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Wearing a prisoner’s uniform, Quenser frowned toward a hamburger in the room of a monastery.
This feast should have been a wondrous treasure for a boy who was only issued soap-like rations, but he had a reason to be less than thrilled.
When Eric had brought the food, he had frowned too.
“Don’t think about it too much. It tastes fine and it’s nutritious.”
“Yeah, but isn’t this made from those Draupnir bell crickets that attacked our maintenance base?”
“I said not to think about it! I was eating these things every day like it was normal just last week. The food was the one highlight of working here. There’s nothing wrong with the ingredients, so just eat it!”
“Um, Eric, did you see the bug cage when you got back?”
For some reason, Eric paled and looked away from Quenser.
That was when Quenser noticed Eric looked like he had not been eating much lately.
“Wait, what did you see? Be honest with me! Just tell me!!”
“You’re really better off not knowing. …There were worms and caterpillars too…”
“It’s not just one kind!? They’re mixing them all together!?”
If whole bell crickets had been skewered or fried, he might have been able to build his resolve. But he had no way to brace himself mentally when he had no clue what was being transformed into burgers and fries or how it was done. It was a lot like the difference between the fear of being ordered to jump from a cliff with the bottom visible five meters down versus when it was too dark to see the bottom.
“Also, well, this should be safe.”
Eric pulled out a small bottle.
A clear liquid sloshed around inside.
“It’s whisky. This brand is well-known among our men. It’s nearly 120 proof, so I wouldn’t drink it all at once if I were you. This is the kind of drink where you spend two hours nursing a single glass.”
“…That isn’t some kind of bug extract, is it?”
“Alcohol is made by breaking down the sugar in plants and then brewing or distilling it, so it should actually be more expensive to use some other ingredient. I doubt there’s anything to worry about.”
That said, they would not normally be issued something like this. It would be distributed as a special event after a battle. It was meant to celebrate victory over the Baby Magnum. Quenser was seriously conflicted over whether he could drink that.
“Your interrogation will continue tomorrow. I recommend forcing yourself to eat to keep your strength up. You said you don’t know where Saint Skuld is, but not knowing is the most dangerous thing during interrogation. Do you really not know or are you playing dumb? Who knows what a professional interrogator will do to figure that out.”
“Hey, Eric. Do you think what Urd and Verdandi said is true? I mean that stuff about Skuld being a serial killer who uses her battles to hide the bodies.”
“I don’t know.” Eric breathed a heavy sigh. “I’ve heard the Pilot Elites are treated pretty well, but does it really go that far? …I want to trust that the world has some sense, but I did find it odd how persistent Saints Urd and Verdandi were about this.”
Eric shut his mouth when he heard footsteps through the solid wood door. The Faith Organization must not have tolerated speaking about the Pilot Elites behind their back.
Eric faced the door and said one last thing.
“I don’t know when you will be released, but bear with it for now. Being a student should give you an advantage over a normal soldier. Don’t give up hope.”
The door opened and closed.
Quenser took a deep breath now that he was alone.
He set aside the burger and fries problem and glanced toward the bottle of whisky. But not to drink it. He tore off a sleeve of his prisoner’s uniform, twisted it into a rod shape, and stuck it into the bottle. Once the whisky had soaked into it, he used the electrodes of the fluorescent light to light it. He now had a makeshift alcohol lamp.
He knew something that was worth trying out before he had his fingernails torn off, had a truth serum injected into him, or had electrodes attached to his balls.
By moving a stone in the wall, a trapdoor opened.
It would be a dangerous journey, but it was better than discovering his own masochistic tendencies in a small locked room.
It was the middle of the night.
The military trucks carrying Heivia, Skuld, and the others had stopped 10 kilometers away from the Faith Organization maintenance base zone. Any closer and the rumbling of the engines would have given them away.
They were surrounded by a wasteland with nothing but baobab trees to be seen.
The soldiers held their breath and aimed trumpet-like speakers toward the maintenance base. While only letting their targets hear environmental noises like rustling grass, chirping insects, and gazelle or buffalo footsteps, Heivia took the lead, veered far off the most direct route, and approached their target.
An early warning directional microphone was set up on the ground.
That parabolic device stood on a tripod and would pick up a cough from a kilometer away. But at the same time, it could only pick up sound from a very limited angle. Once the soldiers were behind it, they had nothing more to fear.
While the environmental noises tricked the microphone, Heivia touched the plate-sized parabolic device from behind. He slowly tilted it back so the forward-facing microphone aimed into the sky. Now it could not pick anything up and would forever have nothing to report.
Heivia spoke into his radio a short distance away.
“I’ve safely neutralized the Muninn parabolic microphone. It’s all just like Skuld told us. Come on in, everyone.”
“Understood, Heivia. We also have to worry about the Huginn up in the air, so be careful.”
As the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers approached through the darkness, they would occasionally aim rifle-like devices with a trumpet-like end into the night sky. Those were the directional speakers that had fooled the parabolic microphone with environmental noises.
