Tales of Xillia Short Story: Wings of Remembrance
Countless nights of festive banquets followed the first cries of the baby.
On silver plates, piles of beasts hunt all over Auj Oule just for that day. In golden cups, the amber glow of exquisite liquor. Round tables were buried under victuals. The grandeur of the feasts was carved into young Nils’ memory forever.
Nils was growing up in the territory owned by the Long Dau, one of the most prominent clans of Auj Oule. The Long Dau clan held considerable renown and power in the northern continent and ruled over many smaller clans in the region.
According to legends, the Long Dau were the descendants of one of Kresnik the Sage’s seven sons. This meant of all the clans of Auj Oule, the Long Dau were among the ones with the most noble, divine, worthy name; they were one of the most fit for reigning. This was the burden placed on the shoulders of all who bore its name.
But for ten long years after he had succeeded the previous leader, Chief Lars had failed to produce an heir. As he had three younger brothers, one of them would succeed him in the case he died childless, but none of them could hold a candle to him.
In a society where power and influence were dependent on one’s name and physical strength, the lack of a proper heir could signify the decline of a clan. For that reason, the birth of a prince was Lord Lars’ most fervent wish, and the fact that Lin safely came into this world held a great meaning for the Long Dau’s future.
The future chief was sleeping defenseless in his cradle, watched over by a bright young child. He was yet unaware of the enormous burden he would have to bear on his frail shoulders, and was a symbol of hope for the people.
Lin Long Dau, heir of the Long Dau patriarch, just born. Nils Frieden, retainer of the Long Dau, four years old. Their first season of water.
One day, his mother learned the meaning of the prince’s name from the queen, and told the story to Nils in secret. According to the queen, “Lin” came from a word that signified “reincarnation” in an ancient language. This referred to one of the legends of Rieze Maxia that said that the souls of the departed crossed the realms of the human and spirit worlds to be reborn as a new life.
“Prince Lin’s name,” his mother had added after finishing her explanation, “is the essence of the world itself. It is a most noble name.”
Nils had never seen a spirit or the flow of souls, but he thought that no name was more befitting the heir of the Long Dau. To him, the little prince was both noble and divine, and he admired the wisdom of his brow, the fairness of his cheeks and the beauty of his ebony locks. There was no greater joy to him than the prospect of serving and protecting his young master.
Powerful men and their successors were distinguished in both literary and military arts–or so propaganda said. In a world where a ruler’s very person was a symbol to the people, their image was often glorified. However, if one was to scratch a little under the surface, one would often discover that they were as plain as day, and that the flattery was nothing but empty words dispensed to make them appear impressive.
Lin, however, was without exaggeration a child prodigy whose name would be engraved in Long Dau chronicles.
When he was learning to speak and to walk, he looked like little else than a blubbering baby always running after his big brother. When he was old enough to play around all day, however, Lin started to catch up to Nils despite their age gap, up to the point that their positions eventually reversed.
If Nils himself was bright for his age, he was nowhere near Lin’s level, whose fountain of wisdom seemed bottomless.
The young prince learned to read and write with Howe’s philosophical theses, sharpened his mind with the movements of pieces across a shogi board, and could often be found in the armory, a military strategy book in one hand, questioning officers about past battles. The soldiers, weary of his nit-picking questions, eventually begged Lord Lars to hire him tutors who would keep him occupied in the domains he had taken an interest in.
And it was not just scholarly matters. Lin also showed no little interest in the arts. Works that one would normally never see in Long Dau land were gathered around him from all over Auj Oule–and even the whole of Rieze Maxia. Raised with such top-class elements, Lin honed his culture and sensitivity, while Nils was blessed with a kind of education his status would have never allowed, all thanks to his young master.
The two boys were like two parts of one whole and could only be seen in the palace hand in hand.
Lin always looked serious, his expression sharp like a blade, his black hair flowing in the wind like silk threads, but Nils’ cheeks were always rose-red as his blond curls swayed from the rhythm of his laughter. The two of them ran around in the garden like puppies and cuddled together at night like chicks.
Lin understood the value of knowledge more deeply than most adults, which was unusual among the Long Dau ruling class.
As was the case with his father Lars and the previous leaders, prowess in battle was usually what determined someone’s worth in the Long Dau clan. Lin’s father and uncles all believed that subjugating one’s opponent in battle was the ultimate way to prove one’s power. Military tactics elaborated on a desk or political maneuverings were considered a thing for cowards who had no confidence in their own strength, and it was believed that leaders had to make a name for themselves through the flapping of standards and the clash of steel against steel.
Once Lin reached the age where he could wield a weapon, he would have to prove his power as the son of Chief Lars the Great and would most likely be thrown into rough fights whether he liked it or not. That is, at least, how it would have been had the Long Dau–had Auj Oule itself–continued on the same path. However, the world was starting to move towards a big upheaval.
