In the forest shrouded in the darkness of the night, Nozomu was relentlessly exerting himself, just as he had done in the past when he was training with his master.
He ran soundlessly like a fox or a cat over rough paths where an ordinary person would either stumble on a tree root or trip over a stone and fall down in a few steps.
After running for nearly two hours without releasing his chains and without being noticed by the demon beasts of the forest, Nozomu arrived at the goal point, Shino's hut, where he pulled out the katana at his waist and began to repeat his forms.
In front of the hut, which had been destroyed in the battle with the Undead Dragon, Nozomu continued to draw flashes of strikes in the darkness of the night with his blade and body clad in Qi. Single-mindedly, without rest.
How long had he been wielding the blade? Nozomu, having reached the limit of his physical strength, tossed his drawn katana and collapsed to the ground on his back.
"Haa, haa, haa..."
Rough breathing gushed out of his mouth, and sweat flowed unceasingly.
White steam rose from his heated body and melted away in the cold winter air.
A feeling of exhaustion gently enveloped his entire body, just like when he used to devote himself to sword training for the purpose of escaping. It was a nostalgic feeling.
"What can I say, it's been a long time since I've pushed myself this hard..."
Nozomu soliloquized amidst the exhaustion that felt as if his body had turned to lead.
Since entering the third year of school, Nozomu had been training alone less and less. The newfound connection and the warmth he had regained had helped him forget the loneliness he once felt.
But now he needed time to think alone.
"Since I'm a Dragon Slayer ...... no, that's not it."
Thus, alone, he dispelled his thoughts by pushing his body to the limit, and feeling the cold of the winter soil on his back, he lost himself in thought.
Aware of his former escape, he must clear his past, and now he must think about the future.
"What I want to do..."
The reason why he could not accept Lisa's confession. What he himself was supposed to do, and what he had decided to accomplish.
However, no matter how much he thought about it, he could not come up with an answer.
As if seeking light in the darkness, he thought back to the dreams of those closest to him.
"Iris wants to protect Somia-chan, and Somia-chan wants to become like Iris."
"Lisa wants to be an adventurer, Shina wants to reclaim her homeland, Anri-sensei wants to support her students... Everyone has some kind of dream."
Only Nozomu doesn't have a dream. Nor does he have a goal.
For him, training his strength as a Dragon Slayer is not a dream. It is just a duty, a responsibility.
He must learn to use it. Otherwise, he might hurt the people he cares about.
And indeed, he did, and it was almost irreversible.
The fact that he went out of control and turned his blade against Irisdina and the others has created a new kind of frustration in Nozomu's heart since Azel's incident.
However, the exhaustion of his body, which had been overworked to the limit, somewhat eased his frustration. Taking deep breaths repeatedly, he turned his gaze languidly to his left hand. If he focused his eyes, he could see an invisible chain, like a phantom, wrapped around his entire body.
"The [Soul-Sealing Chains]... huh. How should I put it, it really does represent who I am."
His very lifeline, his guiding light, and his shackles. The outline of the invisible chain seemed clearer to Nozomu than before, as if it were gradually increasing in power.
Nozomu, clutching the soul-sealing chains that bound his body, now turned his attention to his surroundings.
He could sense countless gazes from around the hut, which was shrouded in the darkness of the night.
In the moonlight, in the wind that ruffles the leaves, in the jet-black darkness, the spirits were watching Nozomu.
"I remember Shina telling me. Because I'm special, I'm more likely to attract the attention of the spirits."
Spirits. They are the same nature as the being that is currently residing in his body, and also the fundamental being that wields a power that no human being can ever control.
He tried to call out to the spirits around him, keeping his awareness on them.
However, the spirits did not answer Nozomu's call, but kept a certain distance from him and did not even try to approach him.
No matter how much Qi he drew from them, no matter how much magic he dispersed, the spirits did not respond.
As expected, it seemed that Nozomu, in his human body, could not use spirit magic.
"If so, then ..."
Nozomu tore off the Soul-Sealing Chains] that had been clenched in his grip, and released his power. The rush of the elements erupted immediately afterward. With its tremendous power, Tiamat's consciousness was also released.
"Ggh! Maybe, with this..."
While trying his best to ignore Tiamat's roar of hatred that echoed in the depths of his ears, he spoke to the spirits. He asked them to lend him their strength to suppress the power of this dragon.
However, the spirits did not respond to Nozomu's call, but left the place at once.
Upon manifesting his power as the Dragon King, the surrounding spirits still did not respond to Nozomu's call, but rather left the place altogether. It was completely counterproductive.
"It didn't work, huh..."
Nozomu exhaled in disappointment as he reapplied the Soul-Sealing Chains].
