Willem knew he could no longer fight. He realized that he would die if he ever tried to stand on the battlefield. He even learned to see the bright side of it: while the girls went off to fight, he could see them off in the safety of home.
Yet when the airship Plantaginesta fell under attack, Willem chose to fight so naturally. He chose to leave sleeping Kutori’s side, set his Venom ablaze, and confront the enemy. When he met Lantolq on the battlefield, she said that he was trying to commit suicide with Kutori as an excuse. Her description couldn’t have expressed his actions at the time more accurately.
Willem wanted to die out there. He wanted to throw away everything except his resolve to protect the girls. He used the battlefield to satisfy his selfish wishes, stomping out the part of him that wanted to simply wait for the girls’ return.
He did all that he could, and even some things he shouldn’t have been able to do. For the first time in a while, his Venom ignited to full potential. He heard the sounds of his own blood boiling and flesh burning. If he was going to die fighting no matter what, there was no point in holding back. And once he could no longer fight, neither pain nor suffering would matter. He went all out.
And then, his wish came true. The Second Enchanted Weapons Technician of the Winged Guard and manager of the fairy warehouse, Willem Kumesh, lost his life during the intense battle. Or at least, that’s what supposedly happened.
The birds were humming their pretty little songs. A pleasant morning had dawned.
Sitting on the roof of the orphanage, Willem stifled a yawn. Then, with slightly watery eyes, he surveyed the area. The familiar town before him looked exactly as he remembered it. The patch of green in the distance marked Adam’s farm. In front of it stood the chapel. The brick buildings of various colors nearby it were cheap apartments, and towards the edge of the cluster a red flag waving in the wind signified the Adventurer’s Guild. And further beyond that, past the irrigation ditch, lay the center of Gomag city.
Pillars of smoke rose from a few of the chimneys in sight. The residents of the town were beginning to prepare breakfast. The humans of the world were getting ready to live another day.
Of course, there was no way all that was real. The town before Willem’s eyes, along with the Emnetwyte flourishing within, perished long, long ago. Over five hundred years ago, according to the history books. The invaders named the ‘Beasts’ appeared right in the middle of the humans’ imperial capital, within the king’s palace. They were terrifyingly strong, even more terrifyingly numerous, and also swift. They devoured the world at a pace unmatched by any army to ever walk the land. In just a few days, many of the main cities and states comprising the empire disappeared.
But not only the Emnetwyte vanished. The Beasts consumed all in sight without discrimination. Grass and trees, animals and insects, Elves and all the other races who stood in the Beasts’ way. They laid waste to everything, as if simply existing were an unforgivable crime to them.
The real earth was now no more than a withered wasteland, where the only things that moved were ashen sandstorms. The few survivors of the Beasts’ fierce rampage had long ago escaped to floating islands in the sky under the leadership of the Great Sage and reforged civilization anew. Those races not fortunate enough to have gotten the chance to seek refuge were, of course, extinct.
“Damn it.” Willem swore quietly enough that no one else heard.
Humans were long gone, along with his home town. Willem repeated that to himself over and over. The scenery spreading out before his eyes was no more than something like a diary. It roused old memories and a nostalgic feeling in him, but existed only in the past. The place he needed to return home to wasn’t here. It was up there, faraway in the sky.
“It’s big.” Nephren took a seat next to him and started talking in the Regul Aire common language. “What number island is this?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“It looks like you know where this is.”
Nephren’s statement was oddly difficult to either confirm or deny. “This is Gomag city, part of the empire. The building below us is the Foreigner Commemorative Orphanage, built and managed by the honorable 18th generation Regal Brave Nils D Foreigner himself.”
Nephren’s face, which rarely showed any expression, became clouded with doubt. “A Brave managing an orphanage? Never heard that before… but anyways, if we’re in the empire, that means this is the 6th Island?”
“Don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a Brave in Regul Aire. This is the land.”
Nephren’s look grew even more troubled. It was slightly amusing.
“But there aren’t any Braves on the land anymore either, right?” she asked.
“Well that’s the problem. Everything on the land was destroyed five hundred years ago,” Willem answered as he looked around. “But this is without doubt the exact same hometown from my memories.”
