Chapter 3: Protected Things, Broken Things

“Hey, hey, over here——”

Lea reached out with both arms, taunting the enemy.

The foe in question was an enormous grizzly bear. However, this beast had three arms on each side of its body, for a total of six.

Each arm seemed to operate autonomously, attacking independently of the others.

Each attack was, however, skillfully avoided; at times Lea dodged by a hair’s breadth, other times she raised her dagger to deflect the blow.

The monster roared, frustrated at its inability to catch its prey. It kicked off the ground and charged her, seemingly intending to crash directly into her.

Lea threw herself to the ground an instant before the collision was to occur, narrowly evading the attack.

Its momentum propelling itself forward, the bear flew forward into a wide, empty space – where two others were waiting.

“I leave it to you, Sera~” Lea called out cheerily, as Serafina revealed a Divine Pearl and began to focus.

——In the next instant, the bear fell to the ground in an exaggerated manner.

That made things easy. Dispatching an immobile foe was beyond trivial.

AmnisBlue Water Pike!”

Stefan called forth his weapon, piercing straight through the beast’s skull in a single stroke. Its massive body gave one final convulsion before ceasing movement.

“The beast is dead; nice! Good job you two——” Lea declared as she walked over to the other two.

She was covered from head to toe in scrapes and bruises, but showed no sign of any major injuries.

Giving the bear’s corpse a quick glance, she frowned.

“…Ew, that’s disgusting – its head’s completely split open.”

“That’s what a celestial Dragon Fang weapon’s like.”

A legendary weapon capable of slaying even the gods. Its destructive potential was simply incomparable.

“Even so, those things have a mind of their own, right? For it to work so hard on your behalf, it must be quite fond of you, you know?”

“…”

Stefan turned his gaze to the spear in his hand. That was a thought that had never before occurred to him.

Now she mentioned it, he realized that if he left the Oath Legions, he’d lose this gift from the “Shinki who Supports the Sky.”

——He’d feel rather lonely in that case.

The three were currently investigating the depth to which the phenomenon had taken effect.

Their journey so far had been surprisingly smooth.

The three’s skills synergized quite well in combat.

Even if the appearance of Void Beasts had defied what had previously passed for common knowledge, they nonetheless had no difficulty dealing with these beasts. Small Void Beasts such as poisonous insects were quickly burned to ash by Serafina’s Orisons. Larger Beasts such as the bear just now were handled in the same manner they’d used to slay the one just now: Lea acted as bait, Serafina sealed its movements, and Stefan dealt the killing blow.

Lea’s acrobatic ability was simply stunning, and Stefan felt sincere admiration for Serafina’s deft command of Orisons.

The Orison she’d just employed to get the bear to fall over had been an illusionary magic. For a beast which relied on its sight as it had, shifting the angle of its vision by 90 degrees had been more than enough to cause it to lose its balance. Comparing this technique to a more direct – and forceful – approach, not only was this method far more sparing of divine energy, in certain situations, it might prove far more effective.

——Getting this cleric of few words to explain as much, however, was another matter. Even with Lea’s help, it had taken no small amount of time.

(…A cleric, huh.)

Stefan was suddenly reminded of another young cleric girl. He’d heard that she’d recently attained third-rank qualifications.

The time they’d been able to spend with one another as adventurers was pathetically small… Perhaps that might yet change in the future.

The lost adventurers had already begun to find their way back to the surface one by one. Their best guess was that the constant rearrangement of the labyrinth had finally opened up paths of escape for them.

Unfortunately, no one knew what had happened to the group he was most concerned about.

“This is the last floor. Yeah, we’ve sure seen a lot,” Lea commented as she opened a map.

The lines and words on the map were incredibly messy; Stefan could hardly believe she was able to piece anything together from that mishmash of scribbles.

“…Lea, please explain.”

Seeing Stefan’s expression, Serafina came to his assistance.

“Right, right. ——Because the labyrinth’s layout is in constant flux, I’ve long since given up on trying to map it out. Instead, I’ve been tracing out our path and trying to figure out the rules that guide the changes. This is what I’ve found.”

Flipping over her notes, she continued.

“This phenomenon takes effect in a portion of the labyrinth – roughly the first through the thirtieth floors – and divides up the entire area into smaller regions which are then rearranged. Everything – roads, rooms, even stairways – is affected.”

“And the cause?”

“Unknown,” Lea answered.

“There are several noticeable tendencies, however. First of all, the effect is focused. Look around us: this thirtieth floor is almost unchanged. The epicenter is above us; I’d estimate the third or fourth through the seventh floors.”

“I see.”

This info had already been passed on to headquarters. It was likely that even now they were focusing their efforts on investigating the specified area.

“Here’s where the situation changes. Look, we’re currently on the thirtieth floor, right? That makes the next floor down the 31st; I went ahead and checked it just now.”

Stefan and Serafina nodded.

The 31st through 35th floors were special. Rather than five separate floors with ceilings and floors, they were instead comprised of a massive stone pillar stretching the span. It would be impossible to mistake it for anything else.

“Well, that’s where the problem appears. If this is the thirtieth floor, how many sets of stairs did it take to get here?”

“Is it not thirty?” Stefan asked with a frown.

Counting the first stairway in from the entrance, it should take thirty sets of stairs to reach the thirtieth floor.

“That’s what you’d think, right? The problem is I’ve counted – and there are only 29.”

“I never noticed…” Serafina whispered.

“So what you’re telling us is that there’s a floor missing?”

“Exactly.”

Lea nodded in confirmation.

“Given that, the next question then is, ‘Which floor is missing?’ The most obvious suspect would be one of the floors that form the epicenter, namely the third through seventh floors. It’s quite likely that one of those floors has become isolated. Moreover, because we haven’t noticed any extra sets of stairs, it’s likely that space itself has become distorted.”

“There’s a possibility that… some missing persons are trapped within.”

“…”

Missing persons, was it?

“If we can find that missing stairway or perhaps a teleportation device of some sort——”

“We’ll break the floor.”

“…Huh?”

Lea’s mouth hung open in shock. Serafina blinked in surprise.

“That is both the simplest and most efficacious method. Even if the stairway isn’t present, but from what we’ve seen, the floor itself ought to be where we expect. That being the case, then we should be able to reach it from above. We can’t not reach it. Rather than wasting our time on what could be exploring in vain, this way is far faster.”

“Wait just a——”

“First things first, we need to see how big a hole we can open up with Orisons and offensive-type Reliquia. If that doesn’t work, we’ll just have to have people dig a——”

“Wait, wait, wait. Stefan, you need to calm down, alright? Are you trying to destroy the labyrinth?”

“It’s nothing major; we’re just digging a hole in the ground, after all. I’m already calm.”

“…I’m happy to hear that, but please calm down more than you already are.”

Lea waited for a moment before continuing.

“First of all, even if you did that, you’d have no guarantee of actually breaking through to the target area. This is the labyrinth, you know? We have no idea what the structure between floors is like.”

“…”

“Furthermore, even if you did succeed in making a hole to the next floor, it’s possible that the act of excavation could cause a cave-in right above the very people we’re trying to save. Worst-case scenario? We cause the entire floor to collapse.”

“…”

The rational part of Stefan’s mind echoed her words.

“I never would have guessed that you’d simply act without thinking like that… You seem rather anxious?”

“Is that how I look?”

Lea and Serafina nodded in unison.

“…I hadn’t noticed myself. That said, my sense of things more often than not differs from others; I’m very aware.”

“Losing your calm while maintaining a poker face like that can’t be good for you. Anyway, I have an idea. Let’s head back to the surface and then investigate more carefully this time.”

“…”

Serafina seemed to be in agreement.

“There’s no need to worry. Your sister’s an amazing adventurer, right? Don’t worry – she’s definitely okay.”

“…?”

Stefan frowned at Lea.

“Hmm? Oh, your sister? I heard about it from Leader.”

“That’s not what I was wondering about. ——I hadn’t said once that I was ‘worried about my sister.’ Why would you think that?”

This time it was Lea’s turn to furrow her brows.

“Are you some kind of idiot or something?”

“…What do you mean?”

“No, never mind. Sorry.”

Lea sighed. She looked utterly flabbergasted.

“Anyway, what do you think about my proposal? I think we can get at least gather the latest intel that way.”

“…Alright.”

“I understand. Then let’s head back for the time being.”

The three returned to the stairway up.

Their journey was without incident, and they only encountered a handful of Void Beasts.

“…I don’t think I’m worried,” Stefan murmured as they walked.

Lea looked over.

“About your sister? Wait, don’t tell me you’ve been thinking about that this entire time?”

“I once had a goal. For that purpose, I trained endlessly and became an adventurer. However, my goal, that which I sought after… everything’s lost its meaning.”

Lea and Serafina didn’t speak.

“That girl – she is all that remains of my hopes.”

The pain and sorrow that came from losing someone precious. She was his family, the only person he could share this with.

“I think the reason I’m so concerned about her is because if I lost her as well, then nothing I’ve ever done would have any meaning. That’s why I don’t think ‘worried’ is the right word. I just… want to save her, for my own sake.”

Stefan was no more talking to them than he was to himself. As he spoke, those uncertain feelings that had long lingered in his heart slowly grew clearer.

So when Lea spoke up, he was somewhat surprised.

“That’s what we call ‘worrying.'”

“…”

“Reasons might vary, but that feeling of wanting to help someone else doesn’t change, right? That’s what we mean by ‘worrying.’ ——Regardless of the reason, the desire to be of service to someone else has a worth all of its own. There’s no need to overthink things to this degree.”

“…Is that so?”

“Yes, just so. I said it, so it can’t be wrong. ——But seriously, here I am speaking such deep and profound truths and your expression seriously hasn’t so much as twitched. Do you not think anything of what I said?”

It wasn’t that he didn’t, but rather that he didn’t know what expression he should be wearing right now.

So he asked.

“Can I ask why you two are doing something like this?”

“What’re you referring to?”

“Does drawing maps make you happy?”

“Ah…”

Lea considered his question for a moment before finally answering.

“Rather than happy… I should say that I want to leave something behind. There’s nothing wrong with people’s memories, but if everyone that knew you passed on, then wouldn’t any trace of your existence be gone? That thought makes me lonely. Although I draw maps because they’re a necessity, the truth is that I also write stories and plays.”

“And you, Serafina?”

“I, um, I was… dragged into this by Lea…”

“Once this girl starts writing, she becomes a real chatterbox. It’s a sight to see, let me tell you,” Lea retorted.

“Our guides to the labyrinth are all written by her, I’ll have you know. She’s even written some romance novels recently!”

“L-Lea, t-that…”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. When we get back to the surface, you should give Stefan a copy. I’ll tell you now – her book’s pretty popular right now, you know?”

Suddenly Lea froze.

A strangely serious expression took hold of this bubbly girl.

“…You have to be kidding me. What the hell are you thinking——” Lea muttered, looking up at the ceiling.

“What’s the matter? Is something wrong——”

“Stefan! Over here! Get down!”

Just as Lea screamed warning, a loud roar sounded as the labyrinth shuddered violently, throwing Stefan into the air.

 

※※※

 

——She was ready for death.

Her ears filled with the sound of falling rocks, and a cloud of dust obscured her vision.

Originally, she’d been on the floor, but now she was thrown about in mid-air, like a leaf flitting about at the mercy of a whirlwind.

 

——Just how many times had it shook?

As her consciousness returned, she noted that her surroundings had fallen silent.

“Ow…”

Franka struggled to rise, enduring the pain that shot through her body as she did so.

What had happened? She struggled to pull her thoughts together, and slowly the memory came to her.

An intense, forceful shaking had savaged the area their party had been in, throwing them off their feet. She hadn’t had the luxury of worrying about others while the incident was ongoing.

The walls had broken, turning to rubble which had fallen all around them. She’d been struck… and that was all that she remembered.

From the looks of it, she hadn’t been out long. The dust from the cave-in still filled the air, making it hard to see.

Franka leaned against the wall for support, and, using an Orison, created a source of light.

She surveyed around her——

“——”

What she saw left her speechless.

All around her lay broken slabs of rock the size of a full-grown adult, perhaps the remains of what had once been the walls and ceiling of the labyrinth. Had anyone been unfortunate enough to have been trapped beneath one, death had certainly found them.

“Y-Yuuki-san! Master! Anyone——”

“——Franka?”

The voice of a young man answered her call.

“Yuuki-san! Thank goodness… How’s everyone else?”

“I’m not sure. They should be around here——”

Yuuki’s voice faded, as he was unwilling to give voice to other possibilities. Franka mirrored that sentiment.

A small frame slowly rose, coughing.

Franka turned to look, heaving a sigh of relief.

“Kaya-chan… are you okay?”

“I’m alright. Edgar and Selim are over here.”

Franka and Yuuki ran over to look them over.

The two were caught in a narrow crevice formed by two slabs of rock. They’d narrowly avoided being crushed by these enormous slabs of stone – a miracle.

“They’ve just fainted, thank goodness. ——That leaves…”

“Uncle and… Tina,” Yuuki replied in a sober tone.

