Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 4 Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Silver-Armored Hreidmar
Three years prior—after NIFL took me away—I became Major Loki's subordinate and went through his "education."
It started mainly with basic physical training and language to facilitate communications with teammates on the battlefield, without actual firearm combat.
But conversely, one mandatory lesson I had each day was to watch that man fight.
The location was sometimes in a training room, sometimes on a real battlefield. I was ordered to watch how he fought the whole time.
My gaze was not allowed to shift, simply staring at him fight for hours on end. I had no idea what the point was, but could only obey.
However, even I felt rather surprised... Spending time like that did not feel like hardship for me.
His fighting style was very refined. While I watched in mesmerization, time flew by instantly.
With his entire body clad in silver armor, he effortlessly subdued the enemies blocking his path.
Even if surrounded by a large group, he would become the only person standing after several gunshots.
Racing past hails of bullets, he vanquished enemy troops without suffering a single wound.
His fighting style was as though he had perfect knowledge of human movements and bullet trajectories.
This kind of technique was not possible for humans. "What" on earth was he?
One day, I posed this question to Major Loki. For myself back then, speaking up to ask a question needed a huge amount of courage. Even so, I still asked while preparing myself to be punished.
This was proof how fascinated I was with that man's fighting at the time.
"Let's put it this way, he is my personal bodyguard... If you are going to develop into the real 'Fafnir,' then he would be Hreidmar."
Without scolding me, Major Loki replied. It was truly a strange analogy.
The name Hreidmar belonged to the father of Fafnir in mythology. This story was something I learned about much later.
Starting from that day, my daily observation of him—Hreidmar—was cancelled. Replacing it was the beginning of combat training.
I asked Major Loki for the reason and his answer was:
"—Because the seed has already taken root inside your 'gap.' There is no need to watch an inferior reference anymore."
For him with such a powerful and elegant fighting style to be called an inferior reference, I found it hard to believe.
But now... Having become an existence very close to his, I now understood vaguely.
He was probably the previous "Fafnir" raised by Major Loki.
"Yuu! Time to get up! It's morning!"
Feeling my head shaken by a shrill voice, I woke up to find Tia jumping up and down on the bed.
I think I was dreaming of the past, but listening to Tia's voice, I gradually became unable to recall the contents of my dream.
I looked at my portable terminal next to the pillow. It was still a bit too early to get up.
"...Good morning, Tia. You're really energetic this early in the morning."
I rubbed my eyes and sat up.
"Yeah, because Tia slept for so long and is full of energy now."
Tia had fallen asleep during the plane ride and slept all the way until the next morning. She had apparently overcome the time difference as a result.
"I'm surprised you knew... that my room was here."
"Tia tried hard to get Lisa out of bed, but Lisa told Tia the location of Yuu's room and had Tia wake Yuu first."
—That Lisa. She told Tia to come over to me first because she wanted to sleep longer.
Despite my resentment for having my sleeping time reduced, I could not complain since Lisa had to look after Tia every day.
I gave up resisting, switched moods and got out of bed. Beyond the balcony, I could see the fountain in the courtyard, glittering under the morning sunlight.
Since the sun had set last night, I did not notice that there were many types of flowers planted in the courtyard. These were probably species suited to high altitudes. Petals of vivid hues decorated the courtyard in a colorful display.
"By the way, Tia, have you heard about today's schedule?"
"No, not yet."
"Let me be frank—After breakfast today, we're going sightseeing together with Kili."
Gloom shrouded Tia's face.
"You could stay here if you don't want to go, you know? Besides, NIFL might be attacking too."
I made this suggestion in light of her relationship with Kili. Tia bowed her head and thought for a while before clenching her tiny fist and looking at me.
"Yuu will protect Kili?"
"If that's the case... Tia will protect Yuu, so Tia will come along too!"
Tia spoke with eyes of determination.
"...I see. Thank you."
I thanked Tia and patted her head.
Tia smiled happily and leaned her head towards me.
But at this moment, her stomach rumbled adorably.
Tia clutched her stomach and went red with embarrassment.
She must be famished, having skipped the dinner party last night.
"You should go to the dining hall first and see if you can ask someone to prepare food for your first."
Tia made an excited expression then nodded vigorously.
Thus, a brand new day started.
Today was the first day of King Albert's three-day funeral. It was this country's custom to see the deceased off in a lively celebration, hence, this was also the beginning of a grand festival.
After breakfast, we went sightseeing as planned.
Taking a stretch limo would attract too much attention after all, hence, we left the palace in a large van prepared by Helen-san instead.
Shinomiya-sensei was driving while Firill sat in the front passenger seat to provide directions.
Including Kili, the eight of us sat face to face in the spacious back of the van. Instead of the formal dresses last night, Mitsuki and the girls were wearing their school uniforms with a winter jacket on top.
The atmosphere in the van could not be described as harmonious, because of Kili.
Everyone had a stiff expression because they had to stay on guard against attackers and Kili herself. Tia was particularly nervous. Sitting between Lisa and me, she was holding our hands tightly.
"—The most popular tourist attraction in the country is Erlia Castle, but since we're going there anyway during the festival, let me take us sightseeing somewhere else."
From the front passenger seat, Firill looked back and told us.
The van was crossing a bridge over the lake while making its way towards town.
"Where are we going first?"
To slightly ease the tense atmosphere, I asked in a cheerful voice.
"...The Great Waterfall of Erlia. It's quite spectacular."
Firill made a thumbs-up and answered. She seemed quite confident.
After crossing the bridge, the van drove on a road along the lakeshore. The town seemed even more lively than yesterday, with many people packed in the streets.
"—How lively. You guys should enjoy the festivities and stop making such scary faces."
Looking out at the scenery the whole time, Kili turned her gaze back into the vehicle and spoke to the others.
"Now that would be a challenging demand. Have you forgotten your past deeds?"
However, Lisa retorted sarcastically.
"Speaking of which... Back when I was taking Tia away, I did fight you once. Although I had no intention of killing you, I apologize for injuring you."
"An injury of that sort is trivial. Rather than apologize, I would rather have you swear you will never betray us. Because what I fear most is my comrades coming to harm."
"Sure, I will promise you that, since right now, I have no reason to harm any of you. However... Will you really be at ease just because I said so?"
Kili answered sarcastically.
"If you responded seriously to me, perhaps I might be reassured slightly... But right now, it's impossible."
"Really? What a shame. I thought I was very serious already. Looks like my seriousness was not conveyed to you."
Kili shrugged then turned her gaze towards Tia whose entire body was stiff.
"Tia, you can probably believe me, right? To this date, I have never harmed you, right?"
"That's true... But you did many awful things to Tia's loved ones."
Tia squeezed my hand and answered.
Hearing her answer, Kili swept her gaze across everyone in turn then smiled as though in resignation.
"—All of you seem to worry more about others than yourselves."
"Not merely others, but family. We worry about one another precisely because we are family."
Lisa corrected Kili.
"What strong camaraderie, I'm envious. If I made a request, may I join your circle?"
"...If that is your sincere wish, I shall consider it."
Despite glaring at Kili, Lisa gave a positive answer with a condition attached.
"You are truly nice to a fault. Given the rare opportunity I really would like to accept your benevolence, but I guess it's impossible for me, because I am definitely different from you people. Even Tia, whom I painstakingly raised, has forsaken me."
Kili sighed and turned her gaze to Tia again.
"Frankly speaking, that was quite a blow to me, you know? Because I never expected you would change allegiance in a few short days, having believed in me and obeyed me all along."
Tia widened her eyes and seemed to understand something.
"Did Tia... hurt Kili's feelings?"
"Fufu—indeed, it does make me a little sad. Now that I think back... The reason why I gave you horns was perhaps to create an existence as close to mine as possible."
Kili shrugged and laughed in self-deprecation. Somehow, I got the feeling that Kili was speaking from the heart just now.
Silent until now, Iris immediately spoke.
"I remember you—Iris-san, right? What is it?"
"Based on what you just said... Do you consider yourself a dragon like Tia-chan did before, Kili-chan?"
Kili was unsettled by Iris' way of addressing her, but she immediately concealed her feelings and continued.
"...Since I am seeking Midgard's protection, I won't call myself a dragon no matter what. But it's a fact that I am different from you all. As to what kind of person I am, please ask him, okay?"
