Editors: Rockgollem, Tear, Ruzenor, Cwilliams
Shortly before sunset, Ikuta and company headed east to intercept the enemy units.The youth ran along the road with ragged breath in the dark, his brain turning even faster than the pace of his feet..
There was no need to bring up the differences in their combat prowess anymore — Ikuta was lucky to have the one and only advantage, which was the night. If they could fight in an environment even darker than dusk, they would be able to use the light beams from the luminous troops offensively. He formulated his plan around this factor.
“According to this pace, we will run into the enemy in 2 hours. You should be able to come up with a plan. Right Lieutenant?”
Sergeant Major Suya who was running alongside him felt anxious and asked because her commanding officer hadn’t said a word since they set off. Ikuta didn’t have any concrete plan yet, but he still showed a bold smile.
“... The enemy won one round with that blast cannon incident. Probably because of that, my urge to not lose had been stirred. Not hitting back after being hit feels unpleasant, don’t you agree?”
He didn’t answer directly, but after confirming the strength in the youth’s eyes, Suya looked to the front again… She seemed to understand that no matter what happens she would not be forced to die in the course of her duty because of the commander’s reckless orders.
“It might be meaningless to say this to you since you have memorized the map, Lieutenant, but I should still report this. We will be reaching a wider road leading straight into the forest. The only place that could barely serve as a venue to engage them would be that spot where the cliff walls jut out. It’s possible for the troops to hide in ambush on the side of the road, but…”
“With our numbers less than half that of the enemy, and without any wind gunners, it would be meaningless to do so. Even if we struck the enemy successfully, they will just brush us off and continue advancing.”
Ikuta clicked his tongue. An orthodox battle plan wouldn’t be able to stop the advance of the enemy. Even if he let the soldiers blockade the road in ambush, they would just be taking on a cavalry charge that outnumber them two to one. Even though the light beams might stun them momentarily, the enemy were elites that spurred their horses through the flames. They would definitely recover and counter attack in no time.
Aside from that, if the enemy predict the place to where they would be intercepted, they would very likely engage from afar by shooting on horsebacks. That would be the worst scenario. Ikuta’s troop would be attacked at a range where their light beams and crossbow were ineffective, and would be charged by cavalry after their formation falters. What awaited them would be the fate of being wiped out.
“That’s right, the problems are horses and Air Rifles… If I don’t think of a way to deal with these two overwhelming offences, we won’t be able to stand on even ground with the enemy in the first place.”
What should he do to achieve this? As Ikuta brain stormed to seek the means to handle this, the sound of horse hooves came from his front. His heart raced, but that wasn’t the enemy, but Yatori’s cavalry who made use of their speed to scout ahead.
“I checked the situation up front. There are allied troops tasked with maintaining the fire wall, but most of them are Shinnacks noncombatants. There is no time for them to converge with our forces, so I send them to seek refuge in the hills.”
“That’s fine. By the way, Yatori, what do you think after actually seeing the terrain? Is there any way for us to intercept them?”
“... Unlikely. I saw stretches of road that were narrow, but not enough to give us the advantage. I thought about building a new fire wall, but…”
Yatori didn’t explain further — That’s right, there was no point in doing so. The blockaded enemy would probably give up attacking the headquarters to the west, but they would wait for the fire in the eastern path to subside instead, and summon the main forces of the Holy Aldera Army; The enemy would just need to ignore the headquarters here and advance into the mountains directly.
In other words, it was useless to just block the route of the enemy. They had to defeat their adversaries, rush to the eastern forest path where the fire would be going out, and rebuild the fire wall to fend off the invasion of the Holy Aldera Army.
“... I need some ideas. Sorry Yatori, anything is fine, tell me about the terrain ahead. I want to work my brain a little.”
Ikuta ran besides the cavalry who had turned around and requested. After thinking for a moment, Yatori said:
“... There is a work area set up to maintain the fire wall, accessible by two narrow passages from here, and three narrow paths from the eastern forest. Because I ordered our allies there to run, a large number of lumber and straws are scattered there. There isn’t time to build a barricade, but if we make good use of these things, we might be able to create road conditions that the cavalry would detest.”
Ikuta felt that this was a great starting point. Making use of the resources on site— He allowed his imagination to run, thinking about a way out of this. Can his forces use these things to overcome the despairing difference in power due to the horses and Air Rifles—
His mind that was repeating the process of hypothesizing, inspecting and discarding suddenly stopped.
“ — I see… This might work… right…? Stop the enemy from backing away and escaping, and prepare the flags in advance… It’s true, we can at least have equal standings…”
Seeing Ikuta looked as if he thought of something, the soldiers in the vicinity all cast hopeful gazes on him. However, this made him even more hesitant about articulating his thoughts. If they asked him if the content could meet their expectations, it would be very hard to determine.
“... I did thought of a way, but… it isn’t really a good plan. It can be classified as foolish, or even insane. The type I would never use if not for our present circumstances…”
Ikuta muttered with a bitter expression…But in a corner of his heart, he knew very well their predicament couldn’t be resolved with just a good plan. It would require an idea verging on the edge of madness to open a way forward.
"… Let’s hurry to the narrow path, we can only execute it there."
After saying that, Ikuta forced his legs that were like iron from fatigue to speed up. The troops followed hurriedly, and all their hopes and unease laid squarely on the back of the young commander.
"… No matter what happens, I will forever remember this shame for thinking up and executing this plan.”
The words he said to himself didn’t reach the ears of his subordinates.
Illuminated by the blessings of the faint orange light, the cavalry led by Jean continued its quick advance at dusk.
They only encountered one battle along the way, and it would seem too much to call that one-sided massacre a battle anyway. All the enemy along their route of travel had fled, and in the empty base with abandoned timber and straw, there wasn’t anything stopping them.
“If there is any resistance, it should be up ahead. Jean, be on your guard.”
“It’s the narrow path we saw from the balloon right. What preparations will the enemy make for us?”
A smile appeared on the lips of the white-haired officer, his sense of ease stemmed from his unshakable confidence.
"…Mum? That is…"
When the group reached the problematic area, the troops at the front noticed the drastic change. At the same time, the entire unit slowed down. Jean immediately took out his telescope and looked.
About 200m ahead of them, the terrain jutting out to the left of the cliff face was visible. The cliff and the forest formed a narrow path, which was blockaded by sandbags to halt Jean’s advance. On the other side was a rank of Imperial soldiers with bowguns.
The stretch of road before the narrow place was used as the work area to maintain the line of fire. Similar to the bases they passed by, straws and timber were scattered all over. As Jean felt the messy scene had a strange sense of order about it, he smelled something pungent.
“Jean, it smell like oil.”
“I noticed too, Ham, what’s going on?"
He slowed the advance to a trot, and started analyzing the information he obtained from his senses.
“There are straws and wood on our route of advance, soldiers with bowguns ahead of us and smell of oil in the air… Oh, I see, I get it. These are the foreshadowing of a fire attack. Drenching the straws and wood with oil, and when we charged and slip on the oil, they will shoot fire arrows quickly. That’s how they plan to finish us off.”
Jean came to a conclusion in less than five seconds, and shrugged immediately.
"Mum… It isn’t bad for an plan thought out on a whim. But they are too naive if they think we will overlook the smell. Now that we are aware of their intentions, we won’t let them have their way by charging.”
After refuting this course of action, the white-haired officer announced to his subordinates:
“Prepare to fire, ready your Air Rifles.”
The soldiers drew out the rifle hanging on the side of the horse with the same motion, and fixed their partner from their pouch onto it. Except for Jean and Miara who didn’t have Air Rifles, everyone got in position to fire.
“Move at walking place to 150m from the target. Cavalry, advance.”
The cavalry with Air Rifles raised formed a wall as they advanced quietly. As they were firing from the unstable base of the horse, even though they were using Air Rifles, their fire was only accurate up to 150m. But that was enough. If they attacked from such a distance, it would be useless for the enemy to attack with fire or bowguns.
"— Form ranks and prepare to fire."
The four columns of cavalry broke into 8, then 16 columns. Together with the second rank that shifted slightly to the left, a total of 32 guns aimed at the Imperial forces behind the sandbags.
"… Alright, open— No, wait!"
Jean was about to order his men to fire, but restrained them for unknown reasons instead. Watched by their confused gaze, Jean started analyzing the reason he halted them… It was a warning from his instinct, and the sense that something was amiss, which was crawling up his back.
"… The smell of the oil is turning faint…?"
His keen perception to realize this was worth mentioning— If he had another 3 seconds, he would be turn this discovery into action, and warn his men after detecting the trap.
This mere three seconds decided heaven or hell. The cavalry placed their focus in front of them, but fate struck from their blind spot, which was the feet of their horses. Pushing aside the straws covering their presence, they cried for the first time after being birthed.
Light shone out from all over the ranks of the Kioka cavalry.