Following suit, Nephren also took a look at their surroundings. “… so this is the ancient land.”
“Is there another land below this one?”
Nephren’s question sounded a bit strange, but Willem understood what she wanted to say. Having lived in Regul Aire her entire life, she had grown used to the floating islands and their limited spaces. If you walk a bit you run into the edge, and if you look down from there you see the ashen land below. That was common sense to her. The concept of a vast fertile landscape stretching out endlessly in all directions, while perhaps vaguely understandable, probably far surpassed anything she had ever imagined.
“That mountain looks pretty far away,” Nephren said while pointing off in the distance.
“It sure is. From here, I’d say it’s about the length of the entire 68th Island away.”
“And beyond that mountain, the land keeps going?”
“Yep, it keeps going. About two days away by carriage there’s a pretty big town.” Willem laid out a mental map of the empire. “After that it’s grain fields for a while, then you cross a river and there’s a huge forest and then a mountain range… after that it becomes a warzone… contested territory with the Elves.”
“… it makes me feel a little uneasy.”
“Ah, I know what you’re talking about. That’s what happens when you try to think about something so ridiculously large.”
“But the land already fell into ruin.”
“So what’s all this?”
“This is probably…”
Willem looked down at his chest. He could see the faint glow of Venom emanating out of the metal fragment hanging from his neck, the language Talisman which had the power to transmit will itself through words. It only required a small amount of Venom from the user to activate. It was truly a convenient little gadget, but it had some drawbacks.
Like lies or insults which are harmless when kept to oneself, there are attacks which only become effective once transmitted to the target. Understanding every language means that all such attacks can hit you directly. As long as Willem’s Talisman stayed activated, he would accept all incoming messages without any sort of screening process, considerably reducing his resistance to any sort of mental interference attack. He had completely forgotten about that since it posed no threat while living in Regul Aire.
The Talisman was now activated against Willem’s will. What did that signify?
“… it’s probably a dream.”
Nephren shot him a cold glare.
“Wait, no no, not just any old dream. I mean we’re the targets of some kind of attack.”
Back when Willem roamed the land as a Quasi Brave, he encountered a few Devils who used such tricks. The Devils were a race devoted to corrupting the Emnetwyte. They tempted humans with various schemes in an attempt to get their target to throw away his self control or faith. One such scheme was a mental attack which utilized a dream world.
“A fantasy world built on the victim’s memories, made to replicate reality with almost perfect accuracy. The goal is to make the victim into a permanent resident of the imaginary world. Be careful. The second we lose the desire to escape from here, they win,” Willem explained.
“So this dream looks so much like the ancient land because…”
“They probably thought I would fall just by seeing this place.”
In actuality it was quite an effective attack. Just by sitting on the roof and looking around, a warm and nostalgic feeling overcame Willem, almost seeming to melt his heart. But as long as he recognized that it was in fact an attack, and not reality, he could resist.
“A dream world…” Nephren mumbled and pinched her own cheek. “Ow. Is this really a dream?” Faint traces of tears began to appear in her eyes.
“Well the whole point is that it’s a dream you never wake up from, so we won’t be able to break out so easily.”
“So what happens if we just do nothing?”
“Their goal is to make us complete residents of this world. To accomplish that, they’re going to tamper with the world and force us to respond.”
“Play with the world?”
“They’re the creators of this world. Besides interfering with us directly, they can do pretty much anything they want using our memories. There were a few species of Devils who specialized in this kind of temptation. They each had their own methods. The Aeshma would gradually kill off all the people in the dream, the Bufas would attack directly, and the Mammon would give you loads of money and jewels. I also fought with a Succubus once…”
The Succubus would corrupt its target mainly by satisfying sexual desires. So the dream world Willem got trapped in during his fight was overflowing with those sort of temptations. It was… well, Willem didn’t exactly want to explain the details to Nephren. (For a little while after that fight, he couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with Leila or Emissa.)
“Anyways, moving on…”
“What did the Succubus do?” Nephren asked, much to Willem’s chagrin.
