“What are you talking about, Emilio?”
Cleo sat down in the narrow back alley, looking at the young man before her eyes.
Her guard, a young and powerful knight of the Kingdom of Celestia, was gripping the sword in his right hand. From its tip, the blood of the maid- Cleo’s personal caretaker- he had killed fell drop by drop.
Cleo couldn’t hear the distant clamor.
The maid she had believed in, who she had known for so many years had scorned her all the way.
The knight she had believed in presented her hand out to her.
“Cleo, this is enough. There’s no need for you to become a sacrifice anymore. Let’s run from here. The preparations are already in order.”
Emilio slowly approached, extending out his left hand. Cleo moved her eyes to look between that hand and his face.
“What are you talking about, Emilio? If I don’t undergo the ceremony tomorrow, the country will be…”
In her dismay, Cleo couldn’t properly process the situation. This was largely due to the betrayal of the maid she thought of as a friend, who would tell her all about the castle town and life as a commoner. But even more than that, she couldn’t believe Emilio when he told her to run from the ceremony.
… She had lived her life for tomorrow’s ritual…
To Cleo, that was the very meaning of her existence. Even if she knew she was going to die, if it was for the sake of the country… she thought. No, she was taught.
But she did find the extended left hand to be captivating.
(If I follow Emilio, will I be saved?)
It was to her, what could be called the devil’s temptation. No one ever truly wanted to die. And up until the attack from the dolls just before, Cleo had been able to spend a happy time. That only amplified her desire to live on.
(I want to live. But…)
Cleo brushed away Emilio’s left hand with her right.
Glaring at him as he opened his eyes wide, Cleo spoke.
“Stand down. This body is one I have pledged to Celestia. Following you is something… I cannot do.”
She was highly confused, but she barely managed to stop herself without losing to temptation. Rage, or perhaps irritation, she didn’t know what to expect from Emilio, but the man simply made a sad face and smiled.
“I see. You’ve grown strong, Cleo. But I have my own obstinacy.”
Emilio reached out his left hand to forcefully take her arm. But in the next instant, he turned his back to Cleo, taking a stance with his saber.
In the depths of the alleyway, before she had noticed it, there stood three in robes. Cleo hadn’t sensed the slightest hint of their approach.
A robed man who stood just a step ahead of the three let his muddled voice resound through the space. That somewhat low voice was one she couldn’t believe belonged to a human. Not a sound of life. It held a mechanical, inorganic something.
But that voice did manage to hold some emotions Cleo couldn’t see herself taking to.
“This is different from what we arranged. Were you not going to hand the princess to us? This isn’t the delivery point, traitor to Celestia.”
The man who declared Emilio a traitor produced a barbed sword from under his robe. He took out two. Those two thorny blades gave off a purple hue in the dark back alley. As with the sword in Emilio’s hands, they didn’t even give off a dull reflective glow.
“… I lost my way. There was a slight blunder on my part.”
Still readying his saber, Emilio hadn’t dropped his guard. He was saying things completely different from before. Cleo thought, but she could tell his voice was nervous.
“J-just what could…”
On the voice Cleo rung out, the men to both sides of the double-bladed man sprung to action. Quickly, as if they were running across the wall, they leapt out towards Cleo.
“You imperial bastards!”
Giving a statement as if he had previously been working with them, Emilio swung his blade at the two. But one of them stopped his sword. And the other came at Cleo without the slightest hesitation.
Emilio loudly worried for her safety, but the girl in question couldn’t even stand from where she was.
From the hood of the robe, she looked into her assailant’s face. They wore a mask with round spectacle-like somethings stuck on. They gleamed like red eyes, and in the gloom of the alley, they looked oh so ominous.
The hand reaching out, unlike Emilio’s, was clothed as if violently wrapped in rubber. That hand that somewhat smelled of oil extended towards Cleo.
“That’s as far as you go.”
… A gust blew through the back-alley.
Just in the nick of time.
Running down the complex maze-like alleys, Rudel was relieved to find he had made it in time. High-speed movement in a layout he didn’t know took more concentration than he thought, and he wasn’t able to pursue Cleo as well as he expected.
Placing himself in front of her the moment he spotted her, Rudel swung his sword.
Cutting through the suspicious arm reaching out towards Cleo, he entered the space between her and the suspicious man. He instantly kicked the robed figure away, but he felt something was off.
(Oil? And the sense I got from that kick was bizarre.)
