Chapter 5: The Enrollment 3
The first class that Leon had in the morning happened to be Mechatronics, one of the few that he shared with Olivia. The two entered the classroom and found that, rather than dividing the students into separate desks, there were instead long tables that stretched in rows. They rose higher in elevation the further back they were, meaning that the further back you were the harder it would be to see the blackboard.
An idle part of Leon’s mind noted it resembled the kind of lecture halls that his sister back in Japan complained about when she entered University.
Olivia naturally took a seat within the front row, given that her inability to speak meant that if she had any questions, she would have to write them down to present them to the instructor. Leon took the seat next to her. Not only because he had decided to stick close to her to make sure she was safe while they decided what to do about the Muse Artifacts, but because he was actually somewhat interested in the class since he had never taken it.
The game offered a few courses, but this one wasn’t an option for the Protagonist. That was likely because none of the Love Interests would be in them combined with the fact that Olivia in the game never had an interest in the more scientific aspects of the game and instead focused on Septimal Studies. He could only speculate that since she lacked Septima that interest was shifted to this field instead, which was notable when the rest of the students filed in, with the instructor being the late one to come in.
He took the piece of chalk and began writing on the board in what passed for cursive two words in large letters: ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ before he set it down and then turned back to the rest of the students to make sure all eyes were on him, only to do a mild double-take when he saw Olivia. She only craned her head inquisitively in response, having not quite caught onto the fact that she was the only woman presently in the classroom. Noblewomen of the rank that would normally attend the classes tended not to want anything to do with technology. So, around this period they would be taking one of the laxer courses.
He eventually realized he was staring and turned his attention back to the board and pointed to the ‘Why?’ written there. “Welcome my young students. I am happy that you’ve decided to take my class and dive head-first into the wonders of the world of Mechatronics. We’ll begin with the reason why this class is offered at the Royal Academy. As you will learn once your History class delves into the topic, Holfort boasts the largest amount of Septimal diversity and Adepts among all the surrounding nations. It has been that way since the founding of our Kingdom, where the Muse bestowed their blessing upon the first King of Holfort and his cohorts that became the founding five families.”
That would be the first Muse, Leon noted to himself. The one whose staff was placed within the Basilica and was still there to this day. In hindsight, after having enough time to talk it over with Lola and think, he probably should have questioned why the artifacts boosted the strength of an existing Muse when things like the Glaives were considered lost technology.
“—beneficial for our country and so the development of Septimal Studies has been a fixture, other countries have been focusing on delving into the ruins of the ancients and reverse engineering the technology left behind to act as an equalizer to the natural capabilities we possess. This became more prevalent in the last clash with the Principality of Fanoss twenty-years ago, at which point His Majesty decided to set the framework to remedy this shortcoming.”
Leon briefly turned his attention to Olivia, who was already dutifully taking notes on all of this. And much faster than her usual writing. Or so it seemed until he noticed the notes were more abbreviated and clipped short than the full passages. Is she really going to get everything like that?
“As the last war showed, there is no need for us to simply allow outside nations to take advancements that should be ours as a nation founded by Adventurers. More so considering that without proper investigation and understanding people may end up repeating the mistakes of our precursors that led to the end of the world before this due to being so primitive and warlike despite being so advanced, resulting in ruining the world as it once was.”
“That’s a lot of talk coming from scavengers that pick apart the creations of older civilizations because they’re too creatively bankrupt to come up with their own creations.”
Leon was somewhat caught off-guard at Lola’s tone that came off in an uncharacteristically angry manner. Her temperament tended to shift between pretty cheerful and somewhat pensive, as if reflecting the age she appeared back when they’d first met and her actual age. But raw anger was rare enough that he decided to question her about it later as the professor continued, blissfully unaware that he was very likely a man marked for execution.
“That is yet another reason we must learn from the failings of our predecessor. Dungeons hold the secrets that our precursors once possessed, thus, the purpose of our course is take those technological advancements and use them as supplement to our Septima to better protect our homeland and improve the lives of those within our borders without repeating the same mistakes. Which bring us to the second reason for the existence of this course.”
He drew a large circle around the ‘HOW’ comment written on the board. “Our course over this term will entail learning the mechanics behind electronics, not just devices you may have seen within the Capital in abundance, but rather how electricity itself flows and powers the variety of systems that use it. You’ll learn about the various paths, components, and mechanisms behind how they operate, starting with simple devices like lights and the like. Once you have that solid understanding, we’ll move on to more advanced systems. Are there any questions?”
Olivia’s hand went up.
“Yes, Miss….?” He awaited her response only to realize a pregnant pause later that he wouldn’t be receiving a verbal answer when she held up her notepad. “Oh, my apologies. You must be one of the scholarship students…”
Leon cast a glance over the room as the man adjusted his glasses and came over to see what she had written down. He could see from some of their expressions they were silently casting judgement upon her with that information now in their minds. Some remained neutral, but that was more indifference on their part than anything else. A Commoner in a class of Nobles had nothing to do with them, so they didn’t particularly care about her. More than a few wore slight frowns but lacked the furrowed brow that indicated disdain or anger. Disappointment?
Probably the ones hoping to approach her. He figured that since this was their first official class they likely didn’t know who the scholarship student was and so she just so happened to be a quiet and cute girl sitting in the front. Most likely they were planning to approach her once class ended, but the fact that she was a Minos meant there was no point now—if the fact that she was mute didn’t scare them off before that.
There were a couple who had looks of disdain. Typical of those who questioned why someone of low status was attending an academy for the elites of society. The kind who had more bark than bite. He didn’t think they would do anything so it was fine to ignore them.
But there was one exception to that rule. One set of eyes that bore down on the unaware young woman with enough unmistakable malice that there was no question that they bore nothing but contempt for her. As if she was a blight upon the world that had committed the ultimate sin by simply meeting existing within their view.
“I see. I see.” The professor’s voice snapped Leon’s attention back to the man himself. “It would be a notable concern elsewhere, but the Capital doesn’t have such restrictions on energy consumption. You see, because the Azure Striker Septima is capable of supplying a vast amount of electrical energy directly rather than deriving it from a secondary source, we can utilize it as much as needed. You need only request the necessary supplies.”
Olivia beamed him a smile as she set her hand on her chest and bobbed her head once in gratitude. It must have been the answer she was looking for.
He then turned to the rest of the class. “Are there any other questions?”
The rest of the class was rather uneventful. The professor merely continued by having them open their textbooks and go through what was to be the introductory chapter. It was about as standard as expected, going over the definitions of what electricity was, examples like how the lamps in the streets weren’t oil-based, and how electricity itself wasn’t merely the streaks but actually smaller invisible particles in motion.
For as quiet as she was, Olivia was clearly excited upon hearing that. It was as if she had just obtained some secret knowledge and she couldn’t wait to unravel it. Not just her either. More than a few of the guys in the room had been looking like they were struggling to suspend their disbelief.
But she was practically a bundle of energy as when class ended. She turned to Leon with her smaller notepad: Do you want to come with me to the Library for our study period?
Normally, their schedule would leave them to head Septimal Studies—which was basically a class that ensured that all the students had a general understanding of the basics of septima and the laws governing it—next for the first term. But considering the two of them weren’t Adepts, they were instead given that period off since it would have a cascading effect on the rest of the schedule if they arranged other classes that didn’t line up. From what Leon could gather either the Queen or their handler intended to keep them together as much as they could by fixing the shared classes to the same time period with only separate electives.
Leon let a hum bubble in his throat as he spared a glance over the shoulder to the one giving her the dirty look earlier to see him animatedly chatting in hushed whispers with one of the other classmates. That look of disdain was one he recognized it all too well now. It was the same Zola often gave him.
“That’s a good idea,” he said to Olivia in as saccharine a voice as he could while shuffling his bag’s handle into his ring and little finger on one hand before doing the same for hers with his remaining digits on the right hand. He then wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Let me show you where it is.”
There was notable confusion evident on her face as he guided her out of the room. It was once they were out of the main hall and into the stairwell leading down that he released her and apologized. “Sorry about that. I figured we’d want to beat the rush before the rest of the students crowd the passageways.”
It was a little devious considering they were only acquaintances. But while she might not be a prospective partner for one of the Five, given she was a Minos and mute, she was attractive enough that someone might decide to have a little fun with her if they thought that they could get away with it because she wasn’t involved with another man. Ideally, he really wanted the guy to reconsider targets if he had a problem with Minos in general and would likely go after another male before a woman, if not because it was likely to be more acceptable to hit another guy then because he was easier to find when necessary, on campus in the dorms.
Leon could handle himself for the most part and respond appropriately when that time came. Olivia couldn’t. In the game she had to have others do the fighting for her while she supported them with the Muse. But Olivia didn’t have the aegis of the Five Love Interests, only the vague protections gifted to them by the scholarship. And he wasn’t going to rely on that to shelter her because it didn’t stop her from getting bullied in the game when she just had a weak Septima and was a Commoner.
Naturally, the Library looked the part when they arrived. Since the Royal Academy was essentially the primary learning institution for the nobility, it was a well-financed part of the campus where knowledge could be found. Rows of books, stocked on shelves, carried the scent of leather and parchment. Silence held a solid foothold as only muted sounds from the few present within its dominion could be found. There were also seating areas and study desks for groups to review the information they gathered, one of which Leon led Olivia to in a private corner that was on the first floor.
In the game, if she was made to be the studious type for progressing certain events, Olivia would refer to it as her bastion as few bothered traversing the area and that gave it a more isolated feeling. He slid a chair from beneath the table and offered it to her. “Here you go.”
Olivia nodded her head in gratitude before she took a seat and pulled out the smaller pad she had used to record the notes earlier. Like he’d thought before it was a lot of abbreviations and shorthand that honestly looked a little intimidating. But she managed to translate it into detailed information with little problem, meaning she wouldn’t have trouble keeping up to a degree in her classes if she could focus.
So, Leon decided to leave her be for a moment as he went off to a spot that he knew would be abandoned and out of the way on the second floor around this time. It was one of the places where one of the Brad and Olivia would sit around and talk before eventually exchanging a kiss with one another to show the relationship progress. Once he was there, he called out to his invisible companion. “Lola, are clear speak for a moment here without anyone listening in?”
“Yep.” The Combat Pod’s appearance bled into existence as she retracted the pix she used to camouflage herself. “What’s on your mind?”
He crossed his arms. “What happened back there? It isn’t like you to have an outburst like that from the few months we’ve spent together.”
“Yeah…sorry about that.” She drifted lower for a moment before circling around to the window. “He probably couldn’t know better considering everything, but he pressed a lot of my buttons, and my circuits got a bit overheated.”
“Then talk to me.” He leaned against the windowsill, using one arm to support his head. “I’d like to at least know why the professor went missing after today if I don’t see him tomorrow.”
“I’m not going to make him disappear,” she promised. “Ignorance isn’t a crime and even if he’s wrong about the cause, he’s right that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It’s just… first off, how he called them ‘Primitive’ was akin to a slur back in my time.”
That surprised him more than it should have. “It was?”
Her flaps fidgeted a few times. “It was used by the Adepts around the time of the war for the Humans, citing it as a reason for why they deserved to go extinct. I mean, you wouldn’t feel bad about killing something beneath you, right?”
“Ah, so like how the term ‘Minos’ is used.” They labeled you as something less than they were, so you didn’t deserve the same rights and privileges. It made it easier to exploit or be rid of you. “That’d do it.”
She bobbed up and down. “And it happens to be especially insulting considering I’m literally the one fixing the mistakes of the Adept that caused the problem while his descendants are running this country and teaching others that the people of my time killed themselves off because they were primitive compared to the Adepts. Intellectually, I understand he couldn’t know better but…”
“It feels like he’s trampling on us without knowing a thing about how people in the past really lived,” Leon finished for her. “To be fair, it’s the kind of propaganda and mindset you’d expect from a civilization like this. It was less against non-Adepts and more that the other country doesn’t have Septima as powerful as ours and we’re so much better than them. Us vs Them and all.”
“I… just wished they’d consider the reason they keep finding weapons was because everything else kept getting destroyed during the war. Stuff that would help with food production and places like hospitals were all viable soft targets that could cripple entire cities if hit. You’d naturally target those first in a war of extinction, right?”
No food meant that people would starve. He couldn’t imagine it would take very long for a more modernized world that transitioned from having large agriculture to trading for goods to become hectic due to a lack of food. No treatment for injuries meant that even minor scrapes could become infected and fatal, let alone people who medical conditions that required constant healthcare.
“It really isn’t that hard to figure out if you really think about it.” There was a note of resignation in her electronic voice. “It’s just that no one is interested in the reason why the world is the way it is from what they discover. They just see relics from my age as a means of obtaining power to use against one another rather than improving the lives of everyone. The professor even mentioned that the only reason the Royal Family is spearheading this project is because the other nation has been gaining military power. It’s just an arms race that’ll end up with one side wiping the other out, repeating the cycle.”
“That’s the feudal-future nature of this place we’ve ended up in,” Leon responded in his own resigned voice. He had long given up on expecting much from it. “Do you want to sit out the rest of the classes, because that isn’t the only time it’ll likely come up and you don’t need put up with it.”
“I can manage, but thanks for being concerned though.” She drifted closer to him and moved her flaps a bit. “But, on another topic, I noticed that during class your stress levels were elevating in response to one particular classmate. Is he going to be a problem?”
“I don’t know…” Leon pursed his lips for a moment. “He was giving Olivia a look that basically made it clear he’d like nothing more than to be rid of her in a way that reminded me of Zola. Can you figure out what you can about him and see why?”
“I can give it a go, but will you be okay on your own?”
“Yeah. I’ll just stick around here with Olivia until Lunch. Meet me then and, based on what you find, I might request that you keep an eye on Olivia when our classes split apart for the electives.”
“Okay. See you then.” That said, the Combat Support Pod bled out of existence as she had her pix once more camouflaged herself.
Leon gave it a moment before he sighed and rubbed his temples. First actual day of their classes and there was already a potential problem. “Well, nothing for it. I’ll just have to keep an eye on her with Lola for now.”
The pen scratched against the notepad as Olivia quickly scribed the notes from class while it was fresh in her mind. The primary part of the class had been focused on electronics and how electricity fueled it all, which she found to be a fascinating topic given just how vast the applications were with it. Resistors, Conductors, Capacitors—she had begun putting names all these little things packed into small bits that somehow could be used to create different devices.
And then there was the fact that she had the chance to enjoy so many little luxuries that the others didn’t have the chance to experience back home. She had a room to herself rather than needing to share, even including a carpeted floor and a bed that was soft enough that she could sink into. Then there were the delicious foods they had and how they didn’t need to share a plate half of the time.
But she wouldn’t be allured away from her goal by the luxuries here. She couldn’t since it would be unfair for the others back in the church. She was here for them too, so she could learn everything she could to help them.
“Wow, you actually managed to remember all of the details that clearly,” came from right next to her. She turned her head to see that Esquire Bartfort was there with his hand on his chin as he observed her writing. “My own notes a bit lacking in comparison.”
She waved both her hands slightly to try to get across the fact that it wasn’t anything special. Master Lucas had taught all the children how to be observant and pick up clues when they were taking notes. It made things easier for when they needed to help with the responsibilities back at their little parish church and the local communities who weren’t fortunate enough to have the time to become literate due to needing to constantly work the land.
He slid out the chair adjacent to her and took a seat, setting down a book that was markedly more advanced than the topic that they were covering. Specifically, it looked to be a reference guide on the fundamentals on Exosuit construction he mentioned wanting to learn more about, with it showing some very detailed images on the pages as he began flipping through them.
She scribbled on her smaller pad: You can already understand that?
“Oh no. I don’t understand 99% of this stuff,” he admitted cheerily. “I’m just looking at the parts that I recognize from maintenance on the powered armors back home to get a better grasp on what goes on beneath the surface.”
So you’ve done maintenance on Exosuits even before coming here? That’s impressive, Esq. Bartfort.
He shook his head. “It’s not like what you’re thinking. Since our gear is important, we do know enough to be able to do quick inspections and tell when something needs to be taken care of. Faulty equipment will get you killed if you’re not careful. But if something goes over our heads then we have the local mechanic look at it—otherwise he’d get pissed for bothering him when he had too much on his hands already.”
Her brows dropped just a bit as she took that in. Her home and the parish territory didn’t really have to deal with monsters very often. Not to the degree that some other places might have. But things weren’t that fortunate for him it would seem, and since he didn’t have Septima he would have to clad himself in armor to fight.
“You know, it’d be easier if you just put Leon instead of my title and last name,” he continued while gesturing towards what she had written. “Four letters are quicker to write than twelve and saves space.”
She only shook her head before she responded: I can’t do that. You’re a Noble after all.
Olivia knew she was a Commoner. One without blood-ties at that, an orphan of a poor little church with no worth to her name. Not even a Septima of her own to pass down to any children she might have had. She had long since accepted that fact and so she was grateful to Her Majesty and Master Lucas for this opportunity.
But he was different. Even though they both lacked a Septima, he still came from a noble lineage. And more than that he was someone who had the bravery to explore dungeons as an Adventurer and earn accolades through his own merits to enter the gentry.
“On paper, yeah,” Leon admitted. “But the formality of it all doesn’t sit well with me. I’m more used to people calling me by my first name and it makes me sound like an old man being called that by someone who’s my own age. I mean it’d be weird if our positions were reversed and I suddenly called you, Esquire Olivia, right?”
She could see how it felt almost impersonal when someone called you that way. She decided to honor his request and made one of her own: Then can you call me Livia as well? My friends back home do the same.
“Livia…” He rolled her name around in his mouth for a moment as if he were sampling it before smiling. “I can see why they would. It rolls of the tongue a bit easier, Livia.”
Even though it hadn’t been long since she left home to arrive here, Olivia was surprised at how comforting it felt to hear someone say it again. She felt herself smiling for quite a while as they turned their attention back to their own assignments.
[—Marie Fou Lafan—]
Marie found herself within the Colosseum nestled on flat grounds located on the upper right corner of the territory of the academy. It was in the shape of an amphitheater that was wide enough it could fit the entirety of the student body and have seats to spare, rising more than 150 feet into the air. The outer wall was formed of limestone that were shored up with metal supports that helped reinforce it, while the inside had a tiered arrangement of seats with spectator boxes at the top that were flanked by podiums for the elite to seat themselves in.
The arena itself was around 150 feet by 300 feet with a solid floor that was made of tiled stone. It was ringed by marble walls that framed metal panels within them that generated a barrier known as a Hexapyle, hexagonal transparent walls of energy that were often used in warships to defend against gunfire and ballistics fire. They were what ensured the safety of spectators when the arena was in use for various shows and events—including duels between the nobility.
Right now the location was being used as a testing site for their Septimal Studies class. The class covered the theoretical, practical use, and laws related to one’s Septimal ability. Since it was their first day in class all students were taking an ability assessment since there was technology that could put a numerical value based on the capacity of their Septimal Power—SP for short.
Marie watched as Julius approached the platform of the testing device to lead by example, an archway that was lined with sensors and connected to a monitor. Since Adepts gave off the energy passively there was no need to exert himself or express his power, which was necessary both because he ran the risk of burning out the sensitive components and because it would give a skewed reading. They had told them last night that they shouldn’t use their Septima before the assessment to make sure they were at full capacity.
