Part 46: It's time to seriously focus on getting out of this place and back to the real world.Woman's Voice: Look at me, Kevin Graham.
-Stairway to Gehenna-
Ein Selnate: You look as though you haven't eaten in days. Although by the sounds of it, you really haven't. Nor have you even been drinking anything.
Ein Selnate: I was saddened to hear the news about Rufina as well. But unfortunate accidents are a fact of life--especially in our line of work. It's the risk we all choose to shoulder when we depart on a mission.
Ein Selnate: Excuse me?
Kevin: I've got no reason to be a knight anymore. I've got no reason to even live anymore... And if someone has to kill me, I couldn't ask for anyone better than you. I doubt I'd even have the time to feel pain before you were done...so...
Ein Selnate: If that is your wish... In what world did you think I would happily oblige such an asinine request?
Ein Selnate: You do remember what you said when you first became a squire, hmm? You said you offered your soul to the Goddess above, and your body and blood to Her church here on earth. After swearing that, you think you have the right to beg for death, much less a painless one? Don't make me laugh.
Ein Selnate: Heh. Still, I was reluctant to even relay this information for you... but after seeing how pathetic a state you're in, perhaps it won't be so difficult after all.
Ein Selnate: Squire of the Gralsritter, Kevin Graham... From this day on, you are to assume the position of Fifth Dominion. Your appointment was decided by the Congregation of the Sacraments, and even His Holiness the Pope has given his approval. The job is yours.
Ein Selnate: I imagine you must at least have heard rumors that the position of Fifth Dominion was vacant. Has been for several decades, too. Congratulations. It turns out that position was meant for you.
Ein Selnate: Heh. How the hell did that baby squire I once helped teach reach the same rank as me? I'm sure the fifth Merkabah will be pleased to finally see the light of day.
Ein Selnate: Oh, and incidentally, it's tradition to take on a title of your choosing after becoming a Dominion. You might want to start giving some thought to what you want sooner rather than later. As you already know, mine is 'Carnelia,' simple a name as it is.
Kevin: I-I don't care about titles... I don't care about any of those things... Why...? Why me? I couldn't even protect Rufina...from... ...Why me...?
Ein Selnate: And to that I say, 'That is of no consequence here. What is of consequence is that Rufina Argent was a highly capable knight. She may not have manifested a Stigma of her own, but her problem solving abilities were at times greater than even a Dominion's. Her loss will be keenly felt...and it will be up to our new Fifth Dominion to fill it.' The words of His Eminence the Cardinal.
Kevin: ... ...Haha...hahaha... Oh, this is rich... This is just RICH...
Ein Selnate: ...
Kevin: Haha... Oh, man! It's so funny, it hurts. I become a knight to protect Rufina, then I end up shooting to the top of the ranks over her dead body! Ahaha! Amazing, huh? Who could've seen THAT coming? I wish I could go back in time to tell myself when I signed up what was gonna happen just to see my own face! Hahaha! Ahahahahaha!
Ein Selnate: ...
Kevin: ...Haha...hahaha... Hah...hah... ...
Ein Selnate: So, what will you do? I should make it clear that you do have the right to refuse your new appointment. Admittedly, no one in the Gralsritter's thousand-year history has turned down a Dominion position, so doing so would be unprecedented, but still.
Kevin: Haha... Well, no shit.
Kevin: No, I humbly accept my new position. I'm ready to start work as soon as it's there for me. Hell, start piling it on me today! I'm up for it.
Ein Selnate: ...All right, then. I'll see what I can do.
Kevin: Oh, and don't hold back on me, either. Throw me the really hard stuff. The kind you'd need to be a masochist to want to take on. And that title thing? Hmm...
Let's go with 'Heretic Hunter,' okay? That sounds just perfect.
Wow... So that's what happened...
The more I hear, the more off the wall everything happening here sounds.
I'm not surprised. We're making progress on working out what's going on, thankfully.
We know the place we're in is called Phantasma and about how it has its own unique rules that govern it.
We also know that all of us were chosen based on some criteria then drawn into it.
