Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 9 Chapter 4
Chapter 4 - Reversed Athena
While others were feeling a strong quake, Ariella Lu was alone in the room, looking at the screen of her portable terminal.
The rest of the girls were gathered in the living room. From behind the door, she could hear their panicking voices.
However, Ariella did not move. Looking at the terminal's screen, she sighed slightly.
With no reception here, the terminal could not perform its duties as a communications device. She could only use it to read data that had been stored beforehand.
In front of Ariella's eyes was a call history of repeated incoming calls starting from a week ago. Since the caller's identity was masked, the number was unknown and all that was recorded were the times of the calls.
Like the earlier quake, these calls were warning signs of the imminent end to everything.
Presently, the end moment was arriving.
She knew this. She already knew this.
"I was so happy."
Ariella murmured softly in apparent resignation.
To her, everyday life was something that must come to an end.
What she had lost in the beginning was an everyday life surrounded by warm family despite a lack of material wealth.
Losing their lives in a civil war, her family's souls had been gluttonously devoured by Hraesvelgr.
Without anywhere to go, Ariella had been taken in by the church she used to go to. However, instead of attending mass, she would always stare off into the sky from the bell tower.
Knowing that her parents had not been "summoned to heaven," she found prayer to be meaningless.
—What should I do for everyone?
Staring at the sky where Hraesvelgr had flown away, Ariella had asked herself countless times.
What occupied her heart was anger towards the unreasonable and hatred for Hraesvelgr.
However, it was impossible to seek revenge against a dragon unless war ended.
Even so, Ariella's ill-defined enmity did not disappear. Soon, she joined an organization of dragon-haters.
What should she do? ...She did not know, but she definitely wanted companions.
People who shared the same feelings as her.
That wish for companions was soon fulfilled.
However, the organization did not have the power to fight dragons. All it did was come into conflict with dragon-worshiping cults and oppose mafias that secretly exploited Ds. They also spread word about the dangers of the Ds who were campaigning for the restoration of their human rights—In other words, what the organization fought were humans.
But inside an organization whose solidarity was rock solid, founded upon similar pasts and ideology between members, Ariella did not feel lonely there.
There were many boys and girls her age or younger. Ariella felt she had found her new family there. Furthermore, it was during training when Ariella became aware of her previously undiscovered talents.
—I'm suited to fighting. Too suited.
Realizing this aspect of hers, she trained and controlled it. She now had a role to play within the organization.
It felt unimaginably fulfilling to have something that needed to be done and was within one's own power. She was also glad that playing an active role would lead the younger children to treat her as a hero.
But these days suddenly came to an end.
The power to generate dark matter, regarded with enmity by the organization, had awakened in Ariella herself.
A cursed destiny. She hated her own body and power.
Children, formerly close to her, would throw rocks at her. She understood that her everyday life at the organization was ruined.
When the organization began to discuss her execution, she accepted everything in resignation.
But in the end, the cash-strapped organization sold Ariella off through underground channels. Money had won out over emotions and righteous cause.
She had been sold to a research lab in Japan. Told that it was a man who engaged in illegal research with Ds, Ariella prepared herself to be dissected to pieces.
But contrary to what Ariella expected, this researcher—Miyazawa Kenya—treated Ariella courteously. Beyond examining her, he only asked her to take care of his daughter Ren.
"Ren was like an unfriendly cat back then..."
Thinking back to those times, Ariella immersed herself in nostalgia.
She did not respond no matter how Ariella tried to strike up conversation, putting Ariella at an impasse. But then she spontaneously started calling Ariella "Onee-chan" and admiring her.
The days from then on had been very happy, never want for lack of money for the first time in her life.
However, this life did not last long. Due to Ren becoming a D too, the distorted family life ended.
No—It was Ariella herself who had ended it herself.
To prevent Ren from becoming the subject of experiments, she sought the police for protection and blew the whistle on Miyazawa Kenya.
Then the next part of her everyday life had lasted until now.
Days spent with fellow Ds at Midgard.
"I was so happy..."
Saying the same words again as the beginning, Ariella stood up.
Noticing the earlier shaking, Ren and him were going to return.
There should have been enough time for talking—Ren would have conveyed her feelings to him sufficiently.
This was the only things she was honestly worried about.
To spend her remaining time with her "younger sister," Ariella slowly walked to the living room.
"...Neither Shinomiya-sensei nor Mica-san have come."
Sitting in the living room sofa, Lisa murmured with worry at the ceiling.
"With no reception on the terminals, there's no way to confirm the situation outside..."
I stood with my back against the wall, looking at my terminal that could not communicate. Deep underground of Midgard, calls could not be made here. Without cable facilities linked to the surface, we were completely isolated on the information front.
"N-NIFL is invading?"
Iris walked back and forth between everyone in worry.
A few hours had passed since the intense shaking. After dinner, all of us had gathered in the living room.
"—Perhaps. If that is true, then they won't have the leisure to visit us."
Drinking black tea at the table, Firill agreed with Iris.
"We knew that an inspection was coming sooner or later. There's no need to panic."
Idly braiding Vritra's hair to play with, Kili spoke as though the situation did not involve her.
"Conflict within the same species, how meaningless..."
Vritra shrugged philosophically despite the fact that her hair was being played with.
Tia, who had been in low spirits the whole time, nodded from her seat next to Lisa.
"Should we go confirm the situation?"
Clutching my clothing tightly, Ren suggested to our group.
"—No, I believe it is not time for reckless action. We should watch a little longer."