When Adepts used their Septima it pulled from their pool, which would naturally be replenished over time to the point where unless you were seriously using your power constantly it wouldn’t factor in. However, for any ‘Skills’ with the playable cast, it drained a huge chunk to where they couldn’t use them again until enough was replenished. It was so you didn’t spam your big moves in terms of game balance, but here it was because there were limitations to the body.
Of course, the Azure Striker was special. In the game, Julius had a separate EP (Electro Power) bar that represented how his body naturally accumulated electrical energy on its own due to his Septima, absorbing static electricity from his surrounding to replenish itself or much faster if he concentrated on the process. The electricity he naturally accumulated fueled his primary abilities, so unlike other Adepts he effectively never had to use his SP to discharge his electricity or convert himself into a pseudo-electrified state.
Julius had a placid expression on his face that betrayed no emotion as a low hum resonated throughout the arena once the device started up. It was known as the princely mask among the fandom for the game, having been drilled into him from a young age by his overbearing mother to never lose his composure when faced with a crowd. It was essential since any sign of weakness would trickle down to everyone else and be exploited, as well as hiding the cracks were spreading from the weight of all that responsibility he never asked for.
And yet that was nothing new to be honest.
Even in her old life having responsibilities foisted on you that you never asked for was an everyday occurrence for her. Back when she started being a hostess she had lost count of how many young boys complained about how they had joined a black company without realizing, unable to escape without their reputations being shot and thus unable to get another job. Then when she had gotten more popular it was CEOs complaining about their subordinates and shareholders that always demanded more from them.
That was why they would often visit the hostess club to vent their frustrations to someone who would listen. Even if they were smart enough to know it was just an illusion of companionship that would vanish the moment their funds ran dry, they were willing to keep lying to themselves that it was good enough. That someday the lie would become the truth.
His gaze that rolled over the crowd fell onto her for a moment. And in that moment, she gave him the slightest smile to pass along a wordless message. It caused the tiniest upward curl in the crook of his lips before it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, a slight glimpse beneath the mask that no one else would notice.
Aside from Jilk, who was glancing her way out of the corner of his eyes as discreetly as he could. It was part of his introduction flag after all. Seeing his milk brother showing attention to a woman that wasn’t disinterest or silent disdain would cause him to begin investigating into her. If everything went to plan, he would probably confront her this weekend to give her a warning.
Jilk was the kind of guy who acted on what he believed best benefited Julius, even being willing to quietly go behind his back and subvert orders if necessary to do it. During one of the support conversations he even admitted to digging into the Heroine’s personal information from the school records and looking into her past, only to find nothing. If there was even the slightest sign of manipulation, he would have her removed from the picture either through blackmail or otherwise.
Not that he was always a spook. He had his quirks and his own cute points once you got to know him. But getting him to open up was incredibly difficult with how guarded he was, as one wrong answer and he would clam up—which made his route one of the most difficult ones.
The display eventually registered Julius’ SP capacity and the numbers entered the range for the Rank expected of one of his caliber: A-Rank. For most Adepts the lowest reached out be C-Rank, then B-Rank for middle of the road, then A-Rank for the powerful ones, with S-Rank having been the highest reached. There was technically an SS-Rank in the game, but that was only when the Muse was factored in.
“As expected of His Highness,” came from nearby, drawing her attention to the villainess—Angelica Rapha Redgrave. The daughter of Duke Redgrave stood tall with blonde hair the same hue as Marie’s but short and tied up in a bun, crimson eyes fixed on Julius as he removed himself from the stage.
Marie pursed her lips for just a moment when she considered what dealing with her would entail. In the original story, Angelica possessed the Psychokinesis Septima as was expected of her family and ended up lashing out at the Heroine in a jealous fit when no one would come forth as her champion for a duel because she was clearly in the wrong, which resulted in her exile as the Love Interest stopped them and the manifestation of the Muse’s avatar would appear in the process, signifying to those of the faith that the relationship was justified and pulling the attention of the Church onto her—who would then test her qualifications for Sainthood.
But in the Updated Edition there was an additional boss fight because—at least as far as the theory went from the fans—people weren’t satisfied that they got to beat up the other villains in the story, but she got to walk away with only her intentions of having the fame and power of being the Queen being squashed after making the Heroine’s life a nightmare. In that fight, during the second phase, it was revealed that she also possessed electrical powers like that of the Azure Striker. It was theorized to be a derivative due to the fact that the Duke’s family was closely tied to the Royal Family via ancestry and by fluke it awoke within her, so she believed the marriage with Julius was preordained.
If we push the events properly, we can make it happen at the end of this term. Marie reasoned as she once more went through her schedule to speed run the events. She had help from Kyle with optimizing the routes, so she was confident they could condense all the major school events much quicker. She would trigger the argument and then manifest the Muse just long enough to get the event going. The incident would have the Church take her to the Staff, which she would be able to use without the rejection to immediately gain recognition of being the Saint.
Then she could ‘sense’ where the other two artifacts were and retrieve them. Just a little longer and I’ll have the Muse in full. I can play the role of a naïve, love-struck little girl until then.
Chapter 4: The Enrollment 2
A shrill whimper rang out within the darkened room of the daughter of a viscount.
It was early morning. The soft rays of the morning sun peeking through an ultramarine sky were kept at bay by the crimson curtains that were drawn close. But a scant few invaded through a slip in the fabric to break the hold the shadows had on the enclosure, revealing the tremoring tiny figure squirreled away on top of a mattress.
Marie Fou Lafan laid curled up atop a crumpled top sheet, her blanket having been tossed over the side of the bed over the course of the long night. Her nightclothes clung to her lithe figure, damp from sweat and scratching at her skin smothered beneath it. Her trembling fingers cradled her throat that as she fought for breath, each inhalation agonizingly clawing its way down to her lungs.
Damn it…I really overdid it… A haggard gasp for air left her to quail as she felt her vocal cords themselves threatening to snap. It was painful. So painful that she was sure that she would have broken down into tears from the agony of it if had been just three years ago. Where is Kyle?
Her silent question was only answered when she heard a key being slipped into the lock of her bedroom door. A twist of the knob. Scraping of hinges. A frustrated sigh was followed by the door being shut and locked once more and the uttering of, “Sal seria to de sileen.”
She ignored his jab as she forced herself to sit up and simply uttered, “Ap….ea…son…”
“Speak human,” Kyle said in the Holfort tongue. “The last thing we need is for you to say something out of habit and ruin everything. Besides, the last thing I need to hear is you butchering my language.”
Her gaze locked into a pair of eyes not too dissimilar from hers, sporting a look of annoyance. Standing at the foot of her bed was an elven boy who shared her golden hair and blue eyes. He was dressed in servant garbs that had been fitted for his diminutive size, consisting of a white shirt and long socks with a black vest and pants. He was carrying a serving tray in his hands that had on it a tea kettle, a canister, a glass washbowl, and a cup.
“I warned you not to use your Septima since you were still recovering from overtaxing it the last time,” he said pointedly as he went over to the nightstand and set down the tray. “But no, you had to strain it right out of the gate, and I have to waste time making sure you can at least make it to the opening ceremony.”
Snippy brat, Marie mentally snarled, even as part of her noted that he looked cute dressed like that instead of his normal clothes. Now only if he was the silent one. I’ll have to remember to get a photo of him in it to send to Yumeria, though I’ll probably need to make him smile.
He finished the medicinal tea and watched with his arms crossed as she drank it down. Once the effects began to take hold, he slipped on a pair of gloves and pulled out a small flashlight from his vest’s inner pocket. “Come on. I don’t have all day.”
Marie rolled her eyes. Then she opened her mouth wide, sticking out her tongue as he leaned onto the bed… only to wince as he grabbed the tip of her tongue and then pulled it forward while turning on the light to observe the inside of her throat.
“Well, at least this time there’s no blood,” he mused. “And you didn’t end up wetting yourself like a child half my age. I guess that’s progress.”
The moment he let go of her tongue she pulled his ear hard enough to cause him to wince instead as he was brought to his knees. He needed to be reprimanded more often to avoid letting him think he could speak that way all the time. “…Don’t talk to… your sister like that…”
“Nnghh…You’re going to tear it!” He drew in a sharp breath as she released his ear and rubbed it, grimacing. “I swear, what kind of freak enjoys playing at being an older sister to someone else’s kid…?”
Marie stuck out her chest and looked down at him smugly. Was it a little petty for a woman her cumulative age to tug on his ear to get the message across? Yes, it was. But if she had to put up with the sass of a 10-year-old know-it-all who refused to treat her like a woman, then she could play the role of an older sister bully.
Kyle sighed out his frustrations. “Seriously, don’t talk more than you need to for the rest of the day, and don’t use your Septima until I give you the all-clear. If you tear your vocal cords or the backlash becomes severe, it’ll draw attention. We’re already pushing things as it is, and Mother isn’t here to save you if the worst happens. Now, hurry up and take off your shirt.”
The smug expression she wore melted as Marie undid the button of her nightgown. She slipped through the small sleeves before pulling them off, and then she let her nightclothes steeped in sweat fall to the floor with a heavier noise than fabric should make. Her gaze then turned to the mirror affixed to the dresser across the room and her reflection revealed the blemishes of the body she inhabited in this life compared to the last.
She was petite to the point of only slightly being taller than the 10-year-old boy by a head. A scar running between her breasts felt rough as her finger traced down the thick ridge from where the skin had been stitched shut. It was discolored with a hue that stood out against her pale skin, joined by track marks from the countless injections over the years.
Marie squashed down the emotions she began to feel. It was the price she had to pay. The scars were nothing that makeup couldn’t cover, and what she got out of it had been worth it. Then her gaze turned to Kyle and her mind vividly recalled things she didn’t want to remember. At least this gets him out of that place for a while.
She closed her eyes as Kyle turned back in her direction, knowing he’d just become petulant if he caught a hint of sympathy in her eyes. He might have only been half-elf, but he cultivated the pride most of them loved to exude…despite the fact that he hated the majority of them.
“It hasn’t gotten any worse since your stint back in the Lafan territory, fortunately,” he said as he finished examining her. “As for what I need to report… I guess we can confirm that it works on the Azure Striker even in its current state. That should at least satisfy them for the time being.”
It worked a little too well, Marie ruminated as she stared down at where Julius had grabbed her. She knew how the scenario had supposed to go. He would be outback sulking when he heard the heroine’s voice and then be drawn to it. He wasn’t supposed to rush her down and grab her like that.
It had brought back unpleasant memories for a moment.
Marie wondered if she had put a little too much into the song since she couldn’t be sure the lyrics would get the same results. They retconned it to Olivia subconsciously using the Muse in the supplementary materials and audio drama to get his eye, so she used the Septima to set the scene and make sure it would be love at first sight. But the songs used to trigger the Muse in the game didn’t work for her since they were powered by emotions, so simply copying the song without feeling wouldn’t do a thing.
It took a powerful emotion that stirred the heart. Something that Marie had thought she’d lost after being trapped in the ironic hell of the game that had killed her brother. Being separated from the one thing that brought her joy in her life after he was gone and then born powerless to those people…
Not that they’d be a problem for her ever again.
Still, since she couldn’t risk a repeat of that happening to any of the boys, Marie focused on what she knew that Julius felt thanks to the audio drama from his perspective. Overlaying her own desires with those he held, fueled by her memories from the life she once lived and would never get back, she called him to her like a Siren tugging on his heart. It had worked, roughhousing aside, and the food stall scene played out perfectly.
I should be able to handle the rest without the Muse for now, Marie decided. Health concerns aside, she only needed it to get the key event out of the way. Boys like them should be simple enough to wrap around her fingers using her previous life’s experience and, with their help, she could gather the rest of the artifacts.
Maybe then she’d be able to take back even a glimmer of the happiness she once had.
[—Julius Ralpha Holfort—]
As Julius stood upon the auditorium stage and spoke out towards the audience of students attending this year, eyes roamed over the hundreds in attendance.
He ignored the dozens of women whose less than pure intentions flared as his electrifying gaze passed over them. He passed over Angelica’s grinning visage, no doubt smug in the knowledge of her guaranteed throne. Instead, he focused on finding the one woman whose gaze wouldn’t be like theirs until…
Sitting there amidst the crowd was the lithe figure of Marie. Her azure eyes seemed more surprised than anything else, blinking as if she was struggling to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. He couldn’t say that he was surprised given this was how she discovered his secret identity.
That Julian, a simple noble of no importance, was Julius, the crown prince of their very kingdom.
Yet despite the evident confusion, she gave him a bright smile to contrast the barely visible wave when she spotted his eyes fixed on her. Then maybe he hadn’t completely alienated her then. It brought him a sense of relief as he continued with his speech.
It was once his duties were done that the complications began. Naturally, he tried to reach Marie. He wanted to explain why he lied to her about who he was and apologize for it. To make sure that there were no misunderstandings. But throngs of women impeded his path, singing empty praises on how heartfelt his speech was when there wasn’t a drop of emotion in it.
All they did was serve to get in his way as Marie vanished from his view.
He clenched his teeth before his foster brother set a hand on his shoulder and gestured for him to follow with his head towards the back rooms, which he was hesitant to do. At least until he heard Angie’s voice coming from the back of the crowd, who was the last person he wanted to see now. He followed until they entered one of the rooms and he shut the door.
“The rabble should clear out soon enough,” Jilk said now that they were alone. “You seemed distracted on the stage. Was there something on your mind?”
“Someone,” Julius said with a frustrated sigh before turning to him. “I’m sorry to impose on you again, but I need to borrow your power. I’ll explain later.”
“You needn’t ask.” He produced a cloak and then, with a flourish, viridian flames burst from where he grabbed hold of it. Those flames consumed it entirely until there was no sign of it before he made a motion as if draping it over Julius. “It won’t last long, so you’ll need to be quick.”
The Azure Striker vanished from view, but his voice rang out. “Thank you, Brother.”
Jilk inclined his head before making his way over to the door and opening it, only for Angie to be standing there. “Can I help you, Lady Redgrave?”
“Where is his Highness?” she demanded. “I wished to compliment him on his speech.”
“His Highness feels like being alone,” Jilk said pointedly as he stepped out of the room and in front of her, clearing enough space in the doorway as she took a step back. He then put his hands behind his back and gestured for Julius to escape.
The crown prince, draped within the veil of invisibility, slipped out. He moved with hurried steps, bypassing Angie as she tried to talk her way into the room he’d just left behind. Down the hallway that had been crowded before, now vacated with her followers flanking it, he slipped back into the auditorium and then made his way out onto the school grounds.
Now the question was finding Marie. He figured that she couldn’t have gotten far as he wove his way through the crowd and avoided bumping into others to alert them to his presence. The entire time he searched for her flowing locks of gold that ran down her petite back and her wonderous azure eyes, his thoughts were still back at the day they had spent with one another and just… talked.
Marie had told him that she belonged to a Viscount Family named the Lafans. She had been a sickly and frail child, born with such a weak body that she had to be cared for constantly. Thus, she had spent her days sequestered away within one of the isolated manors within their domain, only known to few save the elven doctor and nurse who oversaw her care.
Not that she was unloved. In fact, it seemed their family had taken out massive loans as she would later learn, all in the hopes of finding a cure for her unspecified illness. They had even hidden the truth of the expenses under the guise of being gambling debts, as they feared neighboring noble families might try to exploit her to their own ends—such things weren’t uncommon sadly when attempting to claim territory or crush households.
Living alone save for her caretakers, Marie could only lament that she was such a burden. Unable to leave the care of the grounds, never knowing when her life would come to an end, she admitted to feeling like a caged bird whose wings were too short for her to fly with. She wanted nothing more than to repay the love and dedication her family gave her, yet all she had was her voice. So, she began to weave songs in the hopes that one day she would be healthy enough to share them with them.
But, over the last year, her frail constitution had miraculously improved. She became healthy enough to function, even if the long-term medical care had left her growth stunted. Yet it seemed tragedy had stricken her family as an incident left her as the only living member of the Lafan household. So, she had come here to receive the education she needed to properly manage her estate, which was currently in the hands of a steward.
Julius found her spirit to be remarkable in light of that. And it also made him feel even more guilty for lying to her the entire time they spent together. That was why he desperately wanted to see her again.
He combed through the crowd and, for a brief moment, thought he spied her amidst the horde. But it turned out to be another young woman with shorter hair, even though her eyes were the same color. She was walking alongside a plain fellow with black hair who looked bored with the proceedings.
Upon realizing that, Julius kept looking and looking. Eventually, he found the angel walking alongside a smaller figure with similar hair but elven ears, dressed in a servant’s attire. He steeled himself before reaching out from behind his invisible veil and setting a hand on her shoulder. He felt her small frame jump in his grasp before she quirked her head in his direction. “Marie, it’s me. Can we talk?”
A soft noise escaped from her throat as she opened her mouth, only for a small hand to settle on her other shoulder from the small elven boy next to her. Those piercing eyes he held went past her and towards him, even though it didn’t reflect in his eyes. “So you’re the one to blame for her voice then?”
That caught the crown prince by surprise. Then the boy gestured towards the back of another building before guiding her in that direction, no doubt expecting him to follow. Julius did so, of course. Once they were there and out of sight, Julius pulled back the hood as the boy stood between them. “Who are you? And what did you mean her just now about voice?”
Standing prim and properly, the elven boy folded his arms behind his back. “My name is Kyle, Milord. I was hired by the steward of her family to act as her caretaker while she’s on the campus.”
“You’re an Exclusive Servant?” Male elves often ended up in such a role due to their rather attractive appearances, though he was far more on the young side. Of course, Julius might have been wrong. Their race was a rather odd one considering their longevity and physical abilities that they were said to have evolved into having to make up for a lack of Septima.
Marie sat a hand on the boy’s head, brushing it affectionately before speaking in a hushed whisper. “He’s more like a little brother to me.”
Kyle scoffed. “I believe she told you about her past. I happen to be the child of the elves who took care of her, and so some would consider our relationship to be akin to siblings. I would ask that you please do not insinuate such things about my Mistress or myself again, Milord.”
Julius grimaced as he caught the implication. It was well-known that women of the middle ranks of nobility tended to take lovers and have dalliances with demi-humans. He had all but implied that she was sleeping with the boy that was a little brother to her. “Believe me, I didn’t mean anything of the sort.”
“I know,” Marie whispered. “You aren’t like that.”
“Mistress, please,” stressed the boy, causing her to bring her hand to her mouth as if she caught herself doing something she shouldn’t. “Don’t speak unless you absolutely have to until your voice has healed.”
“…What happened to her voice?” Julius asked, concerned.
“She strained it,” the boy answered in her place. “Her constitution may have improved but speaking for such prolonged periods takes its toll given how unfamiliar it is to her. I wish you had considered that before lying about who you are and then gallivanting off with her the moment she left my sight, but alas…”
Julius looked away. “I’m sorry, Marie. For not considering your well-being and lying about who I am. I just…”
He trailed off, unable to finish the words that weighed on his heart. That he wanted the moment to last forever since he was comfortable with a woman for the first time who wasn’t trying to manipulate him for his position or take advantage of him. Yet he had done the same thing in lying to her, using the comfort she brought him while blissfully ignorant of his identity.
“I’ll understand if you never want to see me again,” Julius settled on, turning away from her. He had no one else to blame for this but himself. All he could do was treasure the day they spent together. But, to his surprise, as he turned to leave the angel stepped forward and set a hand on his arm. “Marie…?”
