— 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 be so 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.
"...... Gotta move fast."
Sheltis dashed into his room on the eleventh story and kicked his wardrobe open.
A pair of metal sheaths gave off a black luster.
They were made from chromium porcelain and constructed specifically for dual swords. The machine crystal <Ilis> had them prepared for him just in case — he never thought he would actually use them.
He took out the twin blades hidden beneath his bed and slid them into the sheaths before securing them onto the fasteners located on his back.
— The fourth sector of the western area of the nature sector.
The 'person' who attacked the members of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> was at one of the spots predicted by Kagura, where the Yuugenshu may appear.
There are only eight hours left.
The deadline mentioned by I'sa fell at exactly noon today.
He did not know the implications behind it, but it was definitely something bad. And in order to prevent that from happening—
"Run...... is unlikely to make it."
The first story of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>.
Sheltis reached the pathway and dashed past the empty lobby.
It would be much better if he could team up with a Sennenshi, but she must have teamed up with the elite guards by now.
The disadvantage of moving as a team was the time spent on logistics. Gathering group members, preparing the transport vehicles and ironing out a battle plan — it will be past dawn by the time everything is done. If so, it is unlikely for them to make it to the fourth sector before noon.
I'sa must have realized that as well. That was why she insisted on sortieing alone.
"...... Monica will probably stop me if she comes to know of this."
Is it because he disobeyed the instructions from the instructor? Actually— she would probably stop him all the same even considering that. Monica would definitely not allow her teammate to head to the battlefield when his body was not even in the condition to undertake any training...... That was just the way she was; the girl who cared for her companions from the bottom of her heart despite her past struggles to become a Priestess.
That is why he must not say it.
He had to start and end everything silently.
"The hangar should be located here."
He slipped past the passageway reserved for the members of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> to make his way out of the tower. The world was shrouded in darkness and the cries of birds were nowhere to be heard. Only the edges of the sky were dyed in a pale white.
He ran all the way to the outdoor training area. A large rectangular shadow began to slowly appear before his eyes. The white walls under the bright illumination of the lights and the large shutter in the center of the walls were becoming closer and closer.
It was the hangar — a depot under the care of the Law Enforcement Bureau, where tens of transport vehicles were parked in the building.
"...... I'm not too familiar with this, but I guess it will have to do."
Sheltis had his eyes set on a two-wheeled high-speed electric vehicle. Since he was travelling alone, that vehicle offers a higher top speed and better maneuverability compared with a transport vehicle.
"This model will be better if you want to head to the nature sector."
A strong ray of light shone down from the hangar's ceiling.
"Type 21 of the floating models, with the largest horsepower rated seven hundred and fifty Joules. Its maximum speed may not be comparable to that model there, but since it travels by a floatation device instead of wheels, it will produce a much smoother ride at the unpaved areas of the nature sector."
The person who switched on the lights of the hangar was a young girl with a mechanical helmet and visor on her head — and as she pointed towards a dark blue floating vehicle, she said,
"Geez, thank goodness I did not slacken in my monitoring of you."
"From your expressions, you're wondering why I am here, am I right? As much as I do not want to, with a large number of regular and elite guards gathering for a meeting this early in the morning, it is inevitable for me to wonder if something bad has happened."
*Kan* — Kagura gave the blue vehicle a light kick.
"Monica knows about how I've secretly installed hundreds of surveillance camera inside and outside of the tower. Part of the reason is due to my personal interests, and the other half is because I was approached by the Towers Control to do so. Upon noticing the commotion outside of my room, I activated the screen and voila — as I expected, I saw a certain someone running breathlessly."
And of course, that person was none other than you.
The young girl took a dig deliberately at Sheltis.
"To think you came down to this hangar in secret despite the early hours...... I want to be around during the investigation of the Yuugenshu — didn't I say so before?"
"It's not that, Kagura. Listen—"
He suddenly withheld his words.
No, I can't waste any more time explaining.
"The place I am going to...... is the western area of the nature sector. The fourth sector."
"Oh, so you are really going to investigate on the Yuugenshu. The place is exactly the same as that found in my data—"
"I am not investigating the Yuugenshu."
"I don't have any time left to explain. Can you please let me off the hook this once?"
