Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 2 Chapter 3
Chapter 3 - Calamitous Flames of Muspelheim
The girl stared blankly, sitting collapsed in front of a pile of white ash.
Without crying audibly, her tears flowed nonstop.
The home where she had been living happily had turned into ash completely. On the floor were fragments of window glass that had melted then solidified into round shapes.
Black smoke was billowing from the fields whose harvest were originally looked forward to.
—The happiness she had finally obtained... The happiness which that person had given her, all of it disappeared.
Filled with irrepressible sorrow, the girl could only shed tears nonstop.
"You don't need to be sad, because it was not real."
This was what the fire witch, responsible for everything, told the girl. With icy eyes, she looked down at the white ash on the ground. Then fluttering her smoking black coat, she walked towards the despairing girl.
Not understanding, the girl asked hoarsely. The hot air in the surroundings was making her mouth dry.
"Yes, because you're not human. Abandon all that old and fake stuff to become the real you. Oh right—Let me give you a new name."
Saying that, the witch placed her hand on the girl's head. Frightened, the girl huddled herself in fear.
"From now on, you will be called Tia. Tia as in Tiamat, the name of the silver dragon that Marduk vanquished in the past. You have great potential and will surely become something worthy of that name."
Written off as not human, receiving the name of Tia, the girl trembled and asked the witch:
"...What am I?"
"Tia, you are a dragon."
Hearing the girl's question, the witch replied in a forceful tone of voice.
"Indeed, and our mother is 'Black' Vritra. You have not lost anything. Even now, our mother continues to watch over us."
The girl widened her eyes.
"Yes, as a dragon, Tia, you are not alone, because you have a mother and many sisters."
Feeling a sense of solitude impossible to bury, the girl could only rely on the witch's whispers.
Even though she knew it was wrong—
Having deployed a dragon-shaped fictional armament, Tia's gigantic body was making the spacious underground training site look like a cramped cage. Hovering in midair, the massive body had a destructive storm swirling around it.
Countless lightning strikes were tearing into the training site's inner walls. The fierce wind was sealing our movements.
Just as Lisa lost balance from the strong wind, a bolt of lightning descended upon her.
I was nearby so I slammed myself against Lisa to help her evade the lightning. Immediately finding my face buried in a soft sensation, making me unable to breathe, I moved my head. A sweet fragrance instantly filled my nostrils. Even my ears heard a seductive voice.
"Mmm.... No... M-Mononobe Yuu! W-Where, where do you think you're touching!?"
Realizing I had my face in Lisa's voluptuous bosom, I frantically separated from her.
"N-Normally speaking, I would have punished you mercilessly by now, understand? However... Since you seem to have rescued me this time, I shan't pursue the matter...... Thank you."
Blushing, Lisa thanked me quietly.
"Wow, Lisa thanking me, it's gonna rain today, no wait... A storm is already blowing."
To prevent myself from getting blown away by the strong wind, I lowered my posture while looking up at Tia who had become the eye of the storm.
"...What on earth is happening? That dragon is Tia-san... isn't it?"
"Yeah, it must be Tia's fictional armament. If by tracing out the 'outline of the mind,' Tia created that kind of fictional armament... Then perhaps she totally believes she's a dragon right now."
When I thought of it that way, it could explain why she suddenly went out of control.
"I-If that is the case, we must hurry to bring her back to normal!"
"Yeah—But how to get close...?"
Raging wind and lightning were ravaging the surroundings. On the other hand, Tia was hovering ten-odd meters above the floor.
Just as I was wondering how to approach Tia, I heard Iris' voice. At the same time, the wind blowing us suddenly stopped.
I looked back to see Iris and Firill. Since they were training relatively nearer to us, they had come over to assist us.
Firill lifted the fictional grimoire shaped from her dark matter. She probably performed air transmutation to create a barrier of wind.
No longer suffering from the storm's pressure, I now had the luxury of observing my surroundings. I could see Mitsuki, Ren and Ariella gathered around Shinomiya-sensei next to wall on the far end. From what I could see, they were probably using transmuted air to neutralize the wind like Firill. Since they were too far away, it was impossible to join forces with them.
"...Are you two alright?"
Firill asked us.
"Yeah, we're alright but... Tia's a messy situation. Can you two help me?"
"Yes, of course! Mononobe, what should I do?"
Iris nodded vigorously and sought my directions.
"Firill, try to expand the wind barrier as much as possible. And Iris, I want you to make explosions to divert Tia's attention."
"Got it, I'll try!"
Saying that, Iris manifested her fictional armament—Caduceus.
"—Mononobe Yuu, then I shall be heading over to Tia-san."
Raising her Gungnir, Lisa turned her gaze to Tia above.
"No wait, it's better if I reached to Tia."
"True that may be... But can you fly?"
Lisa looked at me uneasily. The method of using wind to fly required created a huge amount of air through transmutation.
My dark matter generating capacity was extremely low compared to everyone else, which meant I could not use that method. However—
"If it's just that kind of height, I'll manage. Lisa, could you please create lightning rods in the surroundings to divert the lightning?"
"...No helping it, leave it to me—Rise, towers of steel!"
Four masses of dark matter were ejected by Lisa's Gungnir, turning into four steel rods in the air, then embedded themselves into the ground as though surrounding Tia's position.
The random lightning strikes gathered towards the four lightning rods.
Iris pointed Caduceus' tip at Tia and started concentrating.
"Come, come, fragments of the Far Beyond..."
As though surrounding Tia, dark matter manifested in multiple spots.
"Iris, don't hurt Tia."
"I know—O raindrops, scatter!"
Transmuted into water, the dark matter all exploded together.
Iris possessed the special talent that made everything explode no matter what she transmuted. Furthermore, she had high-level spatial awareness, allowing her to aim at the target without deviation. Hence, the accompanied steam explosion did not harm Tia directly.
Frightened by the explosions, Tia used the dragon's stout limbs, formed from dark matter, to attack the steam shrouding her. But the limbs were worn down instead upon contact with the steam.
Eroded, the limbs rapidly recovered but it made me certain that this was just a dragon in nothing but appearance only. Before undergoing transmutation, dark matter was extremely fragile, vanishing whenever it touched matter apart from the person who had summoned it. In that case, touching Tia who was supposed to be inside should not be that difficult.
"Firill, just try your best... Help me to open up a path!"
After saying that, I instantly rushed towards Tia.
