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  The Prerequisites of a Nation  

As the last of the snow melted, the smell of spring began permeating the land.

By and large, things were progressing precisely as Tsukasa Mikogami had expected.

Thanks to Akatsuki’s magic shows and how proactive the Order of the Seven Luminaries was about providing charitable food and medical work, support for the group was slowly but surely rising among the Gustav domain’s populace.

Health conditions in the domain had been questionable even in the best of times, so Keine’s work, in particular, was the talk of the town. Many locals went so far as to pronounce the Seven Luminaries their saviors openly. On the other hand, the Blue Brigade’s standing was plummeting.

While folks certainly gave them credit for rising to action and taking down Duke Gustav, that was all anyone attributed to them. They hadn’t done anything of note since then, after all. The rebellious sect had been perfectly happy to dump all the cleanup on the Seven Luminaries.

That negligence stemmed from the fact that the Blue Brigade’s leader, as well as many of the group’s noble members, wished to spend as little of their own coin as possible. Such a tightfisted attitude was costing them quite a bit in terms of public favor, however.

When spring arrived, the Seven Luminaries had achieved a monopoly on the public’s trust.

“The Blue Brigade is all talk.”

“The Seven Luminaries care way more about us little guys than they ever did.”

Gossiping housewives from villages all across the domain echoed the same sentiment.

As things worsened for his group, even Marquis Rommel von Conrad came to realize just how precarious a situation the Blue Brigade was in. If he allowed things to continue as they were, many were liable to start demanding the Seven Luminaries’ installation as the new governing body.

Were such a thing to happen, Conrad knew the Blue Brigade wouldn’t have the power to stand in their way. By slaying Gustav, the domain’s imperially appointed duke, they’d earned the suspicion of their own country. They couldn’t realistically expect help from the rest of the empire.

Standing on the edge of a proverbial precipice, Conrad had to wonder whether it was better to be assimilated into the Seven Luminaries. That decision would mean swearing to fight on behalf of the powerless masses.

Given the ideals Blumheart had founded the Blue Brigade under, it seemed the right thing to do, but Conrad couldn’t accept that. As far as he was concerned, the very idea was laughable. Dividing up the privileges afforded to nobles and handing them to the common rabble was an idea so far removed from his way of thinking that it insulted his sensibilities to even consider it.

With that in mind, there remained only one other choice—Conrad had to get back in the empire’s good graces as swiftly as possible. To that end, he penned a letter explaining the legitimacy of the decision to kill Gustav. He sent it off to Neuro ul Levias, one of the Four Grandmasters left in charge of maintaining order in the emperor’s absence.

We imperial nobles fought for the sake of our great empire.

It didn’t take long before Conrad’s lobbying bore fruit. Soon, he and his titanic Gold Knight bodyguard, Zamuel du Reisenach, found themselves in Drachen, the imperial capital. They had been summoned to the audience chamber of the grandmaster’s estate.

“W-will you really be enough to guard me on your own, Reisenach…?” The short, elderly Conrad fidgeted restlessly in the chamber’s dim light. Rightly so, as the imperial capital wasn’t exactly the safest place in the world for him.

If the empire had deemed the Blue Brigade’s actions to be criminal, then Conrad had traipsed into the lion’s den. Fully aware of that, the old nobleman remained ill at ease. His expression was dark with fretfulness and fear.

Conrad’s gold armor-clad compatriot turned to him and replied, “If the empire really wanted us dead, we could’ve brought the whole Blue Brigade with us and it wouldn’t have mattered. We want to demonstrate our lack of hostility, so coming without a full retinue of bodyguards gives off a better impression.”

“Th-that’s true, but it doesn’t make me feel any better…”

“Our only option is to trust what the grandmaster wrote in his message, right?” As a glimmer of frustration crossed Reisenach’s face at his master’s cowardice, the two were greeted by a third voice.

“Oof. Sorry about the tardiness, gents. That war council meeting dragged on for aaaaages.”

A jovial-sounding man sauntered into the room from the door opposite the one Conrad and Reisenach had entered from.

His hair was gray with a touch of blue, and his eyes were golden and gleaming. It was one of the Four Grandmasters who served Emperor Lindworm directly—Blue Grandmaster Neuro ul Levias.

“The Yamato survivors are taking advantage of His Grace’s absence to scuttle around. To be honest, it’s getting to be a bit of a headache. Ninjas have this obnoxious habit of popping up where you least expect them, see.” Coolly explaining the reason for his delay, Neuro took a seat in the audience chamber’s chair. “Anyhow, that’s why I was late. Water under the bridge, I hope?” The man crossed his legs, his tone lighthearted.

Conrad lowered his already-short body and prostrated himself. “D-don’t think twice of it! I understand how difficult it must be for a busy man such as yourself to find any time at all, honored Grandmaster. I thank you for being so gracious!”

“Ha-ha-ha. Loosen up, Conny. No need to be so formal. Don’t tell me you’re nervous, are you?”

“Sh-shamefully so, sir. I understand full well how tenuous my standing is.”

Neuro cocked his head to the side.

“Well, that’s odd. Didn’t I send you a letter that said, My greatest thanks to the Blue Brigade for deposing the fanatical traitor Gustav, complete with my grandmaster seal? Well, no matter. Anyhoo, the empire views the Blue Brigade’s actions favorably.

“We appreciate ol’ Gus’s devotion to His Grace, but come on. Moderation in all things. Starving the domain entrusted to him was out of the question. Besides, the survival of the fittest is the empire’s national policy. Gustav was weak, so he became your prey, that’s all.

“Your actions were fully in keeping with the spirit of the law, so they’re to be commended, not reproached. We’re not going to charge you with sedition or anything like that, so there’s no need to look so spooked.”

When Neuro restated his approval of the Blue Brigade’s actions against Gustav, Conrad’s face lit up with joy, and he bowed repeatedly.

“Th-thank you! As the Blue Brigade’s representative, I extend to you our utmost gratitude for your understanding and—”

“There is one thing, however,” Neuro cut in, his carefree tone suddenly turning grave.

Conrad’s whole body broke out into a cold sweat as he waited for his superior to continue.

“…Those guys, see, they’re trouble. What were they called, again? Right, right, the Seven Luminaries. They’re a problem. Emperor Lindworm alone rules over the heavens and earth, yet they’ve been deceiving people with promises from a false god. That would be inexcusable enough on its own, but they’ve gone a step further and preached a message of equality for all. Such a stance flies in the face of the Freyjagard Empire itself. Leaving them to their devices simply isn’t an option, now, is it? Ah, but I hear you’ve been getting pretty chummy with them.”

“Th-that’s, I…”

Narrowed golden eyes bored into Conrad, and he was struck by a wave of tension so powerful he thought for a moment that his heart had stopped.

Immediately, however, Neuro’s expression gave way to laughter. “Ha-ha-ha, I joke, I joke.” He seemed to be enjoying Conrad’s timid reactions.

“Don’t worry; I get it. I realize how delicate your situation is. I mean, we’re talking about the powerhouses that took over three of the four northern domains in a single season here. The fight against Gus wore you down too much to pick a fight with them. I may not look it, but I’m one of the smarter Four Grandmasters. If anyone can appreciate your plight, it’s me.” Evidently, Neuro understood quite well the tricky predicament that Conrad had found himself in.

“Which is whyyy…I figured I’d offer you a hand.”


A sound echoed sonorously from Neuro’s fingers. When it did, the door he came through opened once again, and another man made his appearance. This newcomer was hidden beneath a black overcoat and mask.

Between the man’s unsettling appearance and aura, Gold Knight Reisenach’s battle-honed instincts told him that the man was no mere eccentric. He leaned forward a bit as he spoke.

“Who is he? This man,” inquired Conrad.

“My aide, Tanganika… Show them what you can do.”

“ ”

On Neuro’s order, the masked man raised his bandage-wrapped right hand and held it up. In a flash, flame furled up in the audience chamber’s fireplace, then whirled over to Tanganika’s hand and began gathering atop it.


“That’s magic…! He’s a mage?!”

The two of them goggled at the sudden supernatural phenomenon. Such a display was only the beginning, however. The flames gathered atop the man’s hand started increasing in both heat and intensity, eventually transforming into pure red light. After only a moment, that glow had taken the shape of a spear in the mysterious man’s hand.

Conrad and Reisenach recognized that red spear; anyone would’ve.


“W-without a doubt…that’s Rage Soleil!!”

Indeed, the red spear was identical to Rage Soleil, the trump card of the man they’d fought against as members of the Blue Brigade.

It had taken Gustav years to finish one.

Yet, that man had conjured one in the blink of an eye.

“Tanganika is several times the mage Gus was. As you can see, he has the power to summon Rage Soleil in only a moment. Handy, right? And for now, I’m going to lend him to you.”

“Wh—? R-really?!”