Saying that, Kili pointed at me.
"Ask Mononobe? Why?"
Iris widened her eyes in surprise, tilting her head in puzzlement.
"Because I asked him just as I was leaving Midgard. I said: 'Who I am? If it's okay with you, can I ask you to decide?'"
I remembered Kili asking something like that in response to my question of who she was. At the time, I simply thought she was dodging the question, but her eyes gazing at me were very serious.
"Judging from your reaction, it looks like I won't get the answer yet. Fine, whatever—I will continue to wait."
Kili spoke with disappointment then shrugged.
"...What do you mean?"
With a muddled look on her face, Iris looked alternately between me and Kili.
"She insists on withholding the truth."
Lisa remarked in irritation.
Indeed, Kili seemed to be trying to deceive us with ambiguous language... But I could also feel that—It was possible that she really had no idea what words to use to describe herself.
We were surrounded by an astounding roaring, the sound of lake water plunging dozens of meters into a river.
"So this is the Great Waterfall of Erlia..."
Drowned out by the roaring sound, my mutters failed to reach anyone's ears.
This was an observation deck overlooking the entire waterfall. Iris and Tia were horsing around in excitement next to the railing while Ariella and Ren were using the camera functions of their portable terminals to take photos as keepsakes.
Having been confined in the palace for a while recently, Kili took a deep breath comfortably while Mitsuki and Lisa monitored her warily. Shinomiya-sensei was slightly farther away, talking to someone on the phone.
—I've a dam release before, but it could not compare to this.
Just as I was deeply impressed by the powerful sight of the giant waterfall, hundreds of meters wide, Firill approached me.
She was wearing a wide hat securely with a scarf covering her mouth. These efforts were probably to prevent others from recognizing her identity, but I wondered if the disguise was actually effective.
"...Mononobe-kun, how is the waterfall?"
Since it was hard for our voices to reach one another if speaking normally, Firill stood on tiptoe slightly and spoke in my ear. This sort of distance, within a breath's reach, made my heart begin to race, but I suppressed my wavering emotions then brought my lips next to Firill's ear.
"It's spectacular. Seeing so much water flow down, it makes me worry about the lake drying up."
"It won't dry up because the meltwater from the mountains flows into the lake. There is a royal cottage nearby... I like to read there a lot."
We were carrying our conversation by speaking alternately in each other's ear. Every time we spoke, our distance would shrink and Firill's voluptuous bust would touch my arm. Feeling that soft sensation through clothing, it made my heartbeat accelerate.
"You can read in such a noisy place?"
"I stop hearing unnecessary noise after I grow accustomed to it, which allows me to really focus. The feeling is kind of like a rainy day's."
"I-I suppose. With so much noise, all other sounds would get drowned out."
Although I nodded to concur with what she said, I was finding it harder and harder to feign composure.
"...What's the matter? Your face is very red, you know?"
Hearing my vague answer, Firill probably thought I failed to catch what she said. She leaned in even closer.
"Mononobe-kun, are you okay?"
She had her breasts pressed tightly against my arm, making my heart pound even faster. To tell her that she was too close, I brought my face next to Firill's ear.
However, I seemed to hear a voice, so I turned my gaze towards the waterfall.
Iris, who was next to the railing with Tia to view the waterfall, was pointing her finger at me, saying something. Although I could not hear what she was saying due to the water being too loud, her face was bright red.
Seeing her like that, I finally noticed that my current posture made me look like I was just about to kiss Firill's cheek.
Iris ran over with her face red and kept hammering her hands against my chest.
"N-No doing that in this kind of place!"
"No, you got the wrong idea!"
I shook my head and yelled.
"Mononobe, you're such a jerk! What if Mitsuki-chan sees?"
After finding out why Iris was angry, I could not help but gasp.
Unable to understand the situation, Firill looked incredulously at Iris' interactions with me.
"Iris, calm down. I was talking to Firill like that only because the waterfall is too loud—"
To explain the situation in detail, I brought my face next to Iris' ear.
"Eh? Y-You can't kiss me now either! Do you really... want to kiss that much?"
But she seemed to be misunderstanding my behavior again. Iris blushed all the way to her ears.
"No, like I said, that's not what's going on!"
"...No? Mononobe, you want to kiss Firill-chan... But not me?"
Iris looked at me, almost about to burst into tears.
"O-Of course not!"
Seeing me shake my head frantically in denial, Iris smiled, seemingly reassured.
"Then save it for later—You have to be patient for now, okay? So, if possible... If you don't do that to Firill-chan... I will be very happy."
After saying that in my ear, Iris shyly covered her face in her hands and fled.
S-Save it for later...?
After hearing her say that, I could not help but wonder whether I should clear up the misunderstanding.
"Mononobe-kun, what was that about?"
Firill asked with her head cocked.
"Don't mind it. Iris just got the wrong idea."
I sighed and answered. Whatever, although it was a shame... I felt bad about exploiting Iris' misunderstanding, so I decided to explain properly to her later.
Just as I made the decision mentally, my neck suddenly trembled but not from cold.
It was a gaze, sharp and murderous in intent.
I looked back but could not see anyone.
—That's pretty quick.
I expected this long ago, but the enemy looked like they still intended to attack. If Sleipnir had already entered the Principality of Erlia, just as Kili said, then they must be the enemy.
I did not think that they would leak murderous intent so overtly as accomplished soldiers. Hence, this was probably a greeting to me, their former captain, as well as a final warning.
No mercy if you interfered—That was probably the message.
Then I could rule out the possibility that the incoming enemy was the tall man who had almost killed Kili. Because if he really was the one I predicted, he would not do anything this naive.
Looking around, I saw Kili with a tense expression, glaring in the same direction as I did.
In fact, Kili and I were probably the only ones capable of fighting Sleipnir. It seemed like the others had virtually no experience in human combat. It was possible to defeat Sleipnir through combat methods that destroyed them together with the town, but of course, such tactics were not allowed.
—Why don't Kili and I get this settled quickly, just the two of us?
Although I felt bad for the others, unless they possessed combat instincts allowing them to sense the murderous intent just now, I could not count them as potential combatants.
Even alone, Kili was capable of fighting Sleipnir, so with the addition of me, it should be enough.
Thinking that, I walked over to Kili. But along the way, I found one of my classmates staring in the direction of the killing intent.
However, she soon shifted her gaze and went back to taking photos for Ren.
Perhaps she had sensed something without knowing it was dangerous.
Then sure enough, I could not get her involved.
Deciding that, I told only Kili my thoughts.
After touring the waterfall, we headed back to town, bustling as a result of the festival.
Narrower streets were turned into pedestrian areas while vendor stalls were packed along entire streets. Sounds of firecrackers or fireworks could be heard from somewhere.
Shinomiya-sensei had handed out banknotes issued by the Principality of Erlia to everyone, saying "this is part of this mission's remuneration." Hence, we were going to use the money to go shopping happily.
"Nii-san, this dagger looks cool, right?"
Mitsuki showed me an ornate dagger that she had bought at high price from a shady vendor. It felt kind of like those wooden swords you'd buy during a school trip.
"...What's the use of buying something like that?"
"Not to be used, I will simply admire and view it. Do you not sense any dreams or adventures from the past, Nii-san?"
"Dreams or adventures from the past?"
The way I saw it, the dagger did not seem very old, but I'd better not spoil Mitsuki's lovely dream.
"Nii-san, it looks like you have no mind for understanding dreams and adventures."
Perhaps getting no reaction from me, Mitsuki went to find Lisa and show her the dagger.
The others seemed to be purchasing all kinds of souvenirs but I only planned on buying food. Since there was no telling when we might be attacked, I did not want excess baggage.
Kili was walking in the middle of our group while Shinomiya-sensei followed next to her.
There were currently no suspicious movements nearby. Iris was the only person behaving suspiciously.
Iris was hanging out with Lisa and the others but kept glancing at me from time to time. Whenever I tried to approach her, she blushed and hid behind Lisa and the others. This kept repeating.
"Iris, about just now—"
"Oh, n-not now, Mononobe! You need to be patient longer!"
I wanted to clear up the misunderstanding as quickly as possible, but Iris kept saying that and avoiding me all over the place. There was no end to it.