When the shaking had begun, the two had been walking together, at the front of the group. Because Franka had been caring for Selim’s wound, Tina had been lighting the way in her stead.

Franka and Yuuki extricated the two children from where they rested, and gave them to Kaya to watch over while they went off to explore.

In what might be considered a stroke of luck, they found no sign of the two.

Had they been caught under one of the falling stones, or perhaps——

“…Over there. Quickly, look over there,” Yuuki commented unhappily, pointing.

He was pointing at a wall – one that hadn’t been there before the shaking started.

“On that note, just after the shaking ended, I was struck by the same headache and ringing in my ears as before… In other words, the shaking and the alterations occur one after another. Uncle and Tina have been separated from us, huh?”

Franka looked to Yuuki for direction.

“…The first thing we need to do is get these kids back to the surface. That’s our priority here.”

Yuuki spoke in a dull monotone, stifling the emotions raging within him.

“If we dilly-dally here, then we might just get in a second cave-in. I don’t think Tina or Uncle would forgive us for making such a mistake. We need to go, and quickly.”

“R-Right.”

“I’ll carry Edgar and take the lead. You take Selim and follow me, Franka. Kaya, you help Franka carry her stuff and the lantern. ——You had better stay close.”

Just what had those final words meant? Kaya’s expression stiffened and she nodded strongly.

Their group advanced through the treacherous terrain as one.

By the time they arrived at the summit of the floor, there had already ceased to be any trace of a cave-in. The quaking had been extremely localized.

“…Is there a way out?”

Franka immediately regretted asking. Her anxiety had overcome her, causing her to ask this most meaningless of questions. It went without saying that Yuuki had no more idea than she whether or not such a thing existed.

Strangely, however, he answered.

“I’m looking for the stairway up. If my guess is correct, I think we’ll find it.”

“I-I see. Why——”

Do you know? she had wanted to ask, though she cut herself off mid-sentence. ——Because he’d continued to speak.

“…I can still do better. There has to be a better solution to all of this. That’s what I’ve been telling myself ever since that happened. How many times must this repeat itself? I seriously haven’t improved one bit.”

His words carried within them a profound sense of regret.

Franka didn’t know what she should say in such a situation.

Should she comfort him?

Tell him that it wasn’t his fault?

——No, such words would not salve his torment.

In any event, did she even have the right to do such a thing?

In the end, she decided to hold her silence, sighing at her own weakness, as she continued forward.

“Ah——”

Suddenly, Kaya called out.

A Void Beast had appeared, and it was of a type that made its residence below the tenth floor.

It was an organism that had no analogue in the world above. If it had to be described, it might be likened to a tusked rabbit.

However, its size was that comparable to that of a small child and its speed was nearly impossible to follow with the naked eye.

“Yuuki-san, I’ll——”

Bind its movement with an Orison, Franka had been about to say, but what she saw left her speechless.

A faint sound, like the puncturing of a bag of water, sounded, and the beast fell to the ground, dead.

Yuuki held Edgar in one arm, his dagger in the other.

From the scene before her, it was obvious that Yuuki was responsible. He’d drawn his dagger and killed the monster, slicing it into quarters.

The terrifying thing was that it had all been done in a literal blink of an eye. Not only had Franka failed to catch the moment when he’d cut the beast, as far as she was concerned, he hadn’t moved at all.

This was far beyond what even Alfred or Stefan were capable of. Never before in her life had she witnessed such exquisite swordsmanship.

——No.

(I’ve seen this once before…)

It was when she’d encountered the legendary Void Dragon and had sunk into the depths of despair.

Just then, both she and her brother had been saved.

“…Let’s go.”

As prompted, their party set off once more.

Weathering the silence for a time, Franka finally resolved herself.

This wasn’t the time to keep quiet. Nor was this the time to worry about either hurting another or being hurt. She didn’t think she could claim to know him thoroughly, but she was at least confident enough to say that this was necessary.

Three times she slowly inhaled and exhaled.

(——Okay.)

She sped up, catching up to him.

“There’s… something I’d like to ask, is that alright with you?”

“…What? Is it really something you need to talk about right now?”

“Yes. It’s very important.”

He offered no more resistance, so Franka took his silence as acceptance.

“So um, I heard from Tina-chan earlier, but… Yuuki-san, there was a girl you were close to before? What kind of person was she?!” Franka gasped out in a single breath.

“——Uu”

“…?”

“Uwahahahahahhahaha! The heck is that?!”

Yuuki burst out laughing.

The wry smile on his face notwithstanding, he’d returned to the Yuuki that Franka knew and was familiar with, all trace of his former gloom gone from his face.

“…Seriously though, that girl just doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut. When we get back, I’m going to have to teach her a lesson, maybe make her skip a few meals.”

“P-Please don’t be angry with Tina-chan… U-um…”

“Ah, yeah. There certainly was someone like that. ——Before, I… wasn’t really a good person.”

Yuuki stared off into the distance.

“Truth be told, I was party to some pretty terrible things… At the command of my superiors, I committed numerous sins. That was the kind of place I grew up in. Not once did I question the morality of my actions. Later on, I was granted the opportunity to realize what I had become. ——I was a tool. I was simply being exploited by others, unfit even to be labeled ‘human.'”

“That…”

“I was filled with regret.”

His voice was steady.

“The life I’d lived filled me with a deep, deep sense of regret. Deep within my heart, I thought that I’d pay any price for a second chance. It was then that she took me in. She was such a strange one: proud, resolute in her ideals, and – at times – willful, like a small child. ——She was the one who taught me what it meant to be human.”

“And where is she now?”

“Dead.”

That a single word could contain such immeasurable sorrow.

“To express my gratitude, I told her I’d protect her, but I couldn’t keep that promise. She died because of me.”

“…”

“That’s why now that Tina and Uncle are separated from us, I’m feeling a bit down. If I could just find my way back to their side, I’d protect them. It’s alright, though. I’m feeling better now.”

“…Thank goodness. The look on your face was so strange I was starting to worry.”

“Franka, you——”

“Hmm?”

“…No, never mind. Thank you.”

The bright, carefree smile which usually adorned his face made its return.

Franka thought to herself that perhaps he’d seen through her.

The topic she had just broached was a painful one for him, and so it wasn’t one she’d talk about lightly.

So why had she intentionally raised the issue? She’d wanted to distract him from his worries, even at the cost of risking his anger.

He’d begun to lose himself in a cycle of blame and guilt, a storm of internal strife in which he’d be lost. For that reason, she’d had to draw him “out.”

Franka had noticed something.

The strange recurring phenomenon was the product of someone intentionally targeting their small party.

If that was indeed true, then his battle… was not yet over.

Even if it meant he’d be angry with her, as long as his focus was turned outward, he’d be able to recover. He had to.

And thus Franka had intentionally set out to trample upon the grounds of his heart.

Even if he resented her for it, hated her for it, she preferred that to watching him lose himself in guilt.

——That had been Franka’s thoughts on the matter.

“Stairs!”

Franka raised her head at Kaya’s shout.

The stairway up for which they’d been searching for what seemed an eternity was now before them.

“As I thought.”

Yuuki turned to look at Franka.

“That should lead to the fourth floor. Things should be alright from here on. I’m sure the Oath Legions are even now investigating the situation. You just need to find them, and they’ll get you guys back to the surface. I’m sorry, but——”

“I know. I can handle things from here. Leave the kids to me.”

Franka forced herself to laugh.

Yuuki blinked in surprise, never having expected her to understand so quickly.

“You’re going to save Tina-chan and Uncle, right? I’ll have to leave things to you. The two of them are very important to me.”

“…Yeah, leave it to me.”

“I-I’m going too.”

Kaya made her way to Yuuki’s side, trembling all the while, her head bowed.

Franka wasn’t surprised. She, too, must possess “something.”

The world they lived in and the world she lived in were too different; she didn’t have the qualifications necessary to set foot on that side of things. ——At least for now.

Yuuki walked a few steps and then turned back.

“Franka. Thank you. Really.”

“Oh, um, you’re very welcome…”

Franka couldn’t speak, and instead sent the two off with her eyes, before finally heaving a sigh.

“Now then, it’s just about time to return to our normal lives. Edgar- and Selim-kun seem just about ready to wake——”

Franka frowned.

Several Void Beasts had appeared, the same kind as the tusked rabbit that Yuuki had killed earlier.

It looked like they were planning on having a meal now that the troublesome person had left, or perhaps they were desiring to avenge their fallen comrade.

“My apologies.”

Franka gripped a Divine Pearl as she gave a wry smile.

“——But I’m not going to lose.”

An enormous conflagration enveloped the Void Beasts, turning them to charcoal.

Two had managed to escape the flame’s wrath, however. Her extreme exhaustion had caused her aim to suffer.

“You——!”

The Void Beasts prepared to attack once more. Am I going to make it——?

A gale of wind suddenly blew by.

The twin Void Beasts, preparing to charge their foe, were instead cut into two halves which fell lifelessly to the ground.

Franka turned back, catching sight of a certain person.

Said person held the celestial Dragon Fang weapon AmnisBlue Water Pike in his hands. It was the first-ranked adventurer known as a prodigy, a person most familiar to Franka.

“…Nii-san…”

“Are you hurt?” Stefan asked expressionlessly.

“I’m okay. ——That sure gave me a shock. This is so sudden.”

“…”

“What brings you here? Are you investigating the abnormality?”

“…Yes.”

The quaking just now had separated Stefan from his party members, so he’d continued the investigation alone.

Although he’d found himself surrounded by no small number of dangerous Void Beasts, as far as Franka’s brother was concerned, he hadn’t been in any danger whatsoever.

Once upon a time, Franka had felt that her brother’s stony expression was so grave as to be frightful.

She didn’t feel that way anymore.

“I apologize for disrupting you while you’re working, but do you think you could help me take these kids back to the surface?”

“…”

Wordlessly, Stefan took the children into his arms. At long last, Franka felt peace settle over her.

 

※※※

 

“…Um, Yuuki-sensei?” Kaya asked. “How long ago… did you notice?”

“I began to suspect you right after the anomaly first occurred. The huge working of divine energy affected you very harshly, much more so than it did Franka; it affected you almost exactly the way it affected Tina, in fact. There’s no way a human could be that sensitive.”

“…”

“My suspicions were confirmed when you were protecting Selim. When you swatted the wasp away with your hand, it stung you, and yet you were completely unharmed.”

Kaya blinked.

“You saw that…?”

“Please don’t look down on the motion vision of a former Duelist. The nail in the coffin came when Franka was sharing the story of the Shinki with all of you. ‘Did the Lunar Shinki-sama of that time not have anything to say about it?’ you said. ‘Of that time’ – those were your words. In other words, you know that there are multiple Shinki of the Moon. ——Because we’re short on time, I’m going to have to ask you directly: which Shinki are you?”

“…The Moon.”

Kaya shrank as she responded.

“…So you’re Muriel’s successor, huh?”

Yuuki stifled the pain that filled his heart. This wasn’t the time for such things.

“Your plan was to separate Tina and myself and ambush us once we were alone, am I right?”

“Yes…”

Kaya sighed dejectedly and continued.

“This plan was devised by my Duelist – Jahar-san. Do you know him, Yuuki-sensei?”

He had indeed heard that name before. A moment’s consideration brought the memory to mind.

He’d been a member of Stefan’s party, a dark-skinned young man who wielded a huge blade.

With this, many things fell into place. So he’d been under watch for that long.

“When the time was right, I was to teleport Jahar-san here. Afterward, Yuuki-sensei… and Tina… one by one…”

“We’d be killed. So he has a celestial Dragon Fang weapon then. ——You haven’t teleported him over yet, correct?”

Kaya nodded.

“The shaking and alterations to the labyrinth – what caused them?”

“I don’t know either. Perhaps Jahar-san used some kind of Reliquia.”

All this Shinki had been responsible for was watching over them and teleporting Jahar when the moment came.

Now that he thought about it, the Moon’s Oath Legion had been disbanded. She didn’t have any subordinates she could rely on.

In that case, they’d better meet up with Tina and Alfred as soon as possible——

“U-Um…”

Kaya looked at Yuuki through fearful eyes.

“What’s up?”

“A-Are you… going to kill me now?”

“Huh?”

“Jahar-san said… He said… that it was only natural that people who would kill others… would be killed themselves. I… think so too.”

“Do you want me to kill you?”

She shook her head with great force.

“Then I won’t. Anyway, you’ve had it rough too. The reason I figured things out was because you protected Selim. Also… that cave-in just now, I know that you saved us with your powers.”

“…”

The fact that Yuuki and company hadn’t been caught in the rain of falling rubble was no coincidence.

He presumed that Tina had also tried, but her frankly pitiful store of divine energy would have been unable to produce the effect they’d seen.

“On the contrary, let me thank you instead.”

Tears began to run down her cheeks.

“I… I never wanted anyone to get hurt…”

“I know.”

Yuuki nodded.

“You haven’t teleported your Duelist over, after all. Plus, you’ve revealed everything without trying to run from the responsibility. ——All that tells me that you’re done doing things that way. Oh, that reminds me – how much divine energy do you have left?”

