Toaru Majutsu no Index:AgneseSS Chapter7
His heart had literally stopped.
“Keep quiet, please.”
Something was wrong with his vision.
Stiyl Magnus could tell he was lying on his back somewhere, yet his body was swaying even more unsteadily than in a hammock.
The tall priest tried to get up, but he found he could not even move his fingertips.
Magicians wielded miracles by refining magic power out of their own lifeforce, so failing to understand the state of his own body was a critical failure for one.
Someone was peering down at him.
It was the silver-haired brown-skinned necromancer named Isabella Theism.
“Don’t try to move for a bit. For now, just breathe in and out. I apologize for the corpsy smell, but you should really just rest your head in my lap until your breathing rhythm is back to normal. Think of it as a special service from me☆”
“What happened, Isabella?”
The young woman sighed.
Her breath carried a forbidden scent that was sweet as could be but mixed with a faint odor of death.
“Your heart stopped for about 180 seconds.” Her blunt words tore into him. “Or to be more accurate, I had to stop it with the lime poison. If I hadn’t made you seem dead, you never would have escaped the real death sent out by Tu – by Albert Dying.”
“Don’t bother asking any stupid questions about how I’m fine after being hit by that. I’ve gathered all techniques related to death and the Greek and Roman mythologies are no exception. I was already madly in love with death that smells of pomegranate, so there was no need for me to convert. Of course, I love death that smells of lime, corn, and grapes just as much. My body carries far too much desire to remain faithful to just the one.”
The Sickle of Saturn.
Stab that spiritual item into the ground and it would establish a powerful field that claimed that land and physically eliminated the souls of any who disobeyed.
“There were a total of 7 museum thefts,” whispered Isabella. “We were focused on the point where they temporarily stopped, but maybe we should have paid more attention to the fact that they had ended for good with the 7th one. Because Tu had achieved his goal and no longer had to steal anything.”
“You mean he used it?”
“How far did it spread? How much of the world did Albert cut away with that one strike!?”
“Have you already forgotten where you were just before this happened?”
Isabella reached her arms around her unmoving colleague and gently lifted him into a sitting position.
They were inside a neon colored rubber boat.
Something was shining across the deep, dark sea. The light came from the horizon, but it was far from dawn and that was not the east anyway.
The entire horizon was glowing for some other reason.
So what was in that direction?
Stiyl Magnus was so stunned he forgot all about his cigarettes.
He finally remembered.
He had not returned to England. He had instead gone to Italy to search its plentiful ruins and art for any old documents, sculptures, or other material related to the Guild that Agnese’s group had discovered.
He had been caught in the attack there.
That meant the Sickle of Saturn’s effective range had spread well past a single city or region.
What exactly was happening?
He knew the answer now.
“The entire Italian Peninsula.”
“It appears to include the island of Sicily as well, so I think it must be all of Italy, including its more remote islands. We were lucky it didn’t include the ocean in between, to be honest. For now, anyway.”
The magician who had viewed more death than anyone was the same as ever even now.
“It seems the massive field only triggers its ‘deadly rejection’ if you give a clear ‘no’ when asked to convert to Roman mythology, so you’re allowed to put off answering or say you’re still thinking about it. So unless the Vatican’s VIPs decide to be unnecessarily defiant, we shouldn’t have a mass slaughter on our hands. But again…for now.”
“The bible is a well-defined book, but one look at history shows the current interpretation of it has changed several times at the ecumenical councils. And always in a way that benefits the contemporary royalty and nobility, curiously enough. The Vatican is the headquarters of a massive religion, but they do know how to make political compromises.”
Twice now, she had said “for now”.
That meant the situation could still be worse.
How much did you have to give up on to reach that point?
“The next step is to move back in time. When the Sickle is stabbed into Rome, the extent of its control differs depending on the era. If Tu alters the settings to redefine his territory as that of the Roman Empire at its peak, he will control all of Northern Africa and Eastern European nations like Romania.”
Stiyl realized what it meant for Albert Dying to control what Rome had at its peak, but he let the death expert say it.
“And if you look to the west, Tu’s territory of ruin and subjugation will reach France, Germany, and of course England.”
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Whoever invented that idiom had to either be the quintessential loser who would keep smiling no matter what was taken from them, or the ultimate sore loser who never gave up searching for a way to make a comeback no matter what hardship they faced.
At any rate, Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene were spared the worst of it. They had escaped the direct effects after returning to England for the investigating they were forced to do themselves.
“All of Europe’s ley lines have been contaminated.”
They were inside an inconspicuous London church.
They were not using official equipment provided by England. All the members of the Agnese Force had gathered silver candlesticks, stained glass, a pipe organ, and more so they could secretly connect to the Anglican equipment and magical symbols found around the city. By linking those together, they had created an observation post for themselves. It was similar to creating an access point to a government agency’s computers.
The pipe organ did the opposite of a normal one.
Instead of playing the notes written on the sheet music, pressing the keys caused information to appear on the blank sheet music.
Sister Agata, another girl in a Roman Catholic nun’s habit, was close to screaming.
“The unnatural tremor of plate movement has been detected centered on Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna. It’s irregular but continuous. I can only imagine the plates are moving the opposite of normal!!”
“Like time is reversing?”
The Sickle of Saturn’s effective range was being reset to the peak of the Roman Empire. She had assumed that meant altering a setting within the spiritual item, but was that not it? Was Guild Leader Tu trying to redefine his region of control to the Pax Romana at the beginning of the CE era by altering the position of the crust that determined the flow of ley lines?
“Can he do that?” asked pale-faced Angelene. “I mean, the most he can control is Europe, not the entire planet, right!? If he does force the plates to move backwards, the distortion will concentrate at some point somewhere. That won’t just return the geography to what it was 2000 years ago. It will cause the land to rise up or fall away all over the place and cause tons of uncontrollable earthquakes! I bet it would also change the flow of water veins and crude oil. Those are a matter of life or death. It could even lead to an international war!!”
“I doubt he cares,” replied Agnese with her voice low. She was scared too, but she knew how to convert her fear into the strength needed to challenge it. “Tu’s only goal is the destruction of Christian society since its time has come. He wins if he can spread Roman mythology across western Europe, northern Africa, and parts of eastern Europe, but it isn’t a problem for him if an unexpected cataclysm destroys Christian society as a whole instead. He doesn’t care how it happens.”