The sight caused the elven boy to sigh. “Well, fortunately for you, my Mistress is rather kind. And it seemed that she had a lot of fun spending time with you, despite how far apart your stations are. Far be it for me to deny her happiness, but please be more considerate of her feelings in the future, yes?”
“Are you… really okay with spending time with me?” Julian asked her, uncertainty lacing his voice. “Even though I lied to you?”
She nodded slowly and put on a smile that was so bright as to be blinding.
Truly she was an angel.
[—Leon Fou Bartford—]
“That took forever…” Leon mused aloud as he took a seat at a table by the window within the cafeteria.
Now that the opening ceremony was done, the students were allowed to spend the rest of the day roaming and acclimatizing themselves to their new surroundings since their classes would begin the next day. Leon had opted to take advantage of his enrollment to enjoy the food that was on the menu given how rare a chance it was prior. He had invited Olivia to join him as well to work on getting to know her better in light of the decision they reached last night.
The consensus that Leon and Lola had reached was for the time being they would try to figure out what happened to Olivia in the past that caused the divergence. Since they couldn’t be sure that the scenario would play out as it should without that first event, it would be more convenient if Leon took the place of the Love Interest as a platonic stand-in. At least when it came to dealing with the Muse Artifacts.
The easiest one to reach would be the one in the Dungeon. However, until they could be sure that they could get to it given the sheer number of monsters, they would have to play it safe. He could spend the weekends working his way down and getting a gauge of the danger, along with making some extra Dia to send home, since he was a licensed Adventurer already.
And then there was the question of whether Olivia would be capable of using it. They had about a year in the game before she was tossed into the Dungeon to find the bracelet, but there was no guarantee that would happen this time around. That was probably for the best since the Love Interests didn’t have a reason to pursue her unless they could catch up on the missing flags, and if she really couldn’t use it safely then they would have to go with one of Lola’s other suggestions.
They still might have to as things stand.
“Mnn.” A soft noise slipped out from Olivia’s throat from next to him. She was chewing on a fruit slice behind closed lips, plucked from her tray which was surprisingly diverse in her selection of food choices—bread, meat, fruit, and vegetables. In comparison, a lot of the other women whose trays he’d seen in passing were loaded with salads and exotic sweets.
“Is it really that good?” Leon asked, supporting his head with one hand as she finished swallowing. Olivia nodded before sliding her tray towards him and gesturing for him to take one to try for himself. “You sure?”
“…Well, if you’re offering,” Leon jabbed his fork into a slice and took it into his own mouth. It was tangy and sweet in a way that reminded him of a mandarin orange back in Japan, but with a creamy texture from the juices. In return he offered her a bit of the pasta that was on his tray, decorated with a poignant sauce and meatballs that he found to be pretty good.
She gave it a try… only for her blue eyes widened and she suddenly reached for her cup. He might have neglected to mention it was also pretty spicy, which earned him the soft pout Olivia gave him, her cheeks slightly puffed out as she picked up her pen and scribbled on a small pad: You could have told me it was spicy.
Leon clasped his hands together as an apology. “Sorry. Sorry. I’ll get you something sweet to make up for it. Do you have any preferences when it comes to snacks or foods?”
Her pout melted away as she tapped her chin in thought. Then she turned her attention back to her pad and wrote: Not really. We couldn’t be picky at the church.
“Make sense.” He thought about the kinds of foods that would be eaten at the church on his father’s lands since he imagined they wouldn’t be too different. Something simple would probably do. “Give me a second and I’ll be back.”
He rose from his seat by the window and made his way to where they had the desserts. Notably, the desserts weren’t included in the boarding costs. The Royal Academy took advantage of how eager vendors would supply them with more exotic treats that the women would happily splurge on—either on their coin or someone else’s.
His eyes fell onto what was labeled a Honey Crispel behind the serving glass. It was a pastry fried in olive oil and glazed with warm honey. And it was at a reasonable, for this place, price. “I’ll take one of those, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll have a slice of cake,” said a voice across from him. He turned to see there was a girl there who looked to be around his age, tapping her chin as she eyed what looked to be a cheesecake that had fruits and powdered sugar on top of it—Samobocade, according to the label. “He’ll be paying for it, of course.”
What poor sap did she sucker into paying for that? Leon wondered idly for a moment until he noticed the cashier getting ready to add it to the total of his order. He stopped that right then and there. “Don’t ring that up on me. I’m not paying for that.”
The refusal seemed to baffle the cashier and the girl alike, more so the latter as the gluttonous gaze she had towards the cake turned into confusion as she faced him. “Excuse you?”
“I’m not purchasing a slice of cake for someone I don’t even know,” he elaborated in as simple terms as he could. “If you want it then pay for it yourself.”
Her head turned slowly as she slowly processed what was happening. There was also a notable lack of sound in the immediate area or coming from the line where others were waiting to make their purchases. Then a form of realization seemed to dawn on her.
“I see. Word must not have reached whatever backwater island you came from about etiquette.” She shook her head as if addressing a child before pointing a finger into his face. “Listen here, you hick. It is common courtesy for boys like you to adhere to the requests of your betters in exchange for our attention. Knowing that now, are you trying to spur my generosity by letting you buy me a confection?”
“Pretty much,” Leon said, which caused her to draw back as if she had been slapped. “Your generosity would be better directed to another who needs it.”
His piece said, Leon turned back to the cashier and paid for his pastry before heading back over to where his seat was. Olivia was sitting there engrossed in her tray until he presented the treat to her. “Here you go.”
The mute heroine quirked her head slightly before she broke a piece of it off and brought it to her mouth. This time her reaction was much more favorable as he could make out the elation as she eagerly chewed on it. But then she used her knife to split it in half before gesturing at the untouched section for him, silently telling him they would split it.
“I had bought it to make it up to you,” Leon stated.
Her response was: It wouldn’t feel right to simply take the whole thing for myself when you paid for it.
“Okay, but no takebacks.”
The pastry shared, they finished their meal and Leon escorted Olivia back to the female dorm entrance. Leon then went back to his own only to be accosted by two boys as soon as he entered the First Year boy’s common room. One of them was tall with tanned skin and short hair, well-built from physical labor. The other was shorter with a bowl-cut and wore glasses.
“Can I help you two?” he asked.
“Uh, listen,” started the shorter of the pair. “We haven’t met yet, but we thought we should probably explain things since it occurred to us back in the cafeteria that you might not be aware of how things work here. I’m Raymond Fou Arkin.”
“And I’m Daniel Fou Durland,” the taller one added.
Leon crossed his arms as he recognized the names. “Oh right, you’re the two who had to be carried in after getting drunk while you were out with the rest of freshmen. Must have been some welcoming party. Shame I wasn’t invited.”
He had known some of the upperclassmen had been gathering up the freshmen yesterday, after everyone had arrived. There was technically a curfew on the campus for First Years, but Third Years could skirt it and so they basically held a get-together welcoming the others. He was also chiefly aware that he had not been invited to join the get-together as the hushed whispers outside his door had not escaped Lola’s attention when they were still deliberating what to do about the Muse situation.
“Well, about that….” Raymond began to rub his head as he looked away. It was probably a good sign he didn’t just come out and say that they intentionally had chosen not to because of his status. Or the rumors that were sprouting about considering his enrollment.
This was the first year that there were scholarship students. Both were Minos and thus should be Commoners at best. However, he had earned a title via buying it with his adventuring and so a lot of people had mixed feelings on the topic.
Leon waved him off. “I’m fully aware you aren’t sure how to feel about someone who bought their way into nobility, and I imagine it’d be awkward to talk about stuff like that with the person in question around. I’m not taking it personally.”
He simply didn’t have the time nor effort to care about being excluded from a bunch of classmates he likely wouldn’t see once their schooling was over. It was the same back in Japan and that was when there weren’t hundreds of miles between them, filled with monsters and other looming threats. He was an adult who had to worry about an impending genocide, after all.
“To speed things along, I grew up in a rural barony in a baron household with a sister currently in her Second Year here. I know how things work here, and how it was probably expected for me to get her that cake. I just didn’t want to because I didn’t know her and she didn’t even bother asking my name—which is Leon, by the way.”
“Then you know by turning her down like that you’re going to make things more difficult for yourself,” Daniel pointed out. “One of the major reasons for attending is finding a marriage partner by graduation. Otherwise, your reputation will suffer.”
He shrugged. “That’s one less person for you guys to compete with, I guess… Anyway, thanks for at least trying to reach out. See you around.”
“Wait,” Raymond called out to Leon as he moved past them towards his room. He paused his step and turned back. “…Is your sister single?”
Leon considered it. Then he shook his head at the realization that Jenna would probably use him for all he was worth and then not even give him the time of day. The poor bastard would probably thank him for just the opportunity, but he wasn’t that cruel and didn’t want to help her transitioning into Zola along if he could help it.
Leaving behind those two, Leon made his way back to his room where he found Lola floating over his desk and flipping through the pages of his textbook… somehow. He didn’t question it. “I’m home.”
“Welcome back,” she responded, looking up from the pages. “How was the opening ceremony?”
“Boring and uneventful.” He’d honestly struggled to stay awake at how long it had been. “Learn anything interesting in the textbooks?”
“They’re adequate for beginners when it comes to the basics of Mechatronics, so you’ll at least learn something once classes start tomorrow.” She closed the book and then drifted up into the air. “But I can explain anything else you need to know in practical details on any subject, so you don’t have to worry about it.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” Leon promised yet again. He genuinely did want to learn and would do his best, but they didn’t have time to deal with failing grades. “Hopefully it won’t come to needing to borrow your help too much, but I really want to make sure we sort out the deal with Olivia and the Muse.”
“Don’t sweat it, Partner.” Lola chimed. “Just enjoy your time as a student. It only comes around once… er, well I guess that’s twice for you now.”
“Wasn’t that great the first time around, but I suppose times were easier then,” Leon admitted as he sat on the bed with an almost wistful look, thinking of simpler times. But those days wouldn’t come back no matter how long he thought about them. Better not to linger. “Well, I guess all that’s left is to see things through tomorrow on.”
Chapter 3: The Enrollment
“So, what’s this surprise you had for me?” Leon asked as he arrived on the deck of the Smilodon where the Combat Support Pod awaited him. He noticed her P-Bits were locked in a new formation. “I’m guessing it’s something to do with the EX-Weapon System?”
The ship was a relatively large vessel that he was currently sailing towards the Capital of the Holfort Kingdom, having received clearance ahead of schedule for space at the docks. The handling of the ship was currently being done on the autopilot system, with the only organic lifeforms aboard the ship being Jenna, Nicks, and Leon himself. Since the trip from their territory was to take the standard traveling time, as Leon wasn’t in a hurry nor willing to hasten things, Lola had what were to be the living quarters made comfortable via the same method she had used with the Hanging Gardens since the ship contained a cache of pix set aside for accommodations. Incidentally, she also outfitted the exterior of the ship with a more fitting appearance for the sake of remaining inconspicuous via the same method.
Leon couldn’t help but think that pix were really convenient to have access to use.
“Yep!” Her ‘eyes’ blinked before more pods showed up from a chute that opened in the ship, boasting a darker coloration. Unlike the vessel she was currently using, she called them utility pods. They took her place as she hovered over towards him with her P-Bits. “So, you remember how I brought up in the past my primary function was to manage the EX System for my creator, right?”
He did. “Yeah, before the Tower was built. Why?”
“I know you aren’t expecting too much combat, but since you do plan on going into a Dungeon it’d be best to give you a little more variety in options. And, since I had time and was around your family so much, I had a chance to harvest and analyze their septimsome and observe how they use it to create a new subroutine for the system.”
He raised a brow. “When you say harvest…”
“Non-intrusive methods only, like saliva samples from their dishes,” she elaborated. “That’s why it took so long. It’d be one thing if they had something that already isolated their septimsome like a Glaive or if I could collect some of the Septima Factors from their bodies directly, but I didn’t want to overstep boundaries.”
Leon nodded. “Not that I think that you’d want to harm them or anything, but just wanted to be sure.”
“It’s fine. I know how important family is.” She turned her head off to the side for a moment in thought before redirecting her focus. “Anyway, I’ve named the new subroutine Aqua Bind. Let me show it off.”
Her optics flashed. The utility pods responded by being covered in a coat of pix that expanded and then took on the form of the smaller insectoid monsters that they had to deal with not too long ago. Out of habit Leon nearly reached for his firearm, kept tucked in a shoulder holster.
That done, Lola’s body itself shifted next to take on a light blue hue as a pair of fins replaced the flaps on the side of her body. Her P-Bits similarly matched the hue as they entered a formation that divided them into a pentagon with the remainder inside. Water formed around the inner array in a spherical shape.
“Firing!” At her command they shot the spheres out like cannon balls, slamming into the faux monsters and leaving them entrapped within the aquatic spheres that remained relatively intact despite being in contact with the deck of the ship as the creatures struggled within them. “If you tag something, it can create and sustain a water prison for larger objects. Neat, huh?”
“I was kind of expecting it to go everywhere after it hit something,” Leon admitted, which was understandable considering how his family’s Septima usually worked.
“I don’t just replicate the abilities 100%,” Lola explained. “In the first place, that’s impossible with some of them like the Azure Striker. Even after studying it as long as we have, we only managed to reverse engineer the electrical generation, Prevasion, and Flashshield. However, I can optimize them thanks to how flexible the system is and, in this case, its optimized for capture and suppression, making it usable even in tight areas or when you can’t use Stellar Spark.”
“Like in the dungeon,” he realized. Since the dungeon beneath the capital was underground and the classes tended to have students travel in a group, friendly fire or damaging the surroundings to the point of a potential cave-in was a possibility. “It’s amazing you thought that far ahead, Lola.”
“I’m great, right?” Her appearance shifted back to its standard state as the faux monsters dissipated, and the utility pods floated back towards the chutes they emerged from. “The number of airships within range of my sensors have been increasing by a bit. It’ll be an hour or so before we’re at the first checkpoint.”
“Yeah, then they’ll funnel us through the air lanes towards the main continent. Depending on the traffic we’ll probably be stuck until there’s a place that we can dock. I’ll go wake the others up.”
[—Two Hours Later—]
“This has been the smoothest trip I’ve been on in my life,” Nicks said as he sat across from Leon in the dining area, having finished his morning meal. “No need to transfer a bunch of times. Clean beds. Quiet atmosphere. Decent food. Honestly, I kind of want to just stay on the ship for the rest of the year and relax.”
“No dice,” Leon said. “As soon as we’re off the ship I’m sending it back home. Those fees to leave it docked for longer than a day were insane.”
Most children of the noble families with territories outside of the capital could call upon at least one airship for transport, but they didn’t keep them stationed at the docks for prolonged periods. Those same docks had to be used for importing, exporting, and so on after all. Private docks did exist for families who were Lower Fourth Rank and above, but for the rest they had to use the air lanes and go through a bunch of different clearance processes to get into the Kingdom.
Leon had no intention of paying for extended docking. So, once they were off the ship, he was going to have Lola send it back to their father’s island since he didn’t think he would need to use it again until their break. He would have the Sabertooth parked beneath the Death Zone since he wanted to have access to it in the event, he needed to leave the continent for any reason, easily accessible with Lola’s aid given its capabilities and speed.
“Well, it must be nice that things are so cushy for you two.” The sarcastic tone left little doubt on Jenna’s feelings on the subject matter as she set down a teacup on the saucer in front of her. “Leon is just a charity case so he doesn’t need to bother looking for a wife, but you should be taking things seriously since it’s your last year to marry up as well, Nicks.”
Since Leon was only Ninth Rank and a Minos, he honestly didn’t expect to find a spouse in the Royal Academy. Nor did he have any interest in doing so. He was perfectly content to enjoy his single life at the moment.
And while Nicks should be searching for a wife, realistically speaking, he wasn’t blind to the fact that his prospects were little better than his brother. Spare heir to a poor barony and illegitimate at that. Chances were that he wouldn’t find a nice woman with a family well-off enough that he could build a meaningful connection to eclipse Zola’s. In fact, his father had told him that if he intended to do so it should be with someone that he genuinely had a meaningful connection with and solely for his own happiness.
He’d told the same to Jenna, considering Merce was the oldest daughter. But she clearly had her own intentions and was aiming high. “Speaking of which, things here are different than they are at home. People won’t hesitate to remind you of your place if you catch their eye or throw you under the airbus. Keep your head down while you’re here, Leon.”
That said, she got up and left the pair in the dining area alone. The brothers sighed to themselves as they leaned back in their chairs, staring at the doors as they closed shut. It was ultimately Leon who voiced his concern first. “She’s going to become a second Zola if she follows in her footsteps.”
“To be fair, I think that she was trying to give you solid advice in her own way.” Nicks shook his head and shrugged before turning his attention to the forward-facing window. “Looks like we’re about there now. You can see it from here.”
Beyond the glass they spied the gradually expanding landmass that drifted above the lowest level of clouds. The sprawling continent was massive as mountain ranges covered in rich greenery ringed a wall that encircled an enormous castle city of stone, wood, and steel. Tall, white spires could be spotted ascending high into the air above at various parts of the entirety of the continent, rising above the smaller floating islands that loitered beneath them all. He was sure some floated below as well, hidden by the cloud bank beneath the surface, and all were capped with turbines that continuously spun and gave the image of the continent itself being held aloft by them and would sink if they ceased rotating.
“It’s almost like a different world compared to our place out in the boonies, isn’t it?” Nicks mused with a sigh. “No monster attacks. Never have to worry about power conservation or water. I can almost see why people want to live there.”
“It’s not home though,” Leon pointed out. For all its advancements, it lacked the appeal that came from living on the smaller islands of their barony. They might have been more rustic, but he had a family that cared about him and it felt more spacious than the city back when he lived in Japan. He also had a chance to find a sort of simple joy in the agricultural life and how it taught you to be self-reliant compared to back then.
“No, it isn’t,” Nicks agreed before stretching and then getting out of his chair. “Since we’re in range, I’m going to get ready and write a letter to send back home.”
Leon watched as his brother left him behind and waited for the doors to close before he turned his attention back to the continent gradually growing closer. “Those turbines aren’t really supporting that place, is it?”
“Of course not,” came from the nearby walls as an opening appeared and her pod entered. “Those turbines are doing double duty as both a source of electricity and water, with the spinning generating power while also pulling moisture from the air and then cooling it so that they condensate and fill the water tanks non-stop. If not for that they wouldn’t be able to support so many people in such a tight space for long.”
“That explained why air traffic is so heavily regulated,” he figured. They had to take air lanes compared to the other places they went while traveling back home, where they had a lot more freedom. Smaller islands or territories close to where monsters frequented would struggle to build and maintain them. The kingdom couldn’t risk ships crashing into them, accidentally or intentionally.
“It’ll probably be one of the last places to sink once my work is done,” Lola mused. “After all, places like this are the ones where the Lifewave managed to remain intact compared to how the rest erupted out and is floating around. That reservoir allows it to remain adrift rather than sink into the Death Zone, where it’ll likely be torn apart and broken down—sort of like how an ice cube floats in water.”
“And on that note, how’s your data gathering coming along?” He recalled part of the reason that she wanted to leave the Tower was to check things out for herself, including monitoring the mana levels. “Learn anything positive since then?”
