（Why!? Why is Jibru here?）
I’m confused for a moment, but then I remember – the dungeon’s defenses aren’t functioning properly right now. The magical energy stored in the dungeon was nearly exhausted by Tsumugi’s new spell “Great Invasion”, and all the traps have been used up too.
That’s affected the barriers in the depths as well.
Barriers meant to block intruders like Jibru and Pathless who try to teleport directly into the dungeon. With those not working, there’s nothing stopping her from suddenly appearing here.
Yeah, it’s weird, but not that weird when I think about it.
What should I do?
To be blunt, this is the worst possible timing.
With my soul completely transferred to the vessel golem, my magic nearly depleted, and my body barely movable.
I can’t even call for help from partner or Elibel, with thought transmission down and not getting through. No matter what happens, I’m defenseless.
A dragon on the chopping block. Ready to be carved up.
This is bad…really bad.
I stare at Jibru.
…The magic I sense from her is calm.
Or at least, she doesn’t seem ready to do anything right now…I hope.
『Oh my, you’re quite composed, aren’t you? I expected you to react more like ‘Wha!? Why are YOU here!? Wait, huh!? Why are you showing up right after I finished fighting Agil!?’ …something like that. I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to see your surprised face.』
Damn, that impression of me is annoyingly accurate.
Go ahead and get mad, partner.
『What a shame, I don’t get to see your shocked expression.』
I force a cocky grin at her.
Inside I’m really shaken up, but I can’t let any of that show.
Acting tough is about all I can manage right now.
When I say that, Jibru shakes her head.
『No, this shows how much you’ve grown. You should be proud, not disappointed. Though flustered Earth is also cute in his own way, I suppose.』
What kind of parental affection is that?
『More importantly, Earth, it seems you’ve successfully defeated Agil. Well done.』
Jibru smiles at me and offers words of praise.
Does she not realize?
That my soul has been separated from my body?
Or is she fully aware and saying such things on purpose?
I can’t read anything from Jibru’s expression.
『Quite a light praise for all the trouble we went through. You think we had it easy?』
『Yes, you’re right. But I believed you would surely prevail, so I wasn’t too worried.』
Does she really think I’d take those words at face value right now?
『Oh, that’s right, what happened with Kshathra? Was she helpful to you?』
『…Yeah, she helped out a lot.』
That’s my true feeling.
Whatever she did in the middle, Kshathra’s assistance was crucial in the final battle against Agil.
『I see. That’s good to hear. It must have been a valuable experience for her. She seems to have taken a liking to you, so if you don’t mind, I’d like her to stay here a while longer, Earth.』
『She’s not a pet… I’ll return her properly. Besides, if you hadn’t gotten hurt in the first place, we wouldn’t have needed to do any of this―――Huh?』
That’s when I finally noticed.
Jibru’s wounds are gone.
Hard to see clearly at this size, but there’s no sign of the injuries she sustained fighting the Death Dragon Ouronus.
A chill runs through me.
In the images Kshathra showed us, Jibru was still recovering.
Tubes and devices all over her body. She shouldn’t have been able to move freely for months at least.
That’s why she asked us to defeat Agil.
『What’s the matter, dear Earth?』
Jibru speaks up, noticing my silence.
『Jibru…what happened to your wounds?』
Jibru tilts her head quizzically.
Then after a moment, she opens her mouth as if recalling something.
『Oh that’s right, I forgot to mention it. As you can see, thanks to the time you bought me, I’ve made a full recovery. I should thank you for that as well.』
Jibru bows her head with a smile.
I see, so she healed from her wounds huh…
『Don’t lie to me.』
Jibru looks surprised.
『You―――you were never injured in the first place, were you…』
When I say that, Jibru seems a little shocked.
The swaying of her tail stops.
『…What makes you think that?』
That question is essentially an admission that my words are true.
Her tone drops a little.
『You had already ‘fully recovered’ when you sent those images through Kshathra, hadn’t you? And in the first place, it’s unnatural that you, who can use ‘Gluttony’, would need half a year to heal. I should have noticed that strangeness sooner.』
Theoretically, the earth dragon’s “Gluttony” can devour anything.
If she wanted, she could even devour “the wounds she sustained herself”.
That’s why my partner’s (the usual me’s) wounds heal and magic recovers abnormally fast.
My partner was unconsciously using a fraction of the power of “Gluttony”.
…Though my partner’s case is a bit different.
Anyway, it was weird for Jibru, a true dragon king who’s awakened her powers, to be “undergoing such blatant treatment”.
I should have realized the oddness sooner.
Not that realizing it would have changed anything.
『Plus, the timing is just too convenient. You suddenly recovered right after we beat Agil? That’s hard to believe.』
When I say that, Jibru scratches her head sheepishly.