I heard Firill's voice behind me. Then a favorable wind propelled me from behind. Firill's wind ran past me and helped me to block the raging wind coming from Tia. Meanwhile, Tia's attention was caught by the explosions so she did not notice me approaching.
While running, I concentrated my mind to manifest my fictional armament.
Appearing in my right hand was a mass of dark matter shaped like a large-caliber ornamental gun.
By using this fictional armament, I could fire dark matter as bullets, allowing me to perform powerful transmutations three times. After using three shots' worth, the fictional armament would disappear, but manifesting it again would create a huge opening, hence—
—I have to finish this in three shots.
Without slowing down, I pointed the muzzle at Tia above and pulled the trigger without aiming carefully.
The fired bullet transmuted into tiny particles of dust and air. The red dragon was instantly engulfed by the puff of smoke. The countless dust particles wore away the dark matter, peeling off Tia's outer garment of a dragon for a brief instant.
—I see her!
As soon as the storm blew the smoke away, the dark matter dragon would revive again, but I had already captured Tia's location in my sight.
The left breast... The heart's location!
Arriving under Tia, I stopped running. This time, I aimed precisely and shot the ground.
Transmuted into a large volume of air, the dark matter struck the ground and exploded, blowing me towards the sky.
In this manner, I charged into the dragon's interior. Although my view turned completely red, there was no tactile sensation or feeling of resistance. Prior to transmutation, dark matter was equivalent to not existing and could not impede my advance.
I yelled while reaching out with my empty left hand. My aim had not deviated, as long as I reached enough height, this hand should be able to touch—
After my fingertip felt a tiny sensation, I found Tia in front of my eyes. Her eyes were blank and did not reflect anything. As expected, she was not conscious.
Perhaps we were... the culprits for turning Tia, who believed she was a dragon, into a real dragon.
"Pull yourself together! Tia!!"
I yelled loudly while embracing her with my left arm.
The light returned to Tia's eyes as she called my name.
Then holding Tia in my arm, I started to fall, traveling through the dragon's body.
Seeing the ground gradually approaching, I aimed Siegfried downwards. This was the last shot.
"—Air Pressure Bullet!"
I used an explosion of air to cancel the falling impact. Landing lightly, I immediately check Tia's condition.
"Are you okay, Tia?"
Having regained consciousness just now, Tia still did not respond. She had fainted, her limp body leaning against me.
Due to manifesting such a gigantic fictional armament and performing large-scale transmutations continuously, her mind and body must be thoroughly exhausted.
Iris and Lisa ran over to me. From the distance, Mitsuki and the others also hurried to our side.
The classmates all showed worried expressions. But amidst all this, only Shinomiya-sensei was watching us with a harsh gaze.
Seeing Shinomiya-sensei's expression, I knew that time was short.
Turning my gaze to Tia, who had fallen asleep from exhaustion—I steeled my determination to face off against the monster invading her heart.
Although Tia had gone on a rampage, greatly damaging the training site, luckily, no one was injured.
Also because Mitsuki and I tried our hardest to intercede on her behalf, Tia's punishment was withheld for now.
However, Shinomiya-sensei also warned us that there would be no second chances.
—After all, the training site was damaged to the point that it required repairs before it could be used again.
Carrying Tia on my back, I went to the infirmary. Along the way, I recalled the pitiful condition of the training site, damaged from floor to ceiling by lightning.
Due to the severe damage caused to the facilities, the entire incident might have to be reported to Midgard's superior organization, Asgard. If further damage occurred, Asgard would definitely punish Tia.
—I need to have a proper discussion with her after she wakes up.
In order to help Tia become a member of Midgard, to become a fellow classmate in the truest sense, I had to make her a human.
I walked through the quiet corridor to arrive in front of the infirmary's door.
"Pardon the intrusion."
I opened the horizontally sliding door with a clatter, only to see that the person inside was not the school nurse who had looked after me on a number of occasions.
Staring at me in surprise was the girl who had chatted with me yesterday—Tachikawa Honoka. Dressed in gym clothes, she was sitting in a chair with her top lifted up, in the middle of sterilizing a wound on her flank.
Honoka straightened her lifted top and turned her back to me. Originally frozen from excessive surprise, I also came back to my senses as a result of her scream.
"Oh... Umm, sorry! I'll wait outside."
Carrying Tia on my back, I was about to shut the door when Honoka frantically called to me.
"H-Hold on! Tia-san on your back is not feeling well, right? N-No need to mind me... Please come in."
"...Are you fine with it? Then pardon... the intrusion, okay?"
I felt as though someone had invited me into their bedroom. Stepping into the infirmary, I went to the innermost bed and unloaded the sleeping Tia from my back. Laying her out gently on the bed, I put a blanket on her before turning to face Honoka.
"Uh, looks like there's no one else here... Where did the nurse go?"
"Oh, the nurse is over at the clinic because there was someone with more serious injuries than me. She is currently treating that person."
"Serious injuries? Was there some kind of accident?"
Honoka's arms and legs had several pieces of gauze stuck to them. Before I arrived at the infirmary, she was already treating her own wounds.
"...Actually, I failed a transmutation during a practical. That's also why my classmate became injured."
She was referring to the student being treated at the clinic?
Honoka's class was apparently having a practical lesson at a different training site than ours.
"I see, although everyone makes mistakes... It must feel pretty bad that you hurt others."
"Yes... I will apologize to her properly afterwards. Whether or not she will forgive me, I don't know."
"That's true, no matter what the outcome, I think that's the best way to go about it."
Hearing me say that, Honoka smiled wryly.
"...You really aren't one to hand out comforting words, Yuu-san."
"Sorry, although I know that I should be encouraging you."
"No, compared to people who comfort others irresponsibly, I prefer someone like you."
I felt embarrassed by her description and scratched my face, looking away.
"—But anyway, even if there are other people injured, is it okay for the nurse to leave you alone, Honoka? I don't think there's a shortage of manpower..."
Although the school nurse was the only medical professional on duty, there should be other specialized doctors who were on call. To ensure the Ds' health, Midgard had a comprehensive medical care system.
"No, this really isn't anything serious... I offered to do the dressings myself because it's just putting on gauze after sterilizing."
Saying that, Honoka showed me the bottle of antiseptic liquid and gauze in her hands.
"But from what I saw just now, your wound is somewhere hard for your hand to reach, right?"
