Thanks to Yeb for the immediate proofreading.
Chapter 1's long. Still have part 4 to go.
The turfs were wet with morning dew and were gently giving off a comfortable fragrance of the grass.
The skies of dawn was gradually turning from red to white, and then to the color of deep blue. And on the grounds that were reflecting the colors of the skies—
"Eh? I'm lost?"
In the middle of a huge clearing of the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>, Sheltis looked around in a confused state.
"Strange, I remember that I took a left turn along this path yesterday."
"Shel—tis—? That's the reason I asked you to follow the directions stated in the electronic map."
"Ugh. I thought I didn't need to worry, since Iris is here."
Ymy guided him to a shortcut yesterday before the enrollment ceremony, and Sheltis tried to take the path today. However, he was lost before he knew it.
"So, in which direction should I be going?"
"Sorry. I was sleeping then, therefore I did not record the route you had taken."
"Machines need to sleep too?"
"Because, the lack of sleep is the biggest nemesis for a woman's skin."
The crystal machine <Iris> said with a sweet voice.
"The lack of sleep will actually affect the surface of an artificial crystal?"
"But of course. The lighting mechanisms of the crystal will be affected should my operating capabilities drop. As such, I'll conduct regular maintenance on myself to delete all unnecessary memories that are within me. That is my so called 'sleep', and it just so happens that it goes in line with the saying, 'beauty should start from within."
"...... Having heard your detailed and serious explanation, I really don't know how to reply to that."
What a headache. He could no longer remember the correct path due to that.
"I advise you to retrace your steps, and follow the correct route as shown on the digital map."
"Man, seems like that is my only option left."
He gave a shrug, and turned to face the direction he came from. Just then, he came into eye contact with the girl that was walking behind him.
"...... You are......"
Sheltis was rooted to the ground. His eyes widened.
The first thing that came to his sight, was the bright sakura-colored hair.
That hair was tied to the back in a ponytail, and was shimmering brilliantly under the rays of the sun. Her grey eyes were giving off a faint glow of blue. There was a mature air around her, and that was coupled with a calm voice and a sharp gaze.
— The girl who was staring at me yesterday?
"Ah...... Urm, well......"
Should I ask her about yesterday? Is it the right time to ask?
There was a chance that he may be misunderstanding things. Just as Sheltis was hesitating on how to raise the question, the girl raised her hand and pointed at the pathway,
"There is no need to go back. You can reach the training ground by going straight after the left turn along this path."
"You must be lost, right? It is common for the new cadet guards."
And with that, she walked along the route she had just mentioned. As the sight of her back got smaller and smaller—
"...... She's gone."
Sheltis watched her go with a confused gaze.
Who exactly is she? Though she doesn't seem like a bad person.
Close to twenty cadet guards were standing in a line on the outdoor training grounds.
The cadet guards ranged from girls who weren't even fifteen, to guys who were past their thirties. Everyone was wearing the pure white ceremonial clothing that was assigned to them not long ago.
Everyone was sweating buckets, as they bathed in the rays of the sun.
"...... There are generally four types of guards in the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. You guys are the cadet guards. The second group are the official guards of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>, the regular guards that carry out missions to protect the Priestesses. The third group are the elite guards - the leader or cadres ranked guards in charge of managing the regular guards. Finally, the exclusive guardians of the Priestesses with the special rank - 'Sennenshi'."
The only person who had a relaxed expression on her face, was Instructor Yumelda from yesterday.
Despite wearing the same dark blue suit with a tie she had on yesterday, she didn't even break a sweat, even under the merciless sun.
"Therefore, your top priority should be to become a regular guard. Though of course...... should you continue to remain a cadet guard, you will still be assigned missions, but not those that involve protecting the Priestesses, which is the most important of them all. That would be quite pointless for you guys, right?"
She wrote that info on the whiteboard with smooth handwriting, only to erase all of it a few seconds later. That was perhaps so that the cadet guards would be forced to remember it all in their heads.
"Also, aside from the term 'guards', the term 'members' will sometimes be used as a form of address. If so—"
The female instructor was lecturing non-stop, while the cadet guards were standing motionlessly and listening to her attentively. In the corner of the group of people, crystal machine <Iris> spoke in a soft voice,
"Sheltis, do you need me to record this?"
"For the moment, no. I went through all of this three years ago."
