She knocked on the door, but received no answer.
She twisted the doorknob, and found that it had been left unlocked.
She pushed the door open. The room was dark, and empty.
Ah, that’s right. Tiat remembered. The owner of the room had left the fairy warehouse to ride on a big airship and pick up her comrades waiting on the land. She wouldn’t be home for at least a few days.
“Um… I came to return the book I borrowed.” Cautiously, Tiat stepped foot into the uninhabited room.
She tiptoed quietly through the neatly cleaned room and placed the book she held by her chest on Kutori’s desk. As she put it down, she noticed that something had been placed towards the edge of the desk. A big blue stylish hat… and beside it a shining silver object.
Tiat had seen it before. A silver brooch with a clear blue gemstone fit into it. It looked so good on Kutori, and Tiat had always been envious. Once, when she told Kutori that, she answered, “Thanks, but I’m sure it’ll look good on you too soon enough. Once you get a little bigger, I’ll give it to you as a present.”
Tiat panicked a little when she heard that. She didn’t mean to make it seem like she wanted Kutori to give her the brooch. She just wanted to say how lovely Kutori looked with such a grown up accessory on her. But still, Kutori’s words made her a little happy.
… I wonder if she forgot it?
Tiat suddenly felt a bit mischievous. Since her conversation with Kutori, she had grown some. Maybe now was the time that she could become an elegant adult lady with a pretty brooch. It wouldn’t do any harm to just try it on. She gulped, then cautiously stretched her hand out towards the glittering object. Her fingertips grazed the silver metal.
“… maybe I shouldn’t.”
Tiat pulled back her hand. She felt like if she touched it, even just for a moment, even if she was just trying it out, something very important would be lost.
Now, the Plantaginesta is, at its core, a cargo ship. Unlike a messenger ship, it was designed to safely carry a large amount of materials. In other words, passenger comfort was not particularly prioritized.
Willem could really feel the consequences of this as the airship rocked back and forth incessantly. Moreover, mysterious pipes jutted out into the hallways and rooms, the smell of oil had stuck onto seemingly every single object in the entire ship, obscene graffiti could be spotted in various places, empty meat paste cans littered the floors, etc. etc.
Now, Willem could deal with a bad environment. He lived through plenty of that on the 28th Island. But with the addition of an airship’s specialty rocking, his discomfort quickly surpassed his tolerance limit.
Estimated flight time: 42 hours.
Those 42 hours were truly hell.
But eventually, they arrived at Ground Level Ruins K96-MAL, the site of the fallen expedition airship Saxifraga.
“The world is shaking…”
While staggering around like a drunk man, Willem set foot on the ashen sand. The soles of his shoes sunk a distance about as thick as a hand down into the soft ground. Just walking took an annoyingly large amount of effort. He didn’t even want to imagine what running around and fighting on this sand was like.
Looking up from the ground, Willem saw the vast gray ruins. Within stood a few half crumbled stone buildings which looked like someone had gone and smacked ashen dye all over them.
Long ago, a small town stood in place of those eerie monuments. Situated near the borders of the empire, it was quite far away from the capital. Not large or prosperous by any means, distant from any of the main trade routes, and lacking any distinctive products, the town had quietly accumulated its own little insignificant history over the centuries, and should have continued for many more.
Willem crouched down and grabbed a handful of sand. The ashen dust quickly fell back down through the gaps between his fingers.
“Less dramatic than I expected…”
He felt none of the emotions that he had prepared himself for beforehand. Sadness, frustration, none of them came to mind. It wasn’t that he still hadn’t grasped the reality of the situation. Before his eyes was his hometown, Gomag, or rather what had become of it. He had been able to accept that truth so quickly it almost felt strange.
“… are you okay?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about me,” he answered to Nephren, who must have snuck up beside him sometime while he was lost in thought, then stood up.
“You don’t look okay.”
“Probably just the motion sickness. Really, there’s nothing on my mind in particular.”
“If you’re really not thinking about anything, I think that’s something to worry about. This is your hometown, isn’t it?”
A strong wind blew by, causing Nephren’s sand protection cloak to flutter wildly in the air.
“I’m fine. My hometown doesn’t exist anymore, and right now my home is –” Willem pointed to the sky. “– up there. Right?”
Nephren grabbed Willem’s head with both arms and drew it closer to her face. She stared deep into his eyes.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Now let go of me, don’t want anyone to see.”
“It’s not like we’re doing anything bad.”
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is what other people think of it.”
“Reeeeeee–” Suddenly, he heard the sound of rapid sprinting across the sand. “– eeeeeen!!”