The 70 odd tightly focused thin beams of light didn’t illuminate the darkness, and pierced into the eyes of the horses like white spears instead.
Horses couldn’t speak but their neighs were undoubtedly screams. In this dark environment when their pupils were enlarged, the bright light filled the eyes of the horses with white. The unexpected blow threw even the hardened warhorses of the Kiokian army into panic.
“What— ! Hey! Down girl! Ugh— !"
"It’s… It’s the enemy! Ambushing from below— Wahhhh!"
The Kiokians tried to calm the horses, but the threat lying in wait beneath wouldn’t let them. The ambushing soldiers struck the belly of the panicking horses with the bayonets attached to their bowguns. After dealing with one, they will target another horse in the vicinity.
"Ha… Haha… Hahahaha…!"
Ikuta executed these movements under tremendous fear and pressure as he laughed uncontrollably at the same time. He slipped between the horses, and even got the hair on the back of his head sliced off by a sabre. He kept aiming for the round beady eyes of the horses and shining beams into them. This wasn’t an action that could be done in a sane state of mind.
“Hahaha! Not enough! Need to be more chaotic!”
Ikuta stabbed all the horses in his sights with his bayonet, be it the one near him or those that lost control and threw off their riders. Two women brandishing different weapons chased hard after him.
"Ikuta, don’t run too far in front…! I won’t be able to protect you!”
“He probably didn’t hear that…!”
One of them held gauches in both hands, the other gripped a bowgun fixed with a bayonet. Nanak and Suya worked actively in the middle of the enemy formation. Both of them understood how Ikuta felt as he scrambled around with his head down, as the most dangerous thing one could do right now was stand in place.
In order to live longer, the only way was to hide and move amongst the panicked crowd, avoiding being targeted by multiple enemies. The path to survival only existed in the turbulence of chaos. However, the chances of getting one’s skull crush by a kick of a horse was equally high.
That was the reason why Ikuta called this tactic insane. This plan wouldn’t achieve victory or gain any advantage, but a chaos that would be uncontrollable once initiated.
“Move move move! Hey! You over there! You will die if you stop!”
Ikuta noticed a comrade who was standing still in a daze out of fear, and kicked his back. The next instant, a sabre slashed through the space where the head of the soldier was. The youth retaliated by shining a beam at the horse of the rider. Another crazy horse was created, which not only shook off its rider, and even ran off in a completely different direction.
“You get a hold of yourself!”
The rider who fell off his horse got up and swung his sabre at Ikuta. At this moment, nanak got between the two of them her swords spinning like a windmill. The rider’s face was splitted like a watermelon and collapse, and Suya rushed to her commander’s side.
“How… how many more seconds?”
“I didn’t count from the very beginning! If you get distracted by the time remaining, you will die…!”
The group of three spoke as they ran— They couldn’t see the entire field because the body of the horses were blocking their view, but from the cries of the horses and soldiers, the chaos were spreading successfully. If that was true, this battle which was like a race through hell while being chased by demons wouldn’t last long.
“The enemy fell for the trap! We just need to trust Yatori!”
A charging horse came from the side, which prompted Ikuta and the others to dodge and roll away from the danger. In the increasingly chaotic battlefield, everyone including them had the same thoughts— The time where one had to give it their all in order to survive from moment to moment felt really long…
“Damn it! What’s going on!”
There were also riders at the edge of the formation that wasn’t affected by the chaos. They pulled some distance away and linked up with their comrades that was fine, and observed the situation with bated breath. Between the enemy and allies were crazy horses that had degraded into feral beasts, and they couldn’t find any way to restore order.
“A… Anyway, gather all the scattered men and reorganize the unit! Hey! Gather here!”
One rider yelled to his scattered allies. Despite the failing command structure, they could still act independently, which was proof of them being excellent soldiers. His comrades gathered one by one in response to his call.
“Alright, this will work! The guys at the edge, get away from the main forces and gather here instead!”
If they could separate the enemy from themselves, they could launch a counteroffensive. The soldiers who came to such a conclusion called out to their comrades. At this moment, the sound of a group of cavalry came from behind them.
“Ohh, that’s a large number! Great, our numbers will increase in one shot—"
Their joyous tone turned into confusion midway. Despite coming so near, the new riders that came from behind had no intention of slowing down, and was accelerating instead.
“... No… No, that’s the enemy! Prepare to engage, draw your sabres— "
Before they were ready to engage the enemy, the cavalry led by the flame haired women attacked pre emptively. The charging cavalry crashed into the riders that were stationary and the result was as expected. The Kioka riders were dispersed by Yatori’s charge, and was cut down mercilessly while they were still panicking.
“We succeeded in stopping them from mustering here! Alright, on to the next target!”
Yatori’s group wasn’t adamant on wiping out the enemy. After they scattered the group that was regrouping, they started galloping away to search for their next objective.
Attacking the enemy cavalry that strayed from the chaos of the main forces— Their mission was to keep the battlefield muddled for as long as possible. Not giving the enemy the chance to calm down, as chaos was a necessary foundation to proceed to the next step.
“The battle had gone on for quite some time, it should be fine to brandish the flag now…!”
After Yatori finished muttering, she pulled out a flag from the side of the galloping horse. With one hand on the reins, she placed the flag pole onto a holder secured to behind the saddle.
The luminous sprite that was tied to the flagpole ahead of time lit up the fluttering flag.
Jean who was with a group that was less affected fell into silence. This was the first time Miara saw him hesitate in making a decision.
“I was had… No, was it simply an error in my judgement…”
The white-haired officer mumbled to himself as he clenched his fists tightly. Instead of being angry about the enemy’s brilliant tactics, he was more frustrated by his own foolishness.
"…Vankzyaal…Ugh! How unsightly, Jean Arkinex! Thinking one-sidedly that it will be a fire attack because of the smell of oil, and overlooked the ambush…!"
The pungent oil odour was just a feint to get Jean thinking about a fire attack. The ambushing troops that appeared in their midst the moment the cavalry passed by was the true attack… Jean realized that this illogical and barbaric idea was an inevitable tactic derived from rational deductions.
Compared to the enemy, Jean’s cavalry had three advantages from the beginning. First was their superior numbers, second was the offensive prowess of cavalry, and third was the range of the Air Rifles. Out of these three, there was one way to wipe away point number two and three, which was to shorten the distance.
The offensive prowess of the cavalry could only be unleashed fully by charging from a distance, the advantage of the Air Rifle was its ability to attack one-sidedly from range. The common point between these two was that they were meaningless to enemy who were close to them from the start. Cavalry before a charge was akin to a slow infantry, and the Air Rifles would be useless in melee combat. The enemy was aware of these.
“On top of that, they are aiming for the eyes of the horses with focus beams of light… Even if they are trained, horses are still timid creatures, and will fall into panic if one of their eyes couldn’t see suddenly. In the chaos, more than half the soldiers lost their ability to fight… In other words, the number of troops that couldn’t take part in battle, which lessened the difference in combat prowess.”
"Nyatt*…Nyatt*! This isn’t a tactic which relies on pure luck, but refined use of techniques— But that is why I can’t forgive the one who came up with this plan… Isn’t this strange!? The conclusion of such rational thoughts is actually such chaos…!"
Jean spoke as if he was spewing lava. In the sights before him was an unsightly mess of a battle. A primitive fight where commands and tactics had no value was ongoing, with no telling when it would end. There would be no victors or losers at its conclusion, only piles of corpses.
“... This is the limit, I can’t stand to watch anymore…! Let’s go Miara, break through the enemy from the front!”
“Jean, please wait! Even if we want to act, we couldn’t even mobilize twenty riders! Even if we break through, we might get picked off one by one because of our small numbers…!"
Because of the painful voice of Miara restraining him, Jean barely managed to regain his composure… In such a dire situation, the commander couldn’t take on such risk brashly. Because if he was to die, the entire unit would be done for.
Despite that, he still needed to deal with the situation before him. Jean scanned his surroundings to search for the means to resolve the issue. At this moment, he noticed a cavalry unit was running around with a flag lit by a light.
“That… isn’t our allies. Is it an enemy unit? The colour of the flag held by the leading soldier is…”
“... Red and white horizontal stripes. This is the flag that means ‘willing to negotiate’, Jean.”
The muscles on the white-haired general’s face twitched because of shock, shame and rage over this immoral situation.
“Willing to accept…? ‘Proposing a negotiation’ would be vertical stripes, and the truth is, they just needed to shout that they want to negotiate. The enemy isn’t doing that, but kept waving that flag, which means..."
“... They are waiting for us to show a weakness.”
Miara revealed the answer. The impact and humiliation made Jean grab his chest and trembled.
— Unbearable, you shouldn’t be able to bear with this.
Ikuta sought to survive in the chaotic battle alongside Nanak and Suya, as he deduced the thinking of the enemy general.