“Eh…? Oh, not that much, sorry…”

“That’s okay. I’ll need your help then. We need to bring Tina and Uncle here. If you have the energy for it, can you teleport them here? You could also break down the walls between us, if that works better.”

Yuuki walked over to a dead end. Kaya obediently followed behind.

“…Um…”

“Yes?”

“Yuuki-sensei, can I ask you – a Duelist – something?”

“Make that former Duelist, but sure.”

“The Duelists are people who protect the Shinki, right?”

“Yes.”

“So why doesn’t Jahar-san protect me then? He doesn’t listen to me at all, and his personality’s terrible… If I think about it, we’re nothing alike.”

Yuuki pondered her query for a moment before answering her with a question of his own.

“Let me ask you something. Why do you think the Duelists protect the Shinki? There’s no way they do it without hope of reward, right?”

“Hmm…”

Kaya’s face clearly demonstrated the depth of her perplexity.

“…I’ve never thought about that before. The only answer I can think of is that it’s the Heavenly King’s will.”

“If I had to describe the Duelists, I’d say that almost without exception they are terribly powerful… and also broken,” Yuuki replied, reflecting on his own experience.

“When I say broken, I mean to say that we’re all somehow deficient. At one point, each and every one of our souls cried out that that defect might be fixed, and it was in that state that we were summoned to this world. We are then paired with the Shinki that has the ability to heal what ails us.”

“Heal…?”

“In return, the Duelists protect the Shinki. I’m sure you’ve heard that the ‘most suitable person’ is chosen as Duelist, right? This is what that saying means.”

“I don’t really understand…”

“Every Duelist has ‘something they want to do’ or ‘something they want to receive.’ The Shinki are responsible for realizing that dream. That’s basically what I mean. ——You heard what I said to Franka earlier, right? I was once nothing more than an unthinking, unfeeling tool; I knew nothing of what it meant to be human. All of this Muriel, the previous ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon,’ gave me. It’s because of her that I now live a normal person’s life in the city.”

“…And what is it that I can do for Jahar-san? If you ask me what it is he lacks, all that comes to mind is that he refuses to listen to me?”

“I’m not him, so I can’t say. ——Think about what it is he wants more than anything… you must have some clue, no?”

Kaya thought for a moment.

“He… always talks about ‘obtaining victory.’ He wants to ‘fight, and seize victory.’ That’s why he’s always angry that I have no desire to fight.”

“That’s it then.”

Had he once failed, searing regret into his heart?

Perhaps he was even now seeking redemption as Kaya’s Duelist.

On the other hand, the Shinki standing before him clearly despised conflict; she wasn’t the type to fight to win.

Maybe he was looking at it all wrong.

“I’m so tired of all of this…”

Kaya laughed weakly and heaved a sigh.

“I’m sorry… There’s no point in complaining to my enemy, Sensei.”

She looked so young, but she was wise beyond her years and bore a heavy sense of responsibility.

Even though she knew what kind of situation she was in, and the dark future she’d chosen for herself, she hadn’t sought to escape that responsibility.

Yuuki scratched his head awkwardly.

“…Let me ask you something. What do you want to do right now?”

“Huh?”

“When things go wrong, the first thing to do is set a short-term goal for yourself. That’s what the Gramps who taught me business always said.”

“….If things were to go smoothly for me, that’d be bad for you, Yuuki-sensei. Should you really be telling me something like that?”

“Hearing something good makes you wary, huh? Business might just be a good fit for you. Much more so than mine, anyway.”

Yuuki smiled wryly.

“——Whether you’re a Shinki or my enemy or whatever, none of that changes the fact that you’re my student. Teaching you is my job. Does that reasoning work for you?”

“…”

Kaya didn’t know what kind of expression to wear as she stared numbly at him. Finally, she bowed her head.

“I… want to have a sincere talk with Jahar-san.”

“That’s a good choice.”

The reason she wanted a “sincere” discussion was because she knew she hadn’t tried her best either. If she’d come to that realization, then chances were that things might yet change.

“Right. First, I need to find Tina and Alfred, and bring them home. Are you coming?”

The “Shinki Crowned with the Moon” gave a firm nod.

Just then——

“…Kaya?”

Yuuki frowned.

She’d suddenly frozen up.

“Why…?” she whispered, her face ashen. “I hadn’t heard a thing… I haven’t done anything…”

“Calm down. What’s happened?”

“…Teleported.”

Kaya’s eyes finally returned to meet Yuuki’s.

“Jahar-san is already where Tina is.”

 

※※※

 

“Grr——”

Tina humphed as she stared down the object in their way.

“What a pain! It’s in our way!”

“…You can get mad all you want, but I get the feeling the wall doesn’t mind,” a droll voice called out from behind her.

“Just forget it. There’s nothing you can do, anyway.”

“Hmph. I guess you’re right. There’s no need to worry, Alfred. Master will come for us.”

Tina had the utmost confidence that that was true.

Alfred was right that there wasn’t anything they could do in this situation.

The violent shaking earlier had caused a cave-in. She’d used her divine energy to protect the party, and the exertion had left her nearly depleted.

Once the quaking had finally subsided, they’d found themselves cut off from Yuuki and the others. Given the discomfort the experience had subjected her to, the labyrinth-altering phenomenon had likely occurred again.

Alfred and Tina had already explored all there was to see of the space they found themselves in; it hadn’t taken much time. There wasn’t all that much to see, truth be told.

The walls were laden with bioluminescent moss, so their surroundings were clearly visible even without a lantern. The light illuminated a broken-down room of some fifty square meters without any doors.

In other words, they were trapped. The one small blessing of their situation was that at least they did not have to worry about Void Beasts.

However——

(…Just after the shaking stopped, I felt the powers of several Shinki activating.)

If she had to say it, then yes, she was worried. That said, she didn’t have any divine energy left at her disposal; even if she wanted to investigate further, it simply wasn’t an option.

When it came down to it, all they could do was wait to be rescued.

“…You know, you really trust Yuuki, don’t you, Tina-chan?”

“Yeah. Master is worthy of Tina’s trust.”

She stuck her chest out proudly.

“…You don’t find him frightening?”

“Eh? Well, sure, when Tina makes a mistake counting the bill or accidentally breaks store inventory, then yeah, he’s scary. On those days, dinner shrinks a dish, after all. If that’s not to be feared, I don’t know what qualifies.”

“I see.”

Alfred revealed a bitter smile.

“Still, I have to say that was a strange question, really. Are you afraid of Master then, Alfred?”

“…I don’t know.”

His tone changed.

“If the feeling of awe at overwhelming strength and frightening talent can be classified as ‘fear,’ then yes, I am. However, just like those who wield power can vary, the ways in which that power is wielded can vary as well. In that sense——”

The latter half of his words seemed to be directed more to himself than to Tina.

Tina was left thoroughly bewildered; she couldn’t make heads or tails of what this man was saying——

Suddenly, she stiffened.

“——Watch out! Behind you!”

Alfred drew his weapon as she cried out. The metallic clank of metal against metal sounded, and blood sprayed into the air.

“Ohh? Those reflexes of yours aren’t half bad. What were you called again? Al… Alf?”

Before them stood a man wielding a gigantic sword.

“My name’s Alfred. I appreciate the compliment.”

The calm manner in which he responded belied the ill look of his face. His armor had been cut open from his shoulder downward. Blood flowed freely from the wound.

“You were a member of Stefan’s party once, weren’t you? You disappeared during the incident with the Void Dragon; everyone was under the impression you’d died.”

“Just call me the Immortal Jahar.”

Jahar laughed unconcernedly.

His face was familiar to Tina.

Not only did she know his face, but she also remembered how he’d attacked her without so much as a warning.

“Again, it’s you! And just as contemptible as always! What’s your problem? Don’t tell me you’ve caught some strange sickness that compels you to attack others lest you die?”

“I definitely haven’t heard that particular explanation before, but it’s true that seizing the initiative does indeed lower the risk of death. Oh, let me just say this first – my target’s not Alfred over there.”

“…Your name was Jahar, right?”

Tina’s eyes narrowed.

“You teleported here. You serve one of the Shinki?”

“Wonderfully deduced. Yes, I’m a Duelist. ——Now that we’re all clear on who I am, you must know why I’m here, ‘Sixth Shinki’ Albertina.”

Jahar slowly raised his weapon.

This feeling was familiar. This was that which could penetrate the ScutumHoly Shield, that which could slay even the gods themselves – a celestial Dragon Fang weapon.

“This is the IgnisCrimson Flame Claymore. If you accept your impending death, then I will promise you a painless passing. It will turn your very bones to ash long before you can feel the slightest pain.”

Jahar casually brushed aside the sword that was thrust in his direction.

“No one likes a man who treats women so poorly. You must not be popular.”

His tone light, Alfred looked anything but calm. His shoulder wound was deep indeed.

“Tina’s his only target here! Alfred, please stay back!”

As she called out, Tina agonized over the fact that she lacked the energy even to heal his wound.

“When I find a girl I like, I chase her with everything I have. Popularity’s completely meaningless. ——Anyway, Alfred, do you really want to do this? I attacked you just now because you were in the way, but if you just stand there quietly, I’ll let you go.”

“Unfortunately, I’m quite the coward,” Alfred laughed. “I fear that, should I do no more than spectate, Franka and Yuuki will have my head afterward. If I have to choose, I’d say I find them far more frightening than I do you.”

“That’s not even funny as a joke. ——Have it your way. Allow me to teach you what fear really is.”

The sound of slicing wind——

Tina hadn’t seen any movement. She only noticed because Alfred had managed to deflect the blow.

“Really? Because I don’t see anything to be afraid of.”

The air was filled with the sound of metal striking metal in rapid succession.

“——!”

Alfred was too busy defending himself to spare a word.

Even if he hadn’t been wounded, there was an insurmountable gap both in the quality of their weapons as well as their raw strength. The disparity between their swordsmanship was even larger.

Moreover, it hadn’t taken more than the tiniest fraction of his true ability to forcibly suppress Alfred, an experienced swordsman. This, even Tina could tell.

Alfred failed to defend against a horizontal slash, and lost his balance.

Jahar followed up immediately with a slice clearly intended to take his head clean off his shoulders. Alfred only just managed to block it.

The two held their positions, with Jahar finally breaking the silence.

“…This is such a waste of time. Do you really not have anything else up your sleeve? Well, either way you’re a dead man, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.”

He didn’t appear to have exerted any additional force, but Alfred felt the force against his sword double.

Alfred sank to one knee with a groan.

Jahar suddenly broke off the stalemate, and raised his claymore high into the air.

“This is goodbye.”

His blade came down forcefully from above with a slight diagonal slant to it.

The celestial Dragon Fang weapon easily parted his armor, cutting Alfred into two——

——Or at least, it should have.

“You——!”

Tina had charged forward.

The massive sword had impacted her body and sent both her and Alfred flying, though their bodies retained their original shape.

“Ha! How’s that? Tina stopped you!”

Tina slowly rose to her feet.

The skin on her wrists had been torn, and fresh blood flowed down her arms. That was, however, the extent of the damage she’d sustained.

“That claymore looks like it’s in its first phase? It can’t break the ScutumHoly Shield like that.”

“…What an impulsive little girl you are. Well, it’s not like I didn’t know what your personality was like already.”

“‘Personality’ is the wrong word. Try ‘duty.’ ——If someone in front of me is about to be killed, how could I stand by and watch it happen?!”

“And who exactly do you think you’re fooling with that act, ‘Serpent of Demise’?”

“…Huh?”

Tina frowned. That wasn’t a term she’d heard before.

“I can’t tell if you’re just playing dumb or if you really haven’t realized, but it’s not like it matters either way. ——Your defender looks to have gone to sleep, so what’s your plan now? Judging by the way you charged over here in person, I’m guessing you don’t have any divine energy left.”

Alfred had collapsed on the floor. He was… still breathing. Tina sighed in relief.

“Sorry to be the one to break the news, but Master’s going to arrive any moment now. Why don’t you rest there for a bit?”

“You have that much trust in someone who isn’t even a Duelist anymore?”

“Of course. As far as Tina is concerned, he’s someone far more important than any Duelist could be,” Tina retorted proudly.

“…”

Jahar frowned ever so slightly, her words having disturbed him somehow.

“——That aside, know that I have no plans of merely standing here quietly and awaiting death. If I don’t put my all into struggling to live then I could never hope to stand by Master’s side.”

Tina’s breathing was rough as she glared down her enemy.

“Even if I’ve used up every last bit of my divine energy, and am nothing more than a pitiful little girl, you can bet that I will fight. I will fight you to the very end. Come, Jahar! Just try and kill me!”

“…This is pretty difficult.”

Jahar sighed lightly.

“You are much, much stronger than that girl of mine who has not the least intention of fighting.”

“Hmm? Are you telling me you’re not here on the orders of your master?”

“The situation’s pretty complicated. It’s not like there’s any need for me to explain things to someone who’s about to die, though. ——Let’s just say that there’s at least one Shinki and Duelist who have no need to trust one another. That’s all you need to know.”

