Campione! Volume 16 Chapter 7

e> Chapter 7 - The Stirring of Heroes Part 1 Who could have expected a time traveling journey that would leave them stranded for almost two months? After experiencing a great commotion in ancient Gaul, Kusanagi Godou and his companions finally returned to the modern era. The "corridor" leading to the past era was located in the Casentino area on the east end of Italy's central region of Tuscany. This was a zone of lush vegetation, designated as a national park. The time tunnel's entrance was situated in a flourishing forest in a corner of this region. Upon returning to the modern era, the sun happened to be rising in the eastern sky. The forest was thickly covered with accumulated snow. The snow's pure whiteness was even brighter and more vivid than the trees' greenery. The sunlight of dawn illuminated this part of the world with a rosy shade of color — After admiring this landscape of fantasy from afar, the group started to make their way towards human settlement. The group consisted of Kusanagi Godou, Salvatore Doni, Madame Aisha, Erica Blandelli, Mariya Yuri, Liliana Kranjcar and Seishuuin Ena. "The world on this side really is more convenient after all." After a brief break at the hotel, Godou was muttering to himself. Before going on the journey to the past, Doni had gathered the knights of Italy at this ancient castle hotel. The interiors, fitted with heating, were quite warm whereas hot running water came readily from taps. Showering facilities as well. Not only was there coffee to drink, but also pizza to eat. The hotel had been converted from an ancient castle dating back to the Middle Ages. In contrast to its antique appearance, the hotel was filled with a sense of comfort. "Yeah, it feels like I've finally come home." After a refreshing shower, Doni was sitting in the hotel's bar, taking large swigs of beer and ravenously wolfing down three slices of pizza. On the other hand, Godou was hoping to return to his home country as quickly as possible to have some Japanese food. But due to various reasons, he had decided to stay at this hotel for now. "Sorry, Godou-san, for my sake, you have to deliberately..." "That's not something you need to apologize for. Besides, there's plenty of time since we're still in the middle of the post-exam break. Mariya, you should get some proper rest." That was what Godou had said to Yuri who had suddenly fallen ill with a fever after returning from the past. The fever's cause was probably not due to a flu but from the fatigue accumulated during the long journey. Furthermore, Yuri's state of health was already unstable before setting off from Japan. She would feel exhausted and dizzy in crowded places — Those were the symptoms presented by her current physiological state. It would be best to take more care. There were other reasons for Godou's return to be delayed. "Fufufufu. Somehow, I find myself quite happy to be in the modern era too!" This woman, smiling innocently, was also part of the reason. Namely, Madame Aisha who was currently smiling radiantly, sitting on the sofa in the hotel lobby. Finally removing her ancient attire, she had changed into a navy-blue knitted ensemble with a long white skirt. Dressed in this manner, the Madame was flanked by a scowling woman and a young man with a cautious expression, both sitting beside her. The ponytailed female Paladino was Saint Raffaello and Doni's master. The other was Paolo Blandelli, Erica's paternal uncle. "Good grief, how could you say that so casually? You've no idea how much trouble we had to go through." "Madame, while making your stay in the local area, please do not hesitate to inform me or my association, the [Copper Black Cross], should you have any requests. I, Paolo Blandelli, intend to serve provisionally as your knight to fulfill your every bidding." "My! Erica-san's uncle is truly quite the gentleman!" The Madame was quite touched by Paolo's respectful offer. However, rather than a show of chivalry, this should be considered a ploy to stay by a dangerous character's side for monitoring purposes. In fact, the same idea had occurred to Godou after sensing the Madame's intention to take up accommodations at this hotel. (I should stay here for now to monitor her.) Et cetera. At least while the post-exam break lasted. Before setting off from Japan, Godou and the other students had sat the third term's examinations at Jounan Academy where they were studying. After that, they had used the post-exam break to make the long trip from Japan to Italy. Meanwhile, at a hidden position out of Madame Aisha's sight, several people were having a secret conversation. "Will the people in this hotel be fine? Is there not quite a substantial risk for them to be charmed by Madame Aisha's authority?" "Well, this place is run by the [Capital of Lilies] to begin with after all." While looking at the happily smiling Madame Aisha from a distance, Liliana and Erica were whispering to each other. As a side note, the [Capital of Lilies] was the magic association headquartered in the ancient city of Florence in Tuscany. "In fact, the majority of employees are equipped with knowledge of magic. I've also heard that they have already used magic to protect their brains and minds beforehand as a precaution... Well, only to the extent that one could feel slightly relieved." "Even Ena and you were also affected by Aisha-san's authority once." Resonating strongly with heartfelt emotion, Ena agreed with Erica's opinion. In any case, this trip had turned into a great expedition lasting almost two months. Nevertheless, upon returning to the modern era, they discovered that the calendar had merely advanced to the second day. In the end, Godou and company had returned the next morning after the departing day. "1 suppose I should say: as expected of a journey through time. Truly absurd to an excessive degree." Liliana's astonished murmurs were understandable. The current guests at this ancient castle hotel in Tuscany not only included Saint Raffaello and Paolo but also Doni's butler, Andrea Rivera. When Godou's group first returned to the hotel, Rivera had been out handling matters. But upon returning, he was reunited with his foolish master. "Come, Salvatore Doni. I'm sure you've fully prepared yourself to be sunk into the Mariana Trench together with a thirty-thousand-ton tanker. Perhaps now is the perfect opportunity to exile you from the surface world forever. Let's have a good discussion regarding this issue." Dragging the neck of the whole commotion's principal culprit, Rivera dragged the man into another room... In addition, these were not the only people present to welcome Godou and the other's return. "Onii-sama! As well as Onee-chan and everyone else, thank goodness that you've all returned safe and sound!" "We flew here from Japan after hearing about the emergency situation. Looks like the problem has already been resolved while we were on our way, that's really wonderful." During the afternoon after their return, two Japanese had arrived at the hotel. Yuri's younger sister, Hikari, and tlie History Compilation Committee's special agent, Amakasu Touma. Upon hearing that "Japan's Campione and his entourage are on a time traveling journey!?", Amakasu had immediately hurried to Italy. Furthermore, Hikari had also expressed her wish to come along. "Although my original intention was to assist in Onii-sama's return, it ended up turning into a free trip to Italy." After explaining the situation, Hikari added mischievously. The Mariya family's second daughter was only twelve years old but was already a Hime-Miko in training. Presumably, that was precisely why her request to be sent on this mission was approved. Godou expressed his thanks from the bottom of his heart. "It's the thought that counts. I'm sorry for making you come all the way here." "Oh right. Although this doesn't count as a congratulations gift, I do have a present for you, Onii-sama. I'll give it to you later!" It was difficult to imagine someone so considerate and thoughtful was only just a sixth grader. Hikari smiled cheerfully while she spoke. As a side note, the unexpected welcoming committee did not just include Japanese people. An hour after Hikari and Amakasu arrived, an American woman suddenly appeared in the hotel lobby. "It's been a while, Kusanagi Godou." "Annie-san!" A missed friend, Annie Charlton. She was the collaborator of Los Angeles' Devil King, John Pluto Smith. The cool beauty was dressed for midwinter in a trenchcoat and gray pants, matched by her short, fiery-red hair. A dozen minutes or so later, Godou was sitting opposite Annie in the hotel's lounge. Two steaming cups of espresso were placed on the table between them. "Apparently, you've been doing as you please in fifth-century Gaul." "If I had to describe it, I was tlie one restraining tine willful and reckless Doni and Aisha-san..." Godou raised mild objections against her sardonic remark. However, Annie Charlton scoffed and said coldly: "At 'Plutarch's Residence' in the Astral Plane... Smith heard from the old man who lives there. Reportedly, a certain Kusanagi Godou was building his harem in the land of ancient Gaul, enjoying a life of pleasure surrounded by numerous beauties." "Th-They only gathered around me on their own without my consent, okay!" Godou's group had made the Roman colonial city of Colonia Aggripina their final base of operations. Out of excessive and unnecessary care, local bigshots had continually sent many beauties over to Kusanagi Godou — the man wielding the most influence and martial power in the region. Back then, Kusanagi Godou's status in Colonia Aggripina was akin to that of a feudal lord. To think she would know about the journey to the past, she truly lived up to her name as Smith's collaborator. Moreover, Annie's purpose for coming here was to retrieve the magic gun that had served as a trump card during the battle in Gaul. Indeed. John Pluto Smith had entrusted his weapon to Liliana during that journey. After returning the magic gun to her, Godou changed the subject. "Oh right, what happened to history in that era after we returned? Did that whatever residence's old guy say anything else to Smith?" "Nothing in particular that bears mentioning. Speaking of which, this is basically it." Annie responded fluently to Godou's sudden questioning. True to the image of a "capable woman," the cool beauty was intelligent and highly competent. "Didn't history remain unchanged, broadly speaking? This is all thanks to history's corrective force and your side's devoted efforts." "In that case, that Uldin guy also got killed by the 'King of the End'... Right?" Uldin was the ancient Campione whom Godou had met in ancient Gaul. Muttering Uldin's name, Godou began to ponder. Excessively strong, stubborn, a man who seemed unkillable. A warrior among warriors, a barbaric and crafty Devil King. Although impossible to imagine, did that man still lose to the "King of the End" ultimately? As though trying to dispel the heavy atmosphere, Godou brought his cup of espresso to his lips. Annie did the same. At this moment, Godou realized that there ought to be other things to talk about. "Oh right, Annie-san. Thank you very much." Although still seated, Godou bowed his head deeply. "Sorry for troubling you to come all the way over to Italy from America to retrieve the gun. I should be the one paying a visit to Los Angeles instead." "Pay it no mind. I happen to be passing by anyway." Annie shrugged and accepted his apology generously. "Due to my — our conflict against the [King of Flies] organization. Smith and I have not left Los Angeles for a long time already. Hence, I wanted to go on a sightseeing trip as a long-awaited break, arriving here with intentions to tour Europe. Visiting this place did not require me to go out of my way." "Even so, you're still doing a big favor. I'm really thankful to you." The [King of Flies] sorcerer^^^ organization led by Asherah had also appeared before at Nikkou's Toushouguu. Godou had heard that they had been John Pluto Smith's mortal enemies in recent years. Godou wondered if the care and concern expressed by the cool beauty stemmed from her worried feelings or from her natural personality. In any case, Godou's gratitude towards her remained unclianged. Tlianking once again, Godou continued witli a smile: "Also, please pass this message to Smith: Thank you for your care. I will repay the favor one day. I'll pay you a visit once I find the free time.'" "After hearing such words, he will surely reply with the following." Asked to deliver a message, Annie responded by imitating Smith's tone of voice: '"Understood. In that case, you should prepare as rich a return gift as you can. I won't accept any complaints about the interest being too high so I hope you prepare yourself for that — ' Presumably, a reply along such lines." Annie's facial expression remained stiff, serious to a fault as always. Nevertheless, she had changed her tone of voice to mimic the masked godslayer's speech of subtle pretension. This unexpected playfulness brought a smile to Godou's lips. Finally, Annie finished her espresso in one breath then quickly left the hotel. "By the way, Aisha-san, can I ask you a few questions?" "Sure, what would you like to ask, Doni-san?" After spending four hours in a friendly conversation with the loyal butler then escaping, the young Devil King was sitting side by side with the adorable female Devil King (age indeterminate) whose appearance suggested teenage at most. The location was the bar in a corner of the hotel. Salvatore Doni and Madame Aisha were currently sitting at the bar together. "So, Aisha-san, since you spend long periods traveling everywhere, you should be quite knowledgeable in a broad range of things, right?" "Not at all. You are too kind. My level of knowledge is really nothing special... Fufufufu. So, what would you like to ask about, Doni-san?" Despite her modest attitude, Madame Aislia's expression sliowed tliat sine was greatly pleased by his praise. She smiled back innocently at Doni who was taking a gulp of whiskey. Placed before her was a glass of fresh orange juice. Meanwhile, two knights were currently sitting at a table in a corner of the bar, staring at the two Devil Kings. Erica and Liliana. Without drawing attention, they were warily monitoring the movements of these two super dangerous characters. "Basically, the King of the End' we met earlier in ancient Gaul. Have you seen that god in other time periods? Or heard things about him?" "No, there's nothing... Oh wait, however." Just as she was answering, the Madame revealed an expression of deep thought. "During my travels in China during the Tang Dynasty, I once heard about a 'hero manifesting in the latter days of decadence' who, in his quest to pursue godslaying Rakshasha kings, headed to the farthest ends of the orient — the nation of Japan. Hearsay of that sort. Yes, I remember that it was a great monk at Chang'an who accidentally leaked the rumor." "I see I see." Saying that, Doni nodded in acknowledgement of the Madame's reply. Perking up their ears to listen to this conversation. Erica and Liliana