“Umm… well, the concentration of it in the atmosphere is much lower than I expected. In fact, my work will be finished a lot sooner than I predicted. Granted, we’re talking in terms of thousands of years, but I can see an ending. So there’s that.”
“You don’t sound happy about it,” Leon pointed out. “What’s wrong?”
“The thing is, I’m not sure how it’s happening or where its going,” she answered. “I’ve ran the calculations in my electronic brain thousands of times, but my Tower alone couldn’t be responsible based on the logs. That means something else is affecting it and I don’t know what. I’m a bit scared that it might be escaping the pull of gravity or leaving the planet itself.”
And since it is effectively the spiritual lifeblood of the world, it couldn’t be terraformed without that and really would leave the world as a dead husk. For her that would be absolute confirmation that her creator’s dream was unobtainable, and everything had been for nothing since humans wouldn’t have a world left for them.
“Don’t assume something bad has happened yet,” Leon told her. “Monsters are born from the same stuff bunched up together, right? Maybe it all became a big monster that needs to be killed to release it all at once. I know for a fact that an Adept can do something similar, so whose to say it isn’t there?”
Her pod turned towards him and tilted, as if she was giving him a quizzical look. “Giant monsters tend not to be a good thing.”
“Yeah, but the point is that it’s still within the atmosphere and can be dealt with.” He then made a gesture with his hand towards the kingdom. “Or maybe some country that found some Lost Item that came around while you were stuck down there that’s doing something similar to the Tower? Your Master wasn’t the only one trying to save the world, right?”
“Probably not,” she admitted. “I mean, I don’t think there’s something on par with the Tower and we don’t know what technology has been created and lost throughout several millennia. But… with the number of Adepts being around, maybe that’s also influencing the concentration since their powers don’t just make something from nothing.”
He nodded. Leon couldn’t travel freely because he was stuck in the Academy, at least in the capital they could pick up information from other places. Merchants, news, gossip, technology—they could use the fact that people from all different walks of life and places came there to figure it out. “We can spend time on the weekends going out and gathering info. That way, if there was an explanation, we’ll find it.”
“…You really know how to cheer a girl up, don’t you?” There was a notably more positive vibe in her tone as she lightly bumped into his shoulder. “Thanks, Partner.”
“I’m just keeping my end of our deal,” Leon insisted.
If he really understood women, then his life would be a lot simpler.
She still felt like she was dreaming.
How could it be anything but a dream as she sat down in a luxurious room within the fabled halls of the Royal Academy. Light came in through the windows that offered her a view of the front of the campus, watching as students walked along the paved roads in uniforms made from the highest of quality. Girls laughing with one another, boys greeting each other as if they had been apart for a long time, there were so many people that it was easily more than the largest villages she had visited.
And there were Demi-Humans and Elves too. She could even see a well-dressed elven boy accompanying a short girl with blond hair that fell down her back. They must have been around her age, but they both looked so young.
Still, it’s a bit livelier than I expected. It was a far cry from the humble parish where she had been raised, on a small territory that was rather far away from the Capital. It wasn’t particularly large or well-renowned, being a relatively simple place with some ruins that had long been explored and emptied out of anything valuable. She had gotten used to the quiet of that place, so being around so many people with so much noise was still something of a shock.
Not in a bad way, but in the sense that it was a new experience.
The door opened across the carpeted floor that was trimmed in rich colors, with the sagely gentleman who had been her mentor entering the room. He wore a smile beneath his moustache as he gave her a polite incline of the head, tea-set in hand. “My apologies for leaving so abruptly, but it seems Esquire Bartfort has arrived and will be here shortly. While we wait, I will get started on making tea.”
She made to stand and help him, but he held up a hand and shook his head. “Now, now. There’s no need for that. Allow this old man to play his role with pride now that I’ve returned.”
It was a habit from back home to help where she could, paying back the kindness she received in whatever way she could. That was something he was familiar with given how long they had known each other, enough to predict her even before she could offer. But, in comparison, he still felt as much of a mystery to her as he did when he first came to the island.
It was years ago that he came to the parish. The way he spoke and his whole air gave the impression that he was a noble, but he seemed to be on good terms with the head nun. History between them that went unspoken in earshot of the children. He was offered shelter in exchange for him helping around the parish and teaching the children since he was well-educated, which was how they first met.
She found out he was both a Royal Knight and a professor here very recently.
“I know you must feel somewhat nervous in your new surroundings,” he said whilst preparing the kettle on a portable stove and setting out a tray of snacks for her. “But I am truly grateful that you accepted the Queen’s proposal. You’re such a bright young woman that it would have been criminal to not present the opportunity to you when it arose.”
She shook her head before tapping her chest twice and bowing her head. Rather it was her who should be grateful to him, considering that he kept her in mind. She only hoped that she could keep up with the lessons and not embarrass him or the Queen.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
There was light and polite rapping on the door that drew their attention away from the table. It seemed that their guest had arrived. As he moved to open the door, the young woman started to feel somewhat anxious at the thought of the other scholarship student. Unlike her, who was lucky to know her mentor, he was someone who managed to clear an unknown dungeon and earn his place despite apparently being a Minos like herself.
She wanted to make a good first impression and realized she should also greet him when he entered. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her pad and pen and hastily wrote as fast as she could. It wasn’t her best handwriting, but she managed finish and stood up as her mentor opened the door, holding up the writing pad in front of her with the eleven little words she could get down in time:
It’s a pleasure to meet you, Esq. Bartfort.
My name is Olivia.
[—An Hour Later—]
“You’re going to burn a hole into the floor if you keep pacing,” Lola chimed in her mechanical voice as she hovered in the air, watching as Leon circled aimlessly in a quiet panic. He had just finished conversing with Olivia and Professor Lucas over tea, which Lola had also attended while being camouflaged. As for the reason for his panicking, well…
The Muse happened to be a mute Minos.
He managed to hide his shock well enough during the conversation as the older gentleman outlined how the Academy would work for the both of them. He would effectively act as sort of their guidance counselor and keep an eye on them since it was such a large change in scenery for the both of them—the young woman more than Leon for obvious reason. And, while there were some classes that the Queen wanted them to take, they still could pick the courses they wanted and were asked what they had in mind for their futures.
Leon stated he had an interest in Powered Armor and Exosuits, explaining away that back at his home they were short mechanics for them and since they lacked combat-focused Adepts it was vital to make up for that. Olivia, surprisingly enough, was interested in Engineering since she felt it would be her way of being able to solve problems back at the island where she lived. Both of them would need to take Mechatronics to get an understanding of the technology used within the kingdom, so it would be a shared course.
Conveniently enough, Lola could also use it to get a peek at the technology level of the kingdom as well. Sure, she could go around scanning things. But there were factors to consider like the methods and ideology behind technological development. Data gathering meant taking it all the data she could after all.
It was after the conversation petered out and the meeting was over that Leon hurried back to his room and started pacing around. The room itself wasn’t as large or luxurious as most of the others within the campus. Since this place was pretty much the primary learning institution for the nobility, it was expected to have a certain level of opulence—carpeted floors, silk sheets, windows that offered a view of the campus, etc. It only grew more extravagant depending on one’s rank within the gentry.
The room Leon had was slightly smaller than the others and lacked a window, given that it happened to be a storage room at the end of the male dormitory. It had been made habitable rather hastily, with the bed looking as though it was pulled from the servant quarters meant to house help that either served the students or in general around the campus. For the nobility it would be an insult considering the tuition costs.
On the one hand, one could argue that it was short notice and they had to make do. The room wasn’t exactly bad since it was like the manor at his home. Granted, his family was a poor barony and so that was still below the capital standards.
On the other hand, they both knew there were rooms available on the other wings that weren’t being used. Even if they didn’t want the scholarship students to be placed in the most expensive ones, all they had to do was reshuffle it a little bit so they could have had him in a basic room and bumped up one of the students whose families were right on the cusp of reaching the next rank the better one. Everyone would win that way, rather than a room remaining unused despite still needing to be kept clean and tidy on principal.
Leon himself didn’t care because he didn’t bring much with him or have high expectations. He pretty much stored anything important on the Sabertooth since it was just a call away. And that ship was meant as a personal transport vessel with comforts for extended travel in mind, so it could double as a room if needed.
“Seriously, you’re going to burn a hole in the floor if you keep it up,” Lola reiterated. She had been idly keeping track of how many rotations he’d done, and it was closing into four hundred by then. “Rather than frying our circuits panicking, how about we follow your earlier advice and not assume the worst. Take a breath and just talk to me so I can help.”
Leon finally stopped pacing and sighed. “…I don’t understand what went wrong, but without the Muse we’ll be in trouble.”
“Because of the war that’s supposed to be coming in three years?”
“Fanoss wanted to kill off the entirety of Holfort.” He made sure to emphasize that point. “And they have the means to do it too with the Mirror Septima and the Grimoire empowering the Adept behind it. The Muse was necessary to deal with that. Olivia isn’t supposed to be…”
“A Minos like you,” Lola finished for him. “I performed a cursory scan of her, but I detected no signs of septimal waves. If she’s an Adept, then her septima factor is dormant and won’t register without a more thorough scan like I did for you. Are you sure she wasn’t always a Minos?”
Leon shook his head. “She couldn’t be since she could use the Muse.”
“But from what you told me, she only displayed it after she got her hands on the first artifact from the Dungeon. Did she use it or even mention it before then?”
“No, but why would that matter when either you’re born with a Septima or you’re not…” His words drifted as he tried to think of an exception, but he didn’t have a clue. Though, if anyone might know, he suspected it would be her. “Is there something you know that I don’t?”
“…Well, there are exceptions to that rule of being born with it or not…” Her electronic tone seemed to carry a note of hesitancy as she shifted her ‘face’ slightly to the side, away from him. “Those are rare, but they do exist.”
His brows quirked upwards. “Meaning…?”
“It’s just a theory, and one I’m not comfortable with bringing up without enough evidence,” she insisted. “Let’s at least try to figure out if it’s really relevant first. Did the game ever give you the backstory on her?”
It was evident she was hiding something. But Leon didn’t want to press her on it unless he had to since it was the first time that she’d really seemed uncomfortable talking to him. Yet, at the same time, he felt that it might be important. “…Will you tell me if it’s even remotely related?”
She drifted there in silence for a pregnant pause. “…I really hope it’s not the case, but if there’s a possibility its related then I will. I promise.”
“…Okay then.” He took a seat on the bed and began answering her question. “The game doesn’t explicitly tell her about her past. I assumed that it was because they wanted the players to self-insert themselves into the characters, so they tend not to be well developed in terms of story. They didn’t even explain why she was the scholarship student, only that she was. I figured she couldn’t be the heroine if she wasn’t special because of the class difference.”
That was why he believed she always had the Muse Septima. The way the Love Interests all seemed drawn to her even before it, to the point they chased after her when she got tricked into heading deeper into the Dungeon and finding the Muse Artifact right before running into a monster stronger than any of them. It should have taken all of them out when suddenly she felt the urge to sing and let her voice give them strength, manifesting the Muse.
“But from how the professor and Olivia interacted with one another, they clearly have some history,” Lola noted. “He was so well-versed in communicating with her to the point where she hardly needed her writing pad to get across what she wanted to him.”
“Yeah, I noticed that too.” Leon drummed his fingers against his knee in thought as he recalled the conversation and introduction. “Chances are he’s known her since she was young. But considering she’s a Commoner and from someplace far away, while he’s teaching in Royal Academy, I can’t picture when they would have had an opportunity to meet. But since he never gave us a family name, maybe we should assume that he wasn’t always a member of the nobility. He might have been a Commoner who rose to his station.”
Lacking a family name was commonplace among those of Commoner status. Taking that into consideration along with his position here, it may be that he rose to Knighthood via merit and earned the Queen’s eye. And it just so happened she wanted to do something similar and sought him out, who happened to know Olivia and thus picked her.
The pod bobbed up and down. “And he introduced her as a candidate since that scholarship was meant specifically for Minos. That’s why I’m considering that there’s a solid argument that she could have always been a Minos.”
Leon couldn’t argue against that thought process as he lined the pieces of the puzzle up. “You’d think that if he was so important that would have come up in the game though. Then again, they glossed over the boring parts of what would be the school period since it had to cover three years.”
“Well, you complained about the bad game design so why should the story be any better? I mean, those Love Interests you mentioned were all engaged to begin with, and it wasn’t a secret. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t paint the heroine in a good light when you frame it that way.”
“They’re engaged, but they make sure to have the guys admit they aren’t happy with the arrangement,” Leon pointed out. “And only two of them are even given names since they’re villainesses that get bested by the Love Interest, and then executed and exiled respectively. They frame it as less cheating and more saving the handsome but troubled guy from a relationship he hates. It’s okay because they’ll make one another happy.”
“But considering they’re all from families that hold major positions based on what you told me, I can only imagine there would be some heavy backlash.”
“Not necessarily. It would only cause problems if they wanted to be the legal wife since polygamy is a thing here. For someone who was a Commoner, even becoming their lover would benefit them without risk to the actual heir or legitimacy. Her being the Muse simply made it so that she was a high enough station so that she didn’t have to play second fiddle to someone else or could go into the Reverse Harem route. There’s logic to it, even if it’s not exactly the best.”
“I guess you have a point. But there’s still the fact that she didn’t mention having a Septima at all before then, right?” Lola asked once more for clarification. “After she obtained it, did anything change in her character?”
He shifted on the bed and leaned forward, resting his chin on the back of his hands. “…Yeah, actually. Before she obtained it, she was a wallflower in terms of personality. After she got the artifacts, she became more… confident? Assertive?”
In the beginning of the game, Olivia would rarely say anything bad or defend herself at the accusations that she didn’t belong with one of the five because she was just a Commoner. One of the other Love Interests would come to defend their relationship and tell her it was fine. But after she obtained the second one, she toughened up enough that she was willing to tell the Queen herself that she wasn’t going to give up her relationship with the Crown Prince if you were on that route, or with all of the boys if you’d triggered the Reverse Harem Route. After she obtained the third one, she was willing to face down the final boss and their monster with no fear at all.
“Sounds like a personality shift due to obtaining excess power observed in some past records to me,” Lola mused. “And you also mentioned that a Sky Pirate uses one of the artifacts he plucked from a church to boost his own Septima, right?”
“Wasn’t exactly sure how that worked to be honest,” Leon admitted. “There had been three known Muses in the history of the game. Each of them was said to have treasured an item and left their power behind within them for a future Muse to use in a time of crisis. Thus, only a Muse should be able to use those artifacts, but the Pirate Captain was managing to keep up with the Love Interest until his shirt was torn open in the battle and revealed he was wearing a fancy necklace that Olivia said she sensed a similar power coming from it. The guy did a villain rant that he stole it from some cathedral it was entrusted to by a previous Muse since she was born there.”
After the fight was done and they took it from his dead body, they questioned how he was able to gain the power. But the topic was dropped when Love Interest stated it doesn’t matter, so long as it was now in the right hands before passing it over to Olivia. That unlocked the second upgrade to her Muse Septima, and thus raising the power level of the Anthem.
Lola was silent for a pregnant pause as her electronic brain processed that. Then she drifted closer to him and renewed her inquiry. “And for the last one, I believe you mentioned it was kept at the temple located here on the continent? The one that belonged to the first Muse and would be used to test candidates who made a claim to be the current Muse, and if they were found lacking there would be a violent rejection?”
“The Basilica, specifically,” Leon clarified. There was usually only one cathedral within a parish for every territory that was a Barony or higher, but smaller churches and temples were scattered within villages and the like. The Basilica was noted to be the most important and grandiose of them all since it was where the first Muse was laid to rest with her staff remaining there. “But yeah, that’s about right.”
“…Shoot. It’s relevant then.” She sincerely sounded frustrated at that before facing him. “So, based on all of that, I’m thinking those Muse Artifacts you mentioned might basically be Proto-Glaives.”
Receiving that tidbit left him a bit shocked. “But they don’t look like the ones you had and those are considered lost technology. The Muse’s Artifacts just look like accessories at best.”
“The origin of the Glaives were items that were used to regulate the flow of the Lifewave and were rooted in the spiritual practices of Japan. Some of the first ones were made with pieces of what were considered legendary treasures of mythology and require a secret smithing technique. Making ones like those in my care should be impossible in this age, but its’ entirely likely that they managed to loop back around to creating rudimentary ones within those artifacts, allowing them to act like a Septima Inducer.”
And by that logic, it was entirely possible that Olivia wasn’t the Muse because she was born with the Septima. Rather she got her hands on the artifacts and happened to be a compatible match by chance. “Hold on though. You told me that the Glaives would be useless if you didn’t have the matching Septima. Now you’re saying that you can use them without it at all?”
The Combat Pod turned upwards towards the ceiling, where the light came from. “…In the past there were attempts to turn Humans into Adepts by implanting Septima Inducers and Septima Factors in an unethical procedure, making them Artificial Adepts. Master considered it blasphemous to begin with because his own father predicted that Adepts would eventually become a threat to the world. And, sure enough the Azure Striker we fought against that caused that very catastrophe was an Artificial Adept.”
“That’s why you looked confused when I brought them up then?” Leon guessed. “It wasn’t just that I knew of them, because for all you knew at the time, I could have been sent to the Tower intentionally and just crashed by chance. It was that you were worried that was why I had come in the first place. That I wanted to become one.”
The A.I. didn’t deny it. “I wanted to help you since you were the first visitor I had in ages, but I can’t be responsible for creating another potential threat to the world I’m already in the process of fixing. Those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Even then the process I have on record has an absurdly high fatality rate with only four successful cases out of… far too many. I’ve reviewed those logs and footage in the past and let’s just say I really hate having perfect memory banks.”
He didn’t think a robot could showcase disgust without a proper face, but the way she tilted down and her flaps drooped gave that impression. “Well, not like I have the right to comment on that since you’ve already done more than enough for me. But is there anything else you hid about Glaives I might need to know?”
“Hmm, I guess I probably should have mentioned that I sort of hacked the Glaives after I gave you admin rights. Specifically, after you told me about how some Adepts were supposed to storm my tower, steal one of them, and then jack my ship, I made some… adjustments.”
“Like what?” he asked cautiously. The Royal Family had the Azure Striker-compatible one and they’d left the majority back in the Tower, but he still had one aboard the Sabertooth since Lola felt it could be used to derive some improvements.
“Nothing too major. I just have remote control over their use because I installed a verification system into them. When someone tries to use the Glaives they basically request an authorization code from me, and I give it the go ahead. And, if that power should go to their heads or they become a threat to the world, I can always reverse the process and absorb the septimsome of the Adepts using it to effectively seal their Septima away, provided they survived such a forceful extraction.”
It was then, as she casually revealed she put a literal kill switch into them, that Leon was reminded that she had openly admitted to hunting down Adepts before she was sequestered into the Tower. You’d never think it considering how young and innocent she looked back when they first met. But she clearly had little problem resorting to lethal force if need be.
“But back to the topic at hand. Assuming that Olivia is a Minos or possibly carries dormant Septima Factors for the Muse, that would mean that those artifacts are what gave her the powers she had. So that means the Muse isn’t gone, she just doesn’t access to it right now.”
“Okay, but why is she mute?”
“That, I don’t know. You’ll have to probably figure it out by asking her if something happened to her in the past that caused it. But we can’t assume there’s a direct correlation between that and the Muse without more information. Besides, it shouldn’t be a problem since we have a few years before the war, right?”
