Here's part 1. Enjoy.
— Something felt wrong.
Sheltis leaped up from his bed when he was assaulted by a strange, indescribable feeling.
"...... What's going on?"
The clock on the wall showed it was three. It was not quite morning yet - it was a time that was in limbo between midnight and morning. Sheltis and the other cadet guards would not do their morning training at a time like this. That was right, everyone should still be sound asleep.
...... Why was it so noisy?
The commotion was the cause for him to wake up all of a sudden. And that was coming from outside of his room — the corridor.
It was not like there was a ruckus happening outside. Instead, people were walking with an unnaturally quiet manner as not to disturb those who were still in their dreams. Was it a squad that was setting off in the morning? No, there was way too many people for that to be true.
What is happening? The atmosphere is really heavy.
It like he was pulled into a quagmire — the atmosphere was difficult to breathe in. He had experienced that feeling countless times already. Whenever that happens, his ominous feelings always comes true.
— Let's take a look at what is going on.
He opened the door slowly.
A few people happened to pass by the door just as he opened it. One of them was a tall lady who had blended herself into the dark thanks to her blue suit. The cigarette in her mouth was burning like a phantom light.
"...... Instructor Yumelda?"
"Oh. It's you, Sheltis."
His instructor turned her head around. Behind her were several guards who were wearing pure white ceremonial clothing with the badge of regular guards sewn onto their shoulders.
— So I was right. What's happening?
There was no reason for an instructor to lead a large number of guards in the middle of the night with normal circumstances. If that was the case, then it was only during emergencies when......
"The cause of their mishap is unknown. The rescue headquarters has deemed the situation to be serious, and has thus decided to dispatch an official team which comprises of regular guards and apprentice-Priestesses for the rescue mission. I'sa and I are summoned to the team."
A sole reason appeared in his mind.
"Could it be...... Instructor!?"
"I see. Looks like I am quite unlucky to bump into you."
The Instructor put on one of her rare bitter smile and bit hard onto the end of the cigarette.
"I've no time to explain since I am on my way to a meeting...... head to the twenty-second story if you think it is something that concerns you."
Twenty-second story. That is the floor where the tower's hospital is located at, the place where he received treatment only a few days ago.
"...... Just what is going on around here?"
He could clearly feel the trembling of his clenched fists.
Sweat streaked past his cheek down towards his chin. Despite the burning sensation on his face, it felt like his spine was stung by a chill as cold as ice.
He suppressed his urge to make his move after hearing the roar from the instructor.
"Remember this — don't you dare do anything reckless. We've already decided to send in the third squad — the team led by Sennenshi Run."
Sheltis turned his body and ran in the direction of the elevator without giving a reply.
He was greeted by a blinding light when the door of the elevator opened.
...... It's still lit up at a time like this?
He made his way quickly through the blinding corridor while suppressing his anxiety. After turning past the final corner that led him to the hospital's counter, what appeared before his eyes was—
The scene of countless injured guards lying in front of him.
"...... That was just appalling."
The cadet guards on the beds looked incredibly weak. Their pure white ceremonial clothing were stained with dirt while the emergency bandages were stained with fresh blood.
Hollers and instructions were flying across the room.
Doctors were flipping through medical records quickly and communicating with each other in loud voices. As for the nurses, they were dashing through the narrow pathways with both their arms filled with medical supplies.
"Move to the side! Stop blocking the way!"
Stretchers were hurriedly transported past the place he was originally standing in. Not just one, but two, three...... The numbers would be astounding if there were more stretchers that were unable to get on the elevator during the first trip.
Why have things become like this?
He bit his lower lip and squeezed his way past the crowd and the counter. As he moved towards the treatment rooms that were located inside, he checked the injuries on each and every cadet guard he could see.
Sheltis stopped in his tracks when he saw a dual gunner lying on a bed and a girl with her head lowered in silence as she sat quietly on the bench at the side.