When she was sterilizing her flank just now, it looked like she was twisting her body in quite a forced posture.
"That's true... Some places are harder... Oh right, if it's okay with you... Could you help me?"
I widened my eyes greatly upon hearing these surprising words.
"Yes, on my back... Even if it's just this part."
Saying that, Honoka pulled her gym t-shirt up sightly.
My attention was drawn to her snow-white skin.
"Sure... If you don't mind."
Despite feeling troubled, I still approached her. I had learned first aid for the most part at NIFL. There was no need to falter at dressing a wound of this level.
"Then I'll apply the antiseptic. Are you really fine with this?"
Receiving the antiseptic and the gauze, I confirmed with her again. If things turned into sexual harassment after the fact, it would be too much to swallow.
"I'm counting on you, please... be gentle."
"O-Okay... Got it."
I gulped and nodded.
I walked over to the back of Honoka, who was sitting in a chair, and knelt down to treat her.
Perhaps feeling some stinging, Honoka emitted inexplicably seductive moans. To distract myself as much as possible, I made conversation with her.
"Speaking of which, Honoka, you were discovered in the towns ahead of Basilisk's route of advance, right? You're Japanese no matter how I look, so why were you in that kind of place?"
I asked the question that had occurred to me during the full-school assembly. Honoka answered while enduring the stinging from her wound.
"My mother... Mmm... is someone who travels the world... Ah... As for me, I visit various places together with my mother."
"What an accomplished mother... Do you feel lonely, suddenly separated from her?"
"No... Our relationship is quite cold because I don't have a father or relatives... Mmm... In a certain sense, we stayed together because of circumstances, so it actually relieves me to become independent."
Honoka's reply was very calm and did not sound like a brave front.
"...That's so strong of you. Okay, dressing is done."
I examined the sterilized wound then applied the gauze, ending the treatment.
"Thank you, Yuu-san."
After Straightening out her clothing, Honoka thanked me.
"It was nothing. Well... Although it's embarrassing to say this, but from now on, you don't need to be so polite when asking friends for help."
Honoka's face looked like she had heard something unexpected. Her eyes were wide with surprise.
"Yeah, that's what I think. If you feel that I'm forcing things too much, then I apologize."
"No, nothing of that sort. I... am extremely glad."
Honoka smiled and shook her head.
"Great, then let's look after each other from now on."
"V-Very well, me too... Let's look after each other. S-So... I'd like to head over to the clinic to see how my classmate is doing."
Honoka lowered her head and bowed, then a little frantically, she walked to the infirmary's exit.
"Sure, see you."
I waved a hand in response. Honoka partially closed her eyes and smiled.
"Great—hope to talk to you again, then I'm off..."
She closed the door and the room suddenly turned silent.
Rather than waiting for chance encounters, perhaps I should write emails to her proactively.
Injuring a classmate might have repercussions for her. Although I might not be able to help much, it would be good for her to have someone to confide in at least. As her friend, I wanted to help her as much as possible.
Thinking about this kind of thing, I turned my gaze to the bed.
Tia was still sound asleep.
But at this moment, the terminal for the infirmary's internal line played a ringtone and the call lamp kept flashing.
"...Should I answer?"
I hesitated and looked at the infirmary's door. The school nurse did not look like she was returning yet.
—Maybe it might be for me.
I had reported to Shinomiya-sensei that I was taking Tia to the infirmary. Thinking it could be something to inform me, I pressed the pick up button on the screen despite my hesitation.
With an electronic sound, the screen immediately switched.
Then a face appeared on the screen, but it was someone I totally did not expect.
'Hi, it's been a while, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe.'
His name flew out of my mouth. It was the man who had been my direct commanding officer at NIFL.
On the other end, NIFL stared at me with his slender eyes. A gentle smile surfaced on his face.
'Until just now, I was still having a discussion with Colonel Shinomiya. Then I asked her to connect my call over to your end. Because I didn't even get a chance to talk to you during the personnel reassignment, I've been wanting to find a chance to chat with you.'
"Huh...? If it's chatting, last time—"
'What are you talking about, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe? Ever since you transferred to Midgard, this is my first time speaking to you, isn't it?'
Hearing him say that, I remembered this was a public ine.
When Leviathan was attacking, Major Loki had exploited the opening in Midgardsormr switching to interception mode and secretly contacted me through my personal terminal. This was to talk about things that must not reach Midgard's ears, because he wanted me to kill the D whose dragon mark had changed color.
"Right... Yeah, Major Loki, because I feel that working under you was only recently, I made a mistake."
Left without a choice, I could only go along with him. If any problems arose from what I said arbitrarily, it would turn into Mitsuki's responsibility because she was the one supervising me.
'Haha, me too. Clearly you're no longer my subordinate, but I still worry about you. I've got something to tell you. Want to hear it?'
"Yes... What is it?"
Staring at Major Loki's fake smile, I nodded. Since it was something that could be said on a public line, it should not be something dangerous like last time.
'The dragon cult, the Sons of Muspell, is apparently plotting to recover Tia Lightning. Although I've already asked Midgard to pay more attention, you be careful too.'
The Sons of Muspell... was the name of the organization that had effectively kept Tia under house arrest in the past. If they knew about the dragonification of Ds, it was not difficult to understand why they wanted to retrieve Tia, but—
"Recover...? From Midgard here? I think they'll get eliminated by Midgardsormr the instant they approach, right...?"
'Yes, Midgard's defenses are impregnable. But supplies and personnel need to enter and exit. Although there are stringent checks, it is not entirely impossible to get through. And this time, beyond a doubt... Kili will make a move too."
The smile vanished from Major Loki's face this time.
"That Kili huh..."
Kili Surtr Muspelheim. The leader of the Sons of Muspell, she was also a D deemed a disaster... Although I did not think she could penetrate Midgardsormr, she was quite a strong threat indeed.
'Kili is very strong, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe. Due to the information we received this time, alerting us that the Sons of Muspell had a D in their compound, NIFL mobilized all deployable forces. But the result was that Kili singlehandedly suppressed the majority.'
"The Sons of Muspell, are they doing this knowing that Ds will dragonify..."
'Arrested cultists did not seem to be in the know, but at least we can conclude that Kili knows. At the time, Tia Lightning was apparently just moved there from another facility. They probably intended to hand her to Basilisk as its mate instead of waiting for it to visit.'
In other words, Tia was originally in the process of being transported as a live sacrifice. If NIFL had acted slightly later, the second Basilisk would surely have been born.
