Wortenia Senki (LN) - Volume 10 - Chapter 1

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Chapter 1: Akimitsu Kuze

“I’m not sure if you will find it to your taste, but...”

Zheng and Koichiro had returned to the garden’s gazebo. Zheng picked up a thermos prepared especially for him and poured some tea into a cup. As steam rose from the cup, the distinct scent of mint filled the air. One of the maids cultivated mint leaves in the estate’s garden and used them to make this tea. It was mixed with honey, granting the tea a soft, natural sweetness that refreshed the heart.

Zheng always enjoyed a cup of this tea after a training session. Since the leaves were cultivated by one person, it wasn’t available in great amounts, but it was of fine quality. And yet perhaps it was a bit too plain for Liu Daijin’s guest of honor. Its quality was respectable, but it was still raised and brewed by the hands of an amateur.

Koichiro, however, didn’t seem to be concerned one bit by this. He took a pleasant sip of the tea and said, “I appreciate your concern, but I don’t mind. Tea of this quality is delicious in its own way.”

Koichiro had a fondness for unusual blends. He was especially weak to home-made brews like this one. He personally preferred Japanese tea with his Japanese sweets and black tea or coffee with his cakes, but this unfamiliar flavor was one he found quite interesting.

Herbal tea was only the tip of Koichiro’s unusual pursuits. He’d enjoyed sampling beverages the Japanese hardly ever tried, like the South American maté tea and the African rooibos tea. The same held true for his taste in alcohol. He had tried rare Japanese sake, as well as an assortment of rum, brandy, and liqueur.

By nature, Koichiro tended to adhere to very particular preferences, but he also knew not to limit his interests and seek out the homogenous. Of course, most of those drinks he’d only tried a sip of and then placed them back on his shelf, where they would gather dust for years. But overall, Koichiro was broad-minded and unconstrained.

Zheng didn’t know that, though, and as such was on tenterhooks. After all, hospitality depended on how much one could prepare beforehand.

Maybe I should’ve taken him back to the estate regardless...?

Zheng couldn’t help but feel anxious. It wasn’t that the gazebo was unfit for entertaining a guest; it was part of Liu Daijin’s garden and was cleaned every day. The problem wasn’t with the place but with Zheng himself. He was dripping with sweat, and while he’d wiped himself off with a towel, his clothes still clung his skin.

Thanks to his physical disposition, Zheng knew his body odor wasn’t too strong, but self-appraisal wasn’t enough to put him at ease in this particular instance. He wasn’t in a state to be entertaining an honored guest. When Koichiro told Zheng he had something to tell him, he ought to have proposed that they return to the estate. But Koichiro said he just wanted to have a short talk at the gazebo, and given their positions, Zheng couldn’t refuse a request from Liu Daijin’s guest.

Still, I’ve heard of his prowess before, but seeing it myself...

Zheng glanced in Koichiro’s direction as he brought the teacup to his lips. Only a few minutes ago, the two of them were locked in a battle to the death. Zheng had delivered his punch with the intent of killing his opponent. Yet there wasn’t so much as a hint of bloodlust or fatigue from the man composedly sipping tea before him. He was as tranquil as the surface of a lake.

Calm and serene, indeed...

Even if their child were to swing a fist at them, no parent would seriously fight back. The difference in strength between them was too great. The power balance between Koichiro and Zheng was very much the same.

I suppose I’m no match for him. Not until I become an ascendent. 

An ascendent. That was the name for those who had reached Level 7 in the guild—those who had opened the Sahasrara chakra, the seventh chakra located at the top of the head. In Yoga, those who unlocked this chakra were considered saints, men who had awakened to the light.

In this world, however, chakras were related to the flow of prana within the body. Though the idea may have been similar, it was fundamentally different from Rearth’s interpretation. If nothing else, it had no relation to any religious practice. Still, the fact remained that breathing techniques and Yoga were effective methods for controlling the prana one absorbed.

Either way, there was no doubt that those who gained the title of ascendent were considered to be the most powerful humans alive. As proof, no person affiliated with the continent’s assorted countries had achieved that title.

At least, that was what the Organization knew. And the Organization could gain information on any person, be they lowly peasant or sovereign king. Zheng trusted this intelligence. If any rumor of someone achieving Level 7 began spreading through the taverns, the Organization would spare no expense to confirm its authenticity.

After all, the Organization was made up of people from Rearth, people extremely efficient at absorbing prana. Even among them, only three of the elders—Liu Daijin being one of them—had become ascendents.

There was also the Organization’s greatest enemy, the Church of Meneos. While the Organization didn’t know the full scope of their forces and could only estimate how vast their ranks were, they most likely had only one or two ascendents in their ranks.

An ascendent was a truly powerful presence in this world, standing as strong and mighty as the greatest and most menacing of monsters. They were still human, of course. They would bleed when wounded, and they could die from hemorrhaging if not treated. They boasted greater physical strength and stamina than any ordinary human, but if the thread of their life were to be cut, they would die like anyone else.

But if they knew how to protect themselves, a single ascendent could match an entire country’s army. The phrase “one-man army” didn’t do justice to their power. Perhaps they couldn’t kill every soldier in an army of ten thousand, but they could certainly scatter it. To that end, ascendents held the key to the military balance in this continent.

Zheng had assumed Koichiro Mikoshiba was an ascendent too. He was both right and wrong at the same time.

Naturally... He’s an ascendent, and at the same time, he’s one of the precious few who have gone even beyond that. He’s at the level only a mere handful of this world’s most celebrated heroes have reached. A transcendent.

If an ascendent stood at the peak of human potential, a transcendent—as the name implied—went beyond human capability. Calling them gods was perhaps an exaggeration, but they were undoubtedly superhuman.

Just as that thought crossed Zheng’s mind, Koichiro finished his tea and finally parted his lips to speak.

