City of Black Tiles, in the East of the Dragon Empire.
It was an old city, with a large river running through the center; as its name would suggest, the roofs were all clad in pitch black tiles.
Nightfall. The clouds were thick, and the moon had not yet risen.
The dark, pendulous clouds slowly parted, and a winged figure descended onto a roof.
The figure didn’t make a sound as it swooped in and opened a scroll.
An arm reached out from the building’s shadow, and with claws extended it scrawled something on the scroll.
The winged figure nodded, and flew off again without a word.
The shadow shifted into a figure and started running.
In the dark of the night a figure that could only be described as a shadow ran along the rooftops, and when it reached the roof of a human building (In the Dragon Empire buildings were designed around the intended inhabitants. They were therefore different sizes, had different facilities, etc.) it spun around and hung upside down. The figure was hanging onto the roof by a single claw on its foot hooked onto the gutter.
Stealth Dragon Fushimachi Madoka.
Like the previous winged figure, the Stealth Dragon Kizanreiji, he lived by the strict code to never be noticed by anyone.
Fushimachi Madoka was peering into a window far from the room where his intended target was.
Using the mirror in the room, the Stealth Dragon was easily able to make out what was written on the papers on the desk.
(This had actually been erased, but there was enough left on the page for Fushimachi Madoka to read.)
Apologies for not writing sooner.
I’m sure you must be worried about me.
I’m fine. My magical studies are progressing, albeit slowly.
I have so much to tell you.
A premium room in an inn.
Firine folded her arms and looked perturbed. Piles of magical textbooks filled either side of the desk.
Abban and Gaddy were next door. She knew that they would gladly come in and keep her company if she only asked.
They were always so easy to get on with and had such interesting stories from the start that she had hardly noticed that they were from the capital, and barely older than her. For someone who had such a sheltered upbringing as hers, it was easy to get caught up in that caring relationship.
Still, no! This is something she had to do on her own.
Firine took up her quill, turned to the desk, and after readying herself… gave up.
She really did have a lot of things to write.
What happened in the hermitage in the snowy Longbone Mountains.
Traversing the caverns until she made it to the very eastern edge of the Dragon Empire.
The first challenge of crossing the barren volcanic region, and the following difficulties as they descended into the human village.
Still her friends vowed to go west, back to their homes.
Her successes, her failures, her joys, her sadness, unexpected encounters and partings, all the new things she experienced–everything outside the witch’s hut she grew up in that she had no idea existed.
“Yes, I should write about all of it.”
Just as Firine was about to put quill to paper, a voice rang out in her head.
A voice from when Firine, Abban, and Gaddy were opposed to the idea. That was ten days ago.
“I must go. For the sake of all of us.”
That was Doof, one of their companions. It was the night before they decided to head to the village for the first time, when they were in the Dragon Tail Mountains on the far eastern edge of the Dragon Empire. Naturally, they all rejected this idea.
“Listen. What is the difference between you and me?”
Only Firine noticed that Doof had changed the way he referred to them.
“You mean the age difference?” Gaddy responded, annoyed. It seemed he wanted him to stop treating them like children.
“And you’re a knight from Keter Sanctuary,” Firine added.
“A Shadow Paladin, no less,” interjected Abban.
Doof nodded, seemingly satisfied. He always approved of smart children.
“Right. All people have two sides to them. We have our true selves, and the version that people see.”
“Now in English?” complained Gaddy. Of course, this animosity was just a front. They had been through so much together. The truth is they were a little spoiled.
“Simply put, I’m not supposed to be here.” Doof did his best to remain serious.
“This is about your work, isn’t it? A Shadow Paladin thing,” said Abban.
“I can’t say any more than that. There are some things that are better left unknown.”
“Please come with us. We need you,” pleaded Firine.
She was speaking from the heart.
Abban would say that Doof was an “elite trained soldier” and a reliable guide. He would make sure they slept safely, look out for beasts, hunt for their food, predict the weather, and even teach them about wildflowers.
Doof closed his eyes and shook his head.
“It’s okay. You are as resourceful as any band of adults. If I were to give you any advice as you head back to civilization, it would be to keep guard, be ready for danger, and to stay silent until the time is right.”
Of course, Gaddy wasn’t convinced, nor was Firine, but all it took was a single sentence from Abban to convince them.
“Okay. Do what you think is best. But we can go together, can’t we? It’s you, after all.”
Firine would never forget the smile they shared.
She couldn’t say why, but she somehow knew at that very moment that Doof and Abban wanted to embrace one another.
