Inside Hà Giang Empire’s Imperial Castle―――
The first to notice the anomaly are Dos and Una, who are within the castle.
While escorting the wounded Emperor and Linwu to the infirmary and dealing with post-battle debriefings and whatnot — which were all quite cumbersome — they make this observation on their way back.
「Wonder what’s gonna happen at the Continental Congress next.」「More importantly, what’s for dinner tonight?」As they chat about such light-hearted matters, they walk down a seemingly endless hallway.
「…Una, Orion, there’s an unsettling feeling from outside.」
「Yes, I feel it too. What on earth…?」
「This magical energy…」
A massive wave of magical power, like nothing they’ve ever felt before.
Both of them, being golems homunculus, distinctly feel the danger from it.
A Disaster-class energy? Or maybe Calamity-class… No, this is even beyond that―――
It’s a kind of overpowering magic, reminiscent of when they faced their father, Earth.
「Look, the sky…」
The view outside the window.
The sky is slowly being engulfed by something pitch black.
Clouds? Smoke? Or fog?
They can’t tell.
But in just an instant, this blackness covers the entire imperial capital, forming a dome.
「What in the world is happening?」
「…Una, Orion, stay here. I’ll go and check… it?」
Just like before, Dos plans to leave Una and Orion behind to investigate.
But this time is different.
There’s no response.
Dos looks around.
He’d only looked away for a split second, distracted by the strange blackness outside.
Just a moment, that’s all it should have been.
――Yet, Orion is nowhere to be found.
Being golem homunculus, known for their exceptional magical sensing, it’s strange that neither of them sensed anything. Orion has simply vanished without a trace.
In the town below the Imperial Castle―――
Beldi Raven is bewildered.
A black fog that suddenly engulfs the entire imperial capital.
Well, she’s not even sure if it’s actually fog, but something indescribable and black has appeared.
「…What’s with this black mist?」
But as she wonders, another crisis unfolds right in front of her.
「What’s going on? I feel so weak…」「Ahhh…」「Someone, help…」
People around her are in pain, falling to the ground.
And if you look closely, they are surrounded by the same kind of black fog covering the sky.
「―――Hey, are you okay?」
As Beldi approaches the fallen, the mist seems to close in on her, too.
It’s as if the fog itself has a will.
Reactively, Beldi swings her Gungnir at the advancing black fog.
With a sizzling sound, like something melting, the fog disappears.
（…Gungnir can dispel it. So, this mist isn’t magic but some kind of monster?）
Thinking this, Beldi uses her spear against the fog encircling the fallen townspeople.
And immediately, the pained expressions on their faces ease.
She cradles one of the fallen, checking their symptoms.
（…The symptoms resemble magic depletion… Does this fog drain magical energy? But how?）
However, while Beldi is lost in thought, the fog continues its assault on the townspeople.
「Damn it… I don’t get it, but for now, I’ll just keep dispelling it.」
She keeps swinging her spear, aiming for the encroaching fog.
But there’s no end to the black mist.
―――She can’t keep up.
More and more people are getting consumed by the fog.
「This isn’t working… Then, what about this…」
Ahead, she sees a wall of fog blocking the path.
Approaching it, Beldi swings her spear.
The fog wall dissipates slightly.
But it quickly reforms.
She swings repeatedly, but the fog restores itself just as fast.
「Damn it, this isn’t working…」
With growing frustration, Beldi looks up to the sky.
（In situations like this, there’s typically a main weak point – a ‘core’. If I can target that…）
Compared to the walls, the black mist in the sky looks even more ominous.
「I doubt even a full-powered throw of Gungnir can dispel all of that…」
Even if she throws it, hitting the actual core is what will make a difference.
But where is it?
（―――Wait… Now that I think about it, the fog seemed to have originated from the direction of the Imperial Castle for a moment.）
If that’s the case, there’s a high chance that the source of this mist is somewhere in there.
「It seems worth checking out…」
She’s concerned about Wald, but unless she deals with this mist, she won’t even be able to head that way.
With that thought, she prepares to dash forward when…
「Ugh… Help me…」
A voice of a young girl, lying nearby in pain, reaches her ears.
（Damn it, I can’t help everyone… I’m sorry, kid, but you’ll have to endure it for a while.）
Deciding this, she’s about to run again when…
「Ugh… It’s so painful… Someone, help me…」
Again, the voice of the girl.
With a swing of her spear, Beldi dispels the mist surrounding the girl.
She then retrieves a restoration potion from her pouch.
「Drink this, it’ll help.」
「Thank you… Miss Eyepatch…」
The girl slowly sips the potion.
