Chapter 2: The Retired Paladin
A vehicle was basically a giant Gundo.
Actually, all magical devices were simply a type of Gundo. Any device capable of simplifying the normally arduous and time-consuming process of magic could be considered as such. The design didn’t have to be shaped like a wand, nor did it need to be a fixed length. Those were just the fundamentals of Gundo, in the same way that the most fundamental of tools is a stick.
“This thing’s actually more of a pain than I thought,” Tohru muttered as he sat, staring at the scenery in front of him.
The vehicle that Tohru’s group had obtained, model “Svetrana,” was furnished with a large windshield surrounding the driver’s seat. If circumstances called for it they could cover the windshield with a canopy, but basically, if they wanted to look outside they were completely exposed.
While it was true that this was a vehicle designed for use by the military, this wasn’t the kind that you’d want on the front lines. This was a transport vehicle; in other words, it prioritized visibility and easy boarding over defensive capabilities.
In exchange, however, the view from both the driver’s seat and Tohru’s aide’s seat, from which he offered support, was excellent. As he crossed his legs and leaned back, he had a full view of the starry skies beyond the treetops.
They were making their way through a forest in the dead of night—normally an undesirable time for travel since it was incredibly dangerous. The path was unkempt and very seldom traveled. Charcoal, fallen trees or random debris on the road made it very possible for a vehicle to run aground or even tip over. They had a makeshift lamp, but the light it gave off was about as weak as a brazier so their vision was largely impaired.
This went without saying, but by trudging along this dark road, they meant to get even the slightest bit of distance between them and that cavalier group led by Alberic Gillette. They had indeed obtained a set of wheels, but their opponents also had a vehicle—probably a state-of-the-art all-terrain model. If so, traveling along an easy road at a more favorable time of day would only get them caught.
Traveling at night was also more inconspicuous.
“I mean, for something called “magic”, it sure as hell doesn’t solve all our problems.”
“Strongly agree,” replied the silver-haired wizard sitting atop the driver’s seat. Despite her reply, though, she looked like she was having the time of her life compared to Tohru.
It was Chaika.
“You’re the only one who can use it out of us three…”
Vehicles were a type of Gundo, so a magic user, or “wizard,” had to be connected to its terminal to operate it. That meant that if you wanted a vehicle to move, you needed a wizard. Sure, acquiring a set of wheels was all well and good, but Chaika was the only one able to drive.
“Want to take a break?”
“…Sure.” Chaika let out a yawn, as if Tohru’s words had suddenly reminded her of just how tired she was. “Break time, break time.” She stopped the vehicle, let go of the control handle, and unplugged the connecting cord from her neck.
“Come to think of it, wizards utilize the seal engraved on them, right?” Tohru stared at the nape of Chaika’s neck.
Wizards had a pattern on the back of their neck that resembled a seal, and they used it to connect themselves to their Gundo. The connecting cord had a reversed yet identical seal on the end, and by plugging the cord into the seal on the neck, the user’s nervous system was connected to the magical device.
“Hey, let me see that for a bit.”
“Ah…s-sure.” She seemed to be somewhat taken aback, but she nodded.
Without preamble, Tohru grabbed her hair and brusquely lifted it up to get a good look at the seal engraved on the nape of her neck.
Chaika’s face flushed red for some reason, but Tohru didn’t pay any mind to it.
“Wow, it’s awfully detailed. It looks like mine…”
Tohru also had a seal, engraved on the palm of his hand. It was a marking that allowed him to connect with his comblades.
Although magic power and blood vessels were two different things, they probably shared some common points. He wasn’t an engineer or a technician though, so the specifics were beyond his comprehension.
“You mind if I touch it?” Tohru asked, suddenly curious.
“U…Ui!?” She froze in surprise.
“Ah, is that a no?”
“O…Okay,” she said. Her face grew even redder.
“Uh, if you don’t want me to you really don’t have to force yourself…”
“It’s…fine,” she repeated, a slight conviction in her voice.
Tohru figured her seal must be more sensitive than his was. With that in mind he decided to be gentler, and softly grazed it with his index finger.
Her body twitched as she let out a ridiculous yelp. In response to that, Tohru yanked his hand back instinctively and looked back at her.
“W-What was that for?”
So she said, but she certainly looked like she had a problem. She was all hunched up and her face was beet red, as if she was embarrassed.
He heard a voice from the back.
“Ah, Akari. It’s time to switch—”
Tohru didn’t even get to finish his sentence.
Because Akari’s hammer was tracing a horizontal arc in his direction.
Having sunk down to the floor to avoid the strike, he righted himself and screamed at Akari.
“What the hell!?”
Though it hadn’t been a blow intended to kill him, that made it all the more dangerous. Tohru could instantaneously sense a strike laced with killing intent, but since it hadn’t been his dodge was a bit late.