What would change if the current world was destroyed?
The power structure put in place would not last long.
But Tu was not considering those realistic problems. The destruction was all he wanted. What came next was none of his concern.
He was almost too perfect an incarnation of destruction. He silently hid out of sight, carefully prepared his plan, and then brought about absolute tragedy. And even if his entire plan was brought down by a duplicitous bloodline investigator, he could feign calm long enough to recover and get back on track. It was all so perfect he felt like a machine designed for that one end. It was so calculated he barely seemed human.
They did not know what had become of the Vatican. Italy had been swallowed up right away, but they had no idea how well the treacherous Alps would act as a breakwater. France and Germany were at risk.
Agnese sighed softly.
“I don’t have a secret weapon for you.”
“I’m not hoping for a risky one-shot comeback. I want to know the harsh but accurate numbers. If things continue as is, how long do we have?”
“Do you want the optimistic estimate or the pessimistic one?”
“Again, now isn’t the time for groundless hope.”
“In the worst case, around 5 hours. We won’t even be able to see the dawn.”
Angelene looked like her heart had stopped, but Agnese was different.
This was better than an “I don’t know”.
Having a solid grasp of the desperate situation was the same as a ticket toward facing it.
“What do we do, Sister Agnese?” asked Lucia.
If they sat around and waited, the Sickle of Saturn’s field of control would probably cross the Strait of Dover and engulf the UK. And even if it did not, the unnatural movement of the crust would grow too great and a cataclysm would strike a large part of the planet.
“We are indebted to this country.”
“I am worried about our home country of Italy, but we can’t ignore our debt and fight for ourselves.”
“The question is whether they will trust us.”
Lucia kept her eyes dead ahead. She only glanced over toward the stained glass on the wall for a brief moment.
The complexly cut glass reflected the church’s entrance.
And the dark figure visible there.
“The Anglican Church, I mean. And Necessarius in particular.”
This was not someone who had transferred in like Agnese Sanctis or Kanzaki Kaori. They were probably an elite magician who had been recruited from the Anglican Church.
They had assumed someone like that was around.
Outsiders would always be outsiders, so the transfers like the Amakusas and the former Catholics would always be tailed by their “keepers” to secretly monitor everything they did.
But it became a lot more obvious when those people allowed themselves to be seen.
(A censer and a cross.)
Agnese took this as a warning. And from a nuclear state no less.
(Pretty standard for an area-of-effect attack, but not very flexible. They must usually be “dropped in” to wipe out a cabal on their own.)
“They probably fear we’ll use this moment of weakness to make an attack on the UK from within.” Lucia chose her words carefully. “They don’t think a group of around 200 can take out one of the major denominations, but they fear we could cause unnecessary losses.”
People could only believe their own eyes at times like this. No matter how much Agnese’s group insisted they wanted to fight for the UK, their supervisor would never listen. They saw very different things from their positions here.
(God must be weeping right about now.)
Agnese nearly looked up toward heaven, but she had to deal with this problem down in the real world.
The Anglican supervisor was telling them to stay put and watch, but that was useless if the world was destroyed in the meantime.
They did not carry a specific hatred of the former Agnese Force.
All the outsiders would be treated this way.
That meant they would be monitoring and wordlessly warning Orsola Aquinas in the same way even though she was harmless as could be. Talk about a waste of time. Orsola of all people would never pick up on a hinted warning like this. The fall of Christian society was spreading from a point in Europe to the entire world, but she was probably fast asleep in bed with a nightcap on her head. If the Anglicans had instead gathered those forces, they might have been able to sneak into Italy or the Vatican that the Sickle of Saturn was making so deadly.
What were they doing?
The Anglican higher ups were clearly in disarray if they had decided it was necessary to remind the outsiders of these misguided doubts.
Without some confusion at play, only someone who actually wanted to see the world destroyed would have given the go ahead on such a ridiculous plan. Besides, it was Agnese’s group that had pursued Tu all this time. It would be faster and safer for them to continue their mission than to have the elites work through all the documents to obtain the necessary information.
It was stupid.
Agnese began to wonder if this country was really worth protecting.
She raised her voice to cut off her endless thoughts.
She had worried over it and walked past this option, but then she had stopped and looked back.
That showed she did care. It showed she would feel sad if this country were lost.
“I’ll admit it!! London is a cluttered mess of old and new, but I enjoyed eating some bread in a park while listening to someone playing the guitar! I don’t care if it’s only for personal reasons and isn’t strategically or logically worth it! I don’t care about the Guild or Tu, but I’m not letting some bizarre ideology destroy all this!!”
“That settles it then.”
“I-I’ll accept the punishment with you. Even if I’m scared.”
Lucia smiled and Angelene gave a snort while clenching her fists.
It was time for more delightful service to the church.
Agnese Sanctis focused on the dark figure standing at the church’s entrance.
They would have to physically remove that obstinate Anglican from their path if they were going to repay their debt by saving the world real quick.
That said, they were talking about a Necessarius elite.
That Anglican magician had thoroughly trained himself to crush cabals on his own. The area-of-effect attacks using his censer and cross actually worked better against multiple targets. Enough so that the targets might end up fighting each other for access to the sliver of safety that remained. The former Agnese Force’s strength was in their coordination, but that would not work here.
Unlike transfers like Agnese, this pure Anglican would be a world expert in anti-magician combat. Knowing what you were fighting for would not be enough to overcome the absolute difference in their power rankings.
But Agnese’s group was not trying to take the top of the rankings.
They would win as long as they safely escaped the church and returned to working on the Tu case.
“Kyahhh!! S-someone! Someone please! It’s London’s infamous Panty Hunter, a threat to all laundry baskets full of women’s underwear!!”
The dark figure gave a start, but it was too late.
The Anglicans’ first mistake was sending a man to monitor the private lives of a group of girls. They had already removed the field that eliminated all presences and noises within the church, so Agnese’s scream rang across the neighborhood.
Fall to your doom, elite magician.
“Miss, has something happened?”