He surely lopped off an arm, but the stump wasn’t bleeding. In exchange, a liquid- presumably oil- lightly dripped. With the cut as well, he didn’t get the sensation he was cutting through flesh.
Cleo called out but Rudel didn’t turn back to her. Taking a stance with his sword, he spoke.
“Please stay behind me. It does seem this is a dangerous bunch.”
The man he kicked away stoop. From the severed right hand, as he thought, not blood but oil sprinkled the ground.
The robed one with the barbed swords who was probably the leader raised a cloudy, mechanical laugh.
“Kukuku, I never thought I would run into such a big shot here. It is a pleasure, Dragoon… no, Rudel Arses-kun.”
Rudel kept on guard as he strained his ears to hear.
“Looks like you know about me. It’s an honor for one of far-off lands… no, the empire to know my name.”
In the space of that light conversation, Emilio parted from the enemy, no it felt more like both sides retreated. The man before Rudel’s eyes also back stepped as he returned to his comrades. On his movements, Rudel noticed the identity of his off-feeling.
(The empire’s machine soldiers?)
Machine soldiers… soldiers of the empire who compensated for their lost limbs with animated metal. He knew they moved by means of magic, but it was a technology not found in the kingdom. By their uncanniness, they were often shunned and left the dirty work of the empire, he had heard at the academy.
“I see, so I’ve got some eyes on me.”
To Rudel’s words, the leaderish man replied.
“You humble yourself. Your existence is one much too radiant for us. So radiant we must envy, and detest to such we can never forgive. I especially so, for it was a dragoon who took away my arms and legs.”
So he was a machine soldier who lost his limbs in combat with a dragoon. There was no doubt whatever was under his robes had been left in a terrible state.
“We have taken up a nonaggressive defense policy. You are the ones one-sidedly invading.”
The kingdom of Courtois lay on rich, fertile land. There was no merit to be found in making a march on the empire. But the empire had been pressed into a circumstance where they had to invade even if they were going against dragoons.
“How young. Your youth is also enviable.”
From under the hood, three red dots let off a faint light. Rudel stood and took a position to protect Cleo from the four. The robed group before him… and Emilio.
Emilio had led his three soldiers in a wrong direction so he could flee into the alleys alone with Cleo. That was the main reason for Rudel’s wariness. His final actions made it doubly sure.
Rudel saw Emilio as an enemy. Emilio also seemed to understand that, but sandwiched between Rudel and the robed men, he couldn’t freely move around the narrow alley.
“When I’ve come so far.”
Regretfully… his face grimaced as his eyes darted to Rudel and the robed men.
“Kukuku, quite the ill-prepared knight you are. It speaks volumes to the nature of Celestia. To think this man would be one of the knights representing the country… now then, we shall be resuming our work. We’ve done a splendid job biding time.”
As he said that, two robed men jumped down from the rooves of the buildings enclosing the space.
As Rudel grabbed Cleo under his left arm and jumped back, he narrowed his eyes as he looked at the situation.
“They managed to slip this many in?”
Just with a quick check, he could sense ten presences around. Was there a problem with Celestia’s security, or were these guys just good at their jobs… perhaps it was both.
“You’re too careless. When the enemy starts speaking, you’d best think they’re trying to buy time… of course, you didn’t have too many options to choose from. A dragoon without a dragon is just a normal knight. Kill them.”
Losing interest, the three-eyed man issued orders to his men in an emotionless voice. But Rudel laughed just a bit.
“Your words do me ill.”
With those words, he squatted with Cleo still under his arm. Three arrows passed above his head, the three-eyed man used the swords in both his hands to block them.
It was Millia.
Wings of magic spread out from her back. She took on an archer’s stance, and with her next arrow, a robed man poised with a crossbow fell from the roof.
“Rudel, you rushed out too far ahead!”
“My bad. But that timing wasn’t bad, Millia.”
To Rudel, these weren’t numbers he was unable to deal with. But with Cleo so close, he couldn’t’ exhibit his full strength. By Millia’s arrival, Rudel was sure the risk factor behind fighting his way through had decreased.
Emilio cried out as he took on the three-eyed man’s subordinate coming at him. Parrying his opponent’s sword, he used his left hand to draw a knife from his breast-pocket and take a slash. Perhaps his opponent was an elite as they jumped back to dodge.
But blood poured out of the mask the robed man used to breathe as he collapsed. Seeing that, the three-eyed man clicked his tongue.