Hmm— Kagura thought in silence as she placed her finger on her lips.
"Looks like you are really in a hurry. Fine, I'll not question you any further at a time like this — on the condition that I'll be tagging along as well."
...... Just as I thought.
Sheltis had already braced himself for a request like that.
"I don't think this is that bad a condition. I promise I'll not divulge anything about today if I get to come along with you. How about I drive this vehicle instead? It will definitely be a more comfortable ride if I am to drive it instead of you."
"...... Are you that insistent on figuring out my motives?"
"Yes. You're even hiding it from Monica. So where exactly are you going? I promise I'll keep it a secret if you allow me to come along, even from Monica."
What to do? Considering her personality, Kagura will definitely pester him with more questions should he reject her now. He no longer has any time to waste.
"...... Alright. But promise me this: you are to run away immediately when you sense any danger."
"And that seals the deal."
Nodding her head, the young girl climbed into the driver's seat of the vehicle.
"Here, you can take the co-driver's seat. The breeze of dawn is very comfortable at this time of day."
The howling of the wind.
While travelling on the electric vehicle that sped through the road, the wind that brushed past his ears made a shrill as sharp as that of a flute. There was an indescribable sadness in the sound of the wind.
...... It was the same as back then.
The large-scale invasion by the Yuugenshu against Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. It sounded just like the cry of the wind back when he squared off against the commanding body in mid-air, two thousand meters above the ground. It was the wailing sound of the wind that was pouring into the floating continent.
"Sheltis, Sheltis! Can you hear me!?"
"Eh? Ah, yeah. I'm fine."
Kagura, who was sitting in the driver's seat before him, inquired with her voice that was raised a pitch. Sheltis tapped her shoulder in response.
"Anything wrong? You look out of sorts."
"I'm just thinking of something."
"And that's looking out of sorts. Geez...... 'You are to run away immediately when you sense any danger' — you are the one who told me that, you know?"
The young girl sighed.
"Then again, is it really true that everyone in the team of regular guards were defeated?"
"There is no point in hiding this from you. The instructor should be announcing it to the cadet guards today."
"...... That's just unbelievable."
"I can't believe it as well, but......"
"That's not what I meant. I am referring to you."
Kagura increased her grip on the steering wheel.
"We're talking about a monster who crushed two teams of cadet guards and a team of regular guard which included apprentice-Priestesses in its setup...... Why are you planning to take on that person alone should he really exists? Is it because the regular guard I'sa came crying to you? Or are you affected by the heroism of the dual gunner named Jin? In any case, that's just too reckless of you, isn't it?"
"...... You're right."
Sheltis flashed a light smile after hearing the lengthy speech from Kagura.
"Perhaps it's just as you've said. No, I think that's really it. Monica will probably stop me if she comes to know of this...... It's strange, isn't it? I mean, my body has not recovered fully, and my doctor barely gave me permission to practice on my swordplay for no more than an hour a day."
"Why huh? Probably because...... I am really happy about the fact that they did not shun me."
He was an irregular cadet guard who possessed exceptional skills and had attracted the attention of others due to that. As the only person who wore a black jacket all the time, he also hid his past from others.
But just like Monica, the two of them invited him into their team despite knowing all that.
"It may be too late for me to say this, but I do really feel that if I had joined them in the mission back then...... I might have been able to help them somehow."
*Kiiiii*— the electric vehicle made a sudden stop in midair.
The vehicle that floated a few centimeters off the ground began to descend slowly. The sound of the engine slowly disappeared as well.
"We've reached our destination. The fourth sector of the western area of the nature sector. I've parked the electric vehicle here just as you've instructed. Are you really planning to scout on foot?"
"Mmm. The fourth sector's not large, so it's much more convenient for me to survey the place with my own legs."
...... Three hours left huh.
The electronic display on the vehicle showed nine o'clock. Sheltis leaped off the electric vehicle hastily after confirming the time and landed on the lush green grounds beneath him. He then made his way towards the entrance of the gently sloping and endlessly wide plains. He will have to cover the large plains at least once in the next three hours.
"Are you okay with walking?"
"I will keep up just fine. I'm not a child anymore."