He gave a slight shrug so as not to let the people around him notice. Just then—
"Oi, the newcomer from yesterday."
Without any warning, the instructor standing by the whiteboard suddenly pointed towards Sheltis' direction.
"Why don't you try explaining the difference between the two methods of addressing each other?"
"Eh...... Ehhh...... Who me?"
"Seems like she fancies you quite a bit."
Sheltis gave a flick at the snickering crystal machine <Iris> so as to make her shut up.
"...... I think the term 'members' includes the apprentice-Priestesses."
"That's right. When the term 'members' is used, it refers to the regular guards, the elite guards and the apprentice-Priestesses. The Sennenshi and the Priestesses are all of a special rank, so they do not fall under this rule. Oi, what's with that expression of yours, as if you were already done with all of these? Next question."
"The ranks of apprentice-Priestesses and cadet guards, have the terms 'apprentice' and 'cadet' in their respective name. Explain the difference between the two."
...... Let's see.
All he could depend on was the knowledge he learned three years ago, but he was not sure if it was still applicable now.
"Well...... the cadet guards are not official staff here, while the apprentice-Priestesses are ranked equally to the regular guards, which means they fall under the official staff as well...... something like that?"
"Ho? Looks like you've studied quite a bit on your basic knowledge before coming here."
Instructor Yumelda showed an intimidating and seemingly malicious smile.
"All in all, you guys have to remember this! You are the cadet guards, or in other words, you all aren't even considered to be official members of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. And because of that, I'll be thoroughly training all of you starting today. Work on your physical strength for a year first. No one is allowed to touch their weapons prior to that!"
"..... It's one year in theory, but that's still really long."
One year is wasted on physical training. And with the combat training that follows, heaven knows how long it will take before one can rise to the ranks of a regular guard. At the rate things are going, he may not even reach the ranks of a Sennenshi even after ten years.
...... I can't make Ymy wait for that long.
"Iris, do you have any good ideas?"
"As a cadet guard who has only been around for two days, it is best to assume that you have no right to speak. It will be safer to just go along with the flow for now. However, there may be a glimmer of good luck that appears in the midst of all these bad luck."
Sheltis was unsure of what the crystal machine <Iris> was trying to say.
For the past few days - especially after his enrollment into the team - was there any incident that could be considered as lucky?
"Oi, the newcomer over there. Come here for a while."
Instructor Yumelda's holler shattered that thought of his immediately.
"Seeing as you are extremely talented, I have already created a special training regime for you. You should be crying your eyes out and thanking me for my care and concern towards you."
"See? Here's your good luck."
Just as I had said — the crystal machine <Iris> said that triumphantly. Sheltis was too lazy to give a retort, and resorted to looking up at the sky.
"...... I know I'm not in the position to be complaining, but that's just way too 'lucky'."
A huge outdoor training ground where one can see the horizon. There's lots of different terrains within it.
Flat grasslands, a red wilderness filled with rubble, a hilly terrain, and even a torrential waterfall. All possible terrains in the floating continent had been faithfully replicated here via artificial means.
The sound of shoes sinking into the compact sand reverberated in the sand dunes.
The grains of sand, which consists of some metallic elements, were reflecting off the rays of the sun that shone onto them. Due to the heat radiation coming from all directions, the surrounding temperature is kept at a steady rate of above forty degrees Celsius. Depending on the weather conditions, it is said that the temperature can hit above fifty in some cases.
An endless run around the man-made desert. That was the so called 'warm-up' as instructed by Yumelda.
"It's so hot! Sheltis, I am about to go black."
"Nothing's wrong with a little tan...... As for me, I don't think I can hold on much longer."
The temperature was constantly sapping away his bodily fluids, while the heavy sands were causing a drag in his steps. He had probably ran for around two hours under those conditions.
"Hoo, seems like you are finally getting tired."
"...... Instructor Yumelda, can I ask something? Why do I have to carry Instructor on my back and run the full course, even though the terrain is already difficult to navigate as it is?"
Upon hearing the voice from his back, Sheltis asked the question without bothering to turn his head around.
"But it feels really enjoyable for me."
"That's not the case for me at all! How is this a 'warm-up'!?"
"Yeah, I've been waiting for you to say that."
A deep voice rang next to his ears.
"After an initial intensive and torturous training session on the very first day, it will be interesting to see how many people are able to hold on and continue with the morning practice on the second day. To be blunt, this is a sort of entry test created by yours truly."
