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Subaru: [Uh, ugh, uhh… Hk.]
Olbart: [Yeah, yeah, the snivellin’ brat’s cryin’, you’re such a handful, ya know.]
Sniffling his nose, Subaru was unable to stop his crying fit. With the boy latched to his back, Olbart gave a shrug of his shoulders, with nothing else to do but scratch at his cheek with a finger.
――It had been a dreadful, dreadful experience.
Those ten seconds of despair that had happened to Subaru, and the eleventh second that followed after overcoming that despair―― to get here, just how many “deaths” had he experienced?
Through despair and heartbreak, it was a miracle that his worn-down spirit seemed to not have completely vanished.
But after such a hellish experience, he had finally reached the end.
Clinging to Subaru’s arm as he cried without end, Louis groaned.
Not that she’d had the same experience as Subaru, that of trial-and-error repeated more times than he could count, but Louis had suffered the same fate as Subaru many times over, having lost her life.
Jumping onto Olbart’s back in order to reach such a flimsy victory, would not have been possible without her presence.
Subaru: [I… Really, I don’t get you.]
Subaru: [But without you, it wouldn’t have been possible… Thank you.]
Those were the feelings in Subaru’s heart, albeit in a complete chaotic mess.
He knew that Louis was guilty of various things, he knew in what way he and her were connected. He knew it, yet he was still overflowing with feelings of gratitude
And, it was not only Subaru’s gratitude that was overflowing.
Louis: [Ua, uh…]
The dam’s burst was sudden.
Having heard Subaru’s faltering words of gratitude, tears slowly welled up in Louis’s big round eyes, then trickled down her cheeks in the blink of an eye.
Pling-pling, tears fell down Louis’s cheeks, with such momentum that she did not know how to halt their course.
Subaru: [Louis, you’re crying, you’re really crying…]
Louis: [Uu, uu!]
Louis herself knew she was crying, yet did not attempt to stop or wipe away the tears that streamed down her face. All the while, she remained clung on to Subaru’s arm with a desperate look; one would have expected her to stop so she could wipe away her tears.
Subaru: [Your face, wipe it, you idiot, idiiiot…]
Seeing Louis cry like that, Subaru, who had tried to soothe down his emotional swings, was likewise on the verge of it himself. The tears that had been shed, the visible sobs, were by now innumerable.
It was like the pair made up of him and Louis would, at this rate, be crying forever and ever, without being able to stop――,
Yorna: [――Well done, you did your best, you two.]
Yorna: [However much you cry isn’t an issue. I’ll allow you to do it, as the Lord of this Demon City.]
Long arms extended from behind Subaru and Louis, and tenderly embraced them.
The warmth and softness of those words made Subaru’s eyes widen in surprise, he became entranced by the beautiful profile near him. With long eyelashes, vermillion lips, and glimmering azure eyes that put one at ease, no matter the troubles and suffering; it was so sublime that it enthralled those who laid eyes upon it.
He already knew what type of person the owner of those eyes was.
Therefore, he knew that in her words and warmth both, there was kindness devoid of anything untoward behind it.
Because he knew that even if he entrusted everything to them, he would be forgiven.
Subaru: [Uh, guh… ah, uh, AAAaah!]
Louis: [Uau… Uauhk, ua, uh, uau…!]
Yorna: [There, there… Children have the privilege to cry, the privilege to cling onto an adult’s chest. It’s okay if you use my bosom, you may weep as many tears as you need.]
Looking up, tears flowed down Subaru’s face once more. Louis embraced Subaru as he was.
Holding them both together tenderly in her arms, Yorna patted their small backs. All the while, at that moment, at the end of the battle that had unfolded up on the castle tower of the Crimson Lapis Castle――,
Olbart: [I dunno what kinda face I should be makin’ here ‘cause all this is happenin’ on my back.]
With that, the boorish interruption from the monstrous old man was shushed by the Lord of the Demon City.
Yorna: [So, how do you explain yourself, Old Man Olbart?]
Olbart: [Explain myself? Did I make any excuses? You’re the one who attacked me ‘cause of yer mood, right, foxgirl?]
Shortly after Subaru had cried his eyes out, this time, they would have a calm conversation―― so he’d thought, when the castle tower was abruptly engulfed by a precarious atmosphere.
Needless to say, the cause was the aloof and unapologetic one, Olbart.
Sitting on the roof, picking at his ear canal with the tip of his pinky,
Olbart: [I kinda did what I was told, yeah? Well, I did try ta use a few loopholes, but look, that boy called us even, aight?]
Subaru: [Ugh… B-but, that’s…]
Olbart: [Now now, ya should listen ta me, boy. ――’Cause whatever ya say, I’m the one who’ll have the most ta gain. Kakakakka!]
Subaru stammered as Olbart opened his mouth open wide and roared with laughter.
In fact, Olbart was right. If Subaru were to argue against Olbart’s misuse of the rules here, it would turn into a no-holds-barred situation that ignored the rules as a result, probably making them unable to defeat the shinobi Olbart in any sort of manner.
Olbart had plenty of hidden techniques, and did not hesitate in dragging others into it. Since coming to the Empire, Subaru’d had more than enough experiences to know that such opponents were the number one in toughness.
Subaru: [Olbart-san, you sound similar to one of the scariest bastards I know…]
Olbart: [Really? In that case, ya should definitely kill me. I’m no decent fella, and will be a serious pain in the ass.]
Yorna: [In that case, Old Man Olbart, you must agree with me that I should stop you from breathing here.]
Olbart: [Oioi, that’s a lotta hate for me. Well, that’s only natural.]
The air was tingling, ripe with tension, but this was due to the one-sided hostility that Yorna had unleashed.
Olbart, the party it was directed at, was no longer in a fighting stance. Of course, this was just for show, and he could turn the switch back on in an instant.
Nevertheless, it was natural for Yorna to be angry, as Subaru held strong anger towards Olbart as well. However, there was a big reason as to why he could not act on that anger.
That was, because of his shrunken limbs, and his head that was not functioning properly.
Subaru: [Olbart-san, about the technique that’s being used on us…]
Olbart: [Oh yeah, that’s right. Of course, ya can’t fix it if I’m dead. No, there might be another way, but I’ve never seen anyone do it.]
Subaru: [I knew it…!]