“It seems you’re misunderstanding something, so let me say this. The attack you launched against me back there was a spectacular blow. You focused your strength well and transmitted the force smoothly. As a martial artist, you are already more than just an expert.”

As he spoke, Koichiro regarded Zheng with his right eye closed. It wasn’t often that Koichiro praised someone so openly. He was a harsh appraiser when it came to martial arts. Had his grandson Ryoma been present, he probably would’ve been rendered speechless, wondering if Koichiro had been struck with some kind of fever.

Zheng, however, simply forced a smile and shook his head. “But you blocked it all too easily...” he muttered, his voice heavy with disappointment and regret.

Zheng had trained under Liu Daijin in Bajiquan. Bajiquan was a school praised for its powerful punching techniques, and it was known for peerless strength when it came to close combat. Zheng saw himself as a successor to the same school practiced by Li Shuwen, the famous martial artist known as the God Spear.

Born in China during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, Li Shuwen was a master of Bajiquan who had carved his name into history and gained particular glory. Devoting his days to training, he decided to focus his efforts. Rather than mastering many techniques, he polished a single technique to the point of deadly precision.

One story told of how he deemed his master’s spear techniques to be pretentious and meaningless, nearly leading to his excommunication. It had happened more than a century ago, but it was similar to a child protesting their parents’ words. At that point in time, a martial arts master was very much seen as a parent. It took a great deal of faith and resolve to contradict one’s master.

Because of his singular focus, many stories of Li Shuwen’s feats concentrated on how he slew other martial artists with a single punch—a blow that needed no second strike. He was an ambitious master martial artist who had devoted his life to developing that single blow.

It was only natural that Zheng would be so discouraged. He had used what was essentially the same blow, and it had been blocked all too easily. Even a transcendent couldn’t escape such a strike unharmed.

Seeing this, however, Koichiro simply laughed, his voice echoing loudly around the gazebo.

“Why are you laughing?”

The words slipped from Zheng’s lips, his voice as low and thick as steel. His fists shook and anger surged up from the pit of his stomach like raging magma. He had to actively suppress his emotions so they wouldn’t reveal themselves openly. Even if this was an honored guest, Zheng couldn’t let this insult stand. Had he not felt any anger at Koichiro’s behavior here, he might as well have given up on his life as a martial artist and retired to the countryside.

Zheng glared indignantly at Koichiro. Koichiro simply laughed again.

After chucking for a few seconds, Koichiro bowed his head to Zheng. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to insult you. Your reaction was just so similar to Zhong Jian’s, and I found it too amusing.”

“Similar to Liu Daijin?”

“Yes. Much like a parent and child, a teacher and apprentice seem to be quite alike.”

Koichiro narrowed his eyes, as if thinking back fondly on some old memory. The days of his youth, which he had spent alongside Liu Zhong Jian, surfaced in his mind.

“You’re already quite strong, Zheng,” Koichiro suddenly said. “That’s not surprising since you’re the star pupil Zhong Jian entrusted with his teachings. I can see how you serve as the leader of the Organization’s Hunting Dogs.”

Koichiro looked at Zheng, his eyes crinkling. It gave him joy to see his sworn friend’s student mature into such a skilled martial artist. It was clear that the seed Liu had planted had budded and was maturing to full bloom.

“Still, there is room for improvement,” Koichiro said.

Zheng eyed him curiously. “Improvement, you say?”

“Your grasp of the basics, from your muscle strength to the transmission of force in your limbs is solid. Your body is developed well enough. And most importantly, you’re unusually talented in controlling how your martial thaumaturgy enhances your body. No one could take that punch and walk away from it.”

Koichiro picked up his cup and directed a sharp look at Zheng. He wasn’t lying. If nothing else, had that punch hit Koichiro directly, it definitely would have killed him. In terms of sheer mastery of the martial arts, Zheng’s attack was flawless. The problem, though, lay in its practicality in true combat. No matter how powerful a blow might be, it meant nothing if it couldn’t hit the target.

“But you were so fixated on the blow’s strength, you stopped at the first level of Xing Yi Quan. Those who do that typically tend to rely on a single powerful hit to beat their opponent down. On top of that, they tend to assume no one could ever block or evade their blows. As proof, the moment I blocked your attack, you froze in surprise. Though, I suppose I can’t blame you for thinking so. There’s hardly anyone in this world capable of blocking that punch of yours.”

Zheng wanted to curl up in shame. This was something Liu Daijin had told him, as well.

Force could be described as the relationship between the source of the attack’s kinetic energy—the fist in this case—and the surface it struck. For example, Chen-style Tai Ji Quan employed a technique known as silk-reeling. It focused on the body’s twisting movement to produce force. Xing Yi Quan, on the other hand, focused on the loss of gravity caused by exhaustion to produce force.

This might sound almost supernatural, but the kinetic energy produced by the muscles was called “force” by Chinese martial arts. It wasn’t a form of energy in and of itself but rather a method to regulate the flow and release of kinetic energy within one’s body. In other words, it was based on real physics and the laws of nature.

The first level of Xing Yi Quan focused on manifesting that force into a tangible form. It boosted the speed and impact of a blow, proportionate to the force behind it. The second level focused on the instantaneous gathering of the internal forces in the body—such as the heartbeat and breathing. It centered on acceleration based on the distance to the target.

The two levels were different in essence. The first momentarily boosted strength, making a blow sharper and heavier, while the second resulted in a duller but more unpredictable transmission of force. The fact that a blow’s speed was not influenced by its weight and strength allowed the user to confuse their opponent and catch them off guard. Chinese martial arts tended to focus on the first level over the second, but both had the same objective. So long as they could kill the opponent, both stages were equally valid.

Zheng has talent and plenty of combat experience. But that’s why he focuses on strength. Hopefully today will make him as cautious as he once was, when he was still a helpless apprentice.