We still have plenty of questions that need answering, but they can largely be summed up by the following three:
One: Who are the Lord of Phantasma and Schwarzritter? Two: What is the cube and the identity of the ghost who appears to be connected to it?
Three: What is Phantasma, and how did it come to exist?
That's a pretty succinct way of putting it.
There are other questions, of course, but it's true that most of those generally fall under those three in some way.
Why there are fiends roaming around comes under number three, for example.
Dividing everything up like that does make it all a heck of a lot easier to understand, yeah.
Oh, but wait... Where does Kevin falling unconscious come into all of this?
You made it sound like the cause of that was him fighting some giant devil.
From what we can tell, anyway. More specifically, the power he used to break the barrier surrounding us seems to have been what did it.
The one that made that red symbol show up on his back.
I wonder what it was, then?
I haven't got any idea what it could have been, either...
It's possible it may be some form of Thaumaturgy passed down through the church, but I can hardly be sure.
Do you think you know what it could have been?
...I think I do.
I can't be sure, but I think it was a Stigma.
Isn't that the thing that appeared on your shoulder?
Yeah, it was.
What you saw was a physical manifestation of an image Weissmann had placed deep within my mind in order to control me. Kevin's is likely the same, save the control factor.
However, I have a feeling his is also significantly more powerful than mine was.
Girl's Voice: Well spotted, Joshua.
Say...how's Kevin doing?
His condition seems to have marginally improved.
But what he did resulted in a heavy burden being placed on his mind, so I think it would be best for him to rest for a while longer.
That's a relief...
Whew... He sure knows how to give people a fright.
Do you mind if I get clarification on something, Ries?
Was my theory correct?
Yes, it was. He did indeed use the power of his Stigma.
However, the key difference between his and yours is that his is one of the original kind--on which yours was likely based. A seal carved into a person's very soul, said to manifest only in the Dominions of the Gralsritter.
What's a Dominion?
I've heard rumors of their existence, personally.
The Dominions are a group of twelve knights who lead the Gralsritter. They're supposed to possess incredible power.
That's also correct.
Their Stigmas are the source of that power. They allow the people who possess them to strengthen their body beyond what most would think humanly possible...
...as well as use high-level Thaumaturgy far exceeding the capabilities of other knights.
As I'm sure you've pieced together, Kevin is one of them. Specifically, the Fifth Dominion.
'So his Stigma is totally better than Joshua's. I just wanted to make that clear.'
A-Are we even talking about the same Kevin who's been leading us around here? It sure doesn't feel like it...
Sorry, but I'm a bit confused. Did Kevin have his Stigma implanted within him like Joshua did?
No. Ordinarily, Stigmas aren't carved in that manner. They appear on their own without human intervention. There are twelve Dominions, and that number has always been consistent throughout history.
There are times when spots are left unfilled because a Stigma bearer to fill them has yet to appear... but they're always out there, whether their Stigma has manifested or not.
Th-That's so weird, don't you think?
So does that mean the Stigma Joshua had...?
Mine was only a replica of the real thing.
Weissmann was originally a clergyman, so he probably had access to a way to make such a thing.
Oh, yeah. I forgot he said that.
He used to be a bishop in the Congregation for the Sacraments, which is the organization that the Gralsritter answers to. Even back in those days, he was in contact with Ouroboros and stealing numerous sacraments from the church.
Things that were stolen included a vast amount of literature and research on the Stigmas of the Dominions.
We believe he then went on to use that material as a basis to realize his dream of creating some sort of 'superhuman' over with the society.
I thought so...
Hmm... Still, while I think I have a vague understanding of just what these Stigmas are now...
...I'm still not clear how using that power led Kevin to collapse. Does that risk naturally come with the use of your Stigma's power, or is there something more to it?
...I don't know exactly why, but Kevin very rarely uses the power of his Stigma at all. I've heard that the only time he relies on it is when disposing of those he brands heretics.
In other words, those whose sins are too great for them to ever be able to walk the path of righteousness ever again.
That's so ominous...
So let me make sure I got this straight.