"If they'll go so far to increase the number of dragons... I guess it's impossible they'll give up so easily."
'Indeed, Kili will definitely take some kind of action. If she infiltrates Midgard, a great disaster can be predicted. Please do not lower your guard at all. Considering that even Sleipnir could not handle her, she is probably stronger than you as you are right now.'
I gasped. Major Loki had attempted to raise me as monster stronger than anyone else. Precisely because these words came from his mouth, I could understand how abnormal this D called Kili was.
'If possible, I'd really like to send out Sleipnir but Midgard won't allow NIFL to interfere that easily. Hence, if anything happens, 2nd Lieutenant Mononobe, I place my hopes you alone.'
"Clearly when Kili is stronger than me... You still have hopes for me?"
'Yes, even so, you are the only one who might be able to kill her. If there are people and things around you that you wish to protect, please abandon your silly obstinacy. This is my honest advice to you.'
Major Loki spoke to me with eyes that seemed to see through everything.
"...I'll bear that in mind."
It felt like my heart was being squeezed. I forced my voice out to respond.
'You would do well to remember that. Oh right, although this is pure just in case, I will send to your terminal all accumulated information regarding Kili to this date. Read over it when you have time.'
"Sure, thank you... for doing so much for me."
'You're welcome, I did this willingly. Also, Basilisk is still crossing the African continent. Things were sudden with Leviathan and NIFL was in chaos, but this time, we have plenty of time so you don't need to worry about unnecessary things.'
Major Loki spoke suggestively. Last time, NIFL had sent a team to kill Iris. He was probably hinting that no such operation would happen yet for now.
But in that case, the murderous intent I sensed last time was...
"...I got it."
Although there were still things that bothered me, I nodded for now in response.
'Then it's time I excused myself. Hope to talk to you again—2nd Lieutenant Mononobe.'
Major Loki smiled sarcastically then the call disconnected, turning the screen black.
I uttered her name softly in my mouth. During training, she was often used as an imaginary enemy, hence I had no hesitation towards fighting, however—
Just as I was staring at the pictureless screen, lost in thought, I suddenly heard a voice from behind.
"Tia, you woke up?"
Perhaps my conversation with Major Loki had woken her up. Tia had sat up in bed, looking at me with a troubled look.
"Why is... Tia in this kind of place? Tia should be with Yuu training just now..."
"—So you don't remember? Including this, I need to have a chat with you next, but this isn't a good place to talk. Let's go to the beach, okay?"
Hearing my suggestion, Tia showed an expression of joy.
"Yes, Tia wants to see the sea with Yuu again."
Although the notion of bringing gloom to that smiling face pained my heart, I still took Tia by the hand as she ran towards.
The husband and the dragon's wife.
This ill-matched game of playing house—It was probably about to end soon.
Tia and I first went made a trip to the classroom. After changing into our uniforms, we left the campus with our school bags.
Other people might be busy with handling the training site's aftermath. They were not in the classroom.
Since the practicals in the afternoon had been suspended due to the damaged training site, there were no more lessons today. Like yesterday, we walked along the path to the dorm, descended to the beach and took off our shoes.
"Wow, it feels like the sea can be seen clearer than yesterday."
Peering at the seawater from the water's edge, Tia jumped around, grinning from ear to ear. We visited yesterday near dusk, so the impression given off by the sea was probably quite different compared to the daytime.
The waves produced white spray, gently caressing our ankles.
Watching Tia stepping on the waves, I quietly asked her:
"Tia, compared to yesterday, do you like Lisa and the others more?"
"Y-Yes, Tia knows they're good people now."
Tia answered a bit embarrassedly. With Firill's manga as a trigger, through chatting with everyone in the class, her wariness had decreased somewhat compared to yesterday.
"However, just now, Tia... you almost injured Lisa, you know?"
Widening her eyes, Tia showed surprise on her face.
"Tia, you wanted to make a fictional armament but ended up in the form of a dragon and caused mass destruction. The training site is now all torn up by the storm and lightning strikes."
"N-No way... Tia did that—"
In a trembling voice, Tia shook her head in disbelief.
"I know you didn't do it on purpose. At the time, you weren't in a normal mental state, but it doesn't change the fact that you endangered Lisa and the others. So Tia, I hope you'll apologize to the others and promise you'll never do that again."
I bent down to speak at Tia's eye level.
"G-Got it! Tia will apologize! Let's go find everyone!"
Tia frantically pulled my hand. Like Honoka earlier whom I met at the infirmary, Tia was regretting her failure.
"...You're a good girl after all, Tia. But if things do not change, you won't be able to keep that promise. You'll probably repeat your mistakes, as long as you continue—to believe you are a dragon."
"Eh... What do you mean by believe? Tia really is a dragon. Aren't Yuu and everyone dragons too?"
Tia answered with surprise. However, I could see slight wavering in her eyes.
"No, we're humans."
"Why... Why does even Yuu say something so mean? We are dragons! Having this kind of power is the proof!"
Tia generated dark matter in the surroundings, transmuting it into electrical currents. Sparks flew with a sizzling sound. However, I stared into Tia's eyes squarely without backing down.
"Indeed, perhaps there's that interpretation too. Then I'll put things another way. At least for the Ds residing in Midgard, we are all living as humans."
"Living... as humans?"
"Yeah, so as long you insist on living as a dragon, Tia, we won't be able to coexist."
Tia widened her eyes.
"That means... We can't be together?"
"That's right, so that I hope, Tia... you can be human."
I proposed the only necessary condition for Tia to become part of the family that was Brynhildr Class.
"No... Because Tia is a dragon... With these kinds of horns, Tia is already not human..."
Touching her red horns, Tia rejected my proposal.
"It's fine if you have horns. To me, Tia, you're a cute girl and I think it's the same for Lisa and the rest.
I explained to her gently but Tia kept shaking her head.
"Why do you want to be a dragon so much, Tia? Please tell me, what on earth happened after we separated in that warzone? What happened to the parents who were with you back then?"
"Tia has no papa and mama, they were... fakes."
Like last evening, Tia looked down with a stiff expression.
"Then I hope you can tell me about the fake papa and mama."
I placed my hand on Tia's face and slowly lifted her head, meeting her gaze up close
Her silence persisted a while. Only the sound of waves were heard reguarly.