And so the group made their way through the Eastern reaches of the Dragon Empire. After they bought an old wagon in the first village they came across (masterfully repaired by Gaddy, the blacksmith’s son), they followed the roads by day, with their wagon being pulled by a donkey, and they found refuge in towns whenever possible by night. Doof had told them to not use any form of transportation that would require the use of their real names or any kind of ID. Though of course the luggage Firine’s aunt had given her was also too big to take on most forms of transport.
In any case their funds were plentiful, and with someone as levelheaded as Abban in charge of their finances they never struggled in that regard. Firine’s aunt, a great witch, was surely looking over them as they traveled. Even though the routes they chose were relatively safe, the two boys she traveled with took Doof’s advice seriously and guarded her as though they were real knights, and so they never encountered any danger.
Your gift has proved very useful. Thank you so much.
Firine drew a blank after writing that line…
I will write to you again soon.
With love, your apprentice Firine.
As she finished writing this “keeping silent” letter as she was told to do, she breathed a sigh of relief.
She placed it into the envelope she had prepared earlier, dripped the sealing wax on it, and then pressed down with the ring seal that bore both her name and her aunt’s.
She stared at it sullenly.
It was a beautiful design filled with sacred writing. It was a witch’s seal, which meant it was imbued with a powerful and inviolable curse.
The Witch of Pandering, Brunner, had lived up to her name by giving such a fine gift when Firine had left.
Witches gave advice to anyone from any nation, on matters ranging from love to whether there will be a good harvest. In that way, they were a separate authority that operated outside of national control (so it’s no wonder they can be a little arrogant). It was not until some time later that Firine realized that this gift, which was casually sewn into her clothing, meant that she was the only one who could freely write and send letters.
Even then, it only worked if she pressed it into sealing wax. If someone who knew of Brunner saw the seal it would be proof of her identity, and if they owed anything to the witch then they would be compelled to help her, the witch’s apprentice. Perhaps it was the ring’s power (that could be considered both a blessing and a curse) that drew them to their destination, meaning that she alone had made it so far unscathed? She sank into her seat by the desk as this thought crossed her mind.
No. This was too much for an apprentice witch like her, it was too heavy a burden.
The power of this seal from Brunner was beyond her imagination. She decided not to let her companions know about it until she herself better understood how to use it. Perhaps as Doof said, there are some things that are better left unknown.
Still… Firine sighed.
She hadn’t realized how hard it was to keep a secret like this.
Especially when it concerns an item too important and powerful for her to completely control.
Did he obtain the information he came for? The Stealth Dragon moved away silently.
Using his wings to steady himself, the Stealth Dragon moved to the next window, still hanging upside-down. Putting his hand up to his ears he could make out the voices coming from the next room. His hearing was sensitive enough to hear every word being said.
“Hey, don’t tell me you slept through your politics class.”
“They never taught us what to do if you find yourself suddenly transported to the eastern edge of a faraway land.”
“No, but seriously, why do we have to sneak around like this?”
“I told you, because we’re foreigners here!”
“Why would anyone want to bother us? I just want to call my family, let them know I’m fine…”
“We can’t be too careful. Surely, you’ve heard ‘the Emperor’s wife must not rouse suspicion.'”
“What’s that? Some kind of scandal? Did she run off with someone?”
“Okay, I’m going to explain this, even if you don’t understand. Right now, there are no major conflicts in our world, just local skirmishes. So, for now we won’t be arrested simply for being foreigners in the street. As a general rule, at least.”
“Right. Peace is great.”
“And think about what flourishes in peacetime. Culture, information, commerce. The latter two in particular become points of pride for nations–they can become the new battleground over which countries will fight.”
“So why don’t you start a business? Or get into selling information? You’ve got big ideas for a used book shop owner’s son.”
“I’ve thought about it before. I don’t want to keep relying on Firine’s money.”
“But I digress. When it comes to gathering and transmitting information, the Dragon Empire is not on the same level as our country.”
“Oh? I was wondering why they don’t even have phones here.”
“That’s because they don’t need them. Ties between local communities are strong, so they get by with mail, and if there’s something urgent each town has a phone that they can all use.”
“That sounds like a laid-back kind of life…”
“Here in the Dragon Empire, the kind of high-speed communication channels we use daily in our home country is reserved for exclusive use by the military. On the other hand, their public television system is widespread. They even showed the latest concert from Lyrical Monasterio.”
“When I went downstairs, I saw the other guests were all pumped up. But it was ultimately just a drama. I do wish the communication channels were a bit better here…”
“It’s certainly inconvenient. But think about confidentiality and practicality. Here, only those who need to know something will have access to that information.”