“Why?” Tina asked, puzzled. “That way’s just too lonely. The Shinki and Duelists are both abnormal existences. That’s precisely why they must cooperate and compensate for one another’s weaknesses.”

It wasn’t like she was stalling for time. She truly could not comprehend his reasoning.

“For various reasons, Tina has no Duelist. Things have been that way ever since Master took Tina in. That’s precisely why I understand just how painful it is to be alone. To stand alone, without anyone in whom to place your trust… to be isolated from this world is terribly sad and lonely.”

“From a Duelist’s perspective, we have a mission that takes priority over all else. Compared to feeling at ease, that mission is infinitely more important.”

“I notice you didn’t refute my words.”

“…”

Jahar clicked his tongue irritably.

He swung his sword. Its shape changed, growing twice as large.

Tina stepped back unconsciously, pressured by the oppressive atmosphere.

“Rather than wasting your time on idle chatter, begging for mercy would be a better use of what little time you have left. You would really trust Yuuki Takamigahara even unto death? ——This is a celestial Dragon Fang weapon, you know. It has three phases, increasing in power with each shift. This is currently in its second phase, able to pierce through even the ScutumHoly Shield. Ready yourself, ‘Sixth Shinki.'”

“I don’t need you to tell me that. I will definitely survive until Master comes.”

She was afraid, to be sure. She was drenched in cold sweat and her legs trembled ever so slightly.

Though she would never admit it, even if that meant taking it to her grave.

“…You Shinki take life and death far too lightly.”

Jahar’s lips twisted in disgust.

“I’ve heard more than my fair share of hollow words and empty ideals. It’s true that peace and trust are indeed important, but what you guys need to understand is that those things lose all meaning once you’re dead.”

“I understand that very clearly, believe me.”

“Like hell you do!” Jahar roared.

Tina’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

His exclamation just now had held not the least trace of his normally frivolous tone. His true feelings had shone through for just an instant.

“——Whatever the case, all we can do is follow our convictions. That’s what Tina believes.”

“…”

Jahar didn’t answer, but he lowered his weapon, opening his mouth to speak.

“…I said something utterly unlike myself. Your stalling tactics were entirely too effective, Tina-chan. We’ve wasted enough time here, let’s end this.”

“Tina wasn’t stalling anything——”

She moved just as she finished speaking.

She retreated backward, shutting her eyes and covering her ears as she did so, drawing on every last bit of power she had remaining.

“——!”

Jahar’s eyes were blinded by a brilliant flash, his ears deafened by an explosive roar. The light filling the room made it seem as if it were midday.

As she’d been speaking, Tina had been absorbing the divine energy contained within the lantern at her feet.

——Unfortunately, even that had now been completely consumed.

The light and sound would do no more than temporarily stun Jahar. By her estimation, within the next five seconds, he’d become active once more. How should she escape…?

Tina raced away as she considered her next plan of action, but what happened next rendered her efforts futile.

A horrific surge of energy carved out a crater in the floor, sending a terrific heat into the air.

“Aah——”

Fortunately, Tina hadn’t been hit directly, but finding herself standing on nothing but air, she was thrown into the ground.

Jahar hadn’t bothered to wait for his senses to recover, instead attacking immediately with his IgnisFiery Crimson Claymore.

Tina executed a brilliant spin – or rather, failed to, instead tripping awkwardly. With all her might, she struggled to her feet.

The claymore’s blade drew level with her eyes.

“Not bad.”

Jahar watched her, a cold, cruel smile on his face.

There was nowhere to run. Even if she could stand up, there wasn’t a thing she could do to stop that enormous blade from cleaving her in two.

Instead, she looked up and, meeting his eyes, spoke.

“…There’s something I want to confirm, Jahar.”

“And what would that be?”

“You just asked me whether or not I ‘really trust Yuuki Takamigahara even unto death?’ Listen, it’s not ‘unto death.’ ——This Shinki, Albertina, declares that ‘even if I die,’ I trust him!”

As she spoke, she kicked off the ground. Even if just by the tiniest degree, she’d do everything in her power to stave off death. She had to survive until he came.

However, Jahar was faster than she was.

The claymore’s blade pressed against Tina’s tiny frame, cutting apart the ScutumHoly Shield——

“Uwa——!”

Tina collapsed onto the stone-cold floor. She’d been struck from behind, the breath scared right out of her lungs.

However——

(I’m… alive?)

Although she had indeed been wounded, the wound was shallow.

The pain caused her to stand in a hurry.

Two new figures now stood in the room.

One of the new figures, wielding a longsword as white as the driven snow, spoke.

“Any lost children here? I’m here to pick you up, Tina.”

“…You’re late,” she replied, not noticing that her sobbing had drowned out her words.

 

※※※

 

Just before Jahar’s Claymore had struck Tina, it had been intercepted and deflected by the NixSnow Blade.

Kaya’s teleportation had just barely made it in time.

“——Well, well. If it isn’t the Snow Blade King.”

Jahar shrugged exaggeratedly before turning his gaze to the young girl at Yuuki’s side.

“As well as my master, the ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon.’ …I thought it was bad enough that you refused to help, but I never would have guessed that you’d even betray me.”

“I-I-I said from the start… that I wanted no part of this. You teleported with the help of the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’?”

“Indeed.”

“The quakes have been her doing as well, I assume? Her goal is to confirm Tina’s battle strength and condition?”

By throwing her into desperate circumstances, and by observing her actions in such a situation, she’d be able to determine Tina’s standing. The changes made to the labyrinth had been intended to isolate Tina from those around her.

“Pretty much. Even with the ScutumHoly Shield, if she were to get caught in a cave-in, she’d be unable to move. She’d be forced to call upon her reserves to prevent such a thing, this we knew. As it turned out, she didn’t have enough energy to teleport, so we used the cave-in to drain what little energy she had left.”

“The alterations to the labyrinth don’t seem to have been too controlled. What were you guys going to do if you’d failed to separate Tina and I?”

“We’d simply continue until it worked. Kaya was to draw your attention, distract you; there were many small things we could have done. I have to say, though, I never expected that girl to be so proactive about getting in my way like this. I’d originally thought she only knew how to cry off in the corner by herself, so I had the Stellar Shinki lend me a hand.”

“Jahar-san, you—— You’re more submissive to her commands than you are to mine?”

“When it suits my purposes. For the sake of victory, I’ll do anything, no matter how dirty, even if that means associating with some rather unsavory individuals.”

“What meaning is there in a victory like that…?”

Kaya closed her eyes.

Summoning her courage, she looked up and looked at her Duelist through firm, resolved eyes.

“Lower your weapon, Duelist of the Moon.”

Jahar’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“Whoa, whoa, how impressive. Have you come to a decision of some kind? Or has the Snow Blade King over there said something to you?”

“I——”

“Let me ask you something first. Do you really think it’s fine to lose? Even if that loss heralds your death?”

“H-How could I be fine with something like that?”

“Then what could putting away my weapon possibly do? Nothing can change the fact that the Shinki must slay one another.”

Jahar’s lips curled upward, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“This should be engraved deep within your heart, right, Kaya-chan? Defeat your enemy, and seize victory. In that case, then isn’t it simply common sense to do whatever it takes to obtain victory – to slay your foes? ——Anything else can only lead to death, you know?”

“B-But…”

Kaya sought desperately to convey her feelings.

“But I don’t want to think that that’s all the meaning there is to my life.”

“…”

“During my time in the city, my time in the training school, although there have been many, many things that haven’t gone right… I’ve been happy. Even today, to learn about the labyrinth with my friends under the guidance of my seniors – I’ve been happy. I can’t even count the times that I’ve thought how great it would be if I were just a normal person, and didn’t have to play any part in today’s plan. ——Are those thoughts wrong? Is it a sin to live simply because I don’t want to kill my fellow Shinki?”

Jahar had no answer, but neither did Kaya continue.

Silence had gripped the room.

The one to break the silence was one of the Shinki.

“Wait, wait… Does that mean that Kaya is a Shinki too?”

“You’ve only just realized…?”

Yuuki sighed.

“…Yes. I-I’m the ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon.’ I’m sorry for deceiving you.”

Kaya bowed deeply.

“Hmm? Why would you apologize? Tina’s been hiding her true identity too, so we’re even,” Tina replied solemnly.

“You were nearly killed just now. Are you really alright with that?”

“You’re wrong, Master. The one who wanted to kill me wasn’t Kaya, but that man.”

“She’s right. It’s not like the Shinki and their Duelists have to get along,” Jahar added calmly. “I refuse to die just because my partner happens to be a pacifist. That’s why, I would be most pleased if you obediently died at my hand, Serpent of Demise.”

Tina frowned.

“…I thought this earlier but… What’s that you said? Serpent? Tina’s not——”

“Where did you hear that name?” Yuuki suddenly interrupted.

It had been five years since he’d last heard those nightmarish words.

“Oh? You know of it, Snow Blade King?”

“…I see. The ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars.’ It was her. You guys are allied,” Yuuki whispered. He continued, “There are five Shinki. The sixth is neither god nor goddess, but a counterfeit – the ‘Serpent of Demise.’ ——That’s what she said, right?”

“W-Wait. What do you mean by ‘counterfeit’?”

“In other words, she has the powers of a Shinki, but not the mental restriction preventing her from harming another.”

Jahar’s face twisted in a vicious smile.

“In other words, a Shinki who can use the power of miracles to kill. A being meant to bring an end to all life – a destroyer. That’s you, ‘Serpent of Demise’ Albertina.”

“Eh…”

“…”

Three different gazes settled on Tina’s person.

The one most surprised was, of course, Tina herself.

“Oh… Tina never knew…”

Out of the blue, Jahar leapt forward and gave a vicious swing with his sword.

His sword, however, was met by Yuuki’s.

“…Why are you interfering here, Snow Blade King?” the owner of the claymore asked irritably.

“You believe her words?”

“When it comes to the ‘Sixth Shinki,’ I think what she said makes sense. Either way, though, regardless of who exactly Tina-chan is, if I kill her, then the problem’s solved. Plus, I’ll get rewarded for doing so.”

“…”

“She’s completely drained right now, so I won’t find a better opportunity than this. Even with a celestial Dragon Fang weapon, if we find ourselves at her mercy one day, we’ll be the ones to die.”

With their power of miracles, the Shinki were able to singlehandedly prevent natural disasters and control the weather. This was truly a miraculous power far beyond anything humanity was capable of.

Faced with an opponent who both wielded that power and lacked the restriction against harming others, even a Duelist armed with a celestial Dragon Fang weapon could do naught but await death.

“You’re wrong! Tina’s not that kind of thing! Master, believe me, I’m——”

“I know,” Yuuki answered firmly before turning to Jahar.

“What the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’ told you has some truth to it. The Serpent of Demise did indeed exist at one point. She went mad, and many people died at her hands, but… she was slain. The ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’ had been an eyewitness to her actions before, and thus experienced firsthand the terror of that being. However——”

His gaze turned back once more to the young girl.

“To say that Tina is her successor, the second ‘Serpent of Demise,’ is wrong.”

“And what basis do you have to say that?”

“Because I, too, have seen the Serpent of Demise.”

“…”

Jahar frowned and brandished his IgnisFiery Crimson Claymore. It seemed he didn’t want to hear anymore.

“The Serpent of Demise was not simply a Shinki who ‘was capable of’ harming others – she was a Shinki who delighted in it. She had the uncontrollable impulse to kill and destroy, and giving in to that impulse filled her with pleasure. This girl, however, is nothing like that. I’ve been by her side this entire time, and have seen no sign of such things.”

“And do you think I’m just going to take your word for it?” Jahar retorted. “No, there’s something else to consider before we even get to whether or not I believe you. Why are there six Shinki? There have always been five. Always. That a sixth would suddenly appear is extremely abnormal – isn’t it only natural to come to such a conclusion?”

“…You need to consider that again, more carefully. There were always five Shinki before, but this is the first time a sixth has appeared. I assume that both the Church and all the Shinki know by now. In any case, as I just said, I and the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’ have both seen the Serpent of Demise before.”

“…Huh?”

Kaya looked puzzled.

“If that’s true, then… there should only have been five who wielded the powers of a Shinki back then?”

“Exactly. ——In that case, then where was the Serpent of Demise?”

No one spoke; each person awaited his answer.

“The answer is simple. The Serpent of Demise was among the five Shinki. Or rather, to be more precise…”

Yuuki’s words were slow, and ever so precise.

“The Serpent of Demise only appears among the Shinki.”

Deep within his chest, a terrible pain gripped his heart. It was for the best, though – this had to end here.

“The Serpent of Demise does not exist as such from birth. No, what was once a Shinki gradually gives way to the being known as the Serpent of Demise. Neither her appearance nor her personality change; however, her appetites and desires do. She slowly comes to the realization that she is the ‘Serpent,’ and that destruction fills her with the utmost delight, the greatest satisfaction. It is an impulse that will not be denied.”

