Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 10 Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Aegis' Blitzkrieg
An explosion was heard in the underground passage, shaking the entire space.
Ariella Lu created air by transmuting dark matter from her gauntlet of a fictional armament, blowing away all the dark smoke around her.
When the view turned clear, what appeared before her eyes was a partition with a large hole in it. How many partitions had she destroyed already? Since she had not bothered to take note, trying to count by memory now would be a pain.
She passed through the remains of the partition with seven young soldiers following her silently. There was no need to give them orders. They—the special forces team Sleipnir—were equivalent to Ariella's limbs.
While Ariella looked at these expressionless followers, a man's voice suddenly spoke through the communicator on her ear.
'—Ah, looks like things are going smoothly.'
"Who are you?"
Ariella asked while continuing to advance. Mild laughter was heard from the other side.
'Didn't you hear from Captain Shelley? I am the commander of the unit you have now joined.'
Hearing the name of someone who was a leader in her former organization, Ariella sighed.
"I see—So you're that Major Loki Jotunheim?"
'Indeed. At the same time, I am also responsible for supervising the deal you made with her. Even if she betrays the promise, I won't allow it to happen. Everything you do must be rewarded.'
"...Why thank you very much."
After Ariella responded to this speech of feigned sincerity, Loki said wryly:
"Looks like I'm distrusted."
"That's besides the point—;I simply don't care about that kind of stuff at all. Of course, I hope your side will hold up your end of the bargain, but... I too have reasons for why I must kill the principal."
'Now that's what I call reliable. Since you have chosen to oppose "Gray" on your own accord, we are comrades in a sense. Although you distrust me, I still wish you victory sincerely from the bottom of my heart.'
The voice changed subtly. He was was speaking in a sincere tone.
However, Ariella frowned with displeasure.
"So is this how you curried Mononobe-kun's favor?"
'...Curried favor? I don't think I understand you.'
"Really? Did I say anything wrong? Isn't it currying favor when a weakling tries to exploit the strong by resorting to desperate little tricks?"
Loki chuckled in response to Ariella's overt disdain.
"You're probably very good at making other people act according to your wishes. However, I can tell. I can tell just from your voice—You are very weak."
'I am very weak—Am I? Really...? So that's what you think.'
Loki spoke in delight. Whether this was feigned casualness or sarcasm against a wrong observaton—Ariella did not know.
But from Ariella's perspective, this sort of thing did not matter either. What she wanted to say was one thing only.
"You're definitely someone extremely powerless. Wanting to be my ally when you're clearly unable to do anything? Know some shame. That's why—Shut up when I'm fighting."
Declaring that to Loki unilaterally, Ariella tossed the communicator away without listening to his reply.
She had put it on tentatively in the beginning because the communicator had been passed to her, but Ariella felt thoroughly disgusted the instant it occurred to her that she was currently linked to that man through airwaves.
—Still, am I acting too immature here?
Since the other side had guaranteed the completion of the transaction, she ought to exploit him fully while concealing her true thoughts.
Why didn't I do that? Ariella immediately found the reason as soon as she gave it some thought.
—That man had exploited Mononobe-kun. As soon as it crossed her mind, she found it unbearable.
Perhaps this sort of emotion was quite similar to jealousy in a certain sense. Ariella began to smile wryly.
In her current state, there was no way she could fight when facing him.
Although she had asked him not to chase after her, she was certain he would not give up. Using the power of Hraesvelgr, the dragon she loathed to the extreme, he had conveyed his thoughts to her.
Hence, he was surely waiting ahead of her.
Ariella stopped and extended her hand behind her. Next, a member of Sleipnir approached Ariella silently and handed a red capsule to her.
Inside the capsule was blood. She had checked in the beginning by biting it open with her teeth before swallowing it.
Ariella did not know whose blood it was.
However, her mind had become shrouded in white mist after she swallowed the capsule. She could sense her thoughts turning sluggish. And possibly because of that, her senses gained unprecedented clarity. Unarticulated murderous intent stirred her from within.
A "certain something" lurking deep in the abyss of her consciousness, which she had suppressed by shaping her fictional armament into defensive gear and refusing to hold a weapon, was writhing restlessly.
Swallowing another capsule would probably stop her completely from thinking unnecessary things.
With that, she would become the same as those young soldiers, silently following her, whose nature had been transformed into a system for combat—No, for murder.
Although it was a bit unscrupulous to rely on this kind of thing, she decided it was something essential to stop her current self from halting in her steps.
By this point, she must not stop. Unless she did everything within her power... It would be unacceptable. Hence—
Ariella placed the capsule in her mouth and swallowed. In that instant, Ren's face flashed across her mind.
If Ren was waiting ahead, Ariella might harm her after losing her sense of self. Ariella was very afraid of this. More afraid of this than anything.
—However, Mononobe-kun would protect Ren properly.
Embracing a wish contrary to her own objective—Ariella surrendered herself to the surging murderous intent.
"Ariella-chan is about to arrive."
Looking at the partition that blocked the passage, Iris said nervously.
"That's right—our opponent seems to be a high-speed assault unit. Although their specific identities can't be confirmed due to destruction of security cameras... It should be Ariella."
I explained what I had heard from Charlotte and added my own hunch while sweeping my gaze across the surroundings.
This was an underground passage near the surface. It was relatively wide with higher ceilings due to being used as a transportation passage for moving goods and materials. Although it looked like large weapons could also pass through, it was unlikely that the unmanned weaponry and NIFL soldiers could arrive faster than Ariella.
Currently, NIFL was stuck with infighting. The foot soldiers were being blocked and attacked by people under Charlotte's control while the unmanned weapons were getting hacked one after another by Tia and used to obstruct other unmanned weapons.
Due to comparable numbers on both sides, it was currently a stalemate. However, there was no one in those NIFL units who could oppose the Ds, who each individually wielded firepower on the level of large weapons. As a result, the first to arrive ought to be Ariella.
Beside me, Ren gripped my shirt tightly.
She looked quite nervous but there was no uncertainty in her eyes. Ren's face conveyed the determination to rescue Ariella. She was staring at the partition.
"It'll be fine for sure! Tia is here!"
Tia encouraged us.
Even capable of hacking dark matter, Tia was honestly very reliable. Perhaps the ground defense situation might get tougher due to Tia's withdrawal, but Lisa and Firill had stayed behind to maintain barriers with their full effort.
Ren's expression relaxed slightly as she nodded lightly in gratitude.
"If Ariella-san is bringing many NIFL soldiers... What shall we do?"
Mitsuki had already summoned her fictional armament of a bow when she asked me the question. Judging from her demeanor, her body temperature was still raised but she sounded very energetic.
"An increase of numbers would result in loss of marching speed. Judging from their invasion speed, a small team is more than likely. Well, it's possible for unmanned weapons to be following them, but that should pose no threat."
Listening to me, Kili nodded calmly.
"That's right, Tia can hack them. Rather, it would only serve to increase our numbers. Ordinary soldiers can't do anything once we envelop them in wind. It makes no difference no matter how many of them come."
Although Kili's reply was confident as usual, there was something slightly different.
She frowned in surprise when I stared at her in amazement.