『You got me…I was careless. I should have staggered the timing more. I just couldn’t sit still when I heard my cute Earth had won – that was my mistake, it seems.』
『So you admit it, right? You could move freely anytime you wanted.』
『Yes, that’s correct. I was never immobile.』
Jibru acknowledges it.
It overturns the premise of everything we’ve fought until now.
『But it was all to make you stronger. Facing Agil would bring you closer to becoming a true dragon king. That was my thinking―――』
『Don’t screw with me!!!』
I yell, cutting Jibru off.
My own voice surprises me with its volume.
I couldn’t hold back.
『…Earth? Why raise your voice so loudly?』
『To make me stronger… that’s bullshit! Do you know how many died for that!?』
Ann’s antlings, the forest monsters, the golems, and the holy dragon Harsha.
Adding the demon army, over 100,000 monsters must have died.
Even Elja nearly died. Everyone else came so close – just a small difference could have meant death.
It was an extremely precarious battle.
『―――How many died?』
『I’m asking, how many died exactly?』
Tilting her head curiously, Jibru looks at me like she really doesn’t understand.
『Sacrifice is inevitable in war. Whether the number is great or small, isn’t that all there is to it?』
『What are you…』
『If you regret the sacrifices made in this battle, then become stronger for their sake. That’s all there is to it, no? So why are you so angry?』
Her words are far too detached and logical.
Devoid of emotion, like a machine.
And I yell in response.
『Of course I’m angry!! If you could move, you should have dealt with Agil! This whole incident is your responsibility! Agil’s betrayal, Ouronus too! If you had moved properly… Even Elja’s father… Even Harsha died because of you! And yet―――!』
『But you grew stronger because of it, didn’t you? Isn’t that good enough?』
『You became stronger. You grew. That’s all that matters, right?』
Am I wrong? Jibru looks straight at me as she says this.
This time, I’m the one at a loss for words.
『Plus, you promised me, didn’t you? To become strong enough to not need my protection or the Stellar Vein. I was moved by your determination and only helped make it happen. What is there to complain about?』
『That’s…! That was only about me! There was no need to involve my followers and everyone else―――!』
『To me, there is nothing of higher priority than making you stronger. The connections I’ve fostered, the followers gathered to you, the monsters on this continent, the Stellar Vein’s follower – I will use them all to strengthen you. That will not change.』
I feel dizzy.
Like my mind is going crazy.
『Why…why go that far?』
I somehow squeeze out the question.
『Why? Isn’t it obvious?』
Jibru smiles at that.
『―――Because I am your mother.』
It’s an absurdly cliche line.
And that makes it sound all the more disturbingly abnormal.
The loving smile of a doting mother, stained by madness.
Eyes devoid of warmth stare at me.
That smile of affection and ecstasy is directed solely at me.
All of Jibru’s love is poured into me alone.
Ah, I see now.
I understand clearly.
Jibru isn’t crazy.
Jibru…my mother…my family…is fundamentally broken beyond repair.
And all that twisted drive is focused entirely on me.
In the earlier battle, I told Agil not to butt into a family quarrel.
How naive. My perception was too soft. My resolve almost wavered.
Can I really stand against her?
Against this monster.
Against this mother.
『Oh dear, you don’t look well. It seems it was too soon to visit right after the battle. Rest up properly, dear Earth.』
Jibru says something.
Words of concern for me.
She’s worried for me from the bottom of her heart.
And that makes me feel nauseous beyond words.
『Let’s see…I’ll come back another time. I have preparations of my own. So Earth, make sure to ‘heal up’ properly. Flawed as it is, for now that ‘outer soul’ is still necessary for you.』
With that, Jibru disappears.
As if she was never there to begin with.
Until Rasetsu and Gonzo came rushing in sensing the disturbance some tens of seconds later, I couldn’t move a muscle.
I’ve never felt like this, not even fighting Agil or Ouronus.
All I felt was relief that Jibru was gone.
And that feeling was pathetically overwhelming.
My heart was defeated before the fight even began.
Meanwhile, Ann was facing Mýrus in a mysterious white space.
Ann silently stares at Mýrus.
The more she looks, the more the resemblance is clear.
Indeed, it’s no wonder Jibru and Joker mistook Ann for her at first glance. Though of course, the magical energy she senses is incomparable.
『Please, don’t be so wary. As I said, I have no intention of harming you…』
Mýrus spreads her hands to show she means no hostility.
But Ann won’t be easily swayed.
『You expect me to just trust those words? When you’re one of the Stellar Vein’s–one of that Jibru’s followers?』
That’s right, her opponent is a follower of the Divine Catastrophe Dragon King Jibru.
Considering the circumstances, telling her to just trust would be unreasonable.
Ann tries to ready the Magic Sword Ridill…
（Huh…? The sword, it’s not…）
Only then does she realize she’s completely unarmed.