“An elf, eh… and the Celestian knight isn’t bad. Well, even so, he wouldn’t get far in the empire. Everyone come at them.”
Renewing his grip on his two swords, he issued orders to his men. Millia skipped around the space, kicking from wall to wall, firing arrows at the men. What were simple arrows stuck in deeply as they stuck into the walls and ground, but the robed men ran dodged through the volley as they encroached upon Rudel.
“… Sorry, but this is part of my job.”
Saying that, Rudel entrusted Cleo to Millia, who had come close enough, and cut down one of the robed men coming at him.
The sensation of cutting through metal and flesh was something Rudel had never experienced before. But he hadn’t the time to be flustered by it.
The three-eyed man ran as he issued orders.
“I’ll take on the dragoon. You lot get the traitor and princ–”
Just as he had said that much, this time the robed men with bows began to fall from the roof. As they hit the ground, they let off metallic sounds.
Rudel looked at the two who descended the next instant and dispelled the magic storing up in his left hand. He had considered sending them flying with magic, but the ones who came down did seem to be allies.
“Good grief, my encounter rate with the underside of the Kingdom and Empire is especially high today. (That’s totally Aleist, but I probably shouldn’t point that out.)”
Wearing masks, the robed party of two stood in front of Rudel, and one answered him without turning her head.
“Would you mind leaving this to us? Your mission is to guard the princess; this one is our mission.”
Rudel sent a glance at Emilio, but in his order of precedence, he had to prioritize Cleo. He had no need to fixate on the enemies before his eyes. What’s more, Millia had already taken her and left. It was possible there were other enemies in hiding.
“Then they’re all yours.”
Saying that, Rudel swiftly left the spot. A strong wind blew, and in the next instant, he was gone.
“… His strength exceeds the rumors. He might be even more troublesome than he was in his school days, Senpai.”
Draping over the robe and mask Nate handed over, Aleist looked at the surrounding situation and shook.
Wearing black robes, those men with round and red spectacles peeking out of their hoods for eyes.
(What’s this supposed to mean… seriously, what!?)
The reason he was so surprised lay in Nate’s prompt order to get ready as she led him barreling from rooftop to rooftop. By the time he noticed it, he was being attacked, a battle unfolded, and on top of that, he had rushed to Rudel’s aid.
“Dogs of the Kingdom, is it. No, perhaps it’s more accurate to call you washouts.”
A man whose mask boasted three eyes called over to Aleist and Nate. Around, Emilio and the robed men were on high alert.
… Meaning they were surrounded.
“Now go do your best, Senpai.”
Letting out a bit of a cute voice, Nate went right ahead to push the impossible onto Aleist. She told him to take on the group surrounding them and directing so much killing intent.
“Wait a second! Telling me to take on this many foes, no matter how you look at it, that’s strange! That’s strange, isn’t it!?”
“Yeah, yeah, enough with the jokes. Just go do your best. You’re my guard, aren’t you? You said you’d help me, didn’t you?”
“No, I did! I definitely said it! I just never thought it would come to this!”
“I want to see you at your coolest. Don’t make me say it, how embarrassing.”
“Even if you act embarrassed, you’re not cute at all!”
The exchange between the masked duo, if there was a third party present, surely they would have opened their eyes in surprise. It was a comedy skit one might think would continue forever, but fed-up after all, the three-eyed man stuck in his mouth.
“Good grief, you people have no sense of tension… well then, once you’re out of the way, we’ll be nabbing the princess.”
With a light wave of his jaw, his nearby subordinates charged at Aleist. But…
“…!? The texture when you cut into them is creepy!!”
The moment Aleist drew his own weapons, he cut apart the robed men coming at him. He had clearly cut them before they came into the range of his sword, bringing a complete change to the surrounding reactions.
The three-eyed man let out a wary voice.
“A fellow twin sword user. And a skilled one at that. How troublesome… how truly troublesome. Slaying him here might be in the empire’s best interest.”
With those words he had his subordinates step down and rushed at Aleist himself.
On the other side, Nate jumped away from Aleist as she spoke.
“Have at it, Senpai! I’ll be guarding your back.”
“No, fight alongside me! These people look terrifying!”
Even as he cried out, he didn’t take his eyes off of the three-eyed man before his eyes. He instinctually understood that would prove fatal.
Aleist’s swords met with that of his foes.
And seeing the enemy up close, Aleist felt like something was coming back to him.
(Ah, could this guy be…)