This area had a high concentration of English gentlemen.
Even in the middle of the night, they were willing to come to someone’s aid. Agnese had expected mops and golf clubs, but the local men instead emerged with shotguns for clay pigeon shooting.
“No, wait, I was only-!!”
The dark figure tried to say something, but then he stopped.
He could not come out and say he was an agent from a secret organization because he was dutybound to preserve that organization’s secrecy.
He was a magician through and through.
But that meant it was not just a side job for him. He had no identity outside of the magic world.
That was when Angelene nonchalantly sent a winged gold coin bag flying in just off the ground. She used that to send a balled-up piece of fabric inside the dark figure’s cloak.
“This guy’s hiding something!”
“Sir, doing this to nuns is simply beyond the pale!”
This was looking a lot like a porn video that began with a false charge of pickpocketing. Agnese stuck out her tongue so he could see and then ran toward the church’s back entrance.
Angelene kept looking back as she followed.
“Oh…oh, wow. Should we really have done that!?”
“You’re the one that shoved that solid evidence into his pocket, Sister Angelene. It’s too late to feel guilty now.”
God had to be sulking at this point.
Even at the back entrance, they could still hear the commotion out front.
“Kick his ass!! We can teach this gloomy bastard a lesson before we hand him over to the cops!!”
“Hmm, but I didn’t realize nuns these days wore this skimpy black stuff. Now there’s an exciting discovery.”
Lucia froze when she heard that.
“S-Sister Angelene? Wh-whose underwear did you stuff in that stranger’s pocket to frame him???”
“I honestly don’t know, Miss Black Lace with Yellow Ribbon.”
“Ahhhh, that was my favorite pair too!! But now it’s been contaminated and I can never wear it again!!!!!!”
Lucia sobbed with her hands over her blushing face.
This was not over now that they had escaped the monitored church.
They were in the English capital of London. According to Sister Agata, they only had 5 hours until the UK was swallowed up by a “submit or die” field, or the magic failed and triggered a global cataclysm. Either way, they needed to procure a vehicle capable of getting them to Italy.
Agnese’s thoughts were on something else as they ran through the London night.
It was late, but the city was not silent. She could hear the young voices of college students, a mother singing a lullaby for her crying baby, an ambulance’s siren, and some road construction.
The city was alive.
The breathing of London’s people reached her to let her know she was not alone.
She would not let this be destroyed.
She clenched her teeth and focused on that thought. She might be an outsider and they might give her nothing but odd jobs, but this was something only she and her fellow nuns could do.
A rhythmic beating of the air reached Agnese’s eardrums. The main wings were too thick and the two propellers too large to be an airplane. The wings also had joints that let them rotate a full 90 degrees at the base.
They were aboard a tiltrotor designed as a transport craft.
When she heard the din this thing made, she realized just how wonderful a design birds and dragonflies had.
“Who does this toy belong to again? The air force?”
“I think it’s meant to send in more navy personnel. Although these days they don’t often have naval battles deadly enough to require sending more sailors to a rundown ship.”
Lucia gave a serious answer even now.
The UK was an island nation and a major power, so they were of course traditionally known for their powerful navy. They were the ones that defeated Spain’s “Invincible Armada” at a pivotal point in history and took control of the Age of Discovery, so you could even say it was a source of national pride.
So it was one of history’s ironies that the invention of the airplane, which led to the shift from the Age of Sea to the Age of Air, had been the work of America after declaring independence from the UK.
Their time limit was 5 hours, so they did not have many options for reaching Italy and the Vatican from England. There were a few magical means of flight, but magical flight was easily prevented by other magical means. It was best to rely on ordinary technology.
The UK was the first country to develop and deploy practical VTOL aircraft.
“I can’t seem to relax,” said Agnese in partial exasperation.
She was not talking about the noise from the tiltrotor’s propellers.
Just because they were staying with the Anglicans did not mean they had unlimited access to England’s resources. Plus, they were currently on the run after escaping Anglican surveillance. Sending out an aircraft required a cumbersome process with several layers of authorization and they were taking things a step further by sending a military aircraft (a transport craft, but still) to another country.
They could never have received authorization.
Yet there Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene were inside the tiltrotor.
Angelene was pale and trembling.
“The higher ups must be really panicked and unsure what to do to overlook all that confusion we caused. Ugh…d-does that mean Tu really will destroy the world if we don’t do something!?”
“At least there’s some confusion. That means there’s a conflict between a group that wants to fight and one that wants to run away. If they had unanimously decided to abandon the UK and escape to some tropical island, we wouldn’t be seeing any panic at all.”
They had used some hastily-forged handwritten documents and just a bit of magical suggestion.
Their request had been readily accepted, so they were allowed into the airfield surrounded by a tall fence and allowed to borrow the tiltrotor along with a pilot. Even they were shocked by how smoothly it had gone. That proved the chain of command was in such disarray that the proper checks could not be performed.
(The UK is known for having more magical cabals than any other country, so I hope none of them use this chance to forge a document giving them access to the British Museum.)
Regardless, they had to stop the Guild led by Tu.
According to the report from Stiyl Magnus and Isabella Theism who had been damaged by it, the Sickle of Saturn’s “submit or die” field had swallowed up the entire Italian Peninsula. For now, its influence had not left the country, so they could avoid the field by staying in the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean was a narrow inland sea and a lot of European and African countries bordered it. A map of the territorial waters and EEZ had to be fairly complex, but the Royal Navy aircraft calmly flew through the late night sea breeze without receiving permission from the other nuclear state they flew across.
All of the land they passed was glowing gold, so the boundary between land and sea was clear as could be.
If they had not known better, they might have thought all of Europe was celebrating some kind of festival.
“It’s come this far?” groaned Lucia. “It isn’t limited to Italy anymore.”
The change had started in Italy, crossed the Alps, and was now working its way into France. They could not tell what was happening beyond the horizon, but it was probably happening to Germany as well. Were the current borders being rewritten, or was this based on some older map?
But they knew one thing for sure.
They had no time.
Once this crossed the Strait of Dover, it would reach England.
“I can see it,” said Agnese as she looked out the round window.
The contrast was more obvious for a country bordering the ocean.
It was so very gold.
