Chapter 2: Chaotic Labyrinth

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——How many days had it been since he’d last left his room?

Silently, Stefan Klose pondered this question.

He was a subordinate of the “Shinki who Supports the Heavens,” a young member of the Sky’s Oath Legion.

The youngest child of the acclaimed Klose military family, he’d attained a first rank adventurer qualification at the age of fifteen. At the time, he’d been bestowed with a great gift in recognition of his status as a prodigy: a celestial Dragon Fang weapon, one of only twelve.

During the tragedy a month prior, when Void Beasts from deep within the labyrinth had been teleported to higher levels, he’d lost all the members of his party.

Although he’d suffered grievous injury in the aforementioned incident, he’d nonetheless survived. Because the elites of the Oath Legions were few enough to begin with, the loss of his party had been sore indeed – something he had been held responsible for.

However, even as he’d been censured, he’d been shown some measure of sympathy.

The labyrinth was a world beyond human understanding. When something unexpected happened, it was impossible to guarantee the safety of even the most experienced of adventurers. Furthermore, witnesses had attested to the presence of a Void Dragon even. Stefan, though highly skilled, was yet young; to blame him for everything would be cruel, some had suggested.

The sympathy and criticism of others mattered to Stefan not a whit; he had simply debriefed his superiors and then placed himself under house arrest. Even after making a full recovery, that had not changed.

Truth be told, it wasn’t as if he felt it a matter of practicality nor was it part of some greater plan for the future. He’d simply lost all motivation to continue.

To be blunt, he just didn’t care one way or another.

His comrades were all gone.

The target for which he’d sought strength and power for so long was similarly gone. The man who had killed his master was dead.

As far as he was concerned, there was no reason to ever set foot in the labyrinth again. It felt meaningless to seek after Reliquia to offer the Shinki.

Going further, he wasn’t even sure there was a need for him to continue on as a member of the Oath Legions.

If he were to withdraw, he’d likely be reprimanded by his house for damaging the family reputation, but he’d never cared about such things in the first place.

——These thoughts had consumed his mind for days. The situation continued, unchanging, when suddenly…

 

“Hey Stefan, feel up to a raid?”

Karsten asked the same question each time he visited.

He was a man in the prime of his life who wore his hair closely-cropped. His appearance would not have been out of place on a farmer selling vegetables in the marketplace, but he was a party leader of the Sky’s Oath Legion.

Rumor had it that he was the man responsible for suggesting that adventurers be recruited solely on basis of merit and not on who they knew or who their family was. This policy had been responsible for the growth of the Sky’s Oath Legion into the dominant force it was.

His words and manner might have made him seem a rather frivolous person, but he was very popular.

“…I’m still reflecting on my actions.”

“I know, I know. The problem is, something’s happened in the labyrinth again, and we need someone to scope out the situation. You’re fully healed, aren’t you?”

“My party is no more.”

“No problem. I have two new members to introduce to you.”

Stefan sighed.

“…I apologize, but I must decline.” In an even tone, he continued, “I’ve been thinking. What will I do next? What should I do next? I have yet to find an answer to that question, though. ——Lost as I am, I doubt I could be of any service to anyone.”

“Hmm…”

Karsten hawed and shook his head.

“This is pretty despicable of me, I have to admit, but I was going to have to let you know sooner or later…”

Stefan frowned. This was very much unlike Karsten’s normal, open self.

“What’s happened?”

“——To summarize the situation, the layout of the labyrinth seems to have been distorted. Neither the precise effects nor the scope of the phenomenon are known. Unfortunately, there were adventurers in the labyrinth at the time whose whereabouts are currently unknown. It’d be fantastic if they’re simply lost within, but the possibility that they are now trapped cannot be ruled out.”

Unfortunately for him, Karsten’s words hadn’t changed Stefan’s mind in the least. Suddenly, he was struck by a thought…

What was it that Karsten was having such difficulty voicing…? It couldn’t be——

“Yes. I see you understand.”

Seeing Stefan’s expression, Karsten nodded in confirmation.

“Your half-sister through your mother – the third-ranked cleric, Franka – is among those currently unaccounted for.”

 

Stefan headed to the city exit, toward the labyrinth entrance Karsten had indicated.

Each of the labyrinth entrances were currently watched by knights from the Church of the Five Holies, and closed off to any but those affiliated with the Oath Legions. They had judged the situation too dangerous for any but these most accomplished of adventurers.