They were targeting a toy-like drone that used six rotors to fly.
It used a highly sensitive microphone to detect any manmade noise, but they hid their breathing and footsteps by sending various environmental noises right at it.
Heivia wiped sweat from his brow when he saw the drone flying away like normal.
“Is intelligence everything in war? Having Skuld with us has made all the difference.”
“Don’t let your guard down,” said Skuld herself. “You never know what kind of pitfall awaits us at the whim of a god.”
“But why are they so obsessed with using sound?”
“We made a major mistake once in the past. Do you know what a strobe light tactic is?”
“Yeah. By flashing a strobe light several times brighter than a muzzle flash in quick succession, the cameras’ light adjustment has to keep switching back and forth and the image analysis can’t keep up. I think it’s even more effective if you switch back and forth between different wavelengths of light. Man, did you ever fall for an old-fashioned trick.”
“Even the smallest thing can be traumatic. That’s why our unit prefers to rely on sound more than light.”
“Then I guess we’ll be giving them some fresh trauma here. Will they start relying on smell next?”
As they slipped past some more microphones and drones, some giant seesaw-like silhouettes came into view. They appeared to be open-pit mining devices for oil extraction, but they had likely been abandoned for some time. They were all badly rusted.
Heivia climbed onto one of the 10 meter seesaws to view their destination.
The Faith Organization maintenance base zone was right in front of them.
A cathedral and monastery had been left behind on sandy ground. Tents thicker than circus tents had been set up in the gaps between the buildings. Halogen lights must have been set up because the base shined brightly in the darkness.
After photographing it with his handheld device and sharing the information with the others, Skuld spoke up over the radio.
“They would be holding a prisoner in the monastery, but the front door is made of thick bronze and we won’t be able to force it open. We either need to get our hands on an authorization key or blow it open with explosives.”
“We can do that. There’s more than 100 of us, and we’re not all going to sneak in. We have a rescue team, a power source team, and an escape route team, but the most important one is the sabotage team that will take care of the Trinity Style. Skuld, are you ready?”
Heivia climbed down from the giant seesaw and handed Skuld a brick-sized mass.
He spoke to everyone for one final check.
“Listen, no firing your guns. I might sound like your mother insisting you do your homework, but let me say that again: no firing your guns. If we’re discovered here, we’ll be completely outnumbered. And if the Trinity Style joins in, we’re completely screwed. We really will be slaughtered.”
Even if the enemy had 100 soldiers out on patrol, there were still 900 in the base. And they would all be armed with military rifles. Could the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers really sneak in to rescue Quenser without being noticed and without firing a shot?
This was an unprecedented mission for them.
“Got that? Then let’s work for the tax money they pay us.”
The Faith Organization was a union of different religious groups, so its countries’ laws tended to be based on religious rules.
And during the raucous party in the maintenance base, the soldiers thanked their gods that they had been born in a Norse Mythology country. Their religion could be really picky about duels and fights, but the hurdles for food, drink, smoking, and hobbies were extremely low. They could eat and drink anything.
“But you’re still drinking way too much, Hoover! This stuff is 116 proof, so at least water it down a little!”
“Iii’m fine! We’ve got a goddesh of victory on our shide, sho it’sh not like thoshe loshers’re gonna attack now…”
The first soldier clicked his tongue when he heard the other slurring his words. As soon as he supported unsteady Hoover with his shoulder, the man vomited quite spectacularly.
“Gross, you idiot! That’s not some telephone pole; it’s a historic relic!!”
“Huh? Shit…that’sh odd… I didn’t think I’d had sho much to drink…”
“Well, you were wrong. Hey, medical team! Where’s the tent with the cross on it!!?”
He practically had to drag Hoover away from their post and to the medical tent.
Just ten meters away, Heivia was hiding behind cover inside the Faith Organization maintenance base zone.
The delinquent soldier held an assault rifle.
But he had no interested in the lead bullets. What mattered now was the makeshift optional weapon attached near the muzzle.
“This is Heivia. The emotional weapon is working. I repeat, the emotional weapon is working. Focus on targeting the drunk ones. You can tell who’s drunk using thermo.”
A weapon that remotely manipulates people’s emotions and mental state might sound like it used mysterious alien space waves, but something much closer to home could pull it off.
For example, far infrared beams or microwaves.
When people were exposed to those, they would naturally start to feel hot. But if the situation was not explained to them in advance, they would not know what was happening because infrared beams and microwaves are invisible. From there, they would have to guess what was happening to them and people tended to accept whatever conclusion they reached.
Was their head growing so hot because they did not like what their comrades were saying?
Could they not sleep because of nerves?
Did their chest ache because they were feeling guilty after growing fond of their hostage?
An emotional weapon was developed to invite those misunderstandings that would destroy the enemy’s morale and coordination. It had been developed for long-term battles and siege operations, but the biggest flaw was how wildly its effects varied between individuals.