The entire boot-shaped Italian Peninsula was engulfed in a pale gold light. The borders with the ocean were plain to see even in the darkness of the night. Calling it mystical would not be wrong. Any who saw it were filled with the same awe as when viewing the religious artwork in a great cathedral. Even though this was a ceremony of doom.
But one point was still enshrouded in darkness.
It looked like a city on the boot’s shin was experiencing a blackout. Just like a sunspot, the darkness stood out more in this case. Any Christian would know the name of that place.
“S-since it isn’t glowing, does that mean the Sickle of Saturn hasn’t managed to take over the Vatican!?”
“Hard to say,” replied Lucia. “The Sickle should have been stabbed into the ground at the Vatican’s center, so whether it worked or not, Tu must be in there already.”
Agnese nodded and gave her own guess.
“Tu made his attack on the Vatican with the Sickle, but it was blocked. Presumably by another magical field. So my guess is he’s instead taking over the rest of Italy to apply enough pressure from all sides to forcibly break through the Christian field.”
“Tu is more failing than succeeding. Or at the very least, it hasn’t all gone according to plan for him.”
But that did not mean things were looking good.
The success of his plan would mean the collapse of Christian society and the arrival of an age of Roman mythology. But its failure would mean simultaneous disasters around the world caused by the movement of the earth’s crust, which would still lead to the collapse of the current society.
They could not avoid a fatal blow no matter what happened.
“We still have a chance,” said Agnese. “We are trueborn Christians. We have carried on after the saints who were martyred after refusing to convert to the Roman religion. And unlike the ordinary believers, we have developed our faith into a concrete means of fighting.”
Combat experts were specialized in a different way from the Vatican VIPs. If people like the former Agnese Force entered the Sickle of Saturn’s range, they would be killed. There was no changing that.
“But the Vatican is still putting up a defense.”
“Yes. We can still go there. And conveniently enough, Tu is waiting there for us with the Sickle.”
If they could eliminate Tu and destroy the Sickle, they could stop the expansion of that “submit or die” field and that would protect the UK that had taken them in.
They still had a path leading to success.
The Guild leader might be smirking inside the Vatican, assuming the Christian-supported world would be destroyed whether he succeeded or failed, but he would not be expecting this third option.
They would do the last thing he wanted.
Agnese put on a smile much too violent for a nun, but Angelene was panicking next to her.
“U-u-umm! But how do we do that? As I’m sure you can see, the Vatican is completely surrounded. We’ll enter the Sickle’s field no matter which direction we approach from, so we’ll be killed if we try to approach!”
The Vatican had become the world’s smallest country after making various agreements with Italy in the past. It was officially a fully independent country, but it lacked the geopolitical conditions needed to survive without Italy.
This problem was as impossible as trying to sneak into an embassy or consulate located in England without entering England itself.
And some reports they had received told them they could not escape the field’s effects by flying to their destination without ever touching the ground. They would likely die as soon as they entered the air directly above the field.
“For now, the Sickle’s field only covers contiguous land and nearby islands. It hasn’t actually covered the ocean itself.”
“But the field is trying to expand based on the map. It will ultimately roll back to the peak of the Roman Empire.”
“What does that matter!? A-all I’m hearing is that Tu’s field is perfect and we’ll have an even harder time dealing with it later!”
“Will we, though?” Agnese grinned. It was one of the sadistic smiles she sometimes got when she had been fighting too much. “Sister Angelene, I have already listed his two weaknesses.”
“The ocean and time.”
Every step they took decorated their dark, damp surrounded with unnerving sounds. The still and stagnant air was the polar opposite of soaring through the sky on the tiltrotor.
Angelene was even more tearful than usual.
She was more than just stooped at the moment. Even as short as she was, she had to bend over to avoid hitting her head on the wet ceiling.
“U-ughh. A-are we really going to travel through here?”
“Tu’s barrier only covers the land for now, remember? That’s why we could approach by sea without issue.”
Agnese was using two flashlights, one with an old incandescent bulb and one with new LEDs.
Invisible toxic gas could sometimes appear as a haze when using lights of different wavelengths.
“He’s using a map of ancient Rome’s territory to determine where the field goes, so he isn’t interested in the modern geography. Such as underground. Rome is an old city with apartments and temples from centuries ago, or even more than a millennium ago, but modern plumbing and a subway system have been built by weaving in between the ancient structures. Tu is only looking at the old maps of the surface, so there are plenty of secret labyrinths he isn’t aware of.”
They had approached as far as they could get by sea and had used a drain to enter an underground route leading to the Vatican.
The plan had worked so far since they had been spared any punishment.
The threat of the field meant nothing in locations not found on old maps of ancient Rome.
“Oh, the air seems a lot fresher over there.”
“Do you want to die, Sister Angelene? That collapsed wall leads to a traditional waterway from the ancient Roman era!!”
Of course, they could not let their guard down just because they were underground.
The age of the tunnel changed between levels. This one was made of modern concrete. They removed their equipment from their large bags, set it down on the damp floor, and assembled it.
They prepared a small cart that looked like a toy.
They had no intention of running a late-night marathon all the way to Rome from the coast.
“A resistance force using underground routes is really more of a French and Eastern European thing.”
They had intentionally brought an old model to avoid violating the treaty between science and magic.
After climbing onboard, Agnese fixed her flashlights in place, checked on the steering wheel and pedals, and slowly drove the electric vehicle forward.
“But during the war, Italy was a fascist state that rejected freedom and diversity. There are legends of many Christians crossing the border through a complex array of tunnels in order to reach the Vatican and receive their valuable opinion on matters without the Italian authorities knowing. So in a way, this is a historical and traditional plan.”
“True,” agreed Lucia. “But there is one key difference, Sister Agnese. Unlike the believers back then, the Vatican has not invited us. We are uninvited guests who left the Catholics and sought out the Anglicans instead. Tu might not be our only enemy here.”
“I’m aware of that.”
They had been pursuing Tu all this time and they had just barely missed capturing him, but how would the Roman Catholic Church interpret that? They might suspect the nuns were working with Tu or had intentionally held back to allow more damage to the Catholics.