Zheng’s greatest flaw was that he lacked equals to contend with. Being unrivaled was a wonderful thing in and of itself, but it could make one overconfident. Once such haughtiness overtook a person, it was difficult to fix that behavior. At worst, this conceit could lead Zheng to altogether forget the possibility that an unexpected opponent might snuff out his life in combat.

That said, people often ignored those kinds of warnings. Based on the personality of the person in question and how they worded it, it might even invite backlash. One only ever understood the importance of knowledge and technique through necessity.

A person pressured by their parents and teachers performed differently compared to when they voluntarily did so to enter a certain university or career. That wasn’t to say Zheng didn’t understand what Liu had taught him. But he was so fixated on achieving a blow that needed no second strike that all he thought of was strength.

He wasn’t altogether wrong, though. A blow that could instantly kill any opponent was the most efficient weapon imaginable. But now he was faced with an opponent he could not fell with that strike. It was a wall he’d have to overcome as a martial artist.

Liu Daijin had asked Koichiro to serve as that wall for Zheng.

“Perhaps you should reconsider your form. I’m sure you’ll find the way if you do.”

Koichiro’s words triggered something in Zheng and he realized everything.

Could it be...?

“Did Liu send you?”

Koichiro scratched his chin awkwardly. “Let us simply say you are graced with a good teacher, Zheng.”

Zheng felt something warm build up behind his eyes. At first he thought Koichiro was using his superior strength to toy with him, but as it turned out, that wasn’t his intent. Zheng’s vision clouded over and his shoulders started to shake. He wiped his face with his sleeve, fell to his knees, and banged his forehead against the flagstones.

He understood Liu Daijin’s intentions now.

Seeing this, Koichiro nodded profoundly. He should be fine from here on out. Now, it’s time to advance my own business here...

Having done what Liu Daijin asked him to do, Koichiro returned to his own objectives.

“Now, if it’s all right, I would like to return to the main topic. Would you mind if we had a little chat?”

“A chat?” Zheng asked curiously, rising to his feet.

“Mm.” Koichiro nodded. “I accepted Liu’s request because I wanted to help my sworn friend’s student, but I also had my own reasons to speak with you.”

Seeing Koichiro’s expression turn grim, Zheng felt his own features harden. “Well...” he muttered, seemingly at a loss for words.

“My apologies,” Koichiro said, noticing the look on Zheng’s face. “Zhong Jian has told me a little already, but there were a few things he wouldn’t expand on. So in the interest of objectivity, I thought I would ask your opinion, as his future successor.”

“I see,” Zheng responded, his eyes narrowing like blades. “That kind of chat. However...”

Aside from being Liu Daijin’s student and aide, Zheng Motoku wore another hat—that of his successor within the Organization. In other words, he was set to be one of the twelve bosses of the Organization that spanned the entire continent. The only ones who knew of it at this time, however, were Liu and Zheng. On the surface, Zheng served as Liu’s bodyguard and assistant due to his advanced age.

The biggest reason they maintained this facade was because they dreaded antagonism within the Organization. Since they were all equally victims forcibly called to this world, they didn’t want to consider this a possibility. But there were factions within the Organization, and a leader of one of those factions could be marked for assassination.

“Understood. Ask anything of me. But...” Zheng trailed off.

“I understand your position,” Koichiro said, nodding. “I might have been part of the Organization once, but for half a century I was considered dead. You can’t disclose your secrets to me. If I ask a question you can’t answer, simply say so and I won’t pursue it any further.”

Koichiro was once a high-ranking member, but an absence of fifty years was simply too long. They could accept him into the Organization again, that much was for sure, but they wouldn’t immediately reinstate him as one of the highest-ranking members.

Of course, with his achievements and past glory and his position as an honored guest of Liu’s, Koichiro could probably force Zheng to answer. Doing so would likely force Zheng into a compromising position, though. As such, it was absolutely necessary that Koichiro made this statement.

“I appreciate that you’re so forthcoming with regards to this,” Zheng said, bowing his head.

Nodding, Koichiro began speaking of something that had bothered him during his exchange with Liu the other day.

“I felt something was off during my conversation with Zhong Jian. From the sound of things, the Organization is still divided.”

Zheng scowled. Koichiro’s first question was already one he was uncomfortable answering. But he realized there wasn’t much point in hiding things now.

“Yes. I hate to admit it, but...” Zheng said, his tone thick with shame and displeasure. It was as if an elder and senior of his was blaming him for his own personal inadequacy and incompetency.

Koichiro, however, simply shook his head slowly. “No. Even in my time, the Organization wasn’t unified. And given how much larger it is now, it must be that much harder to remain united.”

The Organization was formed to secure the well-being and rights of those summoned from Rearth. It was like a benefit society for otherworlders. But the more otherworlders joined the Organization, the harder it became for it to remain unified.

After all, the world from which they originated had 196 countries with a population of 7.3 billion people, though the exact number was uncertain as not all countries accurately managed their census. Those summoned to this world were chosen at random from that unfathomable number. Clearly, there would be differences of race, even if they were all united under the title of “otherworlders.”

There were caucasian otherworlders. Otherworlders that were people of color. Asian otherworlders. Arabic otherworlders. External appearance alone divided them into groups. Add to that factors like facial features, build, hair color... Appearance alone created several dozen groups already.

Dividing them by country separated them into almost two hundred groups, and every country differed in economic status, public order, and religion. Environment would also play a role. Some countries were more developed than others, and some people were born to more affluent households. Some grew up and studied abroad. Meanwhile, others came from the opposite position altogether.

This heterogeneous class of people called otherworlders were all gathered under the framework called the Organization. Their ways of thinking naturally differed. They led different lives and experienced different things. And this created a great problem for those who led the Organization...

“Based on what Zhong Jian told me, the Organization has divided into a radical and a moderate faction?” Koichiro asked.

Zheng nodded silently.