“Yup. And I’m dispatching soldiers to your location, too. Ten thousand of them.”

“T-ten thousand?!”

“With that much might, you won’t need to play nice with the upstarts anymore. Isn’t that right?” Neuro gave a flash of his white teeth, grinning confidently.

Conrad shivered at just how assured the man seemed. He’d never know that the empire employed mages of such power. Truly, its power knew no limits.

The Freyjagard Empire is unbeatable…!

Conrad was coming to realize that allying his group with the empire was their only real option with each passing second. As such, he made his vow eagerly.

“O-of course! You have our deepest thanks for lending us a hand in our hour of need! With this, the Seven Luminaries will be powerless before us! We will eradicate those misguided fools who dare oppose the empire!”

“Ha-ha-ha. I should think so.” Neuro chuckled, but then his gaze narrowed yet again. “With a grandmaster backing you to such an extent, I expect nothing less. Failure is not an option. Am I understood?” Unlike Neuro’s joke from before, this time, the menace in his stare was real. Conrad felt it pierce his heart through.

His cheer from a moment ago gone, he went pale and prostrated himself yet again. “—! Y-y-yes!”

Neuro nodded in satisfaction. “That’s what I like to hear… I leave squishing the pests to you, Tanganika.”

Making those his final words, Neuro departed from the room.

After their meeting at the grandmaster’s estate, Conrad and Reisenach stayed the night in Drachen. Then, the next day, they left the capital with Neuro’s aide Tanganika in tow and headed for the Blue Brigade’s Gustav domain headquarters—Fort Uranus.

“I never dreamed the meeting would go so smoothly… I’ll say this, Grandmaster Neuro ul Levias is just as wise as the rumors claim. Between his ten thousand soldiers, our Blue Brigade, and your power, those commoners and Seven Luminaries stragglers are finished. They’ll be dust beneath our boots in no time!”


During the carriage ride to the fort, Conrad tried to make small talk by expressing his gratitude toward Neuro as well as his admiration of Tanganika’s magic, but the concealed mage was having none of it.

Well, aren’t we a gloomy fellow?

Despite being complemented by an imperial noble—a marquis, at that—Tanganika wasn’t offering so much as a single word of appreciation in return. Conrad thought there had to be limits to how rude a man could be.

Conrad made sure not to let his irritation show, however. Offending Tanganika wasn’t an option. The mage was integral to the upcoming fight against the Seven Luminaries. After giving up on making conversation, Conrad headed to the back of the carriage.

Whispering in Reisenach’s ear, he said, “When we get back to headquarters, I was thinking of giving our new friend an underground tour.”

Reisenach, quick on the uptake, smiled. “You mean to give him some of the gold?”

“Exactly. In all honesty, the man unnerves me, but he has an in with the Four Grandmasters. That means he has a direct connection to the emperor. If we get him on our side and play our cards right, we’ll be set for life. Whatever it takes, right?” Conrad replied gleefully.

“Heh. Nobody could stay that stony after getting an eyeful of that mountain of gold.” Reisenach’s grin broadened as he spoke.

Conrad and his allies within the Blue Brigade had stolen a veritable mountain of gold from Gustav and were keeping it for themselves. Just remembering the sight of it caused the old marquis’s lips to curl.


“…I wish I could agree, Reisenach, but nobody is perhaps a tad strong. Some hardheaded fools in this world refuse to see reason. Blumheart, for one. And to that point, there’s something I need you to do before we settle things with the Seven Luminaries.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

Conrad lowered his voice to make sure only Reisenach would make him out, then gave him the order. Upon hearing the hushed words, Reisenach’s bandit-like visage curled into a barbaric smirk.

“Heh. You got it. Now there’s a job that’s right up my alley.”

The Blue Brigade’s headquarters, the massive and sturdy Fort Uranus, sat in the woods surrounding the checkpoint between the Gustav and imperial domains.

Ever since the empire’s earliest days, Fort Uranus had stood as the emperor’s shield. It had seen countless battles yet had never once been breached. Shinobu, who’d been left alone with the Blue Brigade, sat atop its rampart walkway. Her hair fluttered in the spring breeze as she gave Tsukasa her scheduled update.

Today, her report concerned the location of the gold statue she’d surreptitiously hunted down. It was also about the serious steps the Blue Brigade’s leadership was taking to mend relations with the empire.

“Yup, basically. Looks like Marquis Conrad’s made up his mind to return to the empire. He just went to a meeting in the imperial capital and only took a single Gold Knight with him. It’d take a real sweet answer to his initial letter to get a self-preserving coward like him to stroll into the capital.”

“From the empire’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense to prosecute the Blue Brigade for sedition when they would much rather use them as a pawn against us. I expected as much.”

“Anyhow, that about sums up stuff over here. What about you guys? How’s Ringo’s project comin’ along?”

After Tsukasa’s date with Ringo, he’d sent a message to all the other Prodigies informing them about a certain undertaking he’d requested of Ringo, one that was key to the founding of their new nation. Shinobu wanted to follow up on that.

Tsukasa’s answer was prompt.

“She finished a few days ago. It’s ready to use when needed.”

“That’s our girl Ringo. Reliable to a T.”

“Thanks to Akatsuki and Keine’s efforts, the Seven Luminaries have become very popular among the people of the Buchwald, Archride, and Gustav domains. All the pieces are in place to found our nation. Once we make the announcement, things will start moving fast.”

“Sounds like I’m not gonna be here much longer, huh?”

“That’s right. We know where the gold statue is, so there isn’t much left for you to do there. Make sure you get out before things heat up.”

“That’s the plan. Conrad’ll be back from Drachen soon, and I wanna hightail it before we bump heads.”

“Then I’ll see you in Millevana.”

“Gotcha. Later.”

Shinobu ended the call, then sighed. Nothing left for me to do here, huh? she thought. Tsukasa certainly hadn’t been wrong. She’d dredged up all the intel there was to find, and now that the Blue Brigade was in bed with the empire, overstaying her welcome could easily prove fatal. Given that Shinobu made moves while others were prepping for the game, it was surprising she was still there at all. The ninja-journalist had her reasons, however.

“Ah, Ms. Shinobu!”

“Shinobu! It’s been too long!”

A pair of cheerful female voices called out to Shinobu from behind. The girl turned to see the Silver Knight Jeanne and her byuma maid Elaine, who held a lantern. Shinobu had been waiting there specifically so she’d bump into the two of them when they made their rounds.

“True dat,” Shinobu replied cheerfully.

“I hadn’t seen you in a while, so I thought you’d gone back already,” Jeanne said.

“Nah, I was just a teensy bit tied up. You on patrol?”

“That’s right. Can’t let anything happen while Marquis Conrad is away, after all.”

“Look at you, bein’ all diligent. Oh, hey, that reminds me. I got an update about that girl from Coconono you wanted to know about.”

“You know what happened to her?!” Jeanne practically charged Shinobu.

“Hey, whoa there, girl,” replied the startled ninja. She recited the news from the hospital exactly as Elch had told it to her. “Word is, she got discharged after making a full recovery.”

Jeanne crumpled to her knees. “Is that so…? Oh, thank goodness… Truly…” Tears trickled down the woman’s cheek as she breathed a deep sigh of relief.

On the day she and Shinobu had met in Coconono Village, Jeanne had given the order to have Milinda flogged. The girl’s condition had been weighing heavily on Jeanne’s mind ever since. A short while ago, Jeanne had asked Shinobu to pass along any news she heard about the poor girl.

As Shinobu saw it, Jeanne had made the right call to maintain her cover while the Blue Brigade was waiting to strike, but the heart and the mind were two separate beasts. Even though Jeanne knew why she’d had to do it, she lamented it all the same.

“Pardon me a moment.”

With that, Jeanne drew the silver sword hanging from her waist. She held its blade straight in front of herself, then closed her eyes as though in prayer.

“ ”

A moderate amount of time passed before she opened them again, and Shinobu started to grow curious as to what Jeanne was actually doing.

“Were you praying?” the Prodigy asked.

Jeanne shook her head.

“No, not quite. I was just giving my report. Before the battle, my master was quite worried about the girl I’d had whipped, too…”

“Oh, now that you mention it, that’s a different sword than the one you had back then. Is that…”

“Yes. It belonged to my master, Count Blumheart. It was presented to me after he passed. In addition to inheriting his family rank of count, he was also a Silver Knight himself.”

“Sounds like you respected him a lot, huh.”

“I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for him.”

Jeanne then recounted the story of her own origin.

Before she was a knight, Jeanne was just a common-born village girl. One day, the marquis who ruled over her village demanded her hand in marriage. She was only six at the time, while he was forty-eight.

The marquis had a reputation as a degenerate pedophile, and he well deserved it. Her parents, having heard the rumors, refused to hand Jeanne over. The moment they defied him, however, the marquis abandoned any pretense of civility. After having his soldiers cut down Jeanne’s parents, he tried to rape her.