She was creating a setback for everyone on the very first day, in order to test their mental strength to see if they can take it in stride. If they could not recover from the training, then they will not be able to endure the harsher training in the future. If that was the case, then it would be better to make them quit now, and walk another path instead.
That was her responsibility as the instructor of the cadet guards, and an act of goodwill as well.
"So you should burn away all your energy quickly, or else the test will not end."
"That's way too much!"
He re-positioned Yumelda on his back, and once again ran up the sand dune in front of him.
His views suddenly broadened. From above the sand dune, he could see the nostalgic greens of the turf.
"So are you done? Well, your body should be all warmed up with that, right?"
"It's not just warmed up. My body is totally burning......"
After placing the instructor down from his back, Sheltis wiped off the sweat on his neck.
"It's the same. Alright, continue your run till you have reached the initial gathering place. Speaking of which, since you are aspiring to be a guard, you should have learned some swordplay or martial arts before, right?"
The instructor crushed the empty cigarette box, then stuffed it into the pocket of her suit.
"...... Just a little in dual swords."
"I see. Well, the match-up is just about right."
He looked in the direction the instructor was pointing to - there was a young male swordsman, with a great sword in his hand.
He was wearing the ceremonial clothing of the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. As there was no badge of the regular guards on it, he is most likely a cadet guard.
"That's a cadet who is in his third year. As of now, he has already learned just about all of the basics of swordplay. This may be demanding of you, but why don't you try pitting yourself against him."
A mock battle against Yuugenshu - regardless of whether you are a cadet guard, a regular guard or a cadres guard, all members of the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> will have to go through the most basic training at least once a week.
The swordsman grabbed onto the sword which was about as tall as his height, and positioned it parallel against the ground.
— The tip of the sword was not even a millimeter away from the optimal position, which showcased the fine strength and balance the swordsman possessed. Just from that alone, one can see the impressive skills that the opponent has.
However, such a well trained swordsman is still not good enough to be a regular guard of the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>.
"Iris, please construct the blades of the swords."
After nodding his head at the crystal machine <Iris>, Sheltis drew out the blade-less hilts.
"Fixing a silver monad as the core. The blades will be constructed using high strength Elnie-silver alloy. In consideration that it will have to withstand the attacks of a great sword, the limit to destruction is set to be at eightfold — the settings for duelling against a human is complete."
Under the remote control of the crystal machine <Iris>, a pair of silver blades was constructed from the tip of the hilts.
Sheltis grabbed the brilliantly shining swords in reverse in each of his hands, and came face to face with the opponent swordsman.
One second...... Two......
A minute had passed, and yet neither of them made their moves.
The representative great sword wielder on the continent is none other than Leon. That man is adept at working the length of the great sword to his advantage, and using it to launch a series of blazing attacks. However, the opponent before him did not even move an inch. Even though the both of them are great sword wielders, their temperaments are different. That is perhaps the most troublesome part about dueling.
From the tip of the swordsman's feet, came the faint sound of the pebbles shifting - here he comes!
He swung his great sword fiercely.
A silver flash of light cleaved through the air, and approached Sheltis with a piercing screech.
But before that, Sheltis had already made his move by pouncing towards the chest of the swordsman.
The opponent's expression changed as he realized that Sheltis had infiltrated his blind spot. He jumped backwards, but Sheltis pressed on by leaping forward.
Using the sword in his left hand, Sheltis gave a wicked strike at the opponent's right elbow. He then smashed the other sword into the left shoulder of the opponent.
The exchange lasted for only a few seconds.
With his right elbow and left shoulder struck by the swords, the swordsman lost his grip. The great sword slipped from his hands and fell to the ground.
"This ends here - seems like I've said too much."
An all serious Instructor Yumelda puffed out a cloud of white smoke from her mouth that was chewing onto a stick of cigarette.
"Hmm. Using the pebbles beneath the feet of your opponent to determine the shift in their center of gravity, and then leaping towards them without any hesitation...... It is a very risky way of combat, but your body possess enough techniques to carry out the action nicely. You may look clueless, but your judgement and decision-making isn't too shabby."
"That's right. Sheltis uses the clueless and cute face of his to make his opponents lower their guard against him."
"How very true."
"...... Urm, what are you both talking about?"
"Nothing. Newcomer, pass me your badge."
Instructor Yumelda suddenly beckoned him with her arms.