"Nothing, I'm just a bit surprised you're thinking of neutralizing instead of killing them."
Normally, the pattern would be her saying "just incinerate them" and me trying to stop her.
"...I'm just playing along with your methods. Unnecessary arguments are a pain."
Kili averted eye contact with some displeasure then Iris suddenly looked at us.
"Mononobe, don't speak like that! Kili-chan is being considerate for us, so we should thank her!"
"Oh right... That's true. Thank you, Kili."
Scolded by Iris, I thanked Kili.
"Huh? Hmm, well... It's nothing—By the way, Iris-chan, don't make unnecessary comments, you're throwing me off balance..."
Kili wavered in a rare moment. To regain control, she took a deep breath forcefully.
The ones present here were me, Ren, Iris, Mitsuki, Kili and Tia, the six of us. Lisa and Firill on the ground to bolster defenses. Jeanne, Shion and Vritra were staying in Charlotte's room.
"Putting all that aside—How do you lot intend to stop Ariella Lu? We should discuss the battle plan properly now, right?"
Hearing Kili's question, I looked at Mitsuki, who then nodded lightly.
She seemed to be leaving the matter to me. Although I had already pondered the issue, I asked Tia a question first before sharing my thoughts.
"—Tia, how wide a range can you interfere with dark matter?"
"Around ten meters, but for short periods, Tia can expand the interference range by generating electricity."
After listening to Tia's answer, I crossed my arms and said:
"Ten meters—even if it could be extended, this distance isn't very reassuring. Before we find out enemy numbers and how they're equipped, you should stay in the back on standby. Once the partition is destroyed, I'll go over first to draw attention and engage Ariella."
Tia nodded and accepted my instructions. However, Ren looked up worriedly from beside me.
"Don't worry. I won't get taken out so easily. This battle's purpose is to save Ariella. Also... If the promise still holds, all I need to do is touch Ariella once."
To ease Ren, I stroked her head gently while I answered.
If I were to touch Ariella, she would "transform into my kind." Ariella had told me to try turning her into my mate if I wanted to stop her.
"Then Mononobe, what about me? I'm willing to do anything for Ariella-chan!"
Listening to our dialogue, Iris asked, fully motivated.
"Iris, you'll stay on standby next to Tia and use explosions to pin down approaching enemies. No need to hit them directly. Just use the wind from the blast to stop them from getting close."
"Yes, I got it!"
Iris answered energetically. Next, I issued instructions to the others successively.
"Mitsuki, you'll be in charge of guarding Tia and Iris. If things go south for me, take Tia and Iris and move them to bring Ariella into interference range. But depending on the situation, you might need to keep a barrier deployed—"
"Understood. Leave Tia-san and Iris-san to me."
Mitsuki accepted my orders with a tense expression.
"Kili, you'll head to the front with me. I'm leaving everyone apart from Ariella to you. Just as you said earlier, just neutralize them without killing anyone."
"...Sure, I'll try."
Was she displeased about what I brought up earlier? Kili nodded with a mixed expression. Finally, I looked at Ren.
"Ren, you'll be in charge of the middle guard. Prioritize your own safety while supporting Kili and me. Also, if possible, I hope you can try calling out to Ariella."
Ren released my shirt and left me. With a determined expression, she nodded.
At this moment, a deep rumbling noise was heard coming from the front.
"...Seems like they're approaching. Keep away from the partition and prepare to fight, everyone."
Giving these orders, I backed away together with everyone.
As the vanguard, Kili and I stopped a couple meters away from the partition. In charge of support as the middle guard, Ren retreated slightly farther back. The trio of Tia, Iris and Mitsuki backed away the farthest with their fictional armaments ready. The spot where Kili and I were standing was precisely the limit of Tia's interference range.
The low rumbling was heard again.
It sounded nearer than before. One by one, the partitions were being destroyed.
"Finally a chance to fight alongside you. Although our first shared endeavor was supposed to have been completed last night... Oh well, this is more like our style."
Kili tossed her long black hair and smiled with satisfaction.
But as soon I thought back to the previous night's nocturnal visit, blood rushed directly to my face.
"—Quit making weird comments before a battle. Also... Give me a break on that kind of stuff."
While whispering quietly, I glanced secretly at Iris and Mitsuki to see if they had heard.
"No. I said we're continuing next time, didn't I? Also, you've heard about Neun from Mother and Tia, right?"
After refusing to comply, Kili asked solemnly.
Indeed, I had heard about authorities, counterdragons and calamities from Tia and Vritra. Kili probably knew some of it from Vritra too.
"That's right—But Vritra insists I'm not Neun."
Neun was the newest counterdragon born from the world to resist the inevitable coming of the ninth calamity—the ninth dragon. However, it would be quite strange if I had become Neun without encountering the calamity already. That was what Vritra said. Furthermore, since the ninth calamity was apparently the "true form" of the seventh calamity, the chances of an authority arising to counter it were quite low to begin with.
"Mother is too pessimistic. Oh well, it can't be helped since she witnessed the world's destruction once. But we're not obliged to listen to her. Stop thinking too much and just make babies happily with me."
"M-Making babies, you..."
My face instantly turned boiling hot as a result of Kili's direct proposal.
"Oh my, what's the problem? If we have babies, it'll increase the number of antibodies for countering the ninth calamity. Isn't this necessary for the sake of all life on the planet?"
My mind was unable to keep up with this kind of big reasoning, but a that moment, a third impact was heard.
"L-Let's talk about this some other time. That shaking just now—I'm guessing the nearest partition has been destroyed. Kili, can you deploy barriers to prepare against the partition exploding?"
I changed the subject forcibly. Kili sighed lightly and nodded.
"—Then we'll continue the discussion in your bedroom."
Smiling, Kili said something disturbing before raising her hand.
Wind brushed against my cheeks while the surrounding temperature increased. Although invisible, tiny particles of dark matter must have been generated by Kili in the surroundings. This was her prided skill of "Muspelheim." By spreading dark matter within an area, she was able to perform transmutation instantly without any warning motions for opponents to notice.
"Construction of dual barriers of heat and wind complete. Although this can block the explosion's wake, remember to give me a signal when you're charging into enemy ranks. You'll be burned to death if you touch the heat barrier."
"Yeah, I got it."
I nodded and focused my awareness on the other side of the partition. Although the thick and heavy wall blocked the majority of information, I still felt myself breaking out in goosebumps.
Sharp murderous intent, akin to a knife against one's throat, was approaching step by step.
Kili also seemed to sense the same thing as I did. The smile vanished from her face.
"Since it seems like it'll be more dangerous than I imagined, I'll give you a warning. Don't count on my biogenic transmutation too much."
Kili said in a stiff voice. When I looked at her questioningly, she made a light shrug.
"Although my biogenic transmutation can heal wounds, my own body is the only thing I can restore perfectly. When applied to other people, the most I can do is 'overwrite' the wound."
"Like deleting an injury?"
"When repairing major damage—like restoring entire limbs or organs—will usually result in rejection. I don't have any way of recreating someone else's body correctly."
Kili answered then glanced at Iris and the girls behind her.