“Why is it like this every freaking day with you!?”
Why was he suddenly assaulted? With Tohru’s capabilities he was able to evade, but had her target been a novice of martial arts, there would’ve been blood…no, it would’ve been an instant kill.
“‘What the hell’, you ask? That’s my line,” Akari said in a tone that was all too familiar. “What in the world does my brother think he’s trying to pull this late at night,” she looked up at the stars, “with her.” She pointed to Chaika with her hammer. “Dear brother, you are truly shameless.”
“Now hold on a minute, what do you mean shameless—”
Handling her hair, touching the nape of her neck just like that…”
Looking back on the conversation, he at last pieced it all together, and realized from an objective standpoint just what he had done.
“U-Uh, no, there was no meaning behind that.”
“I understand. Say no more, my dear brother. I know your intentions are more genuine than anyone else. After all, I know everything about you, right down to the locations of all the moles on your body.”
“When did you…!?”
“There’s a rather large one on your left thigh.”
“Why the hell do you know that!?”
“Fu hu hu.”
“Don’t laugh so emotionlessly, it’s creepy! No, before that, do you really understand?”
“Of course. I’ve always known that my brother’s perversion is genuine.”
“You don’t understand anything!” Tohru yelled. “It was just mere curiosity! Sure, I should have been more conscious of what I was doing, but all I did was touch her neck a little bit!”
“Well, if that had been me, I’m sure I would have gotten pregnant.”
“What do you think I am, some kind of superhuman!?”
“Don’t they say ‘clear your mind of all mundane thoughts, and you will even find fire cool?’ My heart is so filled to the brim with love for my brother, it’s an established fact that the baby would just pop out in the middle of the procedure.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of!”
“False pregnancy?” That was Chaika, who was now tilting her head, saying things that would invite even more confusion.
“I suppose you could call it that.”
“No, you can’t.” Tohru glared at his sister-by-obligation and groaned with his eyes half shut. “The fact that you can say stuff like that that with a straight face…your values really are a mystery.”
“Women are a treasure trove of mysteries, my dear brother.”
“I think you’re the only mystery around here.” As usual, Tohru couldn’t tell whether she was honestly keen on him or just making fun of him. He sighed, a reflexive response to his confusion.
“Well, that’s neither here nor there right now.” Tohru pulled a folded sheet of paper out of an accessory case beneath his feet and spread it out. On top of the blue surface was an ovular figure, crudely drawn in black.
It was a map of the continent of Verbist.
“Since you’re up, Akari, now is probably a good time to discuss our future plans. Since we’re resting right now and all.”
“Future…?” Like a small bird, Chaika tilted her head innocently.
“Well, when we hit the next town, Ratison, we’re going to have to put our escape on hold.”
Chaika and Akari exchanged glances.
“Being on the run constantly won’t get us anywhere. Now that we’re confident we’ve at least bought ourselves a bit of distance between us, we should return to our original objective. Specifically—”
Chaika and Akari continued to stare at Tohru.
It didn’t seem like they were staying quiet because they were against the idea; more that they were hanging on his every word. But…
“—Wait just a minute. Hey, you.” He sent a glare over at Chaika. “You’re supposed to be our master, aren’t you? Why am I the one in charge!?”
Chaika blinked her eyes in surprise.
“Seriously?” Tohru dropped his shoulders and groaned.
From behind, Akari placed her hand on his back as if to console him.
“Dear brother, words simply cannot express how proud I am of you right now,” Akari said to his back. Of course, there was no emotion in her voice.
“Proud? Of what?”
“You actually said something proactive for once.”
…She wasn’t consoling him at all.
Well, it was true that until about half a month ago Tohru was always being torn into by his sister for being a good-for-nothing with no inkling of motivation.
“Anyway, I never asked to be the leader here!” he yelled, displaying an expression of ire.
For now, the next item on the agenda for Tohru’s group was to meet with this “Dominica Scoda” person that Guy had mentioned. Guy had said that she had one of the pieces of the “remains.”
Of course, they didn’t trust Guy himself at all. But, they didn’t really have any other option…at the very least, it was due to his information that they had obtained the Svetrana vehicle, so Tohru guessed the probability that this information was also accurate was quite high.
But, they were neglecting to go straight to the forest as Guy had advised. They had decided to err on the side of caution first by gathering information from a nearby town, which was why they were stopping in Ratison. If one of those heroes really did live in that forest, surely someone in town would have something to share about them.
“Hey, Chaika,” Tohru said in a quiet voice. ”You know that depending on the circumstances, it’s possible those refugees from the Gaz Empire could make you their leader, right?”
“…Mui?” Chaika just tilted her head, like she had no idea what he was talking about.
Unless Chaika was lying, she herself had no interest in reviving the Gaz Empire.
According to her, all she wanted to do was gather her father’s remains and give him a proper burial.