Sheltis flashed a wry smile in the direction of the girl who was throwing a tantrum and began walking towards the plains.
"Hold on Sheltis...... wait for me!"
As he turned his head backwards, he saw Kagura running towards him hastily from a distance of more than ten meters away from him.
"Can you be more aware of your surroundings? You're walking way too fast."
In actual fact, he did cut down his speed to accommodate Kagura.
Back when he walked along with Monica at the Floating Archipelagos <Lagoon>, his pace was much faster than this despite the fact that they were walking on rough terrains filled with the roots of trees.
"The distance between us will increase with each step due to my small size. Ah....... d-don't you misunderstand! I am definitely not saying that my legs are short!"
...... She's really talkative.
Kagura forms a strong contrast to Monica's reserved personality.
"Sorry, but I have to speed up my pace."
"I know that. It's not like I am walking so slowly for no reason though. I have been gathering data while we were walking."
The young girl continued walking as she typed on a floating mechanical sphere.
The reason for her lagging behind was not just due to her walking speed; it was mainly because she focused her attention on the bewildering controls.
"I'm curious about that floating sphere. Is that a machine?"
"You've finally asked. This is my masterpiece out of all of my inventions."
Kagura happily caressed the mechanical sphere that was floating before her chest.
It was a perfect sphere with a circumference that's roughly the length of a child's hug. There was a metallic luster to its color, making it obvious that it was a machine of some sort.
"This little thing here is a 'machine pearl <Machina>'. To put it simply, it's a portable computer. Also known as a 'large mobile computer', this thing here can connect itself to the main computer located in my lab and process calculations at extreme speeds. Just as you've seen, thrusters are included in its frame so that it can move along by my side."
He processed her words in his brain for a brief moment.
The first thing that came to Sheltis' mind was the girl in overalls who loved to invent things.
"That sounds just like something that Eyriey would invent."
"She would not invent something like this."
The young girl suddenly stopped in her tracks.
"That's right, she has disdain for things like this. She has zero interest...... in these high-performance, practical and ordinary things."
"That's ordinary? I think it's pretty impressive."
"...... I have quite a few opinions about your response, but I guess I'll that it as a praise from you for now. Speaking of which, you're friends with Eyriey, right? Did she talk about me before? For example, how's her appraisal of me?"
"Well, like how you're incredibly strong when it comes to machines and calculations."
"...... I guess."
Phew— Kagura heaved a sigh which sounded a little disheartening. That should be a word of praise, so why is she putting on such a sad smile?
"Eyriey also said she always loses whenever she's competing against you."
"That's right, I did win all the time...... but that's just how it looks like in the eyes of an ordinary person."
The young girl resumed her steps after a brief pat on the machine pearl <Machina>.
"Let's chat while we walk. The first time I met her was at the <<Homemade-Calculator Contest>> held by the Mechanical Bureau of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. It's a major event where thousands of enthusiasts from all over the floating continent gather to pit their skills against one another."
"I heard that from Eyriey before..... so the Mechanical Bureau will organize these strange events from time to time."
"It's because we have a bunch of cute weirdos gathered at the Mechanical Bureau as well. But putting that aside, I won by an overwhelming margin in the preliminary theory papers as well as the semi-finals. To be honest, I was a little disappointed by how easy my wins were............ however."
The young girl pouted fiercely.
"I was stunned when I saw the scores for my competitor in the finals. Her scores for the preliminary theory papers as well as the semi-finals were way above those of mine. I guess you should know by now, that person is none other than—"
"That's right. The topic on the final decisive round is 'Destruction that Brings about Creation'. We are to build from scratch a brand new calculator that breaks itself free from the constrains of the current calculators in two hours time. My creation is a calculator that not only retains its original functions, it can also create documents, send emails and doubles as a music player. Needless to say, the judges are in full praise of my creation. They thought it's good enough 'to be mass-produced immediately and sold to the public'."
"To think you can actually create such high performance machines in a mere time-span of two hours......"
But of course— Kagura nodded calmly in response to that. Perhaps it was really nothing to her.
"Back then, I thought to myself: I had it in the bag for sure. However, when Eyriey's calculator was revealed...... that was the first time in my life that I was in awe of something. That girl is definitely my destined rival whom I must overcome."