For many years, relations with Rashugal had been at a standstill, but talks of an imminent invasion were recently spreading.
Rashugal was a major country in the South of Rieze Maxia, separated from Auj Oule by the Fezebel Bay. Unlike Auj Oule, where various clans divided the country, Rashugal was united under the single rule of House Fenn. Rashugal, which was trying to expand its influence under a strict political system, must have been looking for some time for a chance to round up Auj Oule, which was always too absorbed in old-fashioned clan squabbles to notice what was happening on the other side of the sea.
The battle was predicted to take place in the Fezebel Outback, the only slip of land joining the two countries. Lars Long Dau was chosen as supreme commander by the Auj Oule king and was tasked with assembling an army to crush the enemy.
Skillful and robust warriors from hundreds of clans rallied under Lord Lars’ banner. The Long Dau capital was overflowing with men in heavy armor, and feasts for victory were being held every night at the castle for the patriarchs.
Blending with the more famous clans were the Outways, a small clan from the north. It was only a few days before they all departed to the front that a boy only twelve years of age came to an audience on behalf of their aging chief. As the Outway clan was small, it did not have enough warriors to fight on its own and would therefore enlist under the Long Dau banner, following the command of the young substitute.
Since Nils was a commoner, he was only allowed to watch the audience from afar. The boy, Arst, was the same age as himself. He was tall—perhaps the size of a small adult—but lean and quite clearly still in his growth phase. He did not look very reliable. He would probably look more like a true warrior in a few years after his muscles developed, but for the time being they were still invisible under his war attire.
Lin’s father and uncles were listening to Arst’s words with a serious look, but they were laughing inwardly. To oppose Rashugal, they would need to dispatch everyone regardless of standing, but, in their minds, the boy before them would be nothing more than a decorative leader. He would be surrounded by faithful aides, and after swinging his sword a little, he would go back to camp to play commander. That way he would be able to say he participated in his first campaign.
“Look at them, a small clan that fell to poverty a long time ago, trying to put on airs… And all they can send us is a kid. This is ridiculous.”
“We could assign him to Lord Yan or Lord Ying’s unit and let him learn the hard way what a true battlefield is.”
“Hey now, if he runs from us crying, we’ll be regarded as poor babysitters!”
After the audience was over, the four brothers and other court officials were freely sharing mockeries of the boy, and delighted laughter could be heard from everywhere in the room. Lin, however, did not seem to share their mirth, keeping silent instead. His face was paler than usual. Even though he was often trying to act mature, he was still an eight-year-old child. He must have been intimidated by the rough atmosphere.
“Oh my, it seems that this was a bit too much for Prince Lin. Do not worry, my prince, all you will need to do during this war is wait for reports on your mother’s lap.”
The laughter resumed. But Lin did not pay any attention to the mocking adults and grabbed Nils’ arm with a trembling hand.
“You must be tired,” Nils said, trying to be reassuring. “Don’t worry about all this.”
“Nils. That man from the Outway clan… I have a bad feeling about him.”
Nils stared at him in disbelief. “He’s only twelve, like me!” he almost said, but the look in the young genius’ eyes silenced him.
No one at court took Lin’s worries seriously. But it would not be long before they would pay the price for their arrogance.
The clash between Auj Oule and Rashugal, later named “The Battle of Fezebel,” ended in a painful draw. The Fezebel Outback, located in a usually stable spirit clime, was engulfed by a giant tsunami that swept away men and horses alike. Both armies suffered tremendous losses. The countless soldiers’ families and friends, who had sent them away to battle and would have expected them to at least die with honor, were deeply wounded in their heart. Territory disputes thus ceased for a while.
Many years later, the world would learn that this tsunami was caused by the spirit Maxwell’s fight with another world’s army when they to breach the schism separating the worlds. However, at the time, no one could have known about such events far beyond their imagination.
Right before the tsunami struck, Auj Oule’s army had breached one of Rashugal’s flanks and was encircling the enemy, excited by the prospect of victory. Clans who were used to fighting each other had been thrown into a sudden alliance, and as expected, this unity did not last. Thinking only of claiming glory for themselves, the different clans made hasty attacks, and as a result reacted too late to the arrival of the tsunami. All the clans, from the Long Dau on down, suffered great damage.
Though he himself had miraculously survived, young Arst’s unit was completely annihilated. Many leaders were saved while their men perished, which was something to be expected on a battlefield, or so everyone thought at the time.
As the confusion brought by the war died down, Arst’s accomplishments came to light. It was said that he led his troops to wipe out a regiment of the Rashugal army and threatened the famous Ilbert the Conductor’s perfect record. If not for the tragedy that then struck, they might have broken through Rashugal’s defenses and led Auj Oule to victory. He was also said to have sensed the tsunami coming and pushed for a retreat to safety before it was too late.
Other rumors said that he took advantage of the confusion of the disaster to murder the Long Dau officer who had ridiculed him in front of the leaders and caused his warning to be ignored.