"Yuu, are you playing tag with Iris?"
Seeing our situation, Tia asked incredulously."
"No, it's not like that..."
I sighed and shook my head.
"Since you're not playing with Iris, then Tia wants you to help pick souvenirs."
Saying that, Tia pulled my arm and brought me to a stall selling accessories. Fine—It looked like I'll just have to come back to Iris' matter later, so I'll accompany Tia to pick out souvenirs for now.
"Which is better, Yuu?"
Tia pointed at exquisitely crafted hairpins and brooches, asking for my opinion.
"Let's see... This one suits you, right?"
After a quick look at the accessories laid out on sale, I pointed at a pink brooch in the shape of a flower.
"Ah, so cute! Tia wants to buy this one! Uh, how much—?"
"Oh, hold on, let me buy it."
"Ehhh!? Yuu wants to buy this?"
Tia asked me in shock. I replied with a wry smile.
"I'm not wearing it, what I mean is: I'm going to buy this as a gift to you, Tia."
Since I had no plans to buy souvenirs myself, there was no way I was going to use up the cash given to me, so buying a gift for Tia would be a good idea.
Just as Tia was staring speechlessly, I had already paid the vendor and received the flower brooch.
"Don't move for the time being."
I bent down in front of Tia and pinned the brooch in front of her chest.
"Yeah, this really suits you. Tia, it's very cute on you."
Saying that, I rubbed Tia's head. She immediately went red in the face and looked down.
"T-Thank you... A gift from Yuu... Tia will cherish it forever and ever."
Cradling the brooch in her hands, Tia thanked me in a slightly trembling voice. Seeing her acting a bit strange, I peered at her face.
"Tia dosn't know... Tia's chest hurts despite feeling very happy. Oh... Tia will return to Lisa!"
I saw Tia leave me a little frantically, rushing towards Lisa and the others who were in front of a vendor opposite to us.
"Yuu, thank you so much!"
Tia looked back along the way and thanked me again.
Although I felt that her reaction was somehow different from usual, seeing her so happy, I thought there was probably no problem.
—My remaining money seemed enough to get another one.
Although brooches turned out to be more expensive than I imagined, my leftover money was enough to buy another accessory.
—That one seems to suit Iris.
"Please give me that one."
I bought a butterfly-shaped hairpin and placed it in my pocket. A small accessory of this sort would be easy to carry around.
The spare change remaining in my hand would probably get spent buying food at the stalls.
Hence, I bought a skewer of deep-fried fish without thinking.
"...Wow, this tastes good."
While sweet and delicious juices were spreading in my mouth, I could not help but exclaim in praise.
I had not expected much from the taste since it was something I picked randomly, but it turned out to be quite tasty.
Then I saw Firill approach, having bought the same food as me.
"That's probably fish that was caught in the river downstream of the waterfall we visited earlier. Since it happens to be the time of the year when fish swim upstream, the flesh is very rich and tasty."
Firill enjoyed her fish with an expression of joy.
"Wow, Firill, you even have chances to buy this kind of street food?"
"...I bought it secretly. I remember it was during Grandmother's funeral."
Firill stared in the distance nostalgically.
"Was it this lively back then too? It totally doesn't feel like a funeral."
Staring out at the city filled with smiles and cheering, I told her that.
"...Even so, this is still a ritual for seeing off the deceased. Putting it in Japanese terms, it's a festival for seeing off souls—a konsousai, so to speak."
"Konsousai huh... Now that you mention it, there is that kind of feeling."
My country also had a custom of seeing souls off in a festival. If I think of it as holding the festival starting at the funeral stage, then there was nothing out of place.
Perhaps overhearing our conversation, Ariella, who was nearby, also joined in.
"—What a great custom. It it's this lively, I'm sure the souls will forget their sorrow."
I could feel from Ariella's tone of voice what seemed to be sincere feelings from the heart, so I secretly glanced at her expression.
Come to think of it, before setting off for the Principality of Erlia, Ariella had mentioned seeing souls in the past. Firill also seemed to recall this. Slightly hesitantly, she inquired:
"Ariella... Do you really believe in souls?"
"Yes, I do."
Ariella asserted clearly.
"Could it be that... Ariella, you can see souls?"
Firill could not help but inquire whether she had spiritual powers. Ariella's sense of conviction was strong enough to raise this kind of question.
However, Ariella smiled wryly and shook her head.
"No, I'm not that kind of person. I just happened to be at a place where souls could be seen."
"...What happened there?"
Hearing such a strange way of putting things, Firill frowned.
Somewhat hesitantly, Ariella's gaze wandered for a while before she asked me and Firill:
"Do you know what power the yellow dragon—'Yellow' Hraesvelgr—uses?"
Firill did not seem to understand why a dragon was suddenly brought up. She sounded puzzled.
Although I could not figure out what Ariella was getting at, I asked on behalf of the baffled Firill.
"Isn't Hraesvelgr's power still unknown? I've only heard that it's the hardest to fight, a dragon which all attacks are ineffective against."
"—Yeah. Current science cannot explain the phenomena caused by Hraesvelgr, but anyone should be able to understand if they witnessed in person. Even if it's impossible to analyze with science, you can understand it through feeling."
"Ariella... Have you seen Hraesvelgr before?"
Hearing my question, Ariella nodded.
"Yes, according to myths, Hraesvelgr is a magical bird that swallows souls—And it's just as the legends describe. Before coming to Midgard, I lived in an unstable country. On many occasions, I witnessed Hraesvelgr materializing the souls of those who had died in war then devouring them."
I don't know if this description is correct... But that's what it looked like to me, at least. Someone has also proposed the same hypothesis as mine. According to that person, Hraesvelgr's ability uses ether, a medium of unconfirmed particles, to materialize souls."
Ariella stopped at this point and looked away from us. Her gaze seemed to be directed at Ren who was together with Iris and the others.
Was the subject related to Ren somehow? Although I was curious, Ariella continued before I could ask.
"—But because current science does not recognize the existence of souls, that person's hypothesis was ridiculed. People called him a failure who had given up on scientific scrutiny to escape into the realm of the occult."
In other words, because souls could not possibly exist, what appeared to be phenomena involving the materialization of souls ought to have other explanations that could be established—That was probably what the people laughing at him thought.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with that kind of attitude. Basilisk's time-erasing ability also could not be explained fully with science. Even so, that ability interfered with the actual existing concept of time. Precisely because of that, we were able to take countermeasures against weathering, thus successfully defeating Basilisk.
However, souls were something fleeting and intangible, whose existence was not even clear. Even if something like that could explain Hraesvelgr's ability, we could not formulate countermeasures based on that.
"No, I understand even if you don't say it. Even if it's a correct idea, a hypothesis that cannot be applied has no value. However—I believe what I saw were souls."
While saying this, Ariella had an unnatural smile surface on her face, like she was enduring pain and sorrow.
"...Really? In that case, I choose to believe too."
"Ariella, you're always calm and composed with accurate judgment. Compared to what was said by some scholar whom I've never met, I believe in your instincts more."
I shrugged and voiced a matter-of-fact conclusion.
"...Me too. Since it's coming from you, Ariella, I believe too. I'd be skeptical if it were someone else, but you never lie, Ariella."
Firill also nodded in agreement and held Ariella's hands.
"If souls exist, I think what I said will reach Grandfather. Thank you, Ariella."
Ariella went bright red, looking very awkward. I guess she was still the same as before, unused to receiving praise or thanks from others.
"I-I didn't speak to be thanked! N-No need to thank me, I-I'll be on my way!"
Ariella walked towards Ren as though she could not bear the embarrassment.
Left behind, Firill and I looked at each other with a smile.
However, I noticed at this time that there was a change in the crowd. Something seemed to have happened up ahead. The people had stopped walking. The tide of people had halted.
I stood on tiptoe to check out the situation, only to see a costume parade passing through the crossroads ahead.
At this moment, small explosions could be heard in the adjacent alley with the rising of white smoke.
Frightened pedestrians flooded in our direction. Walking in front, Kili and Shinomiya-sensei were swallowed by the crowd.
—So the enemy is here!
This was most likely to separate Kili from us.
"Firill, you go and join Mitsuki and the others. Tell them not to move from this spot for now."