“Except, it was her singing that got the attention of the Crown Prince in the first place,” Leon pointed out before looking at a watch to get a read on the time. “That event should have triggered by now, but obviously it can’t since Olivia can’t speak. That first flag was crucial since the others were only curious about her because she caught his eye, and those connections are what empower the Muse.”
Factoring into the game’s whole message about the power of love overcoming stations and barriers, the closer that Olivia grew to her chosen person the more of the Muses’ power she could use. But if a romance never developed then, even if she somehow regained her Septima, it wouldn’t be strong enough. Then it was game over.
“There’s nothing we can do about raising flags now. Besides, if it truly does become an issue, we still have two options for handling it ourselves.”
Lola bobbed up and down. “The first is that, if the Muse Artifacts are Proto-Glaives, I can harvest the septimosome from them and cultivate them to see if my EX System can convert it into a subroutine. The harvesting method might destroy the artifacts depending on how shoddy they are, and I can’t replicate complex Septima 100%, but it’s an option and the sooner we get them the more time I can devote to it.”
Leon was wary on doing that. Leaving aside destroying the artifacts in the process, which would likely get the Church on their tails with their own private military force, his major reason for wanting Olivia to handle it was because it would be the safest way for everyone. More so if it relied on compassion and love to use, since he wasn’t that nice of a person.
Holfort might have been where he was born in this life, but he had no affection to a place that forced his family to suffer just to remain together. “And the second option?”
“If this Mirror Adept really is going to do what you predicted, and you’re going to get involved, then the easiest way to protect you is to remove the threat before they can put you in danger.”
Leon had absolutely no doubt in his mind what she meant by that considering she had been straightforward with her primary objective. She wanted to protect him as her Partner would kill to do it. Considering what was likely a very bloody history of war against Adepts prior to the end of the world, she’d likely do it without a second thought—especially since Fanoss intended a war of genocide.
But just because she was willing to didn’t mean it sat right with him to make her kill in his name. “…Let’s shelve that option. I honestly don’t like it even knowing what’s at stake.”
“I’m not thrilled about it either, but I need more data to try brainstorm more alternatives. Did you notice anything else off about Olivia when you met her compared to how she was in the beginning of the game? Even if it seems inconsequential?”
“We’d need to get my journal to check all the details, but…” His tongue roamed around the inside of his mouth as he combed through his memories of the playing the game. Olivia looked just as she had on the screen and, despite her lack of a voice, she had been pretty much how he expected. But there was one change he did notice after some thought, a small detail that didn’t seem to be that important in the grand scheme of things.
But he brought it up all the same. “Her necklace was missing.”
[—Academy Rear Grounds—]
I have to remember to thank Jilk for covering my escape.
Letting out a heavy sigh that expelled the tension in his body to a degree, a handsome man pulled back the hood of his cloak as he sat beneath a gazebo nestled within the carefully tended gardens basked in the silence. It was the first time he had been granted the chance to be by himself since he had set foot on the academy grounds. From the moment he had left his family’s private airship, there had been nothing but chatter and incessant braying for his attention from every woman on the school grounds.
And because of that, the woman who he’d been forced into an engagement with had approached him despite his insistence multiple times at the court that he didn’t want anything to do with royal affairs while attending the academy. Even if the engagement can be a useful shield for keeping the other vultures away, the way she insists on dictating how I should live my life is just as annoying. Am I really unable to get away from all of that even here?
His name was Julius Rapha Holfort—Crown Prince of the Holfort Kingdom. He was the heir to a throne he had no desire to inherit, along with all the obligations that entailed. A life constantly under scrutiny and without privacy, of putting the whole before himself and his own happiness.
Frustration only built within his chest as he leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling of the gazebo with dull eyes. Everything had been laid out for him to follow, and because of that he had felt shackled. Going to the Academy was supposed to be the one point in his life where he was given some slack from the chains that fate had collared him with. That he could just be Julius, without being the crown prince.
But his fiancée was right there to yank it taut and remind him that it was still there.
Julius wished that he could just absolve himself of it all. That he could just hand the throne off to his brother Jake and be done with it. But even when he brought that up to his mother, she had gone out of her way to explain that it had to be him who inherited the throne since too many factions were aligned behind him. More arrangements made without his consent before he was old enough to walk.
“I shouldn’t have listened to Erica and gotten my hopes up after all,” he murmured to himself. He had already resigned himself to the fact that he had no say in what his future would be even before he was born. But his sister had said that she had a feeling that he would find happiness in the future awaiting him this year.
Erica had always been a lot more mature than her age would give the impression of at times. Honestly, there were times when she could seem to read his mind and piece together what he was thinking. He still questioned how it was she figured out he liked meat skewers or how she snuck them into the castle, but whenever he’d been feeling in a particularly foul mood she would give him some to cheer him up.
Because she always seemed to know how to read him, Julius had decided to have a little faith that maybe things would be different. That maybe he could legitimately be happy like she predicted. But he was already starting to regret even clinging to that faint hope…
I watch as you drift further away.
So near, yet so far away.
I want nothing more than to reach out,
And keep you by my side, dear child.
Yet, every time I try,
The memories of ‘him’ come to mind.
And my hand freezes in place,
But perhaps its better this way.
So I’ll keep watching you from afar, dear child
Silently cherishing your fleeting face.
And hope that you’ll find all the happiness
That I let slip away.
That was when a delicate sensation reverberated his ears. It was a song… no. Calling it was song didn’t do it justice.
It was a heartfelt serenade that seemed to lightly brush over his very heart with a warm embrace. He felt for a moment what could only be a genuine desire for happiness. Tinged with a tear-filled yearning and bitter regret that melted away his frustration.
Julius rose to his feet and strained his ears to catch the soft lyrics that seemed so near yet distant. He felt his heart starting to race while being pulled in by the sweet words and their longing for something they could never achieve that reminded him of his own wishes that would never come to pass. His legs carried him towards the source of the melody, hidden ever further back in the gardens.
There, beneath the mottled rays of the sun that broke through the canopy, sat an angel. Lithe and slender, a delicate figure sat at the base of a tree with her bag beneath her to avoid staining her skirt while denying the grass her touch. White stockings hid the bareness of her legs, except for the slightest slip where the curvature parted the skirt to reveal pale flesh. Long hair rolled down her back like a golden waterfall, the sheen of which caught the light perfectly.
And cradled tenderly between her hands was what looked to be a pale blue, phantasmal butterfly that she lovingly gazed at while continuing her song.
So keep walking forward, dear child.
Know that I will love you for all time
Live your life without regrets,
I only wish for you to shine.
Even if I can’t be by your side
I still hold onto those precious days.
Of when I held you in my arms, dear child
And all my worries fade away.
Julius was speechless as he stood there, hidden behind a tree and watching the angel that fell to earth breathe life into each word and painted it with the color of her soul. A melody that celebrated an unbridled moment of happiness that soothed a lifetime of misery, even if it was to be fleeting and would leave them yearning for more. The dulcet tones swaddled him so tenderly that they seemed to pluck from the recesses of infantile amnesia a memory of his mother cradling him as a baby, sweetly welcoming him into the world in a comforting embrace.
Who was she? What was the meaning behind those lyrics? Why did they move him so much that he felt himself oversurging with emotions?
Her song, sadly, came to an end. The butterfly faded away as she suddenly snapped her blue eyes in his direction. It was only then he realized that he had broken from cover and was just staring at her blanky. He couldn’t blame her when she shot to her feet, grabbed her bag, and began to run away.
Yet, the thought of her vanishing without so much as knowing her name terrified him. He was worried that if she escaped his view that she would never appear again, and his body suddenly thrummed as electricity flowed through his limbs. The next thing he knew there was a faint scent of ozone, the delicate touch of flesh in his palm as he held her wrist in his grasp, and her blue eyes wide in surprise.
Julius stared down at his own hand holding her firm and wondered if had gone mad. Then he hastily released her and fell to his knees, forgetting that as the future king he should kneel to no one. Surely if they had been in public, it would have been a scandal.
“I beg your forgiveness,” he said in as sincere a voice as he could. “I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“No, you just… surprised me.” The angel rubbed her wrist softly before settling both of her hands over her chest where the outline of a necklace could be seen beneath it. Then she lightly cleared her throat and continued, “I thought I was alone here. Singing always helped me calm down when I’m nervous, but I’m not very good at it so having someone overhear it is a bit embarrassing.”
“I question the sanity of anyone who told you that your singing wasn’t very good,” he said. “I had been lost in my own worries until I heard your song, and they all seemed to melt away. But please, allow me to offer my apologies for both eavesdropping and my actions just now. I vow to make amends however I can.”
“You don’t need to go that far,” she said with a soft smile. “Just hearing that my song eased your burden is enough to make me happy…. Umm, may I ask for your name? Mine is Marie Fou Lafan.”
I’ve never heard of the Lafans. The middle name indicated that she was Sixth Rank or higher, but they must not have been one of the major families. It was possible that she was probably a second or third daughter. “Do you really… not know who I am?”
“I’m a viscount’s second daughter, but I haven’t really come to the Capital. And I lived a rather isolated life since I was… not very healthy until recently, so…” A sudden realization seemed to dawn on her. “Ah, if you’re someone important then I suppose I should act better mannered.”
“No, no, please don’t stand on formalities!” He practically begged her. He had no doubt that if she didn’t know who he was she would learn by the opening ceremony. But until then he wanted to just have a chance to be someone other than the Crown Prince. “I’m… Julian. Just Julian.”
“That’s a nice name,” she said, smiling sweetly while extending her hand out for him to shake. “It’s nice to meet you, Julian.”
“And it’s nice to meet you, Lady Lafan.” He felt guilty about lying, especially knowing the truth would come out. But before that happened, he wanted to spend more time with this angel that had fallen into his sight by chance. “Would you mind spending some time talking with me about your song?”
“You can just call me Marie,” she said. “And I don’t mind, but I am slightly hungry. I think there were food stalls not too far from the Academy that we passed by on the airbus. You don’t mind if we get some meat skewers, do you?”
…I will never doubt you again, Erica.
Chapter 2: The Return
Gunshots filled the air along with shrieks born from the maws of vicious monsters.
The skies above the eastern part of the Bartfort barony were filled with slithering and undulating bodies as nightmares flitted about. Insectoids whose wings fluttered at such a rapid pace that they were almost invisible, barring the prismatic hue of the light reflecting off them, scoured the floating islands along their migration path for the sake of food. They would consume whatever was available before pushing on, leaving naught behind.
Gunfire sailed up to meet the encroaching horde from the land below. Some civilian men who’d taken up rifles, sheltered by half-cover provided by buildings, let fly bullets that tore through the sky and smashed into the chitinous shells. Viscous fluids burst from the holes punched into the bodies of those that were unable to avoid the shots.
The horde paid no mind to their ranks that fell, instead focusing on the presence of fresh meat that their mandibles could pry off the bones. They would have descended upon the militia had it not been for the soldiers of the barony, each equipped with an outdated but reliable set of powered armor that offered them superior protection along with assault rifles. Few as they were, those assembled focused on eliminating those that descended.
Then an Apex came crashing down, one that was on the larger end and standing almost two stories tall. Six thin legs supported its massive, elongated frame as its mandibles pulled apart to reveal rows of needle-like teeth. Sparks dances around it as bullets bounced off its harder exoskeleton as its hooked forelimbs unfurled and lashed out.
Metal screamed as the armored men caught in the attack were thrown about, bodies sent into a spiral and scattered. It was only thanks to the durability of their equipment that none of them had been split in half. But more than a few of their exosuits were sparking and twitching. Some of them were also groaning and slow to get back to their feet compared to others—injured no doubt.
“Fall back!” One of the armored men shouted with the crest of the Bartfort house emblazoned on the pauldrons of his exosuit, signifying he was one of their knights, as he extended his hand back towards a large boulder. A deep, dark violet swaddled his body and his veins bulged from beneath his skin as that same hue wrapped around the massive stone. Then he roared at the top of his lungs as he motioned forward, using his Telekinetic Septima to throw the boulder forward. “RRRAAAAAHHHH!!”
It smacked the creature in its upper body and there was an audible crunch as it twisted and staggered from the blow. Its legs moved in jittering motions as the exoskeleton around its chest and head were cracked, glimmering fluids seeping out. But it was still capable of fighting back, which it did by lunging for the Adept that had struck it, now panting in a half-crouch from the exertion of his power.
His suit’s propulsion system kicked in as he kicked off the ground, taking to hovering in the air. Limited flight was within the capabilities of the model but, compared to more modern ones, it could only be done for short bursts. So, while he still had time aloft, he fired down with his assault rifle upon the creature from above as the bullets pelted the cracked exoskeleton and left fissures to spread as they chipped away at the sensitive bits beneath the shell.
The monster grew aggravated by his presence and then used its wings to gain air before swatting him down. The sound of wrenching metal as his exosuit bore the brunt of the impact at the expense of its durability rang out over his scream of pain. Scraps of steel flew in every direction as delicate equipment beneath the protective covering was damaged, breaking the armor’s power-frame and leaving it heavy on his body. The knight barely managed to get upright as the towering insectoid closed in with its serrated arms ready to tear him apart.
That was when a red-and-silver blur slammed into the monster like a ballista bolt, throwing it off balance and sending it to the ground where it scuttled around to get upright. At the same time, the projectile slid to a stop next to the barely standing knight. It was then he saw it was a young man donning a sleeker model of powered armor that was white around the torso and pauldrons, while the gauntlets and grieves were red, and a metallic sphere floated around him.
Then suddenly more metal spheres soared from the backside beneath what looked to be wings. They rocketed towards the larger monster as it was getting on its feet, but rather than crash into it they surrounded it in a sort of rigid pattern and light ran between them. Abruptly, the ones closest to the creature began shooting tongues of electricity into it.
An ear-splitting screech rang out as the insectoid writhed beneath the invasive bolts that shot into it, moving around erratically as it tried to escape. But the orbs remained constant with it, a set rotation that never changed even as it matched its movements. On the ground, in the air, they stayed locked on long enough for its body to collapse before bursting into particles of mana before they floated around the armored warrior, who glanced back at him as the visor covering his face then split apart to reveal it to be the son of his Lord.
“Master Leon?” The aged knight struggled to stand properly. “When did you get back!?”
“Nicks and Father are on the way!” Keeping his eyes on the remaining monsters, he aimed a sidearm towards the distant ones and pulled the trigger. Bolts of light cut through the air, piercing their bodies with ease and scattering them into motes. “I’ll clean up here, so fall back with the others and get your injuries tended to!”
“To leave the battlefield to you would be—”
Leon cut him off. “That suit’s power-frame isn’t working because of that fall so you can barely move in that thing as is! At the very least take cover and fire from a distance until Father gets here. I’ll cull their numbers until then!”
And what that, the jet wings on his suit flared outwards and the visor closed over his helmet once more. Leon shot into the air and left the eldest knight serving his family behind without waiting for a response. Normally, he would be more respectful considering all the man had done for him over the last few years, but as he told his father and brother before he left them behind, they didn’t have time with the situation being this urgent.
It was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
“Wow, this is the largest wave of monsters I’ve seen since we left the Tower.” The A.I. known as Lola noted through the earpiece Leon wore as she floated next to him. Her artificial consciousness was currently occupying an Automated Combat Support Pod, with her processors currently alternating between controlling the P-Bits while also powering the exosuit he was using. “Is it always this bad, or is it one of those ‘game events’ you mentioned?”
“The first wave of the migration is always rough,” Leon responded as he fired shots from the sidearm that she had reproduced for him to use based on research from one of the Glaives. It was a photon emitter that fired out laser bolts that weren’t particularly strong or intense, but they were an endless source of ammunition and were effective enough against the current threat. “And don’t think I didn’t hear those air quotes!”
It had been roughly two or so months since they had departed the Tower and made their way back to the territory that belonged to Leon’s father. During that time, Lola had been gathering data thanks in part to her advanced capabilities. It seemed that since the time of the war a lot of the advanced technology that had been present in her era had been lost.
Part of it was no doubt due to the sheer number of deaths caused by the calamity, with fewer of those who had the technical skills surviving. But the shifting of the environment had caused a great deal of loss as well. Not that it was completely backward, as some of the development and adaptation of certain technologies were fairly advanced all things considered, but the Tower easily eclipsed even the most advanced technology she had seen so far.
On the other hand, Leon claimed it was thanks to bad world-building since the setting was originally that of a video game that was a mix between a visual novel and platformer. He claimed to have been reborn in this world after dying in his previous life in Japan, which based on the cross-references that she made, seemed to have been set some time in the past before the first known Adepts. She was tempted to consider him delusional to a degree, though the scans she had done showed he hadn’t suffered brain damage or a chemical imbalance that would warrant it.
Besides, some of his information was scarily accurate in ways it shouldn’t be without some form of foreknowledge. And it wasn’t like there weren’t individuals with precognition in the past given that espers and mediums were recorded throughout history as being attuned to some of the upper layers of the Lifewave that granted them their extrasensory abilities. Granted, Leon himself wasn’t attuned to any of those layers so he shouldn’t have access to any of those capabilities.
It was something of a mystery she had a passing interest in solving, but she wasn’t exactly in a rush. Besides, even if he was slightly cuckoo, he was nice enough while they were traveling, and her directive was still to help Humans like him.
Plus, it was still better than being stuck in the Tower with no one to talk to.
“My bad,” she apologized as Leon landed on the ground hard, allowing the shock absorbers within that part of the suit to store the kinetic energy and convert it into additional electrical energy within the spare battery packs that her Master developed in the past called ‘Bullits’. “Anyway, the White Tiger is in tip-top shape, so we can go all out.”
The suit that Leon had found in the ruins had belonged to her Master, and because it was both ill-suited for the current environment and something she wanted to preserve, Lola had offered to instead make him a new one that was more suitable based on the information she gathered during their visit to the more civilized parts of the kingdom when he went to sell off the Glaive and register his findings with the Guild.
Of course, Lola wasn’t willing to risk the Tower being found by Adepts that might decide to scavenge it for loot. So, they had to mask the information to a degree by claiming a small island that they had found with the sensors in the Smilodon was the original location. Leon didn’t particularly care about what happened to it afterwards since neither he nor his family had the funds to upkeep or develop an island, so offering it up basically stopped him from getting taxed on it. He was sure that once the Royal Family scoured it for any other traces of lost technology, they would just give it to some noble as a vacation home.
But with the time between the offer and getting the Azure Glaive through the proper channels, Lola had managed to scan the more recent models of the powered armor used by the nobility to fight more efficiently. She used them as a template for his new suit—albeit much better designed and integrated with her own technology to compensate for his lack of Septima, including those devised from research done on two of the Glaives she had brought along the way.
She had called it the White Tiger, which Leon noticed seemed to be a theme when it comes to her naming convention. Or maybe something she picked up from her original creator. He didn’t exactly mind, so long as it worked. “Can we target multiple enemies this time?”
“Just line ‘em up and I’ll zap ‘em good!”
There was an attachment to his suit that could use his brainwaves to operate the P-Bits. But Leon hadn’t had enough training to do that while also operating the suit’s flight system. That was why she was filling in her former role as a Combat Support Pod by configuring them into the subroutine that could reproduce the effects of the Azure Striker Septima by using the pix stored within them, which the P-Bits managed by arranging themselves into different formations. In this case, half were used to create an inner layer that generated the electrical field, while the outer layer condensed them into bolts that could be directed outwards.
