The skies were grey. Deep in the Longhorn Mountains, on a lonely snow-covered peak, stood a young man.
He was clad entirely in jet-black armor. His cloak was black, and his helmet, which left only his eyes, nose, and mouth exposed, was also black. But around his neck his flaming red hair managed to find a way through.
“Hey, could you please move out of the way? You’re blocking the road for everyone else,” the dark-haired Gaddy said to the figure.
Gaddy’s silver-haired friend Abban caught up with him and whispered into his ear so that the figure would not hear, “Hey, he’s not moving. What do we do now?”
“We’re right on the border between the Dragon Empire and the world beyond. There might be folk around here who don’t understand the common tongue.”
“I can hear you.”
As the youth said such, he moved his cloak slightly, revealing the longsword he had attached to his waist. The young man had an air of authority.
Abban moved to guard the young Firine with one hand and reached for his short sword with his other.
“Oho, a highwayman? Or perhaps a common bandit?” remarked Gaddy.
“How rude. To mistake a knight’s blade so surely means that you must be the bandits here,” spat the youth, eyes narrowed in anger.
Gaddy was not about to back down.
“Hey, who do you think you are, just calling someone a thief like that?” he retorted.
“This is not our first meeting. And need I remind you that it was you who first mistook me for a bandit?”
“Damn it, I’m not in the mood for this. Where did you say we met before?”
“I don’t know you. But I have certainly seen his face before.”
The dark-haired Gaddy followed the knight’s gaze to his friend Abban.
“One of the Shadow Paladins.”
The silver-haired boy relaxed a little and sheathed his blade.
Behind him, the maroon-haired Firine pressed her luxurious cloak into her chest.
A sturdy donkey. A tent made for one person. A mountain of clothes that would have easily filled two closets. A leather bag filled with money, and more food than anyone could reasonably eat in a week. And enough sundry goods to open up a store…
“…Hey, we are going to climb this mountain at some point, aren’t we?” asked Gaddy.
“We are. The Longhorn Mountains are said to be the most inaccessible region of Keter Sanctuary,” explained Abban.
“What? They’re just a few parting gifts. She may only be 10 years old, but this is her chance to make a fresh start in a new world. If you need anything, just let me know and I’ll gladly oblige.”
Brunner glanced at the boys without a hint of the venom she once held for them and spoke kindly to her former ward.
“Please, no more! It’s already too much…” said Firine. Unsure of how to express her gratitude, she just writhed uncomfortably in place.
The clothes she now wore were a far cry from her tatty work clothes.
Her shoes and hooded cloak were made of fine materials, clearly made by master craftsmen. Even her everyday clothes, which were designed to resemble riding gear, were as fashionable as they were practical. The clothes only served to enhance the already beguiling beauty of the young Firine.
“It’s fine, take it all. It’s for times like this that I’ve been fleecing the local nobility.”
“I can’t take such ill-gotten gains! I feel so sorry for that poor mayor…”
“So now you tell me how you really feel. Don’t worry. I’ll bless the town’s fields in proportion to the amount of money I’ve been given. My prices may be high, but I’m not that cruel. This is my policy as the Witch of Pandering. It’s just business. You would do well to remember that.”
“And you two! I’m entrusting my dear niece to you, so you’d best keep her safe!”
Abban and Gaddy had been stunned at the sight of the sheer mass of gifts the witch had given them, but her threat brought them back to their senses.
As soon as Brunner found out that Firine had a vision of a necklace that night, her decision had been quick.
For three days after she found out, there was an endless stream of merchants, tailors, and craftsmen who came to the cottage to prepare for the departure of the witch’s niece.
“I tried it out with the local kids too, just in case. You are the only people that necklace had any reaction to.”
“Why me…?” pondered Firine.
Abban and Gaddy had agreed to let her keep the necklace for the time being.
“Even I have no idea. However… You, with the white hair.”
“Abban, Madam Brunner.”
“I think the white ball of light that you saw is the key to everything. You, dark hair, you have a map, don’t you?”
“Yep, here it is. Oh, and Miss Brunner, my name’s Gaddy.”
“Hand it over, dark hair. Let’s see… The vision white hair saw sounded like the Longhorn Mountains.”
The witch drew a point on the map.
“Hmm. I have to say, white hair, I’m impressed you remember so much after one glimpse.”
“…Thank you, Madam Brunner.”
“Firine, you should go with these two there. The best magic users understand that there is meaning in coincidences like these. They are an opportunity to learn a deeper truth, to improve their art. I wish I could tell you more, but… Well, think of this as a turning point for you. Be careful.”
“No, Auntie Brunner. You’ve taught me a lot. You’ve looked after me all this time…”
Firine took the witch’s hand and wrung it tightly. There were no more words.
“All right! I’m no good with all this soppy stuff. And if you go there and find nothing… I’m going to make sure you’re busier than ever. Prepare yourself.”
It was clear to Abban and Gaddy that those were merely words. They could tell from the way the witch kept looking away to hide her emotions, and the fact that her strict rules on what to call her had clearly broken down.
“And Abban, Gaddy! If you let anyone hurt even a single hair on my dear niece’s head… Well, you know what’ll happen.”
“Yes, Madam Brunner!”
Firine wiped away tears as she chuckled at the boys’ cheerful response.
Near the border between Keter Sanctuary and the Dragon Empire.
The standoff between the young man in black and the two boys, Abban and Gaddy, continued under that overcast sky on a ridge deep in the mountains.