Sitting on a cushion, Mitsuki offered her opinion, but compared to what she said, I felt more concerned by her slightly lethargic look.
"Mitsuki, are you okay?"
"Oh, yes. I just feel a bit... hot. I must have spent too much time in the bath."
Blushing slightly, Mitsuki replied to me.
This had started ever since she returned from the hot spring yesterday. Although it seemed like she was feeling faint from the bath, I was still a bit worried whether or not this was an effect brought by the transformation.
"If you feel any worse, be honest and tell us, okay? Mitsuki, you're always pushing yourself too hard."
"—Nowhere as bad as you, Nii-san. However... I understand."
Pouting slightly, Mitsuki nodded. Then Shion separated from Jeanne uncharacteristically and stared at Mitsuki's face.
"aRe YoU reALly oKaY?"
"Oh... I am fine. Thank you for worrying."
Mitsuki was slightly surprised but happily touched Shion's cheek. It was possible that she saw a shadow of Shinomiya Miyako in Shion's voice and facial expressions.
Shion smiled slightly, apparently knowing what Mitsuki had felt. Then Shion returned to Jeanne's side and sat on her lap.
Jeanne watched Shion tenderly and returned to the conversation that had gone on a bit of a tangent.
"—I also believe it is too early for action. We should stay vigilant for now. There are two paths into this cavern... It would be best to take turns keeping watch throughout the night."
Hearing Jeanne give a practical opinion like a soldier, I nodded too.
"That's right. But the ones on watch should be limited to those who are able to engage humans in combat. Jeanne and I—also Kili, can I ask you to help?"
"Eh— What a pain. And it's like a steam cooker outside..."
Retorting, Kili frowned overtly.
"Don't be like that. Please."
However, I bowed my head to her and did not give up, causing her to sigh deeply and slump her shoulders.
"—Got it, okay. But you'll have to reward me later."
Kili looked at me seductively and accepted the job of keeping watch. However, Lisa blushed and looked at Kili.
"R-Reward—What kind of reward do you intend to exact from him!?"
"That would be a secret. If you're jealous, why don't you try asking him for a reward too? We are all his mates... I will turn a blind eye if it's just something on that level."
In response to Kili's joke, Lisa yelled with her face red.
"Please get off your high horse! I am simply stopping you from doing inappropriate things!"
"Sure sure. Do your best."
Having made a move without Lisa's knowledge the night before, Kili answered in a laid back manner.
"Hmm... I shall have you regret underestimating me."
Kili and Lisa glared at each other.
At this moment, Ariella spoke up for the first time.
"If we're alternating shifts, you need one more person. I'll do it."
Rising from her chair, Ariella stood between Lisa and Kili as though to stop them from staring at each other. Apparently recalling what had happened last night, Kili looked displeased.
"Taking on troublesome tasks on your own initiative, how meddlesome you are. Oh well—You're even more capable than Jeanne-chan. I don't mind."
Despite sarcastic words, Kili accepted Ariella as a candidate. Jeanne pretended not to care.
"No wait, Ariella's dragon mark is colored. If she gets captured by NIFL in that state..."
However, I was quite hesitant to endanger Ariella in her current state.
"Don't worry, Mononobe-kun. It's not like we're going above ground. We're just watching near the entrances. There's not much difference in risk."
Ariella evaded my worries and replied in a relaxed voice.
"...I got it. But don't overdo it, okay?"
Since she had a good point, I reluctantly nodded. Despite the subtle unease in my heart, it was also true that I had no one else I could ask. Judging from Ariella's combat abilities that I had witnessed a number of times, she would be capable of delaying NIFL's soldiers.
Ren tugged my sleeve, looking like she had something to say. She probably wanted me to hurry and have my discussion with Ariella.
I nodded at Ren, gently stroking her head to reassure her.
Making an expression that read "very well," Ren closed her eyes partially.
According to the sequence decided through rock-paper-scissors, Ariella was next with Tia last.
From what I heard from Mitsuki, the two of them had intentionally chosen the last spots.
Even if they had doubts or worries, I had already decided what I must do.
—The power to protect them all... and the reason to do so, that was what I wanted.
Confirming my own wish that I had confirmed thanks to Ren, I firmed my determination to confront the last two girls.
That night, I guarded one of the cavern's entrances to protect everyone who was sleeping.
"...This place is a bit too hot."
Watching the metal door that was installed on a wall of rock, I wiped sweat off my brow. To be honest, this really was not an environment one could stay very long while clothed.
Although I endured it for a while, after deciding my energy would become depleted at this rate, I opened the door and moved over to the stairs leading to the lower levels of Midgard.
From this location, I would know immediately no matter who came down the stairs. With the door closed, sealing off the heat and humidity, it was more comfortable than expected.
Ariella was guarding the other entrance. I should have some time to talk to her when Kili and Jeanne took over the next shift, but—Just as I as thinking over these matters, sitting on the stairs, I heard faint knocking at the door.
"...Yuu, are you there?"
Then I heard Tia's slightly apprehensive voice. I stood up in surprise and opened the heavy door.
"—Thank goodness. Tia thought you had gone off somewhere."
Standing at the door was Tia, stroking her chest, apparently reassured. But when I saw Vritra standing behind her, I was a bit taken aback.
"What's going on, Tia? And with Vritra too..."
I looked at Vritra, who went "hmph" and turned her face to the side. Though I had no idea why, she looked quite displeased. Had Tia brought her here by coercion?