Her every thought would focus on death and destruction. It wasn’t just hate and anger that gave rise to such thoughts, even love and mercy would as well. This, Yuuki knew all too well.

The Shinki’s original personality would remain, but the Shinki herself would become something else entirely. This was a thing to be feared above all else, a thing to mourn above all else; something only someone close to her would ever truly understand.

“Master, does that mean…?” Tina asked hesitantly.

Ahh, that’s right, Yuuki thought. No matter how airheaded she might seem, she was no fool, nor was she without feeling.

“That’s right, Tina. She was my Shinki. And there, at the end of things, she asked me to kill her. The two from the Moon – the ‘Duelist who slew a Shinki,’ as you’ve once heard.”

Afterward, he’d withdrawn from anything having to do with the Shinki and been adopted by Boris, eventually making the city his home.

Calmly, he continued his story.

“Given her imperfect knowledge of what happened before, in the eyes of the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars,’ the appearance of a sixth Shinki must seem terribly suspicious.”

“…So that’s what you’re trying to say. Right now, there are five Shinki. Adding in the Serpent of Demise, that makes six. However, which Shinki is the Serpent of Demise is currently unknown.”

Yuuki nodded in the affirmative.

“My thoughts are that the existence of the Serpent of Demise is a fact of this world. When a Shinki dies, another will be born in her place after some number of years, correct? The previous ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon,’ Muriel, was the first Serpent of Demise. A gap having been created, some few years later, Kaya was born. A few years after Muriel died, Tina was born.”

Tina counted on her fingers in confusion.

“Um… There were always five Shinki before. Now that we’ve added one, will there always be six?”

“I assume so. I’ve said it already – the Serpent of Demise arises from among the Shinki. In other words, once its former host dies, it passes on to invade another. At the moment, we have no idea who might be harboring the Serpent. I might as well add that I don’t know how much the other Shinki know. ——That’s pretty much what I wanted to say.”

For a time, no one dared speak.

“——So that’s how it is.”

The first to break the silence was Jahar.

“What you say makes sense, but… it’s all still conjecture, right? You have no proof?”

“…I do not.”

“Then what reason do I have to believe you? In fact, even given what you said, the possibility still exists that what El-chan said is true – that Tina is the Serpent.”

“…”

He’d seen it coming, but it was still unfortunate that things had taken this turn.

“B-But, Jahar-san, if that’s the case, then Elfriede-san has no proof either.”

“I was aware of that from the very beginning. ——If neither side has any evidence, then what should we do?”

Jahar laughed delightedly.

“Even if what Yuuki said was entirely true, we can’t ignore the possibility that Tina-chan might indeed become the Serpent of Demise. Perhaps it is simply laying dormant. Although, regardless of whether she is just another Shinki or indeed the Serpent, one thing doesn’t change – she is our enemy. There’s only one choice left to us – to heed the command of the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’ and kill her.”

“…”

“All this complicated stuff aside, let me add that I love battle, and am eager for us to fight. ——After all is said and done, there’s not really any reasons for us not to fight, right, Snow Blade King?”

“…Perhaps.”

And, as expected, things have come to this, Yuuki thought.

“My way of doing things is pretty simple. If you refuse to leave Tina alone, then I’m just going to have to kill you.”

“Master…”

“P-Please stop! Why…”

Kaya stuttered as she spoke. Looking up, her eyes were filled with tears.

“Why won’t you listen to me? Do you really love to kill that much?! There’s something wrong with you!”

“…What a naive little Shinki you are. You don’t have the slightest concept of what it means to die.”

Jahar rejected her plea with a scornful laugh.

“O-Of course not. I’ve never died before, after all…”

“And that’s what makes the Shinki different from Duelists. ——You know what I mean, right, Snow Blade King? The weight of our lives is altogether different from anyone else.”

The Shinki pair turned to watch Yuuki in surprise.

He sighed.

“That’s right; this isn’t something you guys know. The first time she heard it, Muriel was pretty surprised as well. It’s not that I’ve purposely tried to deceive you guys, it’s just that this is something of an uncomfortable subject for me. ——Kaya, I told you before that all the Duelists are missing something, right?”

“R-Right.”

“Allow me to explain further. ——The necessary qualification to become a Duelist is indeed a shortcoming of sorts. More particularly, one’s heart must be filled with the feeling of loss, and that at the time of death. ‘How can I just die like this?!’ As our hearts and minds are overcome by that feeling, we are called forth to serve the Shinki and are bound to them.”

“Eh——”

Kaya was struck speechless.

Tina spoke in her place.

“T-Then, Master… you’ve——?”

“Died once before, yes.”

With his heart filled with the desire to live as a ‘human,’ he’d been killed by his compatriots who were still nothing more than ‘tools.’

Once before, he’d told Tina that he no longer met the requirements to be called as a Duelist. That was truthfully said, for he was still among the living.

The summoning of a Duelist was something a Shinki could only do once in her life. It was a technique that restored a life that had been lost.

“Our service to the Shinki serves also as an opportunity to satisfy the regrets that claimed us during our past lives.”

They’d be summoned to the side of the Shinki whom would allow them to do precisely that.

Indeed, Yuuki’s dream of ‘living as a human’ had been realized.

“Jahar exhibits an abnormal obsession with victory. Although I can’t say what you experienced in your previous world, it’s clear that you can’t forget your death, and the loss that led to it.”

“Yep.”

Jahar nodded.

“I was a mercenary. A rather well-known one at that, I might add. ——However, on the battlefield one day, I lost to the might of overwhelming numbers. It wasn’t that I felt their superior numbers were unfair; no, when it comes to battle, the ends justify the means. The one who wins is the stronger one. I simply could not forgive myself for losing. That’s pretty much it.”

Jahar lifted his sword once more.

“I want to win. No matter what it takes, I want to win. And keep on winning forever more.”

“…”

“I’m sure you understand what it’s like to obsess to the point of madness, no? ——IgnisFiery Crimson Claymore, third stage release!”

The claymore once again changed its shape. Compared to its previous state, it had shrunk a little. It was quite plain, rather like its first phase.

However, the sword’s blade was now enveloped in a dense aura of divine energy.

“….Tina, please take Alfred to rest against the wall. The two of you should stay back for this part.”

His command to Tina issued, Yuuki sighed again.

“How long has it been since I last did this? ——NixSnow Blade, phase three – unleash!”

 

※※※

 

“Stop——!”

Kaya’s shout was lost amid the clash of wintry blizzard and raging inferno.

The third phase of a celestial Dragon Fang weapon – the ultimate form of those weapons which boasted the greatest destructive power.

Jahar had mentioned it to Kaya once before, but this was her first time seeing it with her own eyes.

Kaya recognized what had just happened for what it was – a demonstration of their resolve. There wasn’t anything she could to do stop them anymore.

(But…)

Even if she refused to back down now, there wasn’t a thing she could do to change things.

Kaya didn’t want to see either Jahar or Yuuki harmed, nor did she want them to hurt one another. She had no desire to watch their blood soak this battlefield.

Protecting the party during the cave-in as well as teleporting Yuuki and herself over had consumed no small amount of divine energy.

That notwithstanding, she yet had some power remaining. What should she do with it?

Suddenly, the sound of their weapons colliding disrupted her train of thought.

“Kya——”

Kaya’s tiny body was thrown into the air.

“——!”

She felt someone catch her. Tina embraced her from behind.

“A fight between Duelists is really something, huh. ——Oh wait, Master is a former Duelist.”

“How can you be so calm?! ——Tina, you need to stop them…!”

Kaya abruptly shut her mouth.

She’d noticed Tina’s wan profile and the force with which her fists were clenched.

“…From the very beginning, Tina never wanted to be your enemy, nor that man named Jahar.”

With an unwavering gaze, she watched Yuuki’s every action, his every move.

“However—— It is not the role of a Shinki to stand amid a blaze, focusing the heat of the blaze on her person. I am weak. I cannot protect myself. It is for that reason that Master fights so desperately.”

“…”

“If Master thinks this is necessary, then Tina can only accept his will. That is both my duty and my responsibility.”

“Re…sponsibility…?”

“I believed that Master would come, and he did. And now, I choose to believe in him once more. I can only await his safe return. But still——”

Tina laughed.

“Who knew that having faith in someone… was such a scary thing. This is my first time experiencing such a feeling.”

“…”

Kaya didn’t reply.

She was nothing like Tina, neither in her relationship with her Duelist nor in her resolve as a Shinki.

——I really am useless.

She did not trust in her Duelist, nor was she trusted in turn. Furthermore, she lacked both power and resolve. Truly, she was worthless.

The reality before her, as well as herself, if only all of this – or even everything at large – would simply vanish without a trace!

This feeling rose from deep within her heart.

 

※※※

 

The two had already clashed more than forty times.

Generally speaking, a thin, slender blade would be faster but a larger sword would deal weightier blows.

However, in the face of these weapons and their masters which utterly defied conventional wisdom, this lost all meaning.

“——Ha!”

The heavy mass of metal that was originally sent slicing downward was instead sent flying back even faster than it had come down.

The claymore had been blocked by that thin white blade and sent back where it came.

The owner of the white longsword went on the offensive, unleashing eight strikes in rapid succession.

However, the claymore flashed at a speed that ought not be possible given its size, meeting each and every attack with ease.

Yuuki leapt backward, throwing his sword out in a horizontal sweep.

The divine energy enveloping the blade shot out in a burst, hunting his opponent.

Flames roared forth from Jahar’s sword, canceling out the attack.

The two combatants traded attacks from a distance.

“Hey, hey. Let me see that legendary strength of yours.”

Yuuki answered Jahar’s provocation with silence.

As expected, he was strong – incredibly so. ——That was his honest evaluation.

Although Yuuki’s tenure as a Duelist had been incredibly short, his skills had been nothing to be ashamed of.

Yuuki spared Tina a quick glance. She was biting her lip, watching him anxiously. The intensity of her will to watch his battle to the very end shone through.

“…I give up. If you’re going to have such high expectations, then I guess I can’t take it easy anymore.”

“Huh?”

“Hey, Jahar, I have a question for you. Have you heard the story of the Snow Blade King and Black Demon?”

Jahar frowned slightly.

Yuuki continued his story unbidden.

“After the Snow Blade King was forced to give up his position as a Duelist, Black Demon took over as his successor. He was utterly unlike his predecessor. His blade was black as night, with a heart to match.”

“…And?”

“The previous ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon’ was Muriel. I was her Duelist. Muriel’s successor is Kaya. You are her Duelist. Each Shinki may only have one Duelist in their lifetime. ——Given that, just who is Black Demon?”

“You, of course——!”

Their blades locked. Jahar took a giant stride forward.

The NixSnow Blade blocked the claymore before slashing diagonally upward. The snowy white blade once more directed a burst of divine energy at Jahar who canceled out the attack with a flaming red lotus.

“As the right-hand man of the Serpent of Demise, you killed countless people. The noble reputation of the Snow Blade King remains unchanged to this day, so that must mean you went by another name. I assume that’s what you mean?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

——This next move will decide things.

Yuuki breathed out and held out the NixSnow Blade before him at waist-level. Its divine energy condensed into a frigid aura.

Jahar raised his IgnisFiery Crimson Claymore. Its energy, too, began to concentrate. He was preparing to receive Yuuki’s attack.

“…One last question: what do you think happened to the black blade Black Demon used?”

“Huh?”

“Figure it out. ——Come, howl with all your might, NixSnow Blade!”

“Turn it all to ash, IgnisFiery Crimson Claymore!”

The blasts of red and white crashed into one another, forming a tempest as they vied for victory.

 

※※※

 

(I can win this——!)

Jahar was confident.

Ice and fire were polar opposites, and their natures would cancel one another out. However, he still had energy to spare, and was confident in his ability to overwhelm his opponent.

“This is the eeeeeend!”

In his mind’s eye, he visualized the Snow Blade King’s form amidst the fog covering the area, and sent an enormous blast of flame in his direction.

The explosion swallowed up the Nix’sSnow Blade’s energy signature, overpowering it in an instant before dispersing.

“…How do you like that?” Jahar gasped out, panting as he scanned for any sign of his opponent.

As his vision cleared, he made out the form of a snow-white longsword thrust into the ground.

A lone sword. Where was its master——?

Just as the question rose to the forefront of his mind, the tip of a blade emerged from his chest, having been thrust into him from behind.

“Wha…t…?”

MorsBlack Death Seax, third phase unsealed; this is Black Demon’s sword.”

Yuuki’s voice came from behind him.

He’d completely evaded Jahar’s senses. This man’s true abilities didn’t lay in his graceful swordsmanship, but rather in this…?

A specialization dedicated to a single task – ‘killing.’ An assassin’s arts.

“This is my win, claymore-user.”

“Ua…agh…”

Yuuki extracted his blade. Jahar’s mouth filled with blood as he collapsed to the ground with a thud.

“——Jahar-san!”

A terrible shriek pierced the room.

 

※※※

 

Born to a prostitute, he’d left home at ten, never to return.

He’d wandered, unattached, ever since then.