『My apologies, but weapons cannot be brought here. Or rather, it’s more accurate to say they simply can’t exist in this place… As only souls can enter here.』
『What do you mean? Then where is my body…?』
『It remains in your dungeon, unchanged.』
As Mýrus says this, she pulls out a picture frame. Displayed inside is the still form of Ann in the dungeon.
『Don’t worry. Once we finish talking, I’ll return you to where you were. It won’t take much time. The concept of time doesn’t exist here to begin with.』
『That’s…what does that…』
『Please, follow me.』
Saying that, Mýrus starts walking.
With no other option, Ann follows after her.
As she walks, Ann looks around at the countless frames floating in the void.
Various images flow across them.
Most seem to be from underground – the dungeon.
What catches her attention are the “perspectives” of the images.
Most are low, looking upwards.
And the images showing adventurers immediately go dark when the adventurers attack the viewpoint.
『Could this be…the killer ants’ perspectives?』
Mýrus turns around at Ann’s mutter.
『Correct. These images are all from the killer ants’ perspectives. Or rather, the experiences and memories lived by the killer ants, like records of their lives.』
『Records of their lives…?』
『Yes. I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you that we ant monsters possess a unique network. What one ant sees and experiences can be relayed and shared with the others. The transmission speed far exceeds thought transmission. In terms of sheer information transfer within the swarm, the killer ants are likely unsurpassed among all monsters.』
Mýrus speaks proudly, but Ann already knows all this well.
The killer ants are a swarm monster.
Their individual strength is weakest, which is why their collective power developed to compensate.
Ann was about to say she knows without needing an explanation, when–
『And―――that network continues even ‘after death’. Not just within one colony, but the entire species.』
Ann is shocked by this fact she didn’t know at all.
『The hub of that network is this space. All the memories of every killer ant born in this world are stored here. Like this.』
With a snap of her fingers, Mýrus summons a massive number of frames that fill the entire white space.
Ann is left speechless by the overwhelming sight.
『Surprised? But this is still just a fraction of it all.』
Just a fraction with this much? Ann thinks, but immediately realizes otherwise.
The killer ants are a swarm monster.
Looking at the entire species, the numbers would be exponentially greater.
And including all the deceased individuals of the past, it’d rival the sands of a desert, or the stars in the sky.
『I could show you everything, but… taking in so many records at once risks your soul fragmenting. So I’ll refrain.』
At another snap from Mýrus, the massive number of frames disappears.
Faced with the stunned Ann, Mýrus smiles again.
『Well? Has it piqued your interest at all? Willing to listen a little now?』
It’s vexing, but Mýrus is right.
The cards she’s laid out have caught Ann’s interest.
Taking Ann’s silence as affirmation, Mýrus nods.
『Thank you. Now then, to begin – Ann, are you familiar with the religion known as the Holy God Religion?』
The sudden question takes Ann aback, but she sees no reason to deceive and answers honestly.
『It’s the religion followed among humans, right? I believe the Holy Kingdom has adopted it as their state religion.』
『That’s right. According to its teachings, all humans go to the Holy God upon death and are given peace. While evil people and monsters go to the Chaos God and are judged. So people must live righteously and justly. Those are the basic tenets. And the messengers of the Holy God are said to be the holy dragons. Despite being monsters, they’re recognized as guardian dragons by the Holy Kingdom.』
Having met worthless holy dragons like Elja and Harsha, Ann finds these teachings highly suspect.
In the first place, she has no interest in human-centric religions like this.
If anything, creating my own Church of Earth, extolling Lord Earth’s greatness and preaching to everyone, would be infinitely better.
…No, I should seriously consider founding it. Elja and Una would happily convert, surely.
Ann silently resolves to establish the religion.
『How exactly does any of this relate to our current situation?』
『In a way, these teachings strike at the core of this world, and this place.』
『Earlier I said this place holds the memories of all killer ants. But to be precise, it contains records of all ‘living things’, including killer ants.』
『Of all…? Then you mean―――』
『Yes, the literal ‘everything’. The records of all organisms, human and monster alike, exist here. Though unfortunately I can only access our lineage of ant monsters.』
Ann is stunned speechless.
The records of all diverse organisms, everything that lives – stored here?
Impossible. What is this?
『What…what is this place?』
Ann fearfully asks.
Slowly, Mýrus opens her mouth.
『This place…is where all souls are born and return. The world’s repository.
The heart and symbol of the world―――the place called the ‘Stellar Vein Dungeon’.』
A fact more shocking than everything prior poured from Mýrus’ mouth.
『Let us talk, Ann. About what the Stellar Vein Dungeon is. What happened 1000 years ago. What will happen going forward. I will tell you everything about Lord Jibru and us followers of the Stellar Vein. That is why I called you to this place.』
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