The allegedly murdered man was one of Lin’s relatives and, like Nils, was one of his attendants and friends, though he was older. He was also engaged to Arst’s sister. Taking their situation and history into consideration, it was hard to imagine that Arst would hurt him.
After they had lost so many men, discord between the big Long Dau and the small Outway clans worsened. However, the vague fear that Arst inspired in the tsunami survivors was now deeply ingrained.
It was not just because of his prowess in battle. Rare were those who possessed the natural talent to steer their ship through the most terrible of storms without working to acquire the necessary skills. If Arst was indeed one of such people born with the natural ability to lead, chances were high that he would soon threaten the delicate balance which supported the world of Auj Oule. The best course of action would be to subjugate him while he was still inexperienced—before he realized that he was strong enough to hold his own.
But in the end, Arst’s youth dulled the judgment of those around him.
Three years after the Battle of Fezebel, the boy succeeded his father and revolted against the Long Dau, the surrounding clans under his command, much to the surprise of the ruling class.
Hearing that he had been betrayed by the kid of a small clan indebted to him, Lars flew into a rage and gathered a punitive force to subdue him. However, despite boasting that he would demonstrate how they were on a different level when he left the castle, the patriarch did not make a triumphant return with a weepy Arst in chains—instead, he came back in silence, his corpse wrapped in a bloody banner. Merely three years after his first battle, Arst had slain the renowned chief of the great Long Dau clan.
Arst’s goal was not to seize power of the Long Dau clan for himself. He held a greater, revolutionary ambition—to accomplish the unification of Auj Oule, something no one had ever succeeded. In Auj Oule, which was ruled by blood and tradition, his ambition was expectedly seen as laughable. However, his voice eventually became an inspiration and started to stain the land. Even King Merad of the ancient and most noble Sarakhs clan was considered as a possible target. Moved by Arst’s unprecedented great cause, many people gathered under this youthful man who led them into battle with excellent skills and wisdom, and they formed a military force that transcended clans and factions, which they named Taurus.
After Lars’ death, Arst’s name had become some sort of taboo that created an uneasy atmosphere in the Long Dau castle every time it was mentioned.
Nils was extremely worried about Lin, who had just lost his father. He was destined from the start to become head of the clan, but he was only eleven and still grieving his father. It was far too soon for him to assume the succession.
“Are you all right?”
“Am I all right?! Define ‘all right’.”
“...Don’t push yourself. Lord Lars was so strong, and yet he was killed in battle. We should have listened to you that day.”
Lin’s eyes, which until then were looking at the distance, suddenly focused on Nils.
“But I’ll protect you, I promise. If Arst Outway comes to get you, he’s definitely going down!”
Nils smiled awkwardly, trying to cheer him up, but his words did not have any effect on Lin, who looked down again.
“My uncles are completely obsessed with the idea of slaying that man. They won’t listen to anything I say. I will probably have to fight too in the near future.”
When Lin looked up again, his face, illuminated by the moonlight, looked like he had suddenly aged ten years.
Like Lin had predicted, Yan, Ying and Bruno Long Dau embarked on a quest to avenge their brother and capture Arst. The young man’s plan for a new Auj Oule and his foundation of Taurus sounded like a daydream to Nils, a sweet story that would have tempted him if he had been born in a lonely village. But to him, who had the duty to support and protect Lin and the Long Dau’s glory, it was nothing but a lie. According to Lin, their control was already greatly disturbed from the moment the young man had started doubting the system. In that case, Arst’s existence was not something they could tolerate, for the sake of Lin and the Long Dau’s glory.
However, even at this time, Yan and the others were not paying attention to the changing times brought about by Arst. Their aim was to humiliate and execute him, then put Lin on the Long Dau throne with themselves as regents, and reap all the power for themselves.
They ignored all the tactics Lin suggested, such as manipulating public opinion, feint operations, siege formation, or even the most basic marching tactics. They acknowledged Lin’s uncanny ability to move pieces on the strategy board but were convinced of their own superiority due to their long experience in actual combat.
They believed that they could crush Arst by sheer force of numbers, even though Lars himself had not been able to defeat him. That led them to their demise. In the year that followed Lars’ death, Yan and Ying were slain one after the other. Lin led a punitive force against Arst to avenge them and managed to corner him several times with his unconventional tactics, but suffered defeat due to the noble generals’ propensity to protect their own interests. The youngest brother Bruno, who had been sent out to subjugate Arst, met a most disgraceful end when he lost control of his horse and fell into a ravine while fleeing the battle.
The Long Dau lost all influence, and following Bruno’s death, many courtiers and nobles chickened out and fled the palace. Arst was now being called “Gaius,” which meant “He Who Pulls the World Behind Him.” His power was increasing steadily. Some ran to his side and swore loyalty to him in self-defense, while others placed their bets on the winning horse hoping to expand their territory. Although she had stayed strong after Lars’ death, the Long Dau queen committed suicide, unable to bear the sorry sight of the court anymore. The castle was losing its shine with each passing day.