Olbart: [Well, it’s like an insurance policy. It’s supposed ta be a secret technique back at my village, so basically, we deal with the dead bodies without leavin’ any traces so that they don’t come ta light.]
Quite indifferently, Olbart spoke some disturbing words.
At the same time, Subaru congratulated himself for having walked a really dangerous tightrope.
Even if Yorna defeated Olbart, and the old man died, the “infantilization” that had befallen Subaru and his friends would have remained unresolved. His state would always be that of being Natchuki Subawu.
Just thinking about it made Subaru shudder.
Yorna: [I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard that you’ve treated these children in a cruel way.]
Yorna looked at Olbart as she put the kiseru in her mouth and filled her lungs with purple smoke.
When asking her for help, Subaru had given her as much honest information as he could, but he left out the nitty-gritty details of their situation. That included the fact that Subaru had been shrunk due to the influence of Olbart’s technique.
Once Olbart dissolved the “infantilization”, Subaru would return to his original body.
Once that happened, he would do his utmost to apologize and ask Yorna for forgiveness. ――Of course, he didn’t think that’d be enough to completely reverse her impression of the situation.
He would like to think that Yorna was the kind of person who would see reason with just words.
Yorna: [Old Man Olbart, you’ve conceded defeat in your earlier match, right?]
Olbart: [Yeah, I admit it, I admit it. For sure, it’s a complete loss. At least, I’m lucky I didn’t die losin’. But I didn’t think I’d lose.]
Yorna: [It was unexpected that you’d lose?]
Olbart: [I thought it’d definitely be the boy’s boss who’d gimme a good challenge.]
Paying no heed to Subaru’s concern, Yorna and Olbart proceeded with their conversation. Yorna whispered, “Boss”, quoting Olbart, and gently, sliding her hand into her kimono,
Yorna: [The sender of the missive, right? I’ve been looking forward to meeting him, but…]
Suddenly, Yorna cut off her words and narrowed her eyes at Olbart.
Olbart tilted his head at the sharpness of her gaze and uttered, “What is it?”,
Olbart: [There’s nothin’ scarier than bein’ stared at by a beautiful woman. What’s the hubbub?]
Yorna: [For crying out loud! I told Tanza to deliver a message to all the messengers, for them to come to the Castle. ――Well, where’s Tanza off to?]
The air quickly chilled, to the point that Subaru felt like he was going to choke.
Yorna’s anger was always unleashed when harm was done to a resident of the city, or a child. This was even more so in Tanza’s case, who met both requirements by being a resident of the city and a child.
Nevertheless, Subaru suspected that Tanza had conspired with Olbart to prevent his own party from meeting Yorna. He would have to be careful how he approached this.
Subaru: [I also thought Tanza was with Olbart-san. But she’s not… right? Is she hiding under some tiles or something…]
Yorna: [The Castle’s insides are much like my own. There’s no chance I’d miss someone entering or hiding within it.]
Subaru: [R-right. Yorna-san’s technique is amazing…]
Hearing Yorna’s self-assured answer, Subaru flinched at her unusual nature.
After wincing, Subaru realized that he and Louis had trespassed the Crimson Lapis Castle via the teleport, and that Yorna had found them immediately afterward.
At that time, Yorna had stated that she was walking through the Castle and found them by chance, but he guessed that was just a ruse. Truth was, she had noticed that Subaru and Louis had abruptly appeared in the Castle and moved to catch the intruders.
Perhaps the reason why she had not captured them right away, and instead treated Subaru and Louis as Tanza’s friends, was because she had not been able to decide how to treat the two of them, Subaru and Louis, who were so young.
After all, ever since they had first met, Yorna had been protecting them.
The more he came into contact with Yorna’s personality, the more intense were Subaru’s feelings of doubt on whether he should involve her in the great battle of the Vollachian Empire.
The same went for his feelings towards the people living in Chaosflame, the so-called “horned races”, who had obstructed Subaru’s group along the way.
They wanted to protect the safe haven they had finally found, after so much suffering and ostracism.
Could Subaru’s group blame them for wanting to resume their peaceful lives? Especially considering their Lord cherished them.
――What was the difference between this, and the world desired by the girl Subaru liked?
In silence, Subaru looked down from the castle tower, at the disorderly townscape of the Demon City.
A city where everything was chaotic, intricate, in a horrible mess, and without a sense of unity. Upon first arriving at this city, he had been bewildered by its disorder.
But after meeting Yorna and the people of this city, even if for a short time, Subaru had one thought.
Here, there was freedom.
There was freedom here, no need for a person to submit to someone, unbound by anyone. Ergo, one could express themselves as they wished, this overflowing chaos going undenied by anyone.
It was free, equal, and fair.
It seemed to him that a somewhat ideal picture of the future had been illustrated here.
Was it really the right thing to do, to pry Yorna away from such a place?
Yorna: [Old man, answer me. Where’s that girl, Tanza?]
Paying no heed to Subaru’s internal conflict, she continued to question Olbart.
Tanza was not inside the Castle. He’d like to believe that Olbart didn’t have a technique to make a person small enough to put them in his pocket.
Olbart: [No need ta have such a scary look on yer face, I’ll tell ya what I know. The only reason I made a deal with that deergirl was ‘cause I had just the right conditions to use her for the match.]
Yorna: [――Where is she?]
Yorna’s repeated questions were driven into Olbart, expressing that there was no need for superfluous talk.
In response, while tilting his head, Olbart turned his gaze towards the land surrounding the Castle―― towards the Demon City, as if he were taking in the superb view,
Olbart: [It’s not that hard ta guess. I’m an outsider, ya know? There’s only so many places where I can hide a single girl.]
That was his response.
――Just as Olbart had cracked under Yorna’s questioning, a little bit earlier.
Within the Demon City of Chaosflame, in one of its inns.
Neither was it large, nor was it very ornately decorated. ――However, in fact, the walls and interior of the building were robustly constructed, and seldom did a sound ever pass through.
In Chaosflame, this was the only place where the atmosphere was so different from the rest of the city, prepared as an unlikely contingency as accommodations for VIPs.
The room that became the setting was a spacious one, said spaciousness resulted from its interior design being that of three rooms with their walls removed as to join them together. Even within the people that used this travelers’ inn, only a handful of them held the standing to be able to stay in such a spacious room.
