By the long chain that was originally constructed to anchor Angel Storage, the blimp was moored over an endless sea of clouds to an aircraft carrier several tens of times its mass.
As the demons crossed the barge to Angel Storage’s deck, their hands were restrained behind their backs with special handcuffs developed by the Sacred Assembly to seal any use of magic. Kept prisoner where the frigid high altitude winds swept over, they were lined up on their knees.
They numbered around three hundred. In the front row were Elsion, his top executives and Shouki.
“Nyan… Hasebe-senpai, you alright?”
Shouki hung his head with a haggard face. What more could he do? He was up in the air, with no point of escape in any direction. The Zephirum he was supposed to rely on had surrendered.
No, that wasn’t the real problem. There was surely still loads of things he could do.
But… the girl he wanted to protect rejected battle. With such sorrowful eyes, shedding such streams of large tears. Was it really right to deny that, to sadden her further? It felt wrong.
In that case, what could he do? Something in this situation that didn’t include fighting?
“Hmmm… Hey, hey, Estee, this ship is quiet and doesn’t shake, isn’t it the best?”
“I see your boisterousness doesn’t change in this situation… when you’re this thorough with it, you’ve earned my admiration.”
Tired as he sounded, did he recognize her as the mood maker? Estee took a side glance at VZ, keeping a calm smile.
“Nyooo… I mean, I mean, it’s so boring, right? Hey, hey, Lord Elsion…”
“Silence! You are in the presence of her excellency Cardinal Ritsuko!”
Among the knights surrounding them, one raised his voice and corrected his posture. The one who appeared from the bridge hatch in a pure-white gown was a strangely cheerful woman in round glasses. Loosely braided long hair, her white mantle fluttered as she took a few knights and a priest along to stand before the lines of demons.
For a short while, she surveyed Zephirum’s members with narrowed eyes.
“As expected of demons… fine men all around.”
“Umm… cardinal. I’m not really sure… such words are…”
“Right you are. Getting to business… Mr. Leader. Mr. Supreme Commander, where might you be?”
Elsion raised his face ever so slightly.
“I am the supreme commander, Elsion.”
“Aaah, you’re not too shabby yourself. I’m thankful you heart out my proposal.”
“In ten-odd minutes of battle, it became clear Zephirum had no hopes of victory. As the leader of an organization, I simply did not want to pay needless sacrifice.”
Not averting his eyes from the cardinal, with no irony, Elsion spoke the plain truth. Was this the caliber of he who had carried on fighting a truly great foe called the Sacred Assembly? He was almost completely composed, as if there was no regret or hatred to show.
“And you have my thanks for offering the option while casualties were still at a minimum. However, you said over the line it was impossible to determine our treatment… that’s something I would like you to elaborate on.”
“Aah… now about that…”
The cardinal who looked so unreliable when compared to Elsion even more pathetically bent back her eyebrows.
“I’ve been given full responsibility of this mission… which is why I can keep you alive for now. But you know…”
“… That will no longer be the case once we arrive at the Grant Temple, is it?”
“Of course, I intend to bargain best I can, but…”
Her honest features seemed to show all he needed to know about their fate.
“But don’t get any strange ideas, you got that? There are still around two thousand holy knights on this ship.”
“… I see.”
Seeing Elsion nod, Ritsuko returned a nod back.
Such a surplus of forces it was even excessive. Without Elsion’s decisive judgment, they’d likely be slaughtered without even waiting to arrive at the temple. This battle had been decided before it had begun.
“Now we should get started.”
As Ritsuko regained her smile, the priest who followed her reverently lowered his head and began speaking into his wireless transceiver. As anxieties began spreading through Zephirum’s side, Estee voiced their suspicions.
“… What do you intend to do?”
“Just open a little gate to another world. A gate to the world… that’s been called your root.”
At that moment, Elsion’s expression changed entirely.
“That’s right. The truth is, that was our official mission this time. It’s why we brought this giant ship with us too.”
Ritsuko’s smile widened to put them at ease.
“Sure enough, you might be a lost cause if you go to the Grand Temple. But you know… your blimp is still fully capable of flight if the chain comes undone. And if, when the gate is open, you lot just happen to make a run for it…”
“Inconceivable! Your Excellency, what are you…. What foolish drivel are you spouting!? Have you gone mad!? These things are demons!! In the first place, aren’t we opening the gate to eradicate their ilk!!?”