exchanged looks to communicate. Salvatore Doni was a Devil King who would dance with a lighter in a powder keg with total nonchalance as long as it satisfied his desires. Furthermore, he had always been searching for great and formidable foes. To think a man like him was collecting information on the "King of the End"... Most likely, he was unable to forgot the power exhibited by the hero he had witnessed in ancient Gaul. Of course, this was undoubtedly an ominous sign. Even though the time traveling incident had come to a conclusion, the dangerous embers surrounding the various Devil Kings were already gradually set aflame. Part 2 "Eh, what happened to Amakasu-san?" After seeing Annie off, Godou visited the IVIariya sisters' room. Inside the room were three people: Yuri who was lying in bed due to her fever, her little sister Hikari at the bedside taking care of her, as well as Seishuuin Ena sitting casually on a chair. However, there were no signs of Amakasu Touma. Godou had expected him to be present. "Could he have gone outside to ski or something?" Godou brought up the first possibility that came to mind. Abundant snow had fallen just earlier in the lush Casentino forest and the surrounding mountain range. Currently, the outside world was a realm of silver. In that case, skiing would seem like something attractive to try out as one of many winter sports. Well, given Amakasu's laziness and indoor preference, Godou was doubtful that he would actually choose this type of sport. Nevertheless, the answer waiting for Godou was even more unexpected than skiing. "Oh, Amakasu-san said he's visiting the hotel's beauty parlor." Ena's carefree answer surprised Godou. "That guy went to the beauty parlor!?" "Yes, Amakasu-san mentioned that he must get an oil massage no matter what." Leaning her back against a cushion, Yuri sat up and provided additional explanation. Godou was reassured to find her more energetic than expected. Furthermore, sitting by her elder sister's side, Hikari smiled. "Saying that he needed to recover from the damage from sitting rigidly in the plane and the fatigue from driving all the way here from the airport of Florence, he ran over to make an appointment." "Now that you mention it, 1 guess it's not tliat usual for a man to be frequenting that kind of place." Rather than beauty treatment, Amakasu's aim was for relaxation. Last time at Cape Inubou, Amakasu had also enjoyed all kinds of massages fully. Perhaps spending time in those types of places was his hobby. Godou understood. "Well, it's no big deal anyway." Smiling happily, Ena reached towards the bedside. Placed there was a plate of apple slices, arranged neatly in rows. Picking a piece and popping it in her mouth, Ena continued: "This time, the ninja's job is already being done by those people in Italy. He also said this is a pleasure trip." "He's always busy and rushing everywhere after all." "By the way, Onii-sama, I have something to report!" Hikari suddenly smiled at the nodding Godou. "I've already decided to enroll in Jounan Academy's middle school division starting this coming spring." "In fact, Hikari already took the entrance exam last month... and passed successfully. Consequently, she will become our junior starting April. Please look after her, Godou-san." After reporting energetically, Yuri bowed her head deeply while sitting on the bed. Godou went "eh" and felt impressed. The school where he and the others were studying, Jounan Private Academy, required passing entrance exams to enter the middle school because it was not a public school. "This is really something worth celebrating, but are you really okay with our school?" "Yes, not only Onee-chan but Onii-chan and the other Onee-samas are also there. But apart from that, there's still one more thing to report. It's the present I mentioned earlier." "Oh yeah, isn't that what you told me when you first arrived?" "Although there's a couple of days left so it's a bit early, I'm not sure if I'll be able to see you on the actual day, so I'm giving it to you now in advance. Please accept this!" Hikari had taken out a square box from her bag. It was wrapped very beautifully. A slender box. It even had a cute ribbon wrapped around it. What was this? Smiling, Hikari explained to Godou in his puzzlement. "Yes, Valentine's Day will be arriving soon, Onii-sama!" "...Oh right, I see now." It probably contained chocolate inside. Figuring out the hidden contents, Godou smiled wryly. Due to spending the past two months in early fifth-century Gaul, he had lost all calendar sense completely. However, calendars in the modern era were clearly displaying a date in early February. "Also, since we go to different schools, it's quite true that we might not see each other on the actual day." Speaking of which, it was still undecided whether they were going to return home before February 14 or not. In light of that, even if Hikari gave her present a few days early, there was probably nothing wrong with that. Godou gratefully accepted the wrapped box, smiling at the sixth grader who had given the present and could not help but stroke her head. If he did that to his own younger sister, she would express her displeasure by saying "Don't treat me like a child!" However, Hikari simply responded with a happy and radiant smile. As a side note, the older sister, Yuri, had shock written all over her face. Ena was also making an expression of great surprise. "S-Speaking of which, I have totally forgotten about this day..." "Ena paid zero attention to tlie calendar on tiiis side. So it's Valentine's Day, huh? Ena has heard rumors before. It seems like it's a day for giving chocolate..." "So, I guess I'll have to start thinking of a present for White Day and congratulating you on getting in our school." Deciding that a return gift was definitely required for Hikari's show of care, Godou muttered. "Hikari, is there anything you want?" "Nothing in particular. But if I'm allowed to be 'indulged' — I want to go out with you to have fun, Onii-sama! Like amusement parks, theme parks or aquariums." "Eh? Together with me?" Although he wanted to fulfill this request as much as possible, Godou hesitated. Taking a girl out to leisure spots made him feel a bit embarrassed. Unable to agree readily, he found it difficult to answer. Of course, this did not count as a date. After all, she was a girl whose age made her like a little sister. Nevertheless, Godou really felt embarrassed about spending time alone with a girl, just the two of them — Seeing Godou searching for an answer, Hikari instantly said: "Please, Onii-sama. You must take me, my Onee-chan, Ena-neesama, Erica-neesama and Liliana-neesama together somewhere to have fun!" "Oh, I have to bring everyone along as well!?" "Yes, of course!" Being the only man in a group of girls, it still felt embarrassing. However, Godou believed that rejecting this request would be unseemly as an elder, so he smiled wryly and said with generosity: "Sure, let's do that. Then we'll plan a schedule after returning to Japan." "Really? I'm so happy!" "When the day comes, I'll make sure you're treated as the main guest, Hikari." "Fufufu. Please don't go out of your way, treating me the same as usual is fine." While conversing with the upfront Hikari, Godou felt quite unbelievable. Listening to the conversation that had just taken place before her eyes, Yuri was looking at her younger sister in utter surprise. Ena also looked as though she were whispering something like "Hikari really is amazing. She's got a bright future ahead." "Mariya Hikari's potential really cannot be underestimated..." After hearing about what transpired, Liliana commented with heartfelt emotion. It was the second day after they had returned to the modern era. Going out by car, three girls had traveled to a town named Poppi, not far from the ancient castle hotel where they were staying. The time was currently still morning. Seishuuin Ena was accompanying Mariya Yuri whose fever had subsided. Currently, the trio was shopping at a supermarket. That said, being located in a rural European town, the shop was no different from a Japanese convenience store in scale. The selection of goods was not very complete. Currently, the girls were browsing the goods offered in the confectionery corner of this kind of shop. As expected, the shop did not offer the same abundant variety that Japanese stores would have during this occasion. Even so, Liliana still pondered in concentration while murmuring: "Prioritizing the rescue of Kusanagi Godou while simultaneously taking into the account the possibility that he would survive through his own power, even going as far as to prepare chocolate in her luggage beforehand. She must have calculated that this would leave him the strongest impression in the event that she is able to hand him the present during the stay in Italy..." "D-Do Hikari's considerations go that far?" "Although probably not to the extent of a wily female fox like Erica who calculates everything, she should have considered the possibility of that outcome, hence preparing for it. That is what I feel. Also, the return gift is another matter that must not be overlooked." The silver-haired knight spoke next to Hikari's older sister, Yuri. "Also, there is combining the chocolate's return gift with the enrollment celebration. Despite a wish to have a date with Kusanagi Godou alone, she deliberately requested to take us along. This approach makes it easier to obtain Kusanagi Godou's consent and also minimizes the backlash relative to other methods." "By backlash, what you mean is... Coming from Ena and the rest of you?" "Yes." "Ena isn't going to reprimand Hikari for something of this level... Well, but perhaps Ena definitely would feel a bit jealous." Commenting with slight surprise, Ena added. Liliana nodded. "In any case, this is how things are. Using the incident known as 'giving chocolate,' Mariya Hikari has won a small victory. However, she is quite careful, or rather, I should say that she is subconsciously avoiding an excessive victory. Instead, by sharing happiness together with us all, she is probably aiming to avoid causing friction." "Indeed, that may possibly be one facet of Hikari's." Yuri murmured as though appraising her younger sister's personality. "Very early on, she was already a child skilled in expressing her opinion without causing dissent in the surrounding people. Occasionally, I would feel quite envious of that..." "Strategy... No, a keen sense in savoir-vivre." "Perhaps this isn't a bad thing. Say, given what His Majesty is like, more girls will continue to gather around him in the future, right? If a girl like Hikari is present, harmony and compromise can result in all sorts of things. There's that thing called human relations, right?" Hearing Ena's philosophical outlook of resignation, Yuri and Liliana nodded in agreement. The person in the center of their circle was someone who possessed the talent of "increasing the number of intimate partners without conscious intent." Even though he had the kind of personality that treated both genders equally, at the same time, he also had the kind of destiny that caused him to cross paths with women quite frequently — "In any case, many issues exist in the current situation." Liliana shrugged lightly as though summing up. "The spot beside him will be yielded to Mariya Hikari for today." "Hikari is going to take a walk with His Majesty, just the two of them, right?" "Ah yes. Hikari had Godou-san indulge her wish to go sightseeing in the town, so they went together." "Well, I could have found some random reason to go along, but it is better to read the mood a little in times like these." "Ena and you two also need to buy chocolate first." "I am so sorry.." The three girls conversed while selecting the goods they wanted to buy respectively. After checking out and paying, they left the supermarket. As a land filled with natural scenery, this area consisted of rural settlements, of course. No modernized buildings were built. Compared to buildings constructed from steel-reinforced concrete, brick structures were far more common. The atmosphere of ancient European towns was everywhere. Furthermore, the thick volume of accumulated snow everywhere was almost like a makeup layer of white winter. Yet despite this kind of snowscape, the sky was cloudless for miles around. Ignoring the possibility of sinking into the deep snow, this could be considered perfect weather for a walk in a certain sense. Even making a quick and casual round in the vicinity would be filled with fun for Japanese people from the Far East. "Oh, by the way, Erica-san seems to be monitoring King Salvatore at the moment, right?" Walking in the lead, Ena asked. "Yes. After a discussion with Sir Andrea and Erica's uncle, they assembled an emergency force to keep Sir Salvatore under surveillance. Of course, this should be enough to handle him if only he were a normal person." Liliana's explanation was mixed with sighing. "However, Sir Salvatore is no normal person. This is the headache-inducing part..." "Well, Ena also knows clearly that King Salvatore is very curious about things related to the 'King of the End.' That god seems to be outrageously strong." "The king manifesting at era's end — " Hearing Ena murmur that name, Yuri suddenly whispered. "Just as I mentioned before, I cannot see that god's true name at all... Be that as it may, there is a kind of ambiguous feeling." "You actually saw something? As expected of Yuri!" "If I had to describe the extent... It really is just a kind of ambiguous feeling. Perhaps the key to elucidating that god's origins exists as an unexpected form in Japan — located in our surroundings." Mariya Yuri was an outstanding user of spirit vision. Her capability in this area was perhaps the highest pinnacle in the world. Feeling deeply interested, Ena and Liliana listened to this hint revealed by the beautiful Hime-Miko. Parts Godou and Hikari were visiting a town named Poppi, a rural commune that was quite small in area. Its population numbered six or seven thousand at most. However, the town reportedly had fairly antique origins, tracing all the way back to ancient Roman times. Furthermore, this was where a castle and its associated castle town had been built by feudal lords ruling the area during the Middle Ages. streets from the Middle Ages were still preserved in this little town's historic zone. Chapels, churches, the aforementioned castle town and other buildings dating back to that era were still standing. These ancient streets were now adorned by a layer of snow like makeup. A simple stroll through this place was enough to evoke a sense of foreign exotic atmosphere that could not be experienced in Japan. One could say it was definitely worth touring on foot while enduring the chilling cold. "Say, isn't it time for a cup of hot coffee?" "Then let's find a place to have lunch, Onii-sama!" They had been strolling casually on the snow-covered streets for an hour and a half already. As a result, Godou's body was already frozen stiff. It was probably the same for Hikari too. That being said, the young girl who suggested lunch