"Tia has something important to tell Yuu. Is this a good time?"
"Sure—I don't think it matters if we talk while guarding this place."
I nodded, thinking she wanted to discuss the risks related to transformation.
Tia smiled slightly and came over to this side of the door with Vritra.
I sat on the stairs and waved to her. Keeping one person's distance, Tia sat down lightly. Vritra watched us with her back leaning against the closed door.
"To be frank—I've been wanted to talk to you the whole time, Tia."
I looked at Tia and spoke.
"I heard from Iris that you've been down lately. And in fact, you really are acting differently from usual. I'm very worried."
Intending to use this opportunity to find out clearly what Tia's troubles were, I replied to her in a gentle tone of voice.
What on earth was troubling her...? I had thought a lot about it and come up with a guess.
"Could it be that... you're worried about your horns, Tia?"
Looking at the two red horns on her head, I asked cautiously.
This was what I had guessed she was worrying about. If touching me would result in a transformation that could make her lose the horns she had not been born with—She might lose the power to control Yggdrasil.
Iris and Shion's transformations were enough to deduce this. Hence, Tia would probably feel more of a dilemma than the others—
"...No. The horns are fine."
But contrary to my expectations, Tia shook her head.
Completely surprised, I doubted.
"Yes... The body's transformation is due to dark matter... As I am now, I can interfere in the process and keep the horns."
Tia was speaking in a more mature tone of voice than usual, but I was extremely surprised by what she said.
"What... Tia, you can control dragonification?"
"I still couldn't earlier. During the Zwei—Shion—incident, it was beyond me... But now that I have synchronized completely with Yggdrasil, it's possible to hack Vritra's dragonification mechanism."
Saying that, Tia glanced in Vritra's direction.
"...As much as it displeaseth me, 'tis the truth what she said. The Akashic Record's computational abilities ought to be sufficient to interfere in biogenic transmutation. Be that as it may, the system, which drives the transformation upon contact between synchronized dragon marks, is written in a D's genes and impossible to stop completely. A poorly done job would result in an amorphous form and a breakdown of self-identity."
Sulking, Vritra confirmed Tia's claim and warned.
"A breakdown of self-identity—Tia, don't force yourself if it's that dangerous!"
I said to Tia in a panic but she shook her head lightly.
"Interfering in another D's dragonification is very difficult indeed, but there is no problem when it's myself. Tia knows herself best, so don't worry."
Smiling tenderly, Tia explained to me.
"Compared to that, Tia fears something even more... It came to Tia's knowledge after synchronizing with Yggdrasil. About dragons, what is to come, everything is..."
Tia looked at me with pleading eyes, her voice trembling.
"You've found the information in Yggdrasil...? So in other words, Vritra's original goal has been achieved?"
I confirmed with Vritra who was standing arms akimbo.
Vritra had made a human stand-in to appear before us so that she could enter a dialogue with Tia who had taken control of Yggdrasil's core. However, Tia had not been able to keep up with Vritra's conversation because she had insufficient information due to minimizing her link with Yggdrasil.
After that, for the sake of obtaining data from the Akashic Record, Tia had increased her synchronization rate with Yggdrasil. However, the arrival of Kraken Zwei had changed Vritra's mind, causing her to choose to fight us.
"I have had talks with Tia Lightning Yggdrasil on several occasions. Our conclusion is that we must first confirm whether thou art truly Neun."
Nodding at my question, Vritra looked back at me as though she was targeting something.
"Neun... Both you and Kili have mentioned it many times. What the heck is it and what does it mean?"
Vritra had called me irregular as a male D whereas Kili suggested I was Neun.
"Indeed... Shall I explain?"
Vritra nodded at Tia to confirm.
"Wait. Tia will explain. But before that, Yuu..."
"What is it?"
Tia looked at me seriously so I urged her to speak. Blushing, she continued.
"Tia... wants to hold hands with Yuu. Otherwise, it feels uneasy."
The intense emotions conveyed in her whispers were making my heart race.
I knew what Tia meant without explicit explanation. She had decided to make physical contact with me.
In that case, I must convey to her my thoughts from my conversation with Ren.
"Yes—No problem. I'd hate not being able to do that for you, Tia. If you have troubles, I want to aid you. I want to protect you. So... Let's hold hands."
Saying that, I extended my hand towards Tia.
"Yuu... Thank you."
Tia looked reassured and slowly reached out to me. Sparks of lightning flashed in her horns' surroundings.
Interfering in dragonification was most likely quite a delicate task.
To avoid disrupting her concentration, I waited for her to touch me on her own.
Murmuring to herself, Tia held my hand tightly.
My dragon mark glowed blue. Light also erupted from the dragon mark on Tia's thigh.
But before that light could envelop Tia's entire body, The electrical sparks flashed especially intensely.
Failing to reach Tia's horns, the blue light dissipated as faint particles in the surroundings.
"It is... finished."
After the light vanished completely, Tia panted heavily.
As far as I could see, there was no change in her appearance, not even her horns.
"You worked hard, Tia."
What kind of challenge she had surmounted—I could not imagine at all. In any case, I congratulated her first on her effort.
"Yes... Then Yuu is now Tia's husband!"
Tia happily jumped at my chest.
Instead of holding hands, Tia was hugging me with all her strength, startling me.
"I can finally touch you, Yuu. Now... I don't have to be afraid anymore."
But after I noticed the mild trembling in Tia's body, I understood what kind of fear she had been enduring.
"—I'm by your side. So don't worry."