One of the knights ran his voice hoarse as he closed in on her. But the one who turned a spear to halt him was another knight. A guard who had followed her from the bridge.
“That’s what you call a hypothetical… and after that, whether they go at our throats again, or decide to live peacefully is nunna my business. Right, Supreme Commander?”
She would give them a chance. That was what she said.
“Cardinal Ritsuko… you have my thanks.”
That was the first time Shouki had seen Elsion smile.
The elevator platform climbed its way to the deck. Under the pale blue moonlight, at times, electric lights would surface and banish.
What appeared on the deck floating in the open sky was a sort of machine. One so complex it simply looked like metallic clumps lined up next to each other.
What could clearly be made out: a large number of pipes. Tubes. Cables. Like several hundreds, several thousands of earthworms writhing, entangling, the cylinders stretched across the dark blue surface. Some worked their way from metallic clump to clump, others swallowed by the seams riddling the floor.
And an overwhelming number of the tubes went towards the single woman at the center.
As if she was being devoured by a nest of snakes, the lines fastened the woman to an inorganic cross. She hung her head with a hollow expression as if she was tired of any and everything, her two arms spread wide as if to take flight.
Her brilliant black hair fluttered as if to melt into the night sky.
The person he swore to protect was there, crucified up high.
Shouki dejectedly muttered.
Did that mean this was as far as the justice he believed in would take him? That thought alone swirled around his heart. Back then, Clarica declared this was justice. There had been no guilt or hesitation in her words. If he was asked the same question here and now, would he be able to proclaim it with such obstinacy? That this was the justice he believed in? Something like this was the justice he believed in?
… There was no way he could.
The woman he swore to protect’s smile he dreamed of protecting was nowhere to be found.
(… At a time like this… what would Don Quixote have done…)
He never looked back. He continued to gaze solely at the justice he believed in. Even when he was ridiculed, he kept moving forward.
Shouki gave a small laugh of self-derision. This was unavoidable, he thought. For he was no man of valor.
“Shifting gate system to first stage. Begin idling.”
The bishop who served as head of the magicology department commanded the priests facing various machinery.
“Lowering Angel Storage’s buoyancy to thirty percent.”
“Directing all the ship’s power to the first AMaC furnace. Releasing second furnace.”
“Second AMaC Furnace online in an idle state.”
The lights in the bridge shut off for a moment, the ship swayed ever-so-slightly. The giant florescent magic circle positioned with Meeko at the center spun slowly, but spread out in an instant. It didn’t stop at just the deck, even spreading over the sky… it had been deployed with great enough circumference to devour the huge warship.
Witnessing that scene for the first time, Demon and Knight alike swallowed their breath in amazement.
“This is… a tremendous amount of information…”
Looking at his own knees, Estee noticed the closely packed ancient lettering that had been projected and gave a slight groan.
The letters as small as what you’d find in a newspaper formed the shapes of larger letters, and those larger letters formed ones larger still, and… in the end, a magic circle that surpassed the span of the aircraft carrier had been formed. Boasting a structure like a fractal, it was a considerably modern style of spell.
“Shifting gate system to second stage. Standby.”
“Countdown to second furnace critical… 4, 3, 2, 1. Critical point reached.”
“Releasing safety. Connecting output from gate system to circle.”
The magic circle was clad in a soft, white radiance. The swirl of light raced outward from the center, reaching its ends like a spreading ripple, the overflowing light scattering white grains as if it were snow.
Like a shining flower blooming in the night sky. A carpet of light lain out over a sea of clouds. The quarrels, the grudges, such beauty almost had them forgotten. All who saw it leaked long sights of admiration.
“… All the preparations are in order. The gate will open with one word from the Cardinal… are you really alright with this?”
“… It’s fine. But before that.”
Ritsuko turned to Meeko. The lone soul whose heart hadn’t been taken by the magic, the outer gazing sorrowfully at the moon.
“… If you’ve got something to say, you’d better say it now.”
Her voice carried a deep compassion. Meeko answered it with a thin voice that might be carried away by the wind.