Beldi also casts a wind protective spell on her.
That should keep her safe for a while.
「When you feel better, head to the Adventurer’s Guild or the guard station. It should be safer than here.」
「Okay… Thank you, Miss Eyepatch…」
‘Miss Eyepatch’? How long has it been since she’s been called that?
With the girl behind her, Beldi starts running again.
「This is not the time for this… Damn it!」
She’s frustrated with herself for being indecisive.
But now, she won’t make any more detours.
Cutting off the source will, in the end, be the means to save everyone.
Does she even have the luxury to extend her hand to every fallen individual?
With that determination, another thought emerges in her mind.
―――I wonder if Farley is okay.
She’s an adventurer in her own right.
But can she handle this unpredictable situation?
Is she, like many around now, down and suffering?
That thought lingers.
She can’t shake it off.
「No… She’ll be fine. I’ve incorporated a visual spell into Farley. If something happens, I should know immediately.」
So far, there hasn’t been any change.
That means Farley is safe.
But because of this peace, she had once lost her dearest sister.
Despite her care and concern, her sister had died out of her sight.
That fear creeps in.
Unnoticed, Beldi’s pace slows down.
She realizes she’s near the inn where Farley is staying.
Farley is right within reach.
A moment of hesitation.
A brief lapse of judgment.
And the regrets of the past.
Before she knows it, Beldi is running towards the inn.
Towards where Farley is.
And this choice…
Seals her fate.
On a hill outside the imperial capital―――
「What the heck… is that black mist?」
Elibel, with the flames in her eye sockets flickering, stares at the spectacle before her.
The entire imperial capital is gradually being consumed by the black mist.
It’s a sight she, known as a sage, has never seen before.
「Could that be… the ‘Dream Mist’? Why here…?」
She’s heard of it.
It goes by the same title as Jibru, an Evil God-class.
But this is the first time she’s seen the real thing.
「I see… Joker remained a mystery till the end. But I should’ve given its meaning more thought. ‘Remaining unidentified’… that itself was a hint. Admittedly, even I don’t know much about the Dream Mist.」
Léna-Lloyd says, with a touch of self-mockery.
Then, she sharply glares at Rias, who’s restrained at her feet.
「To think that you’d have the ‘Dream Mist’ on your side, Rias. That was unexpected. But what’s your plan with it? Sure, the Dream Mist is of the same ‘divine’ class as Jibru. But there’s a clear difference in power between them. I’m sure you know, but there’s no turning this around.」
Even with the appearance of a divine catastrophe monster, Léna-Lloyd’s composure doesn’t falter.
Jibru seems a tad surprised, but she’s already regained her calm.
True, the Dream Mist must be powerful.
According to the official records of the Adventurer’s Guild and nations, it’s one of only three creatures classified as an Evil God-class.
But even among divine beings, it’s no match for the Divine Catastrophe Dragon King Jibru.
Jibru’s power is just that immense.
And on this field, there’s also Elibel, Gwyve, and Léna-Lloyd herself.
That’s why she couldn’t understand why Rias, at this moment, played her trump card – likely the Dream Mist.
「You must know all this, right? Why did you reveal the Joker’s true identity now?」
「Why not say something? If you don’t, how about I shave off one of your eyebrows? Huh?」
Rias remains silent in the face of this peculiar threat.
However, her lips move ever so slightly.
「… ‘My body will―――」
A faint mutter escapes her.
What Rias uttered was―――
――― ‘My body will turn into flames, reducing everything to ashes’.
Immediately after, Rias’ body “ignites.”
Everyone present is taken aback by the sudden turn of events.
General-class Fire Magic: Self-Burning Cremation.
It’s a powerful “self-destruct” spell that incinerates the caster along with their enemies.
But, with Léna-Lloyd’s restraint spell in effect, Rias won’t be able to harm anyone else.
It’s just suicide.
Even as her flesh burns and life is consumed, Rias laughs.
「―――Triple Water Dragon――」
Reacting instantly, Elibel attempts to launch a water-based spell to extinguish the flames.
But it’s too late.
Before Elibel’s spell takes effect, Rias’ body is reduced to charred remains.
「Did she… take her own life?」
Berg’s question prompts Elibel to shake her head.
She picks up a fragment of the charred remains, examining it closely.
「No, this isn’t her. It’s a ‘vessel’. And an incredibly accurate one at that.」
「What did you just say?!」
Not just Berg, but Jibru and Gwyve also voice their astonishment.
Only Léna-Lloyd remains unfazed.