Or maybe they were using the chaos to sneak into the Vatican to take the heads of the Catholic leaders who had abandoned them.
The truth was, they could probably do exactly that if they wanted to.
Agnese Sanctis focused on her silver staff, the Lotus Wand.
She had trusted that weapon with her life and her faith, but it was a spiritual item for using magic that could take lives.
Vatican City was the world’s smallest independent nation with a population of less than 1000, including visitors.
It was the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, it was geographically located within the Italian capital of Rome, and it was the only entire country registered as a world heritage site.
It had fought over ownership of Rome after a military invasion by Italy, but it had become the current city state in 1929. It lacked a military of its own, but the Pope was traditionally protected by the Swiss Guard. But even if it lacked a military, any country that tried to invade it would be making an enemy of the other world powers.
As a country, you did need a passport to get in, but Agnese’s group ignored that rule.
Agnese stuck her head above ground after sliding a round manhole cover to the side.
The surface was dangerous.
She had not emerged in the wide-open St. Peter’s Square. This was a garden surrounded by tall walls. Needless to say, that open area out in front had strict magical security from the 140 saint statues overlooking the ground, so they had needed to avoid that area.
The nuns were not immediately killed upon arriving on the surface, so the Vatican really was a sunspot. It was the one exception to the Sickle of Saturn’s effects.
That was Agnese’s first thought, now that she had survived.
Of course, a low-level person like her had never actually been summoned to the Vatican during her Catholic days.
This was her first time here, but it still inspired these thoughts in her.
(We’re back. There’s something about this place that makes me feel that way.)
Lucia looked around.
“Where are we?”
Looking straight up showed an unnatural aurora-like light in the sky. That was the collection of protective barriers covering the entire Vatican. They were only so brightly visible because they were working to fight the Sickle of Saturn. Everything outside the tall walls was already a foreign world of gold.
“W-we’re between the Governor’s Palace and the Fount of the Eagle, so…we’re close to St. Peter’s Basilica!”
Angelene was right. Enshrouded in the shadows of the night, the large structure looked so different from the pure white church seen on the tours during the day.
It was covered in thick construction sheets and scaffolding due to the aftermath of Fiamma of the Right’s attack, but it was close to a miracle that the restoration was this far along already. That demonstrated the Roman Catholic Church’s great power. They could remake or add onto “history” as easily as someone pasting a new image in using photo editing software.
But the fear in Angelene’s voice was not just about returning to the home that had abandoned them.
Everything was quiet
Even when the population count was increased a lot by the tourists, Vatican City was not as busy a place as New York or Shanghai. And even less so at night once the ordinary visitors had all left. But even with less than 1000, there were a lot of church officials here and they were currently being attacked by Tu. The place should have been buzzing with activity, so this was strange.
(Did something happen?)
Agnese switched off her flashlights.
There were no lights on in St. Peter’s Basilica or the courthouse.
From now on, light would mean something very different. They were stepping into a world where the shadows kept you safe and switching on your light could get you killed.
The nuns were sneaking in, so they did not want to remain in this open space for long.
But they were afraid to move around blindly, so they crouched down and waited for their eyes to adjust. After ten minutes, they could make out each other’s hand signs without a light, so they took their first step. They walked across the carefully-maintained lawn to reach St. Peter’s Basilica’s wall.
No traps activated and no guards shouted at them.
It all went smoothly. Too smoothly. It felt like they were exploring a deserted ghost ship.
Lucia could not help but question it.
“What is going on?”
“Th-the Vatican is fighting back against the Sickle, aren’t they? Then they’re still holding on for now, right?”
Angelene’s opinion was more wishful thinking than objective fact.
Something was happening.
That much was certain.
The question was whether it was worse than their expectations, better than them, or beyond their wildest imagination. Those were the only three options.
“What should we do?” carefully asked Lucia. “St. Peter’s Basilica might not be what we’re looking for. Vatican City is less than a kilometer across. That’s about the size of an amusement park, so we could search through everything if we had to.”
“B-but this is the Vatican. It’s bound to have tons of secret passageways and vaults. I bet it has as many tricks and secrets as an ancient Egyptian pyramid.”
Angelene had a point.
They had entered the Vatican using a route not found on the official maps, so there were bound to be plenty of other secrets hidden around. The official maps and diagrams would not be enough for a thorough check.
But Agnese shook her head.
“This is indeed the Vatican, but that’s why we can’t take the easy way out and use magic. The multiple barriers might interfere with our magic and they might even be able to track us down using it. With as small a place as the Vatican, they can cover the entire place with high-level security.”
They had to thoroughly search every room while also not being spotted by anyone.
That would normally sound like conflicting priorities, but that was what they needed at the moment.
Since they could not find the priests and nuns who should have been here, even nervous and cowardly Angelene gradually grew bolder as she peered around corner after corner.
With a thorough search, it was best to deal with the more difficult areas up front when they still had strength to spare, so they first went to St. Peter’s Basilica below the wavering aurora in the night sky.
“D-did they all evacuate, maybe?”
“To where? On step outside the city and the deadly field there gets them.”
Agnese held a hand out to the side to stop Angelene and Lucia’s chatter.
A large door stood in front of them.
Agnese Sanctis had always wanted to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican as a whole, so she knew more or less where everything was without having to check a tourist site.
There was a blank spot here.
Specifically, on the pathway connecting St. Peter’s Basilica with the Sistine Chapel. The arrangement of so many stone steps would be perfect for hiding a facility not found on the maps.
Like a monitor room that gathered footage from the security cameras around the city.
She pressed against the wall next to the double doors and focused on her ears.
Through the single thick piece of oak, she could her a quiet clicking sound. That was probably from a computer of some sort, which explained why she could not sense any human presences. Of course, she was still not about to crack open the door and peek inside.
This would be a gamble no matter how they did it.
“(Sister Lucia and Angelene. You two stand back while I go in first. Keep enough distance to avoid the blast if I screw this up.)”
“(What are you talking about? We’re going with you, Sister Agnese.)”
Angelene started to run off to take Agnese up on that offer, but Lucia grabbed her by the collar and refused to leave.