still looked quite cheerful in voice and demeanor. She looked like she was quite enjoying things. As a side note, the two of them were fully prepared with winter gear. Godou was wearing a soft jacket made of polyester for winter sports use, while Hikari was dressed in a white duffle coat. In addition, they were wearing knitted caps and mittens while Hikari even had a scarf wrapped around her neck. "If only there's something like a restaurant here." Walking with Hikari, Godou muttered. In fact, he had visited this town before. That was during March last year when Erica accompanied him to track down the mysterious divine beast lurking in Casentino. Uldin's dragons from fifth-century Gaul had also made appearances here. Nevertheless, the visit last time was extremely brief and thus had not offered Godou much of a chance to get to know the town. Consequently, they had no choice but to continue their journey while looking around. "Come to think of it, Shizuka sent me a text message." Due to being accompanied by a young girl, Godou suddenly remembered about his younger sister. The text message was received this morning before they headed out from the hotel. "It was sent by Onii-sama's sister?" "Yeah, because she's a sharp-tongued girl, the message was filled with ranting and griping. Oh well, I guess it's my fault after all for leaving home without saying anything." Unlike the younger sister in the Mariya family, the Kusanagi household's younger sister had a personality that was a bit excessively strict. Smiling wryly at this thought, Godou began to recall the contents of the text message where sentences like "Where the heck did you run off randomly to, idiot Onii-chan!" substituted for seasonal greetings. That said, her words were filled with harsh reprimand for the older brother who had left without notice. "She wrote a few things that made me quite curious. For example, she mentioned a chance encounter with the boy from the Christmas party— Stuff like that." "The boy at the Christmas party — Speaking of which, that's probably Lu-san from Hong Kong." Lu Yinghua was the only boy attending the Christmas party who matched the description. Nodding at Hikari who had easily guessed the answer, Godou remarked with heartfelt feeling. "I hope Shizuka didn't cause any trouble for Yinghua... Last time, she even said something weird by accident." Godou remembered her commenting that Lu Yinghua had an underling flavor to him despite his arrogant demeanor. Moreover, Shizuka was born with a personality like a bossy older sister's. A female member of the Kusanagi family who was destined to follow the footsteps of the mother with her natural vocation of queen — Although it was already too late, Godou still prayed for his surrogate nephew who had terrible luck when it came to women. On the other hand, while walking beside Godou, Hikari was more concerned with another issue. "I still haven't gotten to know Shizuka-san and Lu-san very well. Next time I see them, I'll try my best to become better friends with them!" "Eh? There's no need to devote so much effort into that." "No no, as someone who serves by your side, Onii-sama, these sentiments are much obliged. Furthermore, I try hard in these areas partially for Onee-chan's sake — " "I believe that it's necessary for us, the Mariya sisters, to have good relations with your family, Onii-sama. We sisters will continue to be in your care, Onii-sama^" As always, Hikari acted with such care and consideration that it was impossible to believe that she was still a young girl only in six grade. But at the same time, Godou found it quite interesting. The elder sister, Yuri, was a pure and noble young lady, quite detached from the mundane world, for better or worse. In contrast, Hikari was quite adept in handling worldly affairs with pertinence. In terms of personality, there was nothing similar about these two sisters. But perhaps this was precisely why they formed a combination that sustained balance — "Hmm?" Godou and Hikari were currently walking along a main street. Ten-odd meters ahead was a familiar young man, featuring a head of blond hair and a tall build, roughly 185cm in height. A face displaying frivolity and lack of discipline — Salvatore Doni. Dressed in a gray coat, he had a slender, cylindrical case slung on his shoulder. Doni could be seen approaching a light van that was parked on the roadside. Without warning, he opened the door and sat inside. Then the engine started immediately. The light van began to move quickly. "Where's that guy planning to go...?" Godou felt intrigued. Earlier, he had received Liliana's report. The reckless troublemaker was apparently quite interested in the "King of the End." That was what the female knight, akin to Kusanagi Godou's grand chamberlain, had reported. 'Of course, the King of the End is a divinity that has lain dormant for almost a thousand years. A being whose true identity remains unknown despite the Divine Ancestors' search efforts over the ages. It is essentially impossible for him to revive from something on the level of Sir Salvatore's minor commotions... But just to be safe, it is still necessary to keep Sir Salvatore under surveillance for now.' And among various influential people including Andrea Rivera, Paolo Blandelli and Saint Raffaello, agreement was apparently unanimous. They were all familiar with and understood clearly the truth that Campiones were a troublesome race, always ignoring probabilities somehow, easily overcoming odds of Godou hesitated as he watched the light van's departure. Should he intervene "just in case"? But Madame Aisha was also someone who needed to be kept on priority surveillance. Which side was more important? "Th-The person just now was Sir Salvatore, right?" Noticing Godou's gaze, Hikari also looked at the light van. "I've heard that he is your dear friend and fated rival too!" "Who the heck is feeding such a rubbish and totally wrong profile to you!?" "l-lt's wrong? Last night when I encountered Sir Salvatore by chance and greeted him, that's what he said himself — " Hearing Hikari's explanation, Godou felt his strength draining away. Under those circumstances, the sixth grader had done nothing wrong in offering polite greetings on their first encounter, even when the other party was the world-renowned Campione. The senior who introduced himself totally erroneously was the one to blame. "I knew it, I must chase after that idiot...!" After Godou made his decision out of instantaneous anger rather than rational thought... "Godou, perfect timing for you to be here!" "...Erica!?" Godou was surprised to be called by a gallant and beautiful voice. The voice came from the vehicle lane. Godou turned his gaze to see a female rider approaching them on a mid-sized motorcycle, then stopping her vehicle on the roadside. The motorcycle's paint job was a vivid shade of bright red whereas the leather suit was pitch black. A rossonero combination of red and black. The female rider took off her helmet, revealing Erica's beautiful face and head of blonde hair. "I'm currently following Sir Salvatore who has left this town, thinking it would be terrible if anything were to happen. Want to come along?" "Yeah. Letting him run wild is too worrying!" Godou instantly replied then looked at Hikari. The young Hime-Miko in training nodded immediately in response. Godou's intention was for her to return to the hotel first on her own, having heard that she already had experience traveling overseas many times already despite being only twelve years old. More importantly, she was quite a clever girl. Godou did not worry. Hence, Godou immediately climbed on to sit behind Erica, resulting in two people riding astride the motorcycle. "Please hold on, Onii-sama! Please take this!" Just as Erica was about to start the engine, Hikari quickly ran over. Swiftly untying the scarf on her neck, she wrapped it tightly around Godou's neck instead. Freezing-cold wind was currently blowing in the first place. Riding a motorcycle in such conditions would mean exposing the entire body to extremely strong, chilling wind. Hikari was probably offering her scarf to Godou because she was worrying about this fact. "Thanks. Let's go. Erica!" Expressing his gratitude for the young girl's care, Godou reached his hands behind his waist. He supported his weight by gripping the handle at the back of the seat. This was a horizontal bar for increasing safety for tandem riders. The blonde partner instantly twisted the accelerator, causing the bright red motorcycle to start moving. She raised the speed all at once. Within the blink of an eye, the motorcycle had sped off, leaving Hikari behind. The motorcycle was able to move without hindrance because the accumulated snow had already been cleared from the roads. Furthermore, traffic was quite low in volume. The motorcycle was currently trailing Salvatore Doni's light van by several hundred meters. Godou was quite impressed with Erica's outstanding driving skills. "You sure can ride well, not just horses but also this kind of thing!" "Yes. During the Great Sage Equaling Heaven incident, I felt there was a need for this, so I started learning a lot subsequently. I'm now totally different from back then!" Carrying two passengers, Godou and Erica, the mid-sized motorcycle sliced through the powerful wind, propelled by its 400cc engine. To avoid getting drowned out by tlie noise of tlie wind, tiiey liad to raise tlieir voices in order to converse. Just now, Erica was referring to tlie time wlien sine liad driven a four-wlieeled automobile during tlie Great Sage Equaling Heaven incident, not a two-wheeled motorcycle. Still, sitting behind the young Italian girl, Godou could understand. Definitely quite different from before. Last time, Erica was skillfully controlling a car as a driver for the first time(!), using only her inborn talent and sense for driving. However, back then, she clearly knew nothing about matters such as traffic regulations and driving techniques. But this time. Erica not only controlled the mid-sized motorcycle with graceful motions but also did it without causing any trouble for the surrounding vehicles in motion. Erica was driving the motorcycle smoothly along the flow of traffic. Completely stable and safe driving. What she meant by learning a lot was probably knowledge and experience of driving on ordinary roads. "Nothing less expected of Erica Blandelli — Godou, you could praise me like that, you know?" "That's true. Even though you're always so busy, you still managed to learn such amazing skills. Although only half a year has passed since that time, I can't believe you've already obtained a driving license that's also usable in Italy!" "Huh, what license?" "...Hey Erica." "Speaking of which, the matter of obtaining a driving license needs to be postponed." "You're actually driving without a license!? I take back what I said!" "Why does it even matter? There are no problems at all with my driving knowledge and vehicle control. Suppose a situation does arise where a driving license is needed, I also have magic to take care of things." Erica replied, completely unremorseful. In those circumstances, she was probably intending to use hypnosis magic to bewitch police personnel. Still maintaining a magnificent driving posture flawlessly, the [Copper Black Cross]'s premier knight was staring sharply at the light van that was traveling ahead. As always. Erica's respect for common sense values was quite weak. "Anyway, that's enough of that, Godou! Please hold on tight!" "Then there's no helping it... Don't lose that idiot's trail!" "Yes, you can count on me!" Slicing through the winter season's chilling wind, the motorcycle sped along at seventy to eighty kilometers per hour — Naturally, this meant getting frozen solid all over for the duration of the journey. Hence, feeling the scarf around his neck, Godou felt very grateful to Hikari. Part 4 Doni's light van traveled west, cruising along Tuscany's state highways. The light van traversed mountainous areas near mountain pass roads to reach Florence's provincial roads, then arriving in the vicinity of the provincial capital. But instead of entering the city of Florence, they continued westward. Using provincial roads, Doni's contingent reached the Italian peninsula's western coast. "Godou, why don't we stop nearby for a late lunch?" Driving the mid-sized motorcycle. Erica had been maintaining a certain distance in their pursuit of Doni's light van, persisting for the past hour and a half or so. But as soon as they arrived in the outskirts of Florence, she quickly decelerated and stopped her vehicle by the side of the road. The light van they had been following soon departed into the distance. Since it stood to reason that Erica could not have made such an elementary blunder, Godou asked with certainty: "Another tracking team is taking over liere?" "Yes, indeed. In fact, we are not tine only ones tailing Sir Salvatore. Two other teams had also departed Casentino and are currently tracking him as well. Furthermore, I was supposed to pass the job along to other members of the [Copper Black Cross] near Florence in the first place." "Just as I figured." When experts in this area undertook tailing operations, it was natural to split into multiple teams. Godou had heard about these arrangements before. Members of the Italian faction had apparently made flawless plans in this regard. Nevertheless, the blonde female knight frowned. "Actually, using magic would be the best method of tracking... But because Sir Salvatore's senses are rather sharp, using magic would probably risk getting discovered by him instead." As a side note, Godou was told that Doni had left his usual cellphone in his room before setting off. Hence, it was not possible to confirm his location using various means such as call records or GPS. Eschewing gadgets like phones despite living in the modern era, he probably intended to go off the grid, out of contact. "Next, we'll see if the organization picking up Sir Salvatore has any means of getting past our side — " "Those guys are Doni's subordinates?" "I doubt it. All the staff under his name have been commanded by his butler. Sir Andrea, to withdraw from the region of Tuscany. There shouldn't be anyone in that faction who's foolish enough to defy the strict order of the King's Butler." "Then that means the idiot has summoned secret subordinates that even Andrea-san doesn't know..." "That's probably right if you look at it that way." Starting the motorcycle again. Erica drove towards the city of Florence. Soon, she discovered an appropriate cliurcli and parked tine motorcycle in tine adjoining car park, not for tlie sake of siglitseeing but to visit a nearby restaurant. Finally, they had a chance to sit down and start enjoying a late lunch. "Where does that guy Doni want to go?" "He presumably intends to leave Tuscany. Going along that road which follows the Arno River, he will reach Pisa." The Arno River. Godou remembered Erica mentioning before that it was a great river that crossed Tuscany from east to west. In addition, he had also heard of the other name. "Pisa is the city that's known for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, right?" "Yes. There's also the Univeristy of Pisa where Galileo Galilei studied as well as an airport. Rushing from Pisa, a thirty-minute drive is all it takes to reach Livorno — a harbor city facing the Ligurian Sea." "A port at an airport, huh." In other words, a gateway to sea and air travel. Sitting in the restaurant, listening to Erica's deductions at the table, Godou remarked quietly. As a side note, they were discussing while having various food including chickpeas salad, cylindrical pasta mixed with lamb sauce, bistecca, Florentine mixed stew, unsalted bread unique to Tuscany, etc. Just as they were almost done eating and having an after-meal coffee... Erica's cellphone sounded briefly to indicate receiving a message. Glancing at the LCD screen, the communication device's owner shrugged lightly. "Some unfortunate news. The tracking teams' valiant efforts have ended in failure with the target apparently lost. The people Sir Salvatore called over seem to be quite experienced in this kind of job." The report presumably arrived via the text message. Erica sighed. "Since Sir Salvatore is cliasing after sliadow of tine 'King of tine End,' iiis destinations are limited. However, it's still quite difficult to narrow down a particular location without any clues. What should we do?" Seeing Erica in deep thought, Godou suddenly remembered. Before setting off for ancient Gaul, Godou had found out about Doni's unexpected connections. That man really did have old acquaintances whom he could trust to carry out secret tasks — This time, it was Godou's turn to take out his cellphone. Using this tool which he had put aside and ignored throughout his time traveling journey, Godou tried dialing a number, a task he had not done for quite some time. On the fifth ring, the international call connected. 