"...... You're that...... dual sword wielder......"
The young girl lifted her head. Her eyes were red and puffy.
The sleeves of her ceremonial clothing were filled with holes, revealing the purplish skin beneath them — haematoma. Her legs beneath her skirt were covered with dirt as well.
However, what was surprising was the fact that she was the only person to suffer from light injuries, compared to the rest of the guards who were unable to move.
The young girl was close to crying.
"...... Jin, he...... protected me......"
The comatose dual gunner was placed on a respirator.
So that was the reason for the strange feeling he had when he first saw them.
"...... I don't get it. What exactly happened?"
I'sa's voice rose by a pitch as she glared at him.
"What happened...... that's what I'll like to know as well............ why...... why have things become like this......"
Sheltis stared at girl silently, whose shoulders were trembling nonstop. She did not require his words now; what she need was time to calm down so she can break away from her terrified state.
I'sa regained her calm after a while.
"...... Sorry, I got emotional."
The young girl took in a deep breath to regulate her irregular breathing. What a strong girl she was — she actually suppressed her panic forcibly with pride and reasoning. Sheltis was deeply in awe of her mental fortitude.
"I should be the one apologizing. Pardon my rudeness."
"No...... you made your way here despite the early hours. Thank you."
I'sa took yet another deep breath as she gripped her left arm tightly with her right.
"You should know this by now. Jin and I were dispatched to rescue the two teams...... the team whom we initially lost contact with, as well as the first rescue team who suffered from the same fate. Both teams' communication were broken off at the same location."
"The western area of the nature sector?"
"So you did your homework......? You're right."
— Just as I've thought.
Interpreting his silence as acknowledgement, I'sa continued with much difficulty,
"It's the fourth sector, at an area that consists of large plains. The cadet guards of both teams had all collapsed there...... To be honest, we did not expect ourselves to locate them that quickly, so we all thought the mission would be an easy one."
However...... the young girl's lips began to tremble. He could detect fear in her voice; terror could be clearly seen from her drooping eyes.
"However, Jin felt that something was wrong after seeing those collapsed guards. It's quite normal to, right? I mean, both teams had collapsed on the empty plains. It's as if......"
"Someone moved them there?"
The teams were downed at another location. They were then shifted to a faraway place so as to keep the location a secret.
"Mmm. There were traces on the plains suggesting that the cadet guards were dragged from another place. We left the remaining two members behind to provide medical treatment to the collapsed guards. Jin and I then followed the trails and began our investigation........... and then............"
"We met...... a monster."
"...... What do you mean by a monster?"
Sheltis could not help but to reconfirm his doubt after hearing the strange term from the young girl.
There was nothing on the floating continent that could be classified under the term 'monster'. If they were talking about Yuugenshu - creatures that threaten the human race - they would be referred to by their name. If they were harmful beasts like dragons and etc, they will be referred to by their general species.
"Not Yuugenshu or harmful beasts, but a monster?"
"He's a human being."
"...... Wait, a human being? Three teams were defeated by a single person?"
"Mmm, that's right. But, somehow...... it somehow feels like we were not fighting against a human. It was a one-sided fight...... we could not even retaliate. We were unable to resist or defend ourselves...... You can even say it's a fight between the strong and the weak...... that's how much of a monster the opponent was."
...... How could that be possible?
The unconscious guards in the infirmary looked like they were suffering from all sorts of injuries: incisions caused by sharp weapons; contusions by what looks to be from huge iron balls; some of their bodies were filled with bruises all over as though they were thrashed about by wrestling techniques.
It was hard to imagine that a single person could deal such a wide variety of injuries.
"Can you give me more details?"
"Why do you want to know? What's the point?"
I'sa asked with self-depreciating laughter.
"Now's not the time for a cadet guard like you to take the stage. Queen Salah has already passed down the royal decree by giving orders for Run's squad to sortie...... she must have deemed the task to be beyond the means of regular and cadet guards."