“I… don’t want everyone to kill one another…”
But it reliable reached the ears of everyone present.
“Because… I know that living is a wonderful thing…”
Meeko turned her head down and closed her eyes.
Tears sprang forth from both of her eyes. The drops glistened in the magic circle’s light as multiple strands crossed her cheeks.
And no matter, how they waited, those words didn’t continue on.
“… Then let’s begin. Open the gate.”
The cardinal turned on her heels and gave the order with a solemn face.
The circle glowed brighter. Turned to the heavens, its light strengthened as if to pierce them through. As everything in sight was enveloped in a full veil of light, it was at that instant.
The voice clearly reached his ears.
I want to live.
I know living is a wonderful thing—!
I don’t want to d—!!
Something snapped in the depths of his chest, Shouki cried out and raced forward. Even if he couldn’t undo the cuffs binding his arms behind him, he pressed forward. Ramming the knights who stood in his way, uncouthly tumbling, even struck, even thrust, even with spears pierce through his legs.
Even so, forward, forward, forward—!!
“WAAAAAH!! AAAAAH!! AAAAAAAAAAH!!”
His throat dried out, but if he could get just a little closer to the woman who would soon disappear beyond his reach.
Yet his feet wouldn’t reach.
His vision was taken by a darkness of white light, the pillar of light climbing to the heavens like the world tree.
the light stopped. In the sky above Angel Storage, there were no clouds, no lights of the stars, nothing but a deep darkness spread out. Right below that, Meeko’s body no longer held spirit, it simply hung limp. Her long hair swayed sparsely like an executed prisoner put on show.
“Dammit… God dammit…!”
His vision blurred from the tear he had no way of wiping, Shouki sobbed in his crawl.
Everything was over. That was it.
It happened just before, driven on by his shame, he was about to bite through his lip.
“… All hands… prepare for battle…”
Something collapsed. Was it Shouko or Meeko, everyone whose mind had been taken by the hole overhead turned to the sound in unison.
The knights raced to a collapsed Ritsuko. By that time, the white vestments she wore were already beginning to stain in fresh blood.
“Splendid work, my good men of the Sacred Assembly.”
The voice came from Elsion who was already out of his restraints.
“And the cardinal with the novel notion of letting us live. I can’t even find the words to thank you.”
“… Were you planning this from the start…”
With the priest who rushed over conducting healing and her face pale as could be, Ritsuko’s eyes were open in rage as if her smile had been a lie.
“Indeed. Is there any other reason I would have to fall into your hands? Of course not. Two thousand holy knights? How foolish. Even if that was ten thousand, do you think that changes the superiority of an Outer?”
The next moment, Elsion’s eyes flashed red at the knights who were coming at him. The fingers he raised emitted rays of the same red hue.
That was the only sound. The knights and those readied behind them burst into blood as they were bisected mithril-silver alloy armor and all.
“… An AMaC furnace appeared before us without even having to go to the Grand Temple, there is no reason not to use it. Nay, I didn’t even have to, you even went as far as to open the ‘path to hell’ for me. Your magic circle was extremely well put together. Thankfully, that instant… the instant your eyes were sealed by the light was enough. I only had to add a little to the mix… to overwrite the coordinates.”
Elsion said, ignoring the knights who had begun to shudder, looking up at the dark space with a proud smile as if his serenity had been an act.
“What I tried to use Randle to open, tried to use the Kantou Agency to open… and here it is. Have a look. My servants are making their descent.”
Across from Elsion’s full-face delight, minute grains began falling from that space like dust. No, they only looked so small from the distance.
“Eradicate evil? You should learn your place… are you telling me you can exterminate that?”
As if it had been waiting for his words, Angel Storage’s siren blared out. Carrying on, the voice of a woman at her wit’s end resounded.
‘An army of monsters has been confirmed in the sky twenty-eight thousand meters above us! Their individual appraisals range from Rank A to S! Their descent is slow, but they will reach ground in an hour! It will be hell! Ritsuko, can you hear me!? Return to the bridge at once and take command!! Are we doing this!? Are we not!?’
“The strongest rank of monsters, they were supposed to have died out…”
“All of those… how can that…?”
Among the fearful, kneeling knights, there were those who threw off their helmets, staring in terror at the sky, among those who cast away their swords and began to pray.