There were no high-quality furnishings, no numerous works of art to delight one’s eyes, and no sort of fine alcohol available to soothe one’s palate, as many of the people who made use of this inn were of an utilitarian sort.
In a sense, this inn’s standing within Chaosflame was different.
The Demon City, with its popular name of “Land of Unlawfulness”, was worthy of being a symbol of “freedom”. Despite its chaotic existence, under Yorna, the ruler of the Demon City, the inhabitants of Chaosflame were remarkably unified in their will.
For those who shared a common vision, who did not tolerate foreign invaders, who had no mind to give mercy to those with their own troubles, there was no need for the kind of preparations that this inn offered.
???: [――The people of the Empire must be strong, that is the core tenet that this city of demons has overturned.]
???: [To some extent, governance is left to city leadership. But there are limits. ――Is it because they do not know their limits, that they operate like this?]
As a man with crossed arms inquired this, the girl of small stature stiffened her cheeks and kept silent.
The man to question that of her, donning an outfit that combined red and black, his face concealed by an oni mask, was Abel. The demi-human girl bearing antlers opposite to him, wearing a beautiful kimono with her arms put through its sleeves, was Tanza.
In this city a face-to-face between two people with a presumably hostile relationship was happening.
――Nay; to be more precise, Abel and Tanza were not the only two meeting face-to-face.
???: [You all, you have stepped in here knowing what kind of place you are in…!]
???: [Answer me! Depending on your response, not a bone of yours will remain!]
Yelling so, was a man with dark skin reddening with wrath, General Second-Class of the Imperial Army, Kafma Irulux. Those words were directed at Abel, who had marched into the room, and the boy and girl who accompanied him.
He had nothing in his outstretched hand, but he had no need for a weapon. Any armaments were literally nestled within Kafma’s own body.
That he would not leave any bone remaining was no mere declaration of a threat, but the truth.
――Because that was the true value of Kafma Irulux, the Fighting Insect General.
???: [Oi, Abel-chan, you serious?]
That voice, visibly strained with strong vigilance, came from a masked boy just before Kafma and his vigor; Al. He carried on his back a weapon he could not handle, the Blue Dragon Sword, and once he spoke, Abel glanced back at him, and,
Abel: [You, how many times shall you inquire that before you make up your mind?]
Al: [I’m asking that question again and again because, after you strolled, the jury’s still out on it. I mean, this is insane! Shit, I dunno why I followed you either…!]
Abel: [It should be obvious. ――The current you is too much of a coward to be alone.]
Al: [Guh… Hk.]
Unable to speak further, Al was incapable of getting out any words beyond that. It was a reaction that revealed instantly that Abel had hit the bullseye. Yet the fact that Al could not even argue with him made it evident that he himself was aware of this.
For some reason, Al was currently no longer able to keep his composure for even a walk down the street.
Another companion, Medium, called out to Abel to protest on the behalf of Al, who was at a loss for words.
Medium, who walked alongside Abel with much effort, was protecting the now-useless Al; however, her facial expression appeared to have somewhat of a strong gloom to it.
All of this and more, had happened after becoming separated from Subaru and Louis midway through.
Medium: [I don’t think that’s a very nice way to put it.]
Abel: [Do you think, in this situation, we shall reach a mutual understanding with roundabout words? You and that clown both should be more conscious of the situation. One erroneous move, and, just as declared, not one bone shall remain.]
Medium: [All the more reason! You shouldn’t talk like that, it’s no good!]
Medium: [‘Cause you talk like that, Abel-chin, Subaru-chin and Louis-chan…]
She refused potently once, but afterwards her words tapered off.
That was inevitable, due to Medium’s own nature. Albeit she wished to blame Abel for all the problems that had arisen, she was far too compassionate to do that.
She understood clearly that her own attitude and gaze had been the factors that had driven Subaru and Louis to the brink. That, in turn, was likely a result of the education her brother had given her.
In any case, Al and Medium both were dysfunctional.
Abel: [Ergo, we do not intend to quarrel either. Put down your arm, Kafma Irulux.]
Kafma: [Are you… insane? You did not answer my question, just being stubborn in trying to follow your own will. With that conduct, do you believe yourself to be a king?]
Abel: [――. You are not far off the mark.]
Kafma’s eyes became bloodshot, his anger, as someone with high loyalty towards the Emperor, reaching its limit.
By chance, Kafma came half a step short from coming into contact with the truth regarding the true nature of Abel’s identity. That was the strength of the effect of “cognitive disruption” held by the oni mask obtained in the Shudraqian village.
In rough terms, with the exception of those whom the wearer intended to reveal his true identity, and those already possessing absolute certainty regarding the true identity of the one donning it, no one was able to see beyond the effects of the mask.
In other words――,
Kafma: [Enough, I cannot take any more of this farce of bringing kids along! Regardless of what happened yesterday…]
???: [――Calm down, Kafma Irulux.]
Filling his arms with strength, the tattoo patterns on Kafma’s arm writhed. That impulse of his was stopped dead in its tracks by a voice behind him.
Kafma’s eyes widened as he turned around; there, at the back of the room, the figure of a good-looking man sporting onyx hair was located, sitting leisurely in an armchair.
With black hair and black eyes, his dignified and exceptionally well-defined face was as if it saw through anything and everything in its path, unwavering in front of those uninvited guests.
Truly, Abel was impressed with how well the “mask” had been made.
Paying no heed to Abel’s admiration, the handsome man in the back looked at each of the three, Abel included,
???: [There is no hostility within them. At least, in these circumstances.]
Kafma: [But, Your Excellency! The insolence of this person, to not display their face before Your Excellency, not to speak that a feeling of reverence is not being displayed altogether, is that of a scoundrel’s! Moreover, coming along with children…]
???: [What about it?]
Kafma: [No, coming with children in tow, makes very little sense…!]
Kafma, unable to hide all of his pronounced bewilderment, fought his anguish as he rubbed his temples.
To begin with, the man named Kafma had a bad habit of taking things too seriously. It was one thing to take things in earnest, but it was another to add to the room’s worry.
With his excess of seriousness as pretext, he had rejected a position as one of the Nine Divine Generals for feeling himself unworthy. ――Henceforth, barring his character, he was the owner of ability on par with that of the Nine Divine Generals.
Even if no one had fallen victim to Olbart’s wily ways, and even if Taritta had accompanied them to this place, fighting a proper battle with Kafma as an opponent was an impossibility.