"That's why you must protect Iris-chan and the others properly if anything happens. You can't go for mutual destruction yourself either."
Listening to her warning, I smiled subtly.
"What are you laughing at?"
"Hmm, I couldn't help it when I realized you're worrying about Iris and the others."
"What... I'm not—"
Seeing Kili in a fluster, I smiled and thanked her.
"Thank you, Kili. But don't do anything reckless either, Kili. Even if you can heal wounds, it's over if you die directly."
"...I know that. But it's true that I don't die easily. If I cover you—"
Kili replied slightly displeased, but stopped mid-sentence.
With bated breath, she was staring at a black sphere that had appeared ahead.
It was dark matter that every D could generate.
However, I had not summoned it. Judging from the look on her face, Kili had not summoned it either.
Then was this summoned by Iris or the others behind us, or was it—
I could not help but feel my hair standing on end. The partition was intact. The invading party was still on the other side.
However, they had Ariella on their side. If she had noticed our presence on the opposite side of the partition and generated dark matter, guided by intuition—
Also, this dark matter happened to be just outside of Tia's interference range.
I reached out to protect Kili but my hand was redirected and my entire body was shoved away.
Just as I was pushed to the ground, the dark matter gave off blinding light.
Flames spread from the explosion. Kili was swallowed by them.
At the same time, a strange noise was produced at the partition. Was it because Kili's barriers had vanished? The flames and the partition's remains rushed over unimpeded. There was no time even to stand up.
I summoned the ornamental gun of a fictional armament into my left hand, aiming the muzzle at the flames and debris. However, I heard Ren's voice just before I performed transmutation.
The air she generated formed a violent storm rushing over my head.
The storm blocked the flame and debris flying at me, causing a scattering of black smoke.
Several shimmering silhouettes appeared on the other side of the smoke. Seeing them, I instantly got up and charged.
"Ren, take Kili and back away!"
I had no time to check on Kili's condition after she was swallowed by the explosion. I could only pray for her survival and leave things to Ren while charging into the thick smoke.
This attack was probably Ariella's. I closed in. Unless I kept Ariella occupied, there would be no way to buy time for Kili to retreat to the back.
I cleared my mind and gathered as much information from the five senses as possible.
Shimmering silhouettes amidst the smoke. Sound of footsteps. The smell of gunpowder, drifting in the air. The motion of air brushing against my skin.
The number of enemies—Eight of them. No sound of driven machinery or the scent of exhaust gases. In that case, all of them were human.
Despite the poor visibility, it was not difficult to get a grasp on the numbers and positions of my opponents.
As long as I seized initiative, I could handle this number of enemies single-handedly.
Anti-personnel weapon—AT Nergal.
Using transmutation, I created a projectile-based stun gun in my empty right hand. Aiming at the eight presences, I fired consecutively.
Ariella might be able to dodge, but the remaining seven should be neutralized.
Just as I was thinking that, I heard the sound of deflected electricity. There were also several overlapping instances of high-pitched metallic ringing.
This sound—I had heard it before. During my fight against Ariella underground earlier, the same sound had resulted when she threw her knife to block Nergal's bullet.
And right now, this sound was coming from eight directions simultaneously.
Instinctively sensing danger, I immediately jumped from where I was standing. Silver knives stabbed my former location.
A total of eight. In other words, every single one of Nergal's targets had deflected the bullet and counterattacked.
Although my plan was to find out which one of them was Ariella, it did not work. All I could confirm was that all eight were extraordinary opponents.
To be able to deflect bullets in such poor visibility conditions, their skills and instincts were beyond common sense.
It was not possible to reach such a realm unless they possessed a certain "something" surpassing humans.
I called it "Fafnir." I had sensed something similar in Ariella and Hreidmar. Based on the number of opponents, the thought of Sleipnir flashed through my mind. However, it was hard to imagine all of them reaching such a level.
—In that case, perhaps all seven of them apart from Ariella were Hreidmars?
I recalled the soldiers clad in silver armor but was struck by a sense of dissonance. Back when I was detecting enemy presences earlier, I had not heard the metallic sound special to armored clothing. Furthermore, the armored outfits would insulate against Nergal's electroshock attack, eschewing the need to defend.
In any case, no amount of thinking on my end now would reach a conclusion. Since the smoke blocking the view was not working, it was acting as a disadvantage to my own side instead. Under such conditions, neither Mitsuki nor Ren would be able to provide cover fire.
Aiming the fictional armament in my left hand at my feet, I released a relatively mildly compressed bullet of air.
A whirlwind began to blow with me as the center.
With that, I was able to defend against follow-up knife attacks while ensuring visibility, killing two birds with one stone. If it succeeded in throwing my opponents off-balance, I could even shoot them with Nergal.
Just as I predicted, Ariella was among those people. With a somewhat hollow expression, she stared intently at me.
However, the rest of them were not Hreidmars. The possibility I had ruled out just now—the special forces unit I used to manage as their captain—the young soldiers of Sleipnir were on the other side.
Although they were still the people I knew so well, the entire team's ambiance had changed. Their faces were as blank as Ariella's with only intense desire to kill residing in their eyes.
Ren cried out from the back.
"Tia doesn't want to fight you, Ariella!"
Iris, Mitsuki and Tia also called out, but Ariella's expression did not change at all. Rather than ignoring them, it seemed more like she had not heard. She was clearly behaving strangely.
I did not know what had happened to Ariella but right now, I had to subdue her according to the battle plan.
To draw her attention, I called her name while kicking the ground to charge. Then using the lingering wind's momentum, I closed in on her in one breath.
Ariella turned her arm. Held in her hand was a silver knife.
I recalled how she had sliced my Nergal in half with her knife in the previous battle. Ariella's knife should be made of mithril. There was no way to overcome it with brute force.
Hence, I used the remaining dark matter, converting all of it into a blade of air.
The highly compressed blade turned scorching hot, slashing through the air with a red trail.
Ariella swung her knife at my head without hesitation.
A heavy impact was heard in the clash between metal and compressed air.
Her attack was quite fierce but easy to handle. Power was the only thing required to break through compressed air. A metal's hardness and sharpness made no difference.
One more step and I could reach out to touch Ariella. Sleipnir's soldiers were some distance away. Now was a perfect chance.
The dragon mark on my left hand began to pulsate while faint blue light spread out.
However, the moment just as I was about to take this final step, I felt a chill. I was currently on the boundary of life and death. Heeding instinct, I turned and retreated.
A sharp sound zoomed past. Something had brushed across the tip of my nose. Noticing the slight scattering of my bangs, I realized something had severed them. However, I did not find anything apart from knives.
I looked at the direction of the attack's source, only to see a young man there with arm raised. The remaining six also raised their arms. Next to their hands were hovering pitch-black spheres.
This unbelievable scene made me gasp. I jumped backwards.
Next, invisible slashes flew past before my eyes, accompanied by the sound of wind slicing. The ground was cut open deeply while wind struck my face. The black spheres disappeared from the young men's hands.
—The move just now consisted of attacks launched using the transmutation of dark matter? How could that be possible...!?
Every member of Sleipnir was male. Was it possible that all of them had concealed their gender like Jeanne, but were actually Ds?
