Five days earlier, on the still floating 15th Island.
A piercing cry rang throughout the air. The shell of the Teimerre collapsed onto the ground as the beast met its 178th death. And of course, without even a second’s delay, a crack formed on the back of that shell, signaling the hatching of its 179th life. Every time the Teimerre is reborn it changes form; the latest one appeared to be some sort of plant. A writhing mass of green could be seen through the cracks in the dead shell. After a few more minutes, countless vines began to reach out from the inside.
“Blue warrior, fall back! Artillery squad, begin attack! Cover her retreat!”
Limeskin’s orders flew across the battlefield. However, the ‘blue warrior’, or Kutori Nota Seniolis, did not seem to be in a cooperative mood. The Kaliyon in her hands, Seniolis, was fully responding to the Teimerre before her, meaning that the sword, which grows stronger the stronger its foes are, had reached its peak destructive power. Kutori needed to stay on the battlefield as long as possible to make use of that.
“Please let me do just one more!”
“No!” Her commander sharply rejected her request.
For a moment, she hesitated. Should she go against orders and stay? At the moment, she was wielding immense power. She could contribute more than she ever had in any previous battle. For the first time, she was using the Dug Weapon — no, Kaliyon — in the proper way, the way that was lost long ago with the Emnetwyte. If she and Seniolis were not there, they had no chance at victory. In that case, if she pushed herself just a little further no one should mind…
Ashen wind. A laughing giant. An injured cocoon.
— What is this?
Kutori froze, bewildered. Strange and seemingly random images suddenly started popping up in her head. Was it because she had lost focus? Over 120 hours had passed since the battle’s start, so that could very well be possible. Moreover, all those hours had been spent on the battlefield, a place so far separated from usual reality. Perhaps she had lost touch with reality and started to daydream.
In any case, she needed to focus. They could not afford to lose this battle. And more importantly, she could not afford to die here. She needed to return to that place. Go home to that person.
Fish swimming through the night. A sand castle piercing the heavens. A rotten aquamarine sun. A sentimental death. A handful of cubes. A red grimoire. A fox head hung on a high tree. A silver stake. Bakers painting the rainbow ocher. A clown in a shipwreck on a stormy night laughing laughing laughing laughing laughing–
Even if she tried to focus, it didn’t stop. It kept going on and on. But what was it? Haphazard images. Incoherent delusions. Persistent daydreams. The shadow of a past she should have no knowledge of. Filth of a soul that should have been wiped away. The murmuring of someone she sat back to back with. The reality outside a dream. Overwhelming, raging waves crashing forth endlessly.
“Okay, that’s enough.”
A familiar voice mixed in with the jumbled mess inside Kutori’s head.
“I’m the one who proposed the switch. It’s time for you to back down.”
“But if I stay here just a little–”
“And if the encroachment gets just a little worse, it’ll be too late.”
She had heard that word before. Where was it? Ah, that’s right. She was told when she became a fully grown fairy soldier. What exactly they were. How fleeting their lives were. What kind of deaths could await them besides dying in battle.
She was told that fairies are the lost souls of dead children unable to leave this world. That they are not, strictly speaking, a form of life. They are simply a natural phenomenon resulting from the delusions of a confused soul. And those souls will one day remember who they once were.
“Could this be…?”
“At your age, ya usually wouldn’t have to worry about it. But apparently statistics aren’t very useful. Maybe the amount of power in Seniolis made it advance all at once.”
“My age…? A-Ah!”
Kutori had been grabbed by the scruff of her neck and was forcibly being dragged off the battlefield. Behind her, the artillery bombardment had started. Muscular Reptrace soldiers donned in full body armor all stood in a line packing shells into their cannons. The thundering booms shook the ground and seemed to almost burst her skull apart. The shells leveled the forests, chipped away at the island itself, and, most importantly, smashed the reviving Teimerre to pieces. Of course, they did not inflict fatal wounds upon it. Stealing the life of a Teimerre requires an enchanted weapon on the level of a Kaliyon, but the artillery was still useful to buy a few minutes of precious time.
Aiseia, spreading her golden wings, flew 1200 malumel away to a rest tent, carrying Kutori in her arms. With a little grunt, Aiseia dropped her luggage on the floor.
“Ow! That hurts!”
“At least you can still feel pain. There’s a mirror over there. Take a look.”
Still lying face down on the ground, Kutori tilted her head up. Beside the crates of food rations stacked up like a mountain range there lay a small hand mirror.
“Look at what?”
“You’ll see what I mean.”
