Being struck by the heavy rain that suddenly began to fall after the sun went down, Nero curses under his breath for the umpteenth time; he has lost count of how many times he has done so.
What is he angry at this time? Is it the fickle autumn weather, or the fact that his glorious red cape has grown heavy after being soaked by the rain? Everything is unpleasant to him.
What am I… doing…
He cannot bring himself to visit Nell again, and yet he is not in the mood to quietly return to the men’s dormitory. However, aimlessly wandering about the streets of Spada’s town isn’t particularly interesting, either.
Displeasure, dissatisfaction – no, the emotion growing more violent in Nero’s chest is the anger that has no place to escape to.
Nell was heartbroken. Nero was forced to realize that there is not a single thing he can do for his younger sister who is more precious to him than anyone else.
Anger at himself for being so powerless. And the anger at the culprit who has driven his sister to madness.
Neither of them can be resolved right now. This is a problem in Nell’s heart; there is no way Nero can resolve it.
Now that he thinks about it, this is the second time in his life that he has worried about something so helplessly.
How did Nero get back onto his feet that time – He gave up, no, he had decided that something like that was unnecessary to him in the first place.
That is precisely why that previous experience is of absolutely no use here. Abandoning Nell as「unnecessary」is not something he can ever do as an older brother, as a prince and, most importantly, as a proud man.
Would it have been better if I picked a fight like that idiot Kai…? No, I would have seriously killed him…
Even if he killed his enemy, nothing would change; nothing could possibly change. There would be no meaning in venting his anger in such a way. If Nell didn’t return to her usual bright, smiling self –
「Nero Julius Elroad, isn’t it?」(Man)
Hearing a man’s voice suddenly call out his name, Nero’s consciousness returns from the loop of thoughts running through his mind, back to the real world.
The first thing he sees when he looks up is an enshrined black lithograph against a background of dark clouds. Ancient letters written with faint light are dancing on its surface.
It is the『Zero Chronicle』, the obelisk upon which literature praising the greatest of his ancestors in Pandora’s history, the ancient Demon King, is etched.
It seems that Nero has walked into the plaza near the academy.
「Sorry, you’re mistaking me for someone else.」(Nero)
Nero doesn’t know who it is, but he isn’t in a tolerant enough mood to deal with this person.
「… I see.」(Man)
Taking no notice of the man’s flat-toned whisper, Nero continues walking straight ahead – or tries to, but he suddenly stops after a single step.
With the hard sole of Nero’s loafer planted firmly in a shallow puddle on the stone pavement, a moment passes, and then he turns around.
「You bastard, who are you?」(Nero)
Bloodthirst rises from Nero as he suddenly becomes very cautious. His hand is not on the handle of his trusty blade, but he is alert enough to slay his foe in a single instant if needed.
As Nero turns around, he finally sees the man’s figure properly.
He is wearing a gray robe with a hood pulled low over his face, making it difficult to discern what kind of expression he is wearing. He is tall and even through his robes, Nero can see that his muscles have been trained more than the average person’s.
However, that alone doesn’t make his appearance particularly conspicuous. If he were mixed in with a crowd of Spadan people, he wouldn’t draw anyone’s attention.
Unlike Nero, this man with an incredibly plain appearance is not emitting any bloodthirst or hostility. Of course, he is not making a single suspicious move, nor is there any sign that he is casting a spell. He is simply standing there, being struck by the heavy rain.
「You’ve cleared the people out quite enthusiastically. If I wasn’t so perceptive, I wouldn’t have noticed.」(Nero)
There is nothing unusual about the gray man. However, there is a suggestive hypnosis barrier set up around the entire plaza that prevents people from naturally approaching it. It has been concealed in a sophisticated way so that even Nero, who has a keen sense for detecting presences, only barely noticed it.
The fact that this man is standing inside such a barrier is more than enough to make things clear. The culprit behind this suspicious, elaborate set-up is none other than the man in the gray robe.
Nero examines the man, staying alert for the possibility that the man may have allies hidden elsewhere who could strike from one of his blind spots.
However, the man simply stands still and opens his mouth to continue speaking quietly.
「I want to ask you just one thing. Will you become the Demon King?」(Man)
A question that is beyond astounding. Nero wonders if it is a ploy to get him to lower his guard, but there are no signs of any surprise attacks.
Ten seconds pass with complete silence other than the sound of rain. Finally, Nero responds.
「I might become the king of Avalon, but the Demon King is something I won’t become. Ever.」(Nero)
It is an absurd question, but Nero gives a clear「No」for an answer. He would reject normal questions with a vague,「Who cares?」but this was one question that his pride wouldn’t forgive him for if he didn’t give a clear answer.