“W-we can’t run… excluding the first order, this ship is the assembly’s strongest force… you got that…?”
“Cardinal! If you speak, your wounds will…!”
Ritsuko shook her head. The healing had narrowly carried her over death’s threshold.
“Damn… this is bad… I’m sorry, everyone…”
“What are you saying!? They are the evil here! Your kind heart will definitely be rewarded!”
“So please get a grip on yourself! Let yourself rest for now!”
She gave a small nod and fainted. There was a fighting spirit in the eyes of the knights who revered her.
“Fufu… looks like that’s it for the sacred treasure user I’d had my doubts about. All that’s left is to analyze her and see what factor lets her use that weapon of hers. Estee.”
“Yes, supreme leader.”
His attendant with a gentle, innocent smile tore through his handcuffs with no trouble at all, waving his hands in the open air. With that alone, those around Ritsuko were blown away as if smashed into by an invisible wall.
And his invisible hand gently held Ritsuko’s body in their embrace.
“I am sure you understand the situation, so I highly recommend against any false moves. To crush such a kind soul in my grasp will terribly hurt my heart. Yes.”
After bringing Ritsuko right before his eyes, Estee gave a courteous bow with that serpent-like smile. While that demonstration was going on, the demons of Zephirum were released from their restraints one after the next. VZ was already free. When it came to Outers, the strongest category, it did seem those handcuffs were meaningless.
“Nyaaaa… Lord Elsion, what about Hasebe-senpai?”
VZ gave her feathered cap a large tilt. As if he had only just recalled, Elsion turned his jet-black mantle and reached a hand to the heretic hero.
“… Now what will you do, Shouki? If you wish to come with us, I will not refuse you.”
Angel Storage’s bridge.
With their passion at the light pageant still lingering, they could see all the rapid developments on deck.
“Now what do we do? That’s probably the cardinal being taken hostage, don’t you think?”
At Makoto’s words, Florence weakly pat against the table.
“Erk… so you see it that way too?”
“I can see well enough, as long as I have my glasses.”
Makoto pushed them up, her frameless pair as she turned to Florence on the command deck.
“Any word from the Grand Temple?”
“They said they’d send the first order and the remaining two cardinals as a special exception… but it’s dubious is even the grand temple’s AMaC furnace can send that many people this far!”
“… And if they send too few, they’re just wasting manpower.”
At Makoto’s voice, Florence grit her teeth and nodded the affirmative.
“It just occurred to me… but is this ship possibly equipped with a self-destruct…”
“Why of course it is, who do you think I am!!?”
Were her eyes sparkling beneath her visor? Gleefully sticking out her chest, she slammed the springboard as if she was waiting for someone to ask.
At the sound, the crew’s eyes widened and they turned in surprise. But with a grasp on the situation, they kept quiet. Makoto nodded again and asked.
“What’s its effective range?”
“I’m sure I told you… we have two Accelerated Mana Collider furnaces loaded on board!! If they’re overloaded in tandem, then everything in a twenty-kilometer radius, isolated world included will be reduced to such nothingness not even atomic dust will remain!!”
The distance to the monster spewing gate above them was twenty-eight hundred meters. It checked out. But there, the vice chief shouted out an objection.
“Have you forgotten, Bishop Florence!? This ship is currently flying at an altitude of two thousand meters over the Japanese coast! If we explode her, the blast waves will make the land… in a several hundred kilometers radius a sea of death!!”
“Well does it really matter… Far better than this many S-Rank monsters scattering through the world.”
The crisis before her, Makoto sent a sharp look at the man.
“Hey, you, you may be dressed like a priest, but you’re a knight of the second order, aren’t you? Is the Sacred Assembly going to fold to monsters? Are you alright with that? Is that really the hill you’ll die on?”
“She’s right!! I won’t accept an end eaten by monsters!! It’s eat or be eaten!! That’s what Angel Storage is for!!”
Bang, Florence punched the table. While it was impossible to know the color of her eyes hidden by her visor, her shapely lips were pulled straight with resolution and fortitude.