“Moving on…” He forcefully changed the subject. “I don’t know who our enemy is, but his target is almost definitely me.”
Willem found it hard to imagine that the Nephren sitting beside him was a fake. She didn’t belong in the setting of the dream, so most likely the real Nephren just happened to get caught up in this mess along with him.
“So basically as long as I still have the desire to escape, our enemy will try to interfere with this world in order to break my spirit. That’s our chance. We need to figure out who he is and strike back.”
“Do we need to strike back?” Nephren asked.
“Of course. If we just sit around we’ll never get out of here.”
“Do we need to escape?”
“If we leave here, it won’t be long before we both die.”
Nephren was probably right. As Willem and Nephren lay dying on the ashen sand, someone had captured their souls and brought them into this dream world. That meant there was a high possibility that their physical bodies had already become corpses in the real world. Or maybe their time spent in the dream world only amounted to a mere fraction of a second in the real world. In that case, when they escaped the dream they would return to their almost dead selves, and then die a few seconds later.
“We’ll never return home,” Nephren said.
“… that’s not the problem,” Willem said, half to himself. “Don’t let weird thoughts get into your head. If you lose the will to escape, you’ll become a resident of this dream world for eternity. Just because I’m our enemy’s target doesn’t mean you’re safe.”
Nephren nodded and fell silent.
I wonder what’s wrong with her, Willem thought. Nephren had always been a rather strange girl, but the strangeness that Willem sensed in her now was a different kind of strange. She had her usual absentminded expression, but the emotions residing deeper within her eyes told a different story. Something was troubling her.
“Faather!” Someone called out to him from below in the language of the empire.
Just by hearing that voice, Willem felt a tightening sensation in his chest. Looking down, he spotted Almaria, or rather something which took on the appearance of Almaria, standing outside the front door waving to him. The sensation in his chest turned into pain. Almaria. That face. That voice. When he lost them, he had grieved like never before. He had suffered so much trying to accept it. And while he was never able to forget that pain, finally being able to lessen it had saved him more than his saviors ever realized. Yet now, she was there, looking at him with that face, calling to him with that voice, as if to deny his entire agonizing struggle over the past two years.
“What are you doing up there? Breakfast is ready!”
“What’s she saying?” Nephren asked, unable to understand the Emnetwyte’s language.
“It’s breakfast time. We can think more after we eat.”
“Don’t worry. Almaria’s cooking is delicious, at least as good as Naigrat’s,” Willem said. “Well, except for meat.” The Trolls’ knowledge of and devotion to cooking meats far surpassed those of the Emnetwyte. Even though Almaria was a great cook, she could never win against a Troll when it came to meat, and Willem wouldn’t want her to be able to either. That would just be creepy.
“I wasn’t worried about that.”
“Hm? Then what are you worried about?”
Willem tried asking casually, but Nephren didn’t answer. She silently ignited her Venom, sprouted whitish gray illusionary wings on her back, and flew down from the roof. The fairies’ wings don’t have physical substance and also get the privilege of ignoring the laws of physics. Nephren’s wings carried her down to the ground without even a single flap, then disappeared just as quickly as they appeared initially.
Almaria let out a scream. Being an ordinary civilian, and not a brave, adventurer, or chevalier, she probably wasn’t used to seeing flying girls. With a sigh, Willem scratched his head and ignited his own Venom. Then, leaving behind an explosive sound, he leaped into the air. His empowered legs propelled him upwards with a force which far surpassed what a normal human would be capable of. After slightly adjusting his stance midair, Willem landed right next to Nephren. His shoes left a deep imprint in the ground as they kicked up a cloud of dirt.
He reassured the worried Nephren and checked his body’s condition. Nowhere hurt in particular. He tried jumping up and down a few times in place, but still no problem arose. The Venom was properly invigorating Willem’s body.
I see. Willem deduced that he and Nephren had retained all the abilities they possessed in the real world while losing any damage afflicting their physical bodies. And without all the wounds in his body, Willem could now freely use the power he once held as a Quasi Brave.
“Oh yeah, about earlier…” Nephren said.
“You never told me what kind of dream the Succubus makes.”