I can't advance, I can't solve the problem, I can't see the future. In this pitch-dark water, he struggled, unable to breathe. Emotions that have nowhere to go were raging and making a rumbling sound.
The fatigue that he had worked so hard to carve into his body somehow faded away, and all that remained in his mind was a helpless resentment.
He closed his eyes in an attempt to calm the agitation that was rising up once again. However, his spiraling mind will not calm down.
In the past, he was afraid to acknowledge that he had come to a standstill. He wanted to remain standing still, unaware of his current situation.
But now, standing still was killing him.
Trying to suppress the rage swirling in his chest, he suddenly turned his face to the side and saw a paper bag containing a mithril bell he had made at Wandall's store.
Bringing his fatigued body upright, he opened the bag.
It made a cool chiming sound, revealing a somewhat ugly bell and a colorful piece of fabric.
The bell that he promised to Irisdina. But she told him that she didn't want it.
Nozomu quickly opened his pouch and took out a needle and thread for sewing, which he always has with him.
He lighted a fire to provide a source of light, cut the fabric into appropriate shapes, and began shaping it.
The image he has in his mind was a small purple flower, Crowea, that he saw today in central park.
He then threaded the artificial flower made of purple fabric, and lightly fastened it temporarily so that it would not lose its shape.
Nozomu decided to make a hair ornament. He intended to make and combine artificial flowers with the promised bell, a white ribbon, and flowers that he thought would go well with both her original black hair and her current white hair, and hand it to her. It would be impossible to completely make it all up due to the lack of thread, but as long as he could get it in shape, he could go home and finish it.
However, he was not sure if she would accept it or not. But nevertheless, he wanted to make it so that he could always fulfill his promise.
"Well, I guess this is how it looks. It looks terrible, even to me though..."
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For the time being, he tried to at least make it in shape, but the initial bell was rather crude, and the artificial flowers were also deformed. It would not be appropriate for a beautiful girl like Irisdina to wear.
"It's not working, huh..."
Nozomu's shoulders drooped as Mikael remained silent even after pouring all his magic power into the crystal.
But just as Nozomu dropped his gaze, a crumpled up piece of silk bug fabric jumped into his eyes.
Suddenly, the image of Lisa came to mind. She had caused a commotion with her overflowing sense of adventure. Nozomu wondered what she was doing with the magical power she lacked at that time.
"If you don't have enough, you can make up for it from other sources..."
Unfortunately, Nozomu has no magic stone on hand. However, it was not as if he had no other options.
Nozomu carefully put the hair ornament back in the paper bag so that it would not come undone, and gently hid it behind the rubble of Shino's collapsed hut.
Then, he suddenly took up a ready stance and thrust out his fist.
He stepped forward with the momentum of his outstretched fist, lowered his hips, and delivered an elbow strike, which led directly into a kick.
Just like that, Nozomu continued to perform moves after moves.
Rinne Kaiten. This is a ritual body technique that gathers the magic power of the surroundings and multiplies it over the performer to bolster their magic.
In addition, as he moved, Nozomu intentionally performed the moves to cast the strengthening magics.
The martial art, which was originally developed from dances offered to the G.o.ds in Shinto rituals, returned to its former use, and particles of light began to gather on his body from the surroundings.
Unconsumed magic power gradually acc.u.mulated in Nozomu's body, and the magic power that had nowhere else to go began to overflow inside Nozomu's body.
(This is ... tough)
Compared to Qi, Nozomu is not so skilled in handling magic. Although he is better than he used to be, excessive magic power will surely begin to chip away at his body.
But that magic power is exactly what Nozomu needs now. While dancing in the Rinne Kaiten, Nozomu gradually poured the magic power he had gathered into Mikael's crystal.
In addition, Nozomu also released the [Soul-Sealing Chains]. Even the magic power that was normally suppressed is now being gathered into the crystal.
The freed Tiamat came pounding down on Nozomu, not only with her resentment, but also with her intense destructive impulses.
Tiamat's hatred and power further whittled away at Nozomu's consciousness, which was already struggling to control the magic power he had gathered.
However, Nozomu, determined not to be outdone, gritted his teeth and held Tiamat at bay.
The dance is already coming to an end. The enormous amount of magic power converging with the whirlwind has already become too much for Nozomu's body to contain.
And just before the end of the dance, Nozomu stopped performing the dance and poured all the magic power he had gathered into Mikael at once.
"I beg you, please answer me..."
If even the slightest bit of his consciousness was consumed by Tiamat, he would crush the crystal.
And the moment he finished pouring in all of his vast magic power, Mikael's crystal began to emit a pulsating white light.
"This is, Uwa~!"
In the next instant, Nozomu's vision was enveloped in a blank white light.
He quickly re-applied the [Soul-Sealing Chains] to his body, but Nozomu's consciousness dissolved into the white light and disappeared.
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