“… U-understood. But with my jurisdiction as the deputy head of this ship, I will be taking charge of the timing. If and only if after all we have at the monsters when they’re in firing range, that’s still not enough, and the Sacred Assembly reinforcement don’t make it in time, only then will I press the—”
The deputy head was interrupted part-way.
“There’s a reading on the radar! One H60 Helicopter is headed our way!”
Following on from the radar monitor, the correspondent’s ears perked up.
“… A transmission to this ship! They’ve identified themselves as the Kantou Agency!”
“!! Give me that!”
Makoto cried and raced over.
“This is the Kantou Agency Director, Hida Makoto! Is Code E0 there!? If he’s there, put him on the line! Hurry!”
‘Hey, it’s the director! E0, she’s calling you…!’
The first voice she heard was Kikohito’s. but contrary to Makoto’s hopes, the next voice that came on had an exhausted tone that let her practically picture him writhing in agony.
‘-ood grief… Makoto… Looks like you’re alright…’
“T… teacher? Are you alright!? Don’t tell me the damage from the sacred treasures is still…!”
‘Yeah, it’s still pretty bad where Ritsuko did me in… but before I lost consciousness… I stuck on a listening bug the Doctor made… when I was grabbing her…’
With a pained breath, Takase broke into a coughing fit.
‘… Thanks to that, I’ve got a good picture of what’s going on… never thought a sacred treasure’s damage would be this bad, but… Makoto, grab on tight to something and wait. I brought you the best present you could ask for…!’
Shouki looked at Elsion’s outstretched hand and shook his head. Albeit, thanks to his handcuffs, he couldn’t grip it back either way.
“… Did you know this was going to happen, Elsion?”
“To be frank… never in my wildest dreams did I think it would go so smoothly.”
“Then everything you told me was complete codswallop.”
Seeing the look in Shouki’s eyes, Elsion lowered his hand.
“It was supposed to go down just as I told you. We would head to the Grand Temple, and erase only the radical faction from this world… there was no falsehood in that plan.”
“No, that’s wrong! You… you just needed an AMaC furnace. If this had been the Grand Temple, you’d have done the same. Your goal was to use Meeko as a sacrifice to spread the sadness she detested most through the world…!
With a sharp blow from his hard boot, Shouki fell onto his side. Elsion’s red eyes sharply narrowed.”
“The intent and outcome would be the same. I would just gain an army in the process. Wouldn’t you say a Demon Lord needs an army”
With another kick, Shouki rolled across the deck. With that force, the spear a holy knight had stuck into him was dislodged, causing an intense pain to race down his leg. With the sharp pain and dull impact assailing him at once, his mind growing distant, Shouki raised his body.
“Kk… demon lord… really…? Then Nagoyakawa…”
“Oh, the girl they call a candidate? That’s just what the assembly calls her, is it not? I had my eye on her as a possible candidate to open the path.”
“But that girl’s power is too unreliable. And so. On this occasion, I requested the assistance of a myriad clan member who had conveniently lost her memory. Rather than one who carries the blood of an ancient Outer, an ancient Outer herself should be stronger… such is self-evident. Though I hear Randale was delighted at laying hands on but a fragment of that diluted power.”
Kukuh, Elsion rung his throat.
“Candidate, what fitting foolish nonsense for a human. There is only one in this world with the blood of a Demon Lord. Elsion, son of Fier, the last of the Lords… and no other. And now, the monsters to serve as my army are certainly approaching from the sky. Thus the demon lord is revived on this soil. Do you understand, Shouki?”
“I see it in your eyes. Do you intend to stand against the Demon Lord, Shouki? Hero, Hasebe Shouki?”
How ironic. When the Sacred Assembly who lifted him up as a hero now called him a heretic, only the person who proclaimed himself the demon lord would call him that.
“No Hero who slew any Demon Lord of old was ever a heretic. Nor were there any who charged forth unarmed and handcuffed. Do you still want to try it?”
“Like I care… I won’t give up. That’s all there is to it. You betrayed Meeko, and I’ll never forgive you… never!!”
Shouki’s voice went hoarse with anger. But Elsion looked down and burst into laughter as he hung his head.
“That’s a nice one. You’re the best. The greatest Piero. To the Sacred Assembly and to me… conveniently used by everyone and betrayed. You never know, perhaps she was just using you too? Thought I wouldn’t know to what end.”