However, that could be overcome in certain limited circumstances.
For example, during a party when most of the targets were intoxicated from strong liquor.
“This is pretty amazing. When their body temperature skyrockets, they get drunk faster. It’s a lot like taking a hot bath when you’re drunk. I’m not sure if this counts as high tech or low tech.”
“Our food supply included boxes of whisky. It was nearly 120 proof. If they were serving that, this will knock out most of the soldiers.”
“That’s great. And it might not be a bad idea to ‘borrow’ a bottle while I’m at it.”
They had not been issued this equipment. It was all handmade. They had pulled some scrap from the pile of rubble that had been their base, Skuld had given them information on the Faith Organization, and the technical people like the old lady had discussed how to take advantage of that information before putting these together.
War was all about intelligence. Heivia felt like war was the worst of the acts only possible for a cultured person.
“Anyway, it’s working.”
“Then let’s continue with the plan.”
The two of them nodded and then the group split apart into a Heivia team and a Skuld team. On the way, they used environmental noises from their directional speakers to neutralize the microphones they came across and used the emotional weapons attached to their rifles to speed up the soldiers’ intoxication until they vomited.
Myonri, a female soldier on Heivia’s team, gave a worried comment.
“W-will this really work? Won’t it be useless against anyone who doesn’t drink?”
“The idiots around them will take care of that. When one collapses, they need a second or third person to carry them away. Check their body temperature with thermo. If you see a sober-looking one, target the guy next to them. We’ll stick with this until they find any proof that we’re here.”
Heivia’s group made their way toward the monastery while accurately knocking out the Faith Organization soldiers without firing a single bullet or making any noise or light.
“Power source team here. Preparations complete.”
“Sabotage team here. We’re having trouble with our preparations. But it looks like we’ll be able to get inside the maintenance bay when the blackout hits. We’re waiting for the signal.”
Heivia’s team pressed against the wall of a giant tent as they listened to the voices over the radio.
They were already right in front of the monastery’s front entrance.
The thick bronze door was locked with a simple bar on the inside, but that meant they could not pick the lock. Just as the guard out front took a swig from an amber-colored bottle, they hit him with the microwaves of their emotional weapons and then ran toward the door.
Heivia searched through the collapsed soldier’s clothes and clicked his tongue.
“Rescue team here. There’s no authorization key. I repeat, there’s no authorization key. Activate Plan B. Let’s do this the fun way!!”
A moment later, the maintenance base zone’s power went out and the entire area was enveloped in darkness.
The more than 100 Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers had split into a few different teams.
The power source team had had a simple job.
Gas and electricity were not a guarantee in the middle of a wasteland, so large gas turbine generators and largescale transformers had been set up outside. That was their target. They had stuffed thin plastic bags with iron sand and used a makeshift slingshot made of rubber tubing and standing taller than they were. That threw the bags 200-300 meters to the exposed electrodes and cooling radiators.
Some were fried and some shorted out, but the effect was instantaneous.
The entire area lost power and fell into darkness.
While loading a new projectile in the giant slingshot, the soldiers shouted over the radio.
“Power supply team here. Blackout confirmed. I repeat, blackout confirmed! But we can’t predict if or when they’ll switch over to backup power!! Be careful with your next actions!!”
“This is Heivia from the rescue team. If you get that, then get going on the second wave!!”
“We already are!!”
The soldiers of the power supply team shouted back while firing more and more plastic bags toward the enemy maintenance base.
But these were not loaded with iron sand.
These were right on the borderline of violating some war treaties.
As the Faith Organization soldiers wandered around in the blackout, they switched on the flashlights attached to the end of their rifles, but then they fell into further confusion.
They could not see.
As if they were surrounded by a thick fog at night, the powerful lights were reflected right in front of them, spread out, and were blocked by a white screen. And they also detected a chemical smell.
“Ugh, cough, cough!! What…!? A smokescreen…? Are we under attack!?”
They could not see anything.
If they had been in enemy territory, they might have been tempted to fire around wildly, but this was their own maintenance base and they would only kill their own allies. They had no idea who was attacking, from where, how many there were, where they were headed, or how far they had spread. Pulling the trigger blindly would be a bad idea.
Meanwhile, they heard a loud explosion.
One soldier made a guess based on the direction it had come from and brought his radio to his mouth.
“Guard tower! Something’s happening at the monastery! I repeat…”
He trailed off when he started feeling dizzy.
His legs grew weak and he collapsed on the spot.
He had a bad feeling about this.
He kept wiping at his brow, but the sweat never stopped.
“Is this not just a smokescreen…? Oh, no. It’s a chemical weapon!! Everyone get your masks on! This is really bad!!”
After firing a grenade to destroy the bronze door, Heivia fired a few smoke grenades inside. White smoke filled the hallway and visibility grew poor.
It looked impressive, but this was not tear gas. No mask was necessary.
Heivia gave a quiet warning to Myonri and the rest of the rescue team.