There were currently three groups prevalent in the Organization. One group believed that the Organization ought to assertively interfere in this world’s strife and increase the group’s influence over the continent. They were considered the radicals. In their eyes, the Organization needed to reform this world to suit the otherworlders’ needs. The moderates, in contrast, believed the Organization should keep its interference with the continent’s wars to a minimum and seek peace and coexistence while maintaining the status quo. The third group were those who adhered to neither of those approaches.

In all honesty, no one could tell which of the three had the right answer. Not even Liu Daijin, leader of the moderate faction, could answer that question. A radical reform would do nothing but create opposition, which would cost the lives of many. But if the situation didn’t change soon, the warped nature of this world would plunge more innocents into this hellish environment. A quick, radical reform or a slow approach of reconciliation—only in hindsight would one be able to say which of the two was best. The problem was that even the twelve elders of the Organization were split in their opinions on the matter.

“I see... Assertively changing the social structure of this world. I suppose that would be the conclusion one comes to if they cannot return to our world...” Koichiro said pensively.

To someone from their world, this Earth was essentially hell. The social structure was simply too different—in a bad way. One could almost call it too archaic. Someone from a feudal time period might have been able to adapt, but a person from a more modern society would struggle to do so.

Even accounting for how countries developed differently, this was true of almost all otherworlders, especially now in the twenty-first century. Most countries upheld ideals of freedom and equality, where human rights were at the forefront. But when faced with the reality that they couldn’t go back home, the otherworlders would have to adapt to this world. They had little choice but to do so.

“I believe it was the radicals that helped with founding the O’ltormea Empire, yes?” Koichiro asked.

“Correct,” Zheng replied. “We’ve lent them all the aid we could as an organization, but the radicals still hold the initiative. Even now they have a great deal of influence over the higher echelons in O’ltormea.”

“My only memories of O’ltormea are of a small country in the center of the continent that repeatedly begged for assistance against invasions... No one saw them as important at the time.”

Zheng nodded. Anyone who knew of O’ltormea’s situation at the time would be shocked at how much it’s grown.

“It’s expanded to the point where it’s considered one of this continent’s big three. The radicals must have invested a great deal into helping them,” Koichiro said, scoffing.

The O’ltormea Empire’s predecessor, the old Kingdom of O’ltormea, was weak to the point of ridicule. It had little territory and no exports of note. Its only industries were the standard ones—farming crops, raising livestock, and mining a handful of iron mines. They had just enough to be self-sufficient, but nothing more than that. With no commodities to sell to other countries, they would lack the funds to import necessary supplies should a drought or natural disaster occur. Their national power was diminutive.

The only thing going for them, as it were, was that they were a mountainous kingdom with little economic prowess; they didn’t need to dread invasions from their neighbors. To the surrounding countries, the kingdom would take some effort to topple but would yield little return. There were other, more lucrative countries to prey upon.

But as poor as the country was, its ruling class still sought prosperity and pleasure. The nobles used their authority to rule as they pleased. And not only did the royals do nothing to stop them, they even egged them on so they would maintain hold over the throne.

All of this changed after Koichiro’s disappearance, when the old Kingdom of O’ltormea invaded and occupied its neighbor, the Kingdom of Tenne. Like a disease that rapidly ravaged an unprepared patient, the Kingdom of O’ltormea spread through the center of the continent, expanding its borders.

The question of how Lionel Eisenheit—then only the third prince of the kingdom—won the war with the Kingdom of Tenne and began that rapid expansion was one of the greatest mysteries in the western continent’s history. The truth behind it, however, was painfully anti-climactic.

The old Kingdom of O’ltormea had an ally backing it, an ally powerful enough to ensure victory. A rather disappointing explanation for such a grand feat, perhaps. But the Kingdom of O’ltormea was in a grave situation. It was like a jug with a hole, and the Organization continually fed it water—just enough to remain full.

Still, though the Organization at that time might have possessed vast financial prowess, its coffers weren’t limitless. It was clear the Organization’s leaders acted with a great deal of resolve and courage. Weakened by its faction disputes, the Organization as a whole attempted to recover its strength. And so they made a desperate gamble on an unlikely horse.

That’s what Zhong Jian told me, at least...

Prior to the counter-summoning ritual’s failure, the Organization was divided into two factions. The homecoming faction actively strove to use the ritual to return home despite fully realizing its flaws. Liu Daijin, by contrast, led the opposition faction. They were against the use of the counter-summoning ritual.

Those two factions were locked in a dispute. A military clash occurred when the homecoming faction tried to force the ritual’s activation. Many of Koichiro and Liu’s comrades fought against one another, each in the name of the justice they upheld. And it all ended in tragedy for Koichiro Mikoshiba and his subordinates.

As a result, the homecoming faction sealed the counter-summoning ritual away and officially announced that its use was to be strictly forbidden. In other words, they gave up on returning home. The opposition faction accepted this decision, and so the schism was mended.

Truth be told, neither faction had a choice. They had to reconcile. Given the state of affairs at the time, any further infighting would have caused the Organization to fall apart. Some in the opposition faction did call for the execution of members of the homecoming faction, to set an example, but most of the opposition faction sympathized with the homecoming faction’s motives. They were all equally victims, summoned to this world against their will. Of course they wished to return home.

However, at the same time, the counter-summoning ritual incident left the Organization with a bleeding wound, and so the call for execution was seriously considered. But even within the opposition faction, some asked that the homecoming faction be pardoned. Some requested it out of empathy; others feared that losing so many members would weaken the Organization further. Most importantly, they all feared the Church of Meneos’s presence.

After much debate, Liu Zhong Jian and his opposition faction chose to reconcile with the homecoming faction, electing to rebuild the Organization—not knowing that this outcome would only spark more conflict.

Koichiro sighed. It wasn’t their best decision... They should have at least ensured that someone was in place to keep an eye on the other faction or to prepare a chance for both factions to exchange opinions. 