Those standing guard recognized Stefan immediately, and so he passed through unmolested.

He looked around, surveying his surroundings.

There was no small number of Oath Legion members assembled. The elites of each Shinki’s Oath Legion had been summoned to investigate the situation, and they entered the labyrinth as he watched.

As he proceeded forward, cries of “Hey, look over there,” “Still alive, eh?”, and other such comments were heard.

The “genius” who had vanished from the public eye for the past month became the center of attention. Loudly, they called out insults and sarcastic comments which Stefan paid no heed as he made his way to the rendezvous point.

“Oh, hey, the Onii-san over there!”

Someone called out to him as he reached the corner just before the entrance itself, the designated spot.

A young girl was waving energetically at him. At her side was another young girl.

“Hey, hey, you – you’re Stefan Klose, right?” the girl asked, in a beautiful, clear voice.

She was a petite young girl of roughly fifteen or sixteen, with light, tawny hair and a bright, lively expression.

“…You guys are my new party members?”

“Whoa, amazing. So you’re just as cold as I’d heard!”

The girl giggled as Stefan frowned.

“You’re being rude, Lea…” the girl by her side remarked, in a subdued tone.

This girl looked to be about twenty or so, and was dressed in a long robe, with her long, black hair tied back behind her head. She was tall for a girl, but so slender she looked might break in two with a gust of wind. Hers was an ethereal beauty.

“Oh, my bad, my bad. You’re just so much like the rumors that I couldn’t help but say it out loud. ——But yeah, to answer your question, we’re new members of the Sky’s Oath Legion. I’m Lea. I’m a third-ranked support specialist. The frail girl by my side is Serafina, a third-ranked cleric. It’s a pleasure, Senpai.”

“…We’re in your care.”

“My name is Stefan Klose.”

Lea laughed aloud once more at his words.

“Yeah, I know that! You’re a famous person, you know? The youngest person to ever attain a first rank and a spear-user.”

“…”

Her estimation of him was too high by far. He was, after all, strongly considering giving up the adventurer mantle. He wanted to say as much, but realizing how childish such an action would be, he stopped.

“This is great, though. With you in our party, we don’t have anything to worry about. We’ve got this.”

Lea grabbed Stefan’s hand of her own accord, and shook it vigorously.

Although her words and manner were most brazen and ill-mannered… it was abundantly clear that she meant no harm. That was simply the kind of person she was.

Anyway, he was someone whose party had been annihilated under his watch. He didn’t have the right to be picky when it came to party members.

The girl ignored his reaction and continued to speak.

“I love to draw, so Serafina and I make a living mapping out the labyrinth. There’s only so much we can do with just the two of us, though.”

That was why the two had taken the exam for entrance into the Oath Legions, and eventually joined.

Of the maps and guides to each floor of the labyrinth, it was said that vast majority had been the handiwork of these two. Stefan personally relied on the Legion’s internal materials, so he’d never personally used anything they’d produced, but he’d nevertheless heard of them.

“Oh, by the way, let me just get the bad news out of the way first. I don’t want you to expect anything from us combat-wise. I’m pretty much only good at running away, but Serafina can be quite useful.”

“But… my Orisons… aren’t that battle-oriented…” Serafina whispered faintly, with her head bowed.

“We’re not here to fight anyway. Our priority is to investigate the abnormality.”

Lea nodded her head at Stefan’s words.

“Yeah, I’ve heard. Supposedly the layout of the labyrinth’s changed. The goal is to spread people out as much as possible and map the changes. That’s why we’re here. ——Oh, that reminds me. The situation’s already been explained to me; I’m to debrief you.”

Lea’s explanation could roughly be summarized in the following manner.

Currently, the stairways and roads of the Magna PortaGreat Gate had been thrown into disarray. The reason for anomaly was unclear, but something had warped space, effectually rearranging the layout of the labyrinth.

When the phenomenon had occurred, clerics had reported having been struck by a strange feeling. Whatever it had been was undoubtedly the product of a massive working of divine energy.

The changes began at the second floor, although it was unknown how far down the effect went.

From the initial reports, it seemed the habitats of the Void Beasts had also changed, although this had yet to be confirmed.

Moreover, it was currently unknown if the changes were purely temporary in nature or if they were lasting. Only time would tell, particularly whether or not it might occur again.