The seven young soldiers attacked me during my state of confusion. They were each holding a silver knife identical to Ariella's.
I fired Nergal to restrain and slow down the few of them approaching from the right side. At the same time, I shot the left side with consecutive bullets of air blades, the same as what I had used in the beginning.
That movement just now—This knife handling—
According to what I knew about him—Robin—he did not fight this way. Disliking close quarters combat, his forte was supposed to be using firearms to fight at mid range.
It was almost like a different person... Or rather, this was too similar to Ariella earlier.
The second and third people attacked in succession—Otr and Regin—I dodged in the nick of them, but sure enough, their movements were the same as Ariella's.
Although close quarters combat was their strength, their original traits could not have changed completely. Otr specialized in strength and Regin in skill. Their characteristics were very obvious. But right now, their movements were abnormally similar.
Using Nergal, I had pinned down the remaining four from advancing—Sigurd, Lancelot, Kunato and Nataku. As though synchronized with Ariella, they all raised their hands.
Seeing the generated dark matter, I became aware that I had not imagined what I saw earlier. For some unknown reason, they had obtained the power to generate dark matter.
In that case, it was like fighting against eight Ariellas.
It was impossible to find a chance of victory without killing anyone when the number of equal opponents increased to eight.
—However, that was assuming I was alone.
My dragon mark began to heat up.
Why was that? I knew without looking behind that "she" was going to aid me.
Ariella and the young men stopped attacking and jumped to the side. Immediately after that, a flash of red light swept across the passage.
Seizing the chance, I distanced myself from Ariella and Sleipnir to regroup.
Next, Kili stood by my side. Although her clothing was charred, she did not look injured.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes—before getting attacked, I used Muspelheim to detonate an explosion. The two explosions cancelled each other out."
Kili smiled with composure and looked at Ariella's group.
"You're reckless as ever... Did you get injured?"
Considering the barriers had disappeared, I knew she must have lost consciousness for a moment at least.
"I healed using biogenic transmutation. In any case, there's no problem. Never mind that, what do we do next? Things have gotten super annoying if all of them are Ds. They're probably on guard against Tia too."
Kili motioned with her eyes towards Ariella's group, which had stopped attacking, and commented seriously.
While talking, we slowly continued to distance ourselves from Ariella's group. Currently, we had already retreated to within Tia's interference range.
If possible, I would like to lure Ariella and the others into Tia's interference range, but it could be difficult depending on the situation.
"No... It's impossible for them all to be Ds. First of all, they're all guys... Having lived as roommates, I can assert with certainty. There must be some kind of reason for this."
"—Yes, I agree, because I would be troubled if there existed others sharing your special exception. There is no value except in scarcity."
Instead of coming over, Ariella and Sleipnir scattered in the wide passage. As expected, none of them stepped into the interference zone.
Tia was using electricity to interfere. Although invisible to the eye, Ariella and her group could probably detect Tia's deployed electromagnetic domain with their sharp senses.
Ariella silently raised her hand towards us. Next, the young men did the same in unison.
"Nii-san, we will expand the barrier!"
I heard Mitsuki's voice from behind. A gust of wind blew over, probably from Mitsuki expanding the air barrier protecting Tia and company, allowing it to reach where Kili and I were standing.
After that, Ariella's group used the dark matter generated by their hands to fire jets of flame at me.
But blocked by the barrier of air, they exploded mid flight.
Sure enough, it looked like they were all capable of using dark matter. However, supposing this fact could not possibly be true—
Only an exceedingly clear and simple conclusion could be deduced. After I finished checking this conjecture in my mind, Ren ran forward to me.
"...Onii-chan! Why... Onee-chan—this is, so weird!"
Ren's sense of dissonance was even stronger than mine. She was speaking with a very pale face.
"Yeah, rather than having committed herself to some kind of resolve—It seems more like she's lost her sanity."
Looking at Ariella on the other side of the flaming explosion, I nodded at Ren.
"...What can we do? Onii-chan, what can we..."
Ren stared hard at me. I wanted to reassure her with a pat on the head, but my hands were occupied right now with holding Nergal and a blade of air.
Hence, I looked into Ren's eyes and voiced my thoughts loudly, audible enough for others to hear.
"Ariella might have transformed."
Uneasily, Ren repeated what I had said.
Ariella and her group continued to attack, but Mitsuki's deployed barrier was very secure. Currently, we had the time to exchange information.
"Hreidmar—those armored soldiers I've previously fought at the mountain villa and at the Principality of Erlia—was hollow inside. Only smoke filled the interior. According to my former superior officer, Major Loki, they had transformed as a result of obtaining power."
"Right—You've seen what's inside them."
Kili narrowed her eyes and whispered. Working together with Jeanne, she had also seen it at the Principality of Erlia before.
"Right now, the people with Ariella is also a unit belonging to Major Loki. Compared to the time when I was still with them, their vibes and ability levels are completely different. It's possible that they've transformed as a price for obtaining a power similar to Hreidmar's."
"The price of power..."
Iris murmured softly.
Having gone through a transformation of her physical body due to Basilisk's authority, Iris had experienced what it was like. Last time, Major Loki had brought up Hreidmar's situation to illustrate a point about dragons.
From what I had heard from Charlotte, Major Loki was the descendant of the man who possessed the authority born for the sake of killing humanity. If this authority truly existed and Major Loki had the technology to make other people inherit it... Then everything could be connected together.
The clear dragon—"Colorless" Fafnir.
Hreidmar, Sleipnir, Ariella, and me as well—Most likely, we all held this authority.
Major Loki had said that true value lay in the ability to obtain power without transforming—And that was me. Hence, among those who had obtained the authority, I was the only one bestowed with the codename of "Fafnir."
Conversely, it implied that everyone else apart from me had transformed. However—
"Don't worry, Iris."
Without looking back, I declared strongly.
"If obtaining power causes transformations, there must be a way to turn back. All I need to do is repeat what I did to turn you back to human, Iris."
Hearing what I said, Iris took a deep breath.
"Nii-san, I now know your intentions."
"Tia knows too!"
Mitsuki and Tia realized what I was trying to say.
However, there was something I had to tell them.
"However, there's no way I can decide the match unless I fight the current Ariella and her team with the intent to kill. But since I don't plan on 'killing' Ariella, there's absolutely no way for me to win while facing the uncertainty of what the other side will transmute using dark matter."
"What... Wait, Yuu!"
Kili glared at me angrily but I gave her a look to tell her to wait for me to finish.
"Be that as it may, I don't need to win. All I need to do is touch Ariella with my fingertip. With that, she'd surely recover her sanity. That's why, I'll be counting on you girls to cover me so that I can reach Ariella before I get killed."
I said that while moving towards the edge of the barrier where Ariella's group was attacking.
"Wait! If we do not discuss properly beforehand, we might end up obstructing you, Nii-san—"
Mitsuki called out anxiously to stop me, but I shook my head to tell her it was fine.
"Don't worry, Mitsuki. You'll act suitably when I feel it's necessary. I know this from a feeling. It'll tell me how all of you will take action, Mitsuki."
"Even if you know, this is still too..."