Kutori reached out, grabbed the handle, drew the mirror closer, and peered into it. A pair of scarlet eyes stared back.
“… what is this…”
Kutori Nota Seniolis has blue eyes. She didn’t like them very much at first, but ever since Willem said ‘they’re the color of the ocean’, she’s changed her opinion a bit. Well, she didn’t actually know what the ‘ocean’ or whatever was, so whether or not his words were a compliment she couldn’t be quite sure.
Anyways, no matter how hard she stared or how many times she blinked, the eyes staring back at her in the mirror bore the same red as a flame.
“Initial stage symptoms. If you rest for about two hours it’ll go away. Before that, absolutely no Venom. Also, think about yourself as much as possible. Don’t let a stranger’s memories sweep you away. Cling to your own.”
Loneliness within white darkness. A prayer echoing throughout a cramped place. A room covered with books.
Images of unknown origin continued to rampage through Kutori’s mind. She tried covering her eyes with her hands and shaking her head, but of course such a simple trick had no effect.
“These are memories? The memories of that someone that died when they were still a kid, before I became me?”
“A stranger’s. No relation to you. Nothing in common. A complete stranger’s. If you forget that or start to question it, you’ll be consumed.”
“You said something about age earlier… is this…?”
“Yep. Barely any fairies live too long in the first place, so usually encroachment is something that can be completely ignored. From the few cases that have occurred, though, it seems like it starts to get serious in fairies around twenty years old whose mind and body have fully grown. You right now are a rare case among rare cases. Like I said, it’s probably because you’ve been in prolonged contact with such a high amount of Venom. At this rate, you might not even make it through today, much less until the end of the battle.”
“I wouldn’t want that…” Kutori rolled over onto her back. “If I rest for two hours, it’ll go away, right?”
“The symptoms you’re seeing right now will. But even after that, you won’t be able to go too crazy on the battlefield.”
“… ah, that’s rough.”
Kutori held her arm over her eyes and laughed emptily. Originally, she was meant to die at this battle. To intentionally make her Venom run berserk and burn the enemy to ashes by exploding herself. Because she had a sudden change of heart and didn’t want to accept that fate, she learned the proper way of wielding a Kaliyon from him. She learned how to fight as a Brave.
Despite all that, an unexpected death now loomed right in front of her face.
“It’s okay. Even if the encroachment is showing up a little now, your body is still pretty young. As long as ya don’t go too crazy, it shouldn’t progress much further. There won’t be any harmful impact to your everyday life. I know someone who’s suffered from it before quite well, so I can guarantee you that.”
“… butter cake, I guess.”
“I’m remembering my promise and the reason I can’t die. Clinging on to your own memories is important, right?”
“That’s true… is food all ya got in your memory?”
“Desires based on our primal instincts are strong, you know? Probably.”
Aiseia laughed. For some reason, Kutori felt like it had been a long, long time since she last saw that face. Logically, though, that couldn’t be. Aiseia was always smiling, to the point where Kutori found it hard to picture her face with any other expression on it.
“Well then, I’m off.”
“… to where?”
“The front lines, silly. Nephren should be out there working hard right about now, so I gotta support her. We’ll buy plenty of time, so rest up.”
“Ah… okay, counting on you.”
“Won’t let ya down,” Aiseia responded with a smile and nodded.
A few questions lingered in Kutori’s mind: how did Aiseia know so much about encroachment? And how did she notice every little change that happened to Kutori? She never got the chance to ask. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, there was no need to ask. As Aiseia ignited her Venom, spread her wings and took to the sky, Kutori spotted a hint of scarlet dwelling in her golden eyes.
An adult man and woman quarreling. A big, big puddle. A chicken’s foot.
“These are strange memories,” Kutori muttered.
A twisted lake. An orange road stretching on forever and ever. Shining silver cloth.
“A soul that died while still an infant becomes a fairy, huh? This kid sure has seen a lot of weird things then… where in the world were they from?”
Or maybe, this was just how children saw the world. After all, Kutori, who didn’t exactly have a normal childhood, wouldn’t know what it was like. To them, maybe a small lizard running through the forest looks like a fire breathing dragon, or a guide leading them to a different world, or the handle of someone’s bag rolling around in the wind. The world spreading out in front of the eyes of a child must seem very strange and illogical to an adult. Perhaps that explained the images passing through her head.
Kutori, still lying face up, stared at the roof of the tent. The tears streaming out of her eyes flowed past her temples and towards her ears. Fairies are the result of lost spirits unable to comprehend death. As far as she knew, no fairy has ever lived long enough to be considered an adult in terms of age. She had always thought it was because of fighting; all the older fairies eventually got wounded or went berserk in a battle with the Beasts.