But this was not newfound compassion or anything like that.
“Fire bullets at them and they’ll recover from their panic. Keep using the emotional weapons. They’re only collapsing because it speeds up their intoxication, but they’ll confuse it for poison gas with this smokescreen. The more scared they are, the easier this is for us.”
“Should we really be using these like this…?”
Myonri was concerned because smokescreens were classified as chemical weapons. They did not seem like it since they were generally used for communication or for defense, but if they were mishandled they could be dangerous enough to violate some war treaties despite being harmless.
At any rate, the darkness and smokescreen sealed off the Faith Organization soldiers’ sight in two ways at once. Heivia’s team exposed them to microwaves while entering the monastery.
Wouldn’t Heivia’s team have just as much trouble seeing through the smoke?
It would seem that way, but there were exceptions to everything.
Some of the smokescreens developed for war were meant to prevent a missile or shell from locking on. That sort of technology was always advancing. One smokescreen would successfully avoid a lock, so the next lock would work through that smokescreen. Then a new smokescreen would be developed to defeat that lock, and so on and so forth.
In other words, this sort of smokescreen was made to allow a certain wavelength of IR through even though it blocked normal light.
Heivia’s group had used a smokescreen with an intentional weakness, allowing it to block the enemy’s vision while letting their own sensors and goggles through.
Thus, only the Faith Organization was confused.
“Cough!! Ugh, what is this gas? Not even the mask is working…!?”
“Do we absorb it directly through our skin!? That’s just wrong! What happened to the war treaties!? Gebh!!”
“You idiot! Someone get Kicker’s mask off of him! He’ll drown in his own vomit!!”
It was absolute pandemonium. Frighteningly enough, the emotional weapon’s microwaves passed right through the thick stone walls. Hiding behind cover like normal was not enough to escape the induced nausea.
After the majority passed out from intoxication, the few non-drinkers were held up by the assault rifles at close range. After knocking them out with the stock, Heivia’s team used zip ties to bind their thumbs behind their back.
Heivia clicked his tongue.
“What is this? Is this both their barracks and where they hold the prisoners? Hey, Skuld! Do you know which floor skinny boy might be on!?”
“The detention barracks are on your left when you walk in,” said Skuld via radio. “Prisoners should be held in the rooms starting from the bottom.”
“And? This is a five story building with more than twenty doors on each floor. Do we have to break through 100 doors!?”
“We shouldn’t have any prisoners other than Quenser at the moment.”
“Then is he on the left in the back of the first floor!?”
While scattering more harmless smoke, Heivia’s team rushed down the hallway without silencing their footsteps. They arrived in front of the room in question.
“Hey, pizza delivery!! We’re getting this door open before the pie gets cold, so get back from the door!!”
There was no response.
Heivia wondered if the door was too thick for his voice to get through, but the monastery must have been old and there was a slight gap below the door. His voice had to have made it inside.
He exchanged a displeased look with Myonri.
“I hope it isn’t time for an unexpected adlib round after all this.”
“But opening this door comes first no matter what we do.”
She was exactly right.
He used the bottom of his military boot to kick open the wooden door.
Bright light returned to the Faith Organization maintenance base zone.
It had taken about 7 minutes to switch to backup power.
“Saint Urd, this way!”
The sexy Pilot Elite ran across the base while surrounded by several bodyguards. The area was covered by a thick fog-like smokescreen and she could only see a few meters ahead. If she did not focus on the ground, she would have tripped over the soldiers groaning on the ground. She felt like she had been thrown into a bad dream.
“What happened to Verdandi!?”
“She was left with the medical team because she felt dizzy and nauseous! She may have been hit by the gas weapon!!”
Urd immediately concluded that was not possible.
If this smokescreen was a gas weapon, its effects would not be so varied. Urd and the others would have collapsed with everyone else, but she and her bodyguards were doing just fine. And when she looked at that group for any traits in common and considered the symptoms of those affected, she could guess what was happening.
Everyone here was a non-drinker.
(Is this gas or something else being used to accelerate everyone’s intoxication from the whisky?)
If so, it was a baffling and highly uncertain method of attack.
She could think of a few different technologies that could induce intoxication, but they would only be a viable plan if the enemy knew the Faith Organization soldiers were drinking plenty of alcohol. If the Legitimacy Kingdom had approached all excited about their new weapon only to find everyone sober, they would have been easily defeated.
How had they seen through this “habit”?
The obvious answer caused Urd to clench her teeth.
“Saint Urd, please hurry to the maintenance bay! We can turn this around with the Norn’s sensors!!”
The soldiers were treating the Object like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, but Urd had no right to scold them when she made use of the clean war fairy tale.
“How far along is the Norn’s maintenance?”
“That Second Generation is famous for not needing maintenance. As long as it’s supplied with the appropriate number of Dvergr, the programming will automatically repair it.”
That was another fairy tale. The Object was not actually that flexible, but Urd did not bother commenting. A lot of money and effort had gone into solidifying that image for wartime propaganda. A needless argument could destroy all that.
