Here, the hands of time rewind to 10 days earlier—
A breeze flitted across the surface of the water that glimmered gold in the evening light, shaking the reeds that shot up from it.
As waterfowls flew through the clouded skies, their chirping was a sure sign that summer was coming to an end.
“Rino! Rino! Where are you~?”
Blaze Maiden Rino woke up with a start at the sound of Rona’s sweet voice.
“I’m here, Rona. Please, not so loud.”
Rino put her finger to her lips as she looked down at Sunrise Egg curled up by her side – a strange little egg with a small tail and feet of its own – its eyes closed as it slept.
Rona quickly apologized. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize it’s resting. Reiyu and Zonne will be back soon. We need to make sure the food is ready for when they return.”
“Right. Let’s get started then. I know what a certain somebody’s like when they get hungry.”
Rona’s laughter filled the air. She had a big appetite, but she was also the best cook of the group, easily whipping up a feast for everyone. This was just banter between good friends.
Rino slowly got up, taking care not to wake the egg, then carried the egg to the nearby campsite. They had pitched tents and surrounded them with various supplies received from nearby settlements, making sure to protect their camp from the elements.
Rino and the other Blaze Maidens were staying on the outskirts of Beligar, a village to the far west of the Dragon Empire.
It had been almost 6 months since the Blaze Maidens had left their home – the Red Dawn Manor – on a journey with Sunrise Egg to experience the world for themselves. Their original plan of quietly touring the various nations had to be changed not long into their travels.
“Four maidens and a walking egg are on a journey to spread hope across this world in the Chakrabarthi Divine Era.”
Such is the rumor that started to circulate the central west of the Dragon Empire after their stunning performance at the festival held in Tu=rizen. As a result, Rino and the others were welcomed wherever they found themselves. Their greatest tasks were to gather with the masses around Sunrise Egg – enshrined on an altar made on the spot – and to listen to the people’s problems, pray with them, and treat their injuries and ailments (the maidens were also adept healers).
The maidens found themselves incredibly busy, especially when an entire village descended upon them all at once.
“This is like the blind leading the blind. I wonder when the Chakrabarthi Divine Dragon will awaken.”
Zonne, who wasn’t there at the time (she had gone with Reiyu to Beligar to help improve their irrigation system), had said that the purpose of the maidens’ journey was supposed to be seeking seeds of hope throughout the world. Instead, it had become one of talking to people in need and bringing them hope.
“Not at all. Even if we ended up dedicating our entire lives to this work, I’m sure Master will be happy,” was Reiyu’s response to Zonne’s lament.
Blaze Maiden Reiyu had changed the most as a result of their journey.
As the leader of the group, she used to be the strictest about keeping away from extravagances and the public eye, but she had become the most vocal about reaching out to help the sick and offering their knowledge and skills to help settlements that were prone to isolation. Even when it came to tributes and thank you gifts she had been initially against, when Rino pointed out that they could try putting the tributes to good use toward helping troubled travelers and other poorer villages, she started putting together what would eventually become a mutual aid system.
Then, Rino realized something.
The various crafts and skills (on top of the rituals surrounding the egg) that had been strictly driven into them at the Red Dawn Manor had seemed like the trappings of a sheltered life spent separated from the world. But that training was in fact all the skills and knowledge they needed to “stand on their own feet and live together”.
Sowers of the seeds of hope.
The maidens that transformed good intentions into the power to help others and one another.
They had even started to become known as “healers without borders” to some. In a sense, the people seemed to understand the true value of the maidens better than the Blaze Maidens themselves. Unfortunately, while the maidens tried going beyond those borders, they were turned away from Keter Sanctuary as they did not understand the purpose of the maidens’ arrival.
“Rona, come help me start the fire.”
Rino was standing in front of a hearth large enough to cook a feast that could feed many people. She put out her hand without looking, expecting a tinderbox or the like to be handed to her.
Instead, Rino felt a small, hard hand join with hers. It looked like it belonged to their other fellow traveler (who had disappeared on a whim, as usual), but the coldness of the hand and the timbre of the voice that followed made her realize it was not another one of Trickstar’s tricks.
“I’ve been watching you, Rino. I always keep an eye on you.”
Rino spun around in fear. Though she knew what was waiting for her before she looked. The voice and figure were very familiar, but the being holding her hand was the exact opposite of her acquaintance. It was the cold and brooding──
“Rino, I have a gift for you. A deep ‘despair.'”
“Who are you?!”
As this black Trickstar, this so-called Trickmoon, spoke, a one-eyed dragon swooped down and caught its prey behind them. The movement was quick and decisive, as if a bird of prey in hunt. Rona saw this from the other side of the hearth and screamed.
What did it have in its claws?
They had a bad feeling.
Trickstar hurried back to the Blaze Maidens’ camp. They were on their way back from their usual walk. Although Trickstar was traveling with the Blaze Maidens, they liked spending time on their own and had a habit of wandering off, exploring and learning about all the lands and inhabitants of Planet Cray.
