A corner of the forest was enveloped in a dazzling light as Nozomu poured his magic power into Mikael. Zonne was watching this scene from a distance in the sky.
Floating in mid-air in human form, he looked down with eyes that were filled with all his emotions.
"It has begun..."
After saying so, he then quickly drew out a vast amount of elements and began to cover the area around Shino's hut with it. Following that, he deployed several layers of magic circles, enveloping the entire hut with a barrier.
"I can't let you be disturbed right now. Let me give you a little insurance."
The barrier deployed by Zonne is one of the most powerful among those used by the dragon races, severing s.p.a.ce and time inside and outside of the barrier.
A barrier that distorts time and s.p.a.ce turns the inside of the barrier into a different world, completely blocking interference from the outside world.
"As for the rest, I guess it's about the ladies, huh..."
While looking toward Arcazam, Zonne let out a grave voice that sounded as if he was in a choked state.
Although he had turned down Irisdina's offer, he was actually concerned about the existence of the Waziart family.
"Now, at this moment in time, someone from that country has paid a visit to this place... Does that mean they, too, are curious about the little boy? Or is there some other reason?"
Zonne was thinking about it as he stroked his beard, but he quickly shook his head as if shaking something off. While looking down at the barrier he had deployed, he exhaled loudly.
"It's a little late for that now, isn't it?..."
The old dragon looked up at the sky with sad and sorrowful-tinged eyes.
The figure, staring far off into the distance, was so small and feeble that it was hard to believe that it was a race of ancient legends.
"... Who's there?"
However, with a heavy voice, Zonne's face, which had been filled with sadness, suddenly tightened.
He looked up at the sky, and when he turned his gaze to the side, he saw a bird flapping its wings and staring at him intently.
It had jet-black wings that seemed to have taken the dark night into its body, and blood-red eyes. Its distinctive features are its claws, which are larger than those of an ordinary crow, and its bill, which is curved at the tip.
The moment Zonne saw the bird, which reminded him more of a bird of prey than a crow, his eyes widened as if he had seen something unbelievable.
"It's been a long time, White Dragon Lord. You've grown quite sentimental, haven't you?"
"But it's time for you to go, old man. You are a race that is destined to disappear after all."
The next moment, a hideous-colored mist erupted from the flapping wings of the raven.
A chaotic black mist, as if it were a mixture of many paints, rushed toward Zonne.
Facing the approaching fog of chaos, Zonne held up his staff while blowing out white, glowing elements of light from his body.
The fog of chaos and the white light collided. The enormous amount of elements collided with each other, purple electricity dancing and the s.p.a.ce creaking and screeching.
The fog of chaos and white light seemed to be competing with each other. However, a large bead of sweat was breaking out on Zonne's forehead. Obviously, there seemed to be no room to spare.
"It's no use, White Dragon Lord. The current you, who has reduced your soul to stop your foolish granddaughter, cannot stand up to it. You will fall into the darkness of emptiness."
"What the heck... Since when..."
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He who has done his part should return at once. Into the depths of the earth, into the bottom of the abyss..."
Along with the raven's declaration, the torrent of chaos gained momentum at once. The antagonism between black and white collapsed.
The fog of chaos swirled and swallowed Zonne, then converged on a single point. As if swallowed by the void, it vanished.
"Now, then this is goodbye... -well, as much as I'd like to say so, but as expected of the White Dragon Lord, he will not be swallowed up so easily. However, I'm at my limit, and because of his barrier, I can't interfere with the things I'm after."
The red-eyed raven changed its form.
The body, which was about the size of a man's head, suddenly became fat, its flapping wings turned into human arms, and its sharp claws turned into human feet. The beaked face changed to a pale, ghastly appearance.
There he was, the man who had introduced himself to Nozomu as John Smith at the opening festival, the Corpse Raven.
"A~a~. As expected, I'm going back to my former tone of voice when I'm in this form~."
He stretched his back as hard as he could to loosen his stiff shoulders and looked down at the barrier below him once again.
"Fufufu~, kuku~, kuke~ke~ke… With this, my part is done. I'm sure there will be no problem with Mekria-chan, and I'm sure she will be able to secure it. Shall we wait for the awakening now? Well now, I wonder what kind of answer the heretical dragon slayer born by chance will give~~. Fu~, fu~, fu~..."
With a perverse smile on his face, he sat cross-legged in mid-air and disappeared as if dissolving into the dark night.