— After all our battles so far, I completely understand that the one called ‘Brilliant Insomniac’ is a great officer indeed. You won’t be led astray by your emotions, and always seek the best method through rational logic. An impressive and strong foe.
He ducked from a sabre slashing down at his head, the hooves of horses landing heavily beside his face.
— However, it is easy to understand the thinking of such a man. Or rather, we aren’t too different. Since we fought so many times, it was easy to see his values in the utilization of his troops. In a word, you are a ‘play director’ type of soldier. The greedy type who want the battle to be under your sole control if the situation permits. Such people have a tendency of being overly concerned with the ‘cast’ in the play. For example, in this situation, the subordinates under you falls under this position.
Nanak raised her Gauche and slashed fiercely at the horse that wanted to trample Ikuta who was on the ground. The foreleg of the war horse received a bone deep cut, and neighed in pain.
— What this type of opponent hate the most is the battlefield losing its order. And the cast they spent so much time nurturing losing their lives in the chaos, while the director can only watch helplessly. You can’t bear with such fruitless irrationality, and can’t leave it be.
A rider targeted Suya who had stopped due to fatigue, approaching her gradually from behind. Ikuta unleashed a beam to disorientate their sights, and use the chance to pull his deputy into hsi arms.
— I won’t ‘propose a negotiation’. Under the current circumstance, proposing a negotiation is as good as surrendering. However, ‘accepting a negotiation’ would be forcing the enemy to a dead end. Because that flag sends a forceful message that ‘we are planning to fight to the last man, but if you give in first, we will be willing to consider your proposal’.
Ikuta couldn’t pull out the bayonet he stabbed into the horse belly, and abandoned it instead, only retrieving Kush and his bowgun. At this moment, enemy cavalry appeared from three directions, charging him after he had lost his weapon.
— What’s wrong? Hurry up and give in! Move on to the next stage! Hating this type of battle is a common consensus for both of us!
Realizing he had nowhere to run, Ikuta rejected Nanak and Suya who wanted to help him with a gesture. In the face of the threat coming from before him and his flanks, the youth had no way of resisting, but still glared back with defiant eyes.
""""""Stop the battle—!""""""
Ikuta accepted this at the same time— An order that was relayed from the front of the enemy’s formation like some messed up game of telephone; in front of him was the figure of excellent riders who managed to stop themselves from attacking. A pitiful smile could be seen on their face.
Seeing the enemy raised a flag with red and white straight lines that meant ‘proposing a negotiation’, Yatori’s cavalry unit also stopped advancing. The order to stop the battle spread across the battlefield slowly, and the sound of fighting faded with each passing second.
Although red and white flags were being hoisted everywhere, the commanders had to perform the actual negotiations. Yatori contemplated for a moment, then headed for the place where there were the most soldiers. Her cavalry was about the same number as the enemy, so there was no need for unnecessary worries.
"I am First Lieutenant Yatorishino Igsem of the Imperial Army. May I meet with your commanding officer?”
She began by introducing herself, so the riders at the front rank made a path, and two figures appearing to be officers came out. One was a black haired woman wearing glasses, the other was a white haired youth. His features could be seen easily, and Yatori could tell who he was without needing him to introduce himself.
“I am Major Jean Arkinex, currently serving as a guest officer with the Ra-Saia-Alderamin army. This is my deputy, First Lieutenant Miara Gin."
“I am honoured by your detailed introductions. It is my pleasure to meet the famous ‘Insomniac Brilliant General’ on the battlefield.”
"Hah*, the pleasure is all mine. It is a terrible misfortune for me to cross path with a ‘blade of Igsem’ though.”
They conversed superficially. Even though he maintained a calm demeanour in his speech, it was clear that Jean was wavering under negative emotions. After they had introduced themselves, Jean immediately got into the heart of the matter.
“Let’s start the negotiations then. As the proposer, I would like to state my demands, is that fine?”
“Of course, but please wait a moment.”
"…Mum*? We are already speaking face to face, what are we waiting for?”
“For the one who will be negotiating of course. Our commanding officer will be parlaying with you, Major Arkinex.”
Yatori who was surveying the surrounding suddenly fixated on one direction, Jean and Miara followed her gaze. In the path opened by the confused Kioka cavalry was a black haired and black eyed youth. He was covered in blood and mud, with his partner luminous sprite in hand, and had two women soldier with different skin tones in tow.
"I apologize for being late, I am First Lieutenant Ikuta Solork of the Imperial Army, the commanding officer of this unit."
When Jean heard these words, he felt surprised about two things. First, the member of the Igsem family in front of him wasn’t the commander; Second, the commander himself actually took part in the chaotic battle earlier.
“Before we start, I have a request. I want you to instruct your troops to ‘stay where they are and not to move’.”
“What are you talking about…?”
“It would be troubling if either parties make any strange moves during our talks. It should be the same for you, so I will issue the same order to my subordinates.”
As Jean wanted to restore order to his unit as soon as possible, he was unhappy about this proposal. However, restoring their formation would be disadvantageous to the enemy, so this was an obvious request.
"… What about rendering aid to the wounded?"
"That is acceptable, but the helper need to disarm and dismount."
Ikuta answered immediately. Jean considered for a few seconds, and decided to accept.
"Yah*, I will give my consent— All units, listen! Unless I am attacked, all of you are to stay in place before receiving orders! Only assistance to casualties are allowed, but you have to disarm and dismount before doing so!”
“All personnel under my command listen, except those helping our allies, all of you are to stay in position before further orders.”
Unlike Jean’s youthful and loud voice, Ikuta whose voice had gone hoarse said in softly. The troops obeyed the orders and focused on helping the wounded, and the stage for the negotiations was finally set.
"Then let’s begin the talk. First, the proposing side will state their demand."
“Understood. As for the demand— I want you to surrender. Even if we continue the fight, you have no chance of winning, and our side do not wish for further sacrifices. I can guarantee that you would be treated adequately as prisoners if you surrender. That is our demand.”
“I understand your request, and rejected it completely.”
Jean tried asking for the sky first, but Ikuta didn’t show any weakness and rejected without hesitation. The temperature in the air between them dropped immediately.
"I feel that is a foolish decision, First Lieutenant Solork. I find it hard to agree with your actions that would let your troops die futilely.”
"Don’t need to worry, I don’t plan to let anyone else lose their live."
"If that’s how you really think, then you have only one choice, which is surrender. My vision might be hindered by obstacles, but I can tell from the battle that your forces is less than half of mine. Your creative ambushing tactics that rendered cavalry and Air Rifle ineffective is commendable, but this is the end. Once it becomes a grind of numbers against numbers, my forces will emerge victorious. You only have the choice of being wiped out or surrendering.”
“If that is how you really feel, then this negotiation is just a waste of time. How about we restart the battle right now?”
Ikuta rebuked with a cold tone, which made Jean’s facial muscles twitched. The youth grabbed onto the white-haired officers reluctance to continue the battle and showed a forceful attitude mercilessly.
“We will state our demands too. I want you all to stop the battle here, and retreat back to the other side of the Gagarukasakan forest. We are planning to retreat from here two days later anyway, so you will just lose two short days even if you retreat now.”
"… You have seen through me, so I will be honest that I don’t want to continue fighting for even one second more. But even so, we won’t retreat so easily. After all, I am here as an Exchange Officer to achieve victory for the Holy Aldera Army.”
“You might not be willing to reach a compromise, but both sides have a blade at each others throat. The one to back down will lose badly, and if both side stand their grounds, no matter if we are willing or not, we will end up cutting each other down.”
“Let me repeat myself, if that happens, we will be the ones who lives. A grinding battle might be the worse scenario for us, but if that is the only choice, I have the resolve to go through with it… But is that necessary? I think that your determination to face death isn’t as steely as you say.”
Jean countered and peeked at his adversary’s reaction. Ikuta wore a sarcastic smile on his face.
“There is one thing you got right and one mistake in your words.”
“First, the right answer. It is true that I am not determined to fight to the death. As for your mistake— If we cut each other down, your side won’t be the ones that will live in the end.”
"Dyculpus*! I can’t stand this, know your limits in making a brave front. Didn’t you notice how many times we have flown the balloon? I already confirmed the full extent of your forces, and had subtracted the necessary personnel to maintain the fire line of defence. I basically know how many troops you have with you right here.”
“Seems like we have a gap in our perspectives. I did say you won’t be the ones that will live in the end, but I didn’t say our side will survive right?"
"…Mum*? What are you trying to say…?"
“This is a simple matter of phrasing. You said that ‘we will be the ones that will live’, but ‘we’ includes ‘I’ as well— that means it will only hold true if ‘you’ are included right?"
The instant Ikuta finished this with an arrogant smile, the luminous sprite that was in lantern light mode suddenly shot out a glaring high beam from its light cavity, directing it to Jean who was mounted on his horse. This sudden action surprised Jean’s subordinates.