But on this point, the battle was in favor of Abel and his team. That was――,
Abel: [I apologize for disturbing your sleeping quarters, but my business is with the girl there. At the present moment, I have no intention of bothering myself with you.]
Girl: [Na… Hk]
???: [Ho. This one does talk up a big game before me. I shall commit that face and that voice to memory. Even more so if you truly are related to the envoy we happened upon at the castle tower yesterday.]
Snorting, Abel touched the chin of the oni mask while his opponent stared back at him―― the one who Subaru had labeled a false Emperor, and whom Abel knew as Chisha Gold, now assuming the form of Vincent.
Right beside Abel, Al and Medium carried complex frowns. The pair, as they were excluded from the effects of the “cognitive disruption”, were witnessing an exchange of words between Vincents possessing exactly the same voices.
The disguise of the White Spider, Chisha, was flawless.
With his voice and his conduct, there was no one else in the world that could perform a substitution of Vincent Vollachia as skillfully as Chisha Gold.
Rather, even contradictory thoughts such as him being more like Vincent than Abel was, could arise.
Abel: [I have heard about how you responded to my subordinates. For the stern Emperor of Vollachia, you have been considerably magnanimous in forgiving the disrespect of an impudent woman.]
Vincent: [Even so, I am not enough of an eccentric to deal with people who do not know their place. But, if I properly recognize their relative value, they shall be treated accordingly. At any rate――]
Vincent responded to Abel’s sarcasm, and once there was a pause in the former’s words, their gazes intersected in midair, then their lips moved simultaneously.
Abel & Vincent: [――The people of the Empire must be strong.]
Indeed. That was the philosophy of the Sacred Vollachian Empire, their symbolic way of life.
The answer, from the ones fit as Emperors of Vollachia, that dealt adequately with those who had displayed a will to oppose them, could be said to be nothing but a magnificent one indeed.
Even if Abel had been asked the same question, he would have given the same answer.
No matter what laid within his heart.
Vincent: [Kafma, that girl there?]
Kafma: [Yes. Master Olbart requested of me to keep her at the inn… Said Master has since gone out into town, and has yet to return.]
Vincent: [I see.]
Kafma responded with an awkward look on his face, and, nodding at his reply, Vincent’s gaze now turned to Tanza.
The little girl, a tiny being in the corner of the room, let out an “Ah” as she attempted to devote herself to her duty and at least conceal herself, but her shoulders trembled at the sight of the one looking down from the pinnacle of the Empire.
Tanza’s reaction could not be described as neither timid nor frightened. Vincent, taking that in as inevitable,
Vincent: [Olbart’s involvement, yesterday’s agreement with Yorna Mishigure. In addition, the one associated with yesterday’s envoys has appeared looking for you, no less. I get the sense of the overall picture.]
Vincent: [Excuses are unnecessary. Of course, Olbart shall relay to me what happened in your stead, as I am not your master. Additionally, neither am I your enemy.]
Vincent: [Once you have initiated a battle, it is fine to fight it to your utmost earnestness, till the very end. Hence whether your destiny is to burn or not, remains your decision.]
Indifferently, Vincent declared to Tanza that he would not provide any further protection.
If one were to believe, however, that this had made Tanza feel the despair she had abandoned, that would be a mistake.
Dwelling in Tanza’s round eyes was the same light, perhaps the same flame of determination, the same beacon that dwelled at the time she had decided to take on that battle, that challenge.
That Tanza’s life, as someone belonging to the horned races, had never been peaceful nor cheerful in the least, was a simple, yet plausible guess for Abel. Not to mention that, on the matter of the deerpeople from Chaosflame, that race had been the root cause for a rebellion raised by Yorna Mishigure previously.
Rather, it would not be surprising if Tanza herself was related to any of those casualties.
Tanza: [Vincent-sama, I apologize for the inconvenience. However, this occasion was not brought about by Yorna-sama, I was the one who orchestrated it.]
Vincent: [As I said just now, excuses are unnecessary. The facts, I shall inquire of Yorna Mishigure. You may cease speaking yourself.]
Tanza: [Yes. Thank you very much.]
Tanza rectified her posture, then proffered a deep bow towards Vincent. Once she looked up, Tanza’s gaze then turned towards Abel and the others.
Unlike the gaze directed at Vincent, this one was clearly hostile.
Due to that girl’s aura, Al’s throat rasped, despite his attempts to restrain himself.
He was a coward to the extreme, but it was also true that that aura was loaded with such fighting spirit that it made him feel pressure. And so, one could only imagine what circumstances had led her to torment herself this much.
All of this――,
Tanza: [――Please, do not bring Yorna-sama into this war. She is a kind woman, who will surely fight for the sake of the weak masses, no matter how hurt or worn down she may get. Such a thing, I could never overlook. Yorna-sama is everything to me.]
Tanza: [Please, please grant this favor. Please…!]
With a small tremor in her words, Tanza’s plea caused Medium to widen her eyes.
It seemed that, to Al and Medium, Tanza’s motives had been unexpected. By far, the goal of the residents who had attacked them on their way here was maintaining the situation of the people of the horned races.
If they lost the protection of Yorna Mishigure, they would lose the safe haven that was the Demon City of Chaosflame, and would resume the long hard days of traveling in the wilderness. That was their fear.
That sentiment was probably held by a considerate portion of the residents of the Demon City.
But on the other hand, the likelihood that the feelings of most of the Demon City’s residents favored Tanza was something Abel was well aware of.
And what convinced him of that, was that the Soul Marriage Technique had spread across the people of the city.
That was a secret technique that could not be formed by one-sided feelings.
If the residents loathed it, the mechanism that tied a vast number of people together would have driven them to madness; but since that was not the case, it only provided definite confirmation for the thoughts Abel had carried from the start.
Abel: [Yorna Mishigure shall be the one to decide. Bowing your head towards me shan’t make a difference.]
Kafma: [――Hk, you.]
For some reason, Kafma’s anger flared up at Abel’s response, the latter with arms crossed.
There was most likely no direct relationship to Tanza, but likely the man held some amount of affection for the girl due to her youth. In that respect, by and large, this was a man who could be described as being of the same ilk as Yorna.
And in regard to the true essence of the Demon City alone, that which was visible to Tanza, was not to Kafma. Hence, she kept her head down and continued.