Tia's red eyes moistened and her cheeks blushed
"...Yuu wants to know about Tia that much?"
"Yes, because I want to be with you too, that's why I want to know.
Hearing my answer, Tia gulped then quietly began:
"...After being saved by Yuu, Tia and they went to live in another country."
What she meant by "they" was probably her parents. Refusing to call them papa and mama, Tia continued:
"They become more gentle than before. Even if Tia did not use power, they still smiled at Tia. Working outside in the fields was hard work, but happy too. But everything... house, fields or them... One day, they suddenly burned up and disappeared."
"Burned up... Was it a fire?"
"No, not a fire. What Tia met was—Kili."
Hearing that name, my face froze.
—I never expected to hear Kili's name here too.
Tia had been imprisoned by the Sons of Muspell, hence it was not surprising that she had met the cult's leader Kili. However, I never thought Kili was the one who had deprived Tia of her parents and her home.
"Kili told Tia they were not real, so Tia did not lose anything. Tia is a dragon and has a real mama—'Black' Vritra. The many Ds in the world... are Tia's sisters. That's what she told Tia."
After listening to Tia, I finally understood what she was running away from.
To escape the truth of her parents' death, Tia had no choice but to rely on Kili's words.
As soon as she admitted she was human, she had to accept the loss of her parents. In such a state, ordinary persuasion was not going to work on Tia. Trying to reason with her would lead to nowhere.
"—Thank you for telling me, Tia."
I thanked Tia and stroked her head lightly.
"Yuu understands... what Tia thinks?"
"Yeah... I understand clearly now. I won't say your thinking is wrong anymore."
Tia looked relieved, but I immediately said:
"But I must correct what Kili said. As long as you're living as a dragon, Tia, you'll never be sisters with the Ds who are living as humans, you'll never be family with me, Lisa and the others."
Tia's expression instantly froze.
"This might be an unfair way of putting it, but please understand. At this rate, you won't be able to get what you want. Tia, I hope you'll choose to be human."
I could not refute Tia's belief. Even if I forcibly laid out the truth in front of her eyes, without the mental preparation to accept it, she would only end up mind broken. As a result, I could only hint towards future gains and losses and ask her to make a choice.
"Choose...? Tia doesn't quite get... what Yuu is saying."
"...True. I guess it's not something that can be explained clearly with words. In that case, I'll show you. I'll show you what you can do to become human."
After saying that, I took out my portable terminal.
"What are you doing?"
Tia asked uneasily. I smiled and answered her:
"It's still early and there are no lessons. Let's have fun with everyone next. If I say it's for Tia, I'm guessing all our classmates will gather."
"Why...? Didn't Tia do awful things to everyone? Isn't Lisa angry?"
"She'll come even if she's angry. Because all of us wants to become family with you, Tia."
Listening to my answer, Tia widened her eyes, rooted to the spot in a daze for a moment.
After I emailed Iris and Mitsuki, asking them to let everyone else know, we returned to the dorm and changed into our swimwear. According to Mitsuki's response, they were going to come over in an hour's time.
I heard there was a set of beach gear in the dorm's storeroom, so Tia and I brought out a sun umbrella and plastic mats.
"Tia caused everyone trouble, so Tia has to work hard."
Dressed in a school swimsuit, Tia still tried her hardest to move one of the larger mats despite doing it unsteadily.
With preparations basically complete. I was giving Tia swimming lessons in the shallows when the first classmate arrived.
Iris ran over while waving, dressed in a white bikini. With every step she ran, that lovely bosom would bounce accordingly.
I felt my heart flutter, worrying whether that swimsuit, tied by flimsy strings, would stay on.
Iris arrived in front of us and twirled around to show us. With her silver hair fluttering, bathed under the sunlight, her pale complexion looked extremely dazzling.
"How is it? I lost my previous swimsuit, so I bought a new one!"
"...Looks amazing. Speaking of which, Iris, the first time we met, you said your swimsuit got washed away."
I thought back to my first encounter with Iris. Thanks to that—No wait, unfortunately due to that—I saw Iris' naked body and got attacked by her.
"Yeah, but in the end, I still couldn't find it—No wait, s-stop thinking about that time, you're embarrassing me..."
Iris blushed and shielded her bosom with her arms. But that posture of hers made me even more conscious of her. Mesmerized by the sight of Iris in her white swimsuit, it took me a while before I could mutter:
"—Iris really is so pretty."
Whether back then or right now, Iris was so beautiful that I could say such words naturally.
"Wha... W-W-W-What... If you suddenly say something like that to me, I'll..."
Iris blushed all the way to her neck and sat down on the beach all of a sudden.
"H-Hey, are you okay?"
Worried, I extended my hand but Tia circled around in front of me as though trying to block me.
"Yuu, what about Tia? How's Tia's swimsuit?"
"Hmm? Yeah, you're very cute, Tia."
I answered honestly but for some reason, she pouted and glared at Iris unhappily.
"Tia finally... gets it, you—Iris—are Tia's rival!"
Confronted with Tia's pointing finger, Iris cocked her head in surprise and puzzlement.
"Rivals? Me and you, Tia?"
"That's right, Tia... won't lose to you!"
"I don't quite get it, but you want to compete against me, right? Well... Okay, how about we play the stick-in-the-sand game?"
Smiling, Iris gathered sand to make a small mound.
"Yes. You play this game by making a mound of sand like this... Then put on a stick on top. We take turns digging the mound and whoever makes the stick fall over loses."
Iris picked up a twig that had fallen by the water's edge and planted it on top of the sand before explaining the rules to Tia.
"G-Got it, Tia accepts... this match."
Tia nodded with a serious expression then started playing the game with Iris.
It felt like they had totally strayed from the original point, but I watched them play without interrupting.
At this time, Lisa, Firill, Ariella and Ren arrived as well.
"As reluctant as I am to let you see my swimsuit, I still forced myself to come."
Wearing a mature-looking black swimsuit, Lisa tossed her hair as she spoke to me.
"...Despite what you said, I think you were selecting your swimsuit very seriously."
Firill quipped quietly. She was dressed in a two-piece blue swimsuit.
"B-Because sun protection is a nuisance and I don't often go to the beach, that was why I had to agonize over which swimsuit to wear! I-I was certainly not concerned about Mononobe Yuu's gaze, got that?"
Lisa frantically explained herself to Firill.