But maybe she was mistaken. Maybe it was fundamentally impossible for a fairy to become an adult. The lost and confused soul begins to understand death as it grows up. Then, once it does, it must return to the natural state that it failed to reach years ago. If such a thing as fate existed, this was surely it. An end that could not be avoided, no matter how hard one hoped or prayed.
“Aw, I was planning to corner him and finally force him to marry me once I became an adult…”
She once heard from Willem that ‘tragedy’ was one of the qualities considered necessary in a Brave. One who had a past or fate that would make anyone feel sorry for them was deemed fit to wield greater power than those without. And Seniolis, the oldest and greatest Kaliyon, especially seemed to prefer those with such a background. Only those who bore a fate of death and destruction could wield the pure, white blade.
“I see… so that’s why you’re letting me use you.” She glared bitterly at the sword lying on the floor next to her.
Because they’re essentially made of an already dead spirit, fairies usually treat life very lightly. They do not fear death. In that respect, Kutori was not acting very fairy like at the moment. She had a reason why she couldn’t die. A place she needed to return home to.
“Butter cake,” she murmured, tightening her hands into fists.
Okay, okay. I’ll make you eat so much cake you get heartburn. Got it? You better survive and come home.
Kutori recalled the promise they exchanged that night underneath the starry sky. At that moment, she made up her mind. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t allowed to live long. It didn’t matter if she couldn’t become an adult along with him. She could accept that. After all, it was her fault for being born as a fairy, as someone so unlucky she satisfied the tragedy fetish of some stupid sword.
But still, she made up her mind. She wanted to live on in that ephemeral dream for just a little longer. Even if the world were about to end. Up until the very last moment before it all came crashing down, she would be alive.
“Alright! Let’s do this!”
Gathering as much motivation as she possibly could, Kutori punched the air with her fist.
After that, the battle went on.
The sun sank, rose, sank again, rose again, repeating the same cycle over and over.
Despair descended upon the battlefield.
It took many forms: a huge, faceless man whose body was a mass of black ivy, the Teimerre reborn from the death of its 216th copy, the shell of the beast which had just met its 217th death, the pupa growing into the 218th form. And lastly, the cradle from which a new something emerged.
“Another Teimerre…?” a Reptrace muttered, too dumbfounded to continue his artillery duties.
“No,” Nephren, exhausted almost to the point of collapse, answered in between her rapid breaths. “The alarm only detected one Teimerre, and it’s always accurate about them. That means it must be something else.”
“But our cannons have no effect at all! How could it not be a Teimerre!?”
“Then that means… it’s another, unknown ‘Beast’?”
“Why the heck is that thing sprouting up here!?” screamed Aiseia, half crying and half laughing.
The battle had already been drawn out for too long; every soldier upon the field suffered from severe fatigue. For days, they had done nothing but kill the Teimerre, each time telling themselves that it would be the last one. But it never was. The Reptrace soldiers were also beginning to run low on ammo for their cannons.
With the end nowhere in sight, motivation had already begun to plunge some time ago. The addition of another enemy dealt the final blow. Everyone’s spirits were at last crushed with the unexpected arrival. They all repeated the same thought in their minds, but still didn’t dare put it into words.
We can’t win.
“– Retreat,” Limeskin ordered in a bitter voice. “Twenty minutes from now, dispel the suppression barrier around this island. At the same time, send a warning to all nearby islands. We have failed to remove the enemy. The 15th Island is now the territory of the ‘Beasts’. All life nearby is in danger.”
“No no no no, we can’t do that! The only reason Regul Aire can continue existing is because the Beasts can’t fly, right!? If we let them set up a nest here, it’s all over!” Aiseia protested.
“Of course, you are correct. Thus we need to sink this island as swiftly as possible. However, this island is large. The firepower we have will not suffice. We must gather all the power on Regul Aire. It is a race against time.”
“… just checking, what happens if we lose that race?”
“Do you truly want to hear?”
“Ah… maybe not. Never mind.” Aiseia plugged her ears and shook her head.
“– It’s my fault,” mumbled Kutori. Her face was pale as a ghost’s. “I could have stopped it by myself if I went berserk. Because of my selfish desire to live, we got into this mess–”
“Wrong,” interjected Nephren. She squatted on the ground, so tired that not even the strength to stand remained within her. “That’s only taking the Teimerre into account. Even if you went berserk, you would just barely be able to kill it, leaving the second Beast behind. Then we would have to face that unknown enemy without you. That situation would be worse than the one we’re in.”
