An Unwelcome Return
There was a bad guy. Then a strong guy came along and beat him up. Evil disappeared from the world, and everyone became happy.
Many stories start that way, and many more end that way.
Their story, unfortunately, did not follow that pattern. They had no colossal evil on which to blame all the world’s misery on, nor did they have the strength to gallantly crush such evil. Their story started at a slightly odd place, and will surely follow their footsteps as they wander through the darkness before ending at their final destination.
In the sky above the 11th Floating Island, an airship with the appearance of a regular civilian ground expedition ship flew within a thick covering of thunder clouds. Overall, the ship showed clear signs of wear and tear. The dust proof boards had developed a peculiar spotted pattern after receiving the necessary treatment to descend to the surface so many times. The left and right propellers differed slightly, and shutters had been drawn down over many of the glass windows on the side of the ship on account of the numerous cracks in them. On its hull, a black cat’s face and the words ‘Batou Adventure Company’ had been sloppy painted on.
If a learned person saw this ship up close, however, he would notice a few strange things in its external appearance. For example, despite the extreme overall filthiness, the dust proof boards looked almost brand new with no signs of damage. Also, the ship’s flying seemed relatively stable, even though all its parts seemed mismatched and put together in a hurry. The shutters hanging over the side windows looked so sturdy in contrast with just about everything else. And more than anything, the thunderous roaring it produced obviously belonged to a fairly large burning spell reactor, completely unfitting for a small civilian ship.
In other words, contrary to its appearance, this was no ordinary civilian airship. Its official name was ‘Tomorrow Grasper Number 7’, and it belonged to the National Defense Air Force fleet of Elpis on the 13th Floating Island.
Inside the cockpit, a Frogger soldier checked the numerous meters and gauges on the wall with his round eyes. They all stared back mechanically, displaying their usual, stable numbers. Smooth sailing. The airship would arrive at the 11th Floating Island’s First Harbor District before daybreak at this rate. After that, they would be able to hand over their fresh plunder to the National Defense Army’s researchers.
“Excuse me, officer.” The Frogger turned his head around. “I really think we should get rid of that luggage. It’ll go against our orders, but it is simply too dangerous.”
“Hmph. Did you catch the coward disease?” the Lucantrobos officer said in a mocking tone, baring his fangs.
“No, it’s just… a little unpleasant. Especially the ones in the second and third cargo rooms. I’ve never heard of Beasts that look like that.” The Frogger shivered. “We don’t know what kind of disaster this may cause.”
“There is nothing to fear. We just need to trust the assistant commander and his plan.”
At the mention of the assistant commander, the Frogger’s eyes shuddered slightly. “No, it’s not like I’m doubting him, it’s just…”
“In the first place, the ones saying that the Beasts are so dangerous are the guys at the Winged Guard. And they’re getting paid to fight those ‘dangerous’ things. It would be foolish to trust their word.”
“… what do you mean?”
“By declaring their enemy to be so dangerous, they can squeeze more cash out of their sponsors. And since they have a monopoly on the battlefield, no one can expose their lies. In other words, they’re over exaggerating the Beasts’ strength for their own profit.”
“But, that can’t be!” The Frogger’s voice quivered. “Islands have actually been sunk, you know!? My home was on the 15th Island!”
“Of course. If they make it look like they’re winning easily, it would ruin their whole plan. By occasionally letting a few sacrifices through on purpose, they increase the credibility of that ‘dangerous’ label. It’s called acting.”
“With regards to salvagers being killed down there, what else would you expect from untrained civilians? There’s no reason for experienced soldiers like you or me to fear them any more than necessary.
“Even if they were dangerous, our barrier techniques currently have them rendered powerless. We’ve already disproved the giant lie that they cannot be controlled.”
The Frogger fell silent.
With a snort, the Lucantrobos continued. “I understand that you’re concerned for the future of Regul Aire. I also understand that you’re worried about bringing forbidden objects into the heavily populated 11th Floating Island. However, you need to think more simply.”
“Remember the commander’s words. We must fight and claim our future with our own hands. Is there anything wrong with his words?”
“Of course not. That is truth. That is justice. And so there is no truth nor justice with the Winged Guard, who monopolize the fighting with the Beasts.”
“To carry out righteousness, sacrifices are sometimes necessary. That is the reality which we must not avert our eyes from. And so we must follow that path to the end with bravery. That is the responsibility and pride of every soldier in Elpis’ National Defense Force.”
That can’t be right, the Frogger thought. He sensed something wrong with the officer’s argument. However, he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. If he couldn’t find anything wrong, maybe it was correct after all, and his hesitation was no more than shameful behavior stemming from his cowardice.