The oak door had small Latin text carved into it, so using magic would probably backfire on them. Christianity had a type of curse known as anathema. That was the power to cut off any rulebreakers from the community. Agnese stuck her silver staff into the crack between the double doors and used leverage to break the lock and kick the door inwards.
It made a lot of noise, but no one turned back their way.
The left and right walls were covered in monitors. Their light illuminated the place like an aquarium tank, revealing several men collapsed on the floor.
Agnese clicked her tongue.
“Not a good sign! Sister Angelene, how much medicine do you have on hand!?”
“Wh-why would I bring more than the three of us would need? We should just borrow the Vatican’s stuff! This is the Catholic headquarters!!”
Angelene snatched a first aid kit and AED bag from the wall by the door and tossed them both to Agnese.
“Ugh,” someone groaned.
When they spoke, it was in a unique dialect of German. Agnese belatedly realized he was a Swiss Guard, not a Vatican priest.
“We aren’t what you want. We’re uninvited guests.”
“But you don’t seem to be with him. And that’s all that matters right now.”
Still on the floor, the man in a suit pointed toward the many monitors.
What had that Swiss Guard seen?
Lucia moved close to the indicated monitors to see what they showed, but that was not what the man meant.
After he whispered something to Agnese, she approached the wall, grabbed the steel rack the monitors were connected to, and pushed it open. Just like a door.
The rectangular opening it revealed contained a stone stairway leading down.
“The rest is in your hands.”
That was all the man got out before his trembling hand dropped to the floor.
Angelene crouched down next to him and then shook her head.
“The circulation of his lifeforce is weak to the point of vanishing. Normal treatment won’t save him.”
“And abnormal treatment?”
“We could use recovery magic, but that would probably give away our position.”
They had come all this way despite the risk so they could stop Tu and the Sickle of Saturn. Their goal was to protect Christian society as a whole and save England from that “submit or die” field as a way of repaying them. They could not get distracted from that.
They had plenty of enemies here.
Tu of the Guild was the main one, but the Catholics of their old home would not welcome them with open arms. Even the Anglicans would be upset with them for disobeying orders. They could be interrupted at any time, so they needed to hide their presence here.
Giving into emotion and acting without thinking might mean failing to stop Tu.
Agnese understood that.
She accepted that fact. But…
“If we have a way to save him, then do it! We’ll accept the risks!!”
Lucia smiled and Angelene groaned with a hand on her forehead.
But once the decision was made, the rest was easy.
Christianity had no shortage of legends about the miraculous healing of injuries and sickness. One of the Twelve Apostles had even used a miracle to temporarily revive a dead body so it could walk around once more.
They brought the dying Swiss Guards back to stable condition.
This was a monitor room.
There was something like tape attached to the edges of the LCD screens, but it all turned red.
“They’ve noticed us,” said Lucia with the look of a mountain climber preparing for a treacherous climb.
“Yes, both the Vatican and Tu,” agreed Agnese.
But she looked refreshed. Now she could focus on just the one problem. If she had chosen to abandon the guards for her own safety, it would have stuck with her and tripped her up when it really mattered.
“It’s a race against time now. We have to take out Tu and destroy the Sickle of Saturn before doom can catch up with us.”
They took the stairs down from the monitor room.
An interminable stone spiral staircase led down and down.
That was bad.
First, it was a single path. If they were attacked, they could not escape to the sides. And the spiraling meant they could not see very far down. Some might think that was better than a straight staircase with a direct line of fire, but that was meaningless with fire or poison gas. Anything that filled the entire space could pass that curve with ease.
That was of course an intentional part of the design.
The first goal of a shelter’s design was to allow the VIPs to escape, but the second goal was to eliminate any approaching enemies. If anyone could approach, then they could reach the door and destroy it by force.
“Nothing’s happening?” asked Lucia while holding her large wooden wheel at the ready.
No attack was a good thing, but it was also disconcerting. It did not feel like Tu and the Catholics were clashing. They were surrounded by an unwanted tranquility, like it was over already. It would have been more of a relief to be met by a hail of bullets as soon as they opened the hidden door in the monitor room.
Eventually, they descended the final step.
They were at the bottom.
Agnese looked around to see a large round metal door just like for a bank vault.
Light was escaping from within, showing it was already open.
She stepped inside.
Whether it was designed to resist explosions or there was some religious meaning, the space within had a hemispherical shape. Even more so than the great hall prepared for the choir. Surprisingly, it had none of the everyday necessities and no diamonds, gold bars, or other assets for use in an emergency.
There was an altar.
There were pews.
There was stained glass on the walls despite being so deep underground and there was a giant cross.
The space was a chapel. And one meant for use in combat. The altar and stoup built into the wall and seat of honor for the lord of the castle were a lot like the chapels used to sanctify swords and such in Medieval European castles.
Although in the Vatican, the seat of honor was intentionally left empty.
Just like with a castle chapel, it was part of a giant building yet the thick columns and such appeared independent to it, but that was because chapels like that were designed to be the opposite of the castle’s great hall.
If the Vatican was a single bivalve containing everything necessary for life, then this chapel was like a small crab inside the shell. It was hidden within the great cathedral and was wholly independent from it, but it remained a sacred mystery in and of itself.
However, its defenses had not been perfect.
The solid defense of the bivalve had been pried open with a knife, exposing the squishy contents.
People littered the floor like fallen leaves.
The old men wore the special red robes denoting them as cardinals.
And in the center was the one man allowed to wear white: the Pope.
The only person still standing noticed the nuns.
The tall figure looked back and spoke to them.
“And here I thought I had cleared the final obstacle. No, I suppose you are not an obstacle standing in my way but the hounds pursuing me from behind. Perhaps it took me too long to break down this final wall.”
He looked like a blond priest in a stereotypical black cassock. He may have even obtained an official position in Vatican City so he could come and go as he pleased while undercover.
But that was no ordinary cassock.
It was more like a stage magician’s handkerchief. When the young man spread his arms wide, the fabric unraveled and became a pure white. The loose white outfit made him look just like one of the marble sculptures that Renaissance artists were so fond of.
It did not matter how much of this was an act and how much of it was just him.
That nameless group had survived for so long by clinging to the winners of each era and throwing stones at the losers. They knew no shame or defeat as they spat on yesterday’s beliefs and sent their old friends to the gallows so soon after enjoying their time together.