“Ah… that’s true. Right now’s pretty bad, but I guess it’s a little better than the absolute worst of the worst, ya know?” Aiseia’s expression was more grim than it had ever been so far.
“… is that right?” Kutori still didn’t fully believe Nephren’s logic.
“Yes,” Nephren declared strongly. “This battle was one we couldn’t have won from the start. Now we just need to think about how to sink the island.”
“That is also true.” Limeskin nodded. “To gather all the firepower the Winged Guard owns would take at least ten nights, even if we hurried. But if there is no harm to the other islands in that time, then the buds of our victory song will start to become visible.”
“… that doesn’t sound very likely. Even if the Beast decides to lay low for ten days, can you guarantee that you’ll be able to drop the island with all that firepower?”
“About twenty percent chance.”
“Ha ha… ha. Well, at least you’re being realistic. Those numbers don’t sound very promising.”
“Not at all.” The Reptrace general cackled.
Ah, so this is how it is, thought Kutori. The world might end. Her mind accepted that statement more easily than expected. That conclusion triggered no feelings of anxiety or denial in her. It was simply as if some sinister being lurking behind her since her birth had finally walked up and laid its hand on her shoulder. The world was always on the verge of destruction. The end that they had been pushing back for so long was finally about to descend upon them. That’s all.
There was no need to lament. In the end, everyone will die anyway. Nothing will remain afterwards. No one will be left to feel loneliness or sadness. If that’s the case, going into that final moment with peace in one’s heart is surely the best option. Panicking won’t make anything better.
Kutori tightly gripped the brooch hanging by her chest. She hadn’t forgotten yet. She had a reason why she needed to live and return home. Until her stomach was full of the butter cake of victory, she couldn’t die. Until that oaf accepted her proposal, she needed to live on, even if that meant slurping up mud. Well, it looked like she would have to live quite a bit longer.
And if the world ended, that would be somewhat hard to do. Of course, Willem couldn’t die either. She also didn’t want to think about the little ones, still unable to fight, being exposed to danger. In that case…
A rocking boat.
— The encroachment again. If Kutori let her guard down even a little, it came welling back up, aiming to take her life. Utterly annoying. Maybe she was the weaker one, being such an unstable existence as a fairy, but she didn’t care. She was alive. Alive and struggling to grasp happiness. She wouldn’t let that be taken away by some random kid that died ages ago.
As she made up her mind, a thought floated into her head: the plan wasn’t very good. If she calmed down a bit and thought things through, she would probably come up with a few better options. But there was no time, which meant any plan she managed to think of was by default the best plan. All she needed to carry it out was a little determination.
Resignation and determination are essentially the same thing. They both refer to a decision to sacrifice something important in order to achieve a goal.
That’s right. With pride and confidence, she would give up. She would throw something important away in order to get a glimpse of that happiness. Right now, that’s what she needed to do.
Slowly, she took a deep breath. Then, slowly, she exhaled.
“Kutori?” Nephren called. Kutori’s behavior must have seemed strange to her.
“First Officer, I have a plan. Please start the retreat now.” Ignoring Nephren for the moment, Kutori spoke to Limeskin as she glared at the writhing Beast. “Ren, Aiseia. I need you to help me out a little. Since you guys can fly it shouldn’t be a problem if you leave after everyone else.”
“Whatcha planning on?”
“I think I’m going to split this island in two,” Kutori said and gave the sword in her right hand a little flourish.
The numerous fissures in the body of Seniolis began to widen. Faint light signaling the stimulation of Venom poured out from the gaps. The Kaliyons were made to help the weak resist the overwhelmingly strong. To accomplish that, they utilize the power of whoever they touch. The stronger the opponent, the stronger the Kaliyon becomes. And right now in front of their eyes was an extraordinarily powerful enemy threatening to destroy all of Regul Aire.
“Well, let’s do this.”
Only seconds remained before the 218th Teimerre finished being born.
Kutori kicked off the ground. The Venom ignited in her body enhanced her concentration and slowed down the flow of time. Inside her now colorless world, she smashed through the walls of air blocking her way and closed the distance between her and her opponent almost instantly.