What had saved poor Jeanne had been a chance visit from Blumheart. He’d stopped in the village on a whim and came running when he heard the commotion. At the time, he was not yet a count and was known only as Granzham von Blumheart, Imperial Knight.

Blumheart dived into the fray and, in a marvelous display of swordsmanship, saved Jeanne by slicing off ten soldiers’ heads, along with the marquis’s penis. Doing so was not without repercussion, however.

As far as nobles were concerned, commoners were no different from livestock. The village was the marquis’s to manage, so he was free to do with its people as he pleased. In short, Blumheart’s intercession had been completely illegal.

To make matters worse, not only did the marquis hold a higher peerage rank than Blumheart’s family’s countship, but Blumheart hadn’t even inherited the title yet. He was nothing more than a knight.

Although knights were permitted to call themselves nobles, they didn’t have custodial rights over any land. As Dormundt’s Zest once put it, they served a lord in exchange for coin, and at the end of the day, they were little more than glorified soldiers. A Platinum Knight, the highest rank a knight could achieve, was one thing, but anything below that was considered beneath even the status of a baron, the lowest rung on the peerage ladder.

The nobles came after Blumheart, demanding his execution. Yet, the knight refused to back down in the face of their tyranny.

Loudly, he proclaimed that overlooking such degeneracy sullied the empire’s honor and that it was his duty as a knight to right such wrongs. Furthermore, he insisted that any member of the aristocracy who defended the marquis was just as much a deviant as the marquis himself and should be ashamed. As Blumheart openly antagonized the nobles, he also went around and formed a coalition of villagers and knights who agreed with him. In the end, they were able to shut the ruling class opposition up.

The knights who joined forces with Blumheart went on to become the founders of the Blue Brigade. The event also instilled Jeanne with great admiration for the man. Wanting to serve him, she begged her grandfather to let her enroll in the Knight Academy. In many ways, that event marked the beginnings of the Blue Brigade.

“Ever since that day, I continue to wonder how things might be if Count Blumheart had been emperor. What a beautiful country this might be were that only so,” Jeanne concluded.

“You don’t like the empire the way it is now?” Shinobu asked.

“No.” Jeanne shook her head without a shred of hesitation or doubt. “Survival of the fittest might be a rule of nature, but if we just roll over and accept it, how are we any better than wild beasts?”

Jeanne thought back to the hideous mug of the man who’d tried to violate her as a child. In her eyes, that marquis was no human.

“People ought to strive to be nobler, more regal than that. Just as Count Blumheart was when he saved me back then. Just as you and your Seven Luminaries seem to be.”

Jeanne firmly believed that people ought to help and support one another. Even if it brought no benefit to the one rendering aid, cooperation and living together harmoniously was best in her opinion. To Jeanne, that was what separated humanity from the beasts. Blumheart may have died, but his protégé’s convictions stood unshaken.

“Count Blumheart fell before he could see his ideals realized, but his will lives on in the Blue Brigade, and I intend to guard it with my life. I firmly believe that the day will come when those ideals will sprout and fundamentally change this empire for the better.” With determination in her heart, Jeanne met Shinobu’s eyes as she spoke. In the Silver Knight’s gaze burned unyielding conviction—proof that the woman was far more than just talk.

Unfortunately, that was precisely what made Shinobu’s heart ache so.


Shinobu knew that the Blue Brigade Jeanne was trying to protect didn’t exist anymore. That was the reason Shinobu had stayed behind. With the way things were progressing, the Blue Brigade would soon be an enemy of the Seven Luminaries.

The group was to be made the empire’s vanguard, and it would attack before long. Shinobu knew Jeanne’s spirit was in the right place, however. By all rights, the Silver Knight should’ve been on the Seven Luminaries’ side. They were the ones making Jeanne’s ideals a reality, not the Blue Brigade. If nothing else, Shinobu wanted to get Jeanne into her camp before things got heated.

“Listen, Jeanne, you—?!” No sooner had Shinobu opened her mouth than her keen ninja senses picked up the lethal whizzing sound of something long and sharp.


Charging toward Jeanne and Elaine, Shinobu tackled the two other women to the ground.

“Ow! Ms. Shinobu, may I ask what you’re—Huh?!”

Not a moment later, a massive barrage of crossbow quarrels whistled past where the three had been standing. Arrowheads embedded themselves into the walkway wall.

“B-bolts?! Is it some kind of enemy raid?!”

“Not quite…”

Jeanne was only half right.

Thanks to Shinobu’s exceptional night vision, she’d managed to spot the foe who stood on the other end of the passageway. Turning to face the assailant, she called to him.

“Shooting me makes sense, sure, but you wanna explain why you decided to go after Jeanne and Elaine, too, Gold Knight Reisenach?”

“Heh-heh. Fuckin’ ninja. Even in the dark, you’ve got senses like a damn animal.”

After having his identity revealed, Reisenach strode confidently out from the darkness. The man’s presence seemed to baffle Jeanne.

“S-Sir Reisenach…?”

Why is a member of the Blue Brigade attacking us? Jeanne was at a loss, desperately trying to get a grasp on the situation.

Shinobu, on the other hand, understood the circumstances exactly.

“Looks like your meeting with the empire went well, huh?”

“Heh. Obnoxious bitch. How much do you know?”

“Oh, pretty much everything. I’m a prodigy journalist, I’ll have you know.”

“Dunno what a journawhatever is, but everything you’ve heard’s probably true. The Blue Brigade is formally returning to the empire, so we have no use for you Seven Luminaries anymore.”

When he spelled it out that clearly, even Jeanne could tell what was going on. The Blue Brigade had reconciled with its former master. In short, they and the Seven Luminaries were now enemies.

Indignant, Jeanne cried, “Reisenach, surely you know how much they’ve helped us! Can’t you see what the Seven Luminaries have done for the Blue Brigade and the people of Gustav?! Returning to the empire and turning against them is one thing, but launching a surprise attack against our benefactors like that is the lowest of the low! Have you no pride as a knight?!”

Reisenach seemed quite amused by the plea.

“Heh-heh, ah-ha-ha-ha! Not in the least! Y’know, when your boss Blumheart died, he asked me the same damn thing. ‘Have you no pride as a knight?’ Like master, like follower, I tell you what. Bwa-ha-ha-ha!”

“When he died…? What do you mean by that?!”

There was an ominous quality to Reisenach’s words. When Jeanne pressed him for clarification, he gave her a disparaging sneer.

“You’re a couple of cards short of a deck, ain’tcha? I’m sayin’ that the old fool died at my hands—the hands of Zamuel du Reisenach!”

“ ?!?!”

“Ha-ha. Please, don’t act so surprised. Did you not see this coming? Look, Gustav was an asshole. You can screw with the rabble all you like, but when you start killing ’em off, it starts messing with our lives. But that doesn’t mean all the Blue Brigade knights and nobles agreed with Blumheart’s bullshit philosophy. I mean, c’mon. Why should we have to shed our blood, sweat, and tears for a bunch of worthless common trash?!”

The barbaric Gold Knight then revealed that other than the Blue Brigade’s founding members, everyone else had been ready to push all the blame on Blumheart if they were ever exposed. Such was the truth of the group’s corruption.

“But there’s no need to keep a scapegoat around anymore once you win. Blumheart was just gonna get in our way. So we got rid of him. Heh, you shoulda seen the look on that dumbass’s face. His big victory was right there in front of him, and boom, sword through the back. That shit was priceless!”

The truth of Count Blumheart’s death had at last been revealed. His own allies had struck him down. Jeanne’s crimson hair bristled up like a raging fire.


The moment before the incensed woman could charge Reisenach, however, a dozen soldiers fanned out around him, barring the way forward.

Whirling around, Jeanne saw another group of fighters had appeared at the opposite end of the rampart pathway. She, Shinobu, and Elaine were trapped.

His position now unassailable, Reisenach began to boast of his plans again.

“Now that we have an Imperial Grandmaster on our side, we don’t even need the Blue Brigade anymore. So we’re crushing it—along with any idiots who idolize Blumheart and can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality!”

It was a political purge.

Before they’d joined up with the empire, Conrad and the other nobles allied with him intended to wipe out all the Blue Brigade members who remained true to its founding ideals.

It’s already started, huh? Shinobu had hoped to be able to get Jeanne out of there before that began, but clearly, it was much too late for that. The Brigade’s meeting with the empire had gone far better than the Prodigy had anticipated. Perhaps this meant that Grandmaster Neuro was going to be more of a problem than Shinobu had first suspected. The girl gritted her teeth as she thought of their true, still-distant enemy.

“Jeanne, run! There’s no way we can take on this many while protecting Elaine!” Shinobu insisted.

Jeanne refused to budge.

“…Shinobu. Take Elaine and flee.”