「Did you realize that, Eli? I only just figured it out.」
「No, I only noticed now, too. I just acted on instinct when I saw Rias preparing something… But honestly, I underestimated her. I never thought Rias could go this far―――」
「Hold on a second, Eli.」
「First, let’s deal with the ‘nuisance.’」
Saying this, Léna-Lloyd disappears and in a blink appears right before Wald.
Caught completely off guard, Wald is easily approached.
Léna-Lloyd then lands a solid punch into his solar plexus.
「…Gahaa. Wh… Why, Reynold’s witc-GOFHAA!」
One punch doesn’t knock him out, so she hits him another twenty times until Wald finally goes unconscious.
Blood drips from his mouth, but she doesn’t care.
For good measure, she throws in a kick.
He bends awkwardly and she finds it amusing.
It seems like something that shouldn’t come out did, but she doesn’t dwell on it.
After all, he’s not dead.
「Just thought it’d be troublesome if Wald asked too many questions. It’s easier with him unconscious.」
「You’re not going to kill him?」
「Well, I thought about it initially, but he still might be of some use.」
Léna-Lloyd responds as she takes out a rope from seemingly nowhere and ties Wald to a nearby tree.
She gags him, too.
And for good measure, smears mustard in his nose and doodles on his forehead.
Where did that marker-like thing come from, anyway?
She doesn’t forget to strip him down to his underwear, either.
Oh, there’s a wound from Rugios.
She makes sure it won’t close.
Now, even if he wakes up, he won’t cause any trouble.
If anything, waking up might be hell for him.
Ah, that’s refreshing.
It’s a good bit of stress relief.
「There, that’s done. Now, let’s get back to our discussion, Eli.」
With an unnecessarily refreshing smile, Léna-Lloyd prompts for what comes next.
Everyone present is a bit taken aback by how efficiently she handles the situation.
「Yes, right… so———」
「Hold on a second. You’re saying Rias’s body was a vessel?」
「It’s hard to believe. The magic emanating from it was unmistakably Rias’s. I trust my ability to sense magic, and there should be a slight difference in the magic signature between a vessel and the real thing. Even if the real person is controlling it. Yet, the magic from that was undoubtedly Rias’s. Wait, could it be…!?」
Gwyve stops mid-sentence, seemingly coming to a realization.
Elibel nods slowly, confirming his suspicion.
Léna-Lloyd continues the revelation,
「That’s right. What it means is… Rias has been using a vessel for a thousand years.」
Everyone present gasped at the answer.
「In retrospect, her managing to emit some degree of magic was probably all part of Rias’s plan. Regularly giving off her magic signature to create the impression that she’s the ‘real deal.’」
「Are you saying she did all that just to deceive our eyes?」
「Most likely, she probably thought she needed to go to those lengths to outsmart us, especially Jibru and me. And, well, we were thoroughly duped.」
To think she went through such lengths, a grand deception spanning a millennium, just to mislead a handful of people.
The sheer magnitude and absurdity of her plan go beyond madness.
「That would explain why Rias revealed the Joker’s true identity, she probably still has a plan up her sleeve to resurrect the Death Dragon. The Dream Mist was likely just a distraction to buy her time. It all makes sense when you think about it that way.」
With a loud crash, Elibel strikes the remains of Rias with her staff.
Elibel mutters, looking down at what was once Rias, now reduced to ashes.
「Rias… what on earth do you want?」
Betraying her, who considered ‘her’ a disciple.
Deceiving Berg, whom she was close with.
Causing the death of her own sister, who had treated ‘her’ almost like family.
After betraying, deceiving, tricking, and turning everyone around ‘her’ into enemies, what does she hope to gain by resurrecting the Death Dragon?
「…Honestly, we won’t know unless we ask Rias herself.」
「In any case, since the Dream Mist covers the entire imperial capital, it’s natural to assume Rias is inside it. The mist also acts as a barrier.」
She adds, glancing briefly at Jibru.
「Hey, Jibru, think you can blow away that mist with your breath? Oh, and you don’t need to worry about collateral damage in the capital. No matter how many die, it doesn’t matter to me.」
「…I’ll give it a shot.」
Jibru replies, taking in a deep breath.
Elibel suddenly remembers something crucial.
―――Dos and Una are in the capital.
This isn’t good!
If Jibru unleashes her breath now, they’ll get caught in the crossfire.
They’ll surely die.
She might not care about the other residents, but she can’t bear the thought of losing Dos and Una.
「Wait, Jibru! If you fire now———
It’s too late.
A massive surge of magical power is released towards the imperial capital, a destructive force that once decimated even an awakened Celestial Dragon.
Everyone expects the utter annihilation of the capital.
