…Your relationship’s pretty bad, actually, isn’t it?” Jahar asked in surprise. “Let me express my gratitude for this opportunity, though. I’ll fulfill your request. ——But putting that aside for a moment, I have to admit there’s a question that’s been on my mind this entire time. Perhaps you could answer something for me, El-chan.”

“——El-chan?”

Paying no heed to her look of displeasure, Jahar continued.

“Your obsession with ‘killing’ in this incident strikes me as incredibly odd. I’m more than aware of the zero-sum nature of the relationship between the Shinki, and as such, your manipulation of Kaya-chan and myself comes as no surprise. That said, El-chan, your words and actions… they’re very out of character for one of the Shinki.”

“…”

“The way a Shinki thinks ought to be more straightforward, more kind. Am I wrong? Do you know how much work I’ve had to put into all of this?! That girl, even though it’s her own life that hangs in the balance, is absolutely repulsed by all of this.”

It was certainly a fact that the Shinki were engaged in a bitter struggle to the death. However, their primary responsibility was the safeguarding of the people. Accordingly, a kind and compassionate heart was one of their defining traits.

“Just now, you said that even if others were killed in the process, then ‘so be it.’ That thought is terribly inappropriate for one of the Shinki. That’s much more like something that one of us Duelists would say. ——So what I want to ask is this: just why is it so important that those two ‘must die’?”

“…When one of the Duelists talks about life and death, it’s quite a bit more persuasive, isn’t it?”

Elfriede sighed before continuing.

“Simply put, it’s because the Sixth Shinki is incredibly dangerous.”

“Huh?”

Jahar frowned.

If she’d said it was the Duelist that was dangerous, then he could understand, but it made no sense for a Shinki to be considered a threat. The Shinki were incapable of harming other beings, after all.

“I’m guessing you want a more detailed explanation?”

“Of course.”

The “Shinki who Scatters the Stars” considered his request for a moment, and then nodded.

“Alright then. Given that your Shinki’s already in place by the Sixth Shinki, I guess there’s no chance of you guys giving up on things now. ——Let me put it this way. If we fail here, then you, your Shinki, and even my Duelist and I – we’re all dead.”

“…”

Jahar didn’t know what to say.

Elfriede wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. Deep within the eyes of this Shinki, who possessed enormous and terrifying power, a terrible fear lurked.

“——Let me be the one to tell you. The Sixth Shinki? She has another name – ‘The Serpent of Demise’.”

 

Translator notes and references

None.