“Wait, what is the meaning of this—
"Don’t move, your commander will die."
When she heard Ikuta, Miara who was about to protest angrily froze. However, Jean wasn’t intimidated at all.
"…Hah*, this is troubling. Do I look so frail that I will die from a light beam?”
“That doesn’t seem to be the case. Anyway, look at the light shining on your chest… Don’t that circle look like a bullseye? Or rather, it is a bullseye.”
These words froze Jean’s smile for the first time. The next second, he scanned the surrounding frantically, while the corner of Ikuta’s lips rose.
“It’s impossible to see him from this position. It’s nothing to be surprised about, you realize by now that the Air Rifles isn’t available exclusively to you right?”
Ikuta made a show of shrugging. The ‘Brilliant Insomniac’ was showing his fear overtly.
A wind soldier with Air Rifle in hand, hiding in the dark as he aimed at the enemy commander. Did such a man exist— No matter how he thought about it, Jean couldn’t discern the truth. Even though he could postulate the rough number of enemy units, he couldn’t tell if there were soldiers with Air Rifles present. There just needed to be one such person to make this threat feasible.
— I will be borrowing your Phantom, Torway.
The youth muttered in his heart. He described in the past about the terror of something that might be there. This method made use of the instinct of human which fears the unknown.
“Don’t think about dismounting, such actions would be interpreted as a signal, it applies to anyone who wanted to block the bullet paths. I already predicted such a possibility, and deployed my men to snipe from an elevated position. Even if someone wanted to take the bullet for you, it would probably fail.”
“Attacks are not allowed during negotiations! Are you trying to violate the war treaty!?”
“It’s true that launching attacks during negotiations would be a violation, but the moment you dismount or orders your subordinate to act, the negotiations would be over. As negotiation can only happen if both parties agrees to it, we both have the freedom to decide when negotiations ends. And of course, attacks wouldn’t be allowed when your army raise the negotiation flag— But as you can see, this is the only flag our party has. It won’t take much effort to raise or lower it. Depending on your actions, we are ready to lower it at any moment.”
Ikuta threw a sideway glance at Yatori who had removed the ‘accept negotiations’ flag from its holster and was holding it with both hands, and spoke in a devious tone. His attitude might seem natural, this still concern the lives of his subordinates and him, so this was actually a bluff that took all his efforts. The back of his uniform was already wet from his sweat.
"…Nyatt*! This is not a negotiation, but just an open threat! This might not be against the rules, considering the spirit of the treaty, but it will definitely not be accepted!
“Oh? What an interesting opinion. Then let me ask you, what is the difference in a battlefield negotiation and threats? Both of them hint subtly at the threat of their forces in an attempt to grab the upper hand. So you are just calling a disadvantage negotiation as a threat.”
“If the other party isn’t willing to accept the terms, then we will meet again in battle, that’s the consensus for both sides. The only thing that is different is that I deployed my men in a good position to snipe you, but you neglected to prepare for such a situation. Isn’t that the only difference?”
His protest was refuted calmly. Facing such humiliation for the first time in his life, the white-haired officer grabbed his hair agitatedly.
“... You mean the ambush and the set up for this negotiation was all planned to threaten me…?”
“That isn’t important at all, you just need to understand your current situation. If you won’t back down no matter what, I will judge that the negotiation has failed, and will take your life via sniping immediately. Using the chance when the command structure falls into chaos, we will scatter and run away. This might not be a smart move, but it is still a legit move. I am prepared to make this move— What about you?"
Jean analyzed Ikuta’s question hurriedly— He knew that the other party was bluffing. If he really had soldiers with Air Rifles, he would have brought some of them with him to make the claim more believable. They weren’t here because this was all just an illusion from the very start.
Based on such circumstantial evidence, Jean was certain that 90% of Ikuta’s words were bluffs— However, 90% wasn’t enough, the 10% uncertainty still entangled him.
Some people might think ignoring this 10% was equivalent to bravery? But Jean thought different. One should minimize the number of times you cast your dice on the battlefield— That was his philosophy. Furthermore, he didn’t want to ever throw deadly dices that would kill him if the 10% came true.
"… If I declare here that I am resolved to die for the cause?"
It took all Jean had to show a dignified front. This was his last bluff. Ikuta shook his head quietly.
“That’s fine, if this is your conclusion, but that’s not your style at all. For you, not letting your subordinates or yourself die needlessly would be the correct answer right? Forget it, humans are creature that can even betray themselves, it is your choice to live with this regret— However, if you die, you won’t be able to regret it.”
“... This is our first meeting, and you are talking about my personality in such sure terms…”
“First time we met? Surely you jest. In the six days since the line of fire defense started, I feel that we have been playing chess with just a table between us all this while. The only thing I couldn’t see was your pretty face.”
No matter how much the other party intimidated him, Ikuta didn’t budge from his strong attitude. Threatening with an attack which was nothing more than a paper tiger, he boasted that he could land a decapitating blow. He openly claim his illusion to be an advantage.
However, Jean was just too smart and couldn’t call this bluff— And because of his brilliance, he had to choose the right conclusion.
"… I accept your demands, let us discuss the steps for the withdrawal of my forces."
The moment the white-haired utter this statement, his subordinates including Miara wondered if there were something wrong with their ears. Their wavering even spreaded to the other cavalry who noticed this change in atmosphere. The black-haired youth nodded seriously.
"— There is no shame in this, you made the decision you had to make, Major Jean Arkinex."
Their retreated started by partial disarmament. The Kiokian army was asked to discard the bullets in their Air Rifles, and 80% of their horses were tied to the trees nearby. Their combat capabilities had been reduced so that they could resist if assaulted by the Imperials, but couldn’t do anything more than that.
“As requested, we won’t seize or harm these horses. We will leave them alone after providing water and feed. When you break through the forest two days later, you can retrieve them as you wish. Don’t worry, we will honour this agreement. Or rather, this is the terms in exchange for your retreat, and it will be violation of wartime treaty if we don’t keep to the terms.”
After Ikuta made this promise, the Kiokan riders who were forced to part with their beloved horses appeared more relieved. After the horses were tied down and the Air Rifle munitions were tossed into the forest, the difference in combat capability narrowed and Ikuta finally turned off the search light he trained on Jean.
“Alright, since we deprived you of your horses, you couldn’t go back via the same way. Anyway, just take your wounded with you and follow us. A short distance to the east, there is a fire line that is about to be extinguished. We will bring you there.”
After the youth said that, the he gathered his surviving soldiers and formed them into ranks. The chaotic battle situation between the two forces were finally undone, and the sight of the Imperial army made the Kiokian troopers opened their eyes wide.
“Hey, come on, get up! It is finally over...!"
“My eyes… I can’t see… Where is everyone…”
“Blood… He is bleeding nonstop…! Anyone have bandages…!?"
The groans of pain formed a symphony. These soldiers entered a close quarter muddied battle with half the numbers of the enemy, so it was a given it would end like this. Some got slashed in the face by the sabres; others got trampled by crazed horses; there were others who couldn’t make a sound anymore, lying on the ground like a broken rag. Instead of counting the casualties, it would be quicker to account for the ones who were still safe. Including the heavily wounded, they have lost half their numbers.
"…Vankzyaal*… You insisted on continuing the fight under such circumstances?"
“Did I say that? Why can’t I recall?”
When he saw Ikuta pretending to be retarded, Jean was certain that everything earlier was a bluff and the feelings of rage and regret welled up like the tides. However, since the negotiations were over and they had been disarmed, realistically speaking, it would be impossible to start over now.”
“Follow us and don’t fall behind, we want to focus on helping our wounded quickly too.”
"…Syah*, I understand, lead the way."
Ikuta left the wounded and those tending to them, and gathered 40 men from those who could still move. Together with Yatori’s cavalry, they set off with less than 80 men. The Kiokians followed right behind, but Jean left command of the unit to Miara, walking alongside Ikuta at the rear of the unit.
"… Can I ask something, First Lieutenant Solork?"
After marching in silence for about 10 minutes, Jean spoke suddenly. Ikuta nodded gently.
“Depending on the contents of the question, I might not be able to answer. But you are free to ask away.”
“We sent a detachment to the detour in the west, how is the battle over there?”
In the few seconds after hearing the question, Ikuta considered what information he could divulge.
“They are still in the midst of a fort defensive battle, and we will retreat a few days later just as planned.”
Jean looked as if he was dissatisfied with the amount of information he got, but he didn’t press further. Ikuta realized that Jean wanted to know how the Phantom Unit’s sneak attack fared, but he didn’t have the obligation to tell him the truth. They kept their distance and fell into silence after the conversation ended.