"What are you waiting for? Hurry."
After handing over his silver badge to her, Yumelda stared at it with a gaze as if she was burning a hole through it.
"Hmm. Sheltis huh? I remember there was a dual sword wielder with the exact same name a few years back."
That sentence caused Sheltis' back to be filled with a cold sweat.
"I-Is that so?"
"...... Well, whatever."
As she gave a profound smile, she dug out her own badge from the chest pocket of her dark blue suit, and pressed the two chips in the middle of each badge together.
"Here, don't go losing it."
The instructor tossed the badge high up into the sky. Sheltis caught it hurriedly. He then realized that his name on the badge was now showing a color of red instead of the original blue.
"With that, it is confirmed that Sheltis is promoted from cadet guard - first grade to cadet guard - second grade. From tomorrow onward, you'll be able to apply to the 'Merit System'."
He never came across that term three years ago.
"You'll know after a brief check by yourself. Just focus your attention on the training...... is what I would love to say, but according to the rules, you'll get to enjoy a thirty minute break."
"Eh? W-Wait a second......"
"I'll be off to buy some cigarettes. Should you have any question, save them for after the break."
Instructor Yumelda waved her arm casually in the air without even turning back. For quite a while, Sheltis stared at her as she slowly disappeared from his sight—
"As for the Merit System, I guess we'll just have to inquire on it later."
"...... I guess. Let's grab a drink."
Sheltis turned away from the instructor, and walked towards the water cooler. Having been forced to sprint around the man-made desert for a few hours since the early morning, his throat was already parched.
"Sheltis, continue walking while listening to what I have to say. I think you should have realized already."
He gave a nod at the crystal machine <Iris>, who was talking to him in a low volume.
"There are people watching us."
He could feel the stares from his back, and it came from many people. Despite not knowing the exact figures, he could feel that the stares were especially intense during his mock battle against the great sword wielder.
"There's no point thinking about it for now. Here, this is the water cooler that you have been waiting for. A gentle reminder, do not ever let the water come into contact with the crystal machine <me>."
"Alright— Ah, the icy-cold water feels really comfortable."
"H-Hey! I just said it not too long ago, and here you are, makings things all wet already!"
He shielded the water spray, and soaked his burning palms and face in the cold waters.
...... What's happening? I can't seem to calm down for some reason.
Sheltis stared blankly at the water that was flowing through his palms.
The cold water was slowly removing the excess heat away from his body. Even then, there was a sense of irritation that continued to linger within his heart.
It was due to the countless stares from all around him just now.
The girl who was swinging her sword at the training ground; the gunner who was maintaining his pistols; the rest of the people who were resting under the tree. It felt as though everyone had their sight trained onto him.
Strictly speaking, those stares were not friendly at all. Rather, it was as if they were evaluating something.
"It's not just you."
— A voice came from the water spray next to him.
"All new cadet guards will be subjected to similar appraisal. This is to determine if they are worthy enough to be roped in."
The voice came from a girl with sakura-colored hair. She wrung the wet towel dry, and gently dabbed the sweat off her forehead. The sleeves of her ceremonial clothing was rolled upwards, revealing the porcelain white skin from within.
"You are the one from this morning......?"
The cadet guard who stared at him during yesterday's enrollment ceremony, as well as pointing out the path for him this morning. He never thought that she would engage in a conversation with him by her own will.
"Thank you for pointing out the path this morning."
"It's nothing. I was just passing by."
Her voice was not cold, but it was not friendly either. It fits her stern disposition to the point where she could just stop a conversation abruptly with her tone.
"Urm...... Can I ask you something?"
"What do you mean by 'rope in'?"
The girl was still wiping her sweat off with the towel, but her hands suddenly froze.
"...... Seems like the term I used is not that appropriate."
What seemed to be bitter and self-depreciating smile appeared on her face.
"Simply put, it is to try to talk the newcomers into joining their squads. As the results of the Merit System will determine if one gets to be promoted or not, it is a must for a squad to strengthen itself whenever possible."
Merit System. That term yet again. Since it was something that he had never heard of even after rising to the cadres rank, then it must be a new system that was implemented during the three years of his absence.
"Promotion...... In order to be promoted to a regular guard, doesn't one have to complete the missions given out by the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>? Either that, or it will be determined by the results of the simulated combat."
Having heard that question, the girl widened her eyes a little in surprise.