“Wrong!! Meeko was…”
“Fufu, well so be it. That doesn’t change the fact you are history’s greatest Piero. You say you’ll play the clown to the end; then it is my duty to become the true Demon Lord and take you on with all my might.”
And Elsion suddenly vanished from Shouki’s eyes.
The place he appeared just as suddenly was before the cross Meeko was hung out on.
“W… what are you going to do…!!”
“One with the disposition of a Demon Lord has obtained an army of monsters. What remains is the power to command them as I wish. It is what those who once served the Demon Lord control… and its name is the Noesis Program.”
While Shouki got the feeling he had heard that somewhere before, his memory wasn’t clear, and he wasn’t in the mental state to recall.
“But such fine men and woman are no longer of this world… no, no longer needed by it. The reason being, one of those very vassals is right here. And I will take it.”
Elsion faced Meeko’s body and held up his head. The scene of Randale doing so to Suuran’s body at the Tokyo Temple flashed back in Shouki’s head.
But the man who proclaimed himself the demon lord went beyond that.
“It’s a pain to search blindly. Shouki, where in her body do you think it is? Tell me and I’ll blow it away.”
Shouki tried to run forward to collapse down from the knees. The leg a knight had impaled shot out blood with an intense pain. Shouki’s entire body was cold from the blood loss, his consciousness was growing hazy once more.
“Worry not. She is already dead… but if that will increase your anger, that may be interesting… the head it is. But I’d be losing sight of my goal if I blew it all away. How about I erase only half of it, Shouki?”
“Stop it!! Just stop it, please!!”
Elsion’s hand was clad in a faint light, the scene distorted and blurred by his tears. Regret and sadness. To shake away his overflowing tears, Shouki shut his eyes tight.
Through a gap in the clouds, the helicopter commanded a view of Angel Storage below them. The difference in altitude was around fifty meters. There were around ten-odd kilometers between them, but the receiver Hazuki no Shizuku made conveyed what was happening in detail.
“… Did you hear that, Suzuran?”
The voice of Takase stifling his superfluous anger.
“Thirteen thousand meters to the target… but your hand will reach.”
With her brilliantly glowing red eyes fixed on the spot, Suzuran nodded.
“… And you will hit.”
With those crimson eyes, she picked out the lone man standing on the overly vast aircraft carrier and fastened her glare. She strongly clenched her fist covered in a jet-black gauntlet.
“Yes, if it’s now… I can kill him!”
“Good girl, Suzuran— Now teach him who the real Demon Lord is!!”
Suzuran lifted up her right arm gauntlet, and towards the deck of Angel Storage…
Something lowered from the sky like a hammer of judgment managed to shake the tens of thousands of tons of the vessel. With its immobile inertia broken, the ship dipped a few tens of meters, throwing everyone aboard into the air, and slammed them down as the lift tried to restore.
Eventually, when the shaking had stopped, more than a few people noticed.
The fifteen-centimeter-thick reinforced mithril-silver polymer deck now boasted a wide indent like a meteor had struck it.
Not long after.
The man in the center of the crater cried out. Bright red blood spraying out of of his shoulder, he howled and ached.
“A… arm… my… arm is…!!”
Grimacing at the anguished cold sweat on his face, he hid the wound where his left arm had been torn straight off under his mantle.
“Un… forgivable…! Who… just who could have wounded me!!”
His two eyes wavering dangerously in rage, Elsion stood.
To hear a small, oh so small laughing voice.
Under the refreshing moonbeams, only a woman’s laughing voice sounded out through the curious stillness.
When he turned towards the gradually growing voice, he saw as if to match it, Meeko’s shoulders lightly shaking.
Her back bent back violently as if an electric current was run through her, the back of her head smacking into the pillar of the cross, as she put all her might into vulgarly opening her mouth. Finally unable to bear it any longer, she exploded out in laughter.
And Meeko’s howls to the moon resounded with the innocent laughter of a little girl.
“Ahaha, hah… hah…”
She hung her head once more, out of strength.
A little choked.
After a breath. The beautiful lips the woman had closed open once more.
“… Dear me, that was a good laugh. Looks like there’s still no way I can die…”
She said, her disorderly bangs covering her expression.