“U-Understood. Please forget what I said earlier.”
“I will do that. Glad to see the flame of bravery has been lit in you.” The Lucantrobos gave a satisfied nod.
Cargo rooms one through four of that ship all looked almost like fortresses on their own. Many layers of steel plates with a thin coating of enchanted silver on the outside served as walls. Embedded into the floors, wood, mineral, and bone fragments of various colors formed three concentric circles. They represented the sun, the earth, and life, creating a miniature replica of the world all together.
Those rings formed a simple but strong multiple layered barrier. At their core, barrier techniques refer to the ability to create and maintain a wall which partitions off a part of the world itself. Once a barrier is completed, the inside becomes a completely different world from the outside. This causes a slight variation in the rules of the two realms, which in turn forbids any crossing in between them. Walls made in this way do not break, no matter how much physical force may be applied to them. And just like how a wolf in a painting cannot jump out to attack the artist, anything inside the barrier cannot harm anything outside.
Inside one such barrier in one of the cargo rooms, something sat curled up on the floor, something which took the form of a black haired markless young man.
It emitted a low grunt, almost like a scream. It probably realized that it was trapped, and it most likely realized that it would not be able to easily break out. Left with no other choice, it curled its body up and endured its anguish within its closed off little world.
— A sudden impact violently shook the ship.
“What? Don’t tell me that was a floating dragon stone,” the Lucantrobos officer said with a frown.
“No, it was just a regular old rock. Didn’t see it with all these thunder clouds around us,” the Frogger said. Despite the situation, his voice showed no signs of nervousness. He rechecked all the gauges with his big eyes, then said, “No big problem. This is an army ship, after all. An impact of that caliber won’t sink us. Some of the painting on the outside might have come off, and maintenance might complain about it later, but that’s about it.”
“I see. That’s unfortunate. Pleasing them takes more than a normal amount of alcohol. And if we bring those recipes back, then management will get annoyed.”
“Well, I’m sure you can figure something out… hm?”
The Frogger’s fingers grazed over one of the meters. It showed a slight irregularity in the degree of inclination being monitored at various places throughout the ship.
“What’s wrong?” the officer asked.
“Ah… the ship’s frame is probably a little crooked. For a civilian it would cost a hefty amount to fix, but since we’re the army, it should be fine.”
“No no, that means we’re gonna need more alcohol for the maintenance guys.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a–” The Frogger looked up. “Did you hear something just now?”
“Hm? What are you talking about?”
“I thought I heard some kind of crash from over there.” The Frogger turned his gaze to a door. Beyond that door, and down the hallway, lay the second cargo room.
“Are you sure it wasn’t just your imagination?”
The Frogger’s assessment of the situation was correct. The impact that shook the ship was due to no more than a small floating rock, not a bombardment from an enemy ship hidden amongst the clouds, not a spy on board starting to destroy the ship, and not the luggage in the cargo room going on a rampage.
His judgement of the damage was also correct. The impact slightly deformed the ship’s keel, causing small structural distortions throughout the ship. No major flight altering problems could be caused from such light damage. In fact, if a civilian ship received such damage, the repair costs would probably outweigh the merits gained by actually fixing it.
All that was correct. However, the Frogger did not understand the barrier techniques put to use in the cargo rooms very well. He did not know that the Elpis National Defense could not reliably produce such small scale barriers with their current technology. He was not aware that the barrier being used in the cargo room behind him was merely a prototype, not guaranteed to withstand actual usage. He did not understand the unforgiving delicacy needed to create and maintain a whole new world.
The Frogger had read documents. He had knowledge of the barrier techniques. However, he still didn’t really understand them. Well, even if he did, the outcome would not have changed.
Suddenly, a whole one third of the army airship Tomorrow Grasper Number 7’s stern literally disappeared. In one instant, what was once ship simply crumbled into ashen sand before flowing out into the raging storm clouds and vanishing.
Its balance lost, the ship heavily tilted forward. The parts unaffected by the initial burst began to rip apart under their own weight. Unable to withstand the destructive torque applied to it, one of the propellers tore apart from the ship and went flying off. The burning spell reactor, having lost its pressure outlet, began spewing out explosive flames.
The yells and screams of the passengers only lasted for one moment before fading away into the torrential rain.
And then, the Tomorrow Grasper Number 7 began its descent.
“Look, a shooting star.”
In the southwestern part of the 11th Floating Island lies the great city of Collinadiluche. Despite the heavy storm, there were still a few people gazing up at the thickly shrouded sky. And those few people saw it: a colossal ball of flame blazing bright enough to pierce the clouds.