After another 20 minutes, their group left the road and turned left, heading into the forest. It was tough in the beginning because of the poor road conditions, but they reached a place where the vegetation had burned out, and the area lit by unobstructed moonlight made it easier to walk. Before long, the group passed a place that was hot and thick with smoke and arrived at their destination.
“Excellent, as expected, the fire is weak here. I will throw dirt on the fire to put it out, get your men to help too.”
When he heard the request for assistance, Jean wasn’t reluctant, sending his subordinates to take part too. With so many hands at work, the job was done in less than 10 minutes. A temporary gap appeared on the intense wall of fire.
“Alright, hurry on over. Once you have crossed, we will start repairing the fire line.”
Ikuta calmly urged the uninvited guest to leave. The white-haired officer nodded in response, instructing his men to form two lines and pass through the gap. He joined the last batch himself, and headed for the other side of the fire wall.
“Has all your people crossed? Well then, we will start the fire right now.”
After placing the logs that had been prepared ahead of time and splashing oil onto them, the fire troopers lit the fire. Flame burst forth immediately, drawing a scorching barrier between the two forces.
Ikuta thought he had completed all his task, and turned to leave immediately. At this moment, a shout came from the other side of the fire wall:
"— Sydbeah*! Wait! First Lieutenant Solork! What moves you to protect the Empire!"
The youth stopped. He and the white haired officer looked at each other with the blazing flame between them.
"I was born in a small nation called Bayoshi! It was situated to the northeast of the continent in the past, but in a war against its neighbouring country La Oh, both nations fell! After losing all my loved ones in the war, I had nowhere to go as a war orphan! And the one who picked me up was the Kioka Republic!”
"And now, I am a child of Kioka! Be it the ideology of the nation founded on technology, or its ability to maintain a republic governance system despite sharing borders with the Empire, all these are things I am proud of! One day, all nations will be reborned in the template of Kioka! Corrupted governance will be destroyed, selfish ideologies will be silenced in meaningless wars, and the world will prosper, serenaded by the songs of peace! To achieve this goal, I have the obligation of not wasting a single second of my life! I believe that not needing sleep was something bestowed to me by those who passed on in order to achieve this goal!”
Jean said these without hesitation, and looked at his adversary with an intense gaze. In order to learn what his opponent really think.
“But you stopped me from advancing this time! Because of that, the time needed to change the world to the world it should be is delayed! That’s why I have to ask— What drives you to defend the Empire!? Do you truly believe that your actions will make the world a better place!?”
It was a frank and young question, but it missed the point so much that it was sad. Ikuta snorted and replied:
"… Unfortunately, from the moment of my birth til now, I have never wanted to protect my country. What I want to protect and sometimes fail to protect are people, not the nation.”
"Nyatt! De…Nyatt*! It’s the duty of the nation to protect those people! Isn’t that why people strive for a better country!? Isn’t that so!?”
"… I see. And in order to make and protect such a country, a hero like you will be squashed completely dry and tossed aside right? What an excellent system."
Jean could only show a shocked expression, he completely didn’t understand what the other party was saying. Ikuta sensed his confusion, and said with a sigh:
"I think this will just be a waste of my breath, but let me give you some advice— the reason why you work 24 hours without rest isn’t because you needed to do so in order to realize your dream, but because the other people are slacking and not doing those things.”
"You are not aware of it, but you are more pitiable than a slave. Thinking one-sidedly that you have the obligations to do this, and not realizing til the very end that someone pushed this onto you. Since you are working hard in the wrong way, everyone around you will be lazing in the wrong way. Like a giant trying to hold the whole world on his shoulder. “
"Let me share a quote with you, Insomaniac Brilliant General— All heroes dies of overwork."
"…Hazgaze* (What nonsense)!"
Jean yelled at the back of the leaving figure as if he was trying to wound him. His silvery eyes were gleaming with hatred, this was the first time in his life that he felt such feelings toward a single person.
Although Ikuta’s company triumphed over the despairingly huge tactical disadvantage, but the price they paid was the lives of over 60 men. And this number was increasing as the breathing of some of the heavily wounded stopped forever.
Of the 122 people mobilized, only 41 fared better than light wounds, and none was unscathed. The numbers accurately reflected how terrible the battle they fought was. And as the commander, Ikuta felt deeper shame than anyone else over this fact.
After collecting their wounded, they gathered their comrades who fled were asked to flee for the hills, and continued the maintenance of the fire line. After that, only two small skirmishes occurred before the deadline, which was a small bit of fortune for the group. But during this time, more of the heavily wounded lying in the tents behind them took their last breaths.
“You have done well, we have defended this place to the last moment — We will start retreating right now.”
On the 8th night after the line of fire defence plan commenced, Ikuta announced to his subordinate who was standing in formation before him. The soldiers who were falling in tears held onto each other, and the group started hiking up the mountains. They needed to walk for a day to reach the base behind and hand over their duties, and two more heavily wounded died halfway through their trek. Ikuta had a high fever because of an infection in his little finger’s wound. The few times he fell, he was supported by Nanak or Suya.
At the same time, Captain Sazaruf and Torway’s unit in the western fort, as well as Matthew and Haro’s unit in the center region defended their zones successfully, and has started withdrawing. Ikuta also received these news via light signal before they set off, which gave the exhausted soldiers who had to scale the mountains a strong sense of hope. They want to meet up with their comrades and return safely— with this thought in mind, the troop urged their feet to move on.
“It will take about another hour. Ikuta, you can lean on me more.”
“Ah… Yes… Thank you, Nana…”
Ikuta couldn’t walk on his own any longer, and had to rely on the shoulder of his comrades. However, nanak refused to relinquish this task. However, Ikuta would have to adopt a tedious posture if the petite Nanak supported him alone, so the other side was supported by his deputy Suya and the other male soldiers who took turns. When Yatori wanted to take up this task, Nanak would intimidate her with a strong tone.
"Don’t come here, red one! Go take care of the horses!"
"… Sigh, she absolutely hates me."
The evening when they were about to reach their destination, the same conversation occurred. Yatori left with a sigh— But the moment Nanak stuck her tongue out at Yatori’s back, a shadow landed quietly in front of Nanak.
"— What! You… You are— "
Before Nanak could react, that shadow already sent her flying with a kick. Suya who was supporting the other shoulder also fell from the impact. As for Ikuta who was in a daze because of his high fever, he fell on his butt defenceless.
"… Nobody moves."
Yatori who noticed the sudden change attempted to rush back, but the cold voice restrained her movement. A small blade was being held to Ikuta’s throat.
“You are from the Phantom Unit…!”
Yatori gritted her teeth, frustrated that she let down her guard as she glared at the enemy— He didn’t need to disguise as a Shinnack anymore, and was dressed differently from their first meeting, wearing black clothes with a belt. Half of his face was still covered, but Yatori was certain who this man was from the air about him.
“I assume you must be the head of the Phantoms— This should be our second meeting.”
“This might sound like pouring cold water over your determination, but we have already completed our mission and is withdrawing. We just need to hand over to our comrades, and we can retreat back to the northern stronghold. Don’t you think you have lost sight of your objective if you are attacking us now?”
The shadow kept his blade on Ikuta who was lying at his feet, and at the same time, removed the mask covering his lower face with the other hand. The face that was revealed was surprisingly young, and could be described as youthful and competent looking.
"— I am Nirva Gin, born from western Arbonik, senchi Martial House— descendent of the Gin family."
Yatori opened her eyes wide. Who would expect a Phantom to announce his origin so openly?
“The Phantoms are dead, killed by you all. The man here isn’t the head of the Phantom Unit, but just a warrior.”
Sovereign of Arbonik. About one hundred years ago, Captain blah who was revered as a hero by future generations took part in a Imperial campaign that destroyed a feudal nation in the far east. In that nation were several lords known as ‘Damyo’ who governed by their unique culture by relying on competent warriors with absolute loyalty.
It was originally annexed as a territory of the Empire after the nation fell, but became a province of the Kioka Republic after a strange twist of events, and the citizens and culture gradually melded into the Kioka way of life… However, the concept of taking pride in one’s origin didn’t fade. Even now, people from Arbonik would still call themselves the descendants of a certain Martial House.
“I crossed blades with you, your style is ‘dual swords’, and worthy of the name ‘unrivaled swords’— You are the inheritor of Igsem, are you not?"
"Yes. I am Yatorishino Igsem, an Igsem armed with dual blades.”
Yatori replied with her name, and Nirva announced to her with a firm nod of the head:
“I want a duel— I am here to take the title of the ‘strongest’."
Pure fighting spirit was overflowing from his body, and Yatori faced him fearlessly.
“I accept— But let your hostage go before we duel. Don’t worry, an Igsem will not back down from a challenge. Your actions is just tarnishing the reputation of a warrior.”
When Nirva heard her guarantee, he treated it as a promise between warriors. Although the blade had been moved away from Ikuta’s throat, he was too weak to move because of his high fever, despite being liberated.