Fortunately, the smoke had not gotten inside the maintenance bay’s giant tent.
The maintenance soldiers who had defended it with their lives saluted Urd.
She used the elevator to reach the top of the Object and spoke to the bodyguards who had stayed with her this far.
“Since Verdandi couldn’t join us, I will enter the Norn alone.”
“Understood. We will instruct the medical team to inform you of Saint Verdandi’s condition.”
Urd passed through the spiraling tunnel to reach her personal cockpit. She quickly sat down, belted herself in place, stuck a thick cable into her navel, and closed the tunnel’s barriers.
(Now, then. How much can I actually do?)
If she used the Norn’s sensors, she could determine everyone’s location even through the thick smokescreen, but that would not tell her who was Legitimacy Kingdom and who was Faith Organization.
She would check everyone’s location for the time being. She could rule out everyone collapsed from intoxication and mark only those still standing. If she had them all report in via radio, she could count everyone who failed to respond as an enemy.
(Well, that’s probably about it.)
She could not fire indiscriminately in the middle of her own maintenance base. The situation was working against her, but knowing where the enemy was would still help.
Her allies were collapsed from drunkenness, not from a strange gas.
If she informed them of that to prevent any further panic, the Faith Organization could bounce back. She did not know how many enemies had infiltrated the base, but she doubted it was a full battalion of 1000.
With that in mind, she piloted the Norn out of its giant tent and began searching for the enemy.
And then it happened.
The Norn’s reactor suddenly stopped.
Hiding within the smokescreen right in front of the giant tent, Skuld held a radio to her mouth.
She had rushed out just in the nick of time before the power came back on.
“This is the sabotage team. The Norn’s reactor has been shut down.”
Her team’s objective had been to approach the Norn, a Second Generation Object made from countless Dvergr work robots, and sabotage it.
They had mixed in the Dvergr that the Legitimacy Kingdom had retrieved and made sure it was built into the Object.
It was only the size of a brick, but that had altered fate.
“The virus infection was a success. Looks like your electronic simulation division is as skilled as they claimed. It takes time to restart the reactor after it’s been stopped, so we can ignore the Norn for the time being.”
For all those robots to coordinate, they had to be exchanging some kind of data.
A virus had been placed inside the one the Legitimacy Kingdom had picked up and Skuld had snuck in during the blackout to mix it into the Object where it would send out its illicit data.
“This is the rescue team! Understood. Once you’ve finished your job, meet up with the escape route team. It’d feel pretty stupid getting caught now, wouldn’t it? Don’t worry about us!!”
“Heivia, could you explain the situation there? Do you need any help?”
“Goddamn that skinny boy!! He couldn’t wait around and broke out on his own!! He used the world’s lamest trick to vanish from his cell and we have no idea where he is!!”
Quenser looked annoyed as he held up his alcohol lamp made from a liquor bottle.
He had climbed down the trapdoor’s ladder and found a long underground passageway. It was probably hand dug, but the walls were not made of dirt or stone. They most resembled rotting wooden walls, but that was not quite accurate either.
They were coffins.
And they were crammed full of white skeletons perfunctorily wrapped in rotting cloth.
“Are these catacombs? …Dammit.”
The place looked more than a century old. After that much time, the corpses looked more like fossils, but he did not feel like relaxing and taking a deep breath. He could see some burial items of gold or jewels here and there, but he felt no desire to pocket any of them.
More than just the one tunnel, there seemed to be a large web of them with the monastery at the center.
With nothing to guide him, he relied on his instincts until he ran into something other than a coffin-lined passageway.
It was a small room.
There were no coffins here.
“What is this…?”
However, it was far from a comforting place. He saw chairs and a bed, but this was certainly not a rest area for the grave keeper. They were made of sinister-looking steel and they were designed to hold the victims’ arms and legs in place with chains and belts. Thanks to the paint, they were not even rusted.
Hanging on the wall were a number of whips…or rather, metal rods with a variety of attachments. There were also hammers and large pliers which did nothing to put Quenser’s mind at ease.
There was a single small desk in the corner for someone other than a victim. The drawer had a book’s worth of parchment full of handwritten text. It looked to be centuries old. It explained how to use and maintain the tools.
(After the old age of witch hunts died down and became taboo, did the people who couldn’t forget the taste of blood hide their collection in a distant land?)
That raised questions about the coffins covering the passageway walls. The monastery had been built to close people in like a prison and these catacombs and a torture chamber were hidden below it. Quenser did not like imagining what kind of life had been lived here.
(This world really is shit if things like this can cross the ocean and take root.)
But his life was more important than divulging dark secrets of history.
He refocused his mind, but he came to a stop just before stepping out into another passageway.
He glanced over at the steel bed again and traced his fingers across it.
“Don’t tell me… You have to be kidding.”
Then he started down a random passageway. Several layers of rotting coffins covered both walls and he used his alcohol lamp to inspect a few of the skeletons.