Both girls had bigger busts than Iris and their swimsuits made their cleavage visible. That overwhelming volume, normally hidden under their uniforms, was currently shaking the core of my brain.
"Haha—Lisa is not upfront as usual. With a man's gaze present, anyone would care more or less."
Speaking wryly was Ariella in a tropical print swimsuit. Wearing a one-piece frilly swimsuit, Ren was hiding behind her.
Like a small animal, Ren stared warily at me. Faced with such strong thoughts, I felt quite uncomfortable too.
"Uh... Everyone looks great in their swimsuit."
To soothe the indescribably tense atmosphere, I offered my comment. It was not a lie, because objectively speaking, all the girls in Brynhildr Class were very attractive... To the point that I had no idea where I should be looking.
"O-Of course! I know without needing you to tell me."
Lisa scowled and turned her head away to respond.
"...Thank you for your praise."
Firill thanked me without changing expressions.
"Umm, t-there's no need to... flatter me."
Ariella was normally calm and rational, but would lose composure as soon as anyone praised her. Her gaze drifted all over the place aimlessly.
The shy Ren was blushing, hiding completely behind Ariella.
"...Nii-san, what you said just now could almost be construed as sexual harassment."
Last to appear was Mitsuki, staring coldly at me.
She apparently made a trip back to the dorm. There was an inflated beach ball in her hand.
"What!? That counted as sexual harassment? I was only offering my opinion?"
"It depends on the situation. Seeing as you made Ren-san so embarrassed, there is nothing you can say against allegations of sexual harassment."
"Well... I guess I'd better keep quiet about your swimsuit, right, Mitsuki?"
I checked out my sister's swimsuit and spoke. Although it was a one-piece, the back was exposed quite boldly. It looked quite sexy from behind.
"......No, I will not feel embarrassment from what you say, Nii-san, so please feel free to say whatever pleases you."
Mitsuki gave an unnatural pause before answering indifferently.
"Really? Then here goes—It looks great on you. Also, the back is a bit sexy."
Mitsuki glared sharply then pulled my ear without saying a word.
"Hey... Ow! That hurts!"
"...Nii-san, even when you are talking to your sister, you should pay a little attention to your choice of words, shouldn't you?"
"But you said I could say whatever pleases me!?"
I grumbled at her but Mitsuki retorted with her face red.
"That was built upon the assumption of minimum manners!"
Just as we were arguing like this, I suddenly heard Tia scream.
"Ahhh! No, don't fall down!"
I looked in Tia and Iris' direction in surprise, only to see an irregular mound of sand collapse together with the stick.
"Hmph, I won!"
Iris made a victory sign with her hand while Tia slumped her shoulders in dejection. But she immediately looked up and begged to challenge Iris again.
"One more time! Another game!"
"Sure, I'll accept no matter how many times you challenge me. But since everyone has arrived, let's play a different game this time."
Saying that, Iris gestured towards Lisa and the rest with her eyes to Tia.
It seemed like Tia only noticed now that everyone had gathered.
Patting off the sand stuck to her knees, Tia stood up. Then nervously, she peered at Lisa's face.
"What's the matter? Did something stick to my face?"
Lisa asked her in puzzlement. She did not seem angry at Tia at all.
Seeing her like that, Tia forcefully bowed her head with tears in the corners of her eyes.
"S-Sorry! Tia heard from Yuu, that Tia... did something awful to Lisa... S-So... Sorry!!"
"Oh, you are bothered by what happened earlier."
Lisa seemed to understand the situation. Nodding, she walked over to Tia.
Tia showed a timid expression while looking up at Lisa's face.
"I understand now, then I shall punish you."
Saying that, Lisa raised her hand slowly then gave Tia's head a knock.
Tia immediately held her head and squatted down.
"H-Hey Lisa, there's no need to go so far—Are you actually angry with her?"
I frantically asked her but Lisa shook her head in denial.
"No, I am not angry at all. However... Punishment is necessary for those seeking atonement. Before she gets consumed by guilt, her wrongdoing must be settled first."
For some reason, Lisa glanced at Mitsuki momentarily before answering in a calm voice.
Tia was rubbing her head where Lisa's fist had struck her. Tearfully, she looked at Lisa.
"That goes without saying. Punishments are meant to hurt in the first place. But with this, Tia-san, you have atoned for your mistakes. You don't need to feel guilty anymore for what happened. Whether myself or everyone else, we are all fine with it. Am I right?"
Lisa sought agreement from the group. Everyone nodded in response.
"...So that is how things stand."
Lisa smiled gently and hugged Tia to her chest.
"I believe I did control my strength. Does it still hurt? Perhaps I used too much force."
Stroking Tia's head, Lisa remarked with worry.
"...No, it doesn't hurt anymore, Lisa... Thank you."
Burying her face in the bountiful bosom, Tia thanked Lisa quietly.
"Since we've made up, let's all play beach volleyball together!"
Seeing things reach a conclusion, Iris suggested energetically.
"We weren't fighting to begin with... Fine, whatever."
Lisa nodded despite sighing then released Tia from her embrace.
"...Feels like mama."
Tia murmured in a slight daze.
"Then let us gather in a circle and toss the ball. Oh, just that whenever Nii-san's name is called, he must receive the ball no matter where it goes, or else be subjected to punishment."
Holding the beach ball, Mitsuki added a super harsh rule.
"H-Hey, what am I the only one with that restriction!?"
"Because you went through harsh training at NIFL, Nii-san. Without such a handicap, there will not be any tension for you, right?"
Probably still holding a grudge about the swimsuit comment, Mitsuki replied with animosity.
"It's not like I need tension... Fine, I get it, let's go with that rule."
Frankly speaking, I intentionally took on her taunting and accepted the rule because I was confident.
But I soon realized that I was too naive.
"Ah... The first star is out."
Buried in the sand, I was looking up at the red sky. The sun was approaching the horizon in the west. The blue of night was starting to spread from the eastern sky.
My body felt extremely heavy.
Due to everyone enjoying themselves at my expense during the game of volleyball, I had to rush all over the place, reaching my limit no matter how good my stamina. Plus the fact that Lisa and Firill's chests were bouncing even more intensely than the ball, it was hard for me to focus. In the end, I missed a ball and was punished by burial in the sand. Unable to move, I was listening to everyone's voices in the distance.
"Good, good, well done. You are swimming quite well now."
"Really? Tia learned how to swim now?"
Lisa and Tia's conversation reached me. The two of them seemed to be getting along really well.