Leon took to the air, expending one of the charges within the storage packs to increase the output of the jets and took flight. The Bullit Dash’s sudden acceleration was more than he was used to, but the suit was accommodating enough that it didn’t overwhelm him. He lined up behind the swarm that tried to go further inland. “Do it!”
Lances of lightning shot forward, the constrained current piercing through the exoskeletons of the insectoids as the electricity shocked them from the inside out. The violent discharge dispersed those caught in the swarm. And with their deaths their bodies broke apart into motes that dissipated into the invisible mana permeating the atmosphere as they passed though until none were left. “This EX-Weapon is really effective on ‘em, huh?”
“It’s convenient,” Leon admitted, hovering in the air as the discharge ceased and taking stock of situation as the EX-Weapon began to recharge. Lola had tried to explain how it worked to him, but the most he could understand was that due to her A.S. Drive it would eventually replenish itself. “Still, they shouldn’t have gotten this close. I’d bet this is Zola’s idea on getting even.”
“You think she had something to do with the monsters?”
“No, but she knows when her family are supposed to have their men here since any sign of instability scares away merchants needed to support the island. All she would have to do was pass on a message and tell them to arrive a bit later than usual due to some complication. That way any deaths or injuries or damages were just unfortunate rather than her breaking the terms of the marriage contract, allowing her to be a spiteful pain in the ass and get away with it.”
The Bartfort Household were a Barony, but they were a poor one that only had this singular floating island since they had by chance met the requirements when it came to military power, wealth, and political influence that some auditor on behalf of the Kingdom decided that was good enough. The wealth came from the fact that they owned land that was capable of generating some measure of income and a population to match, the political influence came from the fact that they were previously a Baronet family until their grandfather’s generation and thus had enough generations of effort to merit it, and the military power came because of the knight families they had under their banner.
Higher ranks meant more obligations, and with it more problems. They owned land and because of that they could generate wealth. But land on the frontier was notorious for being either the sites of conflicts with neighboring regions, routinely pillaged by pirates, or close enough to the migratory paths of monsters that they were routinely attacked.
In the past, they could afford to simply let the monsters munch down whatever was on this side of the mountains and kill the strays that lingered afterwards. That was because they didn’t need the extra land to be used to generate income before becoming a Barony. But because they owed more to the Crown after receiving an increase in their rank, they had to develop and make use of that section of land, which meant they had to actively deal with the swarms and had to increase their military power—weapons, airships, exosuits, and Adepts capable of dealing with these things.
Weapons had to be bought since they lacked the means to manufacture them on the island. Airships grew progressively more expensive depending on the construction and capabilities. And powered armor required constant maintenance and upkeeping. Those were a pain to constantly deal with, but they weren’t the most expensive asset.
It was the Adepts themselves who were the most valuable resource when it came to military power and the rarest. Anyone who had a reasonably powerful Septima could easily get themselves into a Knight position anywhere, even if they were an unranked Commoner. And if your power was useful, you could even get adopted into the Sixth Rank or above. Since that was the case, why waste your talent here in the outskirts where you’d have to risk your life against monsters for whatever a poor Baron could give you?
Most of the people who lived on their territory weren’t gifted with powerful Septima. The knights in their service weren’t above the norm either save for a few. And there were fewer of them now than in their grandfather’s time. So, whether they liked it or not, they needed at least a few more combat-capable Adepts among their ranks.
That was why Balcus agreed to marry Zola even though he had been courting Luce at the time. It had been a bad year and they lost a lot of good people, including Luce’s father and brothers, making her the last of the Roheisa line who had been serving their family even before their grandfather’s time. Scum or not, Zola’s Household were a Fifth Rank Viscount Household and provided knights and soldiers of their own when the swarms came every year as part of their contractual military service. And being tied to them meant that the Bartforts had enough status that they could take out a large enough loan to afford the equipment their people needed to survive.
So, when she made the offer from on-high, what choice did their father have but to accept? Leon didn’t blame him for it. No one could when he did it for their people. It was his duty as a noble after all, and it proved that he truly cared for the people under his rule.
“Zola’s the type who enjoys having power over others because she’s in a higher rank,” Leon continued. “Father put up with all her demands except when it came to me, and she used that opportunity to make our family suffer in poverty. She probably couldn’t wait to see him broken from having paid so much and still had to throw me out, only I came back with a pending ennoblement from higher up to shove in her face.”
Zola could ‘tolerate’ her husband having illegitimate children with a mistress. But having a Minos share the same family name was something she didn’t have to put up with because of the way things worked here. That was why once he was officially recognized as a Minos due to lacking a septima by the average age and not a late bloomer, she demanded a tribute from them that wasn’t counted towards the loan he had to take out with their family, which already had a predatory high interest rate attached. Add that in with the taxes that had to be paid to the Crown, and they were dirt poor while still having obligations that came with their rank.
Leon recalled days when his father starved himself, so his children remained fed. The shame on his mother’s face as she had to explain why Jenna couldn’t have even a single dress like the ones Merce always wore when she visited. He couldn’t even hate Jenna when she finally asked why the rest of them had to suffer because he had to be born broken, nor how Finley never spoke to him more than necessary afterwards.
It was undeniable that they had suffered. Not just because he had been born a Minos. But because despite that they still acknowledged him as one of their family. They were suffering for the price for being decent human beings.
That was why Leon had to pay them all back.
“Leon, I’m picking up a big one closing in,” Lola chimed in, which grabbed his attention. His visor received a visual feed of an even larger monstrosity than the one they’d killed a bit ago, traveling in the center of the main swarm. It resembled more of a dragonfly with a massive head and compound eyes that size of small airships, four transparent wings that fluttered so quickly that the rest of its smaller counterparts kept their distance around it lest they be blown away. “How do you want to deal with it?”
“We’ll get rid of it before it can cause any damage ourselves,” Leon declared before darted towards the ground and landing with a stomp next to one of their knights. After informing him of the impending attack and that he would deal with it, he shot off before they could say otherwise or attempt to follow him.
The jets accelerated at full speed as one of the Bullits was expended in order to rocket the duo towards the incoming swarm while they were still in the distance above the forests outside of the village. The tracks of land were left as both a windbreak that shielded the farms and buildings from the cold winds during the winter and provided breeding grounds so that the wildlife population wouldn’t decline, since that was one of their primary means of feeding themselves. It was the best place to confront them.
The design of the suit prevented it from breaking under the strain of the g-forces, allowing it to achieve acceleration surpassing the existing models of armors. However, the battery packs themselves only had a limited charge, so the initial acceleration would peter out after a few seconds. But with plenty of surfaces to bounce off, like the upper branches of a hearty tree, he could refill the expended cartridge before he accelerated once more. Using a string of consecutive Bullit Dashes allowed them to get within range of the swarm well before they could advance closer to the village. “Take care of the bits, Lola!”
“OK!” The P-Bits arranged themselves into formation and lightning began to pool before being woven through the bits and launched forward. Streaking bolts lanced into the horde ahead of him, ripping through their ranks and creating an opening for him to approach the Swarm Leader. Unlike the small fries who were instantly killed by the voltage as it devoured them from the inside out, its glossy exoskeleton was far more durable as the electric streamers wormed over its body.
Its compound eyes reflected the red and silver glint of their armor as they closed in and it chittered aggressively.
“We got its attention now!” Lola chimed in as the bits ceased their discharge while it darted forward, attempting to follow its predatory instincts to snap up the fast-moving prey approaching its mouth with its mandibles. Leon twisted his body for snap-roll that shot them just beneath its underside as the jaws clamped shut. As he passed beneath it, he slammed the barrel of the gun against its thorax so that the light emitter marked it with a luminous ‘X’ before burning a charge to Bullit Dash as he pulled away to the right, avoiding the lash of its tail as he reoriented himself. “That was awesome!”
“It’s not over yet,” Leon pointed out as he opened fire with his blaster. Leaving aside how well the suit controlled thanks to the neural readers beneath the helmet, pulling that off that snap-roll would have put far more of a strain on his body than he could handle without her suit compensating. Even now he began flying backward as he held down the trigger, sending a constant barrage of laser shots that homed in on the Swarm Leader as it gave chase, waiting for the EX-Weapon to recharge so he could do more than chip damage.
The monstrous insectoid chittered violently as it tried to dodge. But no matter how it moved, it was pelted by the superheated bolts that scoured its exoskeleton where it had been marked with every hit. It might not have been doing a lot of damage, but enough of the shots would eventually melt through its chitinous hide. Not that the monster was content to sit there and take it as it shrieked and then cracked its abdomen like a whip in their direction.
“I’m putting up the Flashshield!” Lola said as the motion released what looked to be spines from the terminal end of its abdomen. They cut through the air like spears, covering a wider area to skewer him out of the sky, only to be rebuffed as the bits began circling him and wove together an electrified field. The protective shell lasted until the bombardment ceased before flying to the marked target and entering the lightning-generation formation once more. “Now for the counterattack! Stellar Spark!”
With the P-Bits locked on the Swarm Leader was bombarded by lightning. Trapped as the outer bits served to funnel the electricity inwards while the inner bits directed the concentrated charge into its body. It jerked around in unsettling motions as it tried to escape only for the bits to match its movements until the weapon energy was drained and the mark itself faded.
“I don’t think it’s got a lot of fight left in it,” Lola said as the bits returned, her A.S. Drive funneling into the energy partition dedicated to the EX-Weapon system to begin recharging it. “A little more time and I’ll have something strong enough to finish it ready to go!”
Leon was about to ask what she had in mind when he noticed those massive compound eyes locked onto them were starting to glow with an unearthly light. Then the insectoid released an ear-splitting screech that rippled out with such force the sound waves rattled the very trees. Its translucent wings began to beat even faster, no longer merely being used for flight but to generate harsh winds.
Is it trying to knock us away? Leon thought as the wind buffered the pair to the point where the normal propulsion was barely able to keep them from being blown away. Then he noticed that its tail appendage was aimed towards them and decided to burn a Bullit to have the jets propel him to the side.
It proved to be the right call as one of the spines from before speared through where they had been at speeds that were far faster than before. More followed afterwards, spine after spine fired towards them at speeds that would punch through a normal exosuit with ease, reminding him of just how much he hated bullet hell segments. “Lola!”
The P-Bits encircled him and deflected the incoming spines that he couldn’t avoid with the Flashshield, each one entering the radius of the protective field charred by the electrical nature as they were repulsed. It wasn’t ideal since it wore down the energy partitioned to the EX-Weapon, so Leon focused on avoiding them as much as he could while chipping away at its exoskeleton by free-aiming his gun. The bombardment was then followed up by the Swarm Leader rocketing itself forward as a last-ditch attempt when it became clear that the spines weren’t sufficient.
It shot forward like a missile with its mandibles opened wide. The Flashshield couldn’t tank that kind of hit with that kind of mass behind it and would have split Leon in half if he didn’t avoid it. He burned another Bullit and rocketed upwards at the last minute, leaving it to pass beneath them as its wings finally ceased to glow once its desperation attack failed.
Now was the time to finish it. “End it, Lola!”
“Shred Storm!” The P-Bits surrounding them began to glow as they quickened their rotation before suddenly sweeping out with the same speed that was normally reserved for the Bullit Dash. In a flash, the Swarm Leader was torn asunder by what appeared to be glowing comets that left behind a red tail in their wake like blood from the claws of a tiger that ripped through the air itself. It chittered weakly as its wings abruptly ceased their beating and it plummeted down to the trees below.
And as soon as it hit the ground, its corporeal form burst into countless motes of light that slowly winked out to mark its death.
“Aw, yeah! A perfect finish!” Lola cheered excitedly as they hovered in the air.
“Closer than I’d like at a few moments, but we make a good team,” Leon admitted freely before turning back in the direction of the village. “Let’s head back and clean up.”
“Sure thing, Partner!”
It was evening before the things were settled and the first wave was culled.
Leon himself sat on a tree stump closer to the outskirts of the village where most of the soldiers and knights were stationed. A wet cloth was hanging over his head and covering his eyes to block out the amber light of the setting sun as he cooled down, his helmet retracted with only the headset affixed to his dark hair remaining. Lola was slotted into a compartment in the suit with the rest of the P-Bits and running diagnostics and reviewing the combat log for future improvements.
He sat there and listened to the various men that voiced relief that the initial wave had been culled, anguish from the injuries sustained, or concern at the lack of support they’d received this time. That was when a deluge of water smacked him abruptly, drenching him to the point where he ended up tasting the salt in it. He coughed as he tore off the rag now clinging to his face and spat out the excess saltwater. “Was that necessary, Nicks?!”
His older brother, Nicks, stood ahead of him in a similar model of exosuit that the knights wore. Their family coat of arms was emblazoned on the back and larger than the others normally on the shoulders to indicate he was a member of the household and thus a higher rank. And next to him were two spheres of water that undulated as they hovered in the air.
Nicks, Jenna, Colin, and Finley all had control over generating liquids within their family as their Septima. Nicks generated saltwater, which was pretty bad for farming and hitting monsters in the face with them didn’t exactly do much in terms of damage. Colin’s was inconsistent since he was so young, and his attempts seemed to add some kind of impurity into the water that they weren’t sure of. Jenna could produce freshwater, which made her useful when it came to keeping the farmland healthy even if she hated it. Finley… well, she kept to herself mostly but seemed to be in the same boat as Jenna, though he noted that the water she produced tended to be colder.
Nicks gave Leon a stern glare before they shot forward and smacked him twice more for good measure. “You flew off ahead of us and then went off on your own to deal with the swarm. Just because you got back after playing Adventurer for a few months doesn’t mean you can do that. The only reason I’m not doing worse is because you didn’t get yourself injured.”
“If I hadn’t then someone could have died because Zola decided to be more of a bitch than usual,” Leon said, justifying breaking ahead to deal with the threats as he shook his head to get the water out. “Speaking of which, let me guess—engine trouble, right?”
Nicks’ frown at Leon turned into a glower. Not directed at his brother, but to the topic at hand. “Yeah, ‘engine trouble’ they said while claiming they would be another week late. Bastards.”
The first wave was always the worst, but smaller waves tended to follow the migration pattern. It was a problem that they had to put up with since the species of monsters themselves came from further out beyond a more turbulent area. Those tended to be more manageable since they didn’t have a Swarm Leader guiding them, but every injured or dead man made life harder. That week was likely meant to give them time to stew in the aftermath of what they probably expected to be a far more devastating encounter, arriving before the second wave so they were reminded of just how invaluable Zola’s grace was.
“It could have been much worse,” Nicks continued, eyes rolling over the White Tiger suit as water rolled down it. “And no one else can use that suit, right?”
“You’ve heard how Lost Items tend to be at times,” Leon said. “I’m lucky it didn’t require a specific Septima to operate, but the moment I put it on it registered me as the user and won’t let anyone else use it.”
“Probably for the best then,” his brother settled on with a shrug. “At least we can have your old armor issued to someone else since you’ve got that one now. Just try not to break it. If that armor really is a Lost Item along with that ship, then chances are once it breaks it can’t be easily fixed.”
Leon was a bit upset about having to lie, but that was simply how it had to be for now. Lola could repair or even make another suit with resources and time. But while she might accept that Adepts were the majority without wanting to genocide them en masse, that didn’t mean she was eager to pump them out wholesale. Besides, she was the one powering the suit with her personal A.S. Drive, which was responsible for most of its capabilities. Trying to power two of them at once could overheat the engine.
“Anyway, once I’ve officially gotten my ennoblement title, I’ll be able to handle things here while you’re at the Academy,” Leon told him. He already had the letter explaining that he was guaranteed Ninth Rank—Knighthood within the hierarchy of nobility in the Kingdom.
There were twelve ranks in the Holfort Kingdom, three of which were impossible to attain unless you were royalty. The lowest two at Eighth and Ninth Rank were both classified as being Knights, but there was an unspoken distinction between them. The Ninth Rank could be given out as a Title by even regional lords like their father, but while it conferred recognition for merit it could also be considered an Honorary Title since the person it was bestowed upon didn’t have to carry out duties seriously and even non-combatants could obtain it so they could be called a member of the nobility.
Eighth Rank were Royal Knights that had real authority and were expected to behave as such. The Royal Family recognized them with a ceremony and even paid them higher compensation and a pension along with several other benefits. However, to be recognized could take a decade of service or more and the title wasn’t inheritable.
Only Seventh Rank, a Baronet or Baroness, and above were inheritable. Just getting to that rank typically required a lifetime of service, or a decent chunk of land in their name. Most of the nobles never actually went further to receive the rank of a Baron because of the wealth disparity and lack of land available. Not that the Crown couldn’t point at a baronetcy with a high enough population and say that was good enough if they needed to place a higher tax on someone.
“Not really looking forward to going back there,” Nicks admitted. “The classes Dad wants me to take are boring and the things are so expensive that I have to spend my free time in Dungeon or working part-time. He keeps telling me I should try to make decent connections as well, but that’s easier said than done considering all things.”
“Sucks for you,” Leon told him with a grin. He honestly didn’t want to go to the Royal Academy, knowing the mess that the next three years would bring. Only the firstborn sons and girls from Sixth Rank and higher were required to go, and they all got shunted into Special Education courses separate from those below. For the men, it was because they were set to inherit land holdings and needed the education, while women were expected to be able to handle the duties of their spouses if they were away during a conflict or died—which was disturbingly more common than ideal.
Nicks was the second son of the Bartfort Household, but he was the illegitimate son since Zola was the legal wife of their father and had her son ahead of him. He was a spare heir, so he had to go to gain a general education. But Rutart was first in line to inherit the title of Baron once their father passed it along.
Mind you if something ‘happened’ to Rutart then Nicks would be the one to obtain everything. But considering Zola kept him at her family estate and oversaw his rearing, that wasn’t likely to happen. The fact that their father’s demesne would fall into the hands of someone who never lifted a finger to defend their home didn’t sit well with them, but nothing could be done about it.
Their father had at least ensured that Nicks would be kept on as a vassal knight. He would inherit the land that their mother’s family owned since she was the last surviving member and passed it on to him. Since most of the other knight families and soldiers recognized him as their father’s child, they wouldn’t cause problems and would remain loyal so he could deal with the affairs on the island while Rutart stayed on the continent.
The same couldn’t be said for Leon, who Zola wanted to have banished and failed to recognize. That was the reason Leon had to jump through hoops to get the Ninth Rank, since having the title bestowed upon him by his father could be challenged by Zola’s family. Being from a Viscount Family that was married to the Bartforts and a higher rank, they could easily revoke it or use it as leverage against them. So being an independent, if honorary, Knight that was bestowed the title by the Crown was sufficient since no one barring a Duke or Duchess would even question or challenge it.
Since their barony was originally founded by accepting independent knights, they could easily set him up as a household knight. He wouldn’t have land, but he would still live with his family and do everything he already was. He would set out with Lola to help her gather data as promised, but for someone who didn’t have grand ambitions, things were good enough for him.
So naturally, things didn’t go that smoothly when the messenger arrived a few days later with an offer from the Crown he couldn’t refuse.
[—Several Days Later—]
“The Royal Family wants me to attend the Academy as a Scholarship Student!?”