All that was left by Lin’s side were a few loyal retainers like Nils or lower class nobles who had missed their chance to retire.
With Gaius’ rise, the Long Dau, who used to be respected as one of the most powerful clans of Auj Oule, were on the verge of collapse. Despite this, more than a thousand soldiers stayed under Lin’s command and wished to retake the honor of their clan by fighting Gaius alongside their young chief.
To Lin, this war was a way to avenge his father, uncles, and even his mother who had chosen death willingly. One year had passed since their first defeat, and Lin had perfected his strategy, to the point where he managed to corner Gaius’ army in the steep mountain ranges of the Mon Highlands. Under the skillful command of the young chief, whom his men had taken to call “The Little Strategist,” the tactics of Lars’ time, which relied exclusively on force and were often nothing but a waste of resources, endangering the lives of the soldiers unnecessarily, were deemed useless and abandoned. The morale of the men going into battle was high.
Nils was standing near Lin and was looking at his slender face as he was waiting for the enemy’s move, observing the formation he had built on the snowy land. It was a little hard to believe that Gaius would let himself be surrounded so easily. He probably had a plan. But then Lin had probably already foreseen that possibility. He could not possibly think of ending it with a draw...
The wind was getting stronger. Thinking to fetch a fur coat for Lin, he turned toward the officers’ tent, but at that moment he felt a presence. To his surprise, he saw none other than Gaius himself appear on a small hill with a few soldiers.
He looked brazenly defenseless for a young man now at the head of a big army. Gaius still bore some resemblance to the boy he had caught a glimpse of five years before, but the way he made his presence noticed was completely different, and Nils felt overwhelmed. Lin, who had noticed him as well, simply said to wait. The time when they exchanged formalities through messengers was over.
Gaius eventually entered the enemy lines and approached Lin. If Lin were to throw away his honor, it would be possible to take him down here. However, Gaius looked like he did not fear such possibility.
“Lin Long Dau.”
Gaius’s voice was imperious.
“Call back your troops. The ground here is soft. If your men continue advancing northward in large numbers, they will most definitely cause an avalanche.”
“Lin, he's probably just trying to get out of a difficult situation. Don't listen to him,” Nils warned, forgetting his place.
But Lin simply asked coolly: “I don't understand. If you are speaking the truth, why aren't you using the situation to your advantage?”
“I am not one to be blinded by victory and cause the death of excellent soldiers through underhanded tactics. They are precious warriors who will one day support my country and help me forge a path for the good of the people.”
Nils heard Lin draw a sharp breath. He, too, understood what Gaius’ words evoked—the terrible tragedy of Fezebel from five years ago.
“I do not wish to adhere to an old-fashioned system that clings to name and birth. I want to build a country where the strong show the way to the weak and help them achieve happiness. I do not wish to lose the people who would become the foundation of my country simply because they are currently my enemies.”
“Are you telling me to trust the words of a seventeen-year-old boy?”
“Yes. I am talking to you, who are now facing me at barely thirteen years of age. To you, Lin of Long Dau, renowned descendant of the Seven Sons of Auj Oule, who succeeded your father at the young age of eleven.”
Nils felt Lin tense at the evocation of his father’s death, and unconsciously stepped between them to shield him—or was it to contain his murderous impulse?—but the imposing youth was not finished speaking.
“Your father was blinded by glory and came back home having lost many men to the tsunami. All because he had discarded my words as the whinings of a child and ridiculed me.”
“...If I had participated in that battle, it would not have ended in a painful draw. I would have led Auj Oule to victory. And I would have slain you there and then.”
“If you had been leading instead of your father, the outcome of the battle might have indeed been very different. And the more you corner me with your brilliant tactics, the further ahead you push me.”
Having said everything he had come to say, Gaius turned on his heels. Nils called out to Lin but received no answer. Eventually, Lin issued a single order sharply.
“Call the troops back to Dargu Gate.”
The troops were confused. Gaius’ army was right there. Had Lord Lin lost his nerve?
The officers did not bother to hide their bewilderment and their complaints as they urged the soldiers to rebuild their formation and retreat. As if it had been waiting for this very moment, a wave of snow started sliding down the slope, as if a part of the mountain itself was collapsing. It destroyed the tents easily and engulfed the carts and wicker trunks. The mountain’s rage eventually subsided after what seemed like an eternity. In the distance, one could see Arst’s red armor, shining vividly in the color of blood.
That night, Lin and Nils were resting in one of the tents they had managed to salvage from the avalanche.
“Nils. The Long Dau will submit to Ars—to Gaius.”
“Lin, no! If you do that, what will become of the Long Dau clan? Think about the court, Lord Lars’ legacy, your beautiful language... You cannot do that!”