Mitsuki grumbled in protest. At this moment, Kili interjected.
"I believe in Yuu. When covering him just now, well—although I hate to use the word 'feeling'—I felt as though Yuu and I were joined as though of one mind. You felt the same way, right?"
I nodded at Kili's question.
"Yeah, I knew Kili would help me. Perhaps, there's some kind of link because we've become 'the same kind.'"
"In that case, Tia can definitely do it! Tia is already Yuu's wife, we can surely connect our hearts together through the bond of husband and wife!"
A competitive flame had apparently been lit in Tia's mind.
"Ehhh!? Tia-chan, it's too early to talk about husband and wife! But... I've had this feeling of connected minds too. When Mononobe selected me, a strong wave of feelings were transmitted."
Seeing Iris agreeing with Kili too, Mitsuki showed displeasure in her expression.
"Speaking of bonds with Nii-san, mine should be the strongest. Very well—I understand. Till Nii-san reaches Ariella-san's side, I shall absolutely protect him."
Next, everyone looked at Ren, who had yet to comment."
"Mm. Onii-chan... You've always known what I wanted to say even if I did not say it out. Hence, I believe in you, Onii-chan."
Ren gripped her hammer fictional armament tightly and accepted my battle plan.
"Thank you, Ren."
I smiled and looked at Ariella who was on the other side of the barrier.
"—Mitsuki, on my signal, release the barrier."
I replenished Nergal's ammunition in my right. Dispelling the blade of air in my left, I transmuted Siegfried.
Was Ariella's group trying to break through the barrier by force? Their attacks were escalating in intensity—However, this produced openings in the generation of dark matter.
Seizing the opportunity, I yelled.
The instant the attacks paused, I rushed out. With the barrier lowered, there was nothing to stop me anymore.
Ariella's group immediately reacted to my action and changed formation.
In the center, Ariella backed away while the young men flanked and surrounded me.
By throwing knives and transmuting dark matter from eight different directions, they attacked. Every strike was imbued with the intent to kill with certainty. A mortal wound would result no matter which attack landed.
Using Siegfried to fire a dark matter bullet at my feet, I transmuted antigravitational matter.
Deployed with me at the center, a repulsive field deflected all attacks.
But after that, while I was running, dark matter appeared in my surroundings again.
This was the same tactic as what Iris had used to counter Leviathan's repulsive field. Attacking with dark matter directly within the field instead of from outside—
As expected, Ariella's group was currently more powerful than me. Naturally, there was a decisive gap between them, who possessed the authority born for killing humanity, Ariella and company who were fighting to kill, versus me, fighting without murderous intent.
However, I had already declared I would rescue her from this hopeless situation, because I had heard the thoughts in her heart.
"—Come, come, fragments of the Far Beyond."
Even more dark matter appeared in my surroundings, but it was not generated by Ariella's party. It was created by the girl with super spatial perception who was able to exert precise control so long as explosions were the foregone conclusion.
"O raging wind, explode!"
The instant Ariella and her team's dark matter turned into exploding flames, Iris' acute voice rang out.
With the sound of an explosion, my view became blocked by black smoke, but I almost felt no impact against my body. As though it were the most natural thing in the world, I understood what Iris had done.
By making the air she had summoned explode, she had cancelled out Ariella's attack. It worked the same way as how Kili had protected herself earlier, but I received no damage at all despite my close proximity. This was evidence of perfect control of the explosion's directionality. Sure enough, Iris' talent was extremely outstanding in a most unconventional area.
At the same time, Mitsuki attacked the young soldiers.
"First Arrow—Forked Wind!"
Almost impossible to discern with the naked eye, the arrow of wind turned into countless arrows, shooting at them.
Normally speaking, it was impossible to evade, but I had braved through this move last time when I was having a disagreement with Mitsuki.
If I could do it back then, there was no reason why they could not do it now.
Like beasts, they moved between the invisible arrows. Simultaneously, they launched knives at me from unstable postures.
Continuing to advance towards Ariella, I moved slightly away from the repulsive field's zone of effect. There was very little dark matter remaining in Siegfried, insufficient to generate a strong repulsive field.
However, thanks to Mitsuki slowing them down, I received new support.
Boom—Several small projectiles of flame appeared in my surroundings, deflecting the knives away.
This was Kili's Muspelheim. By spreading out dark matter, too small for the naked eye to see, in the entire space, she was able to transmute heat at any location of her choosing.
However, this seemingly almighty barrier had a weakness. Ariella and company instantly acted in response.
Silently, they raised their hand to generate dark matter, transmuting it into white smoke.
Tiny particles of dark matter could be erased with the use of smoke. Muspelheim was neutralized as a result, but thanks to Ariella and company switching to defense, I received the chance to advance further.
I had pretty much figured out the pattern in how they generated dark matter. So far, they had all performed the same transmutation simultaneously. In that case, Ariella should be the one person capable of generating dark matter. All Ariella was doing was producing dark matter next to the young soldiers when they raised their hands.
If my speculation was correct, then there should be a delay until the next transmutation.
I was almost about to reach her.
Tia and Ren were the ones to buy me the time to close this gap.
Tia used lightning attacks to restrain the young soldiers while Ren made use of her massive generating capacity to create thick walls on my left and right.
My dragon mark pulsated.
Everyone's thoughts were transmitting through. I could sense their feelings. Right now, we were definitely linked together.
If this was the bond between those of my kind, there was nothing more encouraging than this.
I was not fighting alone.
Ariella—I won't let leave you behind either, all alone!
I closed in on her, extending my left hand that was holding Siegfried.
This time, I'll surely catch you. I will rescue you with this hand.
During the underground battle, I had used Ether Wind to sense Ariella's internal thoughts. Unable to stop herself, Ariella was definitely seeking help.
With a hollow expression, Ariella stared at me with eyes filled with intense killing intent and swung the knife in her hand.
It felt as though I could see an illusion of my left hand severed and my heart stabbed.
However, I ignored the warnings of instinct and pulled Siegfried's trigger.
Using my fictional armament, I transmuted the remaining dark matter into golden particles, wrapping them around my left arm.
A heavy strike connected.
However, the silver blade slicing at my left arm was stopped by the golden particles.
When a living body was enveloped in concentrated Ether Wind, the soul inside would manifest. This manifested soul was immune to all physical interference.
This was a characteristic of Ether Wind that I had learned during the battle against Hraesvelgr.
Despite my lack of dark matter, it was still possible to envelope my left arm alone—I gambled on this.
Naturally, if it failed with my left arm getting severed, Ariella would probably take my life in the next strike.
In that instant, I was at least able to touch her with my fingertip.
I reached out to Ariella with my left hand, which could not move too freely after being enveloped in golden particles.
The instant my fingertip touched her forehead, the dragon mark on my left hand glowed blue—The golden particles linked our minds together.
I saw her fragments.
People gathered around aged wooden tables, having meals in a lively setting. Two adults, five children. Probably a married couple and their children.
Laughing cheerfully, the man was a fisherman. He was recounting fun anecdotes from his experiences on the sea. Smiling, the wife chimed in with her husband. The children listened to the man, the ambiance was lively.