Leon had been out and getting in some target practice when his younger brother had come to tell him that they had a guest for him from the Capital. He had expected it to be a courier to deliver the ennoblement of Ninth Rank, marking him as a Knight. He hadn’t expected the courier to deliver a missive from the Queen herself.
“In light of your accomplishments at such a young age as an Adventurer, the Royal Family has decided to offer the chance to attend the Academy’s Special Education courses under a scholarship,” explained the courier, who was an aged man well into his older years with a butler mustache and monocle. “Should you manage to graduate, there is also a guarantee of being elevated to Eighth Rank.”
Leon did his best to mask the sheer disbelief at that statement as he glanced out of the corner of his eyes toward his father. The man was doing a better job of hiding whatever skepticism he felt as he ran over the paperwork detailing the offer in full. But he at least gave a slight inclination of his head to acknowledge that something was off about it as well.
Leaving aside the fact he knew that there were no Minos among the Eighth Rank, the offer was a little too good. Go to school and get a guaranteed paycheck for the rest of your life? That sounded like the kind of sales pitch military recruiters gave to get commoners to sign themselves up to be sent to the meatgrinder, which was exactly what he wanted to avoid.
Leon was certain there was some kind of catch to it, even if he couldn’t quite peg it yet. There was also the factor that he wasn’t supposed to be the Scholarship Student attending the Academy. Had he somehow shifted events by giving them the Glaive ahead of time that made him take her slot? If that were the case, then it could cause problems later on if he accepted.
Besides, he didn’t care about being elevated to Eighth Rank. He only needed Ninth Rank to get what he wanted. “Not to be ungrateful—”
“Leon accepts the offer from the Crown graciously,” his mother said while setting her hand on his shoulder in a show of parental support. Or so it appeared. The fact that her fingers were digging into his flesh and the saccharine smile she wore while facing him sent a chill down his spine made it less of support and more of a warning. “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”
He swallowed. “R-Right. Forgive my hesitation, I’m more than happy to accept the Crown’s offer wholeheartedly. It’s just that I never imagined that the Royal Family would go out of the way to bestow a scholarship to someone like me. Are you sure you have the right—”
Her nails dug into his shoulders.
“—I mean am I the only Scholarship Student attending?” Leon finished while trying to maintain a straight face. “I’ve never heard of a scholarship being given out, so I’m just curious if there are others as part of the program?”
If the man noticed any oddities in the fact that his voice rose a pitch, he hid it well. “Ah, I suppose the uncertainty is understandable given that this is a new initiative being pushed by the Queen. There were two slots in the Academy set aside for a male and female candidate, and your accomplishment as an Adventurer merited the slot for the male candidate. I will be shortly visiting the female candidate to inform her as well.”
Leon was still skeptical for a number of reasons. But considering his mother would likely start drawing blood if he voiced another word to reject it, he wisely kept his mouth shut as his father finished going over the paperwork. They hammered out the finer details and suddenly found himself enrolled in the Royal Academy.
His silence lasted until the very moment the man departed. “Mom, that was—
“—too good to be true,” Luce finished for him as she gently peeled back his collar to see if she’d actually hurt him. “An offer that gives you a chance at an education that costs so much for free? A prestigious rank that has ties to the Crown itself and guarantees financial stability for the rest of your life? All on the Royal Family’s coffers?”
She slowly shook her head as she outlined those facts. His mother might not have attended the Academy or lived in the Capital, but she knew something that was too good at a glance. “No, sweetheart. More than likely whatever you sold them simply put you in their minds and they decided to use you for some political purpose.”
“Then why are you forcing me to go?”
“Because it’s an offer that gives you a chance at an education you normally wouldn’t have, financial stability you wouldn’t have, and a rank that you wouldn’t have. There’s something off about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was too good for you to pass up. Most others in your… situation wouldn’t get that chance.”
The way she hesitated to say that final sentence got the implication across well enough without her having to say another Minos wouldn’t be so lucky with how the Kingdom was structured. To be honest, they were lucky to have two children attending as impoverished as they were. It was pure pragmatism that both Jenna and Nicks were attending.
In Nicks’ case, it was because he was the spare heir. Even then he still had only general education and had to work part-time to pay for his needs outside of the base finances for tuition. His grades weren’t exactly stellar, but realistically that didn’t matter so long as he graduated.
It was different in Jenna’s case. His parents covered everything because it offered her a chance of marrying up in life because of the number of bachelors from different islands. If she managed to find a suitor to get engaged to, it could possibly secure them capital or resources that could improve their barony if the dowry was large enough. And unlike Nicks, she didn’t have to work part-time by justifying that she needed to at least appear wealthy enough to attract a suitor who didn’t think she was dirt poor.
Sending Leon was never in the cards. He was a third son and a Minos. There was too little to be gained for too much cost when the best he could hope for was being a household knight. His little brother also would likely not be able to attend when he came of age if their fortunes didn’t improve from here on.
“I wish that I could have done so much more for you, Leon,” Luce continued softly with a hitch in her voice. “You’ve always been a clever boy, and you picked up on learning so easily. That’s why, even knowing something else is going on, I want you to take advantage of it while you can. So that you can have a future and a chance at a life that your father and I can’t give you.”
And, having said that, she gave him a kiss on the cheek before heading to get started on dinner.
That Leon alone in the room as he scratched his head in frustration. He hated it. Not the fact that he had to go to the Royal Academy, but the fact that his mother felt that way to begin with. That he was the cause of it. Another thing he couldn’t pay back.
That was when the Combat Support Pod unveiled herself as the pix she had been using to camouflage herself was retracted. She had naturally been listening in. “Your mom is really proud of you, huh?”
“She’s always felt guilty that I was born as a Minos,” he said in Japanese on the off chance that someone overheard them. Since he didn’t live by himself, he used his native tongue and script when he couldn’t guarantee privacy or for sensitive topics since there wasn’t anyone else who could understand before he met Lola. It was one of his ties to his past life he could keep with him. “It just happens that I got my memories back at an earlier age, and so she wants to think I’m a prodigy to compensate for that.”
Leon hadn’t been a bad student by any stretch, even though he opted not to go to university so he could help support his family in his past. The fact that Holfort lacked a public education system meant that the educational standards for most of the population were fairly low in the border regions, with the only alternative being homeschooling or the Church. Even then, specialized knowledge to act as a mechanic for the exosuits or engineers for airships were relegated to private institutions like the Academy, which required having a sponsor for lower ranked individuals.
From their perspective, his behavior after he regained his memories seemed like he had suddenly become a prodigy given that he acted more mature and understanding than most kids his age would. Since he was an adult in mind and acted the part, he was often seen as more independent and that was part of why his father agreed to give him what he needed to find Lola. And Leon had rewarded that faith by coming back, which would only feed into their preconceptions and thus the image he had to uphold to them.
Leon scratched his head before turning to her. “Lola, I need a favor. Could you catch up to the ship before it gets too far out of our territory and figure out if the second person is a young woman named Olivia?”
“That’s the one who’s supposed to be the ‘Heroine’ isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I want to make sure that she’s the female student since it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The scholarship was supposed to be the excuse plot for the heroine to enter the Academy despite not being part of the gentry. But a slot for a male student wasn’t mentioned. I need to see if that’s changed too.”
It might have been a background detail that didn’t need to be elaborated. Or just to fill in how the world worked. If that was the case, then he supposed the slot was to be filled in by some mob who wasn’t suited to be a Love Interest to a special snowflake like the Heroine. But if by some chance obtaining the Glaive early screwed up her recruitment, it could cause real problems considering there was going to be a war in three years.
The neighboring Principality of Fanoss, ruled by a princess masquerading as a prince, would use a device called a Grimoire that enhanced her Mirror Septima to a great degree. She could use it to create countless copies of monsters, or even spawn a titanic monster into existence even though it cost her very life in the game. The Heroine’s power was needed so that the Love Interest could deal with all of that.
The pod bobbed up and down. “Sure thing! I’ll head out and try to dig something up for ya.”
And with that said she floated out of the nearby window and camouflaged herself.
Leon sighed before laying back on the couch with his arms behind his head as his mind ran over all the things that he needed to do to compensate for leaving for the Academy. He had hoped to help around his family’s territory, but he couldn’t do that from the Capital. Then again, he’d have access to the Dungeon and could use the money he gained from diving there to send back to his family while staying in practice.
The sound of small footfalls along the wooden floor drew his eyes towards the door before it flew open. Entering the room was a little boy with dark hair, dressed in a simple tunic and trousers. It was his little brother, Colin. “Big brother, it’s not true! You’re not leaving us!”
“Colin, you know you’re not supposed to run in the house,” Leon said as he sat upright as his brother came over and jumped onto his lap, looking close to tears. “Calm down and explain what’s got you so upset.”
“Finley said that you were going to go away again for even longer than before,” Colin explained.
That was when Leon caught the slightest bit of movement at the door and noticed the brown-haired young girl with golden eyes peeking over with a flat expression. His younger sister, Finley. He looked straight at her as he gently patted his brother on the head. “Did she now?”
Finley only turned away and said plainly, “He misunderstood when I tried to explain you were going to the Academy.”
Finley was always the hardest of his sisters to read. When she was younger, they didn’t really have much of a problem and spoke normally. But now she very rarely spoke barring short sentences and never seemed to make casual conversation, almost as if she were trying to avoid him or hide something. She didn’t act malicious, at least not overtly, but she tended to be blunt and pointed when it came to her responses to her brothers. Then there was the fact that she didn’t seem to like being in the same room as him anymore after Jenna’s outburst back then.
Not that he blamed her considering their circumstances. He suspected she was just as angry as Jenna but wasn’t as loud about it. He was wondering if he should count that as a blessing since he knew outbursts like that hurt his parents’ feelings more than his at this point, but as an older brother he did worry about what her relationship with the others would be like if she didn’t open up some or kept causing misunderstandings.
“I’m not going away for good,” Leon clarified to Colin while brushing his head, if only to clear up any misconceptions. “I’m going to the Academy just like Jenna and Nicks, so I won’t be around as often. I’ll be back for the semester breaks when they come back.”
“But I don’t want you to go again,” Colin said. “It gets boring when you’re not here. Mother and Father are always too busy, and Finley is mean.”
“I’m not thrilled about it either, but I don’t have a choice now. And Mom pointed out it’s probably the best chance I’ll get to learn something I wouldn’t otherwise.”
Holfort was rustic over in borderlands, but the Capital was further ahead since preserving the knowledge of the flying ships, air bikes, and powered armors that their ancestors originally used were essential to their military power. But in exchange for that, they were far behind in other fields that could make life easier for everyone else, and because of the limited access to education, there were few chances for it to be applied elsewhere.
Leon wasn’t exactly the most tech-savvy back in his previous life but spending time with Lola did make him curious. And learning more about how these things worked would possibly make him more capable rather than relying solely on the A.I. He was already taking advantage of her generosity more than he was comfortable with, and he wasn’t sure what he could do for her either to make up for all the help she gave him.
As for his brother, Leon decided to put him at ease by lifting him up as he stood. “Anyway, since I have some time, how about I show you a little trick I can do with the new suit that allows me to fly with other people?”
His soured expression vanished and was replaced with a bright smile. The natural reaction considering he was too young to fly around in an exosuit on his own. “That sounds awesome! Let’s go!”
Leon noticed that Finley was half-turned in their direction and frowning slightly before she walked off.
He really didn’t understand her much at all.
[—Finley Fou Bartfort—]
Finley really hadn’t been trying to hurt Colin when she told him that Leon would be leaving.
When their mother had told her that Leon had gotten a scholarship to attend the Academy, she knew that meant he would be gone as long as Jenna and Nicks were. She also knew that Colin would be devastated, so she had been trying to explain that Leon wouldn’t be there to baby him like he always did. The boys of the family were rather close with each other, and she knew that Leon tended to dote on Colin since he was little, so the boy didn’t take him being gone for long periods of time well.
He used to try to dote on her as well, but Finley didn’t like being treated like a child. Not only because she had a sense of quiet pride, but she didn’t think it was appropriate to be treated as a child anymore. Not while the rest of her family was struggling.
She felt shameful when she learned just how bad their circumstances were, being an ignorant child at the time. So blissfully ignorant of all the times their parents had grumbling stomachs and why they spent so much time patching their clothes rather than buying new ones. To understand why her brother always seemed to have that same sad look as their parents that made him look so much older compared to how young he looked when he was with her like he was with Colin.
It was hard for her to face him after that or tell any of them about her own problems, so she kept to herself most of the time to avoid adding to their burdens. These were the chains she shackled herself with in the same manner the rest of her family did in their own way. The only one without bindings were Colin himself, still ignorantly blissful. She felt both happy for him but also prickly that he got to remain that way when she couldn’t.
“—can’t be serious! Why now?” Her ears perked up as she made her way to the garden out in the back. She peeped around the corner where her older sister was having a… heated discussion with her mother as a sphere of undulating water that had been drizzling over the plants came crashing down and soaking the ground. Her control tended to waver when she got upset. “Leon doesn’t belong there!”
“Your brother did something amazing,” her mother pointed out. “One of the first scholarship students in history. Can’t you at least be a little happy for him?”
“He’s a Minos!” Jenna said pointedly. “He isn’t going to be welcomed there, Crown-sponsored or not! And then, if word that he’s related to me gets around, I won’t be able to find a good husband! That’s why he should stay here!”
Her mother couldn’t look more disappointed in her if she tried. “You know, as your mother, I don’t blame you for wanting to marry someone and move to the Capital since most of the girls your age want that more than anything else. But at the very least try not to do it at the expense of your brother. At the end of the day, you’re still family no matter what.”
And with that she began to walk off in the other direction to tend to the laundry that had been left to air dry, leaving behind her eldest daughter without looking back.
Had she done so she would have seen that her fingers curled inwards and dug into her palms so hard that her shoulders were left trembling. Jenna turned to her attention to the air and water began to pool into a ball as she clenched her teeth, all while muttering under her breath, “Who do you think I’m doing this for in the first place…?”
That was when Finley decided to show herself, acting as though she hadn’t been spying on the argument. “Is something wrong?”
Jenna sighed and vented her frustration to her younger sister, whom she had the best relationship within the household. “Leon finally gets back and he’s already ruining my plans! It was bad enough he disappeared for three months and they all blamed me for it, and now this! Why can’t he ever just keep himself out of trouble!?”
She was referring to how awkward things had gotten in the household after Leon went on his adventure. While becoming an Adventurer was seen as something that was respected, it was also dangerous and part of the reason having a strong Septima was lauded. Leon had none of that and didn’t tell anyone other than their father anything about his intentions or where he was going until before he departed.
The first week Jenna was sure he would have come back after realizing how hard it was and just settle down. Then a month passed with no word from him, and they started to worry. Then two months passed and the thought that he was dead hung heavy in their minds and hearts even if no one said anything aloud. But because no one said anything aloud, Jenna had become paranoid that everyone blamed her for his absence—especially their mother.
Finley had more than once caught her sister staring at the door to his room while he was gone.
“All the effort I spent last year will be wasted,” she continued. “The time spent learning about the various circles, making nice, and getting a read on who I could marry for us to not have to rely on that witch… it’ll be pointless if people think I’ll be like Mom and give birth to a Minos.”
Noble families often hid their shame, especially when it came to something like having a child without Septima. A woman who could give birth to a Minos like Leon was a woman who had lower value to people their station and above in this society. And Jenna was aiming for a viscount or higher so that they could sever ties with Zola’s family, so it was something she desperately wanted to hide.
“…Is it really that bad when he’s going to be a Royal Knight by the end?” Finley asked.
Jenna huffed. “Girls talk in the Academy, and some mentioned before we left the Academy that Minos uprisings and Sky Pirates were becoming more frequent even though their parents try to keep it quiet. That doesn’t happen in our territory since everyone loves Dad and knows how he treats Leon, so it doesn’t cause us many problems. But the Crown has no doubt heard of it and so they need someone they can point at and say ‘he’s a Minos but look at how high ranked he is because he did something to help us, so rather than rebel try to do that instead’.”
Hearing that caused her frown to deepen. “Then Leon is—”
“Nothing more than a prop for the Crown to quell the Minos before they become violent,” Jenna said with a nod. “Leon’s accomplishments don’t mean a thing. He was just lucky enough they picked him as their tool, nothing more. Everyone at the Academy will know it too since that’s how this world works after—use or be used. Remember that.”
She would. For better or worse.
Chapter 1: The A.I.
Life signs detected within proximity of Tower.
Suspending Hibernation Mode.
“Nnnhhh… what’s with the racket?” In a sealed chamber devoid of light, a digital mind stirred as the sensors scattered throughout the island registered the arrival of a living being. Roused from slumber, the A.I. inquired with the sensor logs for clarification as it began to defrag its data. “Yep, that’s the biometrics for a lifeform all right. Scan for Septima Energy. Make sure it’s not the enemy.”
Scanning for Septimal Energy.
The prompt devoted more resources to the scanning system as it combed the island for energy matching the wavelength of those attuned to the Septimal layer of the Lifewave. It only emanated from those who were registered as the enemy of Humanity in its data banks. Those entities were Septima Holders, also known as Adepts, who waged war against the Humans in a conflict that created massive devastation the A.I. had been tasked with correcting for….
Far longer than expected based on its internal calendar. “Ahh, I slept for way too long this time. Hopefully the automated maintenance subroutines I set up kept the security systems functional.”
No Septimal Energy detected.
“Whew… that’s good. I can focus on making sure everything else is operational later then. But if the scanners are registering life signs…” It checked the logs linked to one of the cameras in the vicinity. Then its circuits began to buzz as its digital brain processed the visual feed. “It’s really a Human! After all this time!”
The A.I. began combing through the logs of the data around the island for deviations from the usual activity, to see how long they had been there or if there were signs of other visitors. It wasn’t exactly hard to do or time-consuming since things had been stagnant without any external influence or changes detected by the automatic scans over the last thousands of years. “There are signs of debris that weren’t present before from a vessel of some kind, with traces of a mineral used for levitation via tapping into mana particles in the atmosphere. No signs of other ships or corpses. Talk about lucky. If they had crash-landed anywhere else, they’d be goners.”
During the war between Adepts and Humans, a being known as Demerzel had developed a means of tapping into the Lifewave that circulated throughout the planet. But as the Humans began to push back the Adepts, Demerzel caused it to accelerate its flow until it began vaporizing. Then it erupted from below in a cataclysmic event that spelled the end of life as it had been.
The land was ripped apart. The seas churned and turned to poison, contaminated by the turbulent element. The air itself was choked with volcanic smoke and gases that became electrified. Soon the world was left barren of the capacity to nurture or sustain life as its very essence seeped out like blood from countless wounds.
So much of it being present was toxic for biological organisms. Even entities born with an attachment to the Senary and Septimal layers could only handle so much exposure before it warped and killed them. But the world itself needed that energy flowing through it to produce life. If not for the fact that the particles were subjected to gravity to the degree that it prevented the bulk of it from ascending past the bottom of the Stratosphere, it would be impossible to revitalize the planet as the A.I. had been doing so dutifully…
Well, okay maybe it slacked off just a bit since it was a largely automated process at this point. The exterior atmospheric barrier prevented mana from entering the island aside from that which was being condensed and funneled back down. If that was functional and operating within the set parameters, there wasn’t much left that required devoting resources to actively.
Approaching biometrics do not match authorized personnel.
Registering individual as an ‘Intruder’ and activating security system for elimination.