「As the descendent of the ancient Demon King, Mia Elroad, you are the most likely candidate. Even if you have no intentions of becoming the Demon King, destiny may not allow that – just like me.」(Man)
「Don’t be stupid – UOH?!」(Nero)
A completely unconscious, reflexive defense.
Before he realizes it, Nero has drawn the『Spirit Blade「White King Cherry Blossom」』and raised it to stop the dull-gray blade that is now right in front of him.
「Not a bad reaction.」(Man)
The man’s tone is somewhat pompous, as if he is commenting on the quality of a painting. They carry the nuance that Nero detests the most in words directed at him, but his mind is overcome with astonishment rather than anger.
When the man attacked, Nero had been completely unable to see the man’s movements.
「Damn… it… Don’t fuck with me!」(Nero)
With the two blades locked, Nero pushes back against the man. No, the man has merely taken a step back of his own will.
「Jeez, what a pain. I don’t know what organization has sent you to assassinate me, but don’t think you’re going to be taking my head. And while you’re at it, don’t think you’re leaving this place alive.」(Nero)
Making random threats as they occur to him, Nero warily observes his opponent.
Neither the man’s appearance nor the atmosphere around him have changed, other than the single sword he is holding. Nero has no idea where the man was carrying it or when it was unsheathed.
From the looks of it, the sword is a mass-production model that is widely-used in Spada. It doesn’t have any Enchantments; the material it is made of cannot even be called high-quality steel.
Despite that, though it was only a single strike, this man has exchanged an equal blow with a national treasure, a magic sword wielded by the Rank 5 adventurer Nero, using this sword of the lowest grade.
All of the alarm bells of Nero’s sharp intuition have been set off. He knows that his foe is stronger than him.
But at the same time, this runs through his mind.
If it’s experience in defeating opponents more powerful than me, I’ve definitely got plenty!
「– Instant Flash.」(Nero)
Nero’s martial skill, released in a heavy vertical swing rather than the horizontal direction he normally uses, scores a deep gash in the stone pavement of the plaza. However, it does not accomplish anything more.
Tch, he saw through my attack completely.
The man evades it successfully by taking a mere half-step to the right. It is more like a calm movement than the evasion of an attack; it is as if he knew that the attack would strike that exact spot beforehand.
Nero’s initial impression is correct. The man did not see through Nero’s attack in the instant it was released, but rather saw through the entire attack completely.
These movements, it’s more than just sharp instincts. He understands every single one of my movements, or he has an ability to ‘read’ equivalent to that old woman’s*… Shit, it’ll be a real pain to take this guy on.
As Nero feels an increasing sense of danger, the man who easily dodged his attack begins moving once more.
His body moves to release an attack, his powerful footsteps and stance that leaves no openings making it clear that he is a first-class swordsman, but – Nero can see it.
This guy’s underestimated me and isn’t using his full strength!
If this man made his movements in earnest, they should be able to overcome Nero’s vision and even his instinctive predictions. Nero realized this with the man’s first attack.
However, for the one with inferior ability, such carelessness is the most effective chance to defeat a superior opponent.
Nero is not naïve to let such a perfect opportunity slip away, nor can he afford to do so.
The technique Nero chooses to meet his foe with is the most fundamental of martial skills,『Single Flash.*』
It is not that Nero has chosen a weaker attack to match his opponent not using his full strength.
It is basic, but because of that, it is versatile and extraordinarily easy to use. There is no problem whatsoever in using it with just the sword in his right hand.
One-on-one battles are not determined through firepower alone. Nero possesses more than enough raw power to kill his opponent.
The『Single Flash』, which has had Nero’s own original improvements made to it from his dual-wielding style, has plenty of sharpness to kill this man, who is unmistakably a human.
But there’s no point if it doesn’t hit –
The『Single Flash』that would be fatal on contact is evaded easily by the man who has once again seen through Nero’s attack completely.
The horizontally-swung white blade sweeps meaninglessly over the man’s head, just a single centimeter above his gray hood.
Nero, who has just missed an attack with his martial skill, must look full of openings to the man now. He is a suitable prey, no different from a wooden practice dummy.
The prided weapon in his right hand has already lost its strength, and his left hand is completely empty.
His bare left hand can fend off his opponent’s counter-attack with Ancient Jujutsu, but it is difficult to imagine that it will work against this man who has now clearly shown the difference in ability between himself and Nero.
Nero has used up all of his options – making the man think that is Nero’s plan.
The man’s longsword is being held aloft. Before it can move, Nero releases his second attack.
「– Let your energy flow,『Thunderclap.』」(Nero)
Nero activates one of his original『Blade skills.』The golden color of the magic circle that appears on the back of his hand indicates which element is about to manifest itself.