Then, what was Guy hoping for by giving her this information?
There was no way it was merely out of goodwill. There had to be some ulterior motive. It’d be strange if there weren’t.
“No, wait a minute…ah, let me put it like this..” Tohru nodded, having just realized. “It’s possible that you’ll come across people who aren’t necessarily your enemies, but not necessarily your friends either.”
People could benefit from battles that weren’t their own. Making her their leader and then using her as a puppet…perhaps that’s what they were aiming for.
To begin with, even though it’d be the Empire’s resurrection, Tohru highly doubted that any of those advocates actually held any loyalty towards the “Taboo Emperor.” Anyone with any deep loyalty, like his retainers, would have been with him during the battle at the capital, and would have perished. Either that, or they would have dutifully stayed by Chaika’s side since she was his own flesh and blood.
Taking that into account…
“You…you actually have it pretty rough, don’t you,” said Tohru somberly.
As expected, she didn’t get it. Or at least that’s what her little head-tilt communicated to Tohru.
As he stared at Chaika, Akari gave a big nod.
“Indeed, having to suffer through such embarrassment due to my dear brother’s cluelessness, defenseless and—”
“I’d really like you to shut up now,” said Tohru, glaring at Akari. Then he turned his gaze back to Chaika…it seemed that she really had no self-awareness to speak of. She just sat there with her arms crossed and head tilted.
“No, it’s probably good that you don’t understand.”
Was she a paragon of innocence, or was she a colossal idiot? Well, it didn’t really matter which, thought Tohru.
Whether it was out of stupidity or naivety, at least Chaika always had her eyes on her goal no matter how despairing the situation. It was much better than those who made excuses to themselves through half-assed mental gymnastics. It was that earnestness that Tohru liked about Chaika.
“But, it’d be best if we at least figured out what those guys’ intentions really are.”
In other words, they needed to confirm if there really were people who were aiming for the Empire’s revival, as Alberic’s group had suggested. He doubted that there was anyone out there who actually wanted to put Chaika up on the throne, though. On the contrary, they could use her as bait to draw out those like Alberic’s group; in other words, use her as a decoy, controlling her as they pleased.
If that were true, then Guy’s actions made sense.
He didn’t expect anything out of Chaika as the successor to the Empire. But if she was captured and killed by Alberic’s group, she wouldn’t be able to fulfill her role as a decoy. On the other hand, if Guy interfered too directly Chaika’s actions could be traced back to him, rendering the diversion meaningless.
And so, with the minimal amount of contact he could manage, Guy had offered up that information just so Chaika wouldn’t get caught. Something like that.
But…if that really is the case…
He glanced at the coffin by her side.
Then what’s the deal with the gathering of the remains?
If the worst were to happen and Chaika got captured, Arthur Gaz’s remains would be turned over to the enemy…the Postwar Reconstruction Implementation Agency, Kleeman. The remains of the “Taboo Emperor” harbored great magical power within them, which could be sold for an inordinate amount of war funds, or even used directly as weapons themselves. In a wizard’s hands they could be incredibly powerful. They had seen that for themselves with the count back in Del Solant.
Was it really okay to put the mission of gathering such valuable items in the hands of someone as unreliable as Chaika? What’s more, even without the remains those aiming for the Empire’s resurrection might have some other methods lying in wait, just for the purpose of furthering their ambitions.
Though of course, what the particulars of those methods would be, he had no idea.
“Ah, dammit. This is such a pain.” Tohru scratched his head irritably. “Why do I have to get all wrapped up in this?”
He had no choice but to fret over the details.
Saboteurs engaged in work that was generally frowned upon, also known as the “dirty jobs.” Because of that, they viewed right and wrong only from the perspective of the mission they were given. Whether their methods were cowardly or unfair was up to their own discretion. The way that they moved according to their own will was not that much different from a lawless heathen. No, just from their techniques alone they were probably more mean-spirited in nature than a mere bandit or thief.
“…Tohru.” Chaika suddenly tugged on his sleeve.
“Grateful.” She gave a slightly embarrassed smile.
“Oh…you’re welcome…,” he said, for some reason feeling like he had lost his mental battle. Her smile was…bright.
Just as she had said, her expression was one of pure gratitude, nothing else.
Though he hadn’t known her very long, he was certain that this girl’s clumsiness by nature could not be faked, and that she wasn’t the type of person that could cunningly manipulate using facial expressions, either.
She was, for better or for worse, completely genuine.
She probably didn’t think about anything else other than collecting those remains. So she was probably truly grateful that Tohru was here to agonize over it in her place.
“Anyway,” Tohru said, averting his gaze from Chaika, “according to the info we got from the information broker Chaika mentioned, there’s a forest next to the town of Ratison, and apparently one of the heroes carrying a piece of the remains lives in that forest. Whether or not this person actually has the remains, though, we should first confirm for ourselves.”