He used a superpower he barely uses outta nowhere, and that caused him to black out because his body wasn't ready for it?
That's what I believe is likely the case.
I see... I think I understand well enough now.
Are you sure it's fine for you to be telling us this?
Yes. I'm almost positive Kevin was planning on telling you himself before he fell unconscious.
And I believe telling you all of this is necessary in order to ensure your cooperation in the rest of our investigation.
Well, if you're sure...
Wait! Does that mean...?!
If no one has any objections, I'd like to take Kevin's place and lead till he wakes up again.
Is that all right with everyone?
No problems here.
Are you sure you don't want to stay here, though? I would've thought you'd want to stay and look after him...
Before he collapsed, Kevin entrusted me with the cube.
As such, I believe this is my duty as a squire in his service. So please, don't worry about me. Right now, I'd much rather be helping all of you.
Well, if you're sure...
I personally see no reason to say no.
The remaining members will be sure to look after Kevin. You won't have to worry about a thing, okay?
Thank you... I appreciate that.
...? What's wrong, Estelle?
So...Ries? I've got a favor I want to ask, if you don't mind. Would you mind if I came with you when you head out to explore?
Hmm? Is there any specific reason?
Well, it's just...I've only just returned to the world of the living, right? I feel like I want to go and see what's going on for myself. And I mean, I am a bracer, so I doubt I'll get in your way or anything...
So...would you mind?
Not in the least.
I'd love it if you accompanied me.
Sorry for up and deciding that on my own, Joshua.
Sorry? For what?
If that's what you want to do, then you won't hear any complaints from me.
We'll be counting on you to do a good job backing Ries up.
You know it!
-The Hermit's Garden-
It's about time, young lady. We've been worried sick.
More importantly, it's looking more and more like this whole Phantasma crisis is related to something unpleasant from Kevin's past. That means we'll need Estelle to crack it, because she is the Anti-Emo and no amount of angst, grief, trauma or regret can survive contact for long.
Since Estelle's S-Crafts are only single-target, their damage has been increased rather than decreased. She can't put out continuous heavy damage like Agate, Zin, Jinu Anelace, or Orbal Gear Tita, but she's great for smacking the hell out of bosses.
I didn't have enough wind sepith to finish upgrading Estelle's orbment. What did I even spend it all on? Impede quartz? Oh well.
Ries and Estelle are your mandatory leads for this chapter, and Kevin is unavailable.
Now I don't want to start pointing the blame game here, but if Ries was really worried about Kevin there were eight other capable fighters she could have brought with her. And then he wouldn't have had to use the special Dominion powers that he sucks so bad at using, they make him keel over afterwards.
This has not been the Gralsritter's finest hour, I feel.
Generally fine. He's in a deep sleep right now.
He has been groaning every so often, though.
What, really? That doesn't sound good...
Don't worry. The only real symptom he's showing is a light fever.
All we can do is let him rest.
It's going to take some time for him to recover--the mental burden he's carrying is just as taxing on his body.
Oh, for sure...
Well, keep an eye on him, okay?
Thank you, Kloe. Joshua.
No problem, Ries.
Leave it to us.
It's generally not a good idea to rush the recovery process of mental strain using medicines. It's best to let them heal on their own.
Let's make sure he gets plenty of rest.
I'm surprised just how capable Josette actually is.
Y-Y-You really think so?
I'd heard a lot about Josette from Estelle...
...but I was surprised just how much of a natural she is when it comes to looking after people.
Now we'll just have to make sure he doesn't get too cold.
Maybe I should whip up some porridge for when he gets up?
(W-Wow... I had her written off as a total dumbass, but she...may actually be kinda capable?)
(She seems like she'd be an amazing housewife if she wanted.)
(From what I remember, she used to handle all the chores for the other sky bandits, too.)
There's nothing to worry about here. Leave looking after him to us.
I'm fine. I managed to avoid taking any direct blows in the battle.
Heehee. I knew you'd go and help Kevin out if he really needed it.
...Well, I did some serious thinking about what you said.
Just as Kevin had his reasons for wanting to be a knight, I've got my own reasons for becoming a squire.