The girls all looked a bit similar to Ariella.
I saw her despair.
On a burning street, people kept screaming. A giant glowing bird had descended upon the scattered disarray of human corpses.
While the giant bird spread golden particles, the deceased came into view with vague outlines.
It was like stepping foot into the land of the dead. Witnessing this world, she called out to the figures of her family.
But before she could meet these souls, the deceased were devoured by the giant bird. They disappeared.
I saw her hope.
It was inside a dark house somewhere. Furniture and tableware akin to junk. The cracked walls were covered with graffiti.
But it was there that she found herself surrounded by a large family again.
All of them were young children. A variety races. They looked like they had no blood relation with one another.
However, they were definitely bound by bonds rivaling that of real brothers and sisters.
Although it was a bit of a hassle to have everyone relying on her, she found a shred of satisfaction in her torn heart.
I saw her transformation.
A D's proof appeared on her body. Despised by her trusted companions, she was cursed and denounced as a mortal enemy by the children she saw as her family.
By the time she knew it, the world had been turned upside down. Everything was unrecognizable. The end loomed into view.
Her daily life of fighting dragon-worshiping cults and looking after children was cut short. Exiled to another place, she started a new beginning. It was a sterile white box, neither dirty nor broken. In other words, a certain man's laboratory. The man had a daughter, a young girl who always followed him silently.
I saw her resolve.
It was out at sea. On a gray, completely unadorned deck, she—Ariella—had a reunion with a past comrade.
"Lieutenant Shelley, I see. My, you've really made something out of yourself."
Ariella mocked the woman dressed in the NIFL uniform.
"...I will become captain imminently. And one day, I will become the chief of NIFL's Middle Eastern Fourth Branch that was established using our organization as a foundation. Naturally—the prior assumption is that I do not end up killed by you here."
The woman replied calmly then leaned back on the ship's railing.
"I think you've gotten the wrong idea. I've no intention of seeking revenge from you. Rather, you saved me so it'd be wrong for me to hate you."
"All I saved was your life, right? Before selling you off, I already knew you might face treatment even worse than death—I still exchanged you for money despite knowing that. Hence, I already prepared myself to be killed as soon as I was ordered to make contact with you."
Hearing this, Ariella smiled wryly.
"As luck would have it, I was sold to a place much better than you imagined. I no longer had to worry about food and even found new family."
"...Is it the red-haired girl with you?"
"Yes, she's called Ren. My most precious little sister. I'm willing to do anything for her—Still, I've always remained quite concerned about the situation of my former family."
Saying that, Ariella gazed deeply into the woman's eyes.
"Your request... asking me to be a spy. No problem, I accept. However, I have a condition."
"—Very well. So long as it is within my authority and life to give, I accept any conditions no matter what."
Looking at Ariella squarely in the eyes, the woman nodded.
"In that case, there's no problem. My demand is definitely something within your power."
Ariella shrugged lightly and told the woman her condition.
"I heard that Ds can make money at Midgard by accepting requests to generate resources. I'll hand all of that money to you and I hope you can use it to let the children in the organization go to school."
After hearing Ariella's condition, the woman stood there in dumbfounded amazement.
"What... Are you serious? Those children threw rocks at you for becoming a D, don't you remember? They no longer see you as family. Even if they receive your kindness, they won't be thanking you."
"Even so—They're still family to me."
Ariella replied without hesitation.
This was not hypocrisy or charity but simply—her genuine wish.
I saw her determination.
"—Seriously, is there no other way?"
Alone in a corridor, Ariella asked stiffly with her ear pressed against her portable terminal.
'Yes, rather than Gray's unilateral decision, this is the outcome of a majority vote between major developed nations. We must obey in order to allow her to continue existing as a good sovereign.'
What was heard from the portable terminal was the voice of Shelley who had reunited with Ariella previously.
"But Gray possesses an authority that can control mankind, right?"
'Of course, Gray could also realize her will forcibly, but the result is still the same when you uses this move. She will have no choice but to control the world.'
Gritting her teeth, Ariella fell silent.
'Hence, you must accept this request. If you refuse, we shall resort to underhanded means if necessary...'
"...Like the time with Iris?"
After Ariella questioned quietly, the other side answered with a moment's hesitation.
'Indeed, we will threaten you like last time. Using those children at the organization as hostages, the ones you are currently supporting... Yes.'
'We are perfectly aware of that.'
Listening to the woman's voice of self-deprecation, Ariella sighed deeply.
"Fine—I accept. Although I don't think you're the kind of villain who'd really use children as hostages, I can't take the risk. Also... For the sake of protecting those children's future, it looks like I can't avoid a battle against Gray."
Despite knowing this was a choice that would destroy her own happiness, Ariella still accepted it.
Resignation and fighting spirit—These two emotions overlapped in her heart. Ariella committed her determination to fight.
These scenes, which I had watched, turned into golden particles and disappeared into the deep darkness.
Adorning the darkness like a starry sky, the golden color gathered together in a vortex, turning into the shape of a human.
It was Ariella—
Given form by the particles, the girl looked at me, who was floating in the darkness.
"Entering another person's heart without permission, Mononobe-kun, you're really quite lacking in delicacy."
After Ariella said that, I realized it. This was the world inside Ariella's heart.
This was probably the amplified effect of the resonance caused by the same-kind transformation combined with Ether Wind's action on the mind.
"Sorry, but it's thanks to this that I found out a lot of things. I've also come to learn why you accepted NIFL's request to be a spy for them, Ariella, and why you have to kill Charl—"
Using my mind to control my body's outline, I landed in front of Ariella. My body was also giving off golden particles, wavering unsteadily.
The duration of this conversation was probably limited until the natural dissipation of all the Ether Wind I had generated. Extremely short.
"All for the sake of protecting your family at the anti-dragon organization, right?"
Hearing my question, Ariella smiled wryly.
"Yeah, but you need to concern yourself with this, Mononobe-kun. Since what I've set out to do has already failed, it's just an excuse. The other party in the deal, Captain Shelley, is an upstanding woman."
Hearing her answer, I understood Ariella's true intent.
"Really... So you wished to be stopped—That's why you wanted me to save you."
'Stop me—Save me.'
Those were Ariella's feelings that I had overheard via Ether Wind during the underground battle. That was why we could stand in her way without hesitation.
"Eh? I never said that, you know?"
"—I heard it. The voice of your heart. Ariella, you must have heard my declaration to never give up, right?"
After I said that, Ariella took a step back, extremely flustered.
"B-Back then—Mononobe-kun, you really were..."
Were she in her physical body, Ariella probably would have turned bright red in the face. She lowered her head shyly
But after a slight while, she continued speaking, still with her head down.
"But... Although I hoped to be stopped, I also wanted 'to succeed' just as much. That's why I deeply regret getting touched by you and transforming. I'm very angry at myself for feeling relieved."
Ariella clenched her fists tightly and forced these words out.
"In other words, Ariella, you hope to fight?"
I asked. Otherwise, she would not have felt emotions like regret.
"...I'm not just protecting the children who are taken hostage now, but also protecting the future."
Ariella nodded lightly before looking up.