Liu Daijin—that was how Liu Zhong Jian came to be known. The title of Daijin meant “The Great and Wise.” His tolerant, merciful nature, as well as his ability to lead the Organization for as long as he did, earned him this title.

However, that same tolerance could be exploited. He had a tendency to believe in the good in people. This wasn’t a flaw in and of itself; if nothing else, a tolerant man was preferable to one who would only suspect and doubt others’ intentions. But Liu was in charge of the Organization. He guided and commanded people.

When Koichiro was by his side, that wasn’t a problem. He could always cover and compensate for what his friend lacked. But with Koichiro gone to the other side of the dimensional interstice, there was no one who realized Liu Daijin’s flaws and could cover for them like he did. That gap led to the current divide between the moderate and radical factions.

“And? Who leads the radical faction now?” Koichiro asked, voicing his greatest doubt. This was something Liu Daijin would not tell him no matter how many times he asked.

Still, his face told the whole story, Koichiro thought, remembering the bitter, agonized expression on his old friend’s face.

In truth, he didn’t want to dishonor Liu’s will by asking that question. But given his situation, he had to confirm what was going on.

“His name is Kuze...” Zheng said gravely. “Master Akimitsu Kuze.”

Koichiro closed his eyes. It was as he’d suspected. He realized why Liu refused to speak of it.

It really is him... 

All the pieces clicked into place.

Koichiro nodded. “I should have assumed he’d survived.”

Akimitsu Kuze was once a friend of Koichiro—even closer than Liu Zhong Jian. They were close in age, they were both Japanese, and they both came from a family of traditional martial artists. Both were summoned at roughly the same time and entered into the Organization’s protection by similar circumstances. Of course, Koichiro had many friends in his past. Kuze and Liu were only two of his old companions, and Koichiro would lay down his life for any of them. But if he had to choose just one of them, he wouldn’t hesitate to choose Akimitsu Kuze.

Koichiro had fought many battles in his past, and Kuze was at his side for all of them. During the early days of the Organization, Koichiro was considered the spear that felled many of the Organization’s foes, but he was always accompanied by Akimitsu Kuze—the shield of the Organization—who fought as his companion.

No, not a shield. He was a dagger, laced with poison.

Either way, the fact remained that Kuze had brought the Organization more spoils of war than any other member.

But their close friendship met with a critical break one day—the day Koichiro found himself thrown back into his home world, in the midst of a battle surrounding the use of the counter-summoning spell developed by the genius researcher Adelina Berezhnaya.

Akimitsu... You still can’t forgive this world, can you...?

He could still remember the agony and hatred on Akimitsu Kuze’s face. Out of all his comrades, Kuze was the one most adamant about returning home. Everyone in the Organization shared this objective, but in Kuze’s case, his passion burned differently than the rest.

It wasn’t simple hatred for this hellish world. Kuze had a clear, plain reason to return to Japan at all costs. He was the eldest son of wealthy parents who lived near the Kyoto prefecture. His father was stern but intellectual, and his mother was a devoted woman who supported his father at every turn. He also had a sister eight years his junior.

Since infancy, he had been instructed in the family’s traditional martial arts. Though their training was taxing and severe, it was still an ideal household. But the more ideal something was, the more fragile it proved to be when the moment came for everything to shatter.

One day, a man went on a maddened frenzy under the influence of stimulant drugs, stabbing innocent pedestrians in broad daylight. Ten people died and seven were gravely injured in this gruesome incident. It went on to make headlines. Koichiro still remembered this crime, half a century later; the sheer cruelty left a vivid impression on him.

Kuze’s parents were among those who died in that incident.

Kuze was a graduate student when he lost his parents in this shocking, terrible manner. Kuze lived with his sister, acting as her surrogate parent. The only silver lining was that their affluent status meant they could live together in relative financial stability.

But even without monetary problems, their lives were not peaceful. Their relatives sought to claim the fortune left by Kuze’s parents. Distant relatives they only saw once a year suddenly began pestering them to no end. Having been a graduate student at the time, Kuze was old enough to understand the ways of the world. He was only a literature student, but he knew enough to rely on his acquaintances to hire a lawyer.

That was only a temporary solution, though. His greedy relatives weren’t going to disappear. With Kuze gone, they would once again swarm around his sister, Akie, to snatch the inheritance from her like vultures. Kuze wasn’t sure she’d have the power to fight them off. Even if she did, he couldn’t simply overlook the situation and leave her to overcome this alone. His brotherly affection wouldn’t allow it.

But what enraged Kuze more than his relatives’ heartless greed were the hyenas from the mass media. They would continually rub salt into the wounded hearts of the bereaved families. They would visit their home day and night, demanding interviews. When the media coverage was at its most intense, the vast grounds of the Kuze estate were so surrounded by reporters one couldn’t enter or leave. Their neighbors looked on with gazes of pity mixed with curiosity, treating them like lepers. Switching on the television also chipped away at their patience. All they’d see was commentators analyzing the incident that claimed their parents’ lives despite knowing nothing about the situation.

The part that shocked Koichiro most about Kuze’s story was that the media caught wind of the Kuze family’s traditional martial arts and some people went on to paint the incident as if his father was somehow to blame for not subduing the culprit. The media hosts did have enough semblance of dignity to rebuke those accusations, but once Kuze heard of this slander, he couldn’t pretend like he hadn’t.

In this day and age, the horrible damage media attention could inflict on a person had drawn the public’s eye and was being more closely examined. But the information society of that time was not quite as modern. The only outlets were television and the newspaper. An individual circulating information freely on their own was a distant dream. There were no computers, no online message boards, and no social networks. A single hashtag couldn’t spread information across the globe like it can today. Unless other reporters decided to make a scoop out of the damage the media caused, it wasn’t seen as a problem. And so the only thing Kuze could do at the time was protect his sister and wait for the storm to pass.