“That man killed my master. On my pride as a knight, I refuse to turn my back on him!” Without turning around, Jeanne pointed her sword straight at Reisenach. The air exuding from the woman expressed her convictions far better than words ever could have. Trying to persuade her was a pointless endeavor.

Shinobu, realizing that, called out, “Got it!”

“M-Mistress!” Elaine resisted, but Shinobu scooped her up by force, cradled her under her arms, and planted her foot on the edge of the ramparts in an attempt to leap off.

Reisenach’s people were equally quick to react, though.

“Don’t let them get away! Shoot ’em down!”

A volley of bolts lanced into the dark, however—


—not a single one reached Shinobu or Elaine.

Jeanne had immediately wrenched her cloak free from her armor and then used it for batting them all down. Taking advantage of the opening, Shinobu leaped off the ramparts with Elaine in tow and vanished into the forest below. Knowing Shinobu, there was no doubt she’d make a safe landing somehow.

“Tch! How’s a woman like her so clever…?!”

Jeanne’s quick thinking earned a grumble from the soldiers. Reisenach quickly reassured them, nonetheless.

“Doesn’t matter. Once the empire’s reinforcements get here, they’re both dead anyway. Still, though…” The man’s gaze shifted to Jeanne, and his expression filled with scorn. “…You really are a stupid little girl, aren’t you? Shoulda gone with ’em. What do you think you can do on your own against these numbers? You think you’re the protagonist of some fairy tale?”

“Shut up, scum. You and I have nothing to talk about!” Jeanne declared defiantly.

“Heh. Big words for someone in your spot. I like it. As an Imperial Gold Knight, I gotta respect that panache.” With that, Reisenach donned his helmet; then he grabbed the cudgel that took three of his men to carry and hoisted it with ease. “One-on-one, me an’ her. Nobody else interfere.”

With stern obedience, the others heeded the order and backed off a bit. Jeanne’s obstacles now gone, her revenge-fueled fury only seemed to burn brighter.

“You’ll pay for what you did!!”

“Then make me!”

Reisenach made the first move. He dashed at Jeanne with a speed that seemed unthinkable for a man of his stature. Jeanne responded by taking her free left hand, grabbing the metal whip hanging from her waist, and cracking it.


The lash sped forward, covering a distance of over fifteen feet as it sliced through the air. Without a shield, Reisenach was powerless to block the attack.

“Ha-ha! This shit’s light! So light I can barely feel it! You think you can kill someone with an attack like that?!”

Unfortunately for Jeanne, it did little to slow Reisenach’s approach. Perhaps that was to be expected, however. Every inch of the man’s massive body was covered in golden plate armor. With a layer of chain mail beneath to guard Reisenach’s exposed joints, the man seemed an impregnable fortress. Only he, with his nigh-superhuman strength, could’ve worn protection like that. It repelled each of Jeanne’s attacks—and eventually, he reached cudgel range.

“An attack, see…is supposed to be like THIS! HRAAAAGH!!” Reisenach brought his weapon down on Jeanne’s head with all his might. He made no effort to bluff or feint—just one, big, brute-force swing.

Jeanne dodged backward, but…



The spot where Jeanne had been standing on the stone walkway was shattered into pieces. Just dodging an attack like that wasn’t enough. The shock wave from the impact dulled Jeanne’s follow-up, and Reisenach took full advantage of that.

“You powerless! Feeble! WEAKLIIIIING!!!!”


The cudgel came crashing down again and again as though it didn’t weigh a thing. Reisenach’s skills were the real deal. Before she knew it, Jeanne found herself backed up against the soldiers behind her. Retreating any farther would’ve surely meant she’d find a sword in her stomach.

“Ha-ha! Now you’ve got nowhere to run. What’re you gonna do now? What’re you gonna do now?!”

“Don’t make light of my whip!”

Jeanne was not without her own strengths, however. The woman hadn’t risen to the rank of Silver Knight for nothing. Again, Jeanne launched her lash at Reisenach, this time aiming for the man’s helmet. The piece’s only openings were its small eye holes. Aiming for such a miniscule target was a fool’s errand, which was precisely why that wasn’t what Jeanne was trying to do.


With deft manipulation of her whip, Jeanne twined the thing around Reisenach’s headpiece, blinding him. Robbed of sight, Reisenach swung his club with large, wide sweeps. The aimless attacks gave Jeanne the opportunity to move in.

Tossing the handle of her whip aside, the woman pulled forth a short, thin sword from its place at her hip. It was a weapon designed for piercing chain mail.

“It’s over—!” Jeanne cried as she charged.


“Men! Fill this bitch with bolts!”


—the next moment, something unthinkable came from Reisenach’s mouth, and a hail of quarrels bore down on Jeanne. With a hurried recklessness, the woman threw herself to the side. Fortunately, she succeeded in dodging the crossbow shots.



Less fortunate was that Reisenach used the opportunity to rip the whip from his eyes, restore his vision, and land a kick in Jeanne’s side so hard it sent her tumbling across the walkway. As soon as she fell to the ground, the soldiers rushed at her and pinned her down from above.

“Geh… Reisenach, you lowlife! How low can you sink…?!”

The great bear of a man had sullied their duel, and Jeanne was furious.

“Shut up, you little shit! Your cheeky display back there made a fool of me!” Unreasonable as it may have been, Reisenach seemed just as indignant. “Death is too good for her! C’mon, men! Have your way with this bitch! Make her regret being born a woman!”


“W-wait, we can?!”

“Nice! Y’know, I was just thinkin’ how it’d be a shame to carve up a woman as easy on the eyes as her.”

Vulgar smiles spread across the soldiers’ faces, and they immediately got to work stripping off Jeanne’s armor. She tried desperately to resist, but their numbers were too much for her, and in a flash, the woman found herself defenseless.

“Get back! Stop it, you brutes! No, nooooo!”

“Hee-hee. Lady knights look so much nicer without all that armor.”

“That smooth skin…don’t mind if I do.”

“ !”

Pinned as she was, the memory of Jeanne’s childhood trauma surfaced in her mind, and tears rolled down her face.

Their carnal lust now ignited, the men didn’t stop.

“C’mon, girlie, purr real nice for me.”


One of them tried to steal Jeanne’s lips. Horrified at the prospect of having her first kiss snatched away like that, Jeanne decided to end things herself. The moment before she could bite off her own tongue, however, there came a most unexpected interruption.


A spray of fresh blood soaked her face.

Jeanne hadn’t bitten through her tongue in a bid for suicide yet, so she had to wonder what’d happened. The explanation lay right before her eyes. The man who’d tried to kiss her had a black knife blooming from the inside of his mouth. Immediately, Jeanne recognized its shape.

That’s a kunai! It can’t be!


The moment she called the name—


—the men pinning her down all collapsed, blood gushing from their necks.

“Looks like I made it in the nick of time, huh?”

A girl was standing before Jeanne with an oversized scarf wrapped around her neck.

It was Shinobu Sarutobi, prodigy journalist.

When Jeanne saw her savior, it didn’t fill her with joy.

If anything, what she felt was anguish, not relief.

Jeanne was no expert on politics, but it didn’t take a genius to realize where the Blue Brigade and the Seven Luminaries stood regarding each other. Shinobu was in enemy territory. Her refusal to flee put her in extreme danger.

“Shinobu…why did you come back?! These people are—”

Shinobu understood all of that already. The answer to why she’d come back was simple enough.

“’Cause leaving a friend behind is outta the question.”


When Jeanne heard Shinobu’s answer…it sent a little pang of joy through her heart. She realized there was nothing more for her to say.

“Don’t worry. I stashed little Elaine somewhere they’ll never find her. Now, c’mon, get up. You still gotta avenge your master, right?”

Shinobu hadn’t come back to get Jeanne to safety. She’d returned to ensure Jeanne saw her wish fulfilled.

“…You have my thanks!” With her opponent having already broken the duel, Jeanne had no reason to turn down Shinobu’s assistance. The two of them stood back-to-back with their weapons at the ready.

Furious, Reisenach bellowed, “Quit standing around, you dolts! What’s one more bitch to crush?!”


The soldiers obeyed the command, drawing their swords and charging. However, what they failed to account for was that their foes were the duo who’d stood together at the forefront of the battle with Gustav.

“Jeanne, cover your eyes!”

“Roger that!”

After giving Jeanne the signal, Shinobu threw a ninja flash grenade at their feet. It broke on impact, releasing a violent and luminous burst that instantly blinded the soldiers.


“I can’t see any—Urk!”

With the soldiers sightless and flustered, the two women routed them in no time. A numbers advantage was meaningless if your forces couldn’t see. Compared to Gustav, the soldiers were a cakewalk.

“Th-they’re too strong!”

“Yeah, they’re crazy strong!”

“Cowards, the lot of you…! Out of my way!”