"Eh? Mononobe-kun... Where are you going?"
"Please, I'm counting on you!"
Without enough time to answer her, I rushed into the chaotic crowd.
Back at the waterfall, I had already told Kili concisely the enemy's attack approach.
Namely—to move towards places with fewer people.
I forcibly pushed through the crowd and entered a small alley opposite to the smoking location.
Just as I predicted, Kili was there.
"—Aren't you too slow? I'd feel troubled if you don't protect me."
Kili combed her tousled hair with her hand and glared at me. There was a faint scratch on her cheek.
"You were attacked?"
"Yes, it was apparently launched during the earlier flood of people, but this level is nothing to be concerned about."
Kili moved her fingertip along the wound. Immediately, black bubbles of dark matter flowed out and erased the laceration cleanly within the blink of an eye.
"Biogenic transmutation—Seeing it again, it's really amazing."
"So long as I remain conscious, it's possible to heal any wound no matter how severe. However, getting sliced by a blade still hurts, even to the point of infuriating me, making me want to burn the enemy along with everyone in the surroundings to death."
Kili's cold and merciless gaze looked at the streets packed with people.
"...I won't allow that."
Feeling that she was definitely not joking, I warned her seriously.
"Oh my, how scary. Sure, while you're protecting me, I won't do anything to anger you. Then what do we do next?"
Without showing any fear, Kili smiled with delight and asked for my future plans.
"...We will move deliberately to a place where the enemy can easily attack. Once we're there, we'll defeat everyone who comes attacking."
"Okay, very simple. Awesome."
Kili smiled fearlessly.
Hence, we ran deeper in the alley.
Although it was a narrow alley, it was not completely devoid of pedestrians. Running at full speed, passing through a crowd that was heading for the main road, we searched for a deserted location.
Going against the flow of people in this manner for a while, we found a square-shaped open area in the alley. It seemed to be a plot of land left behind after a house was demolished recently.
After confirming there was no one in sight, I said to Kili.
"We'll intercept them over there."
Anti-personnel weapon—AT Nergal.
While running, I generated dark matter and transmuted it into a projectile-based stun gun. Holding Nergal's familiar grip in my hand, I gradually focused.
"Understood. Attacks launched from afar can be handled by my Muspelheim. I'll leave close-range enemies to you."
We stopped in the center of the open space then turned our gaze to the dark alley where the enemy was approaching from.
"—Very well, bring it on."
As soon as Kili said that with a grin, the air temperature in the surroundings rose all at once.
Spreading out tiny dark matter in a broad area to convert into thermal energy, then using it for offense and defense, that was Kili's "Muspelheim."
She had probably deployed a barrier of thermal energy in the surroundings as a precaution against attacks that out-ranged her.
At this moment, there was restless presence coming from the shadows in the alley. The enemy might have decided to attack. I could feel murderous intent stinging my entire body like needles.
...Only one person?
Finally getting a bead on the number of presences, I was surprised by the result.
A muzzle flash came from the depths of the dark alley.
But before the bullet could reach us, it vaporized with a red glow.
Due to the intense temperature differential in the air, the surrounding scenery was shimmering in the heat.
Unfazed, the enemy switched to fully automatic fire and shot while approaching. I was struck by the smell of melted metal.
Next, the enemy tossed a cylindrical object between firing. The object exploded in midair, producing white smoke.
The enemy had apparently figured out Muspelheim's weakness.
Dark matter's greatest vulnerability was interference from ordinary matter. Small particles of dark matter would easily get worn away and disappear when covered by smoke. I had tried the same method to break through Muspelheim in the past, but—
"I knew you would take countermeasures of this level."
Kili smiled confidently and dark matter appeared in the surroundings like black snow.
To prevent them from getting worn away by smoke so easily, she had enlarged the dark matter. But all Ds without exception had a limit to the amount of dark matter they could generate in one go.
Increasing the size of each piece of dark matter meant that Muspelheim's range would shrink accordingly.
Seizing that opening, a petite figure stepped into the open space. Running with a low posture as though sticking to the ground, the figure threw a machine gun at us.
As soon as the machine gun entered the range of the fluttering black snow of dark matter, it instantly burned red-hot and exploded from internal expansion.
Amidst the smoke and dust with the smell of gunpowder, the enemy held a large-caliber handgun as a replacement.
We were roughly ten meters apart. At this distance, I finally saw the opponent's face clearly.
Platinum blonde hair fluttered amidst smoke and dust from the explosion. Those golden eyes seemed to pierce everything.
I recognized him. John Hortensia—Sleipnir's sniper.
Realizing his intent, I extended my left palm.
By focusing my consciousness on the muzzle pointed in our direction, I predicted the bullet trajectories.
John would not normally fight on the frontlines like this. Sniping targets from the distance was his job. But in the current situation, there was no one better suited than him for breaching Kili's Muspelheim.
While running, he kept pulling the trigger.
Instead of getting stopped by the barrier of thermal energy, the fired bullets pierced through instead.
The reason was simple. Although the air was filled with dark matter, he was aiming the bullets through the gaps between the dark matter. Kili was creating a thermal energy barrier by transmuting dark matter, which meant vulnerable spots could be found if the positions of all dark matter were acquired from the start.
From a common sense standpoint, this was mere theoretical talk, but John's "eyes" were capable of turning theory into practice. Now that the dark matter was large enough for the naked eye to see, he was matter-of-factly demonstrating his godly aiming skills.
Anti-materiel armor—Damascus 09P!
Knowing his intentions, I had already used transmutation to create shields to block his bullets.
Manifesting along the bullet trajectories, the heavy armor plating deflected bullets with acute metallic sounds.
Seeing bullets pass through Muspelheim, Kili exclaimed in surprise.
"I'll take care of this guy! Kili, you guard against other attacks!"
While saying that, I shot Nergal at John. Nergal was a projectile-based high-voltage electroshock gun almost guaranteed to render the victim unconscious on contact, but John jumped backwards to dodge as though he had predicted my action.
While blocking the line of sight between John and Kili, I rushed forward. Firing Nergal, I dashed out of Muspelheim and closed in.
John frowned and fought back with gunfire.
Since Kili was behind me, I could use armor plating created from transmutation to accurately block John's shots. Exactly because his aim was precise, reading his bullet trajectories was quite easy. John seemed to have no intention of killing me, only aiming at my shoulders and legs.
Seeing me right before his eyes, John reached behind him with his left hand and tossed a certain black object at me.
Anti-explosive armor—Uruk 73E!
Thinking it was a grenade, I instantly deployed anti-explosive armor but what accompanied the blast was a surge of black smoke.
Covering my mouth and nose, I jumped back. Obscured by the smoke, I could not see him.
I heard a cry of pain from behind the smoke, then the sound of panicking.
Then the smoke was blown away by the wind, gradually revealing a clear view of the scene.
The sight rendered me speechless.
John was pinned down on the edge of the open space. The one who had subdued him was my classmate—Ariella Lu.
"I'm not clear on what's happening, but this looks like an enemy, so I captured the enemy first."
Restraining John's joints splendidly, Ariella smiled cheerfully as usual.
"Ariella... You're amazing. Although he's a sniper, I can't believe you subdued a member of special forces..."
I felt impressed from the bottom of my heart and praised Ariella who had captured John.
"Although I did sense a different impression from you compared to other girls to begin with—Your combat skills are quite superb."
Approaching from behind, Kili had her arms crossed, staring at Ariella while she spoke.
"Eh? Not really, I have just a bit of martial arts experience. I guess I haven't grown rusty yet. Putting that aside—What are we going to do with this person?"
Ariella gestured to John with her eyes. I honestly did not think Ariella's skills were on the level of "just a bit" but the matter of John was definitely top priority right now.
"Please keep him immobilized like this for now. I've got many questions for him."
"Okay, got it."
Ariella nodded in a relaxed manner. During this time, she did not loosen John's restraints.
I bent down and spoke to John, who had his face down with an expression of chagrin.
"Long time no see, John."
"...It's been a while, captain."
He looked up slightly and replied in what seemed to be a sulking tone.
"I'm no longer a member of Sleipnir. Isn't it weird to call me captain?"
"No sir, you are the captain."
I remarked with a wry smile but John stubbornly insisted on addressing me as "captain" again.