“It is not like everything will be lost. However, the clan has already fallen. I could not protect my father nor stop my uncles. This is my responsibility. Only a fool believes blindly in his superiority and endangers his clansmen pursuing a goal for the sole purpose of self-satisfaction. It is like waving a flower in the darkness and deriving glory from its torn petals. Such a commander is only worthy of disdain.”
“I’ll fight! Even if I’m the only one left standing, I’ll fight to protect the Long Dau’s honor! You can’t bend your head to that arrogant guy. Please order me, Lin! For you, I’ll kill him, even if I have to die in the process!”
Nils had unconsciously grabbed Lin’s shoulder when talking, but Lin shook off his hand and replied.
“Nils, I’ve made my decision. ...If you are not happy with it, leave.”
Lin’s words seemed cold, but Nils felt as if he was apologizing.
Apologizing? To whom? To his father Lars, who had used the clan as he pleased? To his mother, proud and wise, who had encouraged his education? Perhaps to the countless nameless soldiers who had lost their lives on a battlefield?
I don’t need your pitiful repentance. All I want is to protect you. You, my precious master who brought your clan to an end at such a young age.
Nils knelt down and took Lin’s small hand into his own, then brought it to his forehead, while tears were silently running down his face.
Lin submitted to Gaius, ending the Long Dau’s rule for good. There were many courtiers and nobles who had already switched over to Gaius, so the ones that remained adjusted easily to their new circumstances.
A few years later, Gaius gained control of Merad’s main base, Kanbalar, and proclaimed the birth of a new Auj Oule. This event was known as the “Dawn of Auj Oule.”
Lin, who had received the title of “Wingul” in the meanwhile, was tasked with defending the throne and its new king. Nils’ precious friend, the wing of the Chimera, now led tens of thousands of soldiers with his legendary talent. That sight was both sublime and pitiful to Nils.
Gaius did not make a distinction between those who swore loyalty to him directly and those who gathered under one of his allies, and respected pre-established relationships. Those who were loyal to one of Gaius’ followers rather than Gaius himself, like Nils was to Lin, were allowed to keep working under their previous masters. Past quarrels were meaningless in the face of Auj Oule’s unification, which would finally be completed with the death of Merad, who was biding his time for a counterattack. The conventional walls that divided society in classes and clans were crumbling down.
“Is that what it means for the world to change?”
Lin quietly chuckled at Nils’ pondering. Nils could see his cheeks were white like wax behind his hair.
The Long Dau court was no more.
One day, Lin headed for Xian Du with Nils and a few guards. The Kitarl clan, founders of the city, had been in disorder ever since their patriarch had been killed by one of their young men. The clan was shaken by internal strifes which had Gaius worried. Lin, however, had more expectations for the clan than strictly political ones.
Like the Long Dau, the Kitarl were respected as one of the Brilliant Seven, the most powerful clans in Auj Oule. According to the legend, their origin dated back to over two thousand years ago, though there was no proof of their existence further than a few hundred years. Still, it was quite clear that their history was much older than that of other clans. They had settled on the soil of Auj Oule a long time ago and forged its prosperity and culture. This was an honor both the Long Dau and the Kitarl shared.
However, while Rashugal was walking on the way to prosperity thanks to measures introduced after it became one single big nation, Auj Oule had slowly been falling into decline.
Lin turned to Nils.
“Nils, can you see that building over there? Between those two summits.”
“Yes. I can’t believe they built something like that up there. It’s the coliseum, right?”
“When he was twelve, Gaius achieved victory of the tournament of that year.”
“When he was just twelve… That’s why he was so strong in the Fezebel war?”
“His opponent in the finals was the heir of a large clan, so his victory was never officially recognized. Unlike the Outways, that clan had power and influence.”
At the time, Gaius’ life had been ruled by his name, and his fate decided by others. He must have chosen his way in life because of all these experiences. Hearing Lin talk about Gaius’ past as if he empathized, Nils felt a pang of jealousy.
“Do you know the name of this flower?” Lin suddenly asked, pointing to a flower on the side of the road.
“…No. It looks a bit weird, doesn’t it?”
The flower had clusters of colorful petals attached to the stem.
“It is called a ‘gladiolus’ and is also known as the ‘sword lily’,” Lin explained as he dismounted from his horse. He walked to the flower and picked it.
“A Kitarl tradition is to offer this flower to the warriors who go to fight in the coliseum.”
Nils and the guards stared at Lin, waiting for the rest.
“The bell of battle that resounds through the battlefield. The cries of frenzied souls. The bitter grudge of the women who, unable to bear arms themselves, can do naught but bury their sons and husbands. For a very long time, the land of Auj Oule was governed by blades and blood. I think that this flower should become a tribute to the memory of those who have lost their lives thus. Gaius is seeking a new Auj Oule, not one that is built on a mountain of swords but one that lies beyond the tears and the carnage of war.”