Fed up with the incompetence of his underlings, Reisenach made his move. Sweeping his men aside with his cudgel, the Gold Knight strode forward.

“I’ll crush ’em both myself!” With a mighty force behind it, Reisenach brought his great club down at Shinobu.

The ninja-journalist handily evaded the lethal attack, however. In the same motion, she moved right up to Reisenach and pressed her stun gun against his armor.


Electricity flowed through Reisenach’s plate and all across his body. The man convulsed violently.

“Jeanne! Now!”

Kicking off Shinobu’s back and shoulder, Jeanne launched herself into the air. Soaring up such that her sword was level with Reisenach’s head—

“I’m grateful you’re wearing that fancy helmet of yours because your face is the last thing I want to see!”

—she thrust her stiletto through an earhole, skewering his brain from the side.


The attack punctured the cerebellum, and the giant man was struck dead instantly. His massive body toppled to the ground.

Two Imperial Knights had entered the duel, but only Jeanne du Leblanc left it.

“Wh—? Th-they killed Sir R-Reisenach!”

“Quick, go get reinforcements! We’ll crush them with sheer numbers!”

While the soldiers were clearly frightened from what’d happened, they showed no signs of retreating. The order for the surprise attack had come from someone higher in rank than Reisenach, after all. If Shinobu and Jeanne remained for much longer, it was likely they’d find themselves quickly overrun.

“You got your payback, so let’s not overstay our welcome. It’s time to run for real, Jeanne.”


After calling out to Jeanne, Shinobu threw another bomb at their feet. No light was issued from it this time, though. Instead, a thick smoke billowed from the little thing.

“Wh-what’s with this gas?!”

“It might be poison! Don’t breathe any in!”

The Blue Brigade men all covered their mouths. That hesitance turned out to be their undoing, however, as when the smoke cleared, the two women were nowhere to be found.

“Th-they’re gone! Where’d they go?!”

“Dammit, it’s one weird technique after another with those two…! Find them! Whatever it takes!”

Frantically, the men scoured the fortress for their two missing foes but turned up nothing. There was no way they could’ve. Shinobu had picked a hiding spot no normal soldier would’ve ever thought to check, after all.

“Waaaaaah! Miiiiistresssss! Thank the heavens, you’re safe!”

“Ow! No hugging, please, I have some broken ribs…”


“Agh! Sh-Shinobu, some help here…!”

“Hey, just think of it as your punishment for going and doing something so dangerous.”

The few torches hanging from the wall were the only thing illuminating the damp hallway. Elaine, Jeanne’s maid, had hidden in the place per Shinobu’s instructions. Upon being reunited with her master, Elaine immediately wrapped Jeanne in a teary embrace. Unsettling cracking noises echoed from Jeanne’s body as she did.

Jeanne begged Shinobu to save her, but Shinobu was just as upset at the knight’s recklessness as Elaine was, so she left Jeanne to her screaming until Elaine finally settled down and released her.

“Owww… Still, I had no idea this space existed beneath Uranus.” Finally free, Jeanne had her first real chance to marvel at her surroundings.

The three were in one of the passageways that led through Uranus’s underground basement. Apparently, Shinobu had discovered the tunnel only a day before.

“Not many know about this secret area. The normal soldiers have no clue it’s down here, and the people who do know would never suspect I found it. It’s the perfect spot for us to hide…or for them to hide something from us.”

“Such as…?”

Shinobu’s words were heavy with intentional implication, and Jeanne picked up on it immediately. Now that the Blue Brigade was being openly hostile, there was no need to keep it from Jeanne anymore.

“This way.”

Shinobu led Jeanne and Elaine down the passageway to where the Blue Brigade’s dark secret slept. Eventually, they reached a large, sanctuary-like area. Shimmering in the light of its surrounding braziers was a towering mountain of gold.

Utterly shocked, Jeanne’s eyes went wide. “Th-that…that gold—that isn’t…?!”

“’Fraid so. That’s the statue of the emperor that Marquis Conrad claimed got sent to the imperial capital. The marquis and his friends smashed it to pieces and stashed it away. After they broke it down to keep it from being recognized, they were slowly selling it off and keeping the profits for themselves.”

“How awful…”

“That statue was made with the people’s tax money. No, that’s putting it too lightly. It was sculpted by shaving the flesh from their bones! How could anyone try to line their pockets with that bloodstained metal?! Those shameless fiends!”

Elaine and Jeanne were aghast at the greed of it all. Shinobu found the debased act only a matter of course, however.

“That’s just the kind of assholes they are. I mean, this is the group that murdered its leader and pretended he died in battle we’re talkin’ about here.”

It was then, at last, that Shinobu was able to finish what she’d tried to tell Jeanne before they’d been attacked.

“Jeanne, I’m sorry, but the Blue Brigade’s lost sight of the passion and ideals it started with. There’s nothing worth protecting here anymore. Hasn’t been since they killed Count Blumheart.”

“…” Jeanne frowned, and her expression contorted in anguish. The Blue Brigade was precious to her. It was all she had left of the master she revered so strongly. Admitting that the group had lost its way was difficult. Between the surprise attack from before and the hill of gold before her eyes, however, that fact seemed indisputable. The woman’s heart felt like it was going to split in two.

“That doesn’t mean Count Blumheart’s ideals are dead, y’know.”


“They live on inside of you.”


“You inherited that kindness, that sincerity, from him. None of that’s faded, has it? A broken container’s nothin’ to worry about as long as its contents are fine. If the Blue Brigade won’t accept what you and the count fought for, then we Seven Luminaries would be more than happy to have you.

“Come with me, and we’ll change this empire together. We’ll make it into a place where people can live with dignity.”

With her gaze firmly fixed on Jeanne’s red eyes, Shinobu offered the knight a handshake. Together, they would destroy the status quo. For Jeanne, making that choice would entail abandoning her home, the empire, and the Blue Brigade. It was by no means an easy decision.

“…If I’m being honest, I noticed the changes. Watching us shove all the restoration efforts onto the Seven Luminaries’ lap while not lifting a finger ourselves never sat right with me. But…the Blue Brigade was everything to me, so I must have unconsciously avoided thinking about it too hard.”

Jeanne knew it was just as Shinobu had laid it out. The Blue Brigade was nothing but a vessel. The Silver Knight ran her fingers across the sword hanging at her waist. Everything Jeanne held dear—Blumheart’s ideals, his conviction, his will… All of them were right there. That being the case, there was no cause to falter.

“I suppose the time has finally come. For the sake of the will of my master, which lives on in this blade, and for my own sake as well, I will happily join you and yours.”

Shinobu replied with a broad smile and a big, “Yay!”

Open war would soon erupt between the Blue Brigade and the Seven Luminaries. When that happened, the one thing Shinobu absolutely wanted to avoid was having to fight Jeanne. As the Prodigy rejoiced, Jeanne posed another question.

“Uranus aside, there are still worthy people in the Blue Brigade. Are those venerable men and women welcome as well? If I was attacked, it stands to reason that they might be in danger, too.”

Shinobu answered with a big nod. There was no reason to refuse, after all.

“Of course! The more the merrier!”

“You have my thanks. As soon as we’ve escaped, I’ll go to them directly and—”

“Hold that thought!” Shinobu exclaimed, cutting the other woman off. Thanks to her exceptional hearing, she’d picked up the sound of footsteps coming their way. The footsteps were as quiet as the sound of a faucet dripping another building over, but Shinobu heard them as clear as day.

“Someone’s coming—hide!” Shinobu grabbed Jeanne and Elaine and dragged them both into cover.

No sooner had she done so than a massive door into the room loudly swung open. Two people entered.

That’s Marquis Conrad… And the other one is…

Shinobu turned her gaze to Conrad’s companion.

It was a creepy, masked figure concealed behind a large overcoat.

…Wait, huh?

As a prodigy journalist who’d made a life of interpersonal interaction, Shinobu had developed a kind of sixth sense. As soon as she laid eyes on that mysterious garbed figure, that sense went off. While she couldn’t see the person’s face, and the contours of their body were obscured, there was a vibe the strange character exuded that matched a certain individual exactly. That realization made Shinobu shudder.

Could it really be him…?

Over on the other side of the room, Conrad gestured to the large pile of gold.

“Well? A sight so splendid it dazzles the eyes, is it not?”

Not realizing that Shinobu and the others were present in the secret underground basement with them, Conrad showed Tanganika the stolen stuff.

“Those Seven Luminaries brats may call themselves angels and gods, but they’re nothing more than gullible fools. I simply pretended to have lost track of the gold statue, and without questioning it, they agreed to pay for the relief efforts themselves. Suckers, the lot of them. Thanks to them, we got to keep all the treasures that Gustav hoarded for ourselves, this gold statue chief among them.”

“You dismantled the statue?”