"Fine, address me however you like if you say so. Let's talk about something else. Where's the rest of Sleipnir? Why are you the only one attacking, John?"
I raised the question that bothered me the most. If they truly intended to kill Kili, the entire team should have attacked instead.
"The others are not present because I acted alone without permission... This is insubordination."
"Insubordination? What's going on? Did you guys receive orders to assassinate Kili, John?"
Yesterday, Major Loki had said his side would handle things. Did that not mean he was sending out Sleipnir?
"Until yesterday, that was the case indeed—But orders have changed. The major wants Sleipnir to focus on surveillance then handle the aftermath if any problems arise..."
"Surveillance and clean up... Then someone else is in charge of the actual operation?"
John nodded affirmatively with a gloomy expression.
"...I don't want you to fight that man, captain, which is why I wanted to eliminate Kili before then, because I essentially have a chance at victory... But why did you obstruct me, captain! That woman is a terrorist, equivalent to the public enemy of humanity!"
Despite Ariella's restraints, John still glared at Kili with his golden eyes.
"Midgard has decided to protect Kili—simply that. Rather, what I'm asking is why are you going so far as to disobey orders, to stop me from fighting that guy?"
"...Because I believe... will be killed."
John looked away from me and answered hesitantly.
"Who will be killed?"
To me, it was quite a shocking statement.
Sleipnir's members knew my abilities better than anyone. Precisely because they knew, that was why they acknowledged me as their captain.
"I don't know what the others think, but even now, I still respect you, captain. I don't want you to die here, so—"
John was worried for me. He said that guy was stronger than me.
Sure enough... It's him?
The tall man whom Kili said had almost killed her, who felt similar to me.
"What are that guy's characteristics?"
I asked in a dry voice.
"An unidentified man whose entire body is clad in armor. Just as we were departing for this country, Major Loki suddenly brought him. Although we attacked Kili together, because he only follows orders from the major, we were unable to coordinate on the battlefield, resulting in her escape."
John glared resentfully at Kili while replying.
"What's that guy's name?"
I gulped and made the final confirmation.
"—Hreidmar. That was what Major Loki called him."
After asking John the necessary questions, I confiscated his gun and released him.
"Captain... I believe that you should personally take care of that woman before that guy arrives."
He glared at Kili and warned me before disappearing into the depths of the dark alley.
"You allowed him to escape. Personally, I wanted to kill him, but you'll stop me, right?"
"What a shame. I wanted to vaporize him."
Kili shrugged and sighed.
"—Don't say that kind of stuff again if you really intend to go to Midgard. Vaporize this if you need to vaporize something."
Saying that, I handed her my Nergal and the gun confiscated from John. Both were dangerous items inappropriate to bring back.
"You leave me no choice."
Kili took the two guns and tossed them into the air.
The guns expanded from heat and exploded like fireworks.
"Woah! Why did they explode?"
Not knowing about Kili's Muspelheim, Ariella widened her eyes in surprise.
"Oh, just now, that's—"
While making our way back to the main street where Firill and the others were waiting, I explained Kili's Muspelheim to Ariella then briefly recounted what had happened.
NIFL had mobilized to eliminate Kili. The one in command was my former superior officer. Iris and the others had no experience in human combat, hence to avoid getting them caught up, I intended to take care of things with just Kili. After listening to me about all this, Ariella spoke to me, slightly angered.
"I know roughly what happened now, but I can't approve the fact that you didn't tell anyone about your plan. Everyone must be worried, right?"
"I know that... But I want to avoid getting the others involved in conflicts between humans as much as possible."
If I told them about the plan, Iris and the others would definitely try to help.
As much as I worried about their safety, what unsettled me more was that the powers they had trained for dragon combat were too powerful.
If they accidentally killed someone due to lack of control—As soon as this thought crossed my mind, I became unable to discuss with them.
"But... Perhaps one of them might be worried and come chasing after you like me. So your solution is still not the best."
"Yeah, I'll apologize to everyone when we get back."
Because Ariella did chase after me in fact, I could not retort.
"Yeah, that'd be best. Umm—Umm, I've got a question too, about the person just now."
"You mean John?"
I asked and Ariella nodded.
"So, is John the first name?"
"Are you sure? It's not a nickname?"
"Yeah... But why are you asking?"
I frowned, unable to understand what Ariella was getting at.
"Hmm, it just bothers me a little..."
Ariella clutched her right hand then cocked her head in puzzlement.
Not knowing what was bothering her, I could not help but start to ponder.
"Mononobe-kun, are you close with that person?"
"Yeah, I think he's the one who admired me the most back in Sleipnir."
"Oh, that's right, it seems that person went as far as to disobey orders for your sake. If that's the case, sure enough..."
"What do you mean, sure enough?"
Seeing Ariella figuring things out on her own, I asked her.
"Hmm... I don't think this is something for me to reveal. And it's possible I could be mistaken."
"I totally don't get what you're talking about..."
Seeing Ariella wave her hands with a wry smile, I could not help but sigh.
"Ahaha, if you're curious no matter what, try asking for the real name the next time you see that person. I think everything will be all clear if you do that."
In other words, John was using a fake name? But how would Ariella know something like that?
Ariella's reply simply baffled me.
But listening in on the side, Kili murmured with great interest:
"Oh... This seems quite amusing. Perhaps I was right not to vaporize that person."
Kili's expression looked like she figured out something. A smile surfaced on her lips.
—What was going on?
It felt like Kili and Ariella had left me behind. While pondering the meaning of what Ariella had said, I walked but could not think of anything related to John's name.
As soon as we got back to the main street, I could see that things had calmed down. The initial explosion was probably just a smokescreen. Although the police could be seen in the smoking alley, the townsfolk did not seem fazed at all and were still enjoying the festivities. Brynhildr Class was assembled by the roadside.
Mitsuki instantly ran over as soon as she spotted me.
After that, I explained what had happened—As expected, I ended up subjected to harsh lecturing.
After getting attacked, we left the scene first and returned to the palace.
Although it was slightly earlier than scheduled, since the "Konsousai" or Soul Departure Rite was starting tonight at Erlia Castle and we were going to attend the opening ceremony, we originally intended to return before evening in the first place.
Although the town was starting to liven up already, this funeral ceremony of the Soul Departure Rite apparently had its official start after sundown.
After a brief break in our rooms, we changed into clothing appropriate for the ceremony and went to Erlia Castle. This time, we took a high-class limo.
All the girls were dressed in the same gorgeous dresses from the dinner party last night. The scene inside the car looked very glamorous.
After passing through the castle wall's main gate where there were many people lined up, the limo entered the heart of the castle through the western gate which seemed to be exclusive to involved parties.
Pressed against the car window, Tia exclaimed in wonderment.
The castle's spires were lit very beautifully, shrouded in an atmosphere both solemn and fantastical.
The palace was magnificent too but this place really seemed like it came from another world. It was like entering a realm of fantasy.
However, I currently could not immerse myself in such stirrings of emotion.
Although everyone was chatting with smiles, part of our attention was still diverted to vigilance against the surrounding situation.
Hreidmar. The instant I heard this name from John, I could not relax for a single moment.
Even though Mitsuki had warned me "not to take action alone again"... I was the only one capable of engaging him in battle. And this time, I was not going to enlist Kili's aid.
"Please come this way, everyone. I will lead you to your special seating."
Led by Helen-san, we entered the castle. The stone-built interior was quite cold, honestly.
But after going up the stairs and passing through a massive door, the air warmed up slightly.
I could hear the noisy crowds. Over there was a viewing balcony overlooking a vast hall on the ground floor.
A massive portrait was hanging in the deepest end of the hall. Under the portrait was a coffin covered in flowers.
Firill murmured softly while looking at the portrait and the coffin.
So that was King Albert...?
An old man with a white beard was staring from the portrait with a sharp gaze. He looked like someone with great strength of will. I could feel from the portrait that he had certain traits sufficient to change his country and the world.
Once the hall was packed full of people, Firill's father, Prince Alfred, ascended the stage and greeted them.
The ceremony began in a more solemn atmosphere than imagined. First, a long moment of silence was dedicated to the deceased. The originally noisy interior of the castle instantly fell silent.