Tanza: [No, she is not. It is not Yorna-sama’s decision to make, it is yours.]
Tanza : [Yorna-sama’s heart is vast and deep, she is a kind person… and, we attendants can only gaze at that unbelievably far dream, unable to help.The means to grant that dream, you must possess them, surely.]
Abel: […The missive for Yorna Mishigure, are you aware of its contents?]
Having shaken her head, Tanza denied Abel’s suspicions. However, Tanza ceased shaking her head in front of him, instead casting it downward with a terribly fragile expression on her face,
Tanza: [Still, I understand. ――Ahh, to witness Yorna-sama with the face of a maiden, for the first time.]
Abel: [The face of a maiden, is it.]
Tanza: [Yorna-sama, responds to the love directed at her. But for her to show that appearance of a maiden-in-love to someone… The reason would be no less than the answer to that letter.]
Abel: [Yorna Mishigure would not refuse, so you interfered. Therefore.]
Tanza: [――Yes. All of it was my plan.]
With her head sunken deeply, Tanza confessed to her plot.
All of it was not correct. Undoubtedly, Olbart must have had a hand in Tanza’s scheme, and distorted it to something more vicious.
However, Tanza intended to take responsibility not only for what she herself had started and what her will had led her to do, but also for whatever part Olbart had been involved in.
It was all too――,
And so, an inaudible voice took form only within someone’s mouth, and went unheard by anyone.
Naturally, it went unheard by all; not even by Tanza, who bowed her head, nor by Al and Medium, both on-guard, nor by Kafma, who held back his anger, nor by Vincent, who rested his hand on his chin.
Abel: [I have a grasp regarding your participation. But, how does this matter?]
Tanza: [――. How, why…]
Abel: [Even after divulging your heart of hearts, you could continue your scheme if you desired. Even if you are beheaded, the residents of the Demon City shall still target my group. ――No, if you are beheaded in the first place, Yorna Mishigure’s cooperation shall not be obtained.]
Abel: [Or perhaps, having your own head lopped off was a measure you were willing to take?]
Casting her gaze downwards, a slight tension ran up Tanza’s neck. Having observed this, Abel was convinced that Tanza had left the option of taking her own life on the table.
Suffice to say, it was well thought-out. ――Although there were a few things to ponder over until it could be put into action.
Al: [So you were gonna put your life on the line… You’re one hell of a girl.]
Medium: [No way! I won’t let you, ever! You won’t let her, will you, Abel-chin?]
At the revelation of the extent of Tanza’s resolution, Al was at a loss for words, as Medium probed Abel.
In case Abel voiced something contrary to her feelings, while the posture that Medium would adopt was something to be considered, it was a thought that may be regarded as meaningless.
Abel: [I should have already spoken such. If her own death is one of the measures she was willing to take, then taking her life would fulfill those plans. Unfortunately, I hold no interest in partaking in such schemes.]
Abel: [People should die in a more efficient manner.]
A pawn that operated according to their own agenda was a nuisance, regardless of whether they were one’s own camp or the enemy’s.
Taking that into account, the being known as Tanza was a poison beyond their control. However, unless one was steeled to drink said poison, one would be unable to introduce stronger poisons.
Having made his decision, Abel fixed his gaze on Tanza, sitting on the floor, and said,
Abel: [I have no intention to take your life. But, I shall order you to call off the orders you gave your brethren.]
Tanza: […So then, about my earlier request.]
Abel: [To not bring Yorna Mishigure into this war, hmm? ――That is impossible.]
Abel made a clear, definitive statement, and Tanza was rendered speechless.
From her point of view, it was the announcement of a future event that she wished would not pass, even if that meant that she had to sacrifice her own life. However, that was Tanza’s misconception. And it was a hopelessly mistaken desire.
Abel: [Even if I had not shown up, Yorna Mishigure would have been engulfed in the maelstrom of war. That is the position she has taken, making it unavoidable.]
Tanza: [What in the world do you see…]
Abel: [I shan’t speak to others of what is reflected in my eyes. However, I have measures for any possibility. No matter how it appears to those around me.]
While responding to the quivering Tanza, his eyes trained on her own, Abel abruptly took his gaze off the girl.
Instead, his dark eyes turned towards the silent Vincent, stock-still at the back of the room. Now sitting atop the throne of the Emperor, was the false Emperor, Vincent Vollachia.
No matter what motivation he’d had to topple him from his position――.
Abel: [My way of being remains unchanged. There is no altering that. My path towards retreat has been burnt down, a single path exists. ――You would do well, to sear this into memory.]
Vincent: [――I shall keep that in mind.]
To Abel’s words, Vincent quietly replied.
That was all it took to inflame the atmosphere of the room, which lent the illusion of rising temperatures. In fact, everyone, with the exception of Abel and Vincent, were still, sweat beading on their foreheads.
Abel: [Girl, Tanza, raise your face.]
After the standoff between the new and old Emperor, Abel called upon the girl who regretted her lack of strength. Slowly, the girl raised her head with tears welled up in her eyes, as Abel sighed.
Abel: [From the onset, I did not call upon your mistress with the intention of wasting her. Her use requires thoughtful consideration, valuable assets must be made use of optimally. ――People should die in an efficient manner.]
Tanza: […Can I place trust in you in that regard?]
Abel: [Even if you do not believe me, that shall not change what I must do.]
Tanza attempted to cling onto her budding hopes, but that not-so-gentle response extinguished them.
Behind him, Al applied the back of his hand to his forehead, and Medium let out a sigh. However, after a brief hesitation, Tanza nodded her head.
Tanza: [Okay, I understand… Please, regarding Yorna-sama…]
Abel: [To fulfill that request, there are steps to be taken by your side. As it stands, I cannot merely stroll around this city.]
Al: [Yeah, that’s right. That’s what we came here for in the first place.]
Upon hearing the condition presented by Abel, Al seemed more lively as he spoke.
Presently, Al harbored fright for just about everything; it was possible to say that, for him, it was certainly a matter of life-or-death. It was imperative to get those chasing Abel and his allies, who were following Tanza’s call to action, off their backs.
Tanza: [But, how did you know I was here?]
Abel: [I made my decision with the fact it was Olbart’s doing in mind. Another possibility I considered, was that of him hiding in the Crimson Lapis Castle, but given the deployment of the pursuers, the matter of distance took precedence.]