'It's been quite a while, Honored Uncle. I've already heard news of your return from Madame Aisha's cave. It's wonderful that you are safe and sound.' "Well, many things did happen." The receiver of the call was the young master and leading subordinate in Hong Kong's Lu family. He trained in martial arts under the instruction of Kusanagi Godou's "sworn elder sister" Luo Cuilian as her one and only direct disciple. Consequently, he revered Godou as his master's younger brother, considered an uncle by oriental social hierarchy... "How's life lately? Things going well?" 'Yeah, thanks to you. Honored Uncle, my days are going smoothly. The only task I have remaining for today is to get a good night's rest.' "Huh? It should be roughly ten o'clock over there for you, right? Isn't it a bit early for bed?" Italy was separated from Japan by a time difference of eight hours. The clock hands on Godou's side were currently pointing at two in the afternoon, which meant that the time over in Japan could hardly be called late night. Godou was quite surprised. For a fourteen-year-old youth's bedtime, wasn't it a bit too early? 'If there's nothing special to do, I will sleep as early as possible. That's because I have to do morning training before dawn every morning.' "That's getting up a bit... No, quite early." 'Although people are always surprised to find out, this is the truth indeed.' A young leader from a criminal organization based in Hong Kong. If one were to judge purely from a description of this kind of character, the impression given would be someone who often stayed up late and indulged in night life instead. And taking it a step further, Lu Yinghua also lived in Shinjuku's Kabukichou, one of Japan's top entertainment and red-light districts. However, Lu Yinghua explained in a calm tone of voice: 'Included in Luo Cuilian's martial arts is an exercise involving "the cultivation of internal skills while worshiping the rising sun of dawn." Starting from the age of three, every morning, I was forced — no, asked — to train in this, so I ended up acquiring this habit unwittingly, that of rising from bed as early as eighty-year-old geezers.' "Ah... So Nee-san is the cause as well." 'She described it as absorbing the cleanest and purest solar energies so as to augment internal skills.' Another confession reminiscent of the harsh childhood he had endured. Internal skills. Godou currently knew this was what the Japanese called kikou and known to westerners as breathing exercise or spirit cultivation. Having started his training by Luo Cuilian's side under her tutelage from early childhood, Lu Yinghua had consequently acquired various negative assets such as misogyny, a sadistic attitude towards beautiful female fighters, as well as professional cooking skills despite his young age of fourteen... "By the way, you met my younger sister Shizuka earlier, right?" 'So you have heard, Honored Uncle? Yeah, I ran into her by chance a few days ago in Shinjuku.' "...She didn't cause you any trouble, did she?" Sensing slight anxiety in tine prideful surrogate nepliew's tone of voice, Godou asked as a test just in case, in response, Lu Yingliua answered witli a sliglit sigli. 'No trouble worth mentioning. However, well, she truly does have a capacity for boldness as befits her position as Honored Uncle's sister — That's basically what I felt keenly.' "How should I say this? I'm really sorry." 'It's nothing, don't worry about it. She really didn't cause me any trouble at all. Also—" "Also?" 'I've been inspired slightly to resolve myself to escape the next time I see her.' "I see. If you ever notice her trying to say anything, don't think and just run away immediately. Even as her elder brother, I believe that's the wisest choice." 'Understood. Also, is there anything you'd like me to do for you. Honored Uncle?' As expected of Yinghua. He instantly figured out that the main subject had not been broached yet. "Actually, something a bit troublesome has come up over here in Italy." Godou briefly summarized Salvatore Doni's worrying movements, finally adding: "So last time, you mentioned it, right? You've got friends in Chinatown over here who does dirty work for that idiot Doni. I have a feeling that those people are involved in this incident too." This was something that he had heard Yinghua mention before the trip to ancient Gaul. 'I do remember such a conversation. Well then, I'll go get some information from those people.' "You don't need to do that. Just tell me how to contact those people. We can handle that side of things." Hearing Godou's response, Lu Yinghua laughed malevolently. 'Haha. Indeed, it'll be faster and easier if your side does it, Honored Uncle. I understand the particulars now.' After hanging up, several minutes passed. Godou's cellphone then received a message. Naturally, the sender was Lu Yinghua. Godou showed the address, telephone number and other information on the LCD screen to Erica. Hence, the blonde beauty known as the Diavolo Rosso smiled malevolently in a manner as befitted her title. "So it's my turn next, eh? Fufu, leave it to me. Given the mighty name of Kusanagi Godou and the eloquent tongue of Erica Blandelli, ten minutes are enough for this sort of thing." In actual fact, eight minutes was sufficient. Calling herself the delegate of Japan's Campione and successfully contacting the shady organization called the [King's Company] and based in the Chinatown of the ancient capital, Rome, Erica quickly obtained the necessary information from the company's representative through verbal means. Using the names of Godou and the [Copper Black Cross] as threats, she also placated the other party with sweet words at the same time. Still the same as always, what an outstanding negotiator she was. "Since we've clarified Sir Salvatore's approximate destination, let's try some fancy tricks, shall we?" "Fancy tricks?" "Yes. Let's play a slight trick so that we can catch up to Sir Salvatore." Godou's cellphone was currently placed on the table in the restaurant. Pointing at his cellphone. Erica suggested in a delighted tone of voice: "Hey Godou, I have someone else I'd like to contact." Hence, several hours passed. The sun was almost setting completely. Night was just about to start. Godou and Erica's location liad sliifted away from tine region of Tuscany in central Italy to somewhere else all of a sudden. Taking a flight from Pisa's Aeroporto Galileo Galilei, the two of them had flown for roughly an hour in the southwestern direction, crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach the island of Sardinia — Italy's westernmost autonomous region. Even as an island, Sardinia was only slightly larger than Shikoku, the smallest and least populous of Japan's four main islands. Whether for Godou or Erica, this island was where everything had started. Exiting the airport at the island's regional capital, Cagliari, Godou and Erica followed the guides (Caucasian men with scary-looking faces who were clearly not "reputable" people despite their neat-looking black suits) who were waiting for them. The pair was then led to be seated in a white BMW. Their destination was a luxury hotel in the city of Cagliari. Then they arrived before two men who were chatting cheerfully at a restaurant inside the hotel. Godou recognized both men. One was a blond and handsome man with a frivolous face, Salvatore Doni. The other was an obese old man. He was dressed gallantly in a high-class custom-tailored suit, puffing on a thick cigar, displaying dignified solemnity as befitted the mafia — His public identity was the boss of the Sicilian mafia that made their stronghold on the island of Sicily. Secretly, he was the commander-in-chief of the magic association [Panormus]. Walter Zamparini. "Ohoh, Kusanagi Godou! Sir Salvatore and I are waiting for you together!" "Jeez... Godou, you're such a bad man too." Zamparini's eyes shone while he was welcoming Godou. On the other hand, Doni shrugged. "I can't believe you ordered this old guy to capture my friends at the airport. You even asked him to pass along that whatever 'wait for me until I catch up' message." "It's your fault for leaving without your cellphone." After giving Doni a terrifying glare, Godou continued: "Oh well, even if you kept your phone, you can still cut off contact by switching the power off." "Hahahaha, not like it matters. Even if I'm out of touch for a month or two, Andrea can get along fine on his own." "That's the kind of 'so-what' attitude from the man who fled from Andrea-san's side." At this moment, the hotel attendant walked over to the table and pulled out a chair for Erica. The blonde beauty sat down swiftly and naturally. Godou took his seat in the remaining chair. Thus, dinner was ready to start. As a side note. Erica had already changed and was now wearing a short, red, one-piece dress with a black cardigan of lace. "Uncle Zamparini, I'm so sorry for causing you trouble." "Don't worry, Blandelli. I wouldn't want to miss this rare chance to meet Kusanagi Godou again after so long either. I must thank Sir Salvatore for being so understanding and willing to accompany these old bones of mine for a chat." Old Man Zamparini smiled proudly and took a puff of his cigar. The Campione of Swords had made his way to Sardinia with assistance from the [King's Company]. After learning of this fact. Erica had advised Godou to contact Zamparini. Godou proceeded to do so and made his request: "I hope you can catch Doni's contingent at the Cagliari airport, prevent them from leaving and pass to Salvatore Doni my intention to have a chat between Campiones tonight." Added as a final note was permission to resort to violence if necessary. Hence, this immensely wealthy old man and Sicilian mafia boss had taken his Cessna private jet, spending merely an hour to hurry from Sicily over to Sardinia. Tlien arriving at tlie airport before Doni's group, lie liad fulfilled Godou's request magnificently. Naturally, the same request had been made of the magi in Sardinia. Nevertheless, few possessed the courage capable of opposing Doni, who stood as Italy's Devil King, to force the idiot into "having a chat nearby." Hence, that was why Erica had named Zamparini of Sicily as the candidate. She had nominated the most broadminded man of influence who lived relatively close to Sardinia. In the past, this old man had also provided support during the battle against the divine king, Melqart. Although he had Godou backing him, it was no less of an accomplishment for him to have fulfilled Godou's expectations splendidly — "Oh well, since Godou already found out my destination, I knew someone was going to catch up eventually." "You really came to this island to see her — Lucretia-san?" Godou brought up a nostalgic name. Lucretia Zola. Also known as the Witch of Sardinia. At one point, she had been a researcher who had joined Divine Ancestor Guinevere to seek the identity of the "King of the End." "Completely correct. I heard from somewhere before that she's the person in Italy who knows the most details about the 'King of the End' and the war gods of the past and present, east and west." Despite being a fool to the core, every now and then when dealing with important matters, Doni would display competence that one must not overlook. Doni winked while exhibiting this familiar special skill. "The war god we met in ancient Gaul is still sleeping somewhere on the Earth, right? It should be quite fun to wake up him up for a bit, or at least some hints could be found. That's what I'm thinking." "You can't wake up that kind of dangerous god, not even for a bit, okay!?" Scolding Doni for his idiotic nonsense, Godou tlien muttered: "Besides, even England's Gascoigne spent many years and still couldn't figure out the guy's true identity. An investigation of your level will surely fail, right?" "How will I know if I don't try...? Oh yeah, would you like a drink?" "The legal drinking age in Japan is twenty." "But look, isn't Erica Blandelli drinking right now?" "W-When did you start..." "I'm already sixteen, Godou, which is an age allowed to drink in Italy. Hey Godou, doing as the Romans do is only polite, isn't it?" "In that case, let us prepare some drinks for Your Highness. — ^You there, bring us everything." Apart from Godou, the other three were chatting amiably with a wine glass in one hand each. Furthermore, Zamparini had summoned the bartender, pointed at the first page of the wine list — a selection filled solely with expensive wines — and recklessly ordered "bring us everything." Seeing that, Godou instantly cried out: "How can I finish this much!? No wait, I wasn't planning on drinking a single drop in the first place!" "Don't be so rigid and conservative. Let us drink to our hearts' content tonight!" Calmly ignoring the Campione's refusal, Zamparini even laughed boldly and cheerfully. He was an old man with outstanding courage indeed. In excellent spirits, Zamparini downed his glass of red wine in one breath. "Ohoh, that reminds me. Kusanagi Godou, I have a granddaughter who just turned two." "A granddaughter? She must be very cute." Of course, Godou had never seen this granddaughter of Old Man Zamparini's. But in the grandfather's eyes, surely she must be cuter than anyone else in the world. Taking commonplace preconceptions