Lea finished her explanation without interruption. Stefan was stunned; her explanation was extremely well-done, and was both clear and detailed.

“Hmm… Things look pretty troublesome.”

Mapping out the labyrinth once more would be terribly time-consuming, and if, Goddess forbid, the phenomenon should repeat itself, it was possible they would never return to the surface. Having come to this realization, more than a few adventurers had refused to enter.

(And that’s exactly why we have to do this.)

For all the adventurers trapped within who were desperately seeking a way back home.

“…Are you guys alright with this? The mission this time could prove quite dangerous.”

“There’s no such thing as a raid that isn’t dangerous. It’s okay. It’s precisely because it’s dangerous that we need to investigate the situation further, right? All of this is making my cartographer spirit burn, you know?”

Serafina nodded in agreement.

As far as Stefan was concerned, retreat was never an option.

“…Alright. Let’s enter the labyrinth now. You guys focus on drawing your maps, I’ll take care of any Void Beasts we run into. ——Let’s go.”

 

※※※

 

“S-So t-that’s why I’m s-scared.”

Edgar trembled.

“This is only the fourth floor, right? Void Beasts at this level should be pretty weak; there’s nothing to worry about.”

“But that caterpillar just now was huge,” Selim responded weakly.

“What’re we going to do if something even stronger than that comes out…?”

“Alfred-san will take care of it for us. Yuuki-sensei, you’ve been pretty useless until now, aha… ha.”

Edgar tried to laugh things off, but failed.

“…I want to go home…”

Selim’s words were almost a sob.

After the Void Beast had been killed, they’d continued forward once more. Unfortunately, the shock the two had suffered had been great.

Kaya, walking behind the two, also wanted to cry.

Although her reasons were different.

(What do I do? What do I do? It’s already started…)

Anxiety and fear had gripped her heart.

She didn’t know how he’d done it nor what his goal was, but she knew one thing – the changes to the labyrinth had been Jahar’s doing. The plan to kill Tina and Yuuki had already begun.

I don’t want to help. Let me go. Alas, escape wasn’t an option, leaving Kaya uncertain what she ought to do.

Interrupting her thoughts, a voice sounded in her head.

「——How are things on your end?」

“Ah——”

Kaya almost screamed. Frantically, she clasped both hands firmly over her mouth.

「N-Nothing’s really changed… I’m still together with Yuuki-sensei and Tina-san.」

「Where are you now?」

「On the fourth floor. We’re looking for the stairway to the next level.」

「You haven’t found it yet, though, right? Good. Looks like you guys are completely sealed in.」

Kaya felt like Jahar was laughing.

「W-What’s going on? Also, what’re you planning on doing next?」

「We’re still making preparations. I’m going to have to ask you to keep up what you’re doing already, Shinki-sama. I need you to inform me immediately if you guys change floors. ——Oh, one other thing. I think you know this already, Kaya-chan, but let me remind you not to allow your true identity to be discovered. If they find out who you really are, your end will be a tragic one. The predator will instead become the prey.」

「Oh…」

With that, the connection was severed.

The fear within her heart multiplied many-fold.

Kaya and Tina belonged to opposing factions, enemies in a struggle to the death. It didn’t matter how hard or how long Kaya thought on the matter, it wouldn’t change anything. To Tina, she was nothing more than a hated enemy.

Moreover, for the sake of victory, she was planning on ambushing them.

If that secret were discovered, forget Tina and Yuuki, even Alfred and Franka, as well as Edgar and Selim – all would be disgusted by her actions.

And then… death would come. It was only fitting that such a fate would await one who had sought the lives of others.

A weak Shinki – one who didn’t even have an Oath Legion under her, one who jumped at her own shadow and could never decide on a plan of action – had no hope for victory. So Jahar had informed her. The right to “choose” was a right belonging solely to the “strong.”

For that reason, Kaya had entered into an alliance with the “Shinki who Scatters the Stars,” even knowing how unequal their relationship was. Kaya needed to labor diligently to improve their relationship, to serve her fellow Shinki as best she could, and thus be rewarded for her efforts. This was her first priority. Kaya wasn’t good at dealing with Elfriede, but she needed to do her best here.

Jahar’s words were pretty much dead-on. These things were necessary to claim victory.

However, Kaya was afraid. Both of killing and of being killed.

Regardless of the morality of her actions, Kaya lacked the courage to trade her life for another’s.