Abel: [Above all, you need to back off, for there are many lives currently in danger.]
Taritta was being hunted by a hundred people, and they had pretty much been separated from Subaru and Louis as a result.
Neither of them had their lives guaranteed, as long as they continued to be pursued by such hordes. Of course, Abel, alongside the powerless Al and the Medium at half-strength who accompanied him, were no exception.
In order to continue the match against Olbart, Tanza’s capture was a top priority.
Tanza: […It is my loss, I guess.]
Abel: [That much is obvious. But, there is no need to feel shame.]
Abel responded only that much to Tanza’s sole muttered word, then turned his back to her.
Without hearing an answer beyond that, Tanza blinked her eyes open in surprise. A voice then called out, “Girl”, to Tanza’s back,
Tanza: [Vincent, sama…]
Vincent: [As that one has spoken, there is no need to be ashamed.]
Tanza: [B-but, I…]
Vincent: [Lost. But, that means you threw the gauntlet. ――Just as I hoped.]
Vincent spoke those words while looking on at a distance, his chin resting in his hand, which caused Tanza to widen her eyes. However, as she lowered her head, the corners of her eyes slowly pooled with tears.
While she cast her eyes downwards, shedding tears, those drops softly, gently fell, and,
Tanza: [Yorna-sama, I apologize… I was, immature…]
And so, in a tearful voice, she apologized to her beloved master.
And so, with a tearful Tanza behind them――,
Al: [With this, can we assume that the attackers will back off for the moment?]
Abel: [Yes. Of course, it is possible Tanza’s crying is part of a scheme against us…]
Medium: [No way! That absolutely can’t be!]
Medium, cheeks puffed out and in an imposing stance, lashed out at Abel’s concern.
At that menacing look, Abel closed one eye and traced his finger across the forehead of the oni mask.
Abel: [So, it seems there has been no improvement in your condition, right?]
Abel: [If you become useless, I shall have no choice but to discard you mercilessly. Albeit you are Priscilla’s clown, do not believe that it absolves you. Keep that in mind.]
Al: [I, get it… It’s not like I wanna be like this forever.]
Receiving that glare and a cold-hearted judgment, Al responded through gritted teeth.
There was no power in the voice of his response, Al’s fear had not abated. But regardless of Al’s physical and mental state, he would now be able to walk around.
Medium: [Then all that’s left is to resume the search for Gramps… Err, or would it be better to look for Taritta-chan? Or…]
Abel: [If the goal is to regroup, it would be ill-advised for us to act; Taritta’s eyes would find us much faster than we could find her. As for those fools…]
Abel: [――. In any case, we shall stick to our plan of looking for Olbart. If we do, we shall find them in the process of looking for Olbart. That is, if we succeed in finding “an abyss with a great view”.]
Folding his arms, Abel murmured so, which made Medium widen her eyes in surprise with an “Huh?”.
Medium: [By any chance, Abel-chin, do you know where Gramps is hiding?]
Abel: [I have a guess on the second hiding place, at the very least. Crimson Lapis Castle.]
Al: [W-what are you saying? You mean, in that Castle?]
Abel: [Tanza’s reaction. When I brought up the subject of the Castle, she rapidly averted her eyes; Tanza herself was hiding in a traveling inn, but she must have known about Olbart’s hiding place as well. Although, it is not certain that she even had an inkling about the third hiding place.]
The procedure for Olbart and Tanza’s cooperation was that after Tanza delivered the message, Olbart would propose a game to Abel’s group. Then, after they discovered the first hiding place right behind them, the logical step was for Olbart to go outside and accompany Tanza to the traveling inn.
Of course, considering that Tanza could be apprehended, it was possible that Olbart had Tanza accept false information.
Abel: [The trick of hiding out in the Crimson Lapis Castle is also something to Olbart’s liking.]
Medium: […Hm, I see. Well, we should go to the Castle as soon as possible.]
Al: [Yeah. We need to see that geezer immediately to get our bodies restored… If our bodies are restored, we should be fine. Same goes for bro and that pipsqueak if that happens.]
Clenching his fists tightly, Al grumbled this as if he were praying for it, as if he were cursing Olbart.
Al, having lost his mental capacity due to his own body having been shrunken, held extreme hostility towards the sort of relationship between the disappeared duo of Subaru and Louis.
When it came to him, he would like to get Subaru to how he was before as soon as possible, to ponder over a normal decision regarding Louis. However, Abel was doubtful that Natsuki Subaru would make a normal decision upon returning to his original body―― And before that.
Abel: [No matter what your thoughts may be, I have no intention of letting Olbart’s technique be undone so simply.]
Abel: [To be precise, I shall not interfere with either you or Medium. However, I have no intention of allowing the technique on Natsuki Subaru to be dispelled for a short while. It would be best to keep him in that state for the time being.]
Upon hearing Abel’s plan, the two were left astonished, their eyes and mouths wide open.
Then, after a pause,
Al: [Q-quit fucking about! The fuck’s up with that? You didn’t say anything like that before!?]
Incensed, Al, his voice trembling with anger, grabbed Abel’s collar―― or rather, as he could not reach it due to his height, the belly section of Abel’s clothes was grabbed, lashing out at him.
However Abel, his countenance unphased by that powerless threat, replied with “It is as I stated”,
Abel: [For now, I shall have him remain as-is, in his infantile form, for a while.]
Medium: [Is that related to why you were bullying Subaru-chin?]
Exerting more pressure, Al inched closer towards him, while Medium grabbed his shoulders from behind. As she posed that question, she stared fixedly at Abel.
Upon her inquiry, Abel quietly exhaled,
Abel: [I do not recall bullying him, or any other low-level behavior of the sort.]
Medium: [Call it whatever you want! But, Abel-chin, you were trying to scare Subaru-chin on the way here, to get him to say something! Is it because of that?]
Medium: [That’s so unfair! If there’s something you wanna hear, just ask and they’ll usually tell you! It’s because of something like that…]
Abel: [――Unfortunately, there is no way that shall happen.]
Hearing the quiet, serene emotion in his voice, Medium could not help but stumble over her words, letting out only a “Eh?”.
Giving a sidelong glance to Medium’s surprised face, Abel brushed off Al’s arm that was gripping him with ease, and spoke,
Abel: [My thoughts have nothing to do with the wickedness that Medium suggests. It is merely a necessary thing.]