（Oh no! Please, Dossun, Una, be okay!）
Elibel thinks, sending a desperate prayer to the heavens.
It’s funny how she usually scoffs at the idea of gods, but in desperate times like these, she finds herself praying.
However, reality is ruthless.
There’s no stopping Jibru’s devastating breath now.
Incredibly, Jibru’s unleashed breath just “passed through” the mist.
The breath continued in the opposite direction, causing a massive explosion in the distance.
Everyone’s eyes widen in astonishment.
「…Did the attack just pass through it?」
「…Shall we try again?」
Jibru fires another breath, but the result is the same.
Even when Gwyve releases a breath and Léna-Lloyd launches magic spells, the outcome remains unchanged.
Every attack simply passes through the black mist.
Deciding on a different approach, Gwyve dives from the sky, aiming straight down at the mist.
But, even though he should’ve penetrated it from above, he somehow “slips through” from the side, unable to enter the imperial capital.
「An impenetrable barrier that refuses any external interference… Is that what this is?」
「It seems so…」
Even so, for a barrier to ward off even the breath of Jibru, the Divine Catastrophe Dragon King… it’s astounding.
「The Dream Mist we knew didn’t possess such capabilities. This means…」
…They’ve been thoroughly ensnared in Rias’s scheme.
While they stand by, unsure of how to proceed, Rias likely advances her preparations.
They must find a way to break through this barrier.
Using every ounce of her intellect, Elibel seeks a way to pierce the shield.
―――High above the imperial city, shrouded in black mist, floats a temple, seemingly made of the same dark mist.
Though its details are hard to discern due to its dark coloration, its design seems reminiscent of Roman Doric architecture.
Columns are evenly spaced around it, and in the center, there’s an altar meant for offerings.
Standing beside this altar is a man dressed like a jester.
It’s the divine disaster monster, Dream Mist Joker.
「Whew… That… That was scary… super scary.」
He murmurs, holding his arms and trembling at the memory of the earlier events.
He hadn’t expected Jibru to unleash her breath right from the start.
Even if Rias had enhanced the mist with spells, making it permeable to all magical elements, no one expected an all-out breath attack so suddenly.
What was she thinking? Is she crazy?
Moreover, there are residents of the imperial city within him.
Attacking so recklessly without any regard? Isn’t that insane?
Truly, there’s a reason why the likes of the Divine Catastrophe Dragon King, the witch, and the perverse sage are called as such.
To Joker, they all seem a screw short of a toolkit.
「But, I guess, in a way, it all worked out. Now it’s proven that no one can penetrate into me… Fufu… Fufufu… Even if I did wet myself a bit.」
He chuckles, still shaking.
Although Joker is indeed a divine disaster monster like Jibru, he knows better than anyone that he doesn’t stand a chance against her, no matter what.
「Sure, I can’t defeat Jibru in combat… But I can obstruct and annoy her…」
Joker thinks, focusing on his goal of buying time.
Despite the mask hiding his face, one can imagine the smirk underneath.
Footsteps approach, and when he looks up, he sees a young woman, probably in her late teens.
Seeing her, Joker’s presumed smirk deepens.
「So, Senior Rias, how does it feel to be in your ‘original body’ after a millennium?」
「It’s… alright, I guess.」
Rias responds, seemingly inspecting her form, which is quite different from her previous secretary-like appearance.
She has beautifully cut golden hair, deep blue eyes, and a well-developed feminine physique.
Her unique ceremonial attire, embroidered with a black dragon design, emphasizes her form.
In her hand, she holds a twisted ceremonial staff, even taller than she is.
「I haven’t seen that form of yours in a millennium, Senior Rias.」
「Indeed, Senior, you look best in your original form! So darn cute! Absolutely perfect!」
「Fufu. Thank you, Joker.」
She smiles and approaches the altar.
「So… How much magic have we gathered so far?」
「Roughly about sixty percent, I’d say. Given it’s the souls of the entire imperial city, that’s about the limit.」
「I see… Is it possible to gather more from Fafnir?」
「I’m already on it. The markings by Lau and Suiren have been quite useful. Using them as the base, I’ve been generating more mist and draining more magic. Oh, and I’ve also been killing off the monsters in the dungeon for some extra magical power.」
Soon enough, they will have all the magic they need.
After all, Fafnir, now in its transition phase, possesses a magical power far beyond Rias’s imagination.
Even though the reason for this immense transition is unclear, it’s quite fortunate for her plans.
Even if she can’t directly utilize this vast magical reservoir, skimming off the surface will provide all she requires.
Her smile deepens.