“Something wrong, Kaya?”

A voice sounded in her ear. Tina had approached her without her noticing.

“You don’t look too good. Are you scared?”

“…”

Kaya didn’t know how to respond, so she nodded instead.

“Yeah, I understand. You don’t need to worry, though. We’ll make sure you guys get home safely. Although back on the surface, Master’s just a pretty pathetic merchant, but here in the labyrinth, he’s more than reliable.”

Looking at the young man in question, Tina’s expression was both proud and pleased.

“That goes for the two of you too, Edgar and Selim! There’s no need to look so down. If you’re never looking up, then life never will either.”

Tina looked pretty worn out herself. That notwithstanding, it looked like her primary concern was to cheer everyone else up, to help them all feel better.

Deep within Kaya’s heart, a feeling of guilt so strong that she couldn’t ignore it rose to the forefront.

“——Please wait just a second.”

Alfred gestured for them to stop.

The party drew to a halt.

When something unexpected occurred – such as running into a Void Beast – the haste of one’s actions determined life and death. Edgar and Selim understood this as well.

Luckily, it wasn’t a Void Beast that they’d encountered.

Yuuki walked to the front to see what had happened and made an unhappy pronouncement.

“…This isn’t good. It’s the stairway down.”

Everyone well understood the reason for the gloom that settled over his face.

They’d already explored the entire area, and what they could reach of the fourth floor, they’d already seen. This corner had been all that was left.

However, this, their last hope, had revealed not the stairway up, but rather the stairway down.

“Sealed in” – Kaya remembered that those had been Jahar’s words.

“Heh. Looks like this labyrinth doesn’t want to see us leave. We haven’t heard anyone else make mention of the stairway up either.”

“I-It’s still too early to decide that. Maybe there’s a hidden room or road or something.”

“Even if there was, we have no idea where to even begin to look for such a thing. Anyway, we’d already taken that into consideration and having been watching carefully as we’ve made our way.”

“Oh…”

Yuuki’s responses made Franka lose hope as well.

“So what should we do now, Yuuki? Should we head down and take a look? Given the situation, the level of danger ought to be roughly the same no matter where we go.”

The rules binding stronger Void Beasts to lower levels was a thing of the past given present circumstances. Whether they stayed on this floor or descended further, the danger they faced was more or less the same.

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s just that I have a bad feeling about heading further down. It’s almost like we’d be playing right into someone’s hands.”

Kaya knew just how accurate his assessment was, but she, of course, said nothing.

Yuuki thought for a moment before deciding.

“Alright, let’s take the stairs.”

“Is that okay?”

“Nothing will change if we simply wait here. ——Are you still okay to go on, Kaya?”

“Y-Yes. I’m fine.”

“Great. We should look for a way out while we still have energy to spare.”

Yuuki smiled faintly and, turning to face the others taking up the rear, told them to get ready to move.

Tina and Edgar were chatting quite happily. The two boys’ moods were much improved; her attempts to cheer them up had succeeded, it seemed.

Now that’s a real Shinki…” Kaya thought to herself.

One who protected the people, delivering them from evil – a guardian of this world.

Watching Tina, Kaya was filled with a deep sense of longing – a mix of loneliness and envy.

The party descended the stairs, arriving at the fifth floor.

Kaya reported this change and promptly cut off the connection without waiting for an answer.

What would she do next? Or rather, what would Jahar do next?

The fifth floor looked just as the floor before it had.

To be precise, it, too, was an amalgamation of other floors, a warped mixture of the labyrinth’s levels.

“I have to admit, I feel a little hopeless…”

As she walked slowly along, Franka sighed.

“Who can say what lies ahead? We should continue what we’ve been doing already by mapping out the floor as we explore.”

Yuuki did his best to encourage everyone else.

Out of the blue, Kaya’s vision distorted and her head screamed in pain.

——”It” had come again.

 

※※※

 

“——”

It was a bit better this time.

Just as the vibrations had begun to rock the labyrinth once more, he’d grabbed Tina and Kaya, who were falling.

“…Sorry Franka, I don’t have any more hands.”

“Oh, no, it’s alright. I’m okay.”

Franka stumbled a few steps, but managed to right herself.

“Mm. Tina’s okay as well, Master.”

“Don’t force yourself. ——How’re you, Kaya?”

“I’m fine,” she replied.