into account, Godou expressed agreement matter-of-factly. "Hehe, excellent judgment. Your Highness. Yes indeed, it is as you say, it would not be an exaggeration to call my granddaughter a peerless beauty... So, what are your thoughts?" "What do you mean by that?" "In other words, will you accept her as your lover? Kusanagi Godou, I have also heard that you choose to have many beauties serving by your side, thus building a splendid harem. Hohoho, as expected of the promising young Campione whom I, Zamparini, hold in high regard. Now that is truly a Devil King's style of magnificence!" "H-Hold on. That's a misunderstanding!" "You are too modest. In my view as the grandfather, my granddaughter is definitely a beauty worthy of serving you. Please do consider it!" "Come on, you can't actually tell if a two-year-old baby is a beauty or not!" Met with a reunion with this old man from Sicily whom Godou had not seen for so long, the night gradually grew late amidst a lively atmosphere. Parts Despite insistent urging from the host, Godou finished his dinner without drinking a single drop of alcohol. Although Erica had drunk many glasses of wine, she did not show any signs of drunkenness. Meanwhile, the two adult men, Salvatore Doni and Zamparini, kept opening vast numbers of bottles with hearty splendor. In this manner, the banquet held in the restaurant came to an end. "Since the person he's going to see is Lucretia-san, I guess it should be okay to leave Doni unattended." Godou muttered. Currently, he was in a private room in the hotel. Zamparini had also booked rooms in this hotel where the restaurant was located. Hence, Godou decided to gratefully accept the old man's kind offer. The next day's plans involved keeping Doni under supervision and heading over to visit Lucretia's residence. "Since he waited until now to find Lucretia-san for information, then I guess he really doesn't know anything about the 'King of the End.' Looks like it's okay even if I leave him alone." Salvatore Doni had gone missing during daytime. At the time, Godou and Erica had felt worried. Perhaps the Campione of Swords had secretly obtained important information from ancient Gaul about the "King of the End." Furthermore, using this knowledge, he was very likely planning to reawaken the Devil King-slaying hero in the modern era. But standing next to Godou, Erica was frowning with an expression of deep thought. "It might be risky to believe it's okay to leave him alone. Consider this. Aren't you people the race that frequently digs out the roots of conflict? I believe that chances are not entirely zero for Sir Salvatore to suddenly come across important information regarding the 'King of the End' purely by accident..." "Maybe. But I don't want to tie myself to that guy, that's all." Objecting dryly, Godou then said: "In any case, I'll keep Doni under watch for now. I also want to see Lucretia-san again after such a long time." "I phoned her just now but she seems quite reluctant. She said she doesn't want you two to come." "Why!?" "Isn't it perfectly natural? It's no exaggeration to call it a disaster when Campiones are trying to visit your home. Rather, it's something to be avoided even if it requires pretending you're away from home." Erica smiled with a chuckle, causing Godou to feel at a loss. The people around him always touted Kusanagi Godou as "one of the typical Campiones," a heaven-sent child of disaster. Yes, it could not be helped that there are areas contributing to this image but come on, at least don't lump me together with Doni — That was how Godou wanted to retort but there were more important things than raising objections right now. "Hey Erica... Aren't you acting a bit too casual?" "Oh my, why would you think that?" Having just exited the bathroom. Erica was dressed in a bathrobe. Indeed. After taking a shower in Godou's room for some reason, she had dried her wet hair with a towel then started walking around in the room in this unguarded state. Since Erica was wearing nothing except for a white bathrobe, the lines of her slender body were clear to see. Even her cleavage was visible. Thus, Godou frantically averted his gaze. Just hurry back to your own room already, isn't this putting me in a weird state of mind? Godou agonized in his mind. Unaware of his internal thoughts. Erica sat down on the bed, crossing her legs. She even went as far as to openly display her beautiful legs of pristine white. Feeling his heart pounding uncontrollably, Godou turned his gaze away again. However, he also noticed a certain detail. Erica was sitting on one of the beds in the room whereas Godou was currently sitting on the other bed... Indeed. This room contained two beds. Was this actually a double room meant for two people to stay overnight...? "...Erica. Isn't it time for you to go back to your own room — " "Listen, Godou. You must have realized by now, haven't you? This is also the room where I'll be staying." "In other words, we'll be spending the night in the same room...?" "That's really slow of you. Do note that Zamparini is the one who arranged for this room. Didn't we sleep in the same room last time when we were staying overnight at his mansion?" "His original intention was to book a suite that even had Monaco royalty making their stay in the past. But thinking that you'll surely refuse, Godou, he changed it to this room." "Well, that kind of suite would be a total misfit for my status as a high school student..." That being said, the current room was also plenty spacious but at least it was still within range of a double room's standards. As expected of Erica, she understood Godou's way of thinking quite well. Ever since meeting her, not even a year had passed. Yet the two of them had already survived numerous battles together, becoming comrades who knew each other's temperament thoroughly. Moreover, they were special partners as well. Even so, if he had to spend a night with a girl in the same room — Godou suddenly realized. Speaking of which, he had already done this sort of thing many times in the past. "You know, Godou." Also, Erica had come up before him by the time he knew it. Getting off the opposite bed, she gazed into Godou's face. "You should have experienced spending nights with a number of girls apart from me already, haven't you? Isn't it time for you to grow accustomed to this sort of thing?" "Any objections?" "None... I guess." "Very well. Now that's my Godou. His Majesty the Devil King whose bestial desires cannot be satiated by me, Erica Blandelli, alone, but must repeatedly extend his poisonous fangs towards other girls." Erica sat down beside him. Now the two of them were sitting shoulder to shoulder on the bed. "Although you've already surprised me many times, Godou... This is still the most surprising thing. Despite clearly being a blockhead who has no idea how to get along with girls, you somehow end up causing Yuri, Lily and Ena-san to fall into your hands." Sighing once, Erica shrugged. "I suppose this is a time when I could say something along the lines of 'You always fail to understand my feelings — ' But that would run contrary to my style, Erica Blandelli's. It's already too late to say that sort of thing. It would be undignified. Although I am definitely a slightly vainglorious woman, perhaps this type of personality ends up the worse off during times like these." Naturally, Kusanagi Godou had no right to complain even if he were stabbed by the girls faction, with Erica first and foremost. Apart from listening respectfully, he had no other choice. No wait, perhaps it would not be too much even if he knelt on the floor...? While Godou could not help but enter deep thought, something kissed him on the cheek. A light, teasing kiss from Erica. "Let's end that subject here. However, in return, you must promise me this. Please, even if you're just going through the motions, please do not ever say that you wish to escape me — escape our feelings." "Erica..." "If you would promise me that, I could turn a blind eye to your deplorable behavior. How about that?" Godou did not answer the girl who had expressed her feelings in such a calm and resigned manner. Instead, he drew his face close and sealed Erica's lips with his own. Erica accepted him without resisting. Although the two of them had engaged in passionate kissing many times in tine past, tiiey did not covet eacli otiier's lips or entangle their tongues together this time. Simply pressing their lips together, they kissed quietly. Nevertheless, the emotions involved were perhaps even more powerful than usual. This was true whether for Godou or for Erica. "May I stay here now...?" "Yeah." Seeing Erica ask uncharacteristically in a cute manner, Godou nodded slightly stiffly. She picked up a slender slab-shaped object, peeling off the wrapping paper and the foil beneath. "I have a present for you, Godou. Open your mouth." "...Ah." Godou obeyed without a fuss because he already knew her intentions. Holding the slab-shaped object in her mouth, Erica bit through it with her teeth. Roughly one third of the slab remained on her lips. Furthermore, out of all everyone Godou knew, the most gorgeous and beautiful maiden was drawing her face close once again — Using a kiss, she delivered the slab-shaped object into Godou's mouth. The sweetness of chocolate expanded in his mouth. Erica was feeding the slab-shaped chocolate to Godou via mouth-to-mouth. In addition, her action was not limited to simply feeding the sweet confectionery to him. Along with the chocolate. Erica inserted her tongue inside as well. Cautiously, she used her tongue to feel for the chocolate inside Godou's mouth, even going as far as to lick Godou's tongue thoroughly together with the slightly saccharine taste, savoring everything patiently. In turn, Godou savored Erica's tongue together with the chocolate. While kissing in this manner, the two of them began to eat chocolate together. Using the tips of tlieir tongues, tiiey began to pusli tlie cliocolate around. IVIoving from Godou's moutii into Erica's mouth then back to Godou's mouth again. Stirred by their tongues and saliva, the chocolate gradually melted, staining their lips. Godou thoroughly savored the flavor while licking the sweetness in Erica's mouth. Likewise, Erica moved her tongue and lips, licking the sweetness in Godou's mouth. It was only natural that their lips would get stained by chocolate, but together with its taste, they licked each other clean with their tongues. In the end, it took the two of them wholly three minutes or so to finish the piece of chocolate. "Hey Godou.... How about... we eat a bit more...?" Hearing Erica whispering softly before his eyes, Godou felt incomparably excited inside. "Fufufufu. Although I am aware that it is customary for Japanese girls to present gifts of chocolate to boys this time of the year, I originally had no intention of giving you any. This sort thing fails to interest me. But after hearing that Hikari had already succeeded in giving you chocolate, I changed my mind." The young beauty, always radiant with intellect, was now showing a smile full of bliss before his eyes. This was proof that she had entrusted her heart to Godou and heightened his desire to shower Erica with tender affection. "Although Hikari is a cute junior, it would be a taint to the name of Erica Blandelli if she always steals the first move. What are your thoughts, Godou...? I think this should be enough for me to prevail over her." This was most likely a piece of chocolate that she had simply bought in a nearby shop. Nevertheless, Godou experienced a mind-numbing feeling after savoring that taste. Erica was probably feeling the same way. Gazing into each other's eyes, they began to kiss again, this time without the chocolate. "Erica...!" "I could continue to feed you, Godou? Or perhaps, after the confectionery, let us carry on by making love? So long as you wish, I shall — " "Erica!" Seeing as she had said this much already, there was no point in suppressing himself any further. Besides, the two of them were sitting on a bed to begin with. Driven with passion, Godou pushed Erica down on her back. As a result, her bathrobe fell open, revealing the valley between her breasts. "Godou...!" Pushed down. Erica cradled Godou's neck in her arms, hugging him tightly. Godou not only felt her body's warmth but also the heavy and elastic sensations of her breasts, pressed tightly against his body, causing his excitement to soar even further. Immediately, Godou took her lips. In turn, Erica accepted Godou's intensely passionate kiss. As a result, locked in mutual embrace in this manner, the pair repeatedly pressed their lips together in ecstatic fervor, sucking on each other's mouth, caressing tongue against tongue lovingly again and again. Exchanging light bites on the earlobes, they even sucked on each other's neck. In this manner, the two of them repeated such behavior nonstop for five or six minutes — Finally, Godou pushed his body up. Separating from Erica's body, he interrupted the embrace. Rather than recovering sanity, it would be better described as a feeling of unstoppable momentum. Honestly speaking, he definitely felt inclined to embrace Erica and continue. "Is this where we stop, Godou?" "Th-That kind of thing is too early for us..." He had rejected Seishuuin Ena's request with the same reason in the past. Kusanagi Godou was undoubtedly a lucky bastard. These girls were all so adorable that they were irresistible. Be that as it may, if he were to accept them at this stage, his fangs were going to be dulled — This type of worry stemmed from his own willfulness and selfishness. "Seriously. Clearly I am ready any time..." Although Godou's behavior was quite impolite in a certain sense. Erica still remained smiling. It was the same smile of bliss that he had seen earlier. Noticing Godou's puzzled gaze, she spoke in an intoxicated tone of voice: "Naturally, Godou, I do wish you could carry through to the very end. However, I shall forgive you tonight. Knowing you desire me greatly in turn is enough to fill me with joy already." "Erica..." "Ah yes. As your punishment, I shall sleep with you tonight." Erica declared, still bearing a smile of happiness on her face. Godou went "Eh!?" in surprise. Seeing Godou in a panic. Erica chuckled and continued to announce malevolently: "It's because you won't accept my willful demands, that's why. When clearly I hope with sincerity to deepen our relationship, Godou, to make my body and soul yours." II II "I won't be satisfied unless you agree to this level of compensation." "l-lf I sleep together with you, I might not be able to hold back!" "When that happens, please dispense with your worrying, go ahead and whisper your love in my ear. I shall entrust my body to you immediately. Fufu, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could share the same dream tonight, Godou!?" This was a declaration Erica issued in unusually high spirits. Nevertheless, Godou was ultimately unable to refuse this decree — utterly shocked, he was unable to raise further objections. Parte "I see. So you would like to investigate the mystery of the 'King