Penniless, hunger had been his constant companion. He’d started off with petty theft, but it wasn’t long before he graduated to armed robbery. He was good at it, too. By the time he was fifteen, hunger was a thing of the past.

Eventually, there came a time when he’d been hired by the lord of the area as a bodyguard.

The lord was a young man who’d only recently risen to the position. He might not have even been fifteen himself.

The region had been engulfed in bloody war. He’d heard that the man’s parents had been lost to that very conflict.

Having run out of soldiers, he’d been forced to hire mercenaries.

The young man treated others well, and never seemed to lose his spirit no matter how dire the circumstances became.

“I’d love to enlarge these fields some more,” he’d said once, while they were on patrol. “It’s food that sustains the people. As long as we can provide a stable food supply, then our people will be able to continue to flourish. Although we’ve already made many changes to the kinds of crops we grow, and have researched new types of fertilizer and such, in the end, these fields are the key.”

The young man laughed bitterly.

“With our lands caught in the fires of war for so many years now, protecting these fields is nearly impossible. All we can do is win, and keep on winning. ——I have a dream, you know. One of these days, I’m going to establish a land where no one will ever have to go hungry.”

Jahar had thought him delusional. He couldn’t remember what he’d said back then.

However, for him, who’d always lived from moment to moment, it was the first time he’d ever thought about what the future might hold.

Moreover, he wanted to see it. The “future” that young man would bring about.

He was someone who sought to give his people an environment in which they could thrive – a true visionary. If he were to live to see old age, what wonders would be wrought!

——Alas, reality was ever harsh.

The young man’s earnest efforts had brought forth fruit… and aroused the desires of neighboring powers.

Who it was who had engaged them that final time, he had neither known nor cared.

However, on that last battlefield, the forces arrayed against them had been on an entirely different scale than the small skirmishes they’d experienced before. This time, showing how badly they’d wanted the young man’s lands, the enemy had left nothing up to chance.

Jahar had broken through the enemy ranks, and found his way back to their fortress, only to realized he’d been too late – his master had already fallen.

Lost, adrift at the loss of his master, by the time he came to, he was already surrounded.

That was his last memory.

This was an all-too-common experience on the war-torn battlefield.

At that moment, he finally understood that death meant an end to the infinite potential that was life.

Strength, effort, talent, intelligence——

(When you die in battle, none of that means a thing.)

That feeling gripped his very soul.

At the same time, his heart howled with rage on behalf of the young man whom he had been unable to protect.

That’s why.

This time… This time he’d win.

This time, he’d bring his master a victory.

And a future.

 

※※※

 

“Y-Yooooooou!”

Jahar screamed as he lifted his sword once more.

 

※※※

 

Yuuki barely managed to block Jahar’s heavy, heavy strike.

The MorsBlack Death Seax in his hands was barely sixty centimeters in length.

Jahar collapsed to one knee, having spent what little strength remained to him. Blood blossomed from the wound on his chest.

His eyes, however, revealed that he had not yet given up the fight. There wasn’t the slightest hint of retreat in him.

“…You evaded it just slightly, huh? You sure are one heck of a monster, you know?”

Indeed, Yuuki’s one-hit-kill technique had just barely missed Jahar’s heart.

“No! D-Don’t move! Jahar-san! I’ll heal you right away——”

Kaya raced to his side, supporting his body. Focusing, she prepared to use her powers. ——Suddenly, her expression stiffened.

“It’s not… Why? Nothing’s happening…”

“I’m sorry, but it’s useless.”

Yuuki knew how cruel his words were, but he spoke nonetheless.

Mors’Black Death Seax’s third form’s power is ‘certain death.’ ——Wounds inflicted by this weapon cannot be healed by any means – even the reversal of time.”

This had been the weapon that had stolen Muriel’s life. It was the symbol of his suffering.

Yuuki had never intended to use it again, but had been unable to leave it behind. It was his other celestial Dragon Fang weapon.

“You are, without a doubt, strong. Amazingly so. In the face of thousands or even tens of thousands of soldiers, you’d be able to fight on. On that point, you’re stronger than I.”

“You…”

“However, when it comes to a one-on-one duel; well, that’s the stage on which I shine.”

To hone himself into a “tool” designed solely to kill, to achieve this single purpose, he’d trained endlessly.

“——Screw… you!” Jahar managed to say. “I’m… still… alive. Let’s fight once more… As long as there’s another drop of blood left in this body, I’ll fight.”

“Please, I’m begging you. Just forget it. Please, don’t move…”

Jahar pushed Kaya, nearly crying, aside, and stood.

“…The depth of your obsession is staggering. Even like this, you still want to win?”

“Of… course! We mercenaries aren’t hired for our dreams or our ideals but in order to win! Without victory, there is no meaning to our lives!”

Jahar coughed, and crimson blood stained the ground.

He didn’t seem to care; he merely wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Let’s con… tinue.”

He was still conscious. His arms and legs could still move. He could still hold his sword. He hadn’t lost yet.

——His feelings were clearly conveyed to another in the area.

“…I see now,” Tina murmured. “I’d been thinking that it was strange that there could be a Duelist who looked down on his Shinki so, but now I understand. In order for his Shinki to win, he’d do anything, even if that meant that the very person in question would abandon him. If I think about it like that, then everything makes sense. Don’t you agree, Kaya?”

“Eh…?”

Confusion reigned on Kaya’s face; she didn’t seem to have understood.

Yuuki sighed.

“This is what she means. ——Kaya, this guy has not been fighting for ‘victory.’ He’s been fighting for ‘your victory.’ He wants to see you live on, no matter what it takes.”

He’d failed to achieve victory for his previous master.

He’d failed to safeguard his life.

——That was the hole that lay in Jahar’s heart. The regret that had filled him even as death had claimed him.

That he stood here now, swinging his sword – it was all to dispel that regret.

“Jahar-san…?”

Kaya watched her Duelist.

Jahar gently pushed her to the side as he strode forward.

“…Are you… done? Are you… ready… to die?”

He hadn’t given up on victory. No, his eyes burned with conviction.

“——NixSnow Blade.”

Yuuki called forth his comrade of numerous battles.

This would be decided in a single strike.

 

※※※

 

She’d heard everything that Yuuki and Tina had said.

But none of it felt real.

 

——Jahar-san’s obsession with victory… is for my sake?

——Because he wants a coward like me to live on?

 

No, it couldn’t be.

How could it be?

After all, how could someone possibly sacrifice their life for her?

That’s what she thought.

There was one thing she was certain of, though – he wouldn’t stop just because she asked.

So what should she do? What could she do to end this battle?

 

The world was always betraying Kaya’s hopes.

How many times had she dreamed of escape now?

How many times had she wished that this world would simply be destroyed?

 

——Ah. That’s right.

 

The sprout of an idea germinated within her mind.

Slowly it grew, taking form.

 

As the thought took root, the corners of her lips lifted.

This wasn’t something that belonged on the quiet, obedient child she normally was – it was a sadistic, twisted grin.

——It was so simple – she just had to destroy it all. Yes, she’d end herself and take him along with her.

 

※※※

 

“I’m… going to kill you… any moment now…”

It was clearly taking all Jahar had just to keep advancing forward.

His desperation was driven by another’s need.

This was what he, once a “tool” without a will or desires to call his own, had dreamed of becoming – a human.

His actions were worthy of the utmost respect.

——And so, he’d bring this all to an end without drawing things out further.

Hesitation would be a sign of disrespect.

“…Goodbye.”

Yuuki unleashed a slash that should have taken his head clean off his shoulders.

——If it weren’t for what had also happened just then…

“Wha——?!”

Jahar opened his eyes, coughing up blood.

——There was an extra arm in front of him.

The “Shinki Crowned with the Moon” turned back to look at him.

What revealed itself to his eyes was the vision of a young girl’s smiling face.

His master’s smiling face.

“Why…?”

“Because you don’t seem to want to listen to me, Jahar-san.” With a laugh, the “Shinki Crowned with the Moon” continued, “Knowing that, though, made my decision an easy one. If you refuse to listen to me, then I just have to kill you. There’s really no need to suffer through all this; I should have just done this from the beginning. ——You’ve had it hard; it’s time for you to rest now.”

At the sound of skin tearing, Jahar looked down. A large hole had appeared in his chest.

He collapsed.

“Kaya, you…” Tina mumbled, at a loss for words.

“I’m myself, Tina-san. Eh, Yuuki-sensei, do you think I’ve gone mad or something? I’m sorry to say that things have never been clearer. ——You know, I feel pretty good, in fact.”

Kaya’s shoulders trembled slightly. The look on her face couldn’t be taken as anything other than sheer delight.

A Shinki had harmed someone. And was now laughing mercilessly.

In other words——

“The Serpent, is it…?”

Yuuki unwittingly retreated a step.

The survivor of countless life-and-death battles, he’d been struck with an instinctual fear.

(——Shit!)

Yuuki clicked his tongue.

He needed to act. Now. If he delayed even a second, and she wielded the power of miracles to attack, then any hope of victory would be lost.

“Oh my, oh my. You look positively frightening.”

Kaya didn’t appear the least bit worried by the celestial Dragon Fang weapon in Yuuki’s hands. Instead, she casually strolled up to him.

“…Are you the Serpent of Demise?”

“And what will you do if I say yes, Yuuki-sensei?”

The look on her face was utterly unsuited given her physical age, with a hint of lasciviousness.

“You know, whatever happens, it’s all okay! You know, I feel simply superb. Do you understand? I just feel so restless, like I just can’t sit still. No, there are sooooo many things to destroy! Look, like this!”

As she finished speaking, the ground before Yuuki suddenly flew into the air.

Dust filled the air, obstructing his vision. His sight blocked, the only sense remaining to him – his hearing – was replete with the sound of her laughter.

“Tina! Get over here!”

As Yuuki shouted, he took Tina’s tiny body into his arms and leaped backward.

“Master, has Kaya… become that…?”

“…”

He didn’t answer. Cold sweat ran down his back.

All it would take is a single thought and he’d perish. Did he have enough time to counter-attack?

(No——)

Could he really kill Kaya, that timid little student of his?

His hesitation lasted but a moment.

The dust gradually settled. Roughly twelve meters away stood a small Shinki – or Serpent.

Yuuki discarded his second thoughts. Kicking off the ground, he leapt into the air. Suddenly——

“Master! Stop!” Tina cried out.

A figure blocked Yuuki’s attack, countering with great strength.

“Wha——”

Yuuki struggled to maintain his posture as he weathered the blow.

His attacker had spent everything in the attack, however, and he crumpled.

“Jahar…?”

Yuuki frowned.

Indeed, it was Jahar, whose chest had just had a hole punched through it by Kaya.

“…Why would you protect her? She just tried to kill you! She’s a Shinki no longer!”

“…”

Jahar’s body shook.

Perhaps his body was convulsing from shock caused by his injuries, or perhaps he’d spent himself so thoroughly he didn’t even have the energy left to hold himself up…

Yuuki’s thoughts were, however, wrong.

“Bahahahahahahaha!”

He was laughing. From the bottom of his heart.

He gazed up at Yuuki, whom had been struck speechless.

“You sure look stupid right now, Snow Blade King. ——This is seriously laughable; that you and I could be taken in this easily. Despite having the strength of monsters, we’re fools, you and I. To think that a little girl could fool us this completely. Isn’t that a hoot?!”

“Wait… what?”

Yuuki turned his gaze back to Kaya.

The girl stood a ways off.

The look on her face… was the familiar, timid, insecure expression she always wore. The look of madness from just a moment before had vanished without a trace.

“Jahar-san, why… why did you get up?”

Kaya looked at her Duelist through tear-filled eyes.

“Why… would you waste all of my effort?! If you had just quietly stayed down, then you… you could have been saved——!”

“…I never asked you to save me.”

Jahar rose to his feet once more, and turned.

The hole in his chest had shrunken noticeably, and bleeding had stopped.

“So you can use time reversal in that way…” Tina whispered.

Yuuki finally understood.

Wounds inflicted by the MorsBlack Death Seax could not be healed by any method.

For that reason, Kaya had destroyed the cursed, surrounding flesh and used her powers to heal the new wound.

Because she hadn’t intended to “harm” him at all, but rather to “heal” him, the mental block hadn’t affected her. This was just like when Tina had cut Selim in order to help him.

“It was… all an act?”

Her deranged language and mad laughter – it was all an act.

In other words, she’d pretended to be the Serpent of Demise based on the description Yuuki had given. Her goal had been to get Yuuki to retreat, or, at worst, to gain the time needed to heal Jahar.

Even though she knew she might have been killed for having been the “Serpent.”

(She got me.)

Yuuki admitted it freely.

Unfortunately, as far as he was concerned, the worst case scenario had just happened.

“Jahar-san, please, don’t——”

Jahar ignored her pleading, and pushing her aside, strode forward and took up his weapon once more.

Yes, as long as he still breathed, the battle would continue.

“Sorry for the wait. Let’s continue this.”

“…So in the end, nothing’s changed, huh?”

Yuuki stooped slightly, readying himself.