Sadly, his attempts resulted in the worst possible conclusion.

Akie’s physical disposition never was favorable, and the emotional strain caused by the terrible treatment she and her brother received weakened her health considerably. By the time Kuze was summoned to this world, two years had passed since the incident. He’d entered his third year in graduate school, and Akie had been hospitalized for six months. With his sister in that state, Kuze stopped at nothing to return home.

Since he had been recruited into the Organization, Kuze spent every spare moment he had seeking a way back to their world. Many people claimed they wanted to return home, but they had already given up on it as an unachievable dream. Kuze was the only one who actively sought to return at all costs. So when Adelina Berezhnaya unveiled the fundamental theory behind the counter-summoning ritual, it was Kuze who introduced her to the Organization. He also backed her research more adamantly than any other.

That was why, even after Koichiro pointed out the risks and problems involved, Kuze didn’t back down. He had to try. When the ritual failed and his wish scattered like dust in the wind, Kuze was left with only enmity and hatred for this world. The question that remained was where he would direct those negative emotions.

Koichiro had something he needed to tell Akimitsu Kuze, a duty he had to complete by virtue of being the sole member to return to Japan—even if he didn’t do so intentionally.

“I must meet with Kuze, as soon as possible,” Koichiro said. “Can that be arranged?”

“You wish to see Master Kuze?” Zheng asked him, taken aback.

Koichiro nodded gravely, but to his surprise, Zheng simply shook his head.

“Why not?” Koichiro asked. “The radical and moderate factions might be at odds, but they’re still part of the same Organization. Liu’s name would surely be enough to arrange a meeting. You’re free to use my name as well, if you need to.”

“True, despite our disagreements, we’re all still part of the Organization. There is a chance I could arrange for correspondence through letters. But asking for a direct meeting between you two might prove difficult...”

“Even if it’s urgent?”

“Lord Kuze rarely goes out into the open.”

“The elder who leads the radical faction of the Organization refuses to appear in the open?” Koichiro asked dubiously.

“Yes,” Zheng said, nodding solemnly. “Perhaps he fears for his life, or maybe he’s crippled by illness. I do not know. But whenever he gives orders to his subordinates, he has his aide, Kikukawa, act as his proxy.”

“So he refuses to appear in public.” Koichiro tilted his head. “That is curious. Mm, Kikukawa... Where have I heard that name before?”

Koichiro closed his eyes and plunged into his memories.

Kikukawa... Yes, I remember someone by that name. Shinya Kikukawa. But even if he’s still alive, he wouldn’t be working as Kuze’s aide. Their ranking within the Organization wouldn’t allow it, and their personalities simply don’t match. Did something happen, or have their positions switched in the last fifty years?

Kikukawa served as one of the high-ranking members of the Organization at the time Koichiro, Liu, and Kuze served together. His strength as a warrior was guaranteed, and he was the most talented wielder of martial thaumaturgy in the Organization at the time. But Kikukawa was even older than Koichiro was. The Organization was a meritocracy and wasn’t based on seniority, but it still didn’t make sense that someone like Kikukawa would be reduced to serving as Kuze’s aid.

He should be in the same position as Liu. No, even higher.

Koichiro usually prided himself on his memory. It hadn’t faded in his old age, but now it seemed to fail him. He couldn’t be faulted for this, though. Back then, one’s age didn’t matter much. The only time they might mention their ages was to tell quaint stories in what few respites they had in a life of near-constant battle.

But even then, Kikukawa’s age didn’t matter when it came to this. He was older than Koichiro but certainly not too old to serve. He shouldn’t be working as an aide to Kuze.

“Zheng, when you speak of Kikukawa, do you mean Shinya Kikukawa?”

The young man shook his head in denial. “My apologies, I should have clarified. Lord Shinya Kikukawa passed away twenty years ago. The one I spoke of is his son, Atsuya Kikukawa.”

The moment he heard those words, Koichiro realized the true weight of the time that had passed since he’d returned home. He heaved a long, despondent sigh.

“Ah, so that’s what this is all about...”

Half a century. Fifty years. Time long enough for one to bear children and for those children to bear offspring of their own. It was almost unnatural that this didn’t immediately occur to Koichiro.

I was ready for this until I met him...

Meeting an old friend in Liu Zhong Jian made Koichiro forget this, but he knew beforehand that it was highly unlikely all his old friends still lived.

My reunion with him was so uplifting I forgot something that simple...

“So the headship of Kikukawa’s family fell to his son?” Koichiro asked, resolving to move things along.

“He’s currently in the capital of the O’ltormea Empire, officially working as president of a trade firm run by the guild. His real role, though, is to single-handedly consolidate all the information and intelligence gathered from across the empire.”

Koichiro’s right eyebrow twitched. That came as a surprise to him. “Ooh. So Kikukawa’s son manages information,” he said with a hint of bemusement.

The Shinya Kikukawa he remembered was one of the greatest warriors in the Organization. The word “belligerent” didn’t do him justice—he happily charged to the frontlines. Much like one of the Water Margin’s characters, Li Kui the Black Whirlwind, he wielded dual axes in battle. He would rattle the battlefield with animalistic war cries as he tore through enemy lines. His visage as he fought was the very image of a rampaging demon.

Of course, Shinya Kikukawa wasn’t entirely like Li Kui. He was not careless enough to strangle children to death. In fact, he had the clarity and wisdom to serve as general in a few battles, and he led his men to glorious victory. He did complain that his fingers itched to grip his beloved axes, though. But when he was allowed to run wild, Shinya Kikukawa was like a shredding machine with a will of its own. Either way, his personality wasn’t suited for working behind the scenes and dealing with intelligence.

I suppose a child doesn’t have to take after their parents. Still, his son being a manager of intelligence...