That question marked the first time Conrad had heard the man speak since Neuro first bequeathed the odd mage to him. Amused, Conrad chuckled to himself at the change.

Seeing the gold must have piqued his interest and loosened his tongue. Excellent.

“Naturally. No trading company in the world could liquidate a sixteen-foot gold statue all at once, and the fact that it was shaped like the emperor would have been awkward for all parties involved. For instance, when the time came to share the wealth with a new friend, hmm?”

Conrad smirked as he took a softball-sized lump from the pile.

“Please, consider this a token of a long and fruitful friendship to come.”

After placing it atop Tanganika’s palm, Conrad took the other man’s hand and the gold held in it, clasped them in his own hands—

“And, fortune willing, I hope for that friendship to extend to your lord, the grandmaster, as well.”

—and made a roundabout allusion to his true goal.

Simply put, Conrad wanted Tanganika to help him make a good impression with Grandmaster Neuro.

“If that were to happen, you could expect ten times this amount to find its way into your pockets.”

It was a rather blatant bribe on Conrad’s part. In the empire, that sort of collusive relationship was all too common. Many a political war was fought behind closed doors.

The coward’s ploy quickly ended in failure, however.

“I see… You really broke it…”

For the masked man, Tanganika, was not the sort who could be so easily enticed.

“Lord Tanganika? Agh—?!”

Suddenly, the mage lashed out with his bandaged hand, grabbing Conrad by the collar and hoisting the little man into the air.

“L-Lord Tanganika…what are you…?” Conrad’s eyes darted about at his guest’s sudden display of violence.

Tanganika spoke, his voice quivering with rage. “Rommel… Rommel von Conrad… Betray me all you like. Our emperor desires a world where only the fittest survive. I cannot fault you for that. But to take a hammer to a likeness of His Grace and destroy it…? You WRETCH!”

“…I-it can’t be…!”

Hearing that voice speak such words, Conrad came to the same realization as Shinobu. For him, though, it came far too late.


As Tanganika bellowed loud enough to send a slight vibration through the air, a flash of red flame burst forth from his body. The force of it shredded his overcoat and shattered his mask to pieces. His identity revealed, the man known as Tanganika was unmistakably…

“D-Duke Gustav?!?!”

It was indeed none other than the Fastidious Duke, Oslo el Gustav. A man who was supposed to have killed himself in the battle against the Blue Brigade was seemingly very much alive.

Conrad trembled, his face pale as a sheet.

“I-impossible! Y-you’re supposed to be dead…!”

“You think I! Oslo el Gustav! Would die while vermin yet fester in His Grace’s garden?! Don’t you dare make light of my devotion! I may have been on death’s door, but Lord Neuro’s mystic arts brought me back from the pits of hell! AND I BROUGHT ITS HELLFIRE BACK WITH ME!!!!”

As Gustav screamed, the bandages wrapped around the arm lifting Conrad into the air steadily burned away. Flames coiled up and began swallowing Conrad whole.


It wasn’t long before the older man’s body was completely ablaze. Gustav hurled him down to the ground, and Conrad writhed about in agony as his flesh burned.

“Ah, it’s hot—it burns, gah, AAAAAAARGH!”

Though Conrad rolled about on the stone floor, trying desperately to extinguish the flames, they refused to go out. Conrad’s clothes burned, and his skin turned to ash.

“It…won’t…go out… Reduced…to ash…but the fire…the fiiiiiiire…”

Conrad burned and burned, but the afterlife was a luxury not permitted to him. Gustav refused to allow it.

“Death is too good for traitorous scum like you. You will suffer for all eternity as my undead flame soldier.”

Conrad writhed like a dying caterpillar as Gustav made his chilling proclamation. Everything about what she was seeing sent a shudder down Shinobu’s spine. As if Gustav surviving and now torturing a traitor wasn’t bad enough, there was something strange about the Fastidious Duke’s aura. Shinobu had gone toe-to-toe with the man, so she could tell.

It was like he was a different man altogether. While he’d always been intimidating and carried a domineering presence, both of those features seemed heightened compared to the person Gustav was before. Shinobu made her living studying others, so it didn’t take her long to deduce the source.

It’s that thing… Gotta be.

Gustav’s overcoat and tunic had been blown away, exposing his bare chest. Protruding from where his heart would’ve been was a pulsating black gem. Whatever it was clearly wasn’t natural. Gustav had destroyed his shirt and bared his chest during Shinobu and Jeanne’s battle with him, and he hadn’t had anything like it back then. That could only mean it was something he’d acquired after his disappearance.

Shinobu didn’t exactly understand the strange stone’s purpose, but there was little time to consider it anyhow.

“Now then, I have a debt to repay…to you rats!”

Gustav’s malevolent, bloodshot eyes swiveled toward where Shinobu and the others were hiding.


Flames began to gush from the duke’s body like a tidal wave and surged toward the three women. Shinobu had been considering a few angles from which to attack. However, that plan had to be tossed out the window. It was very clearly time to leave.

“Jeanne, run!”

They’d beaten Gustav before, but that unnatural strength he was emanating told Shinobu that going for a rematch would be a bad idea.

Jeanne appeared to share the sentiment.

“R-right! Elaine, with me!”


The three of them turned and fled. They headed back the way they’d come, trying desperately to escape the burning wave at their heels. The scorching tongues of flame refused to allow such an egress, however, forming burning hands to grasp at the trio. Hundreds of burning arms twisted and curled as they chased their targets down the corridor.

To gaze at the fiery shapes was to view the arms of the dead clawing their way up from hell. It was like a scene plucked from a nightmare. As if such a thing wasn’t frightening enough, the fire was fast, too. The hundreds of arms raced through the air like arrows and clawed after the fleeing women.

Escaping such pursuers required speed on par with Aoi’s. With Jeanne and Elaine in tow, Shinobu wasn’t going to make it.

“This is bad, Shinobu!” Jeanne cried.

“Th-they’re catching up!” Elaine added.

Shinobu, however—

“Don’t worry!”

—had a trick up her sleeve.

As they ran, she slammed the butt of her kunai into a particular section of the stone brick wall.

When she did, the brick sank in with a click. A moment later, a stone partition dropped from the ceiling between them and the flame.

“Wh-what was that?!”

“We’re in the secret basement of a fortress; having traps like that scattered about is a given.”

Shinobu didn’t just know about the structure’s hidden areas—she knew every inch of its construction from top to bottom. Naturally, that included traps, too.

Thanks to Shinobu’s immaculate preparation, the three of them managed to get aboveground safely. After emerging into the fort’s courtyard, the trio took the stone statue hiding the passageway and returned it to its original position so the flames couldn’t follow them.

“Hey! There they are! It’s those girls!”

Unfortunately, a search party composed of twenty of Conrad’s men immediately spotted them.

“Catch them, dead or alive!”


The soldiers readied their swords and spears at their Bronze Knight leader’s orders.

What awful timing. Shinobu clicked her tongue in irritation and drew a flash grenade. Before she had a chance to toss it, however, the ninja sensed something bubbling up from beneath her feet. Something hot.


Shinobu had shouted the words at the top of her lungs, as much to her friends as Conrad’s men.

“What’s she talking abou—? Huh?”

To their own misfortune, the soldiers, who hadn’t been privy to the events down below, didn’t react in time. A moment later, the earth exploded, and a torrent of flame erupted from underground, swallowing the soldiers whole.


Their fates were the same as Conrad’s. The fire refused to take their lives. Even as their bodies turned to cinders, the demonic flames continued to burn them alive. Then, the hellfire moved on to those who’d been fortunate enough to avoid the initial eruption.


“What the hell’s going ooooon?!”

“Th-there’s arms coming out of the flaaaAAAAAAARGH!!!!”

It grabbed the shoulders, necks, and legs of the poor men and began working its way through their bodies in turn. Eventually, the blaze grew unsatisfied with just the courtyard alone.

The fire split into hundreds of arms, then surged in through every window and opening in Uranus. Every occupant of the fortress was set aflame, and in the blink of an eye, the entire building was burning. As the fires rose, so too did screams from the people roasting alive within it.

Soldiers who wanted to go out on their own terms leaped from the windows one after another and toppled to the courtyard below. The lucky ones died, while others jumped from too low a height or lost their nerve before making the jump. Least fortunate of all were those whose falls should have been fatal, but they somehow survived. For any who yet drew breath, the horror was just beginning.

Even with their bodies charred to the bone, their senses remained unaffected. The burning agony never went away. All they could do was writhe on the ground like worms and beg desperately for death. The sheer malice of the spectacle drove Jeanne to tears. Moments ago, these were people who had been trying to kill her, and yet…

Nobody deserves to suffer a fate like that…! Jeanne could only ponder at how anyone could be so cruel. Even Gustav himself was human. Surely, he realized how much pain he was causing.