When he was finished, Lin attached the flower to his horse’s bridle. The horse shook his head in discontent at first, but eventually resigned itself to sporting his new ornament.
❖ Booster Development
With Lin, Nils and the other men, Gaius suppressed Merad’s army, and Auj Oule was finally united as the Auj Oule united territories. During the Battle of Arklund, their forces seized the laboratory installed in the Labari Coal Mines, where they learned of the existence of a strange weapon using rare spirit fossils. They set out to understand what it was.
According to their own scientists, it was a weapon that enabled artificial control of mana. However, the captured rebels could not tell them much about it, as those weapons had been supplied by Rashugal, and they did not know the details of their conception—they only cared that it was a powerful weapon. Since their numbers were few for their rebellion, that was more than enough for them, and they did not care about how it worked.
That is how research about “boosters”—tools to amplify mana for a more efficient and general purpose—started.
Over the span of two years of testing on animals, their practical use came to light. But since the “basculer,” a main component of the device, was to be inserted directly into the brain, a human test subject would have to be chosen with utmost care if they hoped to make progress.
Nils was scared. At that time, Lin had just suffered serious injuries from his defeat against the murderer of the Kitarl chief. Lin had not taken this defeat as a simple humiliation, but as a sign that he was too weak to serve as Gaius’ aide. Lin excelled as chief councilor, but when it came to the sword, Nils was much better than him. Once you got past his guard, he was easily defeated.
But this was Lin. He was likely to do something reckless out of his excessive sense of responsibility and self-sacrifice. Eventually, as Nils feared, Lin volunteered himself as a test subject with no regard for his own well-being.
“Are you kidding me? You are the Long Dau king. What kind of king would sell his own body!?”
“Former king. Now I am just a man who has offered himself to Gaius. Besides,” Lin added after a moment, “I want power.”
A blood-curdling scream resounded in the laboratory. The life-or-death experiment on a live person had fortunately managed to avoid the worst-case scenario, but that was the only good news about it. Words could not describe the scene they were witnessing.
Unable to bear the abrupt condensation of mana, Lin lost his mind and cursed in Long Dau, screamed in pain, and threw up vomit and blood before his head dropped and he passed out. It was a good thing that they had preventively restrained him. If his limbs had been free, in madness and agony, he might have either slit his own throat or massacred everyone in the room. Even though he usually was a master at self-restraint, Lin’s mind seemed to have been completely broken by the demon in the booster.
At first, connecting to the booster for a few seconds had such a toll on his body that he needed over fifty hours of rest to recover; it was the height of torment. But with repetitive use, his boosted state stabilized, and he eventually could keep a relatively clear mind. Every secondary effect caused by the mana surge, such as his personality change and his hair turning from ebony black to white like an old man, was closely monitored. At the rate they were going, the device would soon be able to be put into practical application.
After a while, they implanted the booster directly in Lin’s brain rather than use the basculer to connect to it. The device was now truly part of his body.
Nils, who had only been able to watch him go through those painful experiments and surgeries, secretly wished to become a test subject as well. He thought he could alleviate the burden on Lin if he was not the only one to shoulder it. His fears of breaking his mind or injuring his body were nothing compared to what he felt when he saw his precious Lin suffer.
…But Nils had next to zero compatibility.
Thanks to Lin’s sacrifice, booster performance skyrocketed, and they were even able to get equivalent results from wearable devices without relying on dangerous implantations. At the same time, they started gathering children from all over Auj Oule to help with the experiments. Those children, who had lost both parents due to war, famine or other tragedies, would be completely taken into care in exchange for their involvement in the development of those weapons, which was still incomplete, though now relatively safe. The booster institute Lin was in charge of was, at that point, operated in utmost secrecy, as it could influence Auj Oule’s fate greatly.
There were still many mysteries about people’s mana lobes. The scientists explained that not being able to use a booster did not necessarily mean one’s spirit artes abilities were lacking. However, that did nothing to alleviate Nils’ distress at being unable to share Lin’s pain and prevent him from shouldering all the burden on his own.
What came as a severe blow was the appointment of a second aide by Gaius’ side, equal to Lin. The man who thus received the title “Jiao” was none other than the one who had beat Lin and cornered Gaius—the giant from the Kitarl clan. The former patriarch murderer had cleared his name and become chief of the clan, and, of all things, was allowed stand side-by-side with Lin as Gaius’ hand.
It’s because of your folly that Lin got involved with this booster stuff!
Those men raising weapons together despite their various feuds for the sake of lofty ideals were, in some way, extremely rational, though it could be said their self-control bordered on tenacity. At the same time, Nils could not be the one to stand by Lin’s side despite wishing for it more than anything. But despite his increasing sense of futility, Nils kept fighting.