It was often believed that a child’s physiology and character were based somewhat on their mother and father, but people proving to be the opposite of their parents wasn’t unheard of. Sometimes even one’s physical features were a far cry from their parents. Life acted in such mysterious ways.

“Which means he serves as an aide to one of the Organization’s bosses, much like yourself?” Koichiro asked Zheng.

That was a reasonable conclusion. Kuze had grown quite old. Even with martial thaumaturgy extending his lifespan beyond that of the common man, he would still realize his life would eventually come to an end. That was especially important since Kuze had such a key position in an organization that pulled the continent’s strings from the shadows. It stood to reason that he would prepare a successor, and Atsuya Kikukawa, who acted under his name, was the most likely candidate.

However, what Zheng said next only deepened Koichiro’s confusion.

“Yes. At least, outwardly he does...”

Zheng had worded it quite vaguely, and bewilderment showed in his eyes. Seeing Zheng’s expression, Koichiro pursued this line of questioning further.

After finishing his late-night meeting with Zheng, Koichiro made his way back into Liu Daijin’s mansion. He then stopped on a whim near Liu’s bedroom and knocked on the door. It was just after six in the morning, and the sun was beginning to rise. It was an odd time to pay someone a visit, but despite this, Liu opened the door and greeted his friend graciously.

“I see. So Zheng told you that much.”

Koichiro had summed up what he’d heard from Zheng.

Liu heaved a hefty sigh. “Allow me to apologize deeply, my friend. I should have told you all of this myself when you asked me last time. As a boss charged with the Organization’s leadership, it was irresponsible of me. Do forgive me.”

Liu rose from his chair and bowed his head to Koichiro. This was the greatest apology he could extend to another, both as Liu Daijin the leader and as Liu Zhong Jian the man. One could only imagine the regret and pain behind this gesture, but Koichiro simply scoffed.

“Don’t be absurd. After all this time, you say that?”

“Koichiro?” Liu raised his head, staring at his old friend with bewilderment.

“I realize what you’re apologizing about, and I can also understand why you found it so hard to tell me about it. But that much concern is wasted on me. When all is said and done, I’m nothing more than a relic of the past. If nothing else, since the day I disappeared from this world, I stopped being a member of the Organization and became an outsider.”

Koichiro placed a friendly hand on Liu’s shoulder.

“And you needn’t apologize to an outsider, Zhong Jian. You made the choice you believed was right. Pardoning Kuze’s lot and rebuilding the Organization was not a mistake. Cutting away the homecoming faction would have left the Organization in shambles, and I’m sure many from our side also looked at them with sympathy. Insisting on executing them would have broken the Organization. And even if it hadn’t, it would have taken years longer for the Organization to recover.”

Liu closed his eyes, his vision clouding over with tears. “Koichiro...” he whispered.

For fifty long years, Liu Daijin carried fear and regret in his heart. He always doubted if the choice he made then was the correct one, and that anxiety seemed to rear its ugly head at every turn.

In the fifty years Liu Zhong Jian served as boss, he worked tirelessly to rebuild and develop the Organization. But throughout his tenure, the frivolous question of what became of his sworn friend, who vanished into the dimensional interstice, tormented him.

As a boss, he shouldn’t have let that concern him so much. In fact, the bosses of the time repeatedly told Liu they wanted him to serve as Koichiro’s successor. Given Koichiro’s many accomplishments, it only made sense they’d want to fill the void he left. The sheer number of battlefields he’d conquered was great, but even more than that, Koichiro Mikoshiba had a certain quality that drew people to him. Had the homecoming faction not rampaged the way it did, Koichiro would have undoubtedly become one of the top leaders of the Organization.

“So, you said you wish to meet Kuze?” His eyes still slightly swollen, Liu wiped his face with a handkerchief and looked at Koichiro sitting opposite of him.

“Yes,” Koichiro said, nodding. “Is it really that difficult?”

“I won’t...say it’s impossible, but it can’t be arranged immediately.”

While the two of them differed in their factions, Liu and Kuze were both leaders of the same organization. Sending him a letter was possible, but it would have to go through the hands of multiple Organization members before it reached Kuze. What’s more, with Kuze becoming essentially a recluse who rarely went out in public, Liu didn’t know where he was hiding. Any attempt to contact him would take days, and that wouldn’t change even if he were to mention Koichiro in the letter. If anything, writing about Koichiro would likely make things lag more.

Koichiro was a man of the past for the Organization, a dead man. In modern society, it wasn’t impossible for a person to be registered as dead only to show up alive later. But to change one’s status from dead to living, one had to go through rather tedious legal procedures with the authorities. This situation was much the same, except the questionable authenticity of Koichiro’s survival would make things go even slower. At worst, it might be viewed as some kind of plot aimed against the radical faction, which would just lead to needless bloodshed.

It was perfectly understandable that they’d have a hard time believing that someone who vanished into the dimensional interstice simply returned fifty years later. Things were different with Liu, since the information reached him directly and he knew Koichiro personally. That was mostly a stroke of luck, though. Things wouldn’t be that simple in Kuze’s case.

“So the only certain time I could meet him would be the yearly general meeting?” Koichiro asked.

Liu nodded. “I’m afraid that’s the case...”

The general meeting was a yearly meeting for the bosses of the Organization ruling over the western continent’s shadows. All the bosses and high-ranking members were required to attend unless they had a justified reason—perhaps an ongoing war in their region or failing health that prevented travel. This was one day where even Kuze, who refused to show himself in public, would have to reveal himself. Liu had, in fact, spoken to Kuze during last year’s general meeting. They’d even shared drinks.

“There’s still some time before that happens, though...” Koichiro said, frowning.

“Yes. But fortunately enough, this year the meeting will be held near the Kingdom of Rhoadseria. Right in time for your grandniece’s extraction and a reunion with your grandson, I’d say.”

At present, twelve elders called bosses led the Organization. The meeting’s location alternated between each boss’s territory.