Likely because this was now the second time it had happened, everyone’s symptoms were milder.

Yuuki placed the two he’d caught in his arms gently onto the floor.

“Uh, Yuuki-sensei… behind us…” Edgar exclaimed.

Everyone turned to look behind them.

The stairwell they had just descended had vanished, replaced by a blank stone wall.

“…Everything’s been rearranged again.”

Yuuki clicked his tongue.

It wasn’t as though he hadn’t already considered the possibility of such an occurrence, but it still bothered him more than he cared to admit.

If it continued to happen, then any efforts to map out the new topology would prove futile.

However, the fact that staying where they were wouldn’t improve their situation hadn’t changed. Their small group decided to press forward and explore the fifth floor.

As compared to the fourth floor, their efforts this time were marked by ups and downs.

Everyone was pretty much accustomed to the strangeness of the terrain by now, and any Void Beasts were immediately repelled. Unfortunately, as they proceeded onward, the phenomenon continued to repeat itself time and again, leaving Yuuki and the others very unhappy.

None of the following changes were nearly as drastic as the first had been, though. Essentially only the scenery directly within their field of view seemed to have been effected.

Each change was a small one, along the lines of creating a corner ahead of them where there had been none before, or turning the road before them into a dead end.

Although they were constantly wandering around, eternally on the lookout for water, as time went on, they ran into fewer and fewer adventurers.

Indeed, they had not met another person at any point during their last two hours.

——It looks like someone’s trying to isolate us,” Yuuki thought.

If he considered that this had been the goal behind the alterations made to the labyrinth, then things started to make sense.

It should be said that he hadn’t thought of this just now; no, this possibility had occurred to him immediately after the phenomenon had first evinced itself. Now, however, it seemed that this was indeed the answer.

This explanation did, after all, make far more sense than “some mechanism within the labyrinth suddenly activated on its own.” If someone was indeed behind this, then he’d just have to pull them out from behind the curtains and give them a sound beating and the problem would be solved. All that remained was deciding how to get them to reveal themselves——

“A Void Beast at 10 o’ clock!”

Franka’s shout interrupted his train of thought. These Void Beast ambushes had happened numerous times already.

Alfred and Franka raced forward to meet the attacker.

The children scrambled to the rear, hiding behind Yuuki. Because this had occurred many times already, the reactions of Edgar and company were fast and their motions practiced.

The two quickly put their enemies – fire breathing wolves – on the brink of death.

Yuuki wanted to avoid combat unless absolutely necessary, since action would risk exposing both his and Tina’s true identities. That said, he would not risk Alfred and Franka’s wellbeing simply to preserve that secret. Thankfully, such an occasion had not yet presented itself.

As they gradually ever more fatigued, however, he determined that once they’d exhausted themselves, he would need to act. Watching their actions, they yet had energy to spare, but there was a definite limit both to Alfred’s stamina and Franka’s satchel of Divine Pearls. They couldn’t keep this up indefinitely.

He needed to figure out a way to seize a hold of their enemy before that limit was reached——

“Master! Over here!”

Tina.

Yuuki clicked his tongue and flipped around. He’d been too focused on the battle in front of him, and had forgotten to watch behind them as well.

A black shadow had appeared, a cloud-like enemy preparing to attack the children. It was an enemy often seen on the fourth and fifth floors – a swarm of especially large wasps that could be found only within the walls of the labyrinth.

“Get back!”

Tina grabbed Edgar and yanked him forward. A Void Beast of this level was utterly incapable of harming a Shinki, so there wasn’t anything to worry about there.

“Aaaaah——”

A venomous wasp flew at the neck of an ashen-faced Selim, who was taking up the rear. Kaya, in an entirely unexpected display of bravery, swatted it away.

Unfortunately, her action was accompanied by a shrill scream.

“Ah! Y-Yuuki-sensei! Selim——!”

It hadn’t been a single wasp that had attacked him. This second wasp flew in from his blind spot, and stung him in the arm.

“Calm down, Kaya. ——Tina, help Selim treat his wound. Make sure you pull its stinger out!”

This type of wasp left its stinger behind in the victim’s body, where it continually pumped venom into their bodies.

Yuuki gave Tina instructions before promptly charging toward the cloud of wasps. Fuming inwardly at his carelessness, he drew a dagger at his waist. His weapon flashed, and a wasp fell dead, its body split in halves.