“Someone take Ikuta away, everyone else back away too.”
On Yatori’s command, the troops pulled back like a subsiding tide. Ikuta was also dragged from the scene, but one person stayed. It was Nanak who got kicked in the stomach earlier, she remained in the attack range of the both of them with one hand nursing her abdomen.
"… Wait! Don’t just talk between yourselves! I have a bone to pick with this fellow too!"
The chief of the Shinnack looked at Nirva with sharp eyes, and said:
“It’s been a long time, boss of the shadows. Although you all had stopped acting on the surface right before war broke out.”
“Because we accomplished our mission of inciting you to start a civil war. If you want to live longer, then back off, little girl of the Shinnack. The Phantoms are dead, and the person acting and directing this role no longer exist.”
Nirva probably had no intention of provoking her. But Nanak drew her weapons, she had more than adequate reason to do so.
“We didn’t think we were cheated. From the very beginning, we know you were people sent by the Kiokas. Mobilizing the tribe to revolt against the Empire is the will of our people anyways— However, I cannot forgive you for sending the Alderamin Holy Army and desecrating the Grand Arfatra Mountains with their feet!”
“I told you to back down, so what if you can’t forgive this?”
“This is what I will do of course!”
Nanak who held blades in both hands charged forth. Nirva changed his grip on his short sword to a normal hold, ready to engage. However, right before the two parties enter melee range, Yatori intruded in and grabbed the arm wielding the Gauche.
When Nanak realized her vision had turned one round, her body already hit the ground.
Yatori held Nanak who lost her conscious gently, and passed her to another comrade.
"Sigh… She will hates me more when she wakes up."
“Just leave her be.”
Nirva who had readied his blade but had nowhere to use it said. After handing Nanak to a comrade and returning, Yatori shook her head with a serious expression.
"She is my comrade, I can’t just let her die… on top of that, you are the opponent, someone already died to your hands.”
Yatori bit her lips when she remembered Deinkun’s brilliant smile, and faced the enemy once again.
“Well then, even though I want to start right now— But the weapon a Arbonik warrior is proficient in isn’t a dagger right?”
When he heard this accusation, Nirva who was expressionless as if he was wearing a mask raised the corner of his lips.
He tossed the dagger aside and reached both hands behind his black shirt. When he pulled out his hands, two kodachis in black sheaths appeared in his hands, both of them two feet in length.
“That’s the way it should be.”
When she saw the slightly curved single edged blade emerged from the sheath, Yatori trembled in excitement, one of the few rare times she did in her life— it was an Arbonik katana. With a soft steel core and hard steel exterior, the double layered structure provide frightening balance of sharpness and toughness, an artistic masterpiece of a blade. Anyone who pursuing the path of the sword would want to hold it at least once, this was one of the best weapon in the world.
“I would like to show my deepest respect to the craftsmanship of your forebears. The blade used by the Igsem are forged with reference to your weapon.”
“This is a weapon that had been passed down for nine generations. It was handed down to my hands today to claim your life.”
Considering the Igsem’s history of being the strongest, it was clear that these words were not an exaggeration. In the face of the killing intent passed down through the generations, Yatori treated it as if she was tasting aged fine wine.
“... Hey! Yatori…”
When their fighting spirit reached their peaks, the moment the vermillion haired girl reached for the hilt of her swords, she heard a weak voice that would make one disheartened. Two set of gaze fell on the source.
“... Wake me up when the fight ends…”
After saying that while leaning onto the tree, Ikuta closed his eyes and turned silent. His interjection was more inconsiderate than usual, Yatori understood that this was proof that he trusted her. For this youth, fortune was something that would come sooner or later if he just laid there.
“Being treated like an alarm clock— Can you ignore such humiliation?"
Yatori taunted childishly, which was rare for her. She did this out of consideration for her opponent, to help reignite his spirit. As she intended, the aggravated Nirva raised the kodaichi in either hands into middle guard and high guard position.
"— Draw your swords, I will end the claim by the Igsem of being the strongest.”
"Many warriors said the same thing. I think it is unsightly as their last words, but it seem things are different this time.”
Yatori drew the weapons on her waist, and adopted the stance of sabre in right hand and short sword in her left naturally. Her expression didn’t have any excess confidence, her hands on the hilts didn’t exert and strength, showing no gaps on her body.
“Be proud of the sight before you, warrior of Arbonik. It is the fundamentals for Igsems to use one blade against a single opponent— However, I acknowledge that you are an exception."
The figure of her raising her dual blades showed her majestic will— I will answer your challenge with all my might.
The moment he announced the start of the fight, Nirva pushed off the ground. At the instant he stepped into Yatori’s attack range, their weapons clashed in a series of dazzling blows.
The first strike. In response to the thrust at her face, Yatori pushed her sabre close to her enemy’s blade and thrust forward. It was a near perfect cross counter, it didn’t have any effect as Nirva lowered his stance before hand since he predicted this. At that instant when the two blades clashed, the focus switched to the short sword in the left hand and the kodachi on the right hand.
Nirva had the advantage in weapon reach, but the guard at the hilt favoured Yatori. Under such circumstances, the best tactic wasn’t to strike preemptively, but to counter the enemy. The vermillion haired swordsman made this judgement immediately and waited 0.1 second. She wasn’t tricked by the first two feints, and used her guard to ward off the real blow.
Nirva’s attack was completely defended, but he refused to retreat. The moment his skin was grazed by the hilt guard, he lowered his body to evade the thrust, and closed in right into his opponent with a stance so low his knees almost touched the ground. He then slashed the kodachi in his left hand at her thigh after shaking off the sabre. But Yatori got even closer in and delivered a full powered knee into Nirva’s face.
Even though Nirva used his right arm as a shield to avoid a direct hit to his face, his body was still forced back from the impact. Before his knees even straightened and his stance unsteady, Yatori followed up with an attack mercilessly. Nirva crossed his kodachi to block the sabre slashing top down with the aid of gravity.
But this wasn’t just a simple move to block. The moment his dual blade blocked the sabre, he withstood the force with the horizontal blade and pushed forth with the vertical one, diverting the path of the sabre splendidly. At the same moment he parried the attack, his free right arm slashed horizontally, blocking the short sword that was coming at the nick of time. For an instant, a gap appeared between the parried sabre and himself.
Nirva didn’t hesitate kicking at his adversary’s face with his left leg. It wouldn’t end with just a broken nose if the strike connected. Yatori slid her body to the right where her sabre was swung earlier to dodge. She pulled the short sword in her left hand across Nirva’s ankle, but she didn’t feel the sensation of cutting flesh, only the feedback of hitting steel reverberate in her hand.
"Hah…!" "Fu— "
After several changes without taking breathes, the two of them pulled apart again. Yatori glanced at the left ankle of her enemy that she hit, and couldn’t help sighing.
“Not only is your feet unruly, you are well prepared too. Is that some sort of greave?”
“One of the House teachings of Gin is ‘Control thy sword with thy hands, manipulate it nimbly with thy legs’. So steel plates to protect one’s achilles are an obvious choice of armour. And you don’t have the rights to accuse my legs of being unruly.”
Was his glib of the tongue which was completely unlike how he was as the head of the Phantom an expression of how excited and tense he was? No, there was joy mixed in too. The faint smile on Nirva’s lips was proof.
“But you are strong… You are more unreasonable than I imagined. How did you keep dodging sword techniques you saw for the first time?”
“The concept of swordsmanship had been around for over a thousand years since ancient times, you think truly new sword techniques will appear so easy? No matter how marvelous a sword technique is, it is something that will naturally evolve from the truth of the sword. It might be impressive, but never surprising.”
When he heard Yatori said that unhesitantly, Nirva smiled stiffly, thinking that this must be the confidence of the strongest? For the Igsems, even amazing sword techniques that took generations of hardship to develop was just fundamental knowledge in the first textbook on the theory of swords.
“Let me make this clear first, you can’t defeat me with sword techniques. If you want to pull the Igsems off the throne of the strongest, then let me see a higher level of performance.”
The crimsom haired-swordswoman pointed her point of her sabre to her enemy and declared. Nirva’s smile deepened after he heard that.
"I am planning on doing that— "
After he said that boldly, Nirva regulated his breathing, and re-gripped his two swords with the points of the blade drooping slightly. Yatori who noticed the change in atmosphere put on a stern expression. Nirva’s stance was completely different from the one earlier that was filled with battle intent. Right now, he had a natural posture without a bit of strength in his body.
“... You want me to attack in any way I wish? That is interesting.”
Unlike earlier, Yatori adopted an offensive stance this time. She turned the side of her body towards the enemy, and raised the sabre in her right hand to the middle guard position. She intended to take full advantage of her freedom to control the distance between them, and cut off the palm of her opponent who was on the defensive.