The ones she’s most wary of—Jibru, Elibel, and Léna-Lloyd—are all outside the mist.
And the necessary magical power is almost within grasp.
Luck seems to be on her side.
At least, for now.
Rias raises the twisted staff in her right hand.
Named the sacred staff “Caduceus,” it’s a magical item she had taken from Eclair, capable of conducting large-scale teleportation involving tens of thousands of individuals.
From her pocket, she also pulls out a black, fist-sized magical stone.
「Now, let’s commence the final ritual. I’ll summon the ‘physical form’ of the Death Dragon Ouronus to this land.」
This was her true plan.
She didn’t intend to reconstruct the Death Dragon’s body using the dungeons or the Dragon Slayer as vessels.
Instead, she plans to do the opposite:
Summon the original body of the sealed Death Dragon Ouronus to this land using massive amounts of magic and a grand-scale teleportation.
To conceal this goal, both she and Joker have been acting for centuries.
「Are you sure you can summon it from ‘that place’?」
Joker asks, with a tinge of unease in his voice, but Rias’s smile remains unwavering.
「There’s no issue. That location, where Ouronus’s body is sealed, is a very unique place among the Stellar Vein Dungeon. If we meddle carelessly, the seal might weaken. That’s why its location hasn’t changed for a millennium. We will succeed.」
With conviction, she says.
「And Jibru’s underlings… Will they intervene? I really don’t like them.」
「While I can’t say there’s no possibility, even if they do notice, they likely won’t do anything. Unlike Jibru, they have no interest outside of their dungeons. They’ve been ‘educated’ that way. You understand that well, don’t you?」
「Well… Yeah, I guess so.」
Joker scratches his head with a somewhat sheepish look after being told that.
「By the way, where’s Aoba?」
「He’s with Lau. After the failed invasion on Fafnir, their consciousness returned to their main bodies.」
「I see. Joker, please call them to help defend this altar.」
Hearing this, Joker tilts his head in confusion.
「…But, this is already a subspace under my control? You’re saying someone might break in?」
「Yes, if my predictions are correct.」
「Got it. If anyone dares to intrude, I’ll be there, going all out to stop them.」
「I’m counting on you, Joker.」
「Leave it to me.」
With a casual wave of his hand, Joker departs from the altar.
Alone now, Rias begins to channel magical energy into her staff.
「It’ll take about an hour to complete the teleportation… This is the real gamble」
Which will happen first? Will she successfully summon the body of the Death Dragon to this land?
Or will adversaries like Jibru, and Elibel breach the barrier and reach her first?
A shiver runs through her body.
Jibru, Léna-Lloyd, Elibel—they’re all terrifyingly powerful, and she’s managed to make enemies of them all.
She’s cornered, backed against a metaphorical cliff’s edge.
「But… I’ll be the one with the last laugh.」
She is resolute in her aim to triumph.
After all, she has lived through a millennium just for this moment.
Just one more hour.
In the grand scope of her existence, it’s but a blink of an eye.
And that brief moment is all that remains before the world changes.
Now, it’s time to fulfill a long-held dream spanning a thousand years.
『What the hell is this?』
Unable to contact Una or Dos, confusion sweeps over me, and my vision settles on a peculiar scene playing out on the monitor.
A bizarre black mist.
The mist is seeping into Fafnir’s dungeon.
Golems and monsters within Fafnir struggle frantically to push the mist away, but it’s a futile effort.
Even worse, the moment they touch the mist, the golems crumble with a resounding noise, and the creatures wither as if they’ve been dried out.
The mist appears to absorb magical power.
Due to its effect, the concentration of magical essence in Fafnir’s dungeon is rapidly declining.
If nothing is done, it could jeopardize the very life extension of Fafnir himself.
Could this be…?
Has another weirdo come into the dungeon?
Trouble three days in a row?
Without even a break?
Completely ignoring my circumstances?
『Ah, I see, I see…』
So, you’ve come.
You really did come.
Just a day after yesterday, you’re here?
A deep, long sigh.
Stop messing with me!
―――somewhere inside me, something snaps.
Someone once said that fate is like the hand of a wind-up clock.
The bigger the hand, the more gears it needs to move.
Each gear intricately intertwines with the others, turning to move the grand hand known as fate.
Therefore, even a single gear’s hiccup can ripple through the whole system.
There’s a gear, cloaked in dust, never moving on its own.
But its sheer size means that while it doesn’t mesh with other gears or sync its pace, its mere presence is significant. Just a decoration, until it moves.
And when it does, all the gears risk misalignment.
Now, that gear — it’s starting to move.
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