That element is lightning. An incredibly fast element. Of course, the skill is cast as fast as possible as well.
As Nero quickly thrusts out his shining left hand, a Force Edge of fierce lightning materializes in it.
「Falling Flower Purple Thrust!」(Nero)
The martial skill, which can only be used with『Thunderclap』, is unleashed in a thrusting motion. Nero’s upper body bends backwards slightly as he releases his attack at point-blank range.
The thrust alone would be enough to pierce through a solid boulder, but with the blade of lightning, the martial skill produces even greater effects.
The moment it appeared, the weapon was shaped like a single-edged, slightly curved katana, but its shape changes as Nero’s martial skill is released. No, it might be more appropriate to say that it explodes.
Just like Charlotte’s『Line Force Blast』, the blade of purple lightning flies out and mows down everything in front of Nero.
Indeed, it is more like a short-ranged area-effect magic attack than a『thrust.』
If the attack covers all available space, there are no gaps through which it can be evaded, no matter how well the man can read Nero’s attacks.
But you’re going to dodge it anyway, right!
The only place for the man to escape to is directly in front of Nero as he releases the martial skill. The absolute closest of distances, closer to Nero even than his left hand that has been thrust out away from his body.
As if responding to Nero’s expectations, the man shows no sign of fear at Nero’s thundering thrust and takes a broad, spectacular step forward into the safety zone.
No matter how skilled the man is, it seems that maintaining his attacking stance while performing this superhuman evasion was difficult. His sword is no longer held aloft and he has dived to Nero’s left side, as if collapsing there.
Nero has missed his first attack, the『Single Flash』, and his second,『Falling Flower Purple Thrust』, has been slipped through. Meanwhile, the man has lost his chance to attack as well as his balance.
Which of them has more of an opening?
In reality at least, the man is the one who makes the next move first.
The man has grabbed a hold of the Nero’s left wrist, next to the『Thunderclap』in his hand.
The man is no longer holding his own sword. It is clear that his weapon would be useless at this super-close distance, where the two of them can reach each other with their hands.
In this moment, he has chosen to discard his sword and engage in unarmed combat.
I knew it would come to this – no, I knew you’d come this far!
A small-fry would have died to Nero’s『Single Flash.』An experienced opponent, to『Falling Flower Purple Thrust.』But more powerful foes would overcome both deadly attacks and reach Nero’s side – Indeed, Nero has expected all of this from the very beginning.
Nero grabs onto the man’s right hand, which is grasping his left wrist, with his own right hand.
He let go of the『Spirit Blade「White King Cherry Blossom」』when he released his『Falling Flower Purple Thrust.』As a result, Nero discarded his weapon at the exact same moment his opponent did.
And now is the true chance that Nero has been waiting in anticipation for.
「First Technique – Flow!」(Nero)
The finishing move Nero has decided on is from Ancient Jujutsu. A fundamental technique that controls the opponent’s strength, turning it into Nero’s own attack. Of course, like Single Flash, it is both powerful and versatile. That is why it is considered a fundamental technique.
The flow of power generated by the man’s hand – judging from its sensation, Nero realizes that this man is probably capable of overcoming him with brute strength.
The man’s movements are standard for someone who has grabbed a hold of his target. However, the muscular power he is using in those movements rivals that of the power-obsessed Kai. The abilities of the man, who is proving to be astounding even in raw physical strength, know no limits.
Even so, no matter how much power he possesses, he cannot break the principles upon which the Ancient Jujutsu of the Demon King is based.
This technique merely follows the principle:「It is better to bend than to break.」It is not an unarmed fighting technique. It is a master technique, a『martial skill』, that controls pure power, the physical kinetic energy, with the body and then utilizes Mana to perform vector manipulation.
In addition to efficiently nullifying the opponent’s power, it uses magical energy control to produce a powerful counterattack that is impossible with physical methods alone.
Just like when the enormous Rank 5 adventurer charged at Nero, only to be easily sent flying with a single hand.
Even this man’s power cannot compare to the attack Nero received from Gustav in the Adventurers’ Guild in Iskia Village
It is well within the limits of what Nero can control with his current ability. His technique is executed successfully; mistakes are impossible from this point.
In the next moment, the man’s body slams heavily against the rain-drenched stone pavement with enough force to split it apart – or at least, it was supposed to.
「– Second Technique – Reversal.」(Man)
Huh? What did this guy say just now –
Nero is unable to comprehend what happens to his body at that moment. No, it is more appropriate to say that he is「unable to believe it.」
In that moment, the kinetic energy that was supposed to flow into his opponent reverses in an instant. Indeed, back towards Nero.