"I have no idea where you heard all those things from, but that's from the old outdated system of a few years ago. In recent years, the promotion system of the guards have undergone many changes."
"Iris, do you know about this?"
"I have just checked the statutes of the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. There seems to be a new system for the promotion of the cadet guards to the regular guards. Firstly, the cadets will have to form a squad consisting of three to five members."
Perhaps she was directly referring to the information found online - there was not a single pause to the voice of the crystal machine <Iris>.
"After forming a squad, you execute missions. There are different bureaus in the Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> - out of which, the more significant ones are the Law Enforcement Bureau, which is in charge of managing the guards, as well as the Environmental Bureau and the Mechanical Bureau, and so on. Each bureau will release missions that involve things like protecting VIPs, scouting dangerous and uncharted territories, or subjugating the dangerous creatures that appear near the floating islands <Lagoon> - the squads will then have to accept and complete the missions. After the completion of a mission, the squad will be rewarded with points as dictated by the Tower's Law, in accordance to the difficulty of the mission. Once the accumulated points have hit above a certain threshold, they will receive the rights to face the test to become a regular guard...... generally, that's about it."
In other words, it does not matter how skilled one is. He will not be able to become a guard if he does not accumulate enough points as required.
But why did they implement such a system?
"As for the fights against Yuugenshu, you can consider the hypothetical situation where the barrier of the Priestesses is breached yet again."
She placed the towel on her neck to cool herself down, and continued,
"When the Yuugenshu are attacking from the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden>, the most crucial factor is how the guards work as a team within their squads. Should anyone in the squad move by their own accord and cause the collapse of the line of defense, the floating continent may fall into a state of emergency."
"Then, this system is in place to force everyone to work on their teamwork?"
As the missions are assigned to squads and not individuals, the cadet guards will be able to improve on their teamwork, which will be essential in their future battles against the Yuugenshu. If they are not able to do so, then the missions will result in failure. And since they are not able to accumulate enough points, they will not receive the right to face the test and be promoted to the ranks of a regular guard.
"I see. They are not seeking for the highly-skilled, but instead, guards who can work together to fend off the Yuugenshu as a team - indeed, with such an impressive promoting system in place, Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> will be able to develop their required talent."
"Even so, it is undeniable that this system has caused a situation of bottle-necking."
She lowered her voice, and gave a sigh that couldn't be heard by the people around her.
"Under this system, the cadet guards are given much freedom in the formation of their squads. Despite them restricting the members to be made up of cadet guards only, the squads can either change the number of members as they please, or settle on a core group of members. As far as the efficiency of the system goes......"
"It is still much better for the squad to settle on a group of core members. Since the members will be placing their lives in the hands of their teammates, it is much better to do so with a group of trustworthy teammates, rather than to work with a squad of members whose skills and personalities you are not familiar with."
The crystal machine <Iris> finished her sentence.
No matter who, everyone will be thinking the same thing.
"..... It's as she said."
Sheltis could remember what happened three years ago. Back then, he had always worked on missions together with Leon. It is of utmost importance to be able to entrust your back to your partner, and that is even more so in dangerous missions where you are putting your lives on the line.
"Because of that, the majority of the cadet guards have already formed tens of squads, and are actively seeking out new outstanding members to be roped into their own squads. That is the situation as of now."
The girl shifted her sight away from the splashing waters, and lifted her face.
"I get it...... So that's the reason why everyone has been staring at me with those evaluating gazes."
"But to look at it from another angle, you can treat it as if you have already gained everyone's attention."
Sheltis had no idea if the girl was joking or being serious - there was no emotion in her voice.
"Not long after your enrollment, you have already defeated a cadet guard in a duel, despite him being here for many years already. With such an outstanding performance, I think it will not be long before the emergence of squads that will be convincing you to join them. I advise you to carefully select members whom you think you can work with."
After a moment of hesitation, Sheltis finally called out to the girl, who had her back facing him. He did not know if it was appropriate for him to do so, but that was the only thing he wanted to know.
"You were staring at me during the enrollment ceremony. Is that a sort of evaluation from you as well?"
"How can that be?"
What answered him was a self-depreciating laugh.
"For a failure like me...... I am different from the likes of you. There is absolutely no squad that would invite me to join them. Needless to say, I don't even have the right to evaluate others."
With the towel in her hand, she walked towards the training grounds.