Al: [Necessary!? What the hell!? Why just bro… What about me and Lil’ Miss Medium!]
Abel: [You do not meet the requirements. You possess one arm, and Medium’s hair and eye color are the reasons for her.]
Not grasping the meaning of that statement, Al’s anger grew more and more intense. Medium, too, was left with a face that betrayed her lack of understanding of the true nature of Abel’s intentions, while a surprise of different origin still remained on her face.
And, Abel’s bottom line was――,
Abel: [Even though the situation remains unaltered, the pieces are falling into place. Henceforth――]
Through his oni mask, Abel gazed out the window of a room in a traveling inn. Towards the outside, his eyes reflecting the Crimson Lapis Castle.
It was a gesture to stare at something far more symbolic than the Castle itself; and, in fact, Abel stretched his hand straight out as if to grasp something that could not be reached.
Abel: [――You shall accompany me, Natsuki Subaru. Blown by an unopposable wind, into the midst of war.]
Olbart: [That’s why that deergirl’s with His Excellency.]
Olbart answered calmly, sitting cross-legged with his short arms crossed. Hearing his astonishing answer, Subaru was simply left dumbfounded.
He was not surprised because it was outside the realm of his imagination, however.
Subaru: [I thought she’d be at their inn, in case she wasn’t in the Castle…]
Olbart: [Oh, ya thought of it. Well then, boy, ya gotta have a terrible personality. Ya sure ya don’t have some of that Vollachian Imperial Family blood in ya after all?]
Subaru: [That’s really creeping me out, so don’t say that…]
It was perhaps Olbart’s comedic style, but not a single one of his jokes were really funny. As always, the person in question let out a “Kakakakka!”. In fact, he appeared to be in a good mood, which was probably the secret of his long life.
Paying no mind to others, not allowing stress to build up, laughing quite often; he was the very example of it.
Subaru: [There’s a saying in my hometown, that ill weeds grow apace.]
Olbart: [Oh, a proverb, is it? What’s it mean?]
Subaru: [Something like, the more you’re hated, the longer you live.]
Olbart: [Kakakakka! Well, I don’t have an excuse for that. Ouch.]
Louis’s angry fist struck Olbart, who was laughing hysterically at the meaning of the saying. Though it was a simple smack on the shoulder, the effort put into just touching it had led to this scene.
Perhaps Olbart, as a member of the most powerful of the Empire, would deal with the smack however he wished, were it anything akin to hostility or murderous intent.
In that sense, Subaru’s move in using Louis’s teleport as a playful touch of pursuit rather than an attack had been the correct option. Yes, he should be proud of himself.
Yorna: [Anyway, I now know where Tanza is… I heard that the residents of the city have been very unkind to you and the others, and I apologize for that.]
Subaru: [Huh, no, Yorna-san, stop it please! There’s nothing to be sorry about!]
Yorna bending her knees on the spot in apology caused Subaru to be flustered. Even Louis jumped up involuntarily at the significance of having Yorna bow her head.
In fact, Yorna had taken him seriously, had not backed down at all against Olbart, and had tried to help Subaru again and again, and so on and so on――.
Yorna: [――? What’s the matter, child? Your face is so red.]
Subaru: [No, well, I just remembered some things…]
As the situation calmed down and the pain and suffering that had been pouring down like a nightmare receded, Subaru was reminded of the many times Yorna and him had exchanged a kiss, in those repeated moments of pain and suffering.
That memory had not remained in Yorna’s memory, and Subaru was not in a position to remember the feeling of the kiss itself, so he only remembered it as an event that had happened.
Still, honestly, he admired and liked Yorna a great deal for her willingness to kiss him in order to make it so he’d like her, just so a dying child could be saved.
And because of that――,
Subaru: [I don’t want you to get mixed up in this.]
An increasingly stronger resistance to bringing Yorna into the fray, to bring her into a war that would destabilize the entire Empire, was welling up within Subaru.
He was unsure if this was only because he had been made younger, or if he would think differently once he was back in his proper body.
But even if Subaru thought differently after returning to his original body, he would not believe that what Subaru felt and thought in this young body would be wrong, either.
Because if that was the case――,
Subaru: [I don’t want to leave the answer regarding you to someone else completely, even if that person’s my grown-up self.]
The question of what to do with Louis, the young girl who held his hand, was a question that Subaru’s mind was not able to answer.
If they joined Abel and the others, that was definitely an unavoidable subject. However, at the end of those ten seconds of despair, there was one thing that Subaru could not help but feel.
――He did not wish to kill Louis or to permit Louis’s death, that much was clear.
Yorna: [The restoration of the Castle will have to wait. First, I’ll go to see Tanza.]
Subaru: [Ah… Yorna-san, um, about Tanza…]
Don’t be too harsh on her, but from Subaru’s point of view, that was difficult to say.
Even if he believed that she had her own agenda and thoughts, Subaru had not heard them. It was just that――,
Yorna: [It goes without saying that I’d never scold her without asking her to explain herself. Moreover, if that girl’s been overcome by her own feelings, I’d be to blame as well.]
Subaru didn’t need to worry; the Mistress of the Demon City knew what she had to do.
Because she was exactly like this, was probably why a great deal of people, Tanza included, adored her.
Subaru hoped that if she would not suddenly become cold once he returned to normal, if possible.
Subaru: [I might cry if that happens…]
That was rather, seriously heartbreaking to imagine. Sincerely, he hoped it wouldn’t come to pass.
Anyhow, if Yorna could convince Tanza, the residents who had been chasing Subaru and his friends would withdraw. Subaru’s critical second step would start from there.
Subaru: [――There’s nothing scarier than dying.]
He told himself that, after going through such a horrifying experience, things were okay.
On top of that, Subaru also wanted to get out of the Castle with Yorna――,
Olbart: [Wha, waitwait, boy. Why don’t I turn ya back? Or do ya like yerself better now? I don’t particularly mind if so.]
Subaru: [Oh, sorry, no, of course not. I’ll turn back, I’ll turn back, I’ll turn back alright. I mean, I’m getting used to being in this form, but I’m going to have trouble finding things to wear.]
Olbart: [Kakakakka! Ya got a lotta nerve worryin’ ‘bout that.]
Olbart called out to his back, and Subaru stepped on a roof tile and spun around.