Abban challenged the youth in a head-to-head argument.
“The story of how we got here and who we are is true. I would now like to know a little more about who you are.”
“My name is Dolph. I stand before you in the name of the Shadow Paladins.”
“You’re the one who chased us in those underground ruins.”
“Yes. Now, return the treasure of light. It does not belong to you.”
“I’ll admit that’s true. I apologize for calling you a thief earlier. I’ll give it back.”
“However, you must prove to us that you are the legitimate owner.”
Gaddy and Firine gasped at this, as it was clear that Abban’s words had affected Dolph greatly.
“Proof!? You want proof!? What do you know!?”
The more his opponent got flustered, the more Abban stayed calm. If he was to be believed, Dolph was a real knight. However, Abban refused to back down from this physically superior opponent who had proven himself on the field countless times. Gaddy was once again impressed by his childhood friend.
“Explain yourself. Why only show us the vision through the necklace? What was that ancient battle? And what is the treasure of light, anyway? Why was it hidden in that place?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“Is there nothing you can tell us?”
“We Shadow Paladins have been protecting the treasure of light for generations. You do not need to know any more than that.”
“Then I cannot give it to you.”
“A stalemate? This is bad for the both of us… And we have another problem. I hate to admit it, but this is something that even I couldn’t have predicted.”
The three travelers looked at each other. The young knight Dolph, who had until now been acting in a dignified way, was losing his cool.
“It would be better if I showed you. It’s right here. Come with me.”
But before they could see what he was about to show them, the three travelers were hit with something else. A strong smell filled the air, and a heavy breathing echoed around them…
As soon as they crested the ridge, they saw it.
“Virulence Dragon. My fellow brother in the darkness.”
The knight proudly showed them his huge dragon, which was laying there on the ground. The breathing they heard was the sound of the dragon sleeping.
Befitting the name of “brother in the darkness,” Virulence Dragon was pitch black, looking almost as though he was covered in metal armor. Around his head was a shock of red, similar to Dolph’s hair.
“Ah! Now it makes sense. This is your ride…” said Abban.
“You flew straight here from Sacred Albion. I thought it was strange,” noted Gaddy.
That is how Dolph had managed to catch up with the travelers, who had traversed the length of the country almost instantly through the Hole, in just four days.
“Is he asleep?” asked Firine. She showed no fear, despite being right next to the massive beast.
“Yes. Can you see the cave behind you?”
“It’s blocked. Virulence Dragon’s body fills it completely.”
“That shrine is where I was looking for clues. The existence of the cave has only been referenced in legends, but it is said to be where the treasure of light came from before we took it into our care. I had hoped to find some information. But when I got here…”
“So, you got your dragon to sleep at the entrance, to protect whatever’s inside it.”
“Hmm. I still don’t know what kind of power could do such a thing.”
“In the vision that the necklace showed me, I saw a ball of light around here. The witch Brunner, Firine, me, and then you, Dolph. We couldn’t make it this far without all of us.”
Without really realizing it, the Shadow Paladin Dolph and Abban, the son of a bookstore owner, had started to transcend the original argument and analyze the situation.
“Perhaps our meeting here was not just a coincidence.”
“Now, I must rouse my friend, Virulence Dragon… Though I admit the secrets of how to do so have not been passed to me.”
“But what should we do?”
“Are we safe…?”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait! Please!” Firine cut into the conversation between the men with a loud shout.
“Wh-What’s up, Firine?” asked Gaddy.
“I think I know how to wake a sleeping dragon.”
Firine held out the necklace, and Abban, Gaddy, and Dolph laid their hands on it.
They were immediately sent back into the vision of the ancient battle.
This is the fire that will engulf the world!
A crimson dragon warrior descended with a cry that shook the very ground.
The army of Shadow Paladins were swept away.
The battle for supremacy continued, with each side committing ever more forces.
“Look, it’s the legendary Blaster Dark…”
The now disembodied Dolph was overcome with emotion.
Blaster Dark started to writher in agony, and then transformed into a tornado of flame.
This was not because he had suffered damage, but was a precursor to yet another being entering the fray.
A humanoid dragon appeared and cut through the flames, wielding a massive double-edged spear.
Phantom Blaster Dragon!
“Now! Dolph, your consciousness…”
Within the vision, concepts like consciousness, thoughts, and words meant nothing.
Firine signalled to the others and Dolph’s attention switched to Phantom Blaster Dragon, now in the heat of the battle. The three travelers could feel the energy coming out of the Shadow Paladin Dolph. It was as if he were becoming a dragon himself.
—The vision stopped there.
Firine got up with the necklace in her hand and, leaving the others behind, she approached the sleeping dragon.
“Auntie Brunner’s tapestry. I liked to look at it. I’ve memorized every last stitch.”
“There was a maiden waking a dragon, with the help of three men. It didn’t show me what to do after that, but I think this might work, Mr. Dark Dragon.”
Firine made her way to the great sleeping head of Virulence Dragon and placed her hand on it fearlessly.
“With the power of the ancient dragons and the kiss of a pure maiden, the new dragon of darkness shall be awoken.”
Firine kissed Virulence Dragon on the head.
The dragon’s body became wreathed in pale flames. The flames were the dragon’s life force, a sign that it was coming back to life.
At long last the dragon opened its great red eyes, and stared at the pure maiden before it…
World Setting: 中村聡