They had no set beliefs or principles.
They were reversible, like a Mobius strip. The more you tried to figure out what they were deep down, the further you would be led astray.
The time had come, so they would destroy Christian society.
They had done all this for no more reason than that.
Lucia and Angelene readied their spiritual items and Agnese took a step forward while starting a conversation.
“I have,” agreed Tu in a childish way.
It hardly mattered that it was one-against-three. His lack of attachment and his aimlessness were actually frightening when he had already proven how powerful he was. They could not predict what he would do next.
“I thought it would be over once I attacked the Vatican, but I met some surprising setbacks there. From the beginning, the Anglican interference came as a surprise. I had caused a few decoy incidents to give me time to secretly secure the Sickle and prepare for its use, but the idea was for Catholic special forces to take that bait in order to cover up those internal scandals.”
The Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church were known as the three major denominations, so they were of course constantly clashing in secret, no matter how peaceful things looked on the surface. But that did not mean they wanted one of their major foes to collapse. Just like when America and the Soviet Union had aimed their nuclear missiles at each other after the war.
Enemies could be useful too.
Organizations had a greater influence then one might think. Whether they wanted to or not.
A moonlike glitter adorned the castle chapel.
It appeared like stage magic in Tu’s dominant hand. The source looked like a perfectly ordinary sickle, except that the blade was not made of metal. It was made of a rougher material fully coated with something like a transparent sand.
In Greek mythology, that was the Sickle of Adamant.
And that word was the source of the word diamond.
“This is over once I kill the ‘core’ creating the Vatican’s barriers. With nothing more to stop me, I can once more make this small country my own.”
“Kill the Pope!?”
Lucia’s eyes bugged out, but Tu was frighteningly gentle.
“Did you want to do that yourself? Sorry, but you will have to settle for a front-row seat.”
It was not over yet.
The cardinals and the Pope were collapsed on the floor, but they were still alive.
Agnese guessed Tu was not sure how to proceed. The Pope’s robes were as special as they came. They were on the same level as the Walking Church worn by that grimoire library. They would not be broken even by a point-blank blast from a high-powered divine punishment cannon.
This was the same as a shelter’s door. No door was impenetrable, but prying it open would require exposing your defenseless back. As long as Agnese’s group continued resisting, Tu could not focus on the work necessary to take the Pope’s life.
Or so they thought.
But the next thing they knew, they heard a series of solid sounds.
The noise was enough for Angelene to gasp.
Metal belts crossed in an X-shape and connected to a disk. They squeezed at the collapsed Pope’s chest and passed through the donut-shaped disk to press a metal stake down toward his heart. Great power slowly but surely built up pressure.
“What did you do, Tu!?” shouted Agnese.
“Violator of the Peace,” whispered Albert Dying.
Was that the name of a spiritual item?
That was originally a term related to the Peace of God, one of the rules of war spread by the Christian Church. Even in the fiercest of fighting, one was never to target women, children, churches, or food supplies. Even a noble or knight who broke that rule would be branded a Violator of the Peace and excommunicated from the church. In Medieval Europe, the church had held near absolute political and social power and wolves had roamed outside the cities, so that had essentially been a death sentence.
Then again, that may not have meant much of anything to followers of Roman mythology who had already been kicked out.
“I prefer not to make people suffer needlessly, but it seems I must pry this open to take his life.” He sounded perfectly casual, like he was explaining how he needed a can opener since this can had no pull tab. “Four doors, three corridors, two bell towers, and – hm – one cross for a total of 10 equilateral triangles. Fascinating. We inherited these number games from the Greeks, so I’m quite good at them. From the look of it, I think I can get this open with an hour’s work.”
Agnese clenched her teeth and told herself not to let despair stop her. She had to count herself lucky the hurdle was within sight. The path to success was right there in front of her. She could still do it. If she refused to give up, this was doable.
“But what can you really do?” Tu knew that, but his tone remained casual. “This is the Roman Catholic Church, after all. Yes, it is the world’s largest church with 2 billion followers, but it costs a fortune to protect an organization of that size. They simply cannot perfectly manage everything that happens around the world. And the only reason anyone has been paying any attention to it of late was Fiamma of the Right’s rampage.”
“He was very obviously a rogue member, but without his efforts, the Catholics could never have remained in the center of the world. The current state of the world is the result of tragedy. The world has lost its core. The current age is ending. A culture that should have ended is stubbornly holding onto its former glory, mucking up the entire system. The only course of action is to hit the reset button. The time has come to destroy Christian culture starting with the Vatican.”
“You’re nothing but a dreamer,” spat Agnese.
Maybe it was wrong to refer to that as an underworld job. It was probably more of a nature or disposition.
But there were people who would list out the pros and cons and then intentionally deceive people with an unobtainable dream.
Yes, deceive not inspire.
“Destroy some great power now and you can liberate the world. Then we can reach the utopia we have all dreamed of.” Agnese confirmed her own stance while speaking as carefully as if she were defusing a bomb. “It’s a stereotypical dream. Every powerful person and revolutionary around the world has worked up the people with some variation on it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But no matter how many enemies they tore down, no perfect civilization was ever born. They all claimed they had the ultimate answer, but from ancient to modern times, they were about as successful in that as people proclaiming they have the perfect educational theory or a foolproof diet. That’s because no such thing exists. Only god is perfect, ultimate, and absolute. No human can see the future, so any who claim to have such a thing are frauds.”
“Maybe so.” Tu, aka Albert Dying, smiled softly. “But imperfect though we are, humanity can only decline if we do not strive for perfection. Even formless dreams have the power to change reality. And only those who know how to wield them carry the power to change the world.”
“If there is anything you want to do, you need only make the attempt. The possibility lies hidden even in you.”
It really was simple.
As simple as a song written for teenagers that you could listen to as often as you liked for a monthly fee.
The voice coming from the speaker was so pleasant and obeying it would provide a set amount of pleasure and exhilaration. It was not a perfect 100, but still a solid 70. It gave no complex answers, but if things did not go its way, it would criticize the questioner after the fact. It took as much as it liked without ever taking responsibility. Yes, these were very much the words of a dreamer. People who wanted to abandon needless effort and enjoy an efficient happiness would dive right into that ocean of words.