Firill closed her eyes with a solemn expression on her face. Surely she was silently thinking of her grandfather. If what Ariella had said was true and souls really existed, then her prayers ought to reach her grandfather.
Following her lead, the others and I offered our silent prayers.
—If it's thanks to you that the present Midgard came to be, I thank you wholeheartedly. Thank you for creating a home for us.
Then the silent prayers ended. Originally a bit dim, the hall's lighting suddenly brightened. Originally on standby, the orchestra started playing gentle music.
The hall instantly turned into a party venue and people went out to dance one after another.
There seemed to be other venues inside the castle. Originally concentrated together, the crowds followed directions and gradually dispersed.
Seeing the mood change so rapidly, I felt a little troubled but I already knew that it was this country's unique way of seeing off the deceased.
Dancing in front of the royal coffin, the people also looked a bit mournful.
"—Watching is too boring. Shall we dance too?"
Looking at the hall from the balcony, Kili asked us.
"I believe we should stay out of the spotlight... Your life is being targeted, you know?"
However, Mitsuki showed hesitation on her face.
"Don't worry, the royal family is here, so security inside the castle is tight. And there are so many people watching. The enemy isn't stupid enough to pick this location to make a move."
After saying that optimistically, Kili took my hand.
"Come, dance with me."
Kili pulled me, wanting to exit the audience seating.
"Ah! Don't take Mononobe away!"
"Tia wants to dance with Yuu too!"
Iris and Tia chased after us.
"...No helping it. Lisa-san, let us go as well."
"Because we must watch her closely."
Mitsuki and Lisa sighed and walked over.
"Ren, let's go too. There seems to be lots of good food."
Ariella and Ren followed.
"...I will watch from here."
However, Firill, Shinomiya-sensei and Helen-san both stayed in the audience seating area.
The majority of people present probably knew that Firill was a princess of the Principality of Erlia as well as a D. If she appeared in the party and caused a commotion, then it would expose the fact that Midgard had sent Ds to receive Kili. Surely, she must have made her choice in consideration of that.
With Kili holding my hand, I was led to the hall on the ground floor.
"I don't have any ballroom dancing experience, okay?"
"No problem. I will teach you. You'd look super lame unless you learn enough to lead those girls in a dance, right?"
Kili looked at Iris and the others who had followed us to the hall, then she immediately started to move with dance steps.
I moved my feet frantically to follow her.
"Come, right foot, left foot—That's right, very good. Now just repeat these steps."
Kili guided me very well and the step patterns turned out to be unexpectedly simple. Hence, I quickly regained composure. As long as I thought of dancing as martial arts forms, it was not too hard, actually.
After getting used to dancing, I now had the luxury of attention to spare on other things.
"...What's the matter?"
At a distance almost close enough to kiss, Kili smiled. Beneath her black dress, her soft bosom was touching me.
The sensation was making my heart race.
Perhaps it was perfume, a flowery fragrance was rising in front of my chest, tickling my nose lightly. Inconspicuous lipstick had been put on her lips, making them look very seductive.
Due to wariness against her until now, I had not noticed particularly, but dancing with her black hair fluttering, she was extremely beautiful.
However, I felt resistant to offering my honest thoughts, so I looked away and tried to cover things up.
"You can only look at your partner during a dance. This is manners. Don't look away from me."
"Guh... G-Got it."
I stared straight into Kili's black pupils. She smiled contentedly.
"Indeed, that's the way."
With coordinated steps, we danced along with the music.
"—Yuu, what is Hreidmar?"
Kili whispered while dancing.
"It's the name of the assassin who's trying to take your life."
"That's not what I mean. I am asking you what kind of existence is he?"
"Is there any point in asking that?"
Hearing my question, Kili stared into my eyes, nodded and said:
"Yes, because I want to know you better."
"Isn't that way too selfish of you, given how much you're hiding already?"
I frowned and answered.
"Fufu—Perhaps. Then how about this? If you tell me about Hreidmar... I could answer one question of yours."
I was surprised to hear her offering terms of exchange that were more advantageous than I expected. If one of her secrets could be revealed... Then I had no choice but to agree.
"—Got it. Hreidmar is apparently my... reference."
"Reference? In other words, your master?"
"No, it's different from a master-apprentice relationship. I've never talked to Hreidmar or fought him. I simply watched his way of fighting and memorized it, that's all."
Actually, rather than memorize, it was more like getting charmed or possessed. But this was probably a type of feeling that only I could understand.
"Oh... In other words, your ferocity comes from him?"
"Something like that. Although I've gone through lots of harsh combat training, I believe the way I am now stems from having watched him."
"It almost sounds like contamination."
Kili frowned and murmured, expressing the poignant feelings I had deliberately withheld.
"Yes... So that's why Hreidmar and I possess similar traits. That's probably the part that you found similar between me and him."
"No, you two are different. Although I described you as similar before, I can't feel from him the kind of charm that you have."
Kili asserted with an inexplicably forceful tone. Staring into my eyes, her gaze was filled with burning passion.
"After hearing about Hreidmar, I am even more certain of it. What attracts me is a certain characteristic deeper inside of you. The ferocity residing within you, to me, it might be... a troublesome rival instead."
"A rival? What the heck kind of rival..."
"I'm not sure either, this purely a woman's intuition. But apart from me, others already have their sights on you."
Saying that, she instantly leaned her body against me.
"So don't lower your guard... I won't forgive you... if you easily let yourself become someone else's posession."
Devoured by the intense emotions residing in her words and gaze, I felt my breath taken away for a moment.
But when the music changed songs, I came back to my senses and pulled Kili towards me according to the new melody.
"—I don't need your permission for anything. Rather, it's time for me to ask questions."
"Oh my, you're really leading forcefully. But following an intense lead like this is not bad either. Very well, what do you want to ask?"
Kili showed surprise on her face but soon showed a smile of delight.
"Who are you? If it's something even you don't know... Then tell me the reason why you don't know."
I repeated the question I had asked her many times, but this time, I cornered her.
"Sure, this is the promise, but—"
Despite nodding in agreement, Kili struggled free from my arm.
"—There seems to be other girls in line, so I shall excuse myself for now."
Slightly farther away, Iris and Tia were glaring in our direction. Mitsuki also looked extremely displeased.
I tried to stop Kili from leaving but she gracefully dodged my hand.
"Don't be anxious. I will keep my promise. I'll dance with you again later."
Smiling seductively, Kili then walked over to the tables with food.
"Yuu is so much like a prince!"
I first danced with Tia according to the orchestra's music. Although it was tough due to our height difference, after I got used to coordinating our steps, we were able to dance smoothly.
"I see you're wearing that brooch now as well."
Tia was wearing a pink pearl dress. Pinned on her chest was the brooch I had bought for her from a roadside vendor.
"Yes! Tia picked a dress to match this brooch!"
"You like it that much..."
Seeing Tia smile with great contentment, I could not help but smile.
—Will Iris be equally happy?
I still had not given Iris the hairpin I had bought for her. It was still sitting in the inside pocket of my suit.
Then the song ended. Finished with my dance with Tia, I went straight for Iris.
"Then it's my turn?"
Iris asked with a blush. She looked like she was clearly thinking about what happened during the daytime. She was probably still mistakenly thinking I wanted to kiss her. Fine, I guess I'll clear up that misunderstanding while we're dancing—
"Yeah, but before we dance, I want to give this to you first."
Holding the butterfly hairpin in her hand, Iris showed surprise.
"It's a present for you."
"W-Why? It's not my birthday today, you know?"
Iris asked me, bewildered.
"No, it's not a birthday present. I simply thought that it'd look good on you, Iris. If you don't like it, I don't mind if you return it—"
Since Iris did not look too happy, I explained in a slight fluster. However, she clasped the hairpin tightly in both hands and shook her head forcefully.
"N-Not at all! This is very pretty... I'm so happy, thank you, Mononobe."
Iris thanked me slightly tearfully.
"Really? That's good to know."
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Mononobe, how is it? Does it look weird?"
Iris immediately put on the hairpin to show me.
"Not weird at all, it looks great."
"Ehehe, I'm so glad."
Iris smiled happily and held my hand.
"Then let's dance, Mononobe!"
Thus, I started dancing to the music.
While carefully guiding Iris' steps, I explained what happened at the waterfall.