Now all we need to do is wait for Kevin to wake up so you can tell him how you feel! Am I right?
Yes, you're right.
Anelace...thank you very much.
Heh. Think nothing of it!
I didn't know you two were so close.
Oh, but I'm sure you know why, though!
It's because she's so, so, SO CUTE!
Is anyone surprised? No? No.
Well, we've freed you, Estelle...
Now all that's left is to wait for Kevin to wake up and everything'll be hunky dory again!
But of course.
Joshua was putting on a brave face the whole time, but you know him. Anyone could tell how worried he was about you.
Could you? I don't believe I was showing it.
You were worried about me?
Well...I think most people would be if they'd heard their girlfriend had been captured, don't you?
Yes, but most people would have to worry more for their girlfriend than for her captors.
I was captured? For real?!
I... Was I? I mean, I guess I was, but it sure doesn't feel like it. I don't even remember anything like that happening. Well, whatever... No big deal if I can't remember, right?
A thousand black-out benders flash through Schera's mind. Does she dare tell Estelle the truth? Could the poor girl handle it?
You never change. And neither do I! Now I can go back to drinking, worry-free! ❤
What kind of reaction is that?!
How are things coming along with you two, anyway? Any major developments?
You think you can give me some kinda heads up before asking me personal questions?!
To be fair, I did figure it was going to come up eventually.
Go on! Spill. I need to know these things!
Aha...haha... (I can't deny that I'm curious, too...)
Well, I DON'T want to know, so save it for when I'm not here!
Either way, now we've got both stars of our old show together.
It's time to seriously focus on getting out of this place and back into the real world.
Unfortunately, no amount of research could have prepared me for the sheer power that the Dominions seemingly possess.
If we're to deal with foes who are comfortable making an enemy of someone who possesses such power...this could get very tricky indeed.
Yeah... From what everyone's said, this Lord of Phantasma guy doesn't sound like they're gonna be a walk in the park.
Oh, yeah. While I've got you here...
...how's that whole plan going these days?
Hmm? Whatever do you mean?
You know, the one you were heading back to the Empire to put into action.
After you had us going with that crazy stunt you pulled back at Haken Gate, you better be putting your back into it.
If you're not, there's a staff here with your name on it.
...Haha. Oh, I see.
Thank you for your words of encouragement, Estelle. I'll be sure to take them to heart.
...Wait. That's it? No dodging questions or creepy comments with that dumb grin you've always got on half the time?
He must be up to something.
You feeling okay, Olivier? Schera didn't drink you under the table again, did she?
The Schwarzritter and the Lord of Phantasma will surely be a force to be reckoned with...
...which is why I'm going to stay here and get my beauty sleep. I wouldn't stand a chance against them!
But look on the bright side--that ghost seems all right with us. We've got a whole lot of capable people here, too. I'm sure there's got to be a way for us to get through this.
He could've ran what he was plannin' past us first before becoming dead weight. Some people, I swear.
Yeah what kind of moron idiotface would compromise their own health on the battlefield.
Look who's talking, bucko.
I always figured Kevin was more than he let on...
Didn't think he'd go using some superpower and collapsin' on us like that. Bah.
Umm... Do you know how Kevin's doing?
He's fine, I think.
He's got Josette looking after him.
Whew... What a relief.
...I'm sorry for worrying you.
What're you apologizing for?
Forget I said anything.
I'm worried about Kevin, but that's not all I'm worried about...
It sounded like the Lord of Phantasma knew Kevin would use his Stigma's power and end up collapsing... and that that would make their kingdom draw closer to completion or something. Which is...worrying, too.
We're going to need to be even more careful than before, aren't we? I don't want anyone else getting hurt...
I certainly wasn't aware that he was such a high-ranking member of the group, however. And one of its most powerful members, at that.
He wasn't able to ascertain much in the end no matter how hard he tried, though...
After seeing for myself what their strongest members are capable of, I can understand why he would want to look into them. The ability to slay a devil of that strength in one blow is...unusual, to say the least. Unnatural, too.