Yet the ones who would lose everything were the carefree listeners.
By the time they decided to complain, the dreamer himself would have vanished beyond their reach.
Agnese recalled Sister Monica.
That pitiable puppet had torn off her own face and set herself on fire for the Guild, but Agnese could now see what kind of words had convinced her to do that.
They had been enemies.
They had never reached an understanding.
But they had also been nuns who had once lived together.
(Did you really think I felt nothing after seeing how gruesomely she died, dreamer?)
“Tu. Albert Dying.”
“We have reached the finale. This has already ended. You showed up too late to change anything, but if you do interfere, the responsibility will still fall on you.”
“So you expect me to sit idly by and let this happen?”
“If you do not, you will only be harming yourself and those you care for. Even you must be aware that this world is imperfect. Humanity has not achieved equality. But at the same time, no one is at fault for that.”
“Everyone hopes to bring about an age of peace, but no one has managed it. There are no villains there. There is no single person you can defeat to end it. So we must stir up that stagnation from a position beyond morality. The time has come, so we must act.”
His tongue and throat formed those gentle words so very smoothly. What did those unnaturally kind eyes see in Agnese? Was it some dark part of her that even she refused to admit existed?
“You can be honest.”
When looking at this one moment in isolation, like the online news cherry-picking a single soundbite from a press conference, she could see it.
For a brief moment, everything faded away.
Lucia and Angelene stood immediately on either side of her, but even they seemed to grow distant. Her world was populated only by her own breathing and the dreamer’s words.
“No individual could have arrived at the truth of this, so you too must have companions. Are they friends from your hometown who were thrust down into the depths of hell along with you? Or are they the foreign saviors who took you in knowing the burden it would be?”
She wanted to say he was wrong, but she could not.
That likely meant he had arrived at the truth to an extent.
This was not just about herself. The Catholics had abandoned her and all of the companions she had lived with. The entire organization had lost control thanks to God’s Right Seat, but that was only an excuse.
“What do you even gain by solving this case?” asked Albert Dying with a slight head tilt. It was a genuine question. “Those using you are not even being intentionally malicious, but with each new job, you will be worn down and broken a little more. Do you intend to continue this until you inevitably collapse? I said I am approaching this from a position beyond morality, but that means I think everyone should have an equal opportunity.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You could always find a way to transfer back to the Catholics, but even then, you would still be outsiders. Once great chaos rocks Christianity, everyone will be vying for the positions of power. And when you know a catastrophe is coming, you can make sure you are ready. Yes, you are a weak group, but you can outdo the rest if you make sure you have a head start. Ally yourself with the chaos and you can name the new denomination.”
“You will not be borrowing power from anyone else. You will not be letting others use you while you are in no position to protest. Use the coming struggle for power and you can overthrow all those who would keep you down. You can become your own independent power. But to do that, the time to act is now.”
Sister Lucia feared the Anglicans would get after them for even the slightest mistake, so she was constantly fretting over the second hand on her watch and she never got a moment’s rest.
Sister Angelene feared they might have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep tomorrow, so she had formed a habit of eating any food she could get her hands on and she had forgotten how to slow down and enjoy her food.
They were all the same.
Agata was and Caterina was. None of these things were entirely new, of course. Lucia had always been a perfectionist and Angelene a glutton. But it had all been twisted and exacerbated by the stresses of their current situation. Whether or not they were aware of it themselves, they could never fully relax. No matter how comfortable their lives were and no matter how many kind people they lived with, they knew it could all be taken away from them at any time for political reasons.
After having exactly that happen to them once, the fear of it happening again was hard to shake. They had belonged to the world’s largest denomination, but that had meant nothing. It had all been taken from them in the blink of an eye.
The church had been in an unusual position then.
They had been at the mercy of God’s Right Seat, so they had simply cast out so many people’s lives.
And if Agnese stood back and let Tu do his thing, he would take revenge for her. She would not even be charged with any kind of crime.
“Surely.” Albert Dying made his final plea as if tearing into her heart. “No one is at fault, but surely you feel powerless as you watch your companions fall. Don’t you hate to see how weak you are? But you can still save them. You can save them and prove you were right all along.”
Maybe he was right. Whatever she might have said, she had her thoughts about the Catholics who had cast her out and even attempted to kill her.
But Tu was no god.
He was only human, so the girl had noticed something off just as he was about to win her over.
“What would the Anglicans gain if we took revenge on our old home? And what about everyone who has found a new home there?”
“What are you- wait, it can’t be.”
“You’re right. I do hate the Catholics for casting us out. They did so much to us, but after Fiamma of the Right fell and World War Three ended, they never bothered to slip in an apology among all the congratulations. I loathe them from the bottom of my heart for that.” Agnese continued with a devilish grin. “But if acting on that will not help the people I hope to protect, I will swallow that hatred. I don’t want to save anyone for my own glory or pride.”
“You missed the mark, Tu. You misread my desire.” She had regained the composure needed to press a hand against the center of her chest and wink. “Doing it for myself just rings hollow in my ears. Now, if you had finished it off by saying it would help Sister Lucia, Sister Angelene, or even Kanzaki Kaori or Sister Orsola, I might have stepped aside for you. But you screwed it up, proving you’re only human. No matter how enlightened you try to sound.”
A prophet lost everything once they were proven wrong.
And the more people had believed them, the greater the backlash.
“Your dreams revealed nothing to you. You just laid out suggestive words in the hopes that you could instill your own desires in others. You convince people they can find happiness if they follow the flowchart found in your words. That is all you are, Tu. Your dreams are no more than dreams! There is no reality to be found there!!”
Agnese Sanctis raised the Lotus Wand in both hands.
This would be the final battle.
The tall nun wordlessly responded while readying the giant wooden wheel in her hands.
So did the stooped sister with heavy gold coin bags floating up around her.
One thing had not changed here.
They had no reward for Tu. Agnese Sanctis was satisfied with the reality around her, so she had no need for dreams!
“Let’s teach this silly dreamer a lesson!! We will wake you from that dream even if it means smashing your skull in, Albert Dying!!”