"...... Is her invention really that great?"
"It can explode."
What did she just say?
"Eyriey created an 'Incredibly High Performance and High-Powered Fireworks Calculator'. Think about it, a calculator displays the digits from 0 to 9, isn't that so? Upon keying in a predetermined series of commands, it will create a huge explosion three seconds later and shoot the fireworks into the air.
The colors and scale of the fireworks will differ according to the digits keyed into it. Even the pyrotechnic experts would bow their head in defeat after seeing a design like that."
"And so her calculator blew itself up along with the the audience as well as the judges. It's a firework of immense firepower and artistic merit. The fleeting beauty that was displayed live right before my eyes...... It was as though I was gazing at the starry skies above me—"
"That's crazy. There's no way that thing is good."
"What are you talking about? Look, what matters most to a researcher is creativity. An ordinary person will not come up with things like a fireworks calculator that explodes — and even if they do come up with the idea, no one will actually make it. However, the judges decided that I am the unanimous winner...... Those amateurs. It's obvious that Eyriey's the deserved winner."
"Nope. If you include their hatred towards Eyriey thanks to the explosion, I think it was a rather fair result."
However, the girl who was walking beside him could not accept whatever he had said.
"And that's the same for the later competitions as well. She keeps creating things that are way beyond my imagination — for example, an automated prank-calling phone; or an anti-cockroach rocket launcher...... Before I know it, I was already deeply interested in her inventions. I always wondered, 'What will Eyriey come up with this time?'. However, the judges will always rule the results in my favor as they cannot appreciate the ingenuity of Eyriey's inventions...... that's just silly. It's obvious that those victories belongs to Eyriey alone."
I see. In everyone else's eyes, the winner is Kagura; however, Kagura herself is in favor of Eyriey. That explains Kagura's rivalry towards Eyriey, and also Eyriey for saying 'I am the one who always loses'.
"Hmm...... I'm more or less understands what's going on. But I am a little skeptical about the criterion for winning."
"Plenty of people say that. This is what you mean by the battle of the powerful against the strong — I guess it's to be expected, since this battle is way above the levels of what the ordinary people could comprehend."
Ahem— Kagura cleared her throat.
"Moving back to the topic of the machine pearl <Machina>. Actually, this little thing here is what stores all the data that I had gathered in Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. The equipment in the laboratory are actually used specifically for processing."
"Then it must be really important."
"Definitely. It also stores the data of the dual sword wielder from three years ago — the person whom Monica admires."
A wild gush of wind swept by his feet, almost unbalancing him in the process.
"Putting Monica aside, there's something that I'd like to discuss with you alone."
"...... Do we have to talk about it right now?"
"Don't worry, you can listen to me as we walk. Moreover, this is quite a silly speculation and inference from me. A simple suspicion, a fantasy......... and a story."
Kagura remained walking in front of Sheltis with the floating machine pearl <Machina> by her side.
"Monica said the main reason she became a guard was because of a dual sword wielder whom she used to admire. He was a guy who rose to the ranks of the cadres guard at the young age of just fifteen. From my investigation, it seems like he shared a deep friendship with Sennenshi Leon. However, he disappeared from Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> three years ago. There are rumors that he was killed in action due to him falling into the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden>, but the validity of that is unknown. That's because all related data about him has vanished from the main computers of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>."
"...... Monica mentioned that before as well."
The main computers of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> should not have his data from three years ago. When he returned back to the tower from Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden> two years ago, everything about him should have been treated as 'non-existent' and deleted.
"However, if we focus our attention on the current day, then it is where the problems begin to surface."
Kagura continued on without a pause.
"One month ago, a dual sword wielder came to Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. Despite being a cadet guard who joined the tower only not long ago, he already possesses skills that enabled him to triumph over the regular guards. It is said that he and Sennenshi Leon, Sennenshi Run plus a few Priestesses knew each other. On the other hand, all information about his past is a blank despite his unbelievable connections and skills. The only thing we know about this young man, who mentions nothing about his past, is his name and the fact that he is seventeen."
And that person is none other than you— her tone was implying that despite the fact that he could only see the side of Kagura's face.