The morning after Nozomu went to Shino's hut. Mars was waiting in front of the central park for the usual gang of members to arrive at school.
A large young man dressed in the school uniform and standing with a great sword on his back, stood out very conspicuously.
The students on their way to school glanced at Mars, but their eyes were on his right arm.
His right arm was hung by a triangular bandage as if it had been treated for a broken bone. The bandage wrapped around the arm looked painful.
However, Mars, the person in question, did not seem to be bothered by the stares he was receiving, but stood still, staring at the main street, as if waiting for someone.
Eventually, the people he was waiting for arrived at the school. Tima, Feo, and Tom.
Mars and the three greet each other lightly. Tom and Feo were originally in the same boys' dormitory. Tima seemed to have joined them on her way here.
However, Mars was a bit uneasy about the fact that Tom and Feo were the only two in the dormitory. He was sure that there was another good friend of his living in the boys' dormitory.
"Hey, what's up with Nozomu?"
"He didn't seem to have returned to the dormitory yesterday. I knocked on his room, but he didn't answer."
Tom nodded in agreement with Feo's words.
But there was something that stuck in Mars' mind. Looking next to him, Tima's appearance was also somewhat gloomy.
She usually went to school with her best friend Irisdina, but today she was alone. The expression on her face was gloomy and her eyes were downcast as if she was depressed.
"Tima, where's Irisdina?"
"I couldn't see her. I went to the mansion to pick her up, but Mena said that it was an important time for her and that Ai should refrain from going to school ..."
"... Hmmm, that's strange."
Feo voiced doubt in response to Tima's words.
"The reason why the princess was going to school without her sister was to involve Nozomu. But I don't understand why she would stop now. Maybe something happened with the Francilts."
Something happened. Hearing those words, Tima turned her head down, looking worried. The reason for this was that she was worried about her best friend and her friend's safety, and Mars also had a grim expression on his face.
"What time do the negotiations start?"
"The day after tomorrow at noon. The place is the Francilt mansion. I just confirmed that the council of Arcazam has decided to close the surrounding area as a precaution. The area is about a quarter of the administrative district. They seem to be quite cautious."
As the name implies, the administrative district can be called the brain of Arcazam. The fact that they have closed a quarter of it, even if only temporarily, shows their wariness of Vitora and, by extension, of the Empire.
"The city may not look much different, but behind the scenes, the academy and the council must already be in a state of panic."
"Well, they're dealing with vampires. Moreover, it is a powerful nation with a special cla.s.s of power in this continent. Prejudice against them still remains strong, and even the mansion in the administrative district where Princess Vitora is staying now seems to be closed off to the public."
Following Feo, Tom proceeds to explain.
Thanks to the construction of Arcazam and the accompanying progress in all areas of research, new facts about vampires have been uncovered.
One of these is the misconception about vampires. The most important of these is the fact that vampires do not intentionally turn humans into monsters.
To begin with, a species that absolutely needs blood to survive would not be able to sustain itself if every time it sucked blood, it turned the other person into a monster.
"So how did it come to be that they were turning people into monsters?"
"The circ.u.mstances are a bit complicated. Well, mainly because of the story about vampires turning people into vampires or monsters, but there's a lot going on around that. Let's see..."
I had to go to the Gloaurum Inst.i.tution myself and check out the doc.u.ments. Tom said so and took out a sheaf of papers from his bag and offered them to Tima and Mars.
The two accepted the bundle of papers and quickly read through the contents.
It was probably handwritten by Tom and Feo, and contained the latest research on vampires that he had investigated.
"When a vampire turns a person into one of his own kind, the vampire is not sucking blood. Rather, they pour their own blood into the person. And the blood that is poured into them turns them into vampires."
"… What did you say?"
"Here's the problem. Just because blood has been poured into a person does not mean that the person can become a vampire. Rather, most people don't become vampires; they become beings that attack someone indiscriminately until they run out of strength."
They are undead that turn the people they kill into the same cannibalistic undead and multiply inexhaustibly.
These ghouls are extremely troublesome, and even if they are imperfect, they have inherited the vampire's abilities, and they will not stop at the loss of a limb.
The only way to kill it completely is to crush its head, destroy its heart, burn its entire body with fire, or expose it to sunlight. However, a body enhanced like that of a vampire cannot be easily destroyed, and it would be difficult to hold out until sunrise against opponents with superior physical capabilities.
On top of that, ghouls have B-rank power.