From out of nowhere, a forceful kick, along with a splatter of sand, landed in his sides. Just like when Collon or Panival attacked him playfully, Willem took it without trying to dodge. However, this time turned out to be very different. The kick, far more powerful than he had imagined, knocked him over, leaving him on the ground writhing in pain. Willem’s assailant, a young boy… or no, young girl, grabbed hold of Nephren’s shoulders and shook them violently. Willem, still flat on the sand, lifted just his face up to take a look.
“Are you okay!? What did this pervert try to do to you!? He didn’t succeed, right!?”
The newcomer had scarlet hair and eyes with a slightly darker shade of the same color. Willem had never seen her before, but her appearance matched with someone that he heard about. Noft Kei Desperatio, user of Dug Weapon Desperatio.
“No, Noft.” Nephren, looking slightly uncomfortable, tried to wiggle out of Noft’s hold. “He’s not a pervert trying to do things to little girls. In fact, some wish that he would do more to little girls.”
“I didn’t think you would come to the rescue. You’re still fun sized like before!”
Nephren’s explanation went in one ear and out the other. Noft, a broad smile on her face, only squeezed Nephren even harder.
“… it’s only been a month since you left the warehouse. Of course I haven’t grown much since then.”
“Really? It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve seen you…” Noft suddenly froze, as if remembering something. “– Hey… you were at that battle too, weren’t you?”
“The one with the extra large ‘6th’.”
“Ah…” Still locked inside Noft’s arms, Nephren gave a small nod. “I went and fought.”
“Did Kutori fight bravely?”
Nephren looked a bit confused. “Uh, yeah she was really brave.”
“Ah, well that’s good.” A lonely smile spread across Noft’s face. “I don’t know how to put it… I didn’t really like her that much, and I thought we would never be able to get along, and that still hasn’t changed. But after coming here, being in a situation where I don’t know if I’ll be able to ever make it home safely, I started to feel a little regret. Even if we never became friends, even if we still fought all the time, I wish I talked with her more.”
Willem sluggishly raised his body up from the sand. He spotted two more girls walking over from the airship. One face Willem knew very well, and the other he had never seen before, but it matched the description of one he had heard about. She must have been the other of the two fairies sent down on the expedition: Lantolq Itsuri Historia, user of Dug Weapon Historia. With that, the safety of the two of them was confirmed. Willem breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“It must have been strong, the Beast on the 15th Island,” Noft continued. “Not being able to win without Kutori opening the gate, that’s not normal. But you being here safe and sound means that she really did it. She went and opened that gate.”
“Umm…” A rare occurrence, Nephren’s face showed visible signs of being troubled.
“She was always serious when it came to that stuff, saying she needed to protect everyone and all. She always tried to act strong, even though inside she was super scared. I bet she kept up the act until the very end.”
Maybe because of her long awaited reunion with a friend from the fairy warehouse, Noft seemed to be letting her mouth run wild. She went on and on, her words gradually becoming less and less comprehensible. Pretty soon she would probably lose track of what was saying herself. Finally, a tap on the shoulder from a blue haired girl, Lantolq, interrupted her.
“What? I’m busy right now.” With a sniffle, Noft paused her endless stream of words.
“Take a deep breath.”
“Inhale, exhale. Once you’ve calmed down, look behind you.”
Maybe because she was obedient at heart, or maybe just because it was Lantolq speaking, Noft did as she was told. She took a deep breath in, let it all out, then turned around with a face that said she had no idea why she was doing this–
“… umm…” A pattern of blue and red fluttered in the wind. Kutori stood there with an uncomfortable look. “… long time no see?”
“G-Ghost!!” Noft released Nephren from her grip and sprinted off at an extremely impressive speed considering the unstable sand beneath her feet.
“W-Wait!” Kutori took off after her, again at quite a respectable speed. She wasn’t fast enough to catch up to Noft, but she didn’t let her get too far away.
The two girls, overflowing with lively vigor, dashed through the hollow shell of a dead town, on the vast, dead land.
“Who do you think will win?” Nephren asked to Lantolq.
“Let’s see… I bet tonight’s dessert on Noft tripping and Kutori catching her.”
“Then I’ll bet the same on Kutori getting tired out first… it’s been a long time, Lantolq. Glad to see you’re doing well.”
“Same for you. Glad you guys are safe. Really.” Lantolq squeezed Nephren’s small palm with her hand.
While listening to their conversation off to the side, Willem watched the other two girls run off into the distance.