Kaya likely had no energy left. What she’d done just now had been the gamble of a lifetime.

If that was the case, then all he had to do was kill his enemy once again.

“Jahar… san…”

“I’ve already seen everything you had hidden up your sleeve. That you think you can still win; your arrogance is astounding.”

“Give it a try and you’ll see.”

“Yeah, allow me to enjoy this——”

“Jahar-san!” Kaya shouted at full volume, simultaneously dealing Jahar’s knee a savage kick.

It was a completely unexpected ambush. It’d been executed so perfectly that this man, whose swordsmanship had reached divine levels, could only scream pitifully before falling to one knee.

At this, Yuuki’s jaw just about hit the floor.

“…Mm, I see,” Tina said admiringly. “Just now, she must have thought that she’d stop him at any cost.”

Kaya didn’t seem to have realized it herself.

“C-Cut it out already! Why won’t you listen to me?!”

“…Because I don’t want to lose. Man, this really hurts.”

Jahar frowned as he massaged his knee.

“Is winning really that important? …Is it really all that important that I win?!”

“Winning is my job. ——Alright, it’s time for you step back now, Kaya-chan. You’ll get caught up in our fight like this.”

“And what are you getting so worked up about that for? This fight is between the Shinki!”

“All the more reas——”

Jahar cut himself off mid-sentence.

Because Kaya, on the verge of breaking down crying, had gripped his clothes with both hands.

“As a Shinki… this is my battle. That’s why… I’m the one who gets to decide. What meaning there is in battle, what we consider victory, what we consider loss, the value of all of these things – I’ll be the one to decide! That’s how it has to be!”

“…”

“From the very beginning, this should have been my responsibility. But because I refused to do anything but cry, and only sought to escape the situation, you took it all upon yourself.”

Her head bowed regretfully.

“I’ve committed two sins. The first was in not realizing what my duty was. The other was in not stopping to think about what it was you needed. ——Duelists are also numbered among those whom the Shinki must protect.”

“Kaya-chan, I——”

“To me, victory is——!” Kaya ignored Jahar’s protestation, continuing to speak as if he had never interrupted, “——to live as I will. And right now, what I want is for you to stop, and I will see to it that that happens. What I want is to understand you better, and I will make that happen. That is victory to me. Now——”

Kaya smiled.

“Jahar-san, please protect me now and forever. That I might do as I will.”

“…”

Jahar fell silent. Finally, still kneeling, he bowed his head.

——What Yuuki saw now was nothing less than a knight, bowing before his queen.

“…What would you have me do, Kaya-chan?” Jahar asked with a sigh as he lifted his head.

Kaya turned to face Yuuki.

“How about a ceasefire? We’ll call it a draw.”

“I wonder. What makes you think I want to accept your terms?” Yuuki replied, coolly. “Even if his wound has been healed, the lost blood hasn’t replenished itself. He is far from peak physical condition. Moreover, Tina – Kaya only healed the wound itself, correct?”

“Yes.”

The Shinki nodded.

“That means you don’t have the energy to spare to bring him back to full health. There’s nothing you can do right now.”

“Is Tina not in the same situation?”

“I am. I can’t do a thing.”

The stupidly honest Shinki made Yuuki frown.

“…Anyway, as I was saying, things are in my favor right now. I am, after all, the only one that’s completely unhindered.”

“Really?”

Kaya looked askance.

“Are you sure that I have no energy left? That’s just a guess, isn’t it, Yuuki-sensei?”

“…Even if you’re not completely out of energy, there’s not much you can do with so little left.”

If she really had more divine energy available to her, as she was implying, then she’d have chosen different methods for stopping Jahar and dealing with the cave-in.

Kaya thought for a moment and then continued.

“Then Yuuki-sensei—— My actions as the Serpent of Demise… do they really prove that I’m not the Serpent of Demise?”

“…”

He understood what she meant.

Differentiating between the actions of the true Serpent and someone simply pretending to be it was impossible.

The human body was terribly fragile. The tiniest hole in one’s head and you were dead. If she truly was the Serpent, then the tiniest pittance of divine energy would be all it took to end his life.

He couldn’t read anything from Kaya’s poker face. The gentle smile on her face revealed nothing of her inner thoughts.

She was even now fighting, in her own way.

Proudly, with her head held high.

Demonstrating that she, too, was one of the Shinki.

“…Alright then. Let’s call it a draw, and end things here.”

“——T-Thank you.”

As she spoke, Kaya visibly relaxed. She’d thrown everything into her bluff.

Still, it was worthy of praise——

“If you look so obviously relieved, then you reveal your bluff, Kaya. Even when you feel things are finally over, you can’t give up the pretense. This was just a verbal promise, after all; it’s a trivial thing to go back on one’s word.”

“Oh… I-I’ll try to remember…”

“Tina, that goes for you too. The heck were you doing telling her you were out of energy? In the future, please refrain from showing your enemy your hand, alright?”

“Hmm? Who cares about that – it’s fine.”

The Shinki on this side hadn’t the least intention of reflecting on her actions.

“Kaya aside, you never had any intention of continuing, Master. Tina knows you.”

“…”

Although the way she spoke, like she’d seen through everything, was maddening enough, the fact that she was right was even worse.

Not only had he not wanted to fight Kaya in the first place, he’d been lying about how tired he was.

“This is a pretty crappy way for things to turn out. We’ve wasted that much effort, and for nothing.”

Disappearing his weapon, Jahar sat down on the ground. It seemed he’d agreed to the ceasefire.

“How are we going to explain this to the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’? El-chan is going to be pretty mad. ——Kaya-chan, I leave it to you. Explain all this to her, alright?”

“Eh? M-Me? T-That’s…”

Kaya looked ready to cry.

Watching the scene before him, Yuuki began to consider how to deal with the aftermath of the situation.

They all needed medical care, plus Alfred had to be taken to the hospital.

Could they possibly break through the walls? Perhaps if they waited here, the rescue team would eventually find them——

“This is the Stellar Shinki’s doing right? Do you have any way to contact her?”

“There’s no need to do that. She’s definitely been listening this entire time——”

The two Shinki suddenly called out frantically.

“Master!”

“Something’s coming!”

Teleportation – a miracle which could only be reproduced by one of the Shinki.

“…Looks like she’s pre~tty ticked off,” Jahar murmured.

An enormous body, surpassing ten meters in length, appeared at the immediate center of the room.

Although it had to be said that its most pertinent attribute wasn’t its size.

It was a reptile which walked on two legs, with deep blue scales, vicious talons, and a tail.

Finally, it boasted an offensive power capable of penetrating the ScutumHoly Shield of Duelists and Shinki with ease.

“The ‘Azure Lake Void Dragon’…” Yuuki muttered.

It was one of only twelve legendary monsters which inhabited their world. To think that she’d even send something like this over.

She’d likely pinpointed the moment when they were all at their weakest. She clearly planned to clear the board in one go.

“To think she’d even use a celestial Dragon Fang weapon. Just how badly do you want us dead, El-chan? ——Ho.”

Again materializing his IgnisFiery Crimson Claymore, he knocked aside an incoming talon. Unable to completely reflect the force of the blow however, he was forced to his knees. The smile disappeared from his face.

Only an attack from a celestial Dragon Fang weapon’s second or third phase would be able to harm a Void Dragon.

However, the use of these weapons consumed tremendous amounts of stamina. Jahar didn’t think he had it in him anymore. More than likely, Yuuki did not either.

Looking down at these pitiful humans with contempt, the Azure Lake Void Dragon opened its mouth. From deep within its throat, a blue light began to gather.

“…Its Breath is coming!”

There was nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run.

Suddenly, something struck the beast’s right eye.

Its eye was, of course, protected by the ScutumHoly Shield, but the attack had invited its wrath. It turned to face its attacker——

“Distance, angle – all accounted for. FulgurYellow Lightning Longbow, second phase – ho.”

In contrast to the leisurely voice which had just spoken, an arrow flashed toward its opponent like lightning.

The Void Dragon howled in agony. This time, the attack had penetrated straight through its ScutumHoly Shield, and pierced directly into its right eyeball.

“…Uncle?”

“Hey.”

Alfred laughed.

“I just came to. Looks like I’ve caused a few problems for you guys.”

“What’s that you’re holding…?”

“The celestial Dragon Fang weapon, ‘Yellow Lightning Longbow.’ To be honest, I’ve always been more of an archer. ——Unfortunately, a second-phase release is my limit.”

As he calmly conversed, he continued to fire off arrows – arrows which rematerialized after each shot.

The Void Dragon, however, was unperturbed by such repetitious attacks. It raised one of its razor-sharp talons and deflected his shots. Several of the arrows managed to get through, embedding themselves in its body, but as they were all in its arm, they posed no threat to its life.

“Alas, I don’t think this is doing much. As expected, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to take it down like this. You Duelists really are amazing, I have to say – being able to do battle with a monster like this.”

“How can you still be this calm? If we don’t figure something out——”

“I have an arrangement with the person who lent me this bow. These arrows are a signal for help.”

He sure seemed to be at ease, given how he was still saying things that didn’t make any sense.

“If she’s in the area, then she’ll hone in on its energy signature and come looking…”

“I’m already here——”

From behind came a young girl’s voice, speaking in a carefree tone.

Yuuki turned to look, and couldn’t help but frown at what he saw.

“You——”

“Let’s finish this conversation later. For now, Sera, you’re up.”

Following the young girl’s gaze…

Above the head of the Void Dragon, skimming just below the ceiling of the labyrinth, a silhouette could be seen.

——To be more precise, it wasn’t so much that you could “see” her there, as that she had suddenly appeared there. She’d teleported to her current position.

It was a young girl, slender as a reed, dressed in a cleric’s robes.

However, the weapon she held in her hands was something no cleric could ever carry.

From the silvery hilt she held in her hands extended a chunk of metal so massive as to border on the absurd.

“——SaxumSilver Battle Pick, third-form.”

Mumbling, she added the force of her downward trajectory into a terrific blow with her weapon.

Killed before it could even cry out, the Azure Lake Void Dragon was flattened by her attack; the aftermath of her strike creating a crater twenty meters in diameter.

“W-What the hell…” Jahar mumbled, entirely at a loss.

“That is one of the celestial Dragon Fang weapons, boasting the greatest destructive power among their number,” Yuuki replied.

It went without saying that its master boasted an arm strength that was anything but ordinary.

“…It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Lea.”

“As you humans count time, yeah, I guess it has. You’ve grown, Yuuki.”

“It’s already been five years since I ceased to be a Duelist, after all.”

The last time these two had met, he’d been thirteen.

As they conversed, the girl who had turned a Void Dragon into a pancake walked over to join them; her Dragon Fang weapon nowhere to be seen.

“Good work, Sera. ——This is my first time meeting the three of you. Let me introduce myself. My name is Lea, the ‘Shinki who Supports the Sky.’ This frail looking girl over here is Serafina. She’s my Duelist. It’s a pleasure to meet you, juniors of mine.”

“The Sky——?” Kaya yelped. “As in, the one who controls the Oath Legion with the most influence?”

“Is that really the case, Master?”

“…You had better remember something that basic. We sell Reliquia in my store, so you should at least know the relative rankings of the Oath Legions, alright?”

“If I say that Stefan Klose is one of my subordinates, then that should do it for you, right? Oh, and that guy too – there was a time he was a part of my Legion.”

Lea tilted her head in Jahar’s direction.

“…You let me in, knowing who I was?”

“Hmm? Why not? As long as they bring in Reliquia, what do I care whether you’re an adventurer or a Duelist? Of course, if you had done anything too extreme, I would have taken appropriate measures.”

“I can’t deal with this person,” Jahar’s face read.

Yuuki mirrored his sentiment, though he and Lea were neither strangers nor enemies. She was hard to handle, Lea.

She was an impossible person to read. She lived her life whimsically; anything was okay as long as it was interesting. Moreover, the speed with which her mind leaped around left others at a complete loss.

It didn’t matter whether she was your enemy or your ally – she was difficult to deal with.

“Might I inquire as to why you are here, O ‘Shinki who Supports the Sky’?” Yuuki asked.

“I’m here because someone called me here… Elfriede – the ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars’ – has been acting strangely, so I pretended to be an adventurer and came here to investigate. Moreover, I wanted to know just how it was she knew about the ‘Sixth,’ and what she planned to do about it. ——Oh, almost forgot.”

Lea snapped her fingers. In a flash, the wounds covering her body vanished.

It was a fantastic work of illusion. It would be too eye-catching were an adventurer not to bear any hints of wounds traversing the labyrinth, so she’d worked a little magic.

Serafina pretended to be a cleric for the same reasons. From what Yuuki knew of her, it was only once she laid hands upon that weapon of hers that her true nature would reveal itself. However, her physical strength, battle prowess, and judgment were a mismatch with her appearance, instead exceptional to the point of abnormality. She would, without a doubt, draw notice.

“You have eyes in the city, and yet you go to such efforts to hide your own identity?”

Yuuki noticed that Alfred smiled wryly in response to his words.