Unable to comprehend how one man was capable of such wicked things, Jeanne cried out with tears in her eyes, “Don’t stop running! The flames will chase you! Run! Get away from Uranus!! You all need to ruuuun!!”

Meanwhile, Elaine, who’d thought fast on her feet, returned from her stop to the stables.

“Mistress, I brought horses!! Please get on!”

“Good thinkin’, Elaine! Jeanne, c’mon!” Shinobu leaped atop one of the horses and called out to her friend.


Jeanne remained put, however, staring at the defiled soldiers crawling ever closer.



“ !”

The burning warriors were begging for death.

Honor demanding Jeanne grant those suffering souls an end to their misery, the Silver Knight drew her sword.



An earsplitting shout from Shinobu brought Jeanne back to her senses.

“Nobody deserves to die like that, and I get that you wanna help ’em. But there’s too many, and we can’t save them all! So c’mon…!”

“…Forgive me…!”

Turning away, Jeanne mounted Elaine’s steed. As she did, the flames consuming the fort reared and began to give chase, but the horses proved swifter. The three women broke away from the fiery arms and left Fort Uranus behind.

As she raced alongside the few soldiers who’d been fortunate enough to make it out alive, Shinobu pulled out her phone and called Tsukasa over in Dormundt. Thankfully, he answered immediately. Without even letting him say hello, Shinobu frantically explained the situation.

“Tsukes, things just got real ugly over here! Gustav’s alive! Yeah! Plus, I dunno how, but he got way stronger since the last time we fought! The Blue Brigade members in the fort were wiped out! A couple of ’em made it out with us, but given what Gustav is like now, you need to get ready for another Rage Soleil, or— Huh? Whaddaya…WHAT?!”

A look of shock crossed the ninja-journalist’s face.

“Shinobu?” Concerned for her friend, Jeanne rode up beside Shinobu, but she made a gesture for Jeanne not to worry about it.

“…Sure. That’s probably the only real option. Get it done!” With a tap, Shinobu ended the call.

“Who were you speaking to just now?” Jeanne wore a puzzled look. To people of a more primitive world, it must have looked like Shinobu was talking to herself.

“I’ll explain later,” Shinobu replied. “For now, we need to get everyone as far away from here as possible. Let’s see…over that hill should do it!”

“V-very well!” Jeanne agreed.

Their plan set, they drove the confused soldiers away from Fort Uranus.


“Kill…me… Please…kill…me…alreadyyyyy…”

Fort Uranus burned in magic fire. Soldiers crawled around the courtyard. Though their bodies were little more than skeletal frames now, death refused to claim them. Gustav stood among them, gazing at the fort’s open gate and licking his lips.

“Hmph. Some of the rats escaped?” He didn’t seem concerned in the slightest, however. His foes fleeing was but a trifling matter.

After Gustav had scuttled his way to Drachen, Neuro had embedded a chunk of some obsidian-colored stone in his chest.


Gustav drew out more power from the protruding bit of rock.

Give me fire, Gustav demanded. Summon unto me blazing flames and bind them into spears of calamity.

The spirits, forced to obey, molded themselves into four red spears. Each was identical to the Rage Soleil Gustav had used to burn a quarter of Dormundt to the ground.

“Fwa-ha-ha-ha! It boils! It seethes! Look at how many spirits this power can bind at once! Incredible…! With this, I can fight for His Grace better than ever before! I will serve him with every fiber of my being! There is no greater ecstasy! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!”

As he cackled, Gustav adorned the four floating spears with wind spirits.

“It matters not where you run, rats! Archride, Buchwald, Findolph, Gustav…the inferno of my rage will burn every tree and blade of grass in the north to the ground!”

Just as the duke made to hurl his deadly weapons, however, he suddenly paused.


When he looked up into air, Gustav saw something strange descending from the crimson-stained night sky.

“What’s that?” he grumbled.

There was something white shining up above the light from his flames.

A star? That must be it. It must be a shooting star, thought Gustav. If that was true, it was the strangest one he’d ever seen. Never in his life had Gustav borne witness to one that moved so quickly, nor one that looked to be growing gradually larger.

What’s going on here? Gustav strained his eyes to look at the thing approaching him. Now that it was closer, it appeared to be a pillar. What he’d thought to be a falling star was actually a jet of flame spurting from the back end of the post. Gustav recognized the object.

Didn’t one of those things destroy my Rage Soleil back in Dormundt—?

Just as the Fastidious Duke recalled what the object was, a surge of light and wind took all the rocks, trees, lives, sounds, and color—and annihilated them.


As Shinobu, Jeanne, and the surviving soldiers crested the hill in their desperate retreat from the flaming hands, an intense wave of sound struck them from behind with all the impact of a physical object.

“Wh-what was that?! Did something explode?!”

“H-hey! Look, there!”

Everyone turned around and stared in blank, abject shock.

While they’d all fled a good distance, Fort Uranus should’ve still been visible. The far visage of the mighty structure was gone, however. In its place was a gigantic mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke that climbed into the sky.

“What…what is that thing…?”

“I’ve never seen an explosion that big…”

“What the hell’s going on over there…?”

Soldiers trembled in fear.

However, the true terror came a bit later, when the mushroom cloud dissipated. Not a piece of Fort Uranus had been left standing. All that remained was a massive crater that had been carved into the ground.

“I—I don’t believe it… The entire fort got blown away, down to its foundation…?” Jeanne’s voice trembled as she looked down from atop the hill. The power it must have taken to destroy a structure that sturdy was mind-boggling. “I had no idea Gustav’s strength had grown to that extent… How are we meant to fight such a man…?”

“Ah, that’s not quite it,” Shinobu corrected.


“That explosion didn’t come from Gustav. We Seven Luminaries did that.”

“What…?! You caused that explosion?!”

Shinobu shook her head. “My friends back in Findolph did.”

“F-Findolph?! All the way up north?!”

“The empire isn’t the only one who can launch massively destructive attacks from multiple domains away. If we wanted to, we could blow up the imperial capital in an instant, all while sitting back in Findolph. All we’d need is that nuclear missile.”

The destruction wrought by the bomb could be felt all the way over in Port City Laurier.

The earth rumbled and shook. All the townspeople rushed outside to see what was going on, only to gawk at the mushroom cloud off on the distant horizon. High School Prodigy Masato Sanada and the slave girl he’d bought, Roo, were among that crowd, too. They’d come to Laurier to stock up on supplies.

“Look! It’s a big mushroom!” Roo declared.

“Ha-ha! Looks like our favorite politician’s gone and done it now! Guy’s not fuckin’ around!”

“Teacher, what is that? Do you know?”

“Yeah. That there’s a smoke signal.”

“A…smoke signal?”

Masato nodded and gave Roo an evil grin.

“You like gold, right, Li’l Roo?”


“Good answer.”

Masato let out a wry laugh and tousled her hair.

“Well, good news. We ain’t just gonna be making money anymore. We’re gonna be making money. Our own money, I mean, and mountains of it. It’s the best fun you’ll ever have.”

Far away from ground zero, in a Dormundt Manufacturing District lab, Ringo viewed the destruction from a targeting satellite. Once the smoke cleared, the image clearly showed that Fort Uranus was gone. All that remained was a blackened crater.

“Direct hit…confirmed.”

After making sure of that, Ringo turned to Tsukasa and told him the news. He nodded and thanked her.

“Shinobu reported the same thing. The operation was successful. Thank you, Ringo. Now, all the preparations to form our republic are in place.”

However, her reaction to his gratitude wasn’t quite what Tsukasa was looking for.


“You don’t seem too happy about it.”

Ringo gave him a dejected nod. Ever since he’d asked her to build the nuclear missile, she’d been deeply conflicted.

“Should we really have brought this power…this technology to this world…?”

She was at a moral quandary as an engineer.

In terms of destructive capability, guns and atomic bombs were on completely different levels. A nuke could kill tens of thousands of people with the push of a button. Would the presence of the High School Prodigies bring that world’s people anything but misfortune? Ringo wasn’t sure of the answer anymore.

“Ringo, do you know what it takes to found a nation?” Tsukasa asked.


“Nothing at all.”


“To put it another way, all you need is the will to do so. The thing about nation-building, as a concept, is that it’s so easy even a child can do it.”


“When you were a kid, did you ever build a secret base? Hypothetically, if a group of children were to declare that their secret base was an independent nation, it would technically be its own country at that moment. There would be no taxes, no annoying schoolwork, no nagging adults. In their land, the children would be kings. However, if a group of children really did something like that, the world wouldn’t just stand idly by.

“Even if they brought enough food with them to hole up for weeks, their parents would call the police, their base would be destroyed, and the children would receive a stern talking-to. With their sovereignty lost, their kingdom would crumble.

“Do you understand what I’m getting at? Founding a realm is easy. But holding on to one takes power.”