To reassure Tia, I patted her back.
"Yes... Then I'll begin, Yuu. About Neun... About dragons..."
What kind of truth was she going to reveal? No matter what happened, I must not allow Tia to worry. I nodded firmly.
Tia backed away slightly, looked into my eyes then spoke, controlling her voice.
"Well, Neun... refers to the ninth counterdragon."
Hearing that term for the first time, I frowned.
"Yes... The dragons we have fought so far—Basilisk, Hraesvelgr, Yggdrasil and Vritra—are all counterdragons... Rather than true dragons."
"What... H-Hold on. What do you mean by a true dragon? So Basilisk and Hraesvelgr were fake dragons?"
With the complete overturn of publicly recognized fact, I was plunged into confusion.
"Well... They are not fake. Dragons are dragons... However, they were dragons born from this world—born from Gaia. Oh, but Eins, the world itself, probably doesn't count as a dragon..."
Tia explained in a bit of a dilemma but she was getting harder and harder to understanding. Her explanations were peppered with unknown terms and my questions kept increasing.
Seeing me like that, Vritra shrugged in exasperation.
"...Explaining everything to thee would be too much trouble. 'Tis a pointless waste of time at this rate. I shall offer a concise explanation."
Leaving the door she was leaning against, Vritra approached us.
"A true dragon is a calamity that threateneth the continued existence of the world as a whole. 'Tis not limited to lifeforms, but includes phenomena too."
Looking straight into my confused eyes, Vritra spoke.
I repeated the word once. Vritra nodded solemnly.
"Indeed—Gaia has experienced eight major crises to this date. Great calamities that could thoroughly wipe out all existing ecosystems and environments. We counterdragons were born to avoid such destruction."
Vritra paused here and showed a mocking expression.
"You dragons are the world's allies? Despite spreading those great disasters... dragon disasters throughout the world..."
Seeing Vritra speak though her existence were legitimate, I retorted in momentary impulse. Iris' parents had clearly died because of a dragon disaster. I could bring myself to simply nod and accept things with a "So I see!"
But contrary to what I expected, Vritra shook her head.
"Contemporary counterdragons have lost enemies to fight. Once born, an authority will not disappear, inherited by others when the holder perisheth. Hence, the antibodies are harming the world on this occasion. 'Tis possible to call dragon disasters an allergic reaction of the world. Be that as it may, know that ye humans are not victims."
What was going on? I frowned.
"The second and eighth calamities were closely linked to mankind. Well, 'tis knowledge I obtained from the core of 'Verdant' Kiskanu—the previous Yggdrasil. Compared to I, Sieben, thou ought to know more clearly as Zwo's successor."
At this moment, Vritra looked at Tia.
Zwo, Kiskanu—These were some of the names Yggdrasil had mentioned when contacting me.
Yggdrasil was a biological computer consisting of all plant life in the world. Eradicating its existence completely was virtually impossible. As a result, Tia was currently acting as a substitute for its core consciousness.
In other words, Kiskanu was a being that had ruled over the plant network even earlier than Yggdrasil.
Thinking over these mattes, I looked at Tia again and she nodded.
"Yes... 'Verdant' Kiskanu was a counterdragon born for the sake of opposing the second calamity. Hence, full records remain in the Akashic Record. The Second Dragon—'Ultimate Wisdom' Atlantis... was the first alien species to arrive on Gaia. They possessed an extremely advanced civilization and were the ancestors of mankind."
"What—The ancestors of mankind... were dragons? Wait, but... if the world wasn't destroyed back then, the counterdragon should've driven mankind away, right?"
I asked while feeling shocked. Apparently anticipating such a question from me, Tia continued calmly.
"What was regarded as a calamity, a dragon, was not mankind but humanity's civilization and technology. Hence, Kiskanu was bestowed the power to control electricity—the authority to manipulate information. Only Atlantis' technology was uprooted and eliminated."
"What do you think happened to humans after losing technology?"
"To survive, they'd have no choice but to live primitively, starting with hunting—Oh, so humans came up with civilization again after that?"
Since they were called the ancestors of mankind, that was only inevitable.
"Indeed. But after countless years—humanity has acquired civilization sufficient to destroy the world again. Hence, to prevent humans from causing the eighth calamity themselves, a new counterdragon was born..."
I already knew who Tia was referring to.
Possessing the ability to dominate mankind and avoid nuclear war, Charlotte's father—the first "Gray" Vampire.
Reading from my face that I already knew, Vritra grinned in mockery.
"Ye humans are fortunate. Neither your civilization nor your race were wiped out. In that case, 'tis evidence that mankind and human civilization had been recognized as a part of the world. However, this judgment was made quite urgently..."
Vritra spoke suggestively. Realizing the internal connections, I changed the subject. Having heard the explanations so far, I already understood the meaning behind the existence of Neun.
"Then after taking care of mankind, Neun is the only one left to resist the ninth calamity?"
"Indeed. However, I believe 'tis highly unlikely that thou art Neun."
Nodding, Vritra looked at me coldly.
"Tia believes Yuu is Neun! Yggdrasil thought so too and wanted to obtain Yuu in order to survive the ninth calamity."
However, Tia clenched her fist in front of her chest and insisted. In contrast, Vritra shrugged mildly.
"Hmph... One cannot rely on the opinion of Yggdrasil that had focused its full effort on self-preservation. More importantly, this contradicts Kiskanu's viewpoint."
"And that is...?"
Apparently poked in a sore spot, Tia stopped but I was still lost.