“Right… Can I go to bed now?”
“No. I’m just getting to the important part. Our activity on the intra-city network can be analyzed by professionals to learn a shocking amount about our lives. They often do so in the name of national security. They track the comings and goings of foreigners. They try to work out what they’re up to.”
“And that has what to do with us…?”
“If you’d just let me finish. That’s a big problem. Here in the Dragon Empire both mail and the phone system are state-operated. What do you suppose would happen if we were to reveal our real names and hometowns, here in a country that–other than a few witches–generally keeps to itself, and then use their state-operated phones to call home and say ‘I don’t know where I am, but it’s the eastern edge of this country… And I’m traveling with…’? It’s not like a post on the net that will disappear in an instant. That is why we disseminate false information. Any communication will be treated as suspicious. The same goes for mail, too.”
“Yeah. That would be suspicious.”
“Exactly. Right now, even the smallest misunderstanding could lead to a lot of trouble. That’s why we need to stay calm, not make a fuss, and slowly make our way home without causing a scene. We’re just nameless companions to the apprentice of a famous witch, and we’re on a trip after graduating.”
“That’s true, though we still need to take a few exams before we graduate… Oh well, I guess we just need to ‘stay quiet until the time is right.’ Man, that still sounds so cool. Okay, I’ll be careful.”
A knock on the door.
“…It seems she’s finished writing her letter.”
“Do you have a minute?”
“Of course, come in! We’re always happy to talk, Firine!”
Fushimachi Madoka suddenly shifted, returning to the rooftop.
The boys had carefully avoided the use of any names, but he had guessed what was going on, and had worked out the meaning of the girl’s letter and seal.
Firstly, he knew they were from Keter Sanctuary. He didn’t know why they were here, but he knew it was just the three of them. The first was the niece of the witch Brunner. The other two appeared to be students from the capital. If they were spies, they were not currently active.
But why were they being so evasive? Why keep only their homeland a secret?
They weren’t being particularly secretive about anything else. It frightened him that they didn’t seem to be worried at all. His instincts as a Stealth Dragon were telling him that the children were hiding something.
Something powerful, something hard to put into words. What could it be?
He had already spent six days tracking this group, albeit in between his other duties.
He had been ordered to watch their movements and work out their true identities and intentions. He was also tasked with protecting them if it looked like they would reach harm. That second order made it feel closer to an escort mission, the kind reserved for the children of noble families when they traveled out of the Empire. But then orders were orders, and he followed his faithfully. Like he had three days ago when he had taken out the thieves who had ambushed their wagon. The only reason he only stunned the thieves rather than kill them outright was to avoid alerting the local police.
All that was left was to report his findings. A Stealth Dragon’s job is to be stealthy. Judgments, decisions, those were jobs for the higher ups.
With one exception.
Swish! Swish! Swish!
A silvery-white light cut through the darkness of the night.
He launched three throwing stars that appeared in his hand as if by magic.
They followed an impossible-looking curved trajectory, made their way into the area where the horses and carts were stored, and flew under a small wagon.
All this was practically silent.
And it all happened so quickly that the dozing stable master nearby didn’t notice a thing. However, the deed was done.
Fushimachi Madoka waited for a few seconds, then spread his wings and flew off into the darkness.
There was no noise from under the cart, and no movement.
What was the Stealth Dragon aiming at?
One must wonder… If there were something under that cart, something that had been protecting the children from the shadows…
And if that something had deflected the Stealth Dragon’s attacks with some kind of padding…
The young man named Doof, who blended in perfectly with the locals, received the three silent “messages” with a wry smile.
“Now you know. You can’t miss it. There’s one person here you should be worried about.”
“Keep your head down, don’t get involved.”
“But when I do make my move, there will be no mercy.”
He says to himself.
The lively voices of the children come from above as the moon finally rises over Blacktile City.
<<Notes about Terminology>>
The Fourth Legion of the Dragon Empire. A reconnaissance unit built around a core of Stealth Dragons and Stealth Demons that lurks in the darkness and rules the night. The ninjas are versed in both magic and science and are expert gatherers of information. Their dedication to the cause and belief that any means justify their ends mean that they are feared by friend and foe alike. The Chakrabarthi Divine Era can be characterized as a period of overall peace and prosperity that followed the violent and chaotic godless period. However, civil wars did occur within certain nations. There were invaders from other worlds, and some border disputes continued throughout the era, along with various other smaller conflicts. Toward the end of the period, it started to become clear that a lot of these smaller incidents can affect the world stage in major ways. It was within that time that the role of the Nubatama became much more prominent.
Supervising Editor: 中村聡