“Forget about it.”
On the outskirts of Gomag city there stood a lone building. Bearing the official name of the Foreigner Commemorative Orphanage, it was funded and built by the great 18th generation Regal Brave himself, Nils D Foreigner. Well, it had a fantastic name and founding history, but the same could not be said for anything else about it.
If you had to describe it in one word, ‘old’ might have been an apt response. In two words, ‘very old’. It was a two story wooden building whose walls and ceiling showed clear signs of both age and the incompetence of the novice carpenters who had worked on them over the years. Before Nils purchased the property, it was a run down preschool about to be demolished, so it boasted just as long a history as any of the stone buildings around town. But unlike them, it had a woefully unstable foundation which seemed ready to fly away at any moment should just one storm strike.
At the time, there were 21 children living in that privately managed orphanage. They lived through each day robustly and boisterously, free from the chains of useless adults. Willem was one resident of the orphanage, although for about five years he barely ever got the chance to return home. His training to become a Brave, and his missions once he became a Quasi Brave, didn’t leave him much free time. But still, he was a proud resident of the orphanage.
As they all gathered for breakfast, many of the newer arrivals at the orphanage took one look at the older man and got scared out of their wits. But as soon as Willem showed them that smile of his, they relaxed. These kind of moments were the only times when that face of his, which lacked any solemnity whatsoever, came in handy. The older kids (mainly around 10 years old), who already knew Willem, gave him a warm welcome.
“Hey! Father, you’re back!”
“Hey, teach me how to use a sword! Remember? You promised to teach me when you got back.”
“Where did you fight this time? Did you kill a lot of Elves?”
They all gathered around Willem and pestered him with questions.
“Hey guys! Glad to see you’re all doing well.”
One by one, Willem hugged the kids, rubbed their cheeks, and rustled their hair. As he went around, the children shouted in excitement.
“Everyone settle down. It’s rude to cause such a fuss during mealtime, isn’t it?”
After receiving a scolding from Almaria, the kids all took their seats and ate.
A bitter salad with sweet and sour dressing. That combination of flavors, which Willem had almost forgotten, gave his stomach a little surprise.
The things he wanted to protect. The place he longed to return home to. The people he wanted to meet once more. The voices he wanted to hear once more. The reason he continued to wield his sword in battle despite his lack of talent. Willem couldn’t truly say it was all here. But much of that which he once lost, grieved over, and finally gave up on ever reclaiming was unmistakably right in front of him, in the form of a crowd of children. Yet none of it was real. To allow the imposters to move him emotionally would constitute betrayal to the real Almaria and the real children who all passed away 527 years ago.
But just by being there and talking to them, Willem couldn’t help but get emotional. He could feel the tears coming on again. He wanted to give them all another hug. What would happen if he stopped trying to suppress those impulses? How would Almaria react if he suddenly gave her a great big hug?
Wait wait! They’re watching! The little kids are all watching!
At first, she would probably say something like that, but she wouldn’t resist physically. But sooner or later…
Geez. You’ve grown bigger, but inside you’re still just a child.
She would accept it. Then, with a slightly disgusted face, but with a soft and gentle voice, she would hug him back and comfort him. Willem easily predicted it all in his head, but the imaginary scene made him a little sad.
“Father,” Almaria called to him.
“Why are you making faces? It’s pretty creepy.”
Willem was truly hurt.
“Whenever you come home it’s always sudden like this,” Almaria said with a hint of annoyance in her voice. “Grandpa was always like that too. Now, I get that Braves are busy and all, but I think there’s a limit on how much you can use that excuse, right?”
Even though Almaria seemed to be complaining, she maintained a cheerful expression and light footsteps. Willem knew that often times she had trouble being honest with herself, so he didn’t take her complaints to heart. Sitting in his chair, he took another look at Almaria. She seemed a little smaller than he remembered. After a moment’s thought, he soon realized why. The reason almost made him want to laugh.