"Eh!? My swimsuit... Where's my swimsuit!?"
I heard Iris' frantic voice. She had apparently lost her swimsuit again, but since I could not get up, I was unable to see what she looked like.
"...Iris-san, please pull yourself together. Is this it?"
I heard Mitsuki's voice of resignation. Apparently, she had found Iris' swimsuit.
The sound of flickering pages could be heard nearby.
Because Firill was reading a book under the sun umbrella.
"—Your turn, Ren."
Ariella and Ren were playing stick-in-the-sand using the sand on top of me.
I was quite grateful that the sand over me was gradually decreasing, but it felt quite ticklish to be touched indirectly like that.
Peaceful times passed in this way until the sky filled up with stars. At this moment, I noticed three sets of footsteps approaching. Due to habits formed during my time at NIFL, I could discern the physique of people from the sound of their footfall.
—Two adults and a child... apparently carrying something heavy.
Hence, I turned my head and waited for the new arrivals to enter my view.
The three of them were all known to me. One was Shinomiya-sensei while unbelievably, the other two were... The principal, Charlotte B. Lord, and her secretary, Mica Stuart-san.
Apparently, the footsteps I mistook for a child's belonged to the principal. Dressed in a white sundress, the principal's age could not be determined from appearance. No one would raise any doubts even she were to be described as a student in Midgard.
"I can't believe you guys are having so much fun. Let me join in too."
Coming over to my side, the principal looked down at me who was buried in the sand. I suspected that Mitsuki had informed Shinomiya-sensei before coming here and the news must have reached the principal and Mica-san.
"...You want to buried too, principal?"
"Of course not! I want to frolic with pure maidens in their swimsuits too!"
"I can feel a generation gap when you phrase it like that."
I gave my honest opinion but the principal removed her sandal, stepped on me and twisted my head with her toes.
"Shut up or I'll step on you."
"You're already stepping on me!"
I turned my face and yelled in order to avoid the principal's bare foot.
Nearby, Ren and Ariella watched our behavior with blank expressions.
The principal's sudden appearance probably troubled them.
"Hmph, I won't ask you guys to join me without a reason. I come with gifts. Mica and Haruka, begin the preparations."
Still dressed as a maid, Mica-san swiftly began to put together the objects she was carrying in her arms.
"...I am not your servant."
Shinomiya-sensei sighed and placed down on the plastic mat the bag she had brought. From the bag, she took out meat and vegetables.
"Principal... What the heck are you doing?"
Hearing the question, the principal smiled proudly.
"Don't you get it just by seeing? Speaking of beach activities at night, of course there's barbecue!"
"Barbecue!? That's awesome!!"
Iris cheered from the distance. Since the sun had already set, I was thinking it was almost time for us to go our separate ways, but it looked like the party was just about to begin.
Finally liberated from imprisonment under the sand, I joined everyone around the barbecue grill.
Eating only meat, the principal lustfully oogled the girls in swimsuits.
"I don't suppose your only goal here is to see everyone in their swimsuit, right?"
I asked in exasperation.
"Of course it is. Got a problem with that?"
"...Well, I think there are many problems with that."
Seeing the principal nod and admit openly, I could not help but sigh.
"Hmph, it's true that admiring swimsuits is my biggest goal... But checking out her condition is also part of the reason."
The principal shifted her gaze towards Tia across the grill and whispered.
"Tia, she's... probably fine. I think she will surely choose to be human."
Likewise, I whispered in reply.
"Hold on, Tia-san, you must eat your vegetables."
"Oh no, don't put the green pepper there!"
Seeing Lisa place a green pepper on her plate, Tia lost composure. Judging from the way they got along together, I felt that there would be no problem anymore.
"Choose...? Yes, even if she is a true dragon, if she lives as a human, she could become human. I too believe that how she lives her life... is far more important than what she is."
Narrowing her eyes, the principal spoke as though saying a prayer.
"Fufu, I accidentally said something that doesn't fit my image. Putting that aside, how's your wound from earlier?"
"Wound? Oh, the one on my left hand... The wound already healed, but the scar did not go away..."
The memory of her licking my wound flashed in my mind, making me answer a little nervously.
The mark left behind by that red swelling on the back of my left hand felt like an additional line had been added to my dragon mark.
"I see... It really did turn out like this."
The principal nodded with a look of comprehension. Speaking of which, back when she saw the wound, she apparently said the scar would never go away.
"Just by looking at the wound, you could tell it would leave a scar?"
"Only if examined carefully."
Saying that, the principal licked the grease sticking around her mouth. That motion seemed extraordinarily seductive, forcing me to gulp.
"—Charlotte-sama, please do not joke with students at their expense."
At this moment, Mica-san appeared and used her chopsticks to stuff a piece of green pepper into the principal's mouth.
"M-Mmmph! S-Stop it right now! Mica! I-I hate green peppers!"
"Please do not be picky with food in front of students. How would a picky principal serve as a role model for students?"
As though suffering karmic retribution for eating only meat the whole time, the principal was forced to eat vegetables.
Seeing her like that, everyone laughed out loud.
Tia also laughed very happily.
Hearing her laughter, I felt my gaze drawn to the breakwater's direction.
Actually, I had emailed Honoka to invite her when I heard we were starting a barbecue.
She would probably feel intimidated to suddenly join an event where everyone else was part of Brynhildr Class. But taking advantage of the principal's presence, it should make things easier.
—If she came, I wanted to introduce her to everyone.
But it did not look like Honoka was coming.
She was probably busy due to the accident during the practical. Or after injuring her classmate, she felt an aversion against lively events.
—I wouldn't want to make her feel troubled. I'll just email her again later.
Deciding that in my mind, I turned my attention to the laughing crowd again—
After the barbecue, the teachers gathered up the equipment and left. The members of Brynhildr Class all shifted locations to Mitsuki's dorm.
Lisa and the others had apparently gotten permission from Shinomiya-sensei to stay over at Mitsuki's dorm.
The girls were apparently planning to have pajamas party in Mitsuki's room, but I could not possibly join in as a guy after all, so after showering, I changed into a t-shirt and lay down alone in my own bed.
Tia was not in the room either. She had gone to Mitsuki's room with the others. Probably after everything that had happened today, she had started trusting her classmates from Brynhildr Class.
...Or rather, I should say it was thanks to Lisa.