A country needed manufacturing power to keep itself functional. It needed bargaining power to negotiate with its neighbors. And it needed military power to avoid having to cave to outside forces.

“That war magic that torched Dormundt was a threat to our sovereignty. Once we form our republic, whether we go to war with the empire or reconcile with them, we absolutely need to get them to form an agreement banning the use of large-scale destructive magic like that. To do so…we need to demonstrate that we possess destructive power on par with, if not greater than, that war magic. Otherwise, they’ll never agree to our terms. After all, negotiations only work when both parties are on equal footing.”

When a nation that had nuclear arms bargained with one that didn’t, the former could strong-arm the latter with ease. The more powerful side always came away from the table with more. It was impossible for the strong and the weak to coexist on equal terms. The weapons changed with the era, but that law had remained ironclad throughout history. Not once had it been usurped.

As Japan’s prime minister, Tsukasa had seen proof of as much, firsthand. That was why he was able to speak with confidence. Humanity would never relinquish power; it was something the species was incapable of.

“By retaliating on Gustav for his use of war magic, we’ve demonstrated both our power and our propensity for retribution. This was the best outcome possible. Now we’ve opened the path for negotiations with the empire. So…”


Tsukasa paused for a second and squeezed Ringo’s hands tight in his own.

“…I believe that this technology will prove to be a blessing for the people of this world.”

He spoke with a confident tone and an indomitable smile.


For a single moment, however, Ringo saw something else flicker in his eyes. Anyone who’d spent less time with Tsukasa Mikogami wouldn’t have noticed it. His words were confident. His expression was dauntless. Behind the strong front he was putting up, anguish and grief were lurking in his eyes. That was when Ringo realized something.

Those pained feelings were what had felt so off about Tsukasa at the end of their date.

Using force to rein in force.

Tsukasa Mikogami blamed himself for being unable to come up with a better option. He didn’t think their current outcome was the best one possible—far from it. The young prime minister was a political genius. Undoubtedly, he believed himself capable of coming up with a way to stage a revolution that didn’t involve such violence. This was a young man tormented by his own powerlessness, yet he never allowed it to show.

Any doubt or hesitation from Tsukasa would cause the faith of those who looked to him to waver, and he refused to let that happen. He did not allow himself to share his burden with others.

…Ah, I see.

Ringo thought back. She recalled what Tsukasa had said when he first asked her to make the nuclear weapons.

“Ringo…there’s something I need you to do.”

The request had been framed as an order. Tsukasa had done that intentionally. That way, he could take all the responsibility and blame on himself. It allowed Ringo to hate Tsukasa instead of hating herself. What a sad, lonely sort of strength that was.

Now…I get it.

Back when Ringo had first heard about what Lyrule did, her immediate reaction had been that it would’ve been impossible for her to do the same. Now, though, she understood. Lyrule had forced her way into Tsukasa’s heart.

At the time, Ringo had been shocked at how bold and aggressive Lyrule acted. She’d had it backward, however.

Tsukasa…is a person who mustn’t be left alone.

He was of the sort that would shoulder everything on his own, even if it crushed him. Even when the anguish made his heart ache or tempted him to break down and weep, he would continue enduring it in solitude. The only way Tsukasa allowed others in his life was if they reached out and took his hand themselves.

The moment she realized that, Ringo’s body moved on its own. She took Tsukasa’s right hand, which was still grasping hers, laid her left hand on top of it, and stared into his eyes.

“I don’t…hold it against you.”


She could see that her words had shaken him. Ringo wanted Tsukasa to know that she saw the pain that was eating him up inside. He tried to pull himself together…but Ringo refused to give him a chance to. Her own words were tottering, but her tone was firm, and her gaze was locked straight on him.

“I know…how it is…for you. I know…how hard…you work…to make other people happy. So…” Ringo’s grip on Tsukasa’s hand tightened. “It’s all right…to rely on me more…okay?”

Long ago, Tsukasa had offered Ringo help when she was alone and on the verge of disappearing completely. Now it was her turn to support him, because she loved him. Not once had those feelings ever wavered. It was the strength born from that emotion that let her move past the walls of her anxiety.

A look of surprise crossed Tsukasa’s face. The intensity of Ringo’s words was out of character for her. A moment later, though, he heaved a self-deprecating sigh.

“…Oh, man. It looks like Winona was right—I’m much worse at keeping secrets than I thought I was.”

Back when Lyrule was kidnapped, Winona had been able to see right through him, too. Tsukasa thought it something to be ashamed of. It wasn’t right to burden others with his own suffering and internal conflict. As he saw it, it was pathetic.

Tsukasa wondered if perhaps he needed to reconsider himself somewhat. By all accounts, he should’ve felt mortified, but Ringo’s words filled him with joy.

“Thank you. I’m blessed to have such an amazing friend,” Tsukasa said from the bottom of his heart. The smile he wore wasn’t his usual business one. This time it was an honest reflection of his feelings.

Ringo responded with a slightly disappointed smile…then murmured, “…That’s fine, for now.”

“What is?” asked Tsukasa.


Ringo hadn’t meant to say that out loud. After being more assertive than she’d ever been in her life, Ringo’s brain must have unconsciously taken the ball and run with it.

Upon realizing that Tsukasa heard her—


—Ringo went as red as a lobster.

Now that her temporary confidence had worn off and she was back to her normal self, the embarrassment from everything she’d just said, not to mention the physical contact with Tsukasa’s hand, hit her like a tidal wave. Ringo couldn’t bear to look at his face anymore.

“I—I, um, forgot something! I’d b-better…go get it!”

Frantically pulling away from Tsukasa, Ringo fabricated a flimsy excuse and rushed from the room with her face buried in her hands and steam practically exploding from her head.

As she made her escape, however, the genius inventor was suddenly met with resistance.


The moment Ringo left the room, she slammed into something bouncy and recoiled backward. Whatever it’d been, it was soft and round.

Ringo pried her hands from her face and looked to see what it was. The sight struck her speechless. Standing before Ringo with a pale look on her face…was Lyrule. Ringo’s eyes went wide at the unexpected visitor, and Lyrule’s lips trembled.

“U-um…I’m sorry! I wasn’t trying to peep or anything! Keine asked me to give you a message, and I, um…I happened to spot you two holding hands…and it startled me, so…I-I’m sorry for i-i-interrupting…!”

Lyrule turned and fled, her hair whirling as she ran. The elf girl didn’t know what to feel. She’d just come face-to-face with something she’d never suspected. Now that she knew of it, Lyrule wished she could forget. Little droplets cascaded from the corners of her eyes.

In that instant, both girls became fully aware that they had a rival they needed to overcome.

“Oh, goodness. To think they settled things before I could even send in my reinforcements. Can’t say I saw that one coming.”

In Drachen, atop the imperial castle’s highest steeple, Imperial Grandmaster Neuro ul Levias gazed at the light of the explosion and let out a sarcastic laugh.

“That much firepower, though? To kill one man? I suppose that’ll serve as a check against our war magic for the time being.”

It was clever; Neuro had to concede that much—ruthless as well.

Clearly, the enemy leader was quite the opponent. All it took was a single glance for Neuro to understand Tsukasa’s message.

“More importantly, though…those flames are not of this world.”

Neuro’s dark golden eyes gleamed malevolently as he smiled. He’d had a hunch ever since he’d received word that there was a group calling themselves the Seven Luminaries.

“So, you still insist on standing in our way, Yggdra?”

At that moment, the moon peered out from between the clouds, faintly illuminating the steeple. Neuro’s shadow, faint though it was, appeared decidedly inhuman.

It wasn’t until much later that the High School Prodigies would come to learn that the empire’s true darkness was far deeper and more ebon than they could’ve possibly imagined.

The Order of the Seven Luminaries and the Freyjagard Empire weren’t the only ones who witnessed the High School Prodigies’ display of might.

“ ”

On the east side of the empire, there was a forbidden forest where none dared to tread. High off the ground, atop the bough of one of its massive trees, a girl sat and gazed off at the horizon. Her hair was darker than the blackest night. She wore a kimono fashioned from red and black cloth and sported a long pair of ears. In one hand, she held an elegant nodachi greatsword bound by a cord adorned with a decorative bell on its end.

Another young woman climbed after her and called out with a frightened look on her face, “E-eep! It’s so high! Lady Kaguya, we’re exposed up here! What if the imperials spot us?”

The one apparently named Kaguya didn’t turn to look at her companion. Her blue eyes remained fixed on the distant northern horizon.

It was much too far from the blast site to make anything out, but Kaguya could feel it.

She could hear the spirits’ commotion.

“The udumbara blooms…”


Not understanding what Kaguya was saying, her companion voiced her confusion.

Finally, the girl turned and said, “The world is stirring. Hibari, I have a message for you to convey to Shura.”

Her declaration was quiet but brimming with conviction.

“Tell her I make for the north.”

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