A voice reached him from another passageway.
He held his alcohol lamp in that direction and saw a twintail girl in a Faith Organization uniform. It was the very uniform he had given her.
The student felt sweat on his brow.
“Thank goodness. Heivia said you’d vanished from the monastery, so I thought you might be here.”
He breathed a sigh of relief.
And she gently placed her hands on Quenser’s shoulders.
“I don’t like saying this to someone from the Legitimacy Kingdom, but I owe you one. I can’t have you dying here.”
“Let’s get out of here. The Faith Organization soldiers know about this place, so it’s used as an emergency escape route for the Elites and officers. The other soldiers should show up here soon.”
That was a perfectly reasonable point.
If the Legitimacy Kingdom had put together a rescue operation, Skuld would have known the maintenance base better than anyone. And she would know the escape routes better than a normal Faith Organization soldier. There was nothing odd about her showing up in the catacombs before anyone else.
But something caught at Quenser’s mind.
He recalled what Urd and Verdandi had said.
Skuld was a serial killer.
She could not control her violence and aggression, so she could not function in normal society. She was extremely skilled as a Pilot Elite, but she was so broken as a human being that she could not maintain the bare minimum of dignity without the framework of the military protecting her. Plus, her murders were highly contagious and she would create a negative boom of copycat killers if word got out.
“…? What is it?”
Skuld looked puzzled and Quenser shook his head.
Either way, they could not stand around here. He would be in trouble of the Faith Organization soldiers found him here.
For that reason, he followed Skuld through the labyrinthine catacombs.
She did not seem even remotely hesitant to defenselessly turn her back toward him.
Who was telling the truth?
Urd and Verdandi had only been speaking inside a small interrogation room. He had no objective proof to back them up, so it was entirely possible they had been lying to turn him against Skuld.
“Have you ever used this place before?”
“During the evacuation drills. But I was surrounded by bodyguards the whole time.”
She readily answered.
“I know why you might be feeling down. Not only is the place full of musty old coffins, but you saw that old torture chamber, didn’t you? When you see things like that, it’s hard to agree with the people who glorify the ‘good old days’.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Skuld had no reason to betray Quenser after coming this far.
She would have gained nothing from risking her life on a mission to rescue him.
But she had still come to the Faith Organization maintenance base zone which was the most dangerous place for her.
Normally, he should trust the person who had risked her life for him more than the words of enemies like Urd and Verdandi. She had proved she was on his side through actions instead of mere words.
“By the way, Skuld.”
It was a casual conversation.
“Why were some of the bones over there oddly new? The flesh had clearly been chemically stripped away.”
A dull shock exploded in the bridge of his nose.
It took him a few moments to realize what had happened.
While taking the lead, Skuld had turned around and swung a backhand blow at him.
His hands flailed wildly and the alcohol lamp slipped from his grasp. The liquor bottle rolled away, but that may have been fortunate.
Just like a Molotov cocktail, wet flames spread across the floor and then rose like a wall.
Before his dizzy vision could recover, Skuld grabbed his collar with both hands.
She was planning to throw him into the flames.
He shuddered when he realized that, but as a student with no real hand-to-hand combat experience, he did not want to begin grappling even with a slender girl.
Before he lost his balance, he lowered his hips.
Skuld was holding his collar, so her hands were pulled straight down. She was placed in an unbalanced crouching position and she had been shifting her center of gravity forward to push Quenser.
The skinny boy had no way of knowing it, but the ninja of the distant Island Nation had used a certain technique to lose any pursuers.
They would crouch down into a ball just after turning a corner so their pursuer would trip over them upon running around the corner.
Skuld’s body rotated vertically.
It was like an overhead throw.
And she was headed right toward the wall of Molotov cocktail flames she had tried to use herself.
Her slender body landed right in the wet flames.
Quenser held his head, unsteadily stood up, and tried to check on the situation.
(Dammit, I trusted you. I really did! I thought the day might come that I would have a domineering Elite treat me like her big brother!!)
But life was not that kind.
The Faith Organization uniform was not just a synthetic track suit. It had some level of fire resistance.
Skuld broke through the wall of flames and charged forward on all fours like an animal. He could not escape to the left or right in this narrow passageway. She tackled him at waist height and he finally lost his balance. His back slammed into the ground.
“Gbah!! Cough, cough!!”
“Ahh, ahh. Why’d you have to notice that?”
Skuld climbed on top of Quenser and giggled.
The wall of flames behind her cast a dark shadow over her face.
“This was my secret base. I just about danced for joy when I found it before anyone else. So why did you have to find it!?”
She reached out her hands toward his neck. She was planning to throttle him. The boy frantically struggled with his arms, but Skuld moved her hips on top of him to pin them down below her hands.
“Then…then what Urd and Verdandi said was true!?”
“I wouldn’t know what they told you.”
“That you’re a serial killer!!”
“Hee hee. Oh, that one’s 100% true.”
