Translator: Denryuu; Editor: Ryunakama
I knew that I had caught her by surprise. Aiming for her heart with a knife I had bought from a hardware store just before it closed, I believed that it was finally over.
That is, until a translucent barricade formed all around her.
My blade was repelled mere centimetres before it struck true.
This is similar to Rabi’s force field, which means…
The force field shattered into nothingness, but the element of surprise was no longer on my side.
As I watched her put a few metres between us, I knew that the chance of a lifetime had slipped away. Confound it.
「Roland…」, Almeria called out calmly.
At the end of her tether, the princess had lost even the strength to feel nervous. I caught her as her knees gave way and carried her away from the immediate action.
「You did well」, I said, ruffling her hair.
She couldn’t hear my praise, for she was already unconscious. I had watched her fight from a distance, just waiting for the stars to align…
But in the end, the gambit had failed.
「So you were ‘Slade’ after all.」
「It’s been a while…」, I replied. 「Aimée.」
「Did you pay Moyes a visit?」
She peered at me with a smile typical of a femme fatale. Her disarming beauty hasn’t changed even a little since we last met, I thought.
「I knew that you were acquainted with Moyes, and so used him as bait. But you pretended to fall for it so you could watch the Heroine fight, didn’t you? Waiting, biding your time, until you knew you could get the kill.」
If I had only intended to protect Almeria, I would have returned to her side as soon as I saw the trap coming. But choosing that option would have meant living in fear of Aimée forever. My only concern had been how long Almeria could last against her, but due to her nightly training, she had proven able to follow her opponent’s actions as long as no skills were used.
「Was it you who taught Rabi how to use her skill? Oh, uh… you may know her as Rabishia.」
「Was there such a kid?」
「The girl with the skill that you just used to block my attack.」
「Ah, that mage under Barbatos」, she said, finally remembering Rabi. 「She’s a good kid. Takes her learning seriously.」
「Undoubtedly. It was also you who taught me what my skill was.」
「You’re not special, Roland. I did that for everyone.」
Right, that means —
I recalled what that alcoholic fortune teller had told me.
『Your ability has been stolen once.』
Stolen? No, it must have been borrowed and returned after some time. And after that —
「I’ve seen you use my skill quite a few times now. Has ‘Faint Shadow’ served you well?」
「Oh, it’s a quaint skill, alright. Very peculiar.」
She had said the same thing all those years ago. That must be when she had copied my skill. After my third assignment, she had used some sort of healing skill on me. I had suspected that she had the ability to copy skills, but didn’t think too much of it at the time.
「That’s what someone who copied my skill with ‘Emulate’ would say.」
Though I had heard rumours of such a skill existing, I had never seen it with my own eyes until now. And to think that its user would be someone I knew in person.
「It’s the greatest skill under the heavens.」
「Which you gained by taking me in… among other orphans.」
「Yup. I take care of them until they develop skills, then determine what it is with my emulated ‘Skill Reader’. I’ll steal it if it seems useful, and if it doesn’t, then ta-ta forever.」
「So you think it’s ‘peculiar’, but you were pretty invested in it, huh?」
「I’ve said it before, haven’t I? It all depends on how it’s used.」
Standing face to face with her, my eyebrows twitched involuntarily against the enormous pressure.
That was when the nostalgia hit me.
There’s a little house in the mountains where I had once trained. It was where I had been roughed up, tossed around, toyed with and even knocked unconscious. Be it in thunder, lightning or in rain, regardless of whether it was spring, summer, autumn or winter — the hurlyburly was never done.
The wall that had once seemed insurmountable still towered over me even today. Not only had she sheltered me, but she had also molded me into who I am. The battle will be won if I manage to protect Almeria… but it’s not like I can just get up and run away with her.
「You’re now a guild employee or something… and for what? We live and die in the shadows. There is no permanent nest for crows like us.」
「Roland… please, don’t let me down.」
I took a step forward the moment she made her move. Activating ‘Faint Shadow’, I fully intended to ensure that first blood was also the last.
「I know what you’re trying to do –!」, yelled Aimée, activating one of her myriad skills.
Turning part of her back to me, she grinned when she saw me approaching from the front. I collided with something solid before I was within reach of her. It felt like an invisible mountain had formed right in front of me. The moment a rainbow-colored ripple expanded from the contact point, I knew what it was.
Victor’s ‘Absolute Defence’ –!
It was probably her who had shown him that nothing is truly absolute.
「How do you like my auto-casting defensive skill?」, she taunted, apparently unaware that I had figured out how to bypass it long ago.
Circling around her, I activated my skill again and again. I guessed that she had brought the auto-casting skill along knowing I would be hard to detect, so I made myself extremely hard to keep up with by going supersonic at close range.
You must kill yourself, I told myself. You, and your feelings for Aimée.
Become an emotionless, merciless blade.
I closed in on her from the left. As expected, ‘Absolute Defence’ failed to activate. Noticing the slight panic in Aimée from the corner of my eye, I prepared for my blade to draw blood.
She reacted as quickly as ever, kicking my dagger-wielding hand upwards. The shock of what had just happened caused me to lose my grip on the dagger. It spun into the air, its dark gray blade glinting in the moonlight.
She knows my modus operandi, but do I know hers? I figured that only thinking about it would be pointless. Thanking the heavens that I had retrieved the knife thrown at Almeria, I unsheathed it from behind my back and swung it upwards.
The silver glint seemed to slice Aimée in half, but in reality only grazed her fringe.
「You were like a diamond in the rough back then, but you seem to have become just another cobblestone. If I had fought you right when we parted, I would already be dead」, she commented. 「You’ve grown weak, Roland.」
Perhaps I have, Aimée.
I activated ‘Faint Shadow’ once more, but was unable to hide my frustration when she disappeared instead. To see death coming on unseen wings — this is really bad. Never have I hated my own skill more than I did now.
A crackle came from a short distance away. I turned to see Aimée showing me her palms, channeling a brilliant, purple ball of electricity in between them.
With a deafening boom, she released the Heroine’s ultimate, aiming for where she believed I was. But I had already latched onto a pillar of a nearby house with one leap, scrambling to the roof. Had I not seen Almeria cast it countless times before, I might have been a churro by now.
At the same time, a thought I hadn’t had back then suddenly nagged at me.
「Aimée… you found ‘strength’ through absolving yourself of weakness. You were right — that’s how you raise an assassin.」
「What, you feel like expressing gratitude now?」
「However, I no longer have any use for the ‘strength’ you believe in.」
We may not have had a place to stay or a place to return to, but we did have a little nest deep in the mountains where we could rest our wings. We hunted our prey, received rewards and spent our days surrounded by the stench of blood and metal. We felt each other’s warmth as we slept with our backs together.
「I left my old life behind in search of a ‘normal’ life — and if you think that’s weakness, then weakness is what I pursue. It’s ‘strength’ that no scale of yours will ever be able to measure.」
It takes the best to take down the best. I knew it would take a toll on me, both mentally and physically. But if I give the next attack my all, it will be the last.
And with it will disappear the last link to my old life.