It was around that time that he met a little girl. New children were being brought to the institute regularly, so it was not unusual to see new faces. However, this particular girl’s gaze strangely took hold of Nils’ heart. She was quiet and looked intelligent, with loose curls and a beautiful face. But it was not her cuteness that touched him, but her lonely expression, reflected in her sad eyes. It seemed that the other children were keeping distance from her.
At first, he thought it was because she had just arrived, but after a while the situation showed no sign of improving. According to the researchers, the girl had astounding booster compatibility and her test results broke all records. That caused the other children to be jealous of her, which is why they avoided her.
Without realizing, Nils started speaking to her.
“Ah… Are you ‘Test Subject Number One’?” the girl asked, surprised.
Test Subject Number One. That was Lin. It made sense. Indeed, Nils’ blond hair looked like how Lin’s hair did due to the booster’s side effects. Lin’s slender build was different from Nils’ tall body, but adult men must have all looked the same in the eyes of a child, at least as long as they were not close.
So that was how it was. Trying to explain would be bothersome, so Nils simply nodded. In fact, if he had been able to participate in the tests, he would have probably received the title ‘Test Subject Number Two’ or something like that, so it was not a complete lie.
“…Everyone left. They told me to go away. That they would catch the gloomies if I got close. …I’m a bad girl,” she said. She was fidgeting with the hem of her dress—folding then unfolding it, stretching it then folding it again, as if she believed that she could enter their circle if she just made the perfect fold.
“How can I make friends with everyone?”
…It’s not your fault. It’s this world, created by the adults’ selfish ambitions! he almost replied, but he swallowed his words. The children had all lost their way and had all acquired the “right” and “duty” to live in this institute. It was better for them to do well here.
Nils himself had wished to be part of it.
“It’s difficult to express how you feel, isn’t it?”
“If words are too hard, you can find other methods. Like a smile, or holding hands…”
“I don’t have to speak?”
“You need courage to speak to someone face to face, don’t you? I think it’s okay to draw strength from something else in such a case. It doesn’t change how you feel, after all.”
After telling her that, Nils took the girl’s strange doll and made it move and talk. “Hello! I’m your best friend!”
“Ah ha ha, that’s funny!” the girl laughed.
From then on, Nils would talk to the girl every time he saw her. The doll was later turned into a booster and now talked on its own and expressed the girl’s hidden feelings, becoming a good partner for her.
“It seems that you are giving special attention to one of the test subjects,” Lin suddenly asked him one day.
“It’s nothing. She doesn’t get along well with the other kids, so I was a bit worried,” Nils answered.
Did Lin think Nils was carefreely playing with children while he was suffering from the side effects of his own booster?
Even within the children’s society, social interactions were difficult, especially since many were bearing deep wounds in their hearts. Nils wanted to believe that anyone would want to relieve them a little.
“It could hinder the experiments. Please stop meddling.”
“I’m sorry if I overstepped. But you don’t have to put it that way. Besides, she was all alone, yet no one else stepped in to help her.”
“An adult showing her special attention would have the opposite effect. It would only cause unnecessary problems.”
“But Lin, to heal a broken heart, you first need to give it a place where it feels safe. Didn’t all those children come here because of tragic circumstances? If we only focus on results and ignore their fears and anxiety, it would be like trying to plant seeds on dead soil. If we want them to bloom, we need to provide them with water.”
“Too much water would cause the roots to rot. You don’t need to go out of your way to treat them like children. They will find their way on their own.”
“No! Plentiful water makes trees grow and strengthen their roots. We need to nurture them for them to bear fruit!”
Nils refuted all of Lin’s cold arguments.
There was something he had always wanted to say.
Ever since you started walking alongside Gaius, you became sharp like a blade. But you’ve pushed yourself too far and started distancing yourself from those who care about you.
“You were burdened by determination and unwanted responsibilities and had no choice but to become an adult at such a young age. I’ve witnessed your pain from up close, and I’ve always wished I could take it from you. But these children are different. They don’t know anything about complicated matters like the sake of the country or diplomacy or anything like that. They’re just fragile, ordinary kids who don’t even know how to spell their own names.”
Memories of his childhood flashed almost painfully through his mind. The Long Dau lands full of heath fields which they ran around. Lin’s face, swaying between small purple flowers in a sea of grass spreading over the thin ground.
At the time, none of them would have imagined that their kingdom would fall, that their days would be filled with sadness. They just played and laughed and hugged each other to their hearts’ content and thought the only thing they needed was a promise to always be together.
“This is the only place these children have in the world. They’re not able to climb up the steep cliff on their own. They’ve bet their whole life and happiness in this dark closed world. They don’t care about results or abilities or whether we achieve our goal.”
He pictured the girl’s shy smile.
“Please, let them find happiness.”
His dear friend, who he’d valued as much as his life for as long as he remembered, was slowly getting out of reach. Lin’s heart was far away. That is why seeing Jiao—their former enemy—stroll into the institute as if he owned the place was painful to Nils.