"And with that, it makes the inference much simpler. The guy whom Monica admired was about fifteen years old back then, so that means he should be around the age of seventeen or eighteen after a span of three years. And so— the gears of the past and present finally meshed together. An incredibly skilled dual swords wielder; seventeen years of age; a deep friendship with Sennenshi Leon. Considering all these factors, there is enough basis for my doubts to become a convincing speculation."
Kagura stopped in her tracks.
She turned around slowly and stared at the black jacket that was swaying in the winds.
"Your jacket should be the old ceremonial clothing of Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>. It might have been reworked on, but based on the results of me comparing between the data, I am certain they are both the same thing."
"You mean, that's your proof that I've stayed in Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> before? I'm sorry, but I got it from someone else."
Kagura suddenly stopped talking.
The machine crystal <Ilis> did warn him about his jacket before. Therefore, it was not difficult for him to have an answer prepared when he had anticipated the possibility of that happening.
"...... I guess. The possibility of that being true is low, but I do have to consider it as well. That is the reason why I am unwilling to say this to Monica till now."
Phew— she heaved a sigh through her lips.
"I am well aware of the fact that I am a typical People of Nell. Everyone says we are a tribe with a very strong sense of wariness, but on the other hand, we will never hold back in our assistance towards those whom we trust. That applies to how I treat Monica as well. Since she is my friend, I want to do things for her that will make her happy."
With her attention focused on what's before her, Sheltis could only see her side profile. She kept walking on without stopping.
"If...... and I mean if — if Monica knows that the supposedly dead dual sword wielder is still alive, she will be really happy. This may become a new source of motivation that pushes her on her path to become a regular guard, and she will probably become more energetic thanks to that...... However, I do not want her to be disappointed from a false alarm. I will be hurting Monica if you turn out to be someone else."
— So everything was for Monica's sake.
There was a slight change to Sheltis' initial impression of Kagura. He always thought she was doing all of that in order to satisfy her own curiosity.
In actual fact, Kagura's curiosity stems from her acting with the interests of her friend in mind.
"That's why I want to speak with you alone without the presence of Monica...... I'll just voice my conclusion: you are the dual sword wielder who is supposed to be dead three years ago."
That was right— that was the question which he and the machine crystal <Ilis> were trying their hardest to avoid, and was also the question that was hidden deep in Kagura's heart.
"You mean the incident of the guy falling into the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden>?"
"That may be a falsified information which Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> released deliberately. No one has ever survived the fall into the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden>, so we shall not include that in our discussion. My speculation is this — you were sent away on some secret orders, and has finally returned after a span of three years."
Sheltis gave a mumble. A strong breeze caused countless leaves to flutter in the air. He set his eyes set on the floating leaves and the sky.
...... No one has ever survived the fall into the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden> huh......
...... Can't blame her. It will be difficult for them to believe that anyway.
And it all boils down to this — no one will believe that a guy will survive a fall into the Garden of Corrupted Song <Eden>, much less the fact that he is carrying mateki in his body. Should the outsiders come to know of the truth, it will definitely cause a huge commotion that will shake Tenketsu Palace <Sophia>, and that is unacceptable. It's not only for his sake, but for Ymy's as well.
"Are you willing to give me your answer?"
"Sorry, but I am not the person whom you are talking about."
There was no hesitation in his answer.
There was no reason for him to since an alternate answer does not exists.
"Considering the size of the floating continent, there should be lots of people who's similar to me. I think it is just a coincidence that I am similar to that person who was in Tenketsu Palace <Sophia> three years ago."
"...... I see."
The girl heaved a deep sigh.
"Though I'm feeling sorry for Monica, it looks like I can't reveal this to her for now."
"Sorry for disappointing you."
"It's okay. I'll definitely get to the bottom of this some day."
And with that sentence.
It probably means that Kagura is still suspicious of him.
"That's fine with me, but I think it's about time we direct our attention away from this topic."
He stretched out his arms to signal an end to the discussion.
The entrance which they began their journey from had already blended itself into the horizon. Right now, what appeared before their eyes was a green ridge which extended outwards gently.
— The fourth sector of the western area of nature sector. They were approaching the heart of the sector.
"I have been focusing on the radar display of this little thing the whole time."