In the blink of an eye, he’d slain the entire swarm. The job done, he turned.

“How is it? Anyone else stung?”

“Selim was the only one, and we’ve already removed the stinger. ——He was very brave; he didn’t even cry.”

Tina patted the head of the boy beside her, his eyes brimming with tears.

Yuuki sighed.

“…I’m sorry. I was too careless.”

The strange new layout of the labyrinth meant that the territories of Void Beasts, which never before overlapped, now could, and thus attacks could come from multiple directions. He’d focused overmuch on the large threat before him, and had completely neglected to watch their rear.

“How are you all? Everyone okay?”

The lupine Void Beasts slain, Franka had rushed back to check on the others.

“Selim’s arm was wounded by a poisonous wasp. I’m sorry to ask you to have to exert yourself after a long fight like that, but could you help him?”

“Of course! Leave it to me.”

Franka took his arm and inspected the wound.

“The stinger’s… been removed already. This injury was caused when the stinger was removed, yes?”

“Yeah, because the stinger was buried within his arm, we had to cut it out with a dagger…”

“Well done. Poison will spread throughout the entire body whereas a knife wound like this one can be healed easily enough. ——Okay, I’m going to heal you with an Orison. Please relax, Selim-kun. An injury like this just needs a bit of rest, and then it’ll be as good as new, don’t you worry.”

Franka removed a Divine Pearl from her satchel and focused. In a flash, the flesh on his arm had knit itself together and was made whole once more. Offensive and restorative Orisons were quite hard to do, but these were her specialties.

As Tina heaved a sigh of relief, Yuuki leaned in to whisper to her.

“…When you pulled out the stinger from his arm, how exactly did you manage to open his skin?”

“I used the knife you gave me when we entered.”

“That’s not what I’m asking. What I mean is, I thought you Shinki couldn’t harm anyone?”

“Eh?”

Tina tilted her head in surprise and puzzlement.

“I was so focused on what I needed to do to help him that I hadn’t realized it, but you’re right, Master. How did I do that?”

“…You were able to cut his arm because it was for the sake of helping him. If you didn’t realize you were causing any harm, then it seems it’s possible for you to do so.”

The “inability to harm another living being” was purely a mental block. If she hadn’t realized what she was doing was hurting someone else, then this restriction on her actions would not activate. Now that he thought about it, when she’d woken up earlier, she’d crashed into his jaw, inflicting pain upon him.

Although Selim’s wound was now healed, the party decided it was best that they took a break nonetheless.

If any venom were left in his bloodstream, then physical activity would precipitate its spread through his body, worsening his condition. In order to avoid this worst case scenario, they deemed it necessary to observe the situation for a time.

Yuuki placed Selim under Franka’s watchful care while he stood guard.

——Alfred suddenly sauntered up to Yuuki’s side.

“…How’re you holding up, Uncle?”

“Feeling pretty lively still.”

“This is the worst. Originally, I’d thought this was a simple job, and yet look how things have turned out.”

“Just think of these kinds of one-off jobs as a bit of recreation. In the larger scheme of things, continuity and stability are what’s important.”

“…I guess so.”

Yuuki sighed.

“You’re always mentoring new adventurers, Uncle. How’s the money?”

“I don’t rely on this to put food on the table, if that’s what you’re asking. Aside from duties with the training school, I have a long-term employer. If you ever change your mind about being an adventurer, I’d be more than happy to introduce you.”

“Forget it.”

Done speaking, Yuuki turned to face the children.

“The kids seem to be holding up alright. I’d figured they’d be pretty terrified after what just happened, but it looks like they get along well with Tina and Franka.”

Selim was lying on the ground, resting, with the others gathered around him.

“Not long ago, the ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon’ and her Duelist, the noble Snow Blade King were very well-known. This story——”

Franka seemed to be sharing a story of the Duelists with the children. Selim, too, was an eager listener. From the looks of things, he seemed to be doing just fine.

“You don’t look very happy?”

“…”

Yuuki just grunted in response.

“Let me guess, you think Selim’s injury was your fault? It’s not like I can’t understand how you feel. ‘There’s more I could have done,’ ‘There’s more I should have done’ – you can’t blame yourself like that. If you’re simply reflecting on your actions, then that’s okay. But understand this – masochism and regret don’t change anything.”

“I know.”