"No matter how much Gray—the principal—struggles, it will turn into a world that she has no choice but to control. And once she exercises her authority, all conflict will be gone from the world."
"What's wrong with that?"
I asked the question that Charlotte had not answered. I could not think of any reason why world peace was bad.
"—Certainly, those living prosperous lives for want of nothing would be very happy for this kind of peace to persist. However... What about those who are suffering under tyrannical regimes, unable to escape misfortune no matter how they struggle against the state's rules?"
I took a deep breath after listening to Ariella. I was aware of the type of people she had brought up. I had seen them many times on the battlefield. Even so, the thought had not occurred to me until she mentioned it. This meant that my value system was already using a peaceful country's as the standard.
"I hate war too, but I believe there are things in this world that must be overthrown with the use of force. A revolution is probably about to break out in the country where I used to live with my family. Of course, there's no guarantee that life hereafter will be happy but for those children, it's their only remaining hope."
I was overwhelmed by Ariella, staring at me resolutely.
What she shouldered, what she protected, was of such magnitude that it exceeded my imagination. However—
"Even if that's true... Do you mean to tell me that killing Charl is the only option?"
Unable to accept, I asked. Ariella nodded sadly.
"Yes. Well, initially I thought about letting the principal rule the world then saving my country. But after hearing from Captain Shelley about how the principal's father had stopped nuclear war, I knew it was impossible. The principal's authority isn't something that can be adjusted so precisely. It's more simple and terrifying than that."
"Simple and terrifying...?"
I repeated Ariella's words as a question. Fear and revulsion appeared on Ariella's face.
"Dominance is no easy task. Most likely, neither the principal's power, or the one held by us, Mononobe-kun and me, are things that can be unleashed in full."
Ariella's words conveyed and intense sense of crisis with slight pity and compassion mixed in her voice.
"The principal... surely knows this too. But she has no choice but to do this... She can't stop it herself. Like me, she's definitely hoping for someone to stop her. That's why I have to stop her."
Ariella clenched her fist hard. Although there were contradictions in her words, I knew she was sincere.
Next, at this moment, her outline wavered while the golden particles began to thin out.
"—It's almost at the limit."
"Looks like it."
"So I'll be your mate once I wake up from this dream...? All the unnecessary things mixed inside me—a certain 'something' born to kill humanity—I feel like it's already growing faint. I'm sure I can't stop the principal anymore."
Smiling wryly, Ariella looked at her dissolving hands.
Having deprived her of many things, all I could say was that.
"No need to apologize, Mononobe-kun. Although there are regrets, I do feel very relieved after all. But I still can't accept this."
As the particles grew dilute, Ariella's expression became distorted.
"I'll surely struggle with unsightliness. So, if possible, please don't let Ren see my unsightliness."
Ariella looked like she was about to cry now, but her figure vanished before her tears could fall.
At the same time, I could feel my own outline turn vague and ambiguous. My consciousness was about to be pulled back.
Shining brightly, the golden particles flowed past the scenes I had just witnessed—the sea of Ariella's memories—receding into the depths of darkness.
My consciousness instantly returned to reality after I could no longer see anything.
Before my eyes was Ariella's shocked face with the extended fingertip of my left hand touching her forehead.
The conversation in the dream had apparently taken place in an instant. Her body was still enveloped in blue light.
Originally blank, her face blushed slightly while my figure was reflected in her eyes of killing intent.
Her expression distorted itself as just now. A weak sound came from her lips.
Before she could do anything, I hugged her tightly first.
"...! Ooooh! Ahhhhh!!"
She struggled hard to shake off my arms, but I continued to embrace her with all my strength.
Finally, her resistance weakened and her groaning turned into sobbing.
Ariella buried herself in my chest. Crying, she desperately tried to suppress her sobbing.
These were tears of regret. Having made contact with her heart, I understood very well.
I heard footsteps and Ren's voice behind me.
To calm down Ariella before Ren arrived, I stroked her slender back gently.
"...Mononobe-kun, you're really so kind."
Feeble words from Ariella's lips reached my ear.
"...I've caused everyone trouble. I'm honestly really sorry."
Inside the underground passage with exposed pipes and wall damage from the wake of the battle, Ariella bowed her head and apologized to all of us.
The young soldiers of Sleipnir were collapsed nearby without any signs of waking up. During Ariella's transformation, they looked like they were in pain and apparently fainted.
After checking their condition, Mitsuki sighed lightly.
"Destroying facilities, leaking information... Ariella-san, you have broken these two of the school rules. These two violations cannot be forgiven lightly, but since no one was harmed as a result and your hand was forced, after consideration of extenuating circumstances, as your classmate, I would like you to write and hand in twenty repentance essays."
Speaking in a student council president's tone of voice, Mitsuki informed Ariella of her punishment.
"Umm... That's all?"
Shocked, Ariella asked in response. Mitsuki threw a glance at Kili.
"It is fine. Rather—compared to what Kili-san did in the past, Ariella-san, your violations are much 'cuter.' Kili-san, since you will be living as a Midgard student henceforth, please hand in a greater number of repentance essays than Ariella-san."
"W-Wait, stop bringing up the past! The statute of limitations has already passed for those! Besides, there isn't any evidence left behind either."
Suddenly in the hot seat, Kili argued in a panic, but Tia cornered her even further.
"No, Kili has to write repentance essays properly! Kili injured Lisa that time!"
Confronted with Tia's direct stare, Kili slumped her shoulders in resignation.
"...I got it, okay? Fine, I'll write them."
"Yes, if that's the case, Tia—will forgive you, Kili. Those who've been punished must be forgiven... That's what Lisa said."
These words caused Kili to hold her breath. She must have realized that the forgiveness brought up by Tia included more than just about Lisa's incident.
After Kili showed mixed feelings in her expression, Tia looked shyly at Ariella.
"Because of that, Ariella, you don't need to apologize after writing the repentance essays. Tia won't be angry with you anymore. Tia won't feel troubled... Tia is just very worried about you, Ariella."
After Tia finished, Iris nodded firmly and agreed.
"That's right! We only came to help because we're worried about you, Ariella-chan! That's why, how should I put this...? It feels quite different from apologizing?"
Was she unable to articulate her thoughts properly? Iris waved her hands anxiously.
Then after gazing at Ariella silently the whole time, Ren quietly spoke up.
"Onee-chan... Say thanks."
Ren's seemingly angry expression and voice made Ariella tilt her head in puzzlement.
"Even if you apologize... No one will be happy. That's why, say thanks instead."
After Ren forcefully repeated herself, Ariella's expression brightened up.
She smiled mildly in wryness, took and deep breath then looked at all of us in turn.
"—Thank you, everyone."
Instead of apologizing, Ariella thanked everyone.
Next, Iris and the girls smiled naturally. The atmosphere at the scene eased up.
After Ren nodded approvingly, tears finally began to fall from her eyes nonstop. She threw herself at Ariella's chest.
"Onee-chan, you're such an... idiot."
Ren hugged Ariella tightly and said in a trembling voice.
"Yeah—You're right. I'm really an idiot."
Ariella stroked Ren's head while answering with a wry smile.