Vritra had said just now that she had obtained her knowledge from Kiskanu. However, she and the next core consciousness, Yggdrasil, had become enemies with different viewpoints. What had happened in the course of all this?
"What's going on? Explain properly. I don't think I'm Neun either... What evidence do you have, Vritra?"
Without hiding my doubts, I asked and Vritra nodded deeply.
"Yes. The reason is simple. Apart from the eighth calamity, which was a retread of Atlantis, every calamity would increase in threat level... By the seventh time, it was already beyond the counterdragons' ability to defend."
"Beyond the counterdragons' ability to defend...? In other words, the world ended once already?"
I pointed out the contradiction in Vritra's words. However, Vritra looked at me solemnly and confirmed what I had pointed out.
"Indeed, the world has been destroyed once already."
What was she talking about? I stared at Vritra speechlessly.
"I shall tell thee how the world survived the seventh calamity. The answer—It did not. Unable to resist that calamity, Kiskanu, who had joined forces with me, was destroyed together with all plant life. After the calamity had left, I used dark matter to restore the world as much as possible."
If plant life went extinct, it was inevitable for Kiskanu's consciousness to disappear as the core. That was surely the point when Yggdrasil took over. But—
"Restoring the world... Is that even possible?"
Unable to accept such a shocking idea, I asked Vritra.
"'Twas achieved by consuming mine existence, dark matter itself. Nay... Strictly speaking, 'twas my predecessor. As I am now, I am more akin to lingering remains. I neither have the ability to create life again nor enough dark matter to fully restore the world. Ye Ds may not know it, but dark matter is limited."
Answering with self-deprecation, Vritra gazed at me.
"Yet that despairing seventh calamity was only a prelude. Eventually, its 'true form' shall arrive at Gaia as predicted by Kiskanu's analysis. The world shall be destroyed in the ninth calamity."
Indeed, this conclusion was only natural. If the ninth calamity was stronger than the seventh, destruction was unavoidable. By the time of the seventh, the world had already given up on stopping the calamities.
If the world could only be restored once, there were no countermeasures left after using this move.
"But displeased that the world I risked my life to save would be destroyed again, I intended to strengthen life on Gaia to improve odds of survival. This was the plan to use Ds to multiply the number of counterdragons. However, this attempt was foiled by you lot—nay, Yggdrasil."
Confronted with Vritra's angry stares, Tia spoke with a slightly troubled expression.
"After Kiskanu perished, Yggdrasil—the newly born core consciousness of the Akashic Record—hated dying again, thus prioritizing its survival above all else. As a result, it tried to gather authorities as much as possible, so that it may survive..."
"Survive... So making a deal with me and seizing my consciousness was all for that?"
Recalling how Yggdrasil had stolen control of my mind, I asked.
Back then, Yggdrasil had tried everything to control me. Without Charlotte's help, my consciousness would have been seized completely.
"Yes. If you really are Neun, Yuu, then you'd have antibodies to resist the ninth calamity. Yggdrasil believed that acquiring them would be the best way to increase chances of survival."
Listening to this point, Vritra frowned with displeasure.
"Hmph—since there are no means of resistance, 'tis impossible to give rise to new counterdragons either. We should not place our hopes in Neun's existence... Moreover..."
Halfway through, Vritra stared intently at me.
Curious, I asked her. Subtle fear appeared on Vritra's face, almost as though she was considering an unthinkable possibility.
"If thou art Neun—'Tis very odd thou hast not had an encounter."
"An encounter? An encounter with what—?"
I sought her explanation. Vritra sighed and continued.
"The ninth calamity, the Ninth Dragon."
I held my breath and focused, looking into Vritra's eyes with an "are you serious?" gaze. However, Vritra's eyes glinted with solemnity and she answered.
"The Counter Code appeareth upon the entity's first encounter with the calamity. Unrelated to race or disposition, 'tis by chance that the entity transformeth into a counterdragon. Hence, if thou art Neun, thou must have encountered the calamity face to face a long time ago."
Vritra supplemented her earlier explanation. My confusion grew ever stronger.
"Calamity... But I don't have any memory of meeting that?"
The first dragon I encountered was "Blue" Hekatonkheir—but it was actually Vritra's fictional armament. Vritra herself was a counterdragon too.
"'Tis as suspected. Without self-awareness as a counterdragon, 'tis impossible for thee to be Neun. Even without being told by anyone else, the initial entity conferred with the authority ought to knew what it needeth to do."
Speaking of which, I remember hearing that Charlotte's father, the previous gray dragon, had received power to "save the world." In other words, he knew how to use his authority from the start.
However, I thought over it again and again but could not find this sort of self-awareness.
"Nevertheless, 'tis no matter, I shall try asking thee this. When didst thou first realize thou art not human?"
Due to my facial expression, Vritra felt very confident in her beliefs and asked calmly.
However, my heart began to beat rapidly the instant I heard her question.
Tia looked at me in worry but my vision was overwritten with a scene from the past.
It was a past memory I had been dreaming of recently. To me personally, it was the greatest calamity.
The traffic accident that Mitsuki, her parents and I, the four of us had gotten involved in.
That was the time when Mitsuki and I had awakened the ability to generate dark matter to save our lives. However, Uncle and Auntie...
The painful sense of despair back then was carved in the depths of my heart.
What had I seen over there? No, I did not see anything. Everything was sealed away in darkness. Terrifying no matter where. Even my own existence felt ambiguous—
As a terrible chill climbed along my spine and I realized something, I was pulled back to reality by the sound of fierce knocking on the door.