Different from the intense clash in the first round, a breathtaking exchange already took place while they were closing in. Facing Yatori who was coming at him with her blade, Nirva maintained his natural stance. He was unnaturally calm. Even though Yatori was entering a range where she would be able to attack one sidedly
Yatori felt a faint sense of dissonance and slowed her pace. Although she didn’t understand why, something was definitely wrong. Like barging into a different room that looked really similar to your own chambers, or putting on your clothes backwards by accident, it was a vague sensation that couldn’t be described in words.
She couldn’t tell right away what that feeling was, but for Yatori, this was something that she looked forward to. As she enjoyed the tension of facing something unknown, she urged her feet to speed up again.
"…Tsh …Fuu… Tsh…"
Time passed as slowly and heavily as a snail. But it was definitely passing, and the instance when stillness turn to movement was upon them. Just a few more centimeters, when Yatori’s feet close in just a bit more, she will be in slashing range.
"…Tsh, Fuu, Tsh, Fuu, Tsh…"
Her toes entered the boundary and the chance to take the initiative by attacking first came. But right before Yatori thrust the sabre in her right hand forth, the moment when her muscles were committed to the movement and there was no time to change her momentum, she noticed the reason for the feeling of dissonance— her opponent’s breathing had sync with hers!
At the exact same moment of her thrust, with a timing that couldn’t have been possible if he was reacting to visual cues, Nirva took a step forward with his right leg, throwing his body sideways to dodge. He didn’t care about the blade glancing across his chest, his kodachi that was slumping weakly was injected with strength in an instant, and thrust straight for his enemy’s throat.
The feedback from the blade told him he cut into skin and flesh. When he realized it wasn’t deep enough to hit the artery or bone, Nirva leapt back without hesitation. The next instant, a sabre flashed across where he was earlier.
“Even this move is…!”
After pulling some distance away, Nirva’s first words expressed his fear. The Igsem swordswoman before him had a shallow wound on her neck, but made no effort to hide how impressed she was.
“... Getting into the same rhythm and seeing through my tells… No, you saw through the aura before my tells right?”
She talked about something that was very abstract, but the warrior before her understood the meaning behind it and smiled.
"Mirror Break— This is the final answer my clan arrived at. This is what you requested, a higher level of performance, beyond sword techniques.”
After saying his piece, Nirva reverted to his earlier stance. With the feeling of goosebumps breaking out all over her body, Yatori gripped her weapons, thinking back on the struck that brushed pass her neck.
Mirror Break— as seen earlier, this was a type of counter attack. However, this technique was on a different level from reading and reacting to the enemy’s move. If he didn’t know when the enemy will move, it would be impossible to grasp the timing where the line between attacking and counterattacking collapses.
Then, what was the key to realizing this attack that was literally predicting the future? If observation powers honed by plentiful experiences was a precondition, then the most important factor would be breathing? For example, the timing of inhaling, exhaling and holding one’s breath. Observe them and think of them as preparatory actions. Taken to the extreme, by grasping the breathing of the opponent, it might be possible to understand what their next move would be. It was just a crude deduction, but Nirva’s movement just now should be such a technique.
“... I must say, that was amazing. If I realize it any later, I would have died.”
“This ultimate technique isn’t a surprise attack that can take down an opponent in one go. Come at me, I will finish you off the next time.”
Contrary to his declaration to decide the match, Nirva looked at Yatori with a very clear expression. That was expected, a counter attack that relied on syncing with your enemy couldn’t be done if he had impure emotions such as killing intent. His state of mind right now was like still water.
Without doubt, this was the realm of an expert. The murderous move born out of the stubborn will of a clan to become the strongest, and the final solution they concluded in their search to be the strongest. Yatori felt she was being treated by the hospitality of clan Gin that span hundreds of years, and was grateful and happy about it.
"— Well then, I will use the technique of the Igsem in response to the technique of the Gin Clan."
After announcing that, Yatori turned her body sideways towards the enemy once more and raised her blades. She was not permitted to fall into an unsightly impasse because she couldn’t attack effectively. Using the ultimate offensive technique against the ultimate defensive technique was the etiquette of the strongest.
Yatori cleared her mind and prepared to use her ultimate skill, and glanced at the black hair youth lying outside the battle zone— She smiled wryly when she saw his figure, thinking that it would just be a waste of effort to worry about her hands failing to let go off her blades.
"… Heart banishment and boundary rend…"
One step, she closed the distance. Followed by a large stride, then another. It wouldn’t be wrong to call this brutish. Because she wasn’t thinking about anything as a human.
"And transform into a simple pair of swords— "
Their attack range overlap and their sword flashes. Nirva who could see through any premeditation planned to adapt to Yatori’s attack, but realized immediately that didn’t work and switched to the defensive. The collision of steel resulted in sparks— with this as the cue, Igsem’s time started.
Diagonal slash from the shoulder, horizontal sweep, a targeted strike at the opponent’s wrist, a cut from low to high— There was no gaps between the consecutive attacks, making Nirva feel as if he was being assailed continuously by a waterfall. He couldn’t find any opening to counter. While his body was still wavering from the impact of one blow, the next one was already coming. Aside from gritting his teeth and enduring it, what else could he do?
The thoughts of using the ultimate technique of his martial clan— "Mirror Break" to engage her was shattered from the very first blow— Even if he wanted to synchronize with the enemy’s breathing, his opponent wasn’t breathing. No, that wouldn’t be a problem. Aside from breathing, there was other ways to see through the premeditation of the opponent; If necessary, he would switch to defence, and act after the negative effect of not breathing appears— However, that wasn’t the case. What was happening before Nirva was beyond such a level.
— No strength! No premeditation! Only action is left in this woman’s body!
Nirva sought to survive in the fierce tide created by the blades, and shivered because of the abnormal situation— In a way, his "Mirror Break" was a technique that predicted the enemy’s thoughts and countering them. Because the opponent attack this way, so I will respond that way, attack another way and I will defend some other way, countering the opponent’s moves. By putting oneself in the position of the enemy, he could replicate their thoughts, which was why the "Mirror Break" was a certain kill technique.
However, the sword of the foe before him didn’t contain any thoughts for him to replicate. It was an instinctive type of combination attack, as if the human wielding the swords was gone, and only the blades remain. As he endured the assault, Nirva realized— this was a type of ‘standard pattern’. She didn’t plan her next attack after seeing how her opponent reacted, but chained her attack by considering beforehand what sort of defensive move her opponent would make, forming a standard pattern. To be frank, she wasn’t really paying attention to how the enemy was reacting.
Even her breathing was arranged to be part of her chain attack. There was no meaning in seeing through it, as there was nothing to it other than supplying her with oxygen. For the swordsman of Igsem, even the most superficial thinking was just noises that should be purged. In other words, the answer the Gin clan arrived at was meaningless for this opponent alone.
"Woah… Woah… Warrrgghh…!"
Fear, admiration and despair were transformed into a scream and expelled from the mouth of the warrior. His numb arms reminded him that his defenses were reaching their limits. In that instant, numerous scenes flashed across his mind and disappeared. His cold sister who looked like him; the innocent smile of the white-haired officer; the first day he raised his kodachi blade proudly—
An intense gust of steel severed all that.
The two Kodachi fell onto the ground with a crisp sound. An instant later, blood gushed out from Nirva’s mouth. Pain caught up next, but he wasn’t permitted to fall onto his knees. Because the blade of the sabre pierced his chest right out of his back, and his opponent right in front of him was holding him up from below.
"— After countless attempts with the dual blade style, this is ‘the unthinking sword’. This is Igsem’s answer.”
With a distance where they could feel each other’s breathe, Yatori said to the warrior she defeated:
"I feel that this should be my victory— But what about you? Do you have any regrets about not being able to challenge me in your best condition?"
When he heard such considerate words, Nirva felt the sincerity of the other party and was impressed— During the counter attack when the sneak attack on the western fort failed, a bullet hit the side of his abdomen. It wasn’t prominent because of his black attire, but the wound had been bleeding all this while. It was a serious injury that damaged the organs, and it was clear from the wound and blood loss that death was awaiting him.
That was why Nirva came here. To seek the end of as a warrior, a battlefield suitable for a warrior to die. He wish to not die as a nameless phantom, but a swordsman who aimed to challenge the strongest. The vermillion haired girl realized his feelings before the fight began—
"… I have no regrets, I did my very best."
Yatori listened carefully and acknowledge the answer with a nod.
“... Is that so. This duel is to avenge Warrant Officer Deinkun Hargunska too. If you think I had won fairly, I will report this to his grave one day.”
Nirva didn’t need to nod in response. For a warrior who accepted defeat, there was nothing else for him to say.
"Farewell, Nirva Gin. Warrior of the honourable Arbonik— Please take the fact that your swordsmanship made an Igsem swordsman feel fear to your grave, in place of the title of the strongest."