The reeds rustled as Trickstar flew low above them. The reeds were a common sight in the southern reaches of the Sanctuary Region.
Screams rose up from the campsite, as if to tear apart that peaceful view.
They were too late.
Hearing Rino’s cries, Trickstar felt a rare pang of regret.
Two shadows flew up from the campsite and disappeared into the east.
The smaller shadow appeared to turn back for a moment before shooting away. They seemed to have similar abilities to Trickstar.
The remaining larger shadow had the egg in its grasp.
What fiends would dare try to steal Sunrise Egg? And how did they manage to do so unnoticed?
“Trickstar! They have the egg!”
Rino called up to Trickstar from the ground. It went without saying that Trickstar’s abilities were fueled by the hopes and prayers of Rino and the maidens.
“Got it! I’ll grant your wish!” “Please, Trickstar!” “Leave it to me!”
Fueled by Rino’s pleas, Trickstar overDressed into Vairina.
And focusing on speed, became Vairina Arcs.
This was a new and improved form of Vairina that Trickstar had acquired in the past six months as they worked with Rino and the maidens in battles against evil.
Trickstar also had the Vairina Erger variant for performance and stability at low altitude, as well as Vairina Valiente for close combat. Trickstar was able to freely switch between these various Vairina modes as easily as someone on the streets of the Dragon Empire might shift gears in their car.
The rushing sound of the wind increased as they closed in on the dragon flying away with the egg.
When Trickstar was near enough to see the surprise on the one-eyed dragon’s face – clearly shocked by Trickstar’s new appearance and speed – Trickstar=Vairina, recognizing their opponent to be a formidable foe, overDressed once again. In the centaur form of Vairina Exspecta, they thrusted forward in swift aggression with the spear in their right hand.
In that instant──
Vairina Exspecta received a heavy impact with a tremendous boom and rebounded.
It was as if Vairina had hit an invisible wall in the air.
“Hngh! What is this!?”
But they didn’t pull away. Vairina gave chase to the one-eyed dragon with Sunrise Egg in its talons.
And in the next moment—
Vairina Exspecta, moving on instinct alone, raised the shield on their left arm.
This time, there was a clear sound of steel on steel as Vairina was knocked out of the skies, falling to the swamplands below.
It felt as if their shield had been struck by a gigantic sword.
As soon as the voice of an unknown woman sounded from the skies, the one-eyed dragon disappeared with Sunrise Egg as if swallowed by an invisible tunnel.
“What was that…?”
Trickstar released their overDress form and got up from among the reeds.
They were still feeling the damage all over their body. If they hadn’t raised their shield on a moment’s notice, they might have been died from that single strike. Not that Trickstar understood what death was…
“Ah… What will I say to Rino and the others…?”
Sunrise Egg, the egg of the Divine Dragon that the Blaze Maidens cherished above all else, had been taken.
As Trickstar stood there, hopes dashed and shoulders slumped in disappointment, a flock of waterfowls flew overhead.
That evening, within an ice cave deep in the Neo Dragobone Mountains at the central-western part of the Dragon Empire, dragons clad in full-body armor guarded the back of the cave.
Trickmoon slipped past the dragons as if they weren’t there (the dragons were famed for their keen senses, but they didn’t seem to notice Trickmoon at all) and arrived at the deepest end of the cave.
The cave gave way to what looked like a bedroom, and though it was completely dark, Trickmoon’s keen eyes could see the space clearly.
A human girl, wrapped in furs, was lying on a straw bed. She had a large egg in her arms.
If anyone else had found their way this far into the cave, they would no doubt have shouted in surprise.
The sleeping girl bore a striking resemblance to the Blaze Maiden Rino.
Perhaps that’s why Sunrise Egg was sleeping so peacefully in her grasp.
Trickmoon stood there absolutely still as they stared at the girl.
A long time passed.
Eventually, Trickmoon opened their mouth. The emotionless voice that escaped their lips was like a cold breeze making its way through the ice cave.
“Let the world fall to ruin, if that is what you want.”
The black Trickstar reached out one of their hard, cold hands, and rearranged the girl’s furs. Their face remained impassive.
“Good night, Rinolily.”
The girl turned over in her bed, but the black Trickstar had disappeared.
She wondered if it had been but an illusion on an autumn’s night.
<<Notes about Terminology>>
The Sealed Blaze Dragons and the Sealed Blaze Maiden. The Sealed Blaze Dragons were dragons in the Dragon Empire that stood alone, watching over the despaired world since the days of the Deity-less Era. When they were discovered and rebirthed by Bavsargra, an intense energy – a dark Blaze – that could even burn through their bodies was stored within them. In command of the Sealed Blaze Dragons is “Sealed Blaze Maiden, Bavsargra”, who has amassed power in the south of the Dragon Empire under the banner of being the salvation from “despair.” The maiden is just a young human girl, but the Sealed Blaze Dragons revere and follow Bavsargra as their absolute leader.
Supervising Editor: 中村聡