A mass of ivy vines stretched out to counterattack. Kutori carefully observed all 87 of them. There were a lot, but most of them were bluffs meant to intimidate her and posed no real threat. About 65 of them would just hit the ground without her even trying to dodge. The problem was the other 22. Eight of them were aimed at her legs, trying to immobilize her, five were aimed at her arms and sword, trying to disarm her, and the other nine were aimed at her head and chest, trying to steal her life. Looking at them one by one, she could tell that their trajectories weren’t very precise, but the sheer number of vines rendered it impossible to dodge all of them. Usually, it would be best to just avoid any fatal wounds and only think about how to press on with the attack. However, that wasn’t enough for her right now.
First, she cut down the vines aiming for her feet. Upon contact, Seniolis responded with the magic flowing inside them. The faint light emitting from the fissures in the sword grew slightly brighter. Kutori’s thoughts and senses sped up even faster, buying her a mere fraction of a second. But that was all she needed. Swinging Seniolis once more, she chopped down the five aiming for her arms.
A frog with seven eyes.
The encroachment was also accelerating. Kutori didn’t have time to deal with it, so she tried her best to push it out of her mind. The five vines just cut down excited Seniolis even further.
A lion swallowing a snake. A pile of coins.
Now it was just rinse and repeat. All she needed to do was get Seniolis in contact with anything and everything around her. The power it acquired on each slice bought enough time for the next step.
A mountain rising from the sky. A rural town in the rain. Candy inside a small bowl.
The distance decreased to zero. Kutori brought down Seniolis from directly above onto the entangled mass of ivy right in front of her eyes. The sword sent a few vines flying, pierced through the main lump, then kept going straight into the ground of the 15th Floating Island.
A burning signpost. A round rainbow. Castanets playing random noises. A gold and silver cat. A spinning wheel. A knife with no handle. A bag as big as a mountain. A man hung from the top of a tower.
Seniolis howled in response to Kutori’s will. The overwhelming amount of Venom ignored the Beast and concentrated at the tip of the sword, which now pierced deep into the ground.
The entire body of the Kaliyon shone brilliantly, starting from the hilt and making its way down to the point.
The ground sucked up all the light radiating from the sword.
A short silence followed.
Then, a deep rumble. A single crack emerged in the ground, then rapidly began to spread out like a spider’s web until it covered the entire island. Light poured forth from the fissures, pushing them open even wider. The land cracked. The island began to fall.
In a desperate attempt to save itself, the Beast lashed out its vines and grabbed onto any nearby boulders it could find. But it did no good. The Beast, along with the boulders it clung to and the entire island itself, started its rapid descent to the vast continent below. Kutori felt like she heard it scream. Of course, she knew it was just her imagination.
“W-What do you think you’re doing!?” Aiseia yelled.
Spreading her illusory wings, she flew over to Kutori, who was still on the Beast, using up the last reserves of her power. Aiseia managed to pick her up before it was too late. As they retreated, Nephren deflected the vines attacking them from behind.
“What a reckless…”
They stopped and turned around when they reached an altitude out of range of the Beast. The 15th Floating Island crumbled to pieces and fell before their eyes. The island, which Limeskin said only had about a 20% chance of falling when bombarded with the Winged Guard’s entire stock of firepower, had been broken in a matter of seconds by just one Kaliyon.
“Kutori, can you hear me?” Aiseia asked, holding the blue haired fairy in her arms.
“Nn… I’m okay, I can hear you.”
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
“Yeah… it’s okay… I remember.”
“It’s not okay! Did you forget what kind of situation you’re in!? I told you the encroachment would accelerate if you did anything crazy, didn’t I!? Doing stuff like that will result in more than just a slightly shortened life span, you know!?”
“It’s okay… it’s okay.” Kutori looked up with her pure red eyes and smiled feebly. “I promised to return home.” Her fleeting smile seemed as if it would disappear at any moment. “I’ll return home with my head held high and report to Willem: I was able to survive because of you. But I don’t know what’ll happen to me from now on, so stay by my side and teach me more forever and ever.” She laughed.
“… ah, but I guess I’ll have to keep the encroachment a secret from him. He’ll definitely worry too much if he hears. I want him to stay who he is. A little absentminded at times, but always cool and reliable.”
“Agh alright alright, you’re starting to sound creepy!” Aiseia hugged her precious friend’s thin body with what strength still remained inside her.
“Ow, that hurts, Aiseia.”
“That’s proof you’re still alive. Deal with it.”
Kutori gave up trying to resist and let her body relax.
She promised she would return home. She could live on as long as she clung to that promise. The problem was after that. After the promise was fulfilled, when she had nothing to hang on to any longer, what would happen to her?
Aiseia didn’t ask, and Kutori didn’t answer. She didn’t want to know the answer. She wanted to keep averting her eyes from that question until the time came when she could no longer run away.