The moment she finished her eulogy, Yatori pulled out the sabre she stabbed into her opponent. This action removed the plug stopping the bleeding and blood gushed out. Nirva’s body lost its support, and he slowly collapsed in a pool of blood.
As the soldiers around them watched silently, Yatori who was drenched in the fresh blood of her enemy walked towards her old friend who was lying down on the tree root. Even though the youth should be sleeping soundly, he looked as if he had fainted with how pale his face looked. But the flame haired girl woke him unceremoniously.
"— It’s over. Hurry and get up, Ikuta."
Although he heard the firm voice that woke him, Ikuta couldn’t muster the strength to stand and opened his eyes while lying down. He glanced to the sight and confirmed Yatori’s figure that had been dyed red with blood and with blades in both hands— A gentle smile appeared on his lips.
"Fuwah… Morning Yatori. You are exceptionally red again today, just the right shade to wake someone up."
The first thing he said was this sort of jokes again. Yatori moved her hands with a wry smile, sheathing her sabre and dagger away. When she performed this series of actions, she let go of the hilt very naturally.
Four months and two weeks after the sudden unrest in the northern stronghold. Princess Chamille who had to relocate because of the deterioration of the situation arrived at the Fourth Army base that was to the north of central Empire. She understood better than anyone else how spending her days as if they were years felt like.
She stayed alone in the room assigned to her, holding her knees as she sat on the bed. She was only willing to accept sure a painful and free status, because she had done all that she could.
The Princess made the best arrangement with all the connections she had. She ordered in the name of the royal family to the Northern Stronghold that once their duties were completed, the members of the knight band were to retreat… However, could this order really be relayed to Ikuta’s group at the very front lines? Would the schemes of someone who wanted to leave them for dead cause the order to be overlooked— When she thought about these possibilities, she couldn’t help feeling uneasy.
"— Sorry for the intrusion, Princess Chamille!"
Just when the princess was about to be crushed mentally, a knocking and a voice at the voice could be heard throughout the room. It wasn’t time for meals yet— the girl held on to this fact for support, and placed her hope on the report that would follow.
"The soldiers had returned from the north! If you would like to, we can arrange an audience— Ughh!"
Princess Chamille jumped towards the entrance before the soldier finished, not realizing that she made an innocent soldier bleed from the nose as she dashed for the corridor. The guards at the entrance ran after her in surprised, and all the soldiers he passed stared at her curiously, but nothing drew the attention of the Princess. She continued running even though she stumbled several times, and finally reached outside from the main door.
"Huff… Huff… Puff— ! The knights… Where are the knights members…?"
The Princess looked around with bloodshot eyes, and spotted a group of soldiers who apparently just returned one hundred meters away. She started running towards that group. As she drew near, the soldiers noticed her and cast surprised gazes at her.
"Solork! Yatori! Torway, Matthew, Haro…! I am here! Answer me if you hear me…!"
Her scream was on the verge of being hysterical, and the one who appeared after hearing her was Yatorishino Igsem who had the reputation of being deeply loyal. Making her way through the troops, she sprinted in the shortest path to hold the petite body that was breathing raggedly and on the verge of falling.
"— Apologies for paying my tribute so late. I am back, Princess Charmille.”
"Ah… Yatori, I’m so glad that you are okay…! But… But, what about the others?"
She became franctic because of repeatedly thinking about the worst. The faces the princess had waited so anxiously for appeared. Torway got on his knee and bowed formally, Matthew and Haro mimicked him and lowered their heads.
"Sorry for making you worry, Your Highness."
"Ohh, Torway, Matthew and Haro…! Please get up, and let me see your faces… ah… it was a really arduous war, everyone had gotten thinner…"
After the Princess glanced at the three person and said that, she raised her head sharply again.
"And Solork…? Where is Solork?"
"Oh, yes yes yes. I am here Princess, don’t need to yell."
At this moment, a laid back voice sounded out and a black haired youth appear amongst the soldiers— something broke inside the Princess’ heart the moment she saw that face. She didn’t even notice the Shinnack girl who appeared right next to Ikuta, and jumped into Ikuta’s arms without saying a word.
As Ikuta just recovered from his illness, his legs lacked strength. After receiving the princess’ hug that was equivalent to a collision, he fell onto his butt without any resistance. However, the one hugging him didn’t care about that.
"… Solork…! Solork… Solork… Solork…!"
Princess Chamille hugged the body before her tightly, and called out his name in a daze. But Ikuta who was hit in the chest had difficulty breathing, and couldn’t react at all.
"Who… Who are you! Get away from Ikuta— Ugh!"
When she saw Nanak starting to protest on reflex, Yatori locked her arms from behind to stop her. The girl who was a loyal subject sealed Nanak’s mouth and her curses, and sighed at the same time.
“Back down, I won’t let you disturb them… And why does such tasks that would make you detest me always fall onto me?”
"Umh—! Ugh—! Ughhh— !"
Yatori continued to restrain the struggling Nanak and left the scene nonchalantly. The Princess didn’t realized something else was happening, and continued to hug Ikuta.
“Thank goodness you are alright… Thank goodness...!"
"… I almost died just now, isn’t it too much to ram into me the moment we meet?"
Ikuta said with a nonchalant face, grabbed the Princess’ shoulders and pushed her away. These series of movements made Princess Charmille realized the youth was missing a finger on his left hand.
"…Your …What happened to your little finger…! What happened? Did you lose it in the war?"
"Hmm?… Oh, no no, because of a certain circumstances, it was cut into three parts and gifted to a girl— That’s not important Princess, calm down and look around you. We are not the only ones you need to welcome back, right.”
His advice pierced into her ears, and the Princess suddenly appraised her surrounding. She then realized— losing one little finger isn’t much, compared to the time when they set off for the Northern Stronghold, the number of soldiers in all returning units had an obvious decrease. How many lives were lost in the long campaign? Few of the survivors were unscathed, and there were many who could only stand because their brethrens loan them a shoulder.
"… My apologies, I showed such a shameful appearance to the group of greatest contributors."
Realizing her mistake, the Princess let go of Ikuta, stood up and lowered her head sincerely to the injured and exhausted returning soldiers.
"— Everyone have shown incredible valor. It is thanks to your actions that we held on to the Northern Stronghold and defended the Holy Aldera army invasion— I offer my thanks for your hard work, and my condolences for those who fell in battle. In the name of the royal Katjvanmaninik family, I swear that you will be rewarded for your efforts adequately.”
The Princess looked the soldiers in the eye and saluted. The next moment, the troops also returned the salute. Many of them was smiling faintly as they looked at Princess Chamille. They had many opportunities to approach this girl from the royal family during their normal course of duty, but they still think of her as a respectable and beloved Princess.
"…Ah— Erm, is it okay for me to come out now…?"
As the air became tense once again, Captain Sazaruf failed to grasp the right timing to show himself, and poked Torway’s back from behind the soldiers. Ikuta noticed Sazaruf, got up and dust himself off, then cleared his throat.
“Erhem!— Ah! Princess, this might be sudden, but I have something important to report. Don’t hide in that corner Captain, get over here.”
Princess Chamille turned her head back in surprise, and noticed an officer she had some met before. It had been four months since their last meeting, but his name flashed across her mind immediately.
"Isn’t this First Lieutenant Senpa·Sazaruf? It’s been a while, pardon me. You became a Captain in the short time we were apart."
“I… I… should be the one who felt honour by meeting you again!”
Seeing Captain Sazaruf speaking in a messy way due to nervousness, Princess Chamille tilted her head puzzled.
"— However, the Captain is assigned to the northern stronghold right? It is strange for him to return to central with Solork and the others…”
"I am the one who brought him here, Princess. And do complement the Captain more, as the man before who was undoubtedly the person who accomplished the most in this war.”
Ikuta said in a pretentious tone. He then turned to the baffled princess and explained:
“The Holy Aldera army that invaded from the north numbered more than 10,000. Our forces that stayed in the front lines to facilitate our army’s withdrawal was just a battalion of 600. Despite our orders to stop the enemy’s advance with such a small number of men, there was one man who didn’t give up. As the soldiers thought it was unreasonable and was consumed by despair, the one who led us to the light— Is this man!"
Ikuta pointed at Captain Sazaruf in an exaggerated way. The subject glared back as if he was saying ‘what nonsense is this fellow saying!?’ Ikuta ignored him elegantly, and concluded his introduction：
“He is our reliable superior officer, Senpa who is beloved by everyone,,Captain Sazaruf— How can we leave such a talented person at the borders with such a low rank!? He should come to central as soon as possible! And so, Your Highness, can you give your recommendations alongside us?”
With all those listening dumbfounded, only Ikuta was filled with life like a fish that got into water. Captain Sazaruf watched the youth making his speech with a stiff expression, and noticed— Did I just got caught in an incredible situation?
Volume 3 End