The young girl laughed in disdain.
The laughter was filled with grief as well.
"...... I............ couldn't do...... anything............ Jin protected me............ and despite him collapsing right before me............ I............"
Her fist placed on top of her thighs were trembling nonstop
The young girl suddenly stood up from her chair.
"Why...... Tell me why!? I...... I too wish to have my revenge on Jin's behalf............ but why...... why am I so pathetically weak!?"
All that happened in an instant.
I'sa grabbed Sheltis by the collar of his coat and pulled him into her gaze.
"Are the regular guards...... really that useless............? Can we depend only on Sennenshi like Captain Run or the higher ranked elite guards during real times of trouble......?"
The young girl bit onto her lips in an attempt to stop herself from crying. Despite that, large tears were still falling from her eyes.
The young girl lowered her head while gripping onto Sheltis' collar tightly. She then continued choppily,
"...... I could not accept the results...... of our fight against you, so I told Jin it must be because luck was on your side. But do you know what Jin said to me? That idiot actually said...... 'Really? I thought it was something very interesting'......"
"Yeah, I thought it was interesting. Think about it, I'sa. If a cadet guard could defeat regular guards, then it may not be impossible for us regular guards to win against the elite guards."
"If so— don't you think we should thank the dual sword wielder for bringing us a glimmer of hope?"
"What a joke...... how can he manage to be that certain and optimistic about it?"
The dual gunner had a respirator on his face. He was receiving treatment after suffering heavy injuries from protecting I'sa. But to Sheltis, those lines sounded like they were coming straight from the person himself.
"...... I...... I............ Why............"
Her hands on his collars were trembling weakly.
She could not stand up on her own, and yet her pride did not allow her to depend on others. Thus— the young girl could only barely support herself by grabbing onto the young man's collars tightly.
An almost inaudible voice.
A sound as faint as a drop of rain falling onto grass.
"...... I should not be requesting the help of an outsider...... However."
The young girl took a deep breath.
"—— Please help me............ take care of Jin."
I'sa pushed Sheltis on his shoulders to move herself away from him. Her face cringed in pain from the aggravation of her injuries. She turned her wobbly body away.
The young girl then dragged herself towards the door of the infirmary.
"This is my personal problem. It's an obligation...... that's between Jin and me."
Where is she going? The answer was obvious even without asking.
She was planning to sortie.
She wanted to take on the enemy by herself despite her injuries and the fact that she could not match up against him even with the combined efforts of Jin and herself. She even agreed that she has no chance of victory, but she could not allow herself to sit around and do nothing.
"You want to take revenge for Jin?"
"...... That's none of your concern."
I'sa continued walking as she tore away the unnecessary bandages on her arm.
— I can't let things end like this.
Sheltis could understand the feelings of I'sa very well.
But...... even if I understand her feelings, can I really let her go?
Despite knowing the injuries on her body, do I still let her do as she wishes?
Or should I stop her even if it means I have to trample on her current feelings?
"...... If I can help I'sa......"
Just as he was mumbling to himself, the warning from Instructor Yumelda suddenly flashed past his mind.
"Don't you dare do anything reckless."
"...... So that's what she meant."
Sheltis put on a bitter expression when he realized the meaning behind his instructor's words.
Should the Yuugenshu attack, any unauthorized solitary actions may expose Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> and the Priestesses to danger. That's the reason why cadet guards are drafted into teams and preached the importance of working as a team.
...... If I help I'sa now.
...... I'll be creating trouble for Monica since I've already agreed to team up with her.
Should he join I'sa, they would definitely be punished severely if they failed. That would cause trouble for Monica, and he would also be further away from his goal of becoming a regular guard. That would result in his promise with Ymy becoming out of his reach.
Should I risk it to help I'sa?
...... I'll have consider it carefully.