"—I see, Mononobe, so you weren't trying to kiss Firill-chan."
"Yeah, you got the wrong idea, Iris."
Seeing the misunderstanding finally cleared up, I nodded with relief.
"So, you don't want to... kiss me either?"
I did not know how to answer. My gaze wandered. It would be too embarrassing to answer honestly.
"Fufu, you're so easy to understand, Mononobe."
Iris smiled. She looked like she could see right into my mind.
Were my thoughts that easy to read from my face? I felt a little indignant.
"Seriously, don't be unhappy. I'll keep my promise."
"By promise, you don't mean to say—"
I recalled what Iris had said during the daytime.
"Yes... Wait until we're alone, because I... want to kiss you too, Mononobe."
Iris blushed and whispered quietly extremely up close.
Then the music changed. As though unable to bear her embarrassment, she fled before my eyes.
"Iris, you're quite easy to read too."
Watching her run away from me, I remarked with a wry smile.
Now I was left alone. Just as I looked around, thinking what to do next, I saw Mitsuki approaching me.
Now it occurred to me, speaking of which, it would be nice if I had bought something for Mitsuki too.
When I knew that I only had enough money for one more accessory, I chose a present for Iris without a second thought.
Had I not lost my memories, perhaps the hairpin would have been a present to Mitsuki rather than Iris—
These thoughts flashed through my mind, filling my heart with a painful sense of guilt.
"Excuse me... Nii-san, may I dance with you too?"
Hence, when Mitsuki extended her hand, I hesitated for a moment. Did I have the right to hold her hand?
But seeing a gloomy and uneasy expression on Mitsuki's face, I instantly woke up. Right now, making her sad would be even more wrong.
"Of course you may. Let's dance."
I forced a smile and held Mitsuki's hand.
"This... is my first time."
As I put my arm around her waist, Mitsuki blushed.
"This is my first time too."
I answered while guiding Mitsuki, allowing her to step naturally.
"For a first time, Nii-san, you are dancing very well."
"Well, that's because I've already danced with three people. By the fourth, I've gotten used to it no matter what."
For some reason, Mitsuki suddenly exuded an aura of displeasure.
"Nii-san, I feel you are lacking in delicacy after all."
After that, Mitsuki danced with a scowl on her face. Before I could figure out the reason, the music changed and Mitsuki left me.
Was I unable to understand Mitsuki's displeasure because I had lost my memories? If possible, I hope it was simply because I was too dense.
I sighed and was just about to return to the others when—
"Mononobe Yuu! You seem to think you can dance now, but the way I see it, you still have far to go! I shall make you understand the gap between our abilities. Your next dance is with me!"
Lisa suddenly grabbed my arm and forcibly took me to the center of the hall.
"What's the matter? Do you dislike dancing with me?"
"No, that's not it... Rather, are you okay with me being your partner?"
Hearing me ask in return, Lisa blushed slightly.
"I-I am simply trying to teach you how to dance properly. I-It's not like I want to dance with you!"
"R-Really? Then thank you for instructing me."
Overwhelmed by Lisa's forcefulness, I started to dance.
Her dancing was truly masterful.
"See, your movements have gone coercive again. You must be more considerate for your partner."
Her advice was very accurate and to the point. I learned a lot from her, but—
More voluptuous than any of my earlier partners, her bosom was pressing strongly against me, making it impossible for me to focus on dancing.
The sensation of an extremely soft and bountiful chest was making me dizzy.
"—As one would expect, you lack experience. If you ask me, I could instruct you some more in the future. Work hard and improve yourself."
Ultimately, I still did not pass in Lisa's eyes. Mentally exhausted, I felt my body swaying unsteadily and my gaze wandered.
Ariella and Ren were busy eating and did not look like they intended to dance. Then next, I should dance again with Kili according to the promise and have her answer the earlier question.
I walked around, looking for Kili, then found her at at a door on the side of the hall.
I was just about to speak to her when she smiled and waved lightly for me to come over. Then she turned around, her black hair and dress fluttering behind her, and passed through the door.
I went through the doorway to chase her. Immediately, a cold night breeze caressed my cheek.
This was a corridor traversing the courtyard inside the castle. Kili was waiting for me next to a flowerbed where white flowers were blooming. No other people were in sight.
"You can hear the music faintly too. How about a dance here?"
Kili extended her hand lightly towards me, inviting me to dance.
"Yeah... It's not bad at all."
I left the corridor, walked into the courtyard and took Kili's hand.
The music leaking out from the hall was carried by the wind across the courtyard. We began to dance to the tide of music.
"—I have no idea what other existence is the same as mine."
Staring into my eyes, Kili spoke in a whisper. Her statement was possibly the answer to my question earlier.
"I am neither human nor a D. If anything, I'd be a dragon, but not a true dragon either, so I have no idea what word to use to describe myself. This kind of answer—Is it not enough?"
"Not enough. Since you said you're different, can you tell me how you're different?"
Dancing with Kili in the courtyard with blooming flowers, I asked her.
"I see... First of all, I don't have human parents."
This was hard to understand. Without parents, how exactly was she born in this world?
Perhaps reading the question from my expression, Kili smiled with a bit of sadness.
"I was born from thin air."
"How could that be possible...?"
"Oh my? Why are you surprised? Clearly you're capable of creating many things out of thin air."
Kili cocked her head and stared into my eyes.
Realizing what she meant—Understanding what Kili was trying to say, I was instantly speechless.
"Just as you imagine, I am an existence born from dark matter."
Kili calmly revealed her origins.
Creating life through the transmutation of dark matter, that was impossible for Ds who were unable to perform biogenic transmutation.
If something was capable of doing that—
"Yes, I am some kind of creation made by the black dragon—'Black' Vritra—using dark matter. How's that? Am I a monster surpassing your imagination?"
Kili laughed with self-abuse and asked me.
"No wait... Didn't you call Hekatonkheir 'mother' last time?"
"Fufu—Did I? I never stated explicitly that Hekatonkheir was my mother."
"That's not what happened, you clearly—"
"Yes, that's right. You saw me address as mother the thing you people call Hekatonkheir, but that's all."
Kili continued my sentence in a very suggestive manner.
"What do you mean by that?"
"You don't get it? With just a bit of thought, you should be able to figure it out."
Kili narrowed her eyes and spoke as though taunting me.
"—But I won't verify your answer, because I only promised to tell you one secret."
After saying that, Kili withdrew her hand that was originally on top of mine, pulling herself away. The music from the hall happened to stop at that moment. The surroundings returned to the silence of night.
"I leave for you to decide whether or not to report to Midgard what you just heard. Do as you wish."
I clenched my fist and glared at her. Kili was wording things in such an unfair way.
She was telling me to decide what kind of existence to view her as. If I told her origins to Midgard, she would most likely be seen as a dragon. Conversely, if I did not report her, she would probably be welcomed into Midgard as a D.
She was hinting here for me to decide what she was, but...
'I too believe that how she lives her life... is far more important than what she is.'
Principal Charlotte's words flashed across my mind. While watching Tia wavering in the gap between humans and dragons, she had said these words as though in a prayer.
"What do you want to do?"
Kili looked surprised and made a questioning sound.
"Midgard's principal once said—How you live is more important than what you are. By her own will, Tia decided to live as a human. So don't leave it to others, decide yourself."
"I definitely act according to my own decisions. Although I asked you to decide, I never said I was going to follow your conclusion."
"Then there's no point asking me to decide, right?"
"—On the contrary, I could confirm how you viewed me."
Kili smiled mischievously and looked up at me.
Useless but not without meaning—Basically something like that.
I exhaled, gave up resisting and decided to tell her my current thoughts honestly.
"I believe you're human Kili."
"Oh, and why is that?"
"—Because I believe I can kill you. What I inherited from Hreidmar were skills for the purpose of killing humans. I can kill you, which means you're human."
Hearing me tell her so directly, Kili laughed with shaking shoulders.
"Fufu... Ahahaha—What an awful reason, but it's very much in your style."
While she was like that, I continued:
"I won't deliberately treat you as a dragon, human as you are. I won't tell anyone what you said earlier, unless—You choose to become a dragon."
"...Then I need to express my gratitude to you first. Thank you."