Ren leaned against Ariella's chest and nodded, her slender shoulders shaking.
Seeing them hugging together like sisters, I felt relieved and took out a piece of fabric, carefully folded in my shirt pocket. It was Ariella's most precious treasure, the green ribbon she had always wore on her hair.
Seeing that, Ariella inhaled lightly.
"—You dropped this. Don't lose it ever again."
Saying that, I extended the ribbon towards her. Ariella reached out hesitantly but she stopped the instant just before her fingertips touched the ribbon. With serious eyes, she stared at me.
"Mononobe-kun... You protected the principal."
Seeing me nod without any hesitation, Ariella bit her lip. To her, this was probably what she found impossible to accept.
But having conversed with Ariella in the mental world, of course I could sense something.
"However—If Charl were to choose a wrong path, I will stop her. Naturally, it'll be a method other than killing her."
Ariella stared at me in surprise.
"You mentioned earlier, right? Charl probably hopes for someone to stop her. If that's true, let me take on this duty as her friend."
Ariella looked at me with moistened eyes.
"I will talk to Charl again after driving NIFL away. What needs to be done will be decided then."
After I voiced my thoughts, Ariella smiled and accepted the ribbon.
"—I understand now. No matter what choice you make, Mononobe-kun, I will follow you. Because... I've already... become something the same as you."
Ariella spoke in a half-joking tone before tying on the ribbon.
Ren looked up at Ariella, who was wearing her usual ponytail, and made an expression of delight.
"Mm... This hairstyle is best for Onee-chan."
Saying that, Ren looked at me as though seeking agreement.
"Yeah, that's right. Ariella is the most attractive like this."
I nodded and shared my opinion, causing Ariella to blush suddenly.
"N-No need for flattery! I know I'm not very girly, okay!"
"Huh? That's not what I think. You've got a great figure, and—"
I was about to point out the location of Ariella's charm, but immediately stopped myself. Mitsuki was staring in my direction. I could sense it without even looking back.
"Uh—Sorry, Mitsuki's gonna be mad at me for sexual harassment if I actually say it out."
Realizing the danger in following the usual pattern and getting scolded, I sighed.
"Sexual harassment... What the heck were you going to say? Now that you've said this much, I'm very curious."
However, Ariella glared at me with dissatisfaction.
"Even if you say that..."
After I hesitated under Mitsuki's gaze, Ariella reached out and pulled me to the side.
"Then tell me secretly in a voice too quiet for Mitsuki to hear. Don't worry, I won't get mad."
Since she said so, I leaned in close to Ariella's ear.
"—Ariella, I find your legs particularly pretty. During the battle, I had a really tough time trying to keep my attention away from them."
After I said that, Ariella went totally red to her ears.
"W-What—What are you saying to a girl!? I was right, you're too lacking in delicacy!"
Red in the face, Ariella looked very flustered. Watching the situation, Mitsuki said to me coldly.
"Nii-san, although I do not know what you said, please write ten repentance essays regarding the subject of sexual harassment."
"T-That's so unreasonable..."
I slumped my shoulders. Making a fist, Iris cheered me on.
"Do your best, Mononobe! Do your best together with Ariella-chan and Kili-chan!"
"Writing repentance essays for Mitsuki is such a pain. She'll get mad again if you hand in a slipshod job."
Tia muttered with annoyance. She looked at me compassionately.
"...How much do I need to write again?"
Kili murmured quietly in worry.
The mood in the passage was very relaxed, but at that moment, Mitsuki's expression suddenly tensed up while she placed her hand over her earpiece.
Mitsuki was the only one here wearing a communicator. We had refrained from equipping everyone with communicators out of concern for eavesdropping over the airwaves. Communications with the command center were essentially conducted over dedicated circuits. Hence, a message sent via communicator implied quite a serious emergency.
"——Understood. We will return immediately."
Mitsuki answered simply with a grave expression. Then she looked at us.
"A request for aid from the ground surface. The situation is quite unclear since their explanation failed to capture the key points... In any case, it seems to be quite urgent."
"Then let's go. Can we just leave things as they are?"
I pointed to the collapsed young soldiers and the destroyed partition.
"Tie them up then let the staff retrieve them. Ren-san, could you transmute something to block the passage? We will use that to replace the partition for now."
Ren nodded. Separating from Ariella, she generated her hammer of a fictional armament.
"Then I'll do the tying. It'll be very dangerous when they regain consciousness, so Iris and Tia should stay away. Ariella, can you give me a hand?"
Ariella nodded and joined me in tying up the young soldiers.
I used transmutation to create a rope while I tied up the young men one by one. Meanwhile, I asked Ariella:
"So Ariella, these guys and you were clearly acting strangely... Did Major Loki do something?"
"—All I did was swallow a capsule he gave me. It contained dried and processed blood that was made into a powder."
I gazed questioningly at Ariella while my hands continued to work. She shrugged.
"Well, it could be mixed with other stuff too. After swallowing the capsule, I could feel murderous intent spontaneously flowing out from within my body—It's hard to describe clearly, but it feels something like 'the power existing to kill humans' expanded while my own consciousness was suppressed..."
"Then for these guys, who were in a similar state as you—"
Ariella nodded at me.
"Yeah, probably, they ate it too. But it's probably fine now. After you touched me, Mononobe-kun, the irrepressible impulse and the stuff clouding my mind were all cleared out."
"Well, but that's only for you, Ariella, right? Why do you say they're fine too?"
When I raised the question, Ariella scratched her cheek, slightly troubled.
"Hmm—How should I put it...? Until just now, we were completely synchronized. Like eight people as one body, our vision and senses were shared. I could also generate dark matter using them as starting points. That's why I think that my transformation must have spread to them to a certain degree."
"The transformation spread to them, don't tell me—"
A disgusting image surfaced in my mind while a chill ran through my body. Seeing me react that way, Ariella smiled wryly.
"Ahaha, I don't think they'll turn into your mates, Mononobe-kun. They're not Ds, so there won't be changes to the physical body. However, their minds might be affected."
"I-I see... Oh well, it's also a good thing for these guys to regain their sanity."
Relieved after listening to Ariella, I tied up the last guy.
Ren had also summoned a large amount of dark matter and plugged up the passage completely with a metal wall.
Our next task was to hurry to the ground surface, but I felt vaguely ill at ease as I looked at the young soldiers lying on the ground.
If what had driven Ariella and them was Code Lost, then this scrapped authority must have gone somewhere now.
In Ariella's case, her capacity as a vessel might have increased as a result of transforming into "my kind." But beyond that—if the young soldiers regained their sanity, then the only conclusion was that they had lost the authority.
However, Iris had not lost Basilisk's authority when she transformed from touching me. If that was the case, it would be quite strange if an authority was lost because of the "same-kind transformation."
—Speaking of which, Ariella had said that contact with me caused "unnecessary things inside her to grow faint."
In other words, in her case, the power obtained through the capsule was perhaps a foreign entity that did not belong to her. In that case—
"Nii-san, let us move out."
Since I had stopped walking, Mitsuki called out to me.
While I nodded and started walking, what flashed through my mind was that sneering face of Major Loki—the "son of the hero."
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