of the End', Sir Salvatore?" Lucretia Zola murmured in her usual, aloof tone of voice. Oliena was a town in Sardinia's interior, a small autonomous community almost on the same scale as the town of Poppi that Godou and Erica had visited the previous day. The Witch of Sardinia had made her residence precisely in this town. Godou, Erica and Doni were currently facing Lucretia while she was sitting casually on the living room sofa. As a side note, although they had spent the previous night at Cagliari, that city was actually quite far from Oliena. Even traveling by car would take substantial time. Consequently, Zamparini had rented a helicopter(!) to send Godou, Erica and Doni here. Moreover, saying he had things to do, the old man had returned to Sicily early in the morning... "Truly what a disaster for the world, to think that another Campione after Prince Alec has appeared to track down the hero king's trail. Oh well, since you wish to obtain all available information regarding the 'King of the End,' Sir Salvatore, how could a mere witch as I possibly have the right to refuse..." "Oh no oh no, don't say that." Doni waved his hands in response to Lucretia's sarcasm. "I don't care about mysteries and stuff Wke that. I just want you to tell me the fastest way to revive the 'King of the End.' Can you do that?" "It's not a question of can or can't. Rather, I am not privy to the greatest riddle. I am unable to respond to your demand. Sir Salvatore." Despite calling Godou "young man," Lucretia used polite speech towards Doni. Nevertheless, her lethargic gaze clearly displayed her regretful sentiments towards the foolish king. As a side note, the two who were listening to the conversation from the side, Godou and Erica, remained silent throughout. Rather than a wish to avoid getting involved blindly, it would be better to say that they found oral intervention to be troublesome too. "1 see. Then if there's any summarized info on the 'King of the End' or something like an introductory book, please deliver it to my butler." "...Understood. It will be done." "Oh my, thanks. You're such a great help." "Not at all. Glad to be of assistance." "Y-You great big idiot..." Godou glared viciously at the frivolously smiling Doni. "If it's something like this that could have been settled over the phone, don't do such an outrageous disappearing act! Do you know how many people are getting yanked around!?" "Hey now, Godou. Asking someone for a favor over the phone is very poor manners." "Tsk. Only at times like these do you actually say something right..." "And if I actually succeeded in finding out the revival method, I could set off immediately. Free of that annoying Andrea!" Winking, Doni looked like a mischievous little brat. Godou wondered if it would be right to say that Doni was acting the same as always, in terms of flawlessly concealing the hidden agenda behind his foolish behavior. In any case, the purpose of visiting Lucretia's residence was essentially fulfilled. "Then I'll be on my way. If any new info comes up, I'm counting on you!" Cheerfully leaving these words behind, Doni made his way towards the living room's entrance. Despite arriving merely twenty minutes ago, he was already taking his leave. Whether in personality or behavior, this was very typical of the King of Swords. After nodding to thank Lucretia, Godou also followed Doni to leave. Erica did the same. Ever since entering this house, she had not said a single word. This was probably out of deference to her position as a knight in front of two Campiones. However, Erica did not intend to act reserved the whole time. Before coming here, the Diavolo Rosso had already made preparations. Seeing Erica signal with her eyes, Godou nodded lightly in response. After reaching the corridor, walking in the lead, Doni went to the front door. Erica followed him. However, Godou alone turned in the opposite direction — making his way to the depths of the residence. He took leisurely steps as though heading to the washroom. But as soon as Doni and Erica were outside, he doubled back to the living room. Seeing Godou return, Lucretia smiled with delight. "How nostalgic, young man." "Huh?" "Do you still remember? The first time you visited this home, you also left with Miss Erica before my eyes before returning on your own. To have a private conversation with me." "...Now that you mention it, that really did happen." Prompted by Lucretia, Godou remembered it too. Last time, tliere was a need to tall< in Erica Blandelli's absence. But tiiis time, lie was meeting Lucretia face to face under Erica's arrangements. Godou would never liave expected tliis cliange in circumstances witiiin less than a year's worth of time. Godou smiled wryly. This would have been totally unthinkable back when he made his first visit to Italy. Furthermore, his relationship with Erica even developed to the current state — Godou recalled the scene this morning. Stuck in a predicament where he had no choice but to share beds with Erica, he was naturally quite troubled and ended up spending a sleepless night as a result. Even so, sleep still crept upon him unnoticed. Also, when he woke up... Godou saw Erica's sleeping face on the same bed. The beautiful maiden, more gorgeous than anyone he knew, her dignified face was as adorable as a sleeping angel's. For a moment, he watched in mesmerization. But due to sensing Godou's movements, Erica also awakened. While rubbing her sleepy eyes, she smiled with absolute innocence and purity... Erica's expression, completely different from her usual self, leaving Godou's emotions unsettled ever since getting up in the morning. "I never expected a day when I would re-encounter Miss Erica and you in this manner. Although I do have the intention to live that long, never in my wildest dreams would I have expected my old friend's grandson to become a Campione." Gazing at Godou, Lucretia's eyes carried a gentleness that she seldom showed, similar to that of a grandmother and an older sister at the same time. "Well then, it's almost time to broach the main subject. I've already heard over the phone from Miss Erica. You have apparently obtained a clue regarding the 'King of the End', haven't you?" "Yeah, I guess. A certain goddess's last words." During New Year's earlier, Godou had battled against the goddess Circe in the South Seas over Malaysian territory. These were the words she left behind on her dying breath: — "Ah yes, let me take these final moments to enact my vengeance on His Highness Alexandre for betraying my love. Regarding the great hero whom he seeks, you should search the Argo's genealogy if his true name is what you desire. I reveal this secret only to you alone, Kusanagi-sama!" While saying that, her face displayed a smile more adorable than any beautiful maiden's. Despite clearly knowing the answer to the mystery Alexandre Gascoigne sought, she remained silent during the time spent with him. Furthermore, Godou was finally able to pass this message along to Lucretia. Transmitted to the woman who had devoted her life at one point towards researching the "King of the End." "...The Argo huh. The name of the ship built by the hero Jason in order to obtain the Colchis kingdom's secret treasure — the Golden Fleece — the Argo is precisely that vessel's name. Dozens of heroes boarded this ship, surmounting countless hardships to make their way towards Colchis..." Murmuring, Lucretia recounted a story from Greek mythology. "However, what the goddess said was 'the Argo's genealogy.' In that case, should the Argo itself be considered... Hmm?" "What's wrong?" Seeing Lucretia suddenly fall silent, Godou inquired. But the Witch of Sardinia did not answer. Her mouth gaped open for a minute or two. With glazed eyes, she remained silent for a while before speaking again in unhurried murmurs: "Long long ago, at a certain place — " These whispers were said in Japanese. Just now, the two of them had been conversing in Italian, but Lucretia suddenly spoke in Japanese. Godou jumped in surprise. Could it be tliat sine liad received an oracle via spirit vision? Although not reaching Mariya Yuri's level of attainment, Lucretia was also a spirit vision user. Godou stared intently at the witch's beautiful face, waiting for her. However, Lucretia suddenly resumed her usual expression of lethargy, exhaling. "Unfortunately, that's all. But this is quite a first. Obtaining a spirit vision regarding the 'King of the End'..." Speaking of which, could the word 'Argo' be the crucial key? Also, there were Lucretia's quiet whispers just now. Somewhere long long ago. A long time ago. What meaning did these words hide within them? Difficult to deduce. While Godou was troubling over these thoughts, Lucretia said to him: "Young man, although right now, this is merely a subconscious feeling... When the time comes for a showdown against the 'King of the End,' perhaps you may possess an element of advantage." "What do you mean by that?" "The sword's spell words, controlled by Verethragna's final incarnation — the weapon of the [Warrior]." This was probably an oracle via spirit vision as well. Lucretia spoke solemnly. "The king manifesting at era's end is a deity who hides his name insistently. If the origin of his true name could be elucidated, then turning that knowledge into a blade... The sword's spell words might possibly bring out far greater power than ever before." "My... Verethragna's sword?" "For those who hide their names, the most powerful blow is only possible to deliver if their true name is spoken. But of course, the battle cannot be won simply through this alone." After that, Godou took his leave from Lucretia's residence. He rejoined his two companions outside. However, the helicopter that had transported them here had already returned to the Cagliari area. "We need to arrange for transportation to get back. I've contacted fellow members of the [Copper Black Cross] and asked them to drive over. Also, I'm going to buy some food and drink." As soon as Godou met up with her, Erica explained while holding a cellphone in one hand. Lucretia's residence was located at the very edge of town. There were no shops or other residences nearby. Erica started walking towards a relatively busier part of the tiny Oliena. Before leaving, she signaled with her eyes to Godou, probably asking him to keep an eye on Doni. Thus, Godou was now alone with Doni, just the two of them. Sardinia's blue sky stretched endlessly overhead. The weather was sunny today. Although the winter wind was quite chilly, thanks to the sunlight, it was within toleration. More importantly, there was no snow in the vicinity. Lucretia's residence was built next to a mixed forest. But apart from this patch of mixed forest, the surroundings consisted of wide open plains. If it were spring, this area would probably be covered with blooming flowers of various colors. Seeing Doni strolling on this plain at an unsteady pace, Godou had no choice but to follow. "But investigations are really such difficult things." "I'm sure Gascoigne will probably be furious if he heard the word investigation coming from your mouth." Doni's nonsense was met with Godou's cold reception. It was only a hunch, but Godou felt that the capable Alexandre Gascoigne probably would hate Salvatore Doni and his foolish airs. Indeed, just like how Kusanagi Godou kept calling this man an idiot and felt very incompatible with that eccentric nobleman as well. However — enduring this feeling of wanting to click his tongue, Godou secretly felt well-matched. (The things this guy does, ended up not being completely futile or useless...) Today, Godou had paid Lucretia a visit due to getting dragged out here on account of Doni. As a result, even though it relied on Doni's beginner's luck, nevertheless, this was precisely what led Godou to pass the goddess Circe's hint onto the Witch of Sardinia, thereby obtaining that spirit vision — It was possible that Lucretia might have obtained the same oracle even through communications via phone or mail. But it was also possible she might not. In that case, Doni's seemingly foolish actions succeeded in drawing out a hint that brought them closer to the truth of the "King of the End" mystery. In a certain sense, such beginner's luck was quite fitting for one of the Campiones, the illegitimate children of Epimetheus. "Oh my, could it be that you've got something to tell me, Godou?" "No way in hell. Stop looking for weird excuses." "Oh right oh right, since Erica Blandelli isn't here, why don't we run away? Since we came all the way to Sardinia, it'd be too boring if nothing's accomplished. Let's go find gods worthy as our opponents, or start a journey of investigation — " "After all that trouble to get back to this side, don't go causing commotions the same way as what you did in Gaul!" "No no, you've got things backwards. I simply brought my modern ways over to the past. Since it's you, I'm sure you can understand, right?" "What does that have to do with anything!?" "Then to commemorate our return to the present, let's duel decisively a number of times." "Like hell anyone wants to duel! I've already had enough showdowns between you and me. For the rest of my life, I'm fine with exiting the stage with my victory!" "Are you saying you don't want a fight with Salvatore Doni in tip-top shape? During the duel in Gaul, I was quite exhausted after getting possessed by Artio." "Shut up. Adjusting your physical condition during battle is also a part of competency!" While the two were engaged in a dialogue lacking in the solemnity of Devil Kings... They suddenly stopped talking at the same time. A presence — Both of them noticed a presence that only Campiones could sense, being godslayers. Then Doni smiled lightly. "It must be my lucky day? Looks like coming all the way here was worth it." "I really feel a bit jealous that you can feel lucky about this kind of situation." After grumbling, Godou felt the blowing of wind. The cold and freezing wind of winter, blowing from a certain direction. Even when this gust of cold wind swirled before the two Devil Kings to form a cyclone, then taking on human form, they were not surprised. Because the two of them had already entered a state of combat readiness, in both body and mind, having sensed a Heretic God's presence. Nevertheless, Godou was deeply astonished when he saw the wind god's appearance. Even Doni whistled briefly in surprise. Tall in stature. Wrapped all over in white strips of cloth. Clad in armor. In addition, the red mask obscuring the face — Only the eye portions were pitch black. "The wind god we met in Gaul!?" "Ehe. Looks like it's time for a greeting of 'Haven't seen you for fifteen hundred years!' or something like that." For Godou and Doni, the battle against this wind god only felt like it took place two months earlier. However, since the masked war god had continued to exist from fifth-century Gaul all the way to now, this could definitely be described as a reunion after one and a half millennia. Godou was rendered speechless by the excessively surprising encounter. However, there were even more astonishing things waiting for him. A young girl