“Then why did you risk your life to come rescue me? There had to have been other ways of earning enough points for the Legitimacy Kingdom to let you in!”
Instead of killing him quick, she took her time to enjoy it while pinning his wrists down.
She brought her face close enough for their noses to touch and then her mouth split open in a smile.
“You seemed like such a delicious target from the moment I saw you. Macho men don’t do it for me and slender women just aren’t enough. Yes, I prefer androgynous and feminine guys. When I see one, I just can’t stop myself.”
Quenser’s throat grew dry.
Was she saying she had rescued him because she had not wanted the Faith Organization or her older sisters to steal her prey?
“Your actions are completely inconsistent. I can accept the initial surprise attack disguised as a defeat, but the Draupnir swarm and the Princess’s loss in the second battle had to have been complete coincidence. If you had made even a single mistake, you would’ve died. Are you trying to say you planned all this out, including those coincidences!?”
“None of that matters,” she readily told him. “I kill as many people as I can at the moment. You don’t need to obsessively plan out a hobby, do you? And it’s not something you can keep yourself from doing, right?”
“It was all…adlibbed…?”
“I always make the decision that will lead to the most deaths in that moment. That’s what I do. That just happened to coincide with a few other events and – next thing I knew – I found myself on a rescue operation. But what I must do is the same no matter what happens. I will indulge in my hobby. I will bathe in blood and death. No life could be more fulfilling!!”
She was insane.
That was the logic of an utter lunatic.
Urd and Verdandi had been right. If Skuld managed to earn the Legitimacy Kingdom’s trust and blended into a safe country, she would definitely slip away from her observers, escape, and kill as many defenseless civilians as she liked. The police, guards, and other forces stationed in the safe countries would not be enough. Not only would they fail to stop her, they would lose their lives as an exciting detour to spice up her killings.
“Skuld…!!” shouted Quenser as she pinned him down.
He was answered with a head butt.
Skuld’s forehead struck him again and again while his hands were restrained. His forehead, nose, and cheekbones strained under the weight of the hammer-like blows. His consciousness faded and he could tell his body was going limp.
She likely wanted to savor the weakening of his breath.
She let go of his limp wrists and her fingertips crawled to his chest. Then she applied tremendous pressure like she was performing CPR.
“Hee hee hee. Ee hee hee ee hee. Hee hee hee ha ha ha ha ha ha ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
Still straddling Quenser, Skuld arched her back and laughed at the top of her lungs.
The act of harming him must have filled her with ecstasy because irregular tremors ran through her small body.
“Yes, yes. This is the feeling. I can feel the invisible life in my hands!! Yes, that’s right! Killing isn’t something you see, hear, taste, or smell! You feel it!! You touch it with your fingertips! It’s all about recalling that invisible shape and truly experiencing it!!”
Quenser’s mouth opened and closed in search of oxygen and Skuld’s fingers crawled further across his chest. But this was not another meaningless heart massage. Her hands drew ever closer to his throat.
He shook his head in protest, but that changed nothing.
She was breathing heavily on top of him. Her cheeks were flushed. Her ten fingers wrapped gently around his throat. The two thumbs softly stroked his Adam’s apple. She seemed to enjoy how it moved around in her hands.
“War never mattered. In fact, death happens far too quickly in those clean wars where you can kill at the pull of lever. You can’t feel it and enjoy it!! This was a wonderful place. Pliers, hammers, saws, and so much more… I still think my bare hands are the best, but using a tool and feeling the sensation reach my wrist wasn’t bad either!!”
He tried to say something, but she started crushing his Adam’s apple below her thumbs.
She seemed to be cutting off the blood to his head more than the air to his lungs. He was afraid his entire head would inflate and burst from within.
Had his guess been right?
The metal bed in that torture chamber had been strangely shiny. That was thanks to human sweat…no, oils. That meant it had been used recently, not just centuries ago.
He had refused to believe it, but he may have just been in denial.
Pilot Elites came in all types.
They each had their own reason to pilot their Object: money, fame, a lifestyle, social status, faith, etc.
He had not wanted to believe that an Elite would pilot an Object simply to enjoy the act of killing.
“Yes, yes!! This is the feeling. I was completely right about you, Quenser! You have the most wonderful soul!!”
Her small butt wiggled on top of him as she shouted in delight.
Meanwhile, Quenser could no longer resist in the slightest.
Was it over? Would this lunatic who had confused war with a hobby either strangle him to death or snap his neck?
How long had it been since he had stopped breathing?
His mind grew blank. He lost all sense of time. He could no longer see Skuld’s face as she laughed loudly and arched back again and again as she relished the pleasure of this act.
And then a scorching and trembling impact ran through him.
Skuld’s hands went limp.
With his windpipe and blood vessels released, Quenser’s mind grew clear. He still felt dizzy, but he did his best to think about what had just happened to him.
(It was a lot like when I screw up some work and get an electric shock… Was it a stungun? No, a projectile spark shot?)