I turned to the door. It was Ren's voice. Startled by a voice that was hard to imagine coming from her usually reticent self, I hurried over to the doorway.
I hastily opened the door and Ren hugged me suddenly.
"Onii-chan... Onee-chan, Onee-chan is...!"
Looking up at me, Ren screamed desperately with tears streaming down her face. There was only one person whom she called "Onee-chan."
"Ariella... What happened to her?"
I placed my hand on Ren's shoulder and asked, suppressing my voice. If I were to show anxiety, Ren would probably get even more emotional.
"Mm... She is not here."
Nodding, Ren replied.
"Onee-chan is nowhere!"
Ren's shout, echoing in the cavern, was dominated by anxiety and the fear of loss.
I ran as fast as I could inside the cavern where the water vapor made for poor visibility.
My destination was the passage on the other end that Ariella was in charge of guarding.
Ren had gone over there to speak with her alone and checked the other side already, but there were no signs of her.
Tia, Vritra and the panicking Ren had gone back to the cottage together. I asked them to pass a message to Jeanne to take over my post, so our defenses should not weaken as a result.
What I had heard from Tia and Vritra, the matter of the ninth calamity, was still bouncing around in my head but I had to think about it later.
—Where on earth did Ariella go?
To avoid running past her inadvertently, I looked around and checked back and forth.
Although visibility was poor due to the water vapor, with only one path, missing her was unlikely.
Since Ren was safe, NIFL's intrusion was not possible so Ariella must have left her spot on her own volition.
Perhaps I should have talked to Ariella earlier.
Regrets and a foreboding sense that it was too late now were occupying my heart.
However, I stopped in surprise just as the door to the passage came into view.
Amidst the foggy water vapor, a figure appeared. I cautiously approached. It was a girl with her hair tied in a ponytail with a green ribbon—Ariella.
Noticing me as well, she looked in my direction.
I instantly felt a sense of relief, but immediately realized it was too soon to lower my guard.
Ren could not have lied. To be that shaken, she must have called Ariella's name many times. Had Ariella been in the cavern, she could not possibly miss Ren's voice.
"What's wrong, Mononobe-kun? Aren't you in charge of guarding the other door?"
I stopped at a distance of three meters. Ariella tilted her head and asked.
Ariella looked like she did not know that Ren had visited. In other words, she had been somewhere beyond earshot of Ren's voice when Ren had come over.
"What about you, Ariella, where did you go?"
I stared into Ariella's eyes and asked in return. However, she frowned with a lost expression.
"Where did I go? I've been here the whole time."
"—You're lying. Ren came over just and she didn't see you."
It was heartrending to expose a friend's lie, but I told her firmly.
Hearing that, Ariella widened her eyes slightly and made a wry smile.
"Really...? So Ren hasn't slept yet."
Seeing that she did not try to find an excuse, I felt bitterness fill up my heart.
"You went up?"
Considering Ren's and my movement times, she only had enough time to return from above—Midgard's lowest level. Thinking that, I confirmed with Ariella.
"Yes, I had something to do."
"Something to do huh—"
I could only think of one reason why she would go up to Midgard's lowest level and return immediately. It was what we had discussed before.
"To go somewhere with reception, were you contacting someone?"
Ariella smiled wryly but did not answer.
Although I had her pegged as an upfront person, right now, that smiling face was fake. I clenched my fist. My left hand's dragon mark was hot and painful.
"I actually don't know what you're thinking or doing, Ariella. But... if you have any troubles, I want to help you. If you're in pain, I want to support you. So, right now, could you hold my hand first?"
Saying that, I extended my left hand.
"So... you want me to become your mate, Mononobe-kun?"
"That's right. Let's talk about the rest later. I will do everything I can for your happiness, Ariella. Trust me."
I looked straight at Ariella while I spoke, prompting a flush of red on her face.
"It's almost like... a proposal."
Ariella scratched her cheek shyly and avoided eye contact. However, her wry smile did not disappear. Instead, sadness was mixed into it.
"I trust you, but as soon as I think about what I have to do next, I can't hold your hand. No... I never had the right to stay with everyone in the first place."
Staring at my outstretched hand, Ariella shook her head.
"I have no right. You don't know anything about me, Mononobe-kun. If you did, you'd surely hate me."
"—Nothing of that sort. I will prove it. So tell me."
While putting down my hand, I stared at her and asserted.
"Is... that so? It's already the end, so I guess I should say it first."
However, she seemed to be refusing something. Getting a bad feeling from her use of "the end," but to avoid getting in her way, I did not ask about it.
"I think I mentioned staying in a dragon-hating organization before, right?"
After "Yellow" Hraesvelgr devoured the souls of her deceased family, Ariella had joined an organization hostile to Ds and dragons to seek refuge. However, when she became a D herself, the organization had sold her to Ren's father—Miyazawa Kenya—for conducting research on Ds.
"Probably because its activities were very similar to NIFL's, the organization had many ties to NIFL as well. As a result, the organization kept in contact with NIFL and it came as no surprise when NIFL absorbed it to serve as a regional branch."
Ariella calmly talked about her organization, but when she mentioned NIFL, I felt an even more repulsive sense of foreboding.
"Apparently my organization worked under NIFL and a former cadre heard about what had happened to me and contacted me while I was being transported to Midgard. I was really surprised at the time. So frightened that I dared not breathe."