The reason he entered Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> was so that he can fulfill his promise with Ymy. He was an irregular who had fallen into the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden>, and that had caused many inconveniences for him. He could not act recklessly, nor did he have any spare attention left to care about others.
I'sa's behavior stemmed from her own will, so it had nothing to do with him at all. Considering his current situation as well as his promise with Ymy, that should be the logical conclusion.
"—That's...... not the point!"
Sheltis lifted his lowered head as he clenched his fists tightly.
...... I'll definitely regret it if I do not help I'sa.
Even if he managed to become a regular guard or perhaps even a Sennenshi — if he kept ignoring the troubles of others like he did today, would he be able to lift his head up high in front of Ymy when he finally achieved his goal?
...... There would be no way he could do it.
Three years ago, he was chasing the backs of the Sennenshi blindly without ever understanding the sufferings of the Priestesses as well as the responsibilities of the Sennenshi.
At the age of only fourteen, he was still too childish to understand the significance between the bonds of the Priestesses and their Sennenshi.
But things are different now.
He finally realized it was the process that was the most important in the path of becoming a Sennenshi.
He clenched his teeth and fists as he looked at the girl who had her back to him.
"...... I had sworn I'll never repeat the mistakes I made before."
I'sa turned her head around in shock when she heard his voice coming from behind her. Sheltis nodded his head hard in reply to her gaze.
...... Isn't that right, Ymy?
He would never make decisions that would put himself in shame when he finally face Ymy as a Sennenshi.
Because back then, Ymy—
"As a Priestess, I can only maintain the barrier — but I believe that everyone here can do much more things that I can possibly do.
You should not work hard all by yourselves. Rather, you should do what you can do and help others by doing so. I hope everyone can build a relation where people will help each other."
...... That was right, Ymy was the one who said that.
His childhood friend was so incredibly dazzling and honest when she voiced out her ideals calmly. She is a really kind girl.
I've decided to protect Ymy precisely because of the way she is.
So there's no reason for me to hesitate any longer.
Even if he had to take a detour after helping I'sa — even if that was not the shortest possible path in his quest to become a Sennenshi, he would still move onward bravely.
She knitted her eyebrows with a bewildered expression.
"You can't go."
"Ha! What's this? Are you trying to stop me? I've said earlier on that it is my problem—"
"It has to be you who takes care of Jin, no?"
"...... Well...... But what do you want me to do!? Who will take revenge for Jin if I am to stay here?"
"I'll go in your stead."
"........... What!? What are you talking about?"
"I'sa, you can stay by his side. I'll be fine by myself."
"Are you joking—"
That was his only answer.
And with that, he flashed a smile at the girl who was glaring at him. He directed his gaze towards the comatose dual gunner while the girl's eyes widened in surprise.
"It may be strange for me to be saying this now, but I was really happy when you two invited me to the mission. Even within the cadet guards, Monica is the only person who has ever said that to me — and so, thanks for inviting me."
"............ That's your reason?"
"That's very important to me, just like how important Jin is to you."
The young girl became silent.
Just as Sheltis walked past her,
"I was trying my hardest not to ask a favor from you......"
I'sa held back her sniffles. She then lifted her head suddenly.
"I was thinking, why must a regular guard like me humble herself towards a mere cadet guard...... That's the reason why I forced myself not to say it just now."
He could understand her feelings very well. The girl's eyes were searching for hope despite her painful expressions as she tried her hardest not to seek his assistance — that was more than enough for him to understand her reasons behind her actions.
"...... Are you really willing to do it for our sake?"
"I am not someone that great, nor do I have capability to devote my attention to the matters of others. I am just a cadet guard."
Sheltis shook his head and flashed a smile at the girl who had lifted her head in order to look at him.
"It's more of me acting according to my feelings, so there's no need for I'sa to feel like you're owing me anything — I am doing it for myself. That's all there is to it."
She became silent once more. And then—
"............ I thank you on behalf of Jin."