At B rank, ordinary people are no match for them. The multiplied individuals are also of the same rank threat level.
If the rank of an ordinary soldier is D and the strength of a skilled soldier is C, the threat is easy to predict.
If such a monster is unleashed in a city, where vulnerable civilians are densely populated, what awaits them is nothing but h.e.l.l.
"I see, so those ghouls are the source of the vampire's bad reputation. But aren't those ghouls also harmful to vampires? If they thought they were so harmful, why didn't the vampires kill the ghouls they had created?"
Mars's question was reasonable. When ghouls run amok, the blame inevitably turns on vampires. And in fact, nations across the continent were working bloodthirsty to get rid of vampires.
As a result, the number of vampires plummeted. They could only live in one area of a small country in a very cold, very remote area. When it comes to bloodsucking alone, there is no effect on either the vampire or the person being sucked. If that had been the only reason, vampires would not have been persecuted to such an excessive degree.
In response to Mars' question, Feo joined Tom in explaining the situation.
"We have been investigating vampire legends from various regions and have found a number of strange things. In many cases, when the ghouls were exterminated, the vampires who were responsible for it did not escape."
"There were vampires who got drunk on blood and went berserk. But when such vampires were found, the ghouls did not emerge, only the vampires who caused the problem were killed."
"On top of that, in many cases, the vampire who was the parent of the ghoul committed suicide. This means that for the vampire, the person whom they have turned into a ghoul may have been their beloved one."
"So you're saying that they were moved by affection..."
"It was a love so great that they were willing to die for it. And this is the root of the change in the way we have always viewed vampires."
The fear of vampires was the result of the confusion between the tragedy caused by blood-drunk individuals and the tragedy caused by vampires who were compa.s.sionate enough to share their blood with others.
After Tom and Feo finished their explanation, they stretched their bodies.
If one were to look closely, one would see dark circles around Tom and Feo's eyes. Perhaps they had stayed up all night to investigate this matter.
"But how did you two manage to investigate all of that?"
"We found out that the doc.u.ments in the library were out of date, so we went directly to the Gloaurum Inst.i.tute and asked them to show the doc.u.ments to us. Since it was originally a doc.u.ment that had been made public, they showed it to us right away."
"But we had to transcribe it ourselves because we weren't allowed to take it out of the library."
Tom, having finished explaining the things they had investigated, turned his attention to Mars.
"So, how's your arm, Mars-kun?"
"Well, it's going better. The pain has already subsided."
"But it's going to take a little longer to fully settle in, so you'll still need to rest, right?"
"Yeah, I know. I'll behave myself while I can."
Tom smiled wryly as Mars tapped his bandaged right arm with his left hand.
On the other hand, it was Feo who was concerned about the state of the two. Combined with his natural curiosity, he began to wonder about the meaning of the two men's behavior.
"Hm? Mars, what on earth did you ask Tom to do?
"Well, it's just a little experiment, and if it works, it's a good thing..."
Looking into Feo's piercing gaze with his originally narrow eyes, Mars also lifted his mouth and responded with a suggestive smile.
Tom, on the other hand, was staring at the street leading from the central park to the residential area, the same street Tom and his friends had just walked down, but also the same street that led to the girl's dormitory.
"By the way, Mimuru and Shina are late too. I wonder what's going on..."
Tom was concerned that his girlfriend had not arrived yet.
The fact that she is always the first one to come to see Tom is a concern.
But not long after he uttered those words, the demi-human girl in question appeared from down the street.
Tom raised his hand to Mimuru as she appeared.
"Oh, here she is ... Eh?"
But then his eyebrows turned into a c-shape.
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Mimuru's expression was dark as she walked down the street. It was so gloomy. It was as if she was the ghoul that they had talked about earlier.
"Yeah. But as expected, taking Nozomu to the inn while Shina-san is watching me is not a bit..."
So, if they had not seen you, would you have brought him? Feo wondered so in his mind as he glanced at the girl who had just screamed.
There was Tima, her face as red as a boiled octopus, fantasizing about their pa.s.sionate intercourse.
"W-, w-, w-, while being watched!? Wa-, wa-, waaa... Kyuu."
"O-, oi! Pull yourself together!"
Mars, who was standing next to her, hurriedly supported Tima's body as she collapsed.
"After that, Shina-san criticized me, and when I argued back, she got depressed ... It seems that something is wrong with Shina-san."
"What do you mean?"