Someone must have fired some wired electrode pins at Skuld and released a high voltage current that reached Quenser through her body.
She wobbled while sitting on top of him.
He followed her gaze and saw another girl in a special suit much like the one Skuld had worn.
“Ver…dandi…?” muttered Quenser.
After looking back and forth between her sister and her prey, Skuld tried to press her weight down on Quenser’s neck once more. She did not bother begging for her life. She silently focused all of her efforts on killing before her own life could be taken.
Another high-voltage current surged through her.
Skuld’s small body convulsed.
Verdandi walked over and used the bottom of the handgun-like spark shot to hit Skuld on the cheek.
“You are a disgrace to the Faith Organization!!”
With a loud noise, Skuld’s body finally went entirely limp. She fell off Quenser and collapsed onto her side.
Verdandi simply glared at the boy whose vision was flashing in and out, who could not get up, and who continued to cough.
But when she heard footsteps rushing down another passageway, she swiftly got to work.
She pulled out a grenade, placed it in Quenser’s hand, and artlessly pulled the pin.
“You won’t die as long as you hold onto the lever. Your friends can take care of the rest, you burden.”
With that said, she hoisted Skuld up over her shoulder with the electrode pins still stabbed into her. She likely intended to withdraw while the Legitimacy Kingdom soldiers were busy with Quenser.
“With Skuld back, we have no more use for you. You were reported as a POW in the Faith Organization and no one really knew what to do with a student like you anyway. I’ll overlook you this time.” Verdandi spoke as a Faith Organization Pilot Elite. “But just this once. Don’t forget that your First Generation is powerless in the face of our tactics.”
There was nothing he could say.
Verdandi was right.
Keeping his mind from falling into darkness and making sure he kept his hand on the grenade was the most he could manage.
Heivia and the others arrived late, dealt with the grenade in Quenser’s hand, and successfully retrieved him.
While it had not been part of the original plan, they used the underground catacombs to escape outside the Faith Organization base zone and met up with the escape route team.
The dirty potatoes piled back into the trucks they had arrived in and returned to the Legitimacy Kingdom pile of rubble.
Skuld did not come back with them.
When Quenser first explained why, Heivia had not understood him.
“You’re kidding, right? Skuld was using war to enjoy her hobby as a serial killer!?”
“Yes. She almost killed me, so there’s no doubting it. She hates macho men and thinks a slender woman isn’t enough, so some kind of switch inside her completely breaks when she sees an androgynous guy.”
Quenser rubbed his bruised neck in annoyance.
“Her reason for killing sounded pretty Faith Organization-y. Something about being able to feel someone’s invisible life in the instant you kill them. Although I bet the Faith Organization housewives would be pretty shocked to hear about it.”
“But the Faith Organization is still using the military to protect her and letting her pilot an Object instead of giving her a dishonorable discharge, right?”
“That’s just how useful she is. They benefit enough from her that it’s worth turning a blind eye to the risk,” spat out Quenser. “We’ve run into Urd and Verdandi already, but what’s Skuld’s strategy? What distance does she fight from? More importantly, how skilled is she and how are her battle senses? We know nothing about her, but there’s a chance she’ll be piloting the Trinity Style against us next time. She’s one hell of a dangerous opponent.”
She was thoroughly beaten.
She was a lump of pain.
The bodyguards paled, but Verdandi did not stop. Urd did not directly join in, but she calmly observed it without stopping it. Unlike a professional interrogator, these Elites did not know where the borderline between life and death was, so their punishment contained a unique sort of danger.
Skuld’s entire body had grown limp as she lay face-down and twitched on the floor. Verdandi grabbed her by the hair and spoke to her from close range.
“Listen, you disgrace.”
“Do you see now that someone as broken as you can only live in the military? But keep this up, and you’ll lose the military too. So work. Work for the Faith Organization.”
Skuld’s back creaked as her head was pulled up by the hair. She did not have it in her to respond.
“Normally, this would have warranted an immediate execution, but you did manage to throw the Legitimacy Kingdom into confusion. From here on, there is no sisterly love between us. It’s up to you to keep yourself alive.”
Verdandi had beaten the girl until she could no longer speak a word of agreement or dissent.
“The Norn is the birdcage prepared for you. We will control you. This is your chance to make a comeback. If you don’t prove yourself useful here, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life in a hospital room with nothing but white walls to look at.”
Skuld gasped for breath and looked up at her sister’s face.
Verdandi smiled fiercely back down at her.
“Destroy the Legitimacy Kingdom Object. I want to see what you can do when you take this seriously.”
She had no more need for her, so Verdandi let go of Skuld’s hair.
Skuld’s head produced a soft and wet splat when it hit the floor. The bodyguards quickly called over the medical team, but the two older sisters looked away from the serial killer and walked off as if they had lost interest.
Those two Elites left and a military doctor yelled into Skuld’s ear.
Nevertheless, an evil smile remained on her lips.
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