“Don’t you dare!!” The core of the A.I. began to shake within its container as it used its authority to override the protocol. It wouldn’t do to kill the first guest they’d had in thousands of years. “Turn off the security system entirely. Register their biometrics into the database as a ‘Guest’ User with permission to access the Top Floor directly. Uh… what else?”
It combined its mind for what to do when meeting someone for the first time. This was big, so it couldn’t afford to offend them or make a mistake. A good first impression was needed. “Right, it’d probably be weird speaking to a voice coming from the walls. Use the terminal to determine the optimal language to communicate with them. Set up the gardens with Template Five’s appearance. Oh, and ready some snacks and tea from the stores while I jump into companion pod to speak with them personally in my Administrator Mode.”
Acknowledging Authoritative Bypass.
[—Leon Fou Bartfort—]
“Well, this is new.” Leon Bartfort said as he stood outside of the entrance to a massive steel pillar that ascended into the turbulent sky above that had green clouds that crackled with countless streamers. In front of him was a terminal meant to open the structure before him, currently displaying a number of different languages and asking for the ‘Guest User’ to select which one to use before it would open the way.
It was known only as ‘The Tower’ back when he had been living in Japan. Back before he died and then reincarnated in the world of a Dating Sim that was made by a company that normally made platforming games. It was a paid DLC map, set beneath the Death Zone at the bottom of the sky. A mysterious island that shouldn’t be there considering the entire lower world was supposed to be completely inhospitable to human life.
In the game, after you paid for the DLC, you would visit specific coordinates and your ship would suddenly malfunction before being drawn into a surging flow of mana until it was pulled down on the island. The Heroine and her Love Interest depending on the route of the game would then see it as an unexplored dungeon and ascend it floor-by-floor, facing off against various robotic enemies that belonged in a more sci-fi-heavy game, while navigating different environments like an arctic region or jungle.
And when you finally made it to the top you would be rewarded with a power-up for the Love Interest’s partner. Then a forced escape sequence would occur, and they would find a new ship with much higher specs to replace their old one. The island would then vanish with no way back until you started a new game file.
Leon had been planning to retrieve said cheat items and spent a month getting to the coordinates when he had been sucked in, just like in the game. But so far, he hadn’t seen a single enemy unit. And now the entrance wasn’t responding to the ID Card that would open it in the game but instead asking him to select a language for Guest Access.
Something must have changed the scenario. But considering how closed off this place is, the only thing I can think of was that someone else beat me to it.
There were holes in the theory, but he couldn’t dismiss the possibility of it. If he had been reborn in this world and regained his memories, then chances are someone else probably had as well. And considering what a crappy setting this was depending on the luck of the draw, rushing to get ahead was the smart call. The only reason he hadn’t earlier was because of the danger involved, but he would take a chance of dying to accomplish something for his own sake over being forced to enlist and be a sacrificial pawn.
Of course, if someone did beat him to the punch the biggest problem would be if they had already made off with the ship. His own hadn’t survived the crash, so he would be stuck here with no way to get back home if it was gone. He really hoped that wasn’t the case as he selected the text in Hiragana for Japanese and then stepped through the gate as it opened.
The barren world transitioned into a hive of chrome and steel. Rimmed with soft lights that illuminated the entirety of the floor, it was meant for receiving goods and supplies given that it had several metal containers packed away. Leon was cautious as he maneuvered around them to elude patrolling drones, given that he didn’t have the endgame equipment that he should.
Instead, he had some equipment picked up near the start of the map. The game developers had the foresight to at least give the player some pretty good gear along with the ID Card to open the dungeon by going to what he supposed was a storage bunker of some kind. The equipment there consisted of a powered armor suit, a firearm, and a shield that had high stats.
He was partway through the level without an encounter when the speakers cracked to life. “Hey, welcome to… wait, that equipment. How do you… I mean, I suppose I don’t mind that you took his old gear given you didn’t know better after crashing here. But that stuff is thousands of years old, so try not to break it.”
It sounded like a young girl’s voice speaking in Japanese. But there was an almost robotic tone overlaying it. Leon assumed it was because of the speakers.
“Uh, anyway, you don’t have to worry about being attacked or anything. I had the security system turned off so you could come right on up to the top through the elevator in the back. It’s been ages since anyone has been here and I’ve got a ton of questions.”
Leon took the invitation with a grain of salt as he made his way over to the elevator. The moment he stepped inside the door sealed shut, and it began ascending. In the game, you had to go from floor to floor to unlock the higher levels, but it seems like I’m heading straight to the top.
The elevator continued to climb upwards until it reached the entrance to the top floor. His boots lightly clunked against the metal floor, the walls filled with screens that were showcasing different camera views and data. It was probably meant to be a monitoring station, but the central focus was a device in the center that was connected to thousands of wires that fed into it from the ceiling above.
In the game, after the Heroine and the Love Interest managed to climb this far, they would find the device inoperable but see that there was a massive vault on the opposite side. Opening it using the keycard from where you obtained the equipment would net the final prize, one of the most broken items in the game. But it would also trigger the forced evacuation sequence.
Yet the device now glowed with a verdant green light and hummed softly. “Am I supposed to use this?”
“Yep!” said the voice from before when he responded in Japanese. “Just place your hand on the pad and it’ll teleport you to the gardens above. I’ve just finished setting up some refreshments for you.”
Leon’s brow furrowed. He had never heard about a garden area. But given how massive this place was, he was sure there were entire blocks that went unventured for plot reasons within the game. He went over to the device and placed his hands on the pad—
Guest User recognized. Teleporting to the Hanging Gardens.
—and then there was a flash of light as the glow from before caused the world of steel and chrome surrounding him to be replaced by an atrium from which sunlight seemingly spilled in from the clear blue skies above. The metal floor was polished to the point of being reflective, but the walls looked to be made of white marble. They even had flowers and ivy growing around not only where the glass met the stone but crawling down the walls, filling the air with the soft fragrance of nature that contrasted the chaotic sky and barren landscape outside.
It was uncanny as Leon moved towards a gateway that was ahead of him. The moment he reached it the doors slid open to reveal an expansive field of flowers and luminous trees. It was like something out of a fairytale, with a table that had been set up with a single chair, what looked to be some kind of edible blocks on a plate, and a cup with a kettle nearby.
But all of that was secondary to the young girl standing next to the table.
Or at least Leon wanted to say it was a young girl around the age of Finley, maybe. She had unblemished skin that was paler than most he had seen in this life, her arms covered with evening gloves that came up just short of her shoulders, and her thighs wrapped by robotic-looking stockings. And he explicitly chose not to comment on her bodywear—not that there was anything it barely covered worth mentioning.
At her feet were high heels that looked similarly mechanical as she hovered just a few inches above the ground, surrounded by what looked like the petals of a lotus. The lotus theme seemed to be present throughout her design because adorning her short, light green hair was a band from which a similar flower blossomed. And behind her back floated what looked to be mechanical pods that sprouted the petals like angelic wings.
“Thanks for coming!” Her mechanical tone only added to the evidence she wasn’t human, but something else. Yet she wore a small smile as she waved a hand over her head toward him, beckoning him to come closer. “I didn’t have time to prepare much. But I hope you’ll like it.”
“What exactly are you?” Leon asked.
“I’m the Supervisory A.I. for the Lifewave Condensation and Terraformation Tower. I’ve been given the directive to revitalize the world and, if possible, aid Humans like yourself against Adepts. Normally I would operate throughout the Tower. But since you’re the first guest we’ve had, I came out to greet you personally. If there’s anything you need then I’m your girl.”
Was this part of the background lore of the series? Leon scratched his head as he wrapped his mind around what she told him. “Well, if you’re speaking of Adepts as separate beings, does that mean you’re supposed to help Minos then?”
Her head quirked at that. “I’ve never heard of that term before. But it’s been thousands of years since I have received any new information. Mind filling me in?”
“Minos is the term given to people who are born lacking Septima,” he explained. “Most people in the world are those born as Adepts, while far fewer like me are born without a Septima. It’s seen as either an omen or a genetic defect depending on who you ask. But since we’re a minority, we’re labeled as Minos for short.”
“No… that can’t be…” The expression the A.I. had been wearing melted away. “Adepts were growing in number, but to completely overtake Humanity would mean that… No, Master promised that he would succeed. That was why he needed me to stay here. So that the Humans he fought for would have a world ready for them.”
“Sorry, but that’s just how it is. The Minos are the minority, and the way things work makes life difficult for them. At least in the Holfort Kingdom anyway. Can’t say I know much about other places.”
In the Holfort Kingdom, there were effectively two things that determined your lot in life. The first was whether you had a Title of Nobility, as it was a feudal system that had long since gone out of practice in his original life. Where your family stood in terms of peerage determined just how easy your life was. However, at least it was possible to either rise into becoming a noble with generations of hard work or if you were able to receive a title from the crown.
It was a different story when it came to your Septima. It was common knowledge that the stronger your Septima was, the more valuable it was. Commoners who were born with a strong Septima could be adopted and elevated into noble families. But, by that same measure, someone who was of noble birth but born with no Septima effectively had no value and could be discarded without a second thought.
Hearing his confession, she went from floating to falling to her knees and bringing her hands over her eyes. “Master promised that Humans would have a bright future for them. That’s why I was told to do my best and wait for someone to come. But if we lost the war and Humans have become the minority then… what was it all for? Master… what did I spend thousands of years alone for?”
I can’t say that reaction was unexpected. Leon could only imagine how long thousands of years were from her perspective. All that time alone, knowing that she would likely outlive the one she made a promise to in the hopes that his dream would carry on. Only to learn that it was all for nothing in the end. But lying wouldn’t have solved anything, would it?
Telling her a lie might have softened the blow. But the truth would come out eventually. And when it did, nothing would sting more than having the trust placed in the words you were told broken. He had learned that the hard way.
Still, Leon took no pleasure in watching her sitting there crying, nor being the one responsible. Especially not when it dredged up a memory of a life once lived and long gone, of a little girl weeping on the playground. She’d often shed crocodile tears to get people to do what she wanted. But now and again they’d be genuine, and he could tell every single time that was the case since it’d stir up a certain feeling in his chest. Just like now.
He sighed to himself before he approached the girl, so lost in her grief that she no longer registered his presence. She seemed so much smaller now that she wasn’t floating and putting on airs that made her seem more mature than her appearance would suggest. He crouched down and, pausing for a moment, began to gently stroke her mint-green hair. “It wasn’t for nothing.”
Her hands lowered slightly at the unexpected gesture, and her eyes locked onto his as the tears still cascaded down from the corners. Then she slowly reached out to touch his hand. He suspected that if she had been here all this time alone it was also probably the first time since then that she had been touched by another living being.
“I don’t know much about what happened in the past of this world,” Leon began. “I can’t say that I know the details of the promise you made with your master. And I don’t want to lie and say that being born without Septima has been easy when it hasn’t been. But the fact is that people like me are still around after thousands of years. We’re still alive in this world, even if it’s cruel towards us. That has to count for something, right?”
“Y-Yes…” She nodded her head, even as her small shoulders trembled as she sniffled. Then she clung to him and buried her face into his chest. “You’re proof that Humanity has lived on somehow after thousands of years. Master’s dream hasn’t ended.”
He let her keep clinging to him until she finally got the crying out of her system and went back to floating upright. “Sorry about that. It was just a lot to process at once. But you’re here now, so I can follow my directive and aid you. Is there something you need at the moment?”
“I need a Glaive that you have locked in the safe. And a ship to return to the sky.”
That caused her to slightly frown. But thankfully not quite in the crushing guilt way that he had been expecting. Instead, it was more in a confused manner. “I can authorize the use of the Sabertooth to transport you with my administrative permissions, but the Smilodon was meant to be a mass transport vessel and requires dual permission to launch. The same goes for the Glaives, given that they were one of the most dangerous weapons from the beginning of the war. Besides, they were attuned to the original Adepts who were all defeated in the past and only someone with a compatible septimosome would be able to survive invoking it. They would be useless to you.”
“I know for a fact that there are compatible Adepts for them in the present,” Leon said. “But the only one I care about right now is the Azure Quill that’s meant to be used with the Azure Striker Septima.”
Now her expression shifted into one that was far more serious. “The former holder of the Azure Striker Septima perished thousands of years ago, after becoming a Septimal Being that discarded his flesh. And yet you claim there are others with that same Septima? How can that be?”
“The Royal Family of the Holfort Kingdom are known to be holders of the Azure Striker Septima,” Leon explained. It was considered the strongest Septima in the Kingdom, which was one of the reasons the Royal Family held the power it did. There were other reasons, such as the Royal Ship, but there was no point in bringing that up.
“Perhaps they are his descendants from before his transition into an incorporeal body?” she reasoned before shaking her head. “Even so, Master entrusted me with the Glaives for preservation if the knowledge derived from them could be of aid in my directives. I can’t just return it to the descendant of one of the enemies of Humanity.”
“That’s a problem for me then, since if I don’t offer that Glaive to them then I’ll probably be dead by the end of the year,” Leon said in turn.
“If you’re in trouble of some kind, you can stay here!” She seemed almost eager for him to do so as she leaned over until they were nearly face-to-face. “The Tower can sustain life within itself. I can promise that you’ll never want for anything, and you’ll be safe!”
He actually considered it for a moment. “Would that offer only extend to Minos?”
“Yes. My directives are to aid those who have no connection to the seventh layer of the Lifewave, such as yourself. If the Minos are such then I will aid them as my Master wished.”
“Then I can’t accept,” he said. “After all, even though I was born a Minos, the rest of my family are Adepts. Not powerful ones, but Adepts all the same. The reason I need the Glaive is so that I can remain with them.”
“What do you mean?”
He gave her the gist of his personal situation. He had been born as part of a family that held a barony, with his father being the baron overseeing the territory. Out of the family, he had been the only one born as a Minos. Normally that would have gotten him disowned if his parents had been scum like some of the other nobility, thanks to the way the Kingdom favored those with Septima, but his parents weren’t like that.
The problem was that he was born to his father’s mistress, while his main wife was related to a Viscount family. In her own words, having a Minos as a member of the family is a stain on their reputation. Time and again she had tried to get rid of him, and until recently his parents had done their best to appease her by offering her tributes and keeping him out of sight. But there was a severe wave of monster attacks this year and they had caused enough damage that his family couldn’t afford to appease her without neglecting their territory.
His father was a good man. Though his territory wasn’t well-off, he did his best to make sure that the people never went hungry. The times when the men from Zola’s family couldn’t be bothered to help with fending off the monsters in time, he would be one to take up arms to help. His armor and body had their fair share of scars, so to ask him to sacrifice the well-being of his people for the sake of his son was too much.
At the rate things were going he was going to be disowned and forced to split apart from his family. And in this society, where Septima was valued, finding a career to support himself afterward would be a nightmare. It wasn’t uncommon for Minos to have to resort to crime like becoming sky pirates, but more often they would have to enlist as a soldier and be sent off to foreign allies of the kingdom. All so they could die in the meatgrinder, while those who had valuable Septima remained safe.
However, Leon could get around that by receiving an ennoblement from the Royal Family. While those who normally held the rank of nobility aided the crown in the past, it was possible to earn or buy your way into it. The Offrey Family was one such example.
The problem was that receiving the ennoblement required that he do something that merited it, or had enough money to buy it, which he didn’t. However, a Glaive was an artifact that had been lost to history and impossible to reproduce (according to the item description). It was invaluable enough that offering them a compatible one would be more than enough to get him a title.
The A.I. processed the information before muttering. “So, you need it to remain with your family?”
“That’s right,” Leon answered. “I can’t say that I’m thrilled about the way the world works, but my mother and father put up with a lot to keep me by their side because they cared about me. To the point where it’s put them in financial straits and has had them looked down on by their peers. I’ve even seen times when my mother cried over the fact that she didn’t pass down her Septima, because she knew life would be hard for me. Most noble families wouldn’t have done that, so I can’t abandon them.”
While he didn’t want to be shipped off to die for no reason, Leon especially didn’t want everything they sacrificed for him to be for nothing. The reward for being a decent human being shouldn’t be only to lose everything after struggling so hard to hold onto it. Getting ennobled by the Royal Family would allow them to at least hold their heads up high that even the worst of their family had accomplished something.
“Master… entrusted me with the Glaives to prevent them from being misused, so to return one of the weapons of the Adepts of old to them would go against that. But… you need the Glaive to avoid being sent off to die and remain with your family. And you won’t remain in the Tower even if I guaranteed you wouldn’t want for anything else?”
“I’ve been away from home too long as is,” Leon stated. He already didn’t want to think about how much it cost his father to outfit the ship he had ridden on to get here. Especially not when he had promised his father that he would return with something to his name without explaining how he was going to obtain it. Without even asking what he had planned, his father had put his faith in him to come back alive whether he found something or not.
As she crossed her arms beneath her chest and her brows furrowed deep in thought for a long pause, he took the time to eat the… block on his plate. He couldn’t quite pick out the flavor, but it wasn’t bad. And the tea was pretty good as well.
Then her eyes snapped open, and she raised her arms in a cheer. “That’s it! I can’t give you the Glaive because of my directive, even if it would be to help you. But if I elevated you to Tower Administrator then you could change my directive to allow it. The Sabertooth and Smilodon and the other resources of the Tower would also be available.”
“What would that require?”
“Just a thorough examination to ensure your qualifications, since one of the requirements is that the Administrator has no connection to the seventh layer of the Lifewave,” she explained. “There’s room for tolerance on Guest permission to account for residents who might be connected up to the fourth layer, but the Admin has to be tied to the primordial layer alone. Once that’s verified, we would share dual authority over the Tower, including the ability to override my directive to aid you.”
Isn’t that giving someone you just met a little too much control? Leon privately wondered to himself. He didn’t know enough about how everything here worked, but being able to hand off the authority to someone else seemed like a risk. Then again, maybe it was a sign that whoever her Master was trusted her judgment when it came to whoever would succeed him.
“Ah, there is one thing,” she continued. “Since Master entrusted them to me with the future of Humanity in mind, I do have a condition: I want to accompany you outside the Tower.”
“Don’t you need to be here to manage everything?”
“Most of the systems can be automated even without direct supervision, but without a second administrator I couldn’t devote resources to explore beyond the vicinity of the Tower. And it’s not like I would be leaving the Tower itself, but I would instead be using a support unit as a proxy to accompany you in the same manner that I’m speaking to you now. That way I can gather data on the world’s current state and see for myself what remains of Master’s dream and how to help out Humans better!”
If it would get him the Glaive and the Smilodon, as she called it, he wouldn’t complain. Besides, Leon had noticed that she was still willing to help him get back to the upper world even before she came up with this idea. That meant she was willing to put up with being here all alone again for possibly thousands of more years if he refused, simply because it was how she could be helpful to him.
The thought of leaving a little girl willing to be that nice to him alone for that long wouldn’t sit right with him. “Fine. We’ll go with your idea.”
“Yay!” She cheered with a big smile even as the world around them began to shift around. The grass and flowers were fading away, along with the scent and the sky. Had it all been a hologram of some kind? “Come on! I’ll take you to my mainframe… um…”
Watching as she awkwardly fidgeted in place, he realized that she had been so eager to rush things along they hadn’t even introduced themselves to one another. “My name is Leon. Leon Fou Bartfort. And you?”
“Lola,” she said. “Nice to meet you, Leon.”