Mars, who was supporting the unconscious Tima, voiced his doubts, but Lisa, not knowing the details of the situation, simply shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, If it's about Shina, we can ask Mimuru, and she'll tell us. So, what about Nozomu? What did you say to that guy?"
"Hm? What do you mean?"
"Nozomu didn't even go back to his dormitory yesterday. Based on the flow of the story, you, Princess Red Hair must have done something to Nozomu during that date, right? I think that's one of the reasons~~."
"Ah, yeah. He seemed to be overthinking things a bit, so I advised him to try emptying his head..."
"Emptying his head, huh? So the question is, how does Nozomu keep his head empty?"
"Well, if it's him, he's probably training with his katana. He must be swinging his katana around in the forest. And the place is probably there."
Mars answered from beside Feo, who began to ponder.
He has known Nozomu for nearly a year. It was easy to imagine that Nozomu's destination was the collapsed hut of his master.
Feo nodded at Mars' words, letting out a light "I see~".
"What a brain muscle~"
"That place is like a starting point of his. Well, I'm also concerned about Sheena and Irisdina..."
The expression on Mars' face, which had been smiling wryly at Nozomu's behavior, tightened.
"What's with that serious look on your face?"
"This whole situation is getting kind of unpleasant, don't you think?"
"Well, yeah. It's like a dangerous fire is smoldering in the shadows."
A sense of uneasiness had been rising from deep within their hearts since the opening festival. The feeling of foreboding about the disturbances that had become so ingrained over the past year or so was on Mars' and Feo's minds.
"I'm going to talk to Tom and Mimuru, just in case. Well, I'm a little worried about that guy who was taken away..."
After finishing their conversation, just as Mars was about to wake up the unconscious Tima, Tom and Mimuru, who had disappeared into the forest, came back.
"Oh, looks like they're back...-hmm."
“*Sniffle, sniffle*, hic hic hic…”
Mars was speechless at the sight of Mimuru, who came back with Tom pulling her by the hand, sniffling and weeping.
The sight of Mimuru, who was usually cheerful and as active as a fast-moving horse-drawn carriage, crying, not only made Mars' eyes widen, but also Feo's and Lisa's eyes widen.
"Everyone, I have something I want you all to hear."
Tom, who was pulling Mimuru's hand, opened his mouth with a bitter expression.
Mars and Feo felt their own sense of uneasiness swell up at once at the grave tone of his voice.
"I see, it seems to be more serious than we thought. I guess we'll have to take the day off from school today."
For the time being, they woke up Tima, who had fainted, and while understanding the situation, the group began to walk in the opposite direction from the road to the school.
The story goes back a bit, to shortly after Tom was taken away by Mimuru. He was still being held tightly in his lover's arms, but he was surprised by his lover's sudden action.
"W-, w-, wait, Mimuru, stop!"
Tom managed to call out to his lover to stop her despite being shaken by Mimuru running through the trees of the central park, but Mimuru, the person in question, does not seem to be stopping at all.
Clearly, there is something wrong with her. She is not her usual self.
Tom frowns at the pain of the rustling leaves against his cheek but continues to call out to Mimuru.
"What the h.e.l.l is going on!? To do something like this all of a sudden... -ugh!"
At that moment, Mimuru came to an abrupt stop. Inertia tightened his stomach, and an involuntary cry of anguish escaped Tom's mouth. The air in his lungs was pushed out all at once, and Tom coughed loudly.
At that moment, Mimuru, who had been standing still, dropped to the ground as if her strength had been suddenly drained from her.
Tom's body was also lowered to the ground, and the two of them were in the position where Tom was hugged by Mimuru from behind.
The force in Mimuru's arms became even stronger.
Tom could feel her frustration in the tight, almost painful embrace. Along with the rough breathing that caressed his neck from behind, he could feel Mimuru's body tense up and shudder.
She is crying.
Feeling her wordless sobs in his back, Tom gently moved his right hand gently and stroked Mimuru's head to comfort his lover as she clung to his back.
"It's okay, it's okay..."
After a few moments of slow stroking, the tension in Mimuru's body slowly began to loosen.
Tom made sure that Mimuru's arms around him had loosened, and he slowly turned around to face her.
She was usually vigorous and full of energy, but now, her eyes were full of tears.
"Tom, I, I ... What should I do?"
Tom listened to Mimuru's story, wiping away the tears that flowed like a broken dam.
"Shina is gone."
Tom furrowed his brow as Mimuru began to talk in a hushed tone.
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