Ariella smiled wryly while making light of her experiences. But realizing everything she said was the truth, I focused with bated breath.
"Do you understand now, Mononobe-kun? Starting then, I've stayed in contact with NIFL the whole time. I gave out Midgard's inside information many times—In other words, I'm what you'd call a spy."
Ariella spoke in self-deprecation but I could not accept it so easily.
"That's very... weird. Why would you cooperate with a cadre from the organization that sold you?"
I brought up a question bu Ariella's expression turned icy cold.
"—There are reasons, many of them. Then there are also reasons too... why I must kill the principal—'Gray.'"
Shocked, I involuntarily took a step forward, but Ariella moved her right arm to stop me.
What manifested to cover her arm was a fictional armament in the shape of a gauntlet. Ariella pointed it at me and asked calmly:
"Mononobe-kun, the fact that my fictional armament takes the form of defensive gear... Do you know why?"
Although I wanted to question her on why she must kill Charlotte, in order to calm myself, I answered her question first.
"Isn't it to protect everyone—to protect Ren...?"
I thought that because Ariella always volunteered first to take on defensive missions. However, she shook her head as though saying "you regard me too highly."
"The reason is simpler than that. I don't hold weapons, no matter what their form. If I held a weapon—I'd start viewing human lives as trash."
Ariella told me mournfully then slowly unfastened the ribbon on her hair. The untied hair fell down to her shoulders.
"Ariella, what on earth are you going to..."
Unsure what meaning was behind her actions, I asked.
However, she did not answer. After gazing at the ribbon in her hand for a while, she slowly uncurled her fingers. The green ribbon floated down lightly.
Before the ribbon reached the ground, Ariella spoke.
Wind was released from her fictional armament, blowing the falling ribbon towards me.
After I reflexively reached out and caught the ribbon, Ariella smiled faintly.
"That ribbon was Ren's first gift to me. Although it's such an important treasure... I think it's inappropriate if I keep it while heading off to commit murder next."
"...Are you really going to kill Charl—to kill the principal?"
Holding the ribbon, I asked. She nodded without hesitation.
"Yes. Although she's immortal, I have a feeling I can kill her. Once I hold a weapon... I'll know how to kill her."
Ariella generated a black mass of dark matter in front of her, transmuting it into a silver knife.
The instant she caught it in the air, the aura exuded from her entire body changed.
An intense chill rushed up from my feet, causing cold sweat to break out of my forehead.
Warned by instinct, I took a leap back to pull away. Unlike the times when I confronted Hreidmar, this felt almost as though death itself had taken physical form before me.
Holding the knife in her hand, Ariella sneered at my response.
"The first time I took part in the organization's training, I noticed my talent... So dangerous that I almost killed the instructor... Afraid of that side of mine... I only learned combat skills that did not require weapons."
Her voice and expression were sharp beyond compare. Although I had maintained sufficient distance, I still felt as though I had a knife to my throat.
However, why? I did not feel any sense of dissonance to see her like that. It was probably because she was too similar. Not to Hreidmar... but to me—My "Fafnir."
"Then drop the knife, take this ribbon and return with me to Ren's side."
I raised the ribbon and said to Ariella. Precisely because it was so similar, I could understand what kind of change had happened to Ariella now. Instinct warned me it was a step that must never be taken. However, she quietly shook her head.
"I actually do want to see Ren one last time... But by now, I can't go back. I'm meeting up with NIFL's forces next, to take Gray's head."
Anti-personnel weapon—AT Nergal.
I generated dark matter and instantly transmuted it into an anti-personnel projectile-based electroshock gun. Using this Nergal, I would be able to neutralize Ariella without killing her. It was past the point of stopping her with words, but I had to convey these thoughts to her.
"I now know what you've hidden till now, Ariella. But even so, I can't hate you and I've no intention of going back on what I said in the beginning. For my sake and Ren's, as well as your own... I will stop you no matter what you're planning to do!"
I pointed the gun's muzzle at her and declared.
"Mononobe-kun, you are so nice. But... Do you really get it? During the Leviathan battle, that NIFL team that infiltrated Midgard—Can you still forgive me even if I was the one who brought them in?"
"That's right, I forgive you. But you'll have to apologize to Iris afterwards."
I instantly answered without any wavering.
My heart was not wavering the slightest. Suppose what Ariella said was true, I believe there must be reasons too. Even if she had reasons for killing Charlotte, Ariella actually did not want to commit murder.
I was convinced not because of presumption or arrogance, but because I had been watching her all along.
"Haha—Looks like I underestimated you again."
Widening her eyes at my answer, Ariella smiled and touched her lower abdomen with her hand, the location of her dragon mark.
"At the Principality of Erlia, starting from the time when I watched you fight Hraesvelgr... I couldn't help but become obsessed with you. When we returned to Japan and I saw how you did everything you could for Ren's sake, I wanted to support you. By the time I realized, I couldn't tear my gaze away from you anymore."
After gently touching her lower abdomen, Ariella readied her knife in a carefree manner.
"My dragon mark probably changed color because of these feelings. Somewhere in my heart, I hoped you'd choose me."
"In that case... You don't need to overthink things. I will hold you tightly in these arms and never let you go."
Holding Nergal, I declared but Ariella grinned.
"Sure—Mononobe-kun. I will obey you—if you can touch me and make me yours. However... Definitely, you won't be able to stop me."
With these words, Ariella kicked the ground. Instead of retreating, she was closing in.
The risk of touching me should increase by approaching me, but she still chose to fight with a knife.