The ridiculously long period of 500 years sandwiched between had messed up his sense of time, but on that night when Willem last saw Almaria, he was sixteen years old. After his slumber, he spent close to two years in Regul Aire. During that time, he grew taller. Over five hundred and twenty seven years, Willem only underwent two years worth of change. Physically, he simply grew from sixteen to eighteen. But Almaria hadn’t changed one bit. Willem was merely seeing their new height difference. And that also served as clear proof that the Almaria here was a fake.
“… say, do you notice anything strange about me today?” Willem asked.
“Yeah,” Almaria answered.
“The fact that you’re asking that question. Also, you’re making the same face that Falco makes when he’s crying after having a nightmare, and you look kind of nervous even though you’re home.”
Is that it? Willem’s thoughts turned bitter. Earlier, he noticed that Almaria seemed smaller than usual. Flipping perspectives, Almaria should have noticed that Willem had grown quite a bit. The real Almaria would have without doubt noticed that and pointed it out. The fact that she didn’t do so only provided more evidence that she was an imposter.
“Father.” A girl pulled on his sleeve. “Who’s that?”
Nephren, although unable to understand their language, could still see that everyone had turned to look at her. She gave Willem a quizzical look.
“You fought up in the north this time, right? Is she from one of those countries?”
“Ah…” Willem thought for a bit, but couldn’t come up with a decent explanation. “Yeah, that.”
“What’s going on?” Nephren asked in the common tongue of Regul Aire.
“Someone asked who you are. I can’t exactly tell them the truth, so play along.”
“… got it.” Nephren nodded and returned to her meal.
“She has pretty hair. It’s like a little off from silver,” someone remarked.
Among the fairies, who often possessed hair with strikingly bright colors, Nephren was relatively normal. Thanks to that, while people did notice her hair, they couldn’t tell right away that she wasn’t human.
“So what’s her story?” Almaria asked as she brought over another bowl of salad. “Since you brought her over here suddenly, at first I thought she might need to be taken care of, but earlier she flew, didn’t she?”
The orphanage operated with support from the city of Gomag, but the children were not all residents of Gomag. They came from all over, picked up by Willem’s master, also the founder of the orphanage and their ‘grandfather’, during his battles.
“No… she’s more like… my comrade.”
“Comrade?” Almaria repeated suspiciously. “Comrade in what?”
“A fellow Quasi Brave. What else could that mean?”
“Even though she’s smaller than us!?”
All the boys immediately turned their attention to Nephren, who drew back in bewilderment. After all, she was raised in the all female fairy orphanage. The only men besides Willem she ever came close to were the Reptrace guys in the army. This was probably her first time drawing the attention of boys of a similar race.
“Hey, let’s have a duel!”
“Hey, no fair! I get to go first!”
The boys grabbed onto both of Nephren’s arms and began dragging her down the hallway.
“I don’t really know what’s going on, but it’s like there’s a bunch of Collons,” Nephren mumbled.
Her voice trailed off as she moved farther away, then eventually became inaudible to Willem. That’s a pretty good comparison, he thought.
“Hey, at least say ‘thank you’ when you’re finished eating!” Almaria yelled down the hallway. A few of the boys returned an energetic ‘thank you!’. “Geez, how rude. Anyways, she’s really small… but I’m guessing she can wield one of those big swords you showed me earlier?”
“Yep. Despite her body size, she’s far more qualified to be a Brave than I am. Oh, and also, she looks small, but she’s around your age,” Willem said.
“What, really? I thought she was about the same age as Nanette.”
Sitting at the corner of the table, Nanette, who just turned ten, nodded vigorously. Willem could definitely see why they got that impression. Nephren was pretty small. However, he decided to not tell her about their little conversation.
“… hm?” A voice seemed to call to him out of the blue. “Did someone just say something?”
“Huh? I said that she looks about the same age as Nanette,” Almaria responded.
“No, after that. It sounded kinda faraway…”
“I also thought she was the same age as me!” Nanette raised her hand and said energetically. That probably wasn’t what Willem heard either.
Oh well. Maybe it was just his imagination. In any case, he couldn’t afford to let his guard down. It was shaping up to be a more troublesome dream than he originally thought. Reminding himself that he was in the clutches of an unknown enemy, and not in the safety of home, Willem focused his mind and sharpened his vigilance.