“Then that’s all the more convenient...” Koichiro said.

“Indeed,” Liu agreed, nodding. “However, there are a few problematic points I need to discuss with you before you meet Kuze.” He directed a sharp gaze at Koichiro. “Zheng told you, yes?”

Liu didn’t specify what he meant, but Koichiro realized at once.

“You mean that man. Akitake Sudou.”

Liu Daijin nodded gravely. “His ranking in the Organization isn’t very high. He’s a high executive, but on the surface he hasn’t gotten that far. There are too many concerning aspects to him, though. Especially when it comes to his treatment of your grandson...”

“Yes, Zheng told me. But there are a few things that still don’t quite make sense.”

Based on what Zheng had said, Akitake Sudou was an overall mysterious man. He ranked much lower than Kuze’s aide, Kikukawa, but his influence was vast. Because he was able to mobilize the execution unit, he effectively had more power than Kikukawa did. This was quite impressive since any sortie of the Organization’s prided execution unit, the Hunting Dogs, had to be reported directly to Kuze.

What’s more, Sudou drafted most of the radical faction’s ploys and strategies. And while the Organization was currently focusing on manipulating the O’ltormea Empire, Sudou was in charge of those operations, as well.

Despite all that, Sudou had shown no desire to take credit for any of those achievements. It didn’t seem he had any inclination to be promoted.

The most striking aspect of Sudou, however, was his treatment of Ryoma Mikoshiba. Ryoma first interfered with his plans soon after he was summoned, by slaying the O’ltormean court thaumaturgist Gaius Valkland and fleeing the country. That in and of itself should have caused a number of problems for Sudou, who was involved in commanding the O’ltormea Empire’s intelligence unit at the time. But soon after that, Ryoma unexpectedly interfered with the Kingdom of Rhoadseria’s civil war. That forced Sudou to conclude his attempts to throw the country into chaos in an unsatisfactory manner. And most recently, during the invasion of the Kingdom of Xarooda, he led a small force across the mountainous border of Xarooda, toppling Fort Notis and forcing the O’ltormean invasion force to retreat.

With so many dashed plots, one would imagine Sudou would be beside himself with anger by now. But the report he delivered a few days ago betrayed no hint of such emotion.

Maybe he knows my name?

There were a few plausible possibilities. The first was that Akitake Sudou knew of Koichiro, suspected Ryoma might be related to him based on their common yet distinctive last name, and treated him leniently as a result.

That was one possibility. Koichiro was a warrior who had served the Organization during its early days, his name passed down as a legend even now. But would Sudou really tolerate this many obstructions to his plans just because Ryoma might be related to a famed person, especially given that he’d never truly confirmed a connection between the two? Had he truly been interested in finding out, he could have asked Ryoma when he met him directly during the Rhoadserian civil war. But he didn’t. Why?

This brought Koichiro to the second possibility. What if Sudou believed Ryoma’s interventions were actually beneficial?

That struck Koichiro as unrealistic. The damages Ryoma caused weren’t vast enough to influence the higher echelons of the Organization or its overall influence. But at the same time, they weren’t so meaningless that one could simply sweep them under the rug. Ryoma’s interventions meant Sudou had to vastly change his plans. Thankfully, he was there to revise things on the spot at just about every step of the way, but there was no telling how long he could keep doing that. In that situation, it would be plausible to think he’d move to eliminate the problematic factor. After all, Sudou had the authority to deploy the Hunting Dogs. It might have seemed like an overreaction to send them against one whelp, but Ryoma had impeded the Organization several times too many.

Liu Daijin might have looked upon Ryoma’s feats with a hint of a smile, but it was difficult to defend him in the eyes of the Organization. Should the radical faction order his assassination, the only way to prevent it would be to recruit him, having him offset his incurred losses with his service.

Ryoma Mikoshiba had simply done too much.

In practice, however, things were different. Sudou’s reports didn’t draw Ryoma out to be that dangerous. It almost felt like he was trying to downplay the threat Ryoma posed. It even seemed like some of the things Sudou did were actively supporting and egging Ryoma on.

There’s only two reasons he’d do that. He’s either confident the Organization would be able to manipulate him as a pawn, or he just wants to kick up more chaos in the continent. But I can’t confirm which one it is...

If it was the former, that wasn’t much of an issue. But if it was the latter, this would cause a great deal of problems for the Organization. Launching the continent into chaotic war would be a bad play for them to make.

“I might need to speak to this Sudou,” Koichiro said, sighing.

“Understood. I’ll have Kikukawa speak to him about it. Sudou should be in the O’ltormean capital right now, delivering his report on the Xarooda expedition to the emperor. But since he’s normally in charge of intelligence operations in Rhoadseria, we should be able to arrange a meeting between you two there.”

“Between this and Asuka, I’ve asked one too many favors of you, Zhong Jian,” Koichiro said apologetically.

“Don’t let it concern you, Koichiro,” Liu replied, smiling gently. “I’ve asked you to help me guide Zheng, and your grandniece is like family to me too. The same holds true for you grandson, and I don’t see helping family as any sort of trouble.”

Liu rose from his seat and opened the door to a shelf situated in front of his bed.

“Drinking this early in the morning?” Koichiro asked, cracking a bitter smile at the Chinese characters printed on the pot Liu took out. “Isn’t breakfast only thirty minutes away?”

Ignoring Koichiro’s question, Liu opened the seal on the pot. The scent of expensive alcohol filled the room.

“Ah, don’t say that, Koichiro,” Liu said as he silently filled a cup with alcohol. “Think of this as a fee for all the help I extend to you and play along.”

That day, the two of them silently shared drinks until Zheng showed up to tell them breakfast was prepared. It was as if they were offering their toasts to the fickle stars of fate that led to this reunion, fifty years later—as if to remember their many friends, swept away by the currents of time.

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