I pulled Nergal's trigger in response to her charging in.
The acute gunshot echoed inside the cavern while electrical sparks flashed on the ground.
—She had dodged.
Although I could see her jumping to the side just before the bullet could strike, by the time I continued to look for her, she had already vanished.
I felt a chilling aura of death.
Relying on my senses, I shot Nergal to the side.
There was a flash of electricity in the white water vapor and a sharp metallic noise. She had most likely used the knife to defend. However, Nergal's electrical shock should conduct through a metallic blade.
Just as I shifted my gaze towards the location of the impact, there were no signs of Ariella collapsing. In other words...
—She had blocked by throwing the knife huh?
Such unbelievable skills were making me focus with bated breath. At this moment, acute killing intent approached me from behind.
What appeared before me when I turned my head back was an incoming silver blade. As though tracing a line of killing intent, the blade was blocked by me using Nergal.
But Ariella emerged from the water vapor, facing me directly. In her hand was a new knife created from dark matter.
I fired Nergal to intercept her but Ariella swung the knife. The instant before the bullet struck, she released her hand.
A flash of electricity jumped in the air. Ariella continued to close in while swinging her arm. More than ten masses of dark matter were summoned in her surroundings, turning into knives at the same time.
"Generate a storm."
While raising her right arm, equipped with her fictional armament, Ariella spoke sharply.
The blades attacked, accompanied by a storm.
Confronted with this massive threat, I summoned the will to fight and kill.
Following the wind, I jumped back, only using Nergal to strike down knives that were about to hit me.
Normally, it would be impossible to predict the knives' trajectories, but I captured them through my skin's senses. Mixed inside me, "Fafnir" was driving my body.
While I was striking down the storm of blades, Ariella closed in even more.
During an instant that felt as though time had lengthened, our eyes met and she smiled.
Within arm's reach. She had no knife in her hand. A perfect chance.
However, instinct warned me of danger.
This was no opening—
Obeying instinct, I took half a step back and pointed Nergal's muzzle at her.
But in that instant, I saw it.
The first knife I had deflected in the air had returned to Ariella's hand, spinning as though there was an attractive force.
A flash of silver—
Before I could pull the trigger, the barrel had already been sliced. Had I not stepped back, the attack would have struck me in a vital.
However, the crisis was not over. Ariella pressed on and charged.
I threw the two halves of Nergal at Ariella to buy time then picked up a knife that had fallen on the ground.
But at that moment, Ariella had already launched her next attack.
Despite my unstable footing, I twisted my body and swung the knife to counterattack approaching death.
A sharp impact rang out while Ariella and I became locked in a struggle, resisting each other's knife.
We were holding the knives in our right hands. I reached out with my empty left hand to touch Ariella, but—
"I knew it. You're very strong, Mononobe-kun."
Ariella suddenly stopped pushing and used my opposing force to jump backwards.
My left hand missed while Ariella reconstructed Aegis in the air. To guard against offensive applications of transmutation, I generated dark matter in my empty left hand.
What manifested was a fictional armament in the shape of a gun. I aimed the muzzle at Ariella but she was a step faster in transmutation.
"A serious fight with you at last. This is seriously awesome."
Instead of targeting me, Ariella aimed flames overhead. A giant explosion shook the entire cavern. Seeing the roof of the cavern collapse, I hastily generated antigravitational matter.
The white light expanded, temporarily pushing away the falling giant rocks. But this move was very limited in area. Due to consuming all dark matter in the fictional armament in one go, Siegfried disappeared from my hand.
Outside the white light, the collapse continued. Amidst clouds of smoke and dust, Ariella's figure vanished.
"Well then, Mononobe-kun, I'll be leaving now... Don't chase after me, okay? The next time we meet, I'm certain I'll no longer be myself. Even if you don't kill me, I'll probably kill you—"
I heard her voice through the thunderous noise of falling rocks.
I called out. I wanted to rush over to her but the repulsive field was weakening and a large number of rocks came falling, blocking my path. By this point, catching up to her was impossible.
If I used an explosion or a repulsive field to push the rubble away by force, the cavern's roof might collapse further.
However, a tide of anger was seething in my heart.
Intense emotions erupted through my mouth.
Even if I could not touch her with these hands right now, I must not let her go just like that. I could not accept what she said.
I summoned Siegfried again and aimed it at the debris blocking my way.
This was only instinct. If the physical obstructions could not be cleared and my voice could not reach her... All I had to do was use a power unfettered by physical laws!
What I unleashed was the power inherited from "Yellow" Hraesvelgr. Golden particles for materializing one's spirit—the soul.
Applied to living beings in high enough density, it could even seal their movements... But my generating capacity was nowhere near enough on my own.
Hence, the purpose of this was not to stop Ariella in her tracks.
Unfettered by physical laws, these particles could pass through sand and soil—Possibly reaching her. My voice might actually reach her.
There was no concrete evidence, just an ambiguous possibility. However, I yelled as hard as I could, entrusting my message to that sliver of hope.
"Even if you change, you will always be Ariella! I will never give up on you!!"
My voice echoed inside the cavern, causing ripples in the golden particles filling the surroundings.
Then it came back. Ariella's thoughts. The feelings she could not voice.
It was no illusion. Her emotions had definitely reached my heart.
Dancing like snowflakes, the golden particles gradually thinned out and disappeared.
—Yes, I know.
Watching the debris and the wall of rock, I tightly clenched my left hand with its glowing dragon mark, responding to her thoughts in my mind.
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