“A wish, a wish, umm…”
A real shooting star wouldn’t have been visible underneath the dark clouds. However, none of the few people looking up at the sky noticed that. They simply remarked about how bright it was, or how long it was staying.
One of those people, a young Ayrantrobos boy having trouble sleeping, hurriedly made a wish as he gazed in awe at the shooting star through his bedroom window.
“I hope Regal Aire will stay peaceful forever and ever.”
A thunderous noise boomed through the air, followed by an explosive shock wave. Trees fell flat like mere dominoes, while dirt and boulders were violently gouged out from the ground. A massive column of black smoke rose up into the dark stormy sky above. Despite the battering rain, the roaring flames showed no signs of weakening.
A little ways away from the blazing wreckage of an airship, a young man, or rather something which resembled a young man, landed on the ground. It writhed in pain, not just from the impact of falling from such a high place, but also from the raging destructive impulses gushing up from within his body.
“Ri… to the rim…”
Stretching out its trembling arms, it slowly moved forward by dragging its body across the ground. It understood that it couldn’t be there. But no amount of reasoning could suppress the internal screams of its instincts. The desire to return everything and everyone up in the sky to ashen sand burned within it. It could feel that wish gradually devouring its mind. It needed to throw itself over the rim of the island as fast as possible.
Uncertain of its body’s toughness, it knew that a fall to the ground from such a height could very well mean death. However, if it died, it would never again be able to ascend to the sky, and that was more important than anything.
It didn’t know in which direction the rim lay. The freezing rain and thick darkness enveloping it rendered its five senses utterly useless. It simply crawled forth one arm stroke at a time without thinking.
A man’s voice weaved in with the sound of the constantly battering rain. Turning to face the source, it spotted a large framed man holding a blazingly bright torch. The man carried another smaller person on his back.
Driven by instinct, it grabbed a branch of a nearby olive tree in its right hand with a snap. In the next instinct, it no longer felt anything in its tightly clenched fist. It released its grip, and a handful of sand mixed with rainwater poured out onto the ground. Then, after a short delay, the olive tree, whose trunk had been half yanked out of the ground, fell over with a creaking sound that resembled a painful scream.
Whenever something came into view, the urge to destroy it seized control of its mind. It covered both eyes with its left hand in an attempt to resist.
“Run… it’s too… dangerous!” Unable to see, it simply yelled in the direction where the man used to be standing.
“Wow, you really are Willem, huh.” The man’s voice seemed to be drawing closer, not farther away. It clearly heard the sounds of thick leather boots stepping on the muddy ground approaching. “Well, it’s not like I doubted it. It’s just kinda hard to believe so suddenly… and I mean, it’s been five hundred years for crying out loud.” The man seemed to be talking casually to the person on his back.
What are you doing? Hurry and run away. At this rate, you won’t make it in time.
“Don’t… come… closer!”
“… wait, Willem, do you still have part of your consciousness?”
Yes. But not for long. It didn’t have the strength to give that answer, nor did it have the composure to recognize the strangeness in the man’s question.
“Just barely, huh. I see you’re still just as freakishly tough as before,” the man said with a chuckle as he arrived right in front of it’s eyes.
“Yeah, I know, I know,” he said to the person behind him. “It’s not like I want to abandon him either. But would that really be best for him? You know it might just make him suffer even more, right?” A brief silence followed as the man waited for his companion’s answer. “Well, that’s true. Alright, I’ll give in this time, princess selfish.”
Then, with a calm face and tone, the man turned to speak to it again. “Be thankful. My power dried up a long time ago, but, since I’m such a nice teacher, I’ll work my wonders once again for you guys.” He gently placed his palm on the forehead of the thing resembling a young man. “This is the first and last time I’ll be dealing with a Beast. This is special treatment. Only you get to be put to sleep by my hands.”
It didn’t understand the man’s words, but it finally realized one thing: it knew the owner of that voice. It had once, long ago, somewhere, conversed very intimately with that voice. Once in its life, it had looked up to the owner of that voice with admiration, and maybe that admiration still remained even now in a way. By repeatedly telling itself to never become that kind of adult, it had kept that admiration in its mind.
“Gaze up at the moon on a starless night.” The man spoke with a peculiar intonation, almost as if reciting an ancient poem.
It felt something strange seeping out from the man’s palm as he spoke those words. Intuition told it that something strange, or even dangerous, was occurring. However, it didn’t budge.
“Let the sludge of night envelop your eyes,” the man chanted quietly, as if giving an order.
Then, in the next instant, the young man’s consciousness went black.