Wiping away her tears from laughing too hard, Kili thanked me. However, she did not mention at all what she was going to do. Seriously, what a sly girl.
"It's almost time to head back. I'm starting to feel cold."
Trying to get more information out of Kili's lips was probably impossible, so I urged her to leave the courtyard where cold wind was blowing, to return to the hall.
Kili nodded but at that very moment, we both noticed at the same time—
Something was approaching from the depths of the courtyard surrounded by towering walls.
Inside the courtyard where pale moonlight was shining, a tall figure appeared.
"I said earlier that the enemy would not be stupid enough to attack at this kind of place, but looks like I was wrong."
Kili spoke with a wry smile.
Hidden behind shadows, a man dressed in a hooded black coat was stepping on the flowers in the flowerbed, gradually closing in on us. The hard luster of armor could be seen beneath the hood. Without a doubt, this guy was—
I muttered the name that stood for that guy.
He did not answer. I did not even know if he heard me.
"Stand down, Kili. If I can kill you, he can surely kill you too. So no matter what happens, don't enter the fray."
"Got it. You don't need cover fire either, right?"
"That's right. If you take action while trying to help me, it'll end up creating fatal openings instead. Please just protect your own life."
After answering Kili's question, I stepped forward.
Generating dark matter from my right hand, I converted it into a weapon for fighting him.
Compared to Nergal, Enlil's barrel was longer with an unnaturally large muzzle. This was for adding special vibrations to the fired bullets, and also because it was a lost weapon. Although I had provided the specs to NIFL, due to its overly complicated design, NIFL gave up on mass producing this weapon.
No matter how sturdy the armor the enemy was hiding under, the vibration bullets fired by Enlil would transmit the impact inside. Against this guy who was wearing armor, Nergal probably would not work as an electroshock gun, so I had to rely on Enlil.
Since this was not a weapon that injured the enemy directly, it was relatively low in damage. Compared to anti-materiel rifles and fictional armaments, the chances of inflicting a lethal wound on the enemy were probably lower.
Even after seeing me raise my weapon, Hreidmar still did not change his pace.
His hands were hidden inside his coat. That was quite tricky because it prevented me from knowing his method of attack and range.
Under such circumstances, leaving initiative in enemy hands would be very dangerous. I must attack first to reduce the enemy's options.
Focusing, I awakened "Fafnir" that was sleeping in the depths of my consciousness.
My senses expanded, as though reaching omniscience—
Death was already before my eyes.
Glinting brightly under the moonlight, the sharp tip of a knife aimed straight between my eyes.
I reflexively swung Enlil and deflected the knife with the gun's body.
He had probably thrown the knife from inside the coat without any preparatory motion. I did not expect it at all.
Within the brief instant when my attention was focused on the knife, he disappeared from view.
I instantly felt a chill along my spine. A silver glint flashed past the right side of my view.
I looked right to see Hreidmar there with a black gun in his hand.
A deep abyss—The muzzle with the darkness of death was staring straight at me.
Immediately, a bullet was shot, accompanied by a muzzle flash.
I tried to use Enlil in my right hand to defend but was too late. The bullet pierced my right wrist but thanks to that, it changed the trajectory slightly, causing the bullet to fly past my ear.
My mind was attacked by a scorching sensation of heat and pain coming from my right hand.
I swung my right arm, splattering the spurting blood on Hreidmar. Silver-white armor, exposed under the hood, became stained with droplets of my blood.
Perhaps I succeeded in blocking his view. His movements halted for an instant. Seizing the opening, I switched Enlil to my left hand then fired consecutively until I was out of ammo.
With the sound of a hard impact, his coat was ripped into many pieces.
Hreidmar had used his right arm's armor to deflect the first shot then dodged the remainder by moving his body.
Managing to pull some distance away at last, I used transmutation to refill Enlil's bullets then aimed the muzzle at him.
Hreidmar's right arm was dangling powerlessly inside the hole in his coat. The gun he was originally holding had also fallen on the ground. Struck by a vibration bullet, his right arm should be paralyzed temporarily and out of commission.
Despite suffering a severe blow from him, I should be on equal terms with him now.
This conclusion of mine did not last for long. Hreidmar lifted his right arm then opened and clenched his hand repeatedly as though to confirm the feeling.
You must be kidding me—He can already move that arm?
I gnashed my teeth in disbelief.
Most likely, he must have deflected the bullet with optimal timing and angle, minimizing the impact.
Forget about being on equal terms. I was being cornered, unable to fight back. Blood dripped down my right hand, stealing my body warmth. Apart from pain, my right hand could not feel anything.
—To think there was such a large gap between him and me.
This man, who had fascinated me in the past, turned out to be more powerful than imagined.
Furthermore, my senses seemed more sluggish than during the previous fight against Kili. Normally, I could use my willpower to cut off my sense of pain, but I was unable to do so now.
Perhaps due to my unwillingness to become more of a killer than Hreidmar, I was subconsciously suppressing my "Fafnir."
Most likely, I hated myself for continuing to become something else.
I forbade myself from getting even farther from the "me" whom Mitsuki knew.
With his head armor stained by my blood, Hreidmar wielded a combat knife to replace the gun he had dropped. What was he going to deprive me of next? My left arm? A leg? Or my life?
Unable to shake off my doubts, I applied more pressure on Enlil's trigger.
Just as Hreidmar and I were about to engage again, the sky suddenly became noisy.
A strong gust of wind blew across the courtyard, sending white petals fluttering through the air.
"Looks like I was ultimately discovered..."
I heard Kili's quiet words coming from outside my view.
Hreidmar stopped attacking. Clad in armor, his face looked up at the sky. I had no idea what the heck he saw but he jumped backwards forcefully, turned his back to me then ran towards the castle wall to leave.
I did not take my eyes off him and stared while used something like a wire to climb over the castle wall.
Most likely, there was something in the sky, forcing him to retreat despite the overwhelming odds in his favor.
I clipped Enlil on my belt. Pressing on my right wrist's wound with my left hand, I looked up at the night sky where a strong wind was blowing.
A golden light was crossing the sky above the Principality of Erlia.
I muttered hoarsely and widened my eyes in surprise.
It was not a shooting star, hence it did not crash straight to the ground. Instead, it was circling widely in the night sky.
The flying glow in the sky was shaped like a giant bird.
An image I had only seen on photos before was right there.
"The yellow dragon—'Yellow' Hraesvelgr... Why is it here—"
I muttered the name of the monster flying in the sky.
"The true enemy has finally arrived, that's all."
Hearing Kili's calm voice, I shifted my gaze downwards.
With a faint smile, she was approaching me. Then without worrying about bloodstains, she wrapped her hands around my wound.
Immediately, tiny dark matter flowed from between her hands. The pain vanished as though it never existed.
She removed her hands. The gunshot wound inflicted by Hreidmar had disappeared without a trace.
"You used biogenic transmutation... to heal it?"
"Yes, I must ask you to fight next, so it'd be a problem if you fainted from bloodloss."
Kili answered solemnly then looked up into the sky.
Hraesvelgr was leaving golden trails in the night sky, circling in the air above the Principality of Erlia. Its altitude also seemed to be gradually decreasing.
"Don't tell me... it intends to land here—"
"Indeed, Hraesvelgr is descending while looking for my location."
Saying that, Kili rolled up her sleeve, exposing her right arm to the night air.
Like yesterday, her arm was wrapped with a bandage.
Capable of using biogenic transmutation, just as she had healed my wound just now, she did not need to treat her injuries in this manner.
Then why—Why did she put on a bandage?
An ominous feeling bordering on certainty rose up in my mind.
Yeah... Why hadn't I thought of this possibility earlier? I should have used my earlier question to ask about the bandage instead.
Then at least, I would have had some time, no matter how short, to think of countermeasures.
"Whether Sleipnir or Hreidmar, neither of them are actually threats to me. Even if they have the power to kill me, I could just flee. But... That's different."
Saying that, Kili untied her bandage.
"Once discovered, it's absolutely impossible to flee. That's why I sought Midgard's—no, your—help."
Yellow light was leaking out from gaps in the loosened bandage. It was Kili's dragon mark glowing.
"Yuu, you will—protect me, right?"
Showing me her dragon mark that had changed in color, she asked me that.
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