The mechanical sphere shimmered brilliant silver under the rays of the sun. It seemed like the screen in front of Kagura was displaying the results of the search.
"I've obtained a pretty interesting reading. It's coming from behind those hills."
She pointed towards the green ridges located diagonally to their left. Meaning, it was located at a sheltered area past the hills that were granting them the best vantage point.
"Can you make out what that is?"
"There is no movement from the target. It is probably an object or something."
...... An object? In the dead middle of the plains?
If they are talking about the nature park located near the living sector, it is possible for that to be a monument or something. However, they were in the territory of the nature sector. It is strange for a man-made object to be erected in the middle of the untouched plains.
"Strange. I don't remember the installation of any weather-monitoring devices or something like that around here."
"In any case, let's go and take a look."
He hastened his pace, leading the bewildered Kagura. The ground was covered with grass which looked like a green carpet. They could feel the softness on the sole of their feet with each passing step.
"This is a really relaxing place. The wind is very comfortable as well."
"........... Do you really think so?"
Kagura reached the peak of the hill a little later. Sheltis then silently pointed in the direction before him.
A transparent container was erected at about ten meters beneath the hill. It was filled with a blue liquid, with countless air bubbles which rose up from the bottom of the container.
A dark purple beast was immersed within the liquid.
The water tank with a Yuugenshu encased within it was erected in solitude before them.
"Wha............! What in the world is that......"
The girl beside him said with a trembling voice.
"— It's exactly the same."
Sheltis held his breath in silence as he stared at the object which was obviously out-of-place with its surrounding.
He saw the same thing back when he was at Floating Archipelagos <Lagoon> with Monica. The water tank of that research facility was already destroyed by the Yuugenshu. If so, was the water tank before them a different one?
"Step back, Kagura. That Yuugenshu is real."
His hands reached out to the twin swords that were secured to his belt. Regardless of who did it and for whatever purpose, this thing cannot be allowed to exist on the floating continent.
"Sheltis, what are you talking about...... It will be too dangerous if that is the real Yuugenshu!"
"And it will be even more so when it awakens. Since it is still in its slumber—"
Just then, he took a look at the shadow at his feet.
It was the shadow of him and Kagura. Besides that, there was another small black dot which appeared on the ground.
...... A shadow? Of what?
Just as he was focusing on the areas around his foot, the small black dot expanded slowly — it turned large enough to swallow the shadows of both of them.
A chill shot up his spine.
Without waiting for her answer, Sheltis hugged Kagura and leapt towards the side.
And at the same time.
Something struck the hill which the two of them was standing on earlier, destroying everything.
There was a deafening blast and a shockwave from what looked like a large-scale explosion — with the epicenter of the two occurring at the hill which they were on.
Both of them spread outwards in all directions.
Their bodies were thrown upwards thanks to the shockwave created by the blast of impact. As they were flung high up into the air, Shetlis hugged Kagura and barely managed to stabilize his body's position in mid-air. While shielding Kagura with his left arm, he used his right to push against the ground and rolled against it in order to dissipate the impact.
"Where's the hill?"
Kagura was rooted on the ground speechlessly.
The reddish-brown ground suffered from a brutal blast. The hill which the two of them was standing on earlier had disappeared, replaced by a giant crater in its place.
"...... Nothing can stand before my 'Golden Hexahedral' and emerge victorious."
A deep voice came from the bottom of the crater.
Sszzz...... szz...... sszzz......
A tall man was climbing up the reddish-brown slope.
It was a strange sight. His whole body was wrapped up in a faded dirt-yellow robe — and that included his fingers which were kept in the sleeves. Mechanical rings bound the robe in all places. They could clearly see his neck, shoulder, elbow and wrists being constricted tightly by the rings.
— This person here......
All he did was to look at the man, and Sheltis was breathless from the intimidation.
His instincts told him right away that the man is the culprit, and at the same time...... he was an unfathomable monster.
"My name's Maha. The 'Golden Maha'."
His name was announced from deep within his robe as though he was chanting a curse. That marked the start of the battle.
"Proceeding with the intervention. Beginning the elimination of the witnesses......"
The fourth sector of the western area of nature sector.
It was only one hour till the rendezvous of Maha and Igun-I.