In fact, although his body had been shrunk only for a few hours, he had exceeded the total number of deaths up until now, and so this became the body he had lived and died with the most.
He didn’t want to say it was because of that, but his small body felt like a bad omen, so if he could get back he’d like to get back to his normal size sooner rather than later.
Right now, the only thing that scared him was the possibility that his views might change abruptly, but――,
Subaru: [Don’t worry, Louis. I’m going to face you properly.]
Louis: [Uau… Au.]
Louis cast her head down after Subaru’s words, but then she gave a deep nod. Subaru pushed on Louis’s forehead with a finger, directing her towards Yorna.
Louis’s back struck her, and Yorna took her in.
Yorna: [Child, what is Old Man Olbart doing…]
Subaru: [Hm, I don’t fully trust him, but I’d like to think that he’s at least got just barely enough humanity left in him to follow the logic of victory and defeat.]
Olbart: [Oiii~, I can hear ya, ya know.]
Subaru: [I know that, that’s why I’m saying it.]
Subaru smiled wryly in response to Olbart’s teasing. To Subaru’s answer, Yorna narrowed her eyes as she hugged Louis tightly.
Yorna: [If you understand that, then I have nothing else to say. I haven’t been told what’ll happen exactly, but this child and I will be watching you.]
Subaru: [Hmm, okay. Well, you know, I hope you’ll be on good terms with me after this, Yorna-san.]
Yorna: [――? Child, you’re quite the worrier, aren’t you?]
Being sent off by Yorna smiling at him and Louis’s cheerful face, Subaru went to Olbart’s side. Standing up, Olbart patted himself on the lower back, and spoke,
Olbart: [You’re talkin’ crap again. Oh geez, let’s get this over with.]
Subaru: [Yeah… Uhh, is it going to hurt?]
Olbart: [Did it hurt when ya shrank down? Then, that’s the answer!]
Giving a brief answer to Subaru’s hesitant question, Olbart’s outstretched hand gently touched Subaru’s solar plexus.
Abel had conjectured that Olbart’s “infantilization” technique interfered with the Od, and perhaps that Od resided somewhere around the heart.
At the same time, a memory came back to Subaru’s mind. The previous day, he had indeed received a painless blow from Olbart as he fled from the keep right beneath where he was currently standing.
Subaru’s “infantilization” had occurred, with the interference of his Od as a trigger.
Only a few hours had passed since his body had been shrunken, but it felt like that had been the biggest struggle he’d faced since coming to the Empire. Although, ever since he’d been in the Empire, he’d been struggling to begin with.
Even including the time outside of the Empire, those ten seconds of despair were some of the greatest――,
Subaru: [Oh, speaking of which…]
Suddenly, Subaru remembered something he had been attempting not to think about.
Those ten seconds of despair, that seemingly hellish cycle of rebirth and death, were a far cry from the Return by Death that Subaru had come to know.
What had brought this about, and what had happened to Return by Death, the Authority that resided in Subaru?
???: [Found you.]
——Everything that happened in that instant, was incomprehensible for all those who were present.
Along with those words, Olbart withdrew his outstretched right hand in an instant.
But, too slow. Olbart’s wrinkled right hand, from the wrist onwards, vanished.
Her eyes widened in shock, Yorna pulled Louis into her arms and jumped backwards a great distance, hugging the girl struggling to break free.
Immediately afterwards, pure dark flooded Yorna and Louis’s field of vision, and, in one fell swoop, swallowed the castle tower, the upper parts, and the middle parts of the Crimson Lapis Castle, famous for its majestic and bright brilliance.
Kafma: [Your Excellency! That is…]
From a distance, looking at the scene outside the window, Kafma, at the side of the Emperor he served to protect, and harboring a sharp fighting aura, felt as if all the bugs in his body shivered in terror.
In the meantime, Vincent had stood up, turning his sharp gaze towards the Castle dyed in black, allowing his deliberate thoughts to flow with all the peace in the world.
Tanza: [That’s, the Castle… Yorna-sama…]
Al: [Ah, ahhh, AHHHHHHH――!]
In a daze, the children stared at what had happened bug-eyed, in absolute shock.
Tanza feared for her master, who remained in the Castle; and Al, at the damage dealt to the city, screamed louder than anyone in the city—— no, louder than anyone in the world.
Medium dashed over to him and supported Al’s shoulders. She stared at Abel as if clinging on to him in this inexplicable situation.
???: [Myyy~ oh my, how should I put it… This might be, a small bit I didn’t gaze.]
Watching the crumbling city from a distance, being swallowed by the shadows, Ubilk let out an easy-going mutter, using his hands as a visor, while the brown Shudraq standing opposite to him, Taritta, listened to him while grinding her teeth.
As if it were difficult to decide whether the shadow in the distance, or the man in front of her, were what she ought to pay attention to.
Abel: [――Is this, the true identity of the thing you had been carrying within?]
He directed his eyes to the same thing the false Emperor and the bawling children regarded, and Abel muttered so.
Clenching his fists tightly, he bit his lip, to the extent that blood flowed, hidden on the other side of the oni mask. As he glared at the jet-black mass, his countenance distorted to the point it resembled the terrifying visage of his oni mask.
――I love you.
――I love you. I love you. I love you.
――I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
――I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Love akin to a curse that would never, by any means, leave, transcending every conceivable dimension, was blotting out the existence called Natsuki Subaru.
A hellish world devoid of love; that, he knew.
That his own self was still loved; that, Natsuki Subaru knew.
However, at the same time, that not all forms of “love” should be something to be affirmed, that he also should know.
Exactly because of his ignorance, there would be retribution.
Exactly because of his ignorance, of why everyone dreaded it, ran from it.
――It morphed into a sable shadow, swallowing all things, cheering while destroying.
Cheering for reuniting, for coming together, for embracing, for being tied, for this predestination, for this forward march.
Cheering for confession, for regret, for suspicion, for its mysteriousness, for exaltation, for devotion.
A hellish world devoid of love, that he knew.
If he were to arrive at a world with love, what sort of hell would it be?
Subaru did not understand. He understood naught.
If there was something he could say, in this situation inexplicable to anyone, there was only one thing.
The utopia of those ostracized, the Demon City of Chaosflame.
――The ruin of this utopia, was brought about by the causality of none other than Natsuki Subaru.