It wasn’t like he was omnipotent. In fact, he thought of himself as weak and powerless – as limited. No, perhaps “thought” was the wrong word; more like “recognized.”

But still… it was for that very reason that he didn’t want to experience that ever again.

Franka’s story involuntarily flowed into his ears.

“From that point forward, the ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon’ and the Snow Blade King became bitter enemies. That was when the ‘Black Demon’ made his appearance. They fought, and the Snow Blade King was defeated.”

“Eh?! He lost! The Snow Blade King!” Edgar shouted.

“This isn’t a story that’s been recorded anywhere, so no one really knows, to be honest,” Franka replied with a wry smile. “Truth be told, there are many variations that are passed around. There are those who say that the Snow Blade King had grown tired of this world, and intentionally threw the fight. Others say that he had been harmed in the labyrinth first, and lost for that reason. The one thing we know for certain is that from that point on, the Snow Blade King ceased to appear and the Black Demon began to serve the Lunar Shinki in his place.”

“So what happened to the Snow Blade King then?” Selim asked, from his spot on the ground.

“Some say that he perished, and others that he was lost. I personally say it’s the latter. It’d just be too sad otherwise.”

“Tina agrees! Mas – er, the Snow Blade King – is definitely still alive!”

Yuuki knew he was frowning. He wanted nothing more than to run over and give the loose-lipped Shinki a sound knock upside the head.

“Continuing on, thus the Black Demon became the new Duelist of the Lunar Shinki. He and the Snow Blade King couldn’t have been more different. Where the former’s blade had been white, his was black. Not only did he refuse to lift a hand in aid of adventurers in need, if they got in his way, he slew them without the least hesitation. He became a most feared, hated existence.”

“So um, did the Lunar Shinki-sama of that time not have anything to say about it?” Kaya inquired.

“Yeah, you’d think she’d be terribly angry, wouldn’t you? Alas, anything she might have said has never been passed down. All we know is that one day, she suddenly disbanded her Oath Legion and ceased all action. From then on, there’s been no hint of any activity from her. The Moon’s Oath Legion is the only one that lies dormant these days. At the same time, the name of the Black Demon gradually faded from view. All this took place some five years ago.”

“…”

Five years. Has it really been that long?

“With that, Franka’s story is finished. Yuuki, we should go.”

“…Mm.”

Yuuki stood and smiled lightly.

“——Alright, you guys feeling better? Let’s go.”

 

※※※

 

“Um, are you really okay? Anything feel uncomfortable?” Kaya asked Selim as they walked along.

“Ah, no, I’m okay. I’m sorry Kaya, for inconveniencing you.”

“Seriously, Selim. You’re too weak.”

Although Edgar’s words right now were unconscionable, the blood had completely drained from his face when Selim had been stung.

“If you feel like you can’t go on, let us know in advance. We can’t let you become a burden to the party, so I’ll take care of you.”

“I said I’m fine.”

Listening to the two banter back and forth, Kaya heaved a sigh of relief.

Seeing how peaceful and calm Selim was, she finally relaxed.

At the same time, she also realized her limits.

——She was simply incapable of harming another.

She remembered Franka’s story about the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon.”

Kaya knew nothing of her predecessor. Although the two shared the same title, they were two entirely distinct persons, and thus their memories were their own.

And so she knew nothing of what had happened between the previous Lunar Shinki and her Duelist.

That deficiency notwithstanding, she did know one thing – the last Lunar Shinki had manifested her desire to avoid harming anyone.

——Should she follow that example?

 

※※※

 

“…Ohh?” Jahar muttered. “Kaya-chan isn’t picking up. She seems to be refusing me.”

“Is it possible that her identity was discovered and she was killed?” Elfriede responded.

“If something like that had happened, I would know. She’s still alive. She’s still moving too; I can tell. I think she’s just ignoring me.”

“It’s not unexpected.”

The Stellar Shinki nodded expressionlessly.

Indeed, Kaya’s decision was within the realm of her expectation, and so she had prepared a countermeasure.

“Alright then, as we discussed earlier, I’ll take control of things. And, as agreed upon earlier, this means your reward will be reduced.”

Jahar shrugged. This, too, is for victory. So be it.

“…If you’re going to cooperate, there are better ways.”

Elfriede looked down at the labyrinth entrance and whispered.

“This is all because of your cowardice. If you’re going to hate anyone, then hate yourself, O ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon.'”

 

Translator notes and references

None.