He apparently had a connection to one of the children, which was why he sometimes asked to visit the place. He was now one at the peak of his power as one of Gaius’ direct subordinates. Instead of leaving that child in the institute, Nils thought that he should take her in and offer her a blessed life.
One day, upon learning that Jiao had arrived, Nils confronted him alone.
“I’ve heard there’s a kid you know here.”
“Did Wingul tell you? Well, it’s true that I know her…”
For all the noise he made, he was looking down with a complicated expression. There was now no trace of the violence he had displayed during his duel with Lin, but thinking about what Lin had endured then, Nils could not help a sarcastic remark.
“You’ve become a big shot now. You should just adopt the kid. Or maybe you don’t actually want to be associated with children struggling in a place like this?”
“Don’t say that. You know how my life is. If something happened to me, she would lose someone dear again, and that would definitely break her heart.”
“Don’t try to deceive me. This is just a convenient excuse.”
No, that’s wrong. I’m just taking it out on him.
“To begin with, I can’t even face her. I’m the one who brought tragedy unto her.”
Jiao refused to say more. He must have been referring to some specific past incident, or perhaps talking about the chaos the country had been plunged in for over ten years.
And that chaos was partly caused by the Long Dau clan itself. Many loyal soldiers who followed Lin’s vision had been killed by Gaius’ men, leaving mourning families behind. Lars and his brothers, on their end, used to squeeze villages dry when they commandeered supplies for war. Even before, for a very long time, countless famished people could not survive winters. No matter who won, war only left people’s lives in ruins. Nils wondered where he would have fallen if he had not been serving Lin closely.
“I’m sorry, Jiao,” he whispered, ashamed of the way he had used him to vent his conflicted feelings.
Jiao buried his face in his fur collar, as if to hide his eyes.
On a moonlit night of early Amnis, voices warning of intruders resounded throughout the facility.
They were only a handful. However, the enemy was clearly used to battles. They employed the guerrilla tactics of insurgent tribes and their discipline outshone that of regular troops. They were thoroughly trained in peculiar ways and passed through the defenses with ease.
To top it all, their weapons were very strange. They did not just fight physically but also used artes, yet there was no sign of them emitting mana or reciting incantations. It was possible to shorten casting time of high level artes, but this did not seem to be what they were doing. Their weapons opened fire in silence and killed their targets in an instant.
Massacre was not the intruders’ aim. After killing the guards who had had the misfortune of crossing their path, they did not look back and went forward, deeper into the facility. They were no doubt here to look for the boosters.
In that case, the children needed to be brought to safety immediately.
Jiao and Lin were in the laboratory. In other words, if the enemy reached their target, they would be found by both men at once. They would be like mice in a trap, and one could feel sorry for them, but they would only have their bad luck to blame.
An unfamiliar man appeared in Nils’ field of vision as he was running, his weapon in hand. The man was wearing a dusty jacket and a long scarf. His eyes looked empty, as if he had given up on life.
When Nils pulled out his sword and turned toward him, he felt a burning pain in his chest.
“Sorry. I’m in a hurry,” the man said in an empty voice.
Despite how small the weapon was, a single shot had been enough for Nils to stiffen and struggle to breathe. Blood was oozing off his chest, like he had been pierced by a sword.
He crouched down, and eventually lay on his side. The sound of hurried footsteps and a battle reached his ears. The explosive sounds that resounded through the hallways from time to time must have been coming from that weapon that had wounded him. The commotion eventually died down, and silence fell.
That was Lin’s voice, echoing through his spinning mind. That monotonous, yet warm voice he cherished so much.
“…Yeah. ‘m fine. Jiao?”
“Don’t worry, all the children were evacuated safely. The little miss is safe as well.”
He could feel their presence nearby, but it was too hard for him to turn his head in their direction.
“Nils, don’t close your eyes. If you lose consciousness, you won’t be able to come back.” Lin voice was calm, but he was white as a sheet. “I promise you, I’ll revive the Long Dau clan one day, just like you always wished. So please…”
“Lin. The children… make sure they’re happy,” he rasped. “Just like we always were…”
Lin opened his eyes wide as if he had been hit in the chest, and nodded vigorously.
Satisfied, Nils sighed and lost consciousness. That single strange wound in his chest was a fatal wound.
The institute was closed soon after the attack, and the children were moved to another establishment, where they were given warm care under the supervision of Wingul of the Chimeriad.
After that, Wingul started calling himself the Ebon Wing of Auj Oule. No one knew if the single wing’s imagery was alluding to his position as Gaius’ right-hand man or to the fact he was mourning the loss of his closest friend, his other wing.
Lin Long Dau, former Long Dau chief, 27 years old. Nils Frieden, his subordinate, 31 years old. Their last season of water.
Translated by Yume, proofread by Cal, Agria, Mukuburd and Kirvee