appeared deftly from behind the wind god. She looked about twelve or thirteen in age. Her beautiful silver looked as though infused with droplets of moonlight. Those eyes were more pitch-black than darkness, shining with luster akin to that of a pure-black gemstone. She was dressed in a simple white robe of Greek style. The staff held in her slender right hand exhibited the form of a "double-headed snake." However, what caught Godou's eye more than anything else was — "...It's Athena!?" Her beautiful face. It was completely identical to that of the goddess who had passed away in Japan several months earlier. "Nay. One is not Athena." The silver-haired beauty murmured haughtily. Even her tone of voice was indistinguishable from that of the goddess. "Tis meet for thee to address one as Pallas Athena, mine enemy of ill fate." Part/ "Twas said that the Witch Queen formerly existing in these lands was called Guinevere. One hath succeeded her legacy to become the present generation Witch Queen. Oneself and ye are now acquainted henceforth." "So in short, a Divine Ancestor huh..." Gazing unerringly at the greatly surprised Godou, Pallas Athena continued: "Exhausting the arts of magic in search of godslayers nearby... A rather surprising result. One did not expect to encounter mine enemy of ill fate this soon." "Ill fate?" Divine Ancestors were not supposed to retain memories from their previous lives — as goddesses. Precisely because of that, Guinevere repeatedly failed in her search for the "King of the End." However, it was unbelievable that this Divine Ancestor, who looked identical to Athena, actually remembered Kusanagi Godou...? Feeling intrigued, Godou asked: "Your cause of death was from the Divine Sword of Salvation sucking your life away, right? If that's clearly the case, why do you serve the 'King of the End'? Shouldn't you bear a resentful grudge against the 'King of the End'!?" "Verily indeed... Nevertheless, such is the existence known as the Divine Ancestor." Even when faced with Godou's accusatory questioning, Athena still smiled haughtily at him. "Dost thou know? Those known as Divine Ancestors all came about as the end state of mother earth goddesses whose lives were taken by the sword of salvation... Having lost their lives to the divine sword, goddesses of the earth then reincarnate into Divine Ancestors, worshiping as their lord the king who manifests at era's end. But certainly, 'tis true." Pallas Athena's lips were twisted as though in self-mockery. Godou jumped in surprise. The pride residing in her smile had shifted slightly towards valor — That was the impression he felt. "'Tis unknown whether the word 'grudge' can be admitted... But no matter, this shall be put aside for now. More important is thee, godslayer of the east." There were currently two Campiones present. However, Pallas Athena ignored the frivolous Italian young man, only staring intently at Kusanagi Godou alone. The fighting spirit, nobility and pride residing in her eyes were all identical to that of the goddess Athena — Godou quietly looked back at the young girl in turn. Probably trying not to be left out, standing by Godou's side, Doni opened his mouth — However, the masked war god took an extremely rapid step towards Doni in tiiis instant. It was almost akin to a declaration of "One shall be thy opponent!" Doni smiled happily as he looked at the war god while keeping his silent gaze on his opponent. Ignoring the minor disturbance, Pallas Athena smiled mysteriously. "When reincarnating upon the earth, Divine Ancestors shall lose the memories from their past lives... as a deities. One is no exception. Be that as it may, this violent passion burns within the very depths of one's soul." "Passion?" "Forsooth. A mortal enemy existeth whom one must defeat, mayhap. As much as awakening the weary hero is one's mission, here existeth ill fate wherein even this mission paleth in comparison." Placing her fist upon her slim chest, Pallas Athena murmured thus. "Namely, one's destiny is to defeat thee." "...No, you've got it wrong." Her lips twisted into a savage grin as Godou spoke quietly. He had understood through the exchange just now. Perhaps Athena was undoubtedly revived as a subordinate under the "King of the End." Nevertheless, even after becoming a Divine Ancestor, that goddess's core nature and soul most likely remained unchanged. "It's the opposite. I'm the one who's going to defeat you. That's the promise. I owe that goddess a great favor, so I must repay her properly!" "Oho." Pallas Athena smiled savagely again as she narrowed her eyes. '"Tis clear now. Thou hast lost against one in the past." "True, that's not a wrong way of putting it. There are all sorts of circumstances between us." "Understood. That is to say, bonds of ill fate hath formed between thee and oneself, transcending life and death. 'Tis meet to interpret so, mayhap? — In that case, one shall inquire of you, godslayer. Pray tell, what thine appellation mayeth be?" "Remember this well. I am Kusanagi Godou." Godou answered the Divine Ancestor who bore the proud face of the war goddess. Pallas Athena raised her voice and shouted, as though savoring his name: "Very well! In that case, listen well, Kusanagi Godou, as well as the other godslayer present hither. As one connected to the Devil King-slaying hero. Divine Ancestor Pallas Athena hereby issueth a declaration of war to the two of ye!" This declaration of war came from the lips of the valorous queen. "Well then. Pray tell, will ye accept this side's challenge!?" "Since you've made things so clear, it's impossible to refuse." Even faster than Godou, this time it was Salvatore Doni who spoke. A happy grin hung on his face. However, he opened the cylindrical case that had been slung on his shoulder all this time, taking out the longsword hidden within. This was preparation for battle. "I never thought that right when I start investigating the 'King of the End,' I'd run into his subordinates. Let me accept this challenge gratefully. Show me your power!" Saying that, the blond Campione chopped at the wind god before him. A diagonal slash aiming to cut the enemy from shoulder to hip. Furthermore, Doni's right hand was shining with silver radiance. Using the authority of the magic sword, he intended to slice everything into two. In response, the god known as the Wind King suddenly manifested a great blade in his right hand. Using this blade, the masked war god redirected Doni's slash. A wise move, considering that an attempt to block would likely result in his body getting sliced through together with the great blade. This also made one fact clear. The "Wind King" still remembered Salvatore Doni's magic sword. "How amazing. I can't believe you still remember an opponent you fought a thousand five hundred years ago. As expected of a god." Feeling impressed for a weird reason, Doni lowered his right arm. The tip of his blade pointed at the ground. Of course, rather than abandoning the fight, he was entering his stance for the sword of mental nothingness. Using this undisciplined standing posture, Doni unleashed an upwards slash! Confronted with the magic sword, slicing diagonally from below, the "Wind King" moved the great blade in his hand — throwing it away. He abandoned his weapon quite readily. "!?" The one who felt surprised was Godou, not Doni. Responding without thought towards whatever the enemy did, no matter what, he swung his sword completely naturally. This was precisely the true value possessed by the sword of mental nothingness. Consequently, Doni continued to show a cheerful expression on his face while swinging the magic sword, intending to cut the "Wind King" from the left flank up to the chest, severing the right shoulder completely. But at the very last moment, the "Wind King" blocked Doni's magic sword with his left arm. Clang! The sound of steel striking steel. Indeed, hidden behind the mask and the strips of cloth wrapping the entire body, he or possibly she was a hybrid of a wind god and a sword god, thus possessing a steel-like body. The "Wind King" stopped Doni's magic sword using his left forearm. But the price paid was a slice penetrating the left arm, two thirds of the way deep. Godou had witnessed the same battle situation in ancient Gaul one and a half millennia earlier. But this time, the "Wind King" instantly used his right hand to chop at Doni's magic sword. Crash! A sound akin to that of shattering glass. It was the sound of Doni's longsword shattering, falling on the ground in the form of countless metal fragments. If the enemy was using a body possessing the hardness of steel, even ordinary punches and kicks could serve as substitutes for sure-kill moves from a sacred sword. In a certain sense, this manner of counterattacking greatly befitted the war gods of steel, the embodiments of swords and blades. "You're a lot different from before!" Discarding the hilt remaining in his hand, Doni swiftly retreated backwards. The swift and agile "Wind King" pursued but suddenly halted. Seeing his opponent's reaction, Doni smiled happily. The King of Swords was not only a master of swordsmanship but also martial arts techniques across the board with the unarmed arts of juujutsu above all. Pursuing to attack without a sword would lead to getting counterattacked. Seeing through this point, the "Wind King" ignored Doni's lure. The masked war god was most likely a martial artist rivaling Salvatore Doni. This was evident from those movements. Having both lost their weapons, the two opponents faced off, maintaining a separation of several meters. Doni was in an unguarded state with his back arched mildly, both arms lowered. However, this sword guru of a man was capable of transforming myriad martial techniques into powerful assets. Hence, he was even more scary when without a stance. Hence, the "Wind King" clenched his right fist and turned his right hand towards Doni. This was a stance that seemed to use the fist like a sword. Was the god trying to exhibit martial arts such as unarmed fighting or boxing — ? The instant just as the two martial artists were about to start an unarmed battle... "Time to desist, 'Wind King.' Naturally, thy splendorous valor is the trump card capable of defeating everything... But at this time, there are other heroes who ought to be introduced to the godslayers." Orders issued by Pallas Athena. The "Wind King" immediately lowered his fist. In the next instant, the hybrid god of wind and steel transformed into a whirlwind, his figure disappearing. Seeing him retreat so simply, Godou nodded instead. "I see now... If that guy is the only bodyguard, then there aren't enough opponents for us." Pallas Athena wasa Divine Ancestor and at the same time, also the Witch Queen in possession of transcendental powers. But she probably did not wield sufficient power capable of rivaling gods or Campiones. Just as it was the case for the previous Witch Queen, Guinevere. Of course, it would be a different matter if the seal of dragons and snakes were to be released, thereby recovering a mother earth goddess's divinity. However, that was a trump card that could only be used in exchange for one's life. Logically, it was not something that could be used recklessly. That said, if she really did possess Athena's soul, then under conditions when it was necessary, she would surely take on a serpentine or draconic form without hesitation... In any case, now was not the time yet. Feeling certain of that, Godou said: "Where are the guys you want us to meet?" "Hahahahal I'm already here!" A cheerful and manly voice descended from the heavens. The instant he heard this voice, Godou immediately broke into a run, driven by an instinctive warning that "Staying here any longer will be very dangerous!" To distance himself from Pallas Athena, he sprinted at full speed. Immediately, dozens of arrows descended where Godou had been standing previously! Taking a sideways glance at the great number of arrows embedded in the ground, Godou had escaped disaster by the slimmest of margins. Furthermore, the other Campione was also taking strange action at the same time. "Ohoh!?" Suddenly startled, Doni swiftly jumped backwards. He moved as though he were evading someone's attack. But there was no one in front of Doni — no wait, the blond Campione was still continuing to dodge left and right, repeatedly evading someone's attacks. His evasive movements looked like he was fighting an unseen enemy and dodging incoming attacks. Still, Godou understood quite well that Salvatore Doni was a user of the mind's eye, capable of seeing through divine speed. Instinctively, Godou felt that Doni was probably using this skill right now. Doni's attacker was a user of divine speed — impossible for ordinary people to capture with their eyes! In actual fact, a figure was currently jumping around Doni's vicinity, wielding some kind of object, moving at super high speed. Furthermore, judging from the silhouette of the object, it felt like some sort of pole-shaped weapon. "Use this!" "Haha, thanks!" Godou instantly called out to him. Smiling, Doni extended his right arm towards Godou. Godou clicked his tongue, quite displeased that Doni could understand what he meant without the need for explanations, when clearly they were not on intimate terms at all. But right now, there was no leisure for grumbling. Instead, Godou summoned: "Ama no Murakumo! Fight alongside tliat guy for now!" 