Nero simply witnesses this impossible reality.
The one whose body strikes the solid stone pavement is not the man, but him.
At a glance, it may appear as if the man simply threw Nero to the ground with pure strength.
Nero’s back slams hard against the ground and his red cape that acts as proof that he is a management cadet wraps itself around his body. The stone surface his body lands on collapses heavily, and the surrounding pavement crumbles slightly as well.
The stone cracks and a cloud of dust rises from the impact. However, a single shadow crosses that smokescreen with terrifying force.
It goes without saying that it is Nero’s body.
He does not simply strike the ground again. Just how much destructive force has Nero been thrown with? He bounds off the pavement and flies into the air once more.
As his body flies weightlessly through the air, the gray stone pavement – no, the black lithograph is waiting for him.
Before Nero’s body is trapped by the restraints of gravity and enters freefall, the enormous obelisk, which measures ten meters by three meters, catches him as if it is the cold hand of the Demon King himself.
「… Guh… Haah, agh…」(Nero)
Nero can only cower and exhale in pain before the solemn, ancient relic, the『Zero Chronicle.』
How ironic it is that the Demon King’s distant descendant is crawling pathetically in front of a shrine dedicated to him.
「Your martial skills, magic and unarmed combat are not bad. How impressive it is for you to be this capable at your age.」(Man)
Nero can only faintly hear the man’s voice, but his words are ‘unpleasant’ enough to get on his nerves.
Damn it… He’s looking down on me…
In Nero’s blurry vision, he can see the man approaching him calmly.
The man hasn’t picked up his sword; he is still unarmed. But even so, Nero can only imagine that it would be incredibly simple for him to deal the finishing blow on a defeated opponent, even with his bare hands.
Nero’s anger outweighs his fear. However, the reality is that the damage his body has sustained isn’t so light that emotions alone can help him get to his feet.
「But the fact that you did not use your divine protection from the beginning is a failure brought about by your youth. If you are an adventurer of the highest rank, you surely must have one –」
「… Don’t… fuck with me…」(Nero)
However, the man’s careless words incur Nero’s wrath.
Nero witnesses a flashback to an unpleasant memory in his mind. His foolish self that earnestly admired the Demon King when he was still a child. The child who was oblivious to the pain, humiliation and emptiness that would await him at the end of all of his hard work.
Now that he remembers this, this time, the burning anger is enough to move his body. His mind surpasses his body.
「Don’t fuck with me! Who the fuck would rely on gods?!」(Nero)
「– It’s okay to rely on me for now.」(Man)
The moment Nero stands up boldly, a somewhat foolish-sounding sentence comes from somewhere, denying his words. It is as if a child is playing a prank – no, the voice is indeed high-pitched and soft enough that it can only be imagined to belong to a child.
「What, who –」(Nero)
Nero turns towards the direction the voice came from, in other words, behind him. As he expected, he sees a single child there. But his eyes open wide in astonishment.
This child has come out from inside the black lithograph, the『Zero Chronicle.』
He looks more closely to see that the ancient, everlasting white characters engraved on the obelisk, have begun shining with a deep crimson color. He also notices that their arrangement has changed significantly.
They now form what is unmistakably a magic circle. The circular shape formed by the blood-red ancient letters completely cover its enormous, pitch-black canvas.
The child smoothly emerges from the center of the magic circle through the black stone monument like a ghost, and with a quiet「Whoopsie-daisie」comes down to stand right next to Nero.
「A real hero came out to a place like this, so I have no choice. Just this one time, okay?」(Child)
The mysterious child looks down at Nero with an innocent expression as he speaks.
He has long, silky, flowing black hair and round red pupils. Nero has no memory of seeing this young, adorable child before. The child is wearing a male academy uniform, but Nero can’t remember seeing a student like this around.
However, he has noticed something impossible about the child’s appearance. He has become aware of it.
「Black hair and red eyes… Could it be?!」(Nero)
「It’s exactly as you think it is, but… Sorry, just like your sister Nell-chan, I’m going to have you forget me as well. Ahead of you is the realm of the gods that people must not step foot in, you see –」(Child)
As the child’s crimson pupils flicker in a bewitching manner, Nero becomes unable to avert his gaze. It is as if he is being drawn in by them against his will. In the next instant, even his conscious thoughts change from「I must not look」to「I must look.」An overwhelming coercion.
However, that might be only natural. If Nero can figure out the enormous identity of this tiny child – but before that, Nero becomes unable to maintain consciousness any longer.
「Damn… it… What’s that… supposed to mean… I don’t get it…」(Nero)
As his consciousness recedes rapidly, the only thing that Nero is capable of is watching as the man whose name is unknown confronts the child whose name is known to everyone.