“Of course. I’m the kind of person who’s generous when it comes to myself and strict when it comes to others,” Lea admitted shamelessly. “Oh, don’t misunderstand, though. It’s not like I was particularly trying to keep tabs on you and Albertina. That you were picked up by the old man or that you picked up the Sixth in turn was simply coincidence. You guys just happened to stumble into my network, and so I took notice.”

“…’Took notice,’ is it?”

“That’s why I’m here talking to you, isn’t it? Now then, let’s get to the main issue——”

Lea smiled faintly.

“‘Sixth Shinki’ and ‘One Crowned with the Moon’ – how would you like to form an alliance?”

 

※※※

 

A hill overlooking a labyrinth entrance.

Elfriede bit her lip as she observed what was going on within.

(I’ve failed…)

Not only had she used both the Duelist and Shinki of the Moon, she’d even used up a celestial Dragon Fang weapon, and all for naught.

She hadn’t foreseen the interference of the “Shinki who Supports the Sky.” She’d originally planned on sacrificing anything and everything to see Yuuki and Tina dead, but… that wasn’t possible anymore. There was no way she could afford to make an enemy of the Sky, who possessed the greatest battle strength of all the powers.

“…Kai, we’re leaving. Back to the tem——”

“Too slow~”

Elfriede spun in the direction of the voice, her eyes widening in surprise. There stood three people.

The “Shinki who Supports the Sky,” Lea, Yuuki, and Tina.

“You should really retreat the second failure strikes. Your judgment is too slow by far, Elfriede.”

Lea’s gaze wandered over to Elfriede’s right hand.

“I see now, the Void Marquetry, is it? You seriously messed up the layout of the labyrinth and gave those poor adventurers quite some trouble, you know?”

“——How did you know I was here?” Elfriede managed to ask, at last.

She’d been watching the situation via Jahar the entire time. If she’d seen the smallest hint that her location had been given away, she’d have retreated in an instant.

“You twice performed a teleportation and were even piggybacking on Jahar’s sight and hearing. After using that much divine energy, finding you was pretty easy.”

“…I see. The wisdom of the elderly, is it?”

As with human clerics, the proficiency with which the Shinki wielded divine energy varied. Lea was the oldest among the current five – or rather, six.

Elfriede slowly regained her calm.

“So, what have you come here to do?”

“We’re not here to do anything.”

The one to answer was Yuuki. Angrily, he continued.

“We almost died.”

“We are, from the very start, enemies. No matter what I may or may not have done, what right do you have to complain? Anyway, my goal has been to slay the Serpent of Demise. In order to fulfill my duties as a protector of the people, I can’t allow her to live.”

As Elfriede spoke, she simultaneously searched for a way out.

Lea would disrupt any attempts at teleportation. When it came to their abilities with divine energy, there was an insurmountable gap between them.

(But still——)

Yuuki didn’t exhibit any bloodlust. It didn’t look like he was here for revenge. Just what on earth are they planning…? Suddenly, the smallest of the three stepped forward.

“This is our first time meeting, ‘Shinki who Scatters the Stars.’ I am Albertina. As there is no place for me among the temples, you may refer to me instead as the ‘Shinki that Dwells in the City.'”

“…”

“The Shinki must fight one another. That much I know. However—— To be killed without ever knowing the reason, that I cannot accept. What did you say Tina was? The… um, Ser-… ‘Serpent of Delight’?”

Tina turned to look at Yuuki uncertainly.

“What kind of happy-go-lucky apocalyptic beast is that? It’s ‘demise,’ ‘demise.'”

“Right. ——Tina isn’t this Serpent of Demise. Now that this misunderstanding’s been cleared up, I want to speak with you further.”

“…Your way of thinking is far too optimistic.”

Yuuki nodded his head in agreement with Elfriede’s words.

“But——”

The expression on the small Shinki’s face contrasted her original intent. Yuuki placed his hands atop her head and laughed.

“Right now, my job is to protect this girl and affirm her words.”

Elfriede turned back to look at Lea once more.

“A ‘Shinki who loves to kill’ is a threat to this world and its people – to us all. Do you really not understand that? Do you really believe their explanation?”

“I do!”

“They have no proof?”

“That’s not for certain.”

Lea revealed a mischievous smirk.

“Think for just a moment, Elfriede. I’m sure you can figure it out? If there’s a reason that I can be sure that this Tina girl isn’t the Serpent, then it’s because——”

“——!”

Elfriede gasped. Indeed, there was an explanation.

In other words, Lea was——

“You see? Would you like your ‘proof’ now?”

“Aaaah——”

A smile on her face, Lea advanced toward Elfriede, whom, retreating, collapsed untidily on her bottom. Lea’s divine energy began to concentrate within her——

A metallic crash echoed through the air.

Kai, having stood silently by Elfriede’s side all this while, had slashed at Lea’s neck. His blow had been met by the pure white longsword in Yuuki’s hands.

“Would you mind not scaring my master like that?”

Although his voice was calm and steady, a violent bloodlust could be felt emanating from him.

“Even if she puts up such a haughty facade, she’s really quite the coward, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I only scared her.”

“Ugh, seriously! Would it kill you idiots not to cause so much trouble?!” Yuuki roared as he blocked a second blade with his black one.

Kai’s celestial Dragon Fang weapon was the VentusPaired Blades of Amethyst Wind. It was a pair of blades, unique for their exquisite speed.

“Why don’t we stow those weapons first? We were just double-checking, after all. ——Sorry for the hassle, Yuuki.”

Slowly, Kai opened some distance between them and Yuuki, clicking his tongue, put his weapons away.

“What do you want?”

“Well, we’ve already confirmed it, right? ——From her reaction, she’s definitely not the Serpent.”

“…”

Elfriede finally realized she’d just been tested, and she blushed in embarrassment.

Indeed, were she the Serpent, then she wouldn’t have shown such a unsightly display of fear.

“Still, not the least bit of hesitation from you, Stellar Duelist. Were I the Serpent in truth, then you would be dead right now.”

“Even were that the case, my duties would not change, unfortunately.”

Kai shrugged, smiling.

“It’s just death. How could I abandon my duties over something as trivial as that?”

“Kai…”

Elfriede’s eyes filled with tears.

“She is, after all, a useless good-for-nothing that no one could in good conscience abandon. Believe me, I know.”

“Oh, I see.”

“…”

Why would you affirm something like that?

Lea laughed, as if to change the mood.

“I apologize for scaring you just now. The reason I believe Yuuki is because I knew Muriel – the previous ‘Shinki Crowned with the Moon’ – from way back. More specifically, it’s because I watched her change. In other words, the Serpent is not something ‘innate’ to a person, but rather something you ‘become.’ My judgment is based on that experience. ——Accordingly, potential candidates are not restricted solely to this girl alone, but rather, to all of us. That includes you, of course, Elfriede.”

“…”

“Consequently, in order to better understand what happened before, and thus, what will happen next, I need Yuuki’s experience. I can’t allow you to kill him.”

“I don’t think she’s just going to accept that, though?” Yuuki interrupted. “Even though her mouth is full of pretty words like ‘for the world and its people,’ in truth, her motivating factor is not that, but fear and hate. Logic will not overcome those feelings of hers.”

“——!”

Elfriede felt the blood rush to her head, and she stood in a hurry.

“You – What gives you the right to say that!? Five years ago, the ones who executed my entire Oath Legion were you and that Shinki of yours!”

Tina looked at Yuuki worriedly.

Yuuki’s expression didn’t change; he simply sighed.

“You’re right. If you want me to apologize, then I’ll apologize. It’s not that I expect you to forgive me, or even that I think I ought to be forgiven – this isn’t the kind of thing you forgive. That said——” Yuuki continued in a calm voice, “If I were again thrust into the same situation, I would do exactly the same thing. At that time, what I wanted to protect was neither this world nor its people. ——You guys don’t look like you can stomach my words; that’s fine, but nevertheless, those are my sincere feelings. I have no desire to go through all of that again.”

“…”

“Allow me to repeat, we’re enemies here. If you ever try to kill me again, I will hunt you with everything I have. It’s just that I have no desire to ever see ‘that’ happen again; on that point, we are agreed.”

“…I can’t deny that.”

The Serpent and Yuuki had been terrifying. Loathsome. Abominable.

However, a Shinki could not allow herself to fall victim to her passions.

Even a “good-for-nothing” had her pride.

“Good. Then let’s talk. That’s why I’ve made my way here to see you. ——In order to begin, let me ask you a question: why do you want to protect this world?”

Elfriede frowned. She couldn’t understand where his question was coming from.

“The world and its people need to be protected, don’t they? It’s one of the duties of a Shinki.”

“It’s precisely this point which strikes me as abnormal. ——Hey, Tina.”

“Yes, Master?”

“Is protecting the world and its people really so wonderful?”

“Of course.”

“Why would you ask something so obvious?” the girl’s expression said.

“T-That’s why it’s necessary for the Shinki to wager it all to protect it, right?”

“…Do you agree?” Yuuki asked, turning to Elfriede and Lea.

“Yep,” Lea affirmed.

Elfriede nodded her head.

“Amazing. So none of you have realized the abnormality yet?”

The three Shinki looked completely bewildered.

“Oh, don’t misunderstand. It’s not your thoughts that are strange, but rather the order of things that’s off.”

The one to reply wasn’t one of the three Shinki, but Kai.

“…The sequence, right?”

“Exactly. 《This world is wonderful》《so it must be protected.》 Were that the way you thought, then it’d be fine, but it’s not. Your decision was made before you ever had the chance to judge the situation for yourselves. That’s backward.”

“…Can you make your explanation a little simpler?” Tina asked, dissatisfied.

“Sure. No matter how you look at it, for all of you to come into this world thinking that ‘this world is wonderful’ is impossible. You haven’t experienced any of it yet, after all. And yet, for some reason you have this compulsion to protect this world from the very beginning.”

To Elfriede, that was simply the way things were.

Was it really so strange…? She could somewhat understand his reasoning, but she wasn’t convinced.

“What makes all of this more interesting still is that if it weren’t for that sense of duty ingrained in all of you from the start, this world could not continue to exist.”

“That’s because the Heavenly King… wants us to protect this world…”

“Then would that purpose not be better served by having all of you cooperate in leading and guiding the people?”

Elfriede could not accept his words.

“The gate to another world lying at the lowest depths of the Magna PortaGreat Gate can only be opened by a single Shinki. Moreover, opening that gate requires a tremendous amount of divine energy. That’s why——”

“That’s why ‘the Shinki must fight to the death’? That doesn’t make sense; there should be no need to fight, right? Couldn’t you simply appoint one among you to take the role? Well, that’s assuming your purpose really is to save people, anyway.”

“——! I, I really do want to save——!”

“I’m not doubting that.”

Yuuki’s voice was extremely calm.

“The fear and loathing you feel toward the Serpent of Demise and myself is definitely real. However, you were still very careful with how you acted on those feelings. Starting with the opening act in the city, you separated us from other adventurers, and even ensured we always had water. There’s only one reason you’d expend all that effort – because you wanted to avoid harming anyone beyond Tina and myself. ——Now let me ask – given all that you are capable of, why do the Shinki need to kill one another? Moreover, why is this world so conveniently arranged as if designed specifically for that purpose?”

Elfriede had no answer. His question had shaken her.

“The Serpent of Demise is another example. Its existence serves one purpose——”

“It prevents the Shinki from entering into a stalemate,” Lea finished.

Her normally cheerful countenance had all but disappeared.

“It’s possible for the five to enter a stalemate by avoiding combat entirely. However, once the Serpent appears, that balance will be broken. Things will have to be settled. ——It seems like that’s a side-effect of the Serpent’s existence.”

“It’s not just a ‘side-effect,’ but rather that someone intentionally designed it just for that purpose. Tell me, don’t you think that this world almost seems like it was purposely designed to be a battleground for a battle royal?”

Yuuki’s question was directed at everyone present.

“The Church teaches that this is the will of the Heavenly King, but let me ask you – have any of you seen the Heavenly King? Asked him what he’s thinking?”

No one answered.

Indeed, that was what was taught as well as what the Shinki were born “knowing.”

However, not one of these Shinki had ever before seen the Heavenly King.

“I would like to ask him. Why, why Muriel had to become that kind of thing?!”

Yuuki did his best to control his voice, but the depths of the rage and sorrow in his heart could still be clearly felt.

When he’d been serving Muriel, he’d never really conversed with Elfriede before. The only impression she’d had of him – his slaughtering of her subordinates – had been of a vile, cruel, and emotionless murderer.

——However, she realized now that her perception of him was wrong.

“For these five years, I’ve kept my distance from the labyrinth and I’ve been thinking. Always, always thinking. I don’t have any motivation in mind so grand as this world or the people around me. No, all I ever wanted was to give her death meaning – purpose.”

Tina looked at Yuuki, a strange expression on her face. However, he continued, not allowing another the chance to speak.

“——That’s why, I want us to form an alliance. This is not for the sake of victory in battle, but rather to in order to reject this hateful world – an alliance to ensure that we all continue to live on.”

 

Translator notes and references

None.