'Affirmative!' Accepting orders, the divine sword residing in Kusanagi Godou's right arm, Ama no IVIurakumo no Tsurugi, suddenly manifested in Doni's right hand. The gently curving blade measured three feet, three and a half inches. Whether in blade design or construction, it greatly resembled a Japanese sword. However, the blade itself was exuding an jet-black and mysterious aura of calamity. "Since I have this, there's nothing to be afraid of!" With both hands, Doni adjusted and firmed his grip on the reinforcements Godou had sent. Next, he swung Ama no Murakumo no Tsurugi horizontally. Immediately, an acute "clang!" resounded, an impact between metal and metal. The same, unnatural noise was also produced in his earlier showdown against the "Wind King." Ama no Murakumo had splendidly blocked the pole-shaped weapon belonging to the figure moving at divine speed. At the same time, the wielder of the metal staff also stopped moving at last, finally allowing Godou to witness his appearance. However, Godou was no less surprised than when Athena made her entrance. "The Great Sage Equaling Heaven!?" "Indeed. It's been a while, Kusanagi." The metal pole Doni had blocked was the famous Ruyi Jingu Staff. Jumping about like lightning with divine speed, this monkey king was indeed the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, Sun Wukong. Over his yellow battle outfit was leather-crafted gear consisting of gauntlets, greaves and a breastplate. Laughing merrily, this [Heretic God] was supposed to have perished on the plains of Senjougahara in Okunikkou. In addition, a winged white horse descended from the heavens, accompanied by the sounds of massive wings flapping. Pegasus of Greek legend, which Godou had also witnessed before at Naples. Furthermore, Godou clearly remembered the rider sitting astride the winged horse — "Hohohoho. How embarrassing. For a formerly dead body to return so shamelessly in this manner..." Dressed in a white outfit, the winged horse's rider was holding a longbow. He was the one who had fired upon Godou earlier. A handsome face that gave no impression of cowardice despite its exquisite beauty and a head of lustrous, blond, wavy hair. These were two characteristics both belong to Perseus. During summer last year at Naples, Godou had fought a deadly battle against this ancient Roman hero. Speaking of which, Godou seemed to recall someone mentioning something about "Perseus slain" — "Aha, I remember you're that guy, from that time!" "Hoho. Quite some care I've received from you, godslayer of the magic sword. Apart from Kusanagi Godou, I must properly repay you as well." Doni stared wide-eyed for he had exited the stage at Naples a long time ago. Glancing sideways at him, Perseus ordered his steed to flap its wings in descent, finally landing on the left side of Pallas Athena. Hence, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven also jumped back from Doni and landed on the Witch Queen's right. "How now? Sharp are the swords left behind by the former Witch Queen, are they not?" Leading the two war gods who flanked her, Pallas Athena spoke. A yellow medallion had appeared in her right hand at some point. Its color mixture belonged to that of an alloy of iron and gold. "As the supreme sword god, the 'King of the End' possesseth the authority to turn his perished kin into his own weapons — substituting for bows and arrows, substituting for swords." To think that he possessed that kind of authority in addition to the Divine Sword of Salvation. Not only Godou but also Doni was staring speechlessly at the object in the Witch Queen's hand. On the medallion of iron and gold, three sword-shaped emblems were carved on its surface. "This [Arrowhead's Discus] is precisely the vessel for storing the authorities of summoned sword gods. Fufufu, this treasure, passed down in secret between successive generations of Witch Queens, one shall now make use of it." Confronted with the happily smiling Pallas Athena, Godou gasped. Speaking of which, he recalled someone telling him to "beware of the king's arrowhead." Probably because of that, he had started feeling a sense of foreboding as soon as he saw arrows shooting at him just now. Godou felt as though a great threat was looming near, but there was no helping it. What exactly was it? Just as he was feeling doubtful, Godou noticed something. By the time he noticed, the sky had filled with thunderclouds and he could now see the bright flashes of lightning amidst them. He understood now. Now that so many characters had gathered here, surely that opponent must come too! "Ama no Murakumo!" While Godou called out, lightning also descended from the sky at the same time. The jet-black divine sword disappeared from Doni's hand, manifesting in Godou's right hand instead. Instantly, Godou lifted the divine sword towards the sky while invoking the [Bull] at the same time, Verethragna's fifth incarnation. This incarnation of unparalleled monstrous might was only usable when facing opponents surpassing human strength. Naturally, there was no problem this time. Descending rapidly witli liglitning speed, tine enemy was a flying knight charging through the sky. The opponent's energy and penetrative power easily satisfied the [Bull]'s conditions. Using the incarnation's monstrous strength, Godou raised Ama no Murakumo no Tsurugi over his head. This was to block the lance thrust from the female knight descending from the heavens. "Yahhhhhhhhhhhhh!" "What wondrous joy to encounter you again, Kusanagi Godou! The man of this knight's destiny!" Accompanied by lightning, the knight charging at the ground was a beauty with a head of gorgeous hair the color of honey. Her short, sleek, soft hair felt refreshing. One with her steed, descending from the sky, she was clad in chain mail, armed with a barbed cavalry lance. This very lance was thrust with the momentum and intention of piercing Godou's forehead with its tip. Ama no Murakumo no Tsurugi was able to block the attack by relying on the [Bull]'s monstrous strength. The instant the jet-black blade and the lance tip collided, Godou swung the divine sword in a wide, horizontal arc. As a result, the lance, horse and female knight were deflected with a loud "Clang!" Recovering balance in midair, she then landed behind Pallas Athena. "Hmph. To think you were able to discern one's arrival. Truly sharp vision indeed." "Since things have gotten to this point already, I was thinking you'd surely revive as well." Saved for the moment at least, Godou panted as he replied. Sitting astride the flying white horse, the female knight was Lancelot du Lac, of course. "Well then. How now? Mine enemy of ill fate, Kusanagi Godou. And the other godslayer." Now with even the Amazonian queen under her command as well, Pallas Athena announced sonorously: "Together with these war gods, the 'Wind King' also standeth by in one's faction. For a declaration of war against the present generation of godslayers, such combat potential would be considered quite sufficient, yes?" "Oh my. Definitely quite sufficient. So sufficient that I almost want to thank you." In a rare moment, Doni was smiling wryly. Although he was always talking about seeking strong foes, nevertheless, opponents of flawless caliber had now appeared in quick succession. This was probably the reason why he was showing a wry smile. Seeing this reaction, Pallas Athena smiled. "In that case, 'tis meet. Very well, pass these words to ye kin — the other godslayers. Anon, one shall head thither to the farthest ends of the east to undertake the revival ritual for the 'King of the End.' Defeat one before the ritual's end if there are any objections." "What did you say!?" In response to Godou's shock, the reincarnated Athena declared acutely: "One hath been hesitating all this time. Whether one ought to vanquish mine enemy of ill fate first or to rouse one's master the hero. Then one hath decided. Twould be joyful if all shall be fulfilled." "I can't believe you can be so carefree..." Godou felt deeply surprised before realizing. From the start, Athena was a wandering goddess who willfully acted as she pleased, a ship steering according to the wind, a being who moved forward according to whim and fancy. Rather, it would be better to say that this was very much in Athena's style. In actual fact, the fortitude displayed in Pallas Athena's smile was also identical to that of the snake goddess. "Adieu. See ye at the far ends of the east, godslayers!" Pure white light enveloped Pallas Athena and the war gods. This greatly resembled the brightness given off when Liliana used flight magic. As expected, surrounded by light, the gods instantly rose up into the air, flying towards the eastern sky. Indeed. Towards the land where the "King of the End" still slumbered — the direction where the islands of Japan lay. Parts "...That's what happened. This is the full story of Kusanagi-san's trip to Sardinia." Amakasu reported the situation using his smartphone. Receiving the report from Tokyo's Chiyoda ward was Sayanomiya Kaoru, a member of the History Compilation Committee's core leadership. "What a grand display. Gathering all the strong foes from the past, it's almost like a movie version of a live-action superhero television series." "Speaking of which, in the movies, it's the heroes who gather together." "In that case, doesn't it fit perfectly? In order to vanquish the evil army of great Devil Kings like Kusanagi-san, the heroes of justice and the former goddess has teamed up." "I see. That's quite true." Despite the joking words, there was no laughter in Amakasu's voice at all. More precisely, his tone of voice was mixed with sighs. Moreover, Kaoru's voice coming from the telephone did not carry her usual cheerfulness. "Anyway, the current plan is to meet up with Kusanagi-san and Erica-san at the Pisa airport then return to Japan with everyone else. Although originally, I was planning to enjoy a week's holiday." "What a stylish thing to say when you're on a business trip funded by public money. Nothing less expected of you, Amakasu-san." "Not at all. Getting proper rest for the body and mind during a heavy workload is a product of professional awareness." Ending the heartwarming conversation with his direct superior, Amakasu hung up. He was currently in the ancient castle hotel's lobby. Mariya Yuri, Hikari, Seishuuin Ena and Liliana were also present. Everyone was ready to return home, travel carrying cases in hand. "A serious situation has developed..." Liliana was murmuring in worry. Of course, the girls had learnt through Erica Blandelli the whole story about tracking down Salvatore Doni. Likewise for the reappearance of old enemies. "Perseus, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, Lancelot, Athena... Furthermore, there is the wind god seen in Gaul and the 'King of the End' as well. It really feels like the end of the world." "How did this come about...?" Hearing Liliana's laments, Hikari began to look depressed. Meanwhile, Ena was gazing steadily at her fellow Hime-Miko. Ever since arriving at this lobby, the Mariya family's eldest daughter had remained silent with a blank expression. As her childhood friend, the Hime-Miko of the Sword took her time before asking: "Yuri, could it be that you saw something?" "...Perhaps, I suppose one could say that. However, I cannot fathom at all what significance it might actually hold. That is why I am uncertain whether I ought to speak or not — " Lacking in confidence while thinking over this matter, Yuri whispered softly. Ena responded by requesting in a relaxed tone of voice: "But Yuri, you only received the spirit vision after hearing about His Majesty's experiences, right? Whatever you saw, it's okay, just tell Ena first!" "Rather than seeing something, actually, it consists of nothing more than a few ambiguous words surfacing in my mind." "Words?" "Yes. This is the content: 'An evil dragon in the sea. The dragon summoned wind and clouds to blot the sky and sun. Lightning flashed to illuminate the sea. The king shot an arrow, piercing the dragon's chest — "...A tale of dragonslaying? What could it possibly mean?" Hearing the passage recounted by her fellow Hime-Miko, Ena felt perplexed. Hikari and Liliana also listened to their conversation with great interest. Furthermore, even Amakasu went "Hmm?" in curiosity, frowning his brow. Rather than originating from Yuri, those words seemed vaguely reminiscent from somewhere — For some unknown reason, that was the impression garnered. References 1 . t Sorcerer(3^Plj|^ ): note that the word "sorcery" is used in the Campione! universe to refer to evil magic. Hence, all sorcerers are evil by definition. Afterword Hello everyone, it's been a while. This is Takedzuki Jou. This time's Volume 16 is the second short story collection after Volume 8... Oh well, rather than short stories, it would be more accurate to say that these two volumes are mostly composed of mid-length stories. Compared to short stories, I actually like mid-length pieces more because I can add in all sorts of things. This preference of mine has been thoroughly expressed. Also, this time's Appearance of Devil King and Knight, Roman Holiday, Late Night Edition, A Set of Three...? and Extra Story: The Illustrious Sage, True Lord Eriang are the short stories printed in the booklets included with the first edition bonus materials of Volumes 1 to 7 of the anime DVDs and Blu-Rays. Also, The Imprisoned Campione and The Rumored Campione are works published in the specials corner of the Super Dash Bunko website. The mid-length story at the end. The Stirring of Heroes, takes place after the events of Volume 15. In fact, this Volume 16 was originally meant to be a complete collection of all the short and mid-length stories I've written in various places, to be published together with newly written content. After finishing the work for Volume 15, I gathered up my stockpile of manuscripts... "Eh? This content alone is enough to fill up an entire book's worth of pages!?" That was the truth I discovered. Hence, apart from the pages of newly written content, this volume ended up being published as a chronological collection of little stories dating from the spring when Kusanagi Godou became a Campione all the way until autumn. ...Speaking of which, every month in 2012, I was writing stories for the anime bonuses. As a result, my stockpile of manuscripts yet to be collected in volumes had apparently accumulated far more than I imagined (sweat drop). Also, apart from miscellaneous edits, no extra content has been added to previously released works. The only exception is Appearance of Devil King and Knight which served as the bonus story for the anime's first volume, where roughly ten pages of content was added. But rather than adding new content, the story simply reverted to the state of its initial draft. This happened because back when I first submitted the intial draft to a member of staff who helped out in all sorts of affairs on the anime production side, I was asked the following: Too many pages, could you reduce the number a bit? That caused me to speculate: "Oh, it's probably because the story will be recorded in the bonus booklet, so there's not enough space." Hence, several months later, I submitted a new version with ten pages of material cut out. Then a sample of the anime's first volume was delivered into my hands. When I saw the booklet where the bonus story was published, I thought: "There should be enough space on paper of this size. Just add one more line of text onto each page and the initial draft would have fit!" So I proceeded to negotiate with the editor in charge. "There's no need to be concerned about the page count issue for the remaining bonus stories, right? After all, depending on editing, adjustments are possible." Several months earlier, the editor in charge was still talking about page count restrictions but this time, he agreed readily. ...I hope it wasn't because of a recent conversation about how "the original author was burdened with additional work in order to clean up after the accidental mess caused by a certain editor..." (wry smile). In any case, having obtained the freedom to decide the page count, I indulged my preference for mid-length pieces over short stories, thus splitting the Extra Story: The Illustrious Sage, True Lord Eriang into four separate releases. Thanks to that, my earlier idea of "Kusanagi Godou vs True Lord Eriang" finally took form. Oh my, since there are battle scenes in the plot, a page count restriction would really have posed a problem. Well then. Included last in this volume, The Stirring of Heroes is the postscript episode taking place after Volume 15's ending, while being the next volume's prelude at the same time. As for Volume 17's title, I'm thinking it'll probably be "The Hero's Name." If possible, I hope everyone can be patient for a little while.