On behalf of Jin? Just as he was about to ask,
"I'll reserve my thanks till you return back in triumph...... is that okay?"
"That's more than enough."
Sheltis couldn't help but to smile at the girl who had finally returned back to her stubborn self.
That was right, that stubborn personality of the puppeteer suited her best.
"Another thing. I...... am not too sure if I heard it right, but our opponent said this during our fight...... 'there's nineteen hours left'."
"And when did you guys fight?"
"In the evening...... at about five."
It was currently four in the morning of the following day. That meant eleven hours out of the nineteen had already passed by, so there were only eight hours left. Adding that to their current time—
— That falls right at noon.
Even if he was to get on a transport vehicle and make his way to the nature sector immediately, there was no guarantee that he would be able to make it on time.
"Be careful. He's a puppeteer just like me, but he's way more than just that."
"...... You'll definitely win and return safely, right?"
I'sa suddenly stretched her fist into the air.
Sheltis replied by doing the same thing as well.
They knocked their fists into each other with a thud. A sound of promise reverberated gently within the room.
And with that, Sheltis left the infirmary.
— Let's go. Just like the things Ymy had said to everyone with all her courage......
— I...... just want to do all that I can.
Her ears were almost in pain from the deafening silence. The temperature of the room had frozen everything, even the flowing of the air.
A sacred sanctuary that was totally different from the typical space where humans live in.
It was the two hundred and eighty-first story. The Grand Holy Hall.
The brass ritual equipment were giving off a golden luster. There was a giant stained glass with images of the moon and stars. The ceiling was painted in blue to symbolize the firmament.
To the apprentice-Priestesses, this hall is the place where the results of the final test to become a Priestess will be revealed. To the Priestesses however, this was a special place for prayers that was used during the rituals.
Ymy, the only person in the hall, was sitting down with her eyes closed.
She was kneeling motionlessly on the hard, icy floor. Her breathing was incredibly faint. She had consciously lowered the functions of her body to achieve a state of suspended animation, thus freeing her thoughts from the restraints of the distractions caused by her body — from the distractions of coldness, headaches, hunger and sleep deprivation.
To the Priestesses, it was something that is basic and yet profound at the same time. It is also her senior Priestess's favorite method of focusing her mind whenever she needs to be calm with her thoughts.
...... A way to purify mateki.
...... Queen Salah told me that a way does exists.
She listened to her voice that was echoing endlessly in her mind. To Ymy, that felt like she was talking to another copy of herself.
...... My current shinryoku spells of the baptism arts are more than enough to deal with mateki which contaminates human beings.
...... Well then, what if the mateki assimilate itself into the whole body instead of contaminating it?
...... And also, what should I do if that mateki is strong enough to rival the powers within me?
Her thoughts flowed endlessly.
New ideas merged with the old ones which were replayed nonstop in her mind as if in a whirlpool.
...... Currently, my shinryoku repels Sheltis' mateki.
...... But to look at it from another perspective, does that mean I'll be able to eliminate his mateki if we do not trigger Elbert Resonance?
...... Does this method really exist?
She endured the discomfort from the stinging rays as she opened her eyes amid the holy hall that was doused in light. At the same time, the severed sense of her body were beginning to reawaken as well.
"...... It's cold."
The metallic floor had sapped away the heat from her already frozen knees.
Ymy bit onto her lips softly as she pressed her fingers that were soaked with the chilliness of the holy hall onto her face.
"To think that the human body can become as cold as this......"
Her hands were frozen and her breaths, icy.
She yearned for some warmth; she wanted to hold his hands.
"But it will not do to just wait...... Queen Salah said so as well."
She would have to seek the answer proactively as the Priestess of Baptism.
There must be a way for me to be able to touch him again. And I must find it.
"I will have to work hard....... because I am a Priestess as well."
Ymy nodded her head with her pursed lips as she closed her eyes once more.