When about to separate from me, Tia looked uneasy but she followed obediently after Lisa held her hand. They looked like mother and daughter, bringing a smile to my face.
As soon as I lay down, my eyelids instantly felt heavy.
Although I wanted to fall asleep just like that, I wanted to email Honoka before that. Hence, I picked up my portable terminal. But when I checked the screen, there were two emails that had arrived at some point. One was Honoka's reply while the other was sent by Major Loki. Speaking of which, Major Loki had mentioned he was going to send me data on Kili.
I opened Honoka's email first.
'I am so sorry I can't join you even though you went out of your way to invite me. Because I suddenly received a call from my mother, I missed the chance to meet up with you. My mother says she is worried whether I can live properly on my own. Looks like I am not that trusted.'
I read her email and keyed in my response.
'Don't worry about it since it was a sudden invitation without warning. Your own business is more important. Making calls to Midgard from outside requires going through convoluted procedures, but your mother still called you. She must be a good mother.'
Honoka had previously described their relationship as cold but in fact, she was probably close with her mother. I felt a bit relieved while sending my email. Then a reply came back quickly.
'Thank you for understanding but my mother still says things on her own without allowing any argument. Oh, speaking of which, I told her about you, Yuu-san, and she is very interested in you. She might be visiting Midgard in the near future, so please do your best then.'
This was not a place that even a D's family could enter so easily. Honoka's mother was apparently active all over the world... Perhaps she was actually a person of quite substantial position.
Hence, I replied 'If possible, please have her show some mercy? Anyway, goodnight.'
—Okay, let me read Major Loki's email next.
I tensed up and opened the email. There were no contents apart from an attachment file.
I decompressed the data and opened it. What appeared was a profile with a photo included.
—So this is Kili?
It was most likely taken on a battlefield. The photo showed a girl standing in the middle of blazing flames.
She had slightly tanned skin and long black hair. Although her facial features were quite exquisite, her gaze was very sharp. Wearing a smoking black cape, her entire body gave off vibes of danger.
When told about Kili in the past, there was never such a vivid photo. Since NIFL had apparently fought Kili while taking Tia into custody, perhaps this was taken during that time.
—Kili Surtr Muspelheim. Female. Roughly 160cm in height. Age unknown. Weight unknown... Nationality and family background unknown too... Since three years ago, she started being active as the leader of the dragon cult, the Sons of Muspell. There are over three hundred terrorist incidents regarded as related to her. Reports indicate that she can incinerate people and objects without touching them. Very likely a D specializing in the transmutation of flames. Already deemed a disaster without concrete evidence...
Despite the full efforts of NIFL's intelligence agency, the amount of corroborated data was exceedingly small. Although there was an abundance of information noted with indeterminate veracity, it was all data that was hard to believe directly.
—By conservative estimates, suspected murder count is a hundred thousand people. Within a single night, wiping out a town stationed with a regiment of a thousand troops. A sniper located a kilometer away was burned to death by her before he could pull the trigger. Wide area bombing was used, expecting her death to be assured, but she was later confirmed to be still alive. Often appearing in towns after "Blue" Hekatonkheir had passed through...
"Is she even human...?"
I could not help but blurt out.
Even if Kili was a D, I doubted she could do all these things.
It would be more probable if she was the eighth dragon instead.
"But... Oh right, she is living as a dragon right now."
Kili was the culprit who had indoctrinated Tia with the concept that Ds were dragons. Suppose Kili also believed she was a dragon, then perhaps she had become something even more of a dragon than a dragon. If this was the appearance of a D who had chosen to be a dragon—
"I absolutely won't let Tia become like her."
With firm resolve, I muttered. Then lying on the bed again, I looked up at the ceiling From Mitsuki's room above, I could hear faint sounds from their voices and footsteps.
—Whether from Basilisk or Kili, I will protect Tia.
Vowing in my heart, I then closed my eyes.
Drowsiness attacked again. My thought gradually grew hazy and my consciousness left me.
A massive low rumbling made me open my eyes. The room kept shaking, the desk lamp fell from the desk, causing an acute crash.
I sat up to a start but the shaking soon stopped. The alarm clock next to my pillow read 2am. I had fallen asleep without realizing it.
—This was no earthquake. There was a loud noise... The shaking was caused by some kind of impact just now.
I immediately concluded that because I had experienced identical sounds and shaking before.
But this could not possibly be the same situation. That thing could not possibly be here.
Nevertheless, my palms were wet with sweat. Saliva was building up in my mouth. With a gulp, I swallowed it.
I jumped out of bed and ran to the window, pulling the curtains open forcefully.
On the other side of the jungle behind the dorm, under the starry night sky, part of the jungle had been cut down unnaturally.
The night sky's dark blue was blotted by a certain gigantic shadow.
Faintly blue in phosphorescence, the shadow shook its humongous body.
As for what thing I was witnessing—I knew very well.
"The blue dragon—'Blue' Hekatonkheir..."
Blankly, I could only recite in a hoarse voice the name of the being that was towering over the night sky. Right there was the monster that had tried to trample the town where Mitsuki and I lived.
Hekatonkheir's entire body was covered with blue scales. Whenever its body moved, geometric patterns could be seen blinking and flashing. Without any facial features, the head only had a huge horn, upright as though rushing towards the sky.
Finally, the siren at the clock tower sounded.
This meant that Midgard did not become aware of this situation until now.
"What the heck... Why didn't anyone notice?"
Midgard was defended by the concentric layered defense system, Midgardsormr. How on earth did Hekatonkheir infiltrate Midgard without being discovered? No matter what, I could not think of the reason.
But appearing before us was neither Basilisk nor Kili but an unexpected crisis. This was absolutely certain.
Accompanied by the siren, the clock tower was gradually retracted into the ground.
However, Hekatonkheir bent down slowly and reached out with its long right arm.
The gigantic hand reached above the school campus and swept sideways.
The violent sound of breakage was heard.
Originally in the process of descent, the clock tower had its upper half chopped off. The remaining lower half also collapsed.
The siren stopped. Deformed by the impact, the clock tower's lower portion also stopped moving.
I listened to the cry from my own throat as though I was completely detached.
The clock tower was where Midgard's important facilities and the emergency command center were gathered, and even the principal's office was on the top floor of the upper half that was sent flying just now...
The faces of the principal and Mica-san, who had just parted ways with me earlier, flashed in my mind.
Gritting my teeth, I rushed out of the room—
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