The next morning. The magic ship Escavaron took off as originally scheduled with its destination set for the Ecbald Autonomous Region. The weather was bright and sunny, warm enough that the fact that it was already winter seemed like a lie. The winds that blew felt smooth and refreshing. As a result, their journey benefited from the good weather and proceeded smoothly—. It was already afternoon by the time that the ‘Ecbald Forest’ entered the view of Ash and the others—.
As soon as the Escavaron landed at the entrance to the forest, the dragons which had been resting in the hangar immediately jumped out and headed toward the forest. —Aside from the five Maestros, there was an Asia and a Hydra. The silhouettes of those dragons were instantly engulfed by the vast, magnificent forest. Generally speaking, dragons enjoyed forests with a sacred atmosphere. Naturally, as the Ecbald Forest was one of the <Three Forests>, it needed no explanation.
“It must’ve bored them to death having to stay inside the hangar during the whole flight. Let them go and enjoy a bit of freedom.”
Rebecca smiled as she watched the dragons pour out of the Escavaron.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
Ash agreed, while Eco took a stretch beside him.
“Mmm, the air here smells so fresh! I also want to take a nap.”
Eco was probably tired of waiting and eager to enter the forest as soon as possible. The rounded corners of her young dragon horns seemed more lustrous than usual as they emitted a faint glow.
Lucca stood in front of Ash.
“Leading the way…leave that to me.”
“Yeah, of course. Once we enter the forest, we’ll be relying on you, Lucca.”
Upon hearing those words from Ash, Lucca’s cheeks turned slightly red.
The gazes of Eco and the others were immediately affixed to Ash, causing him to break into a cold sweat.
And so, Ash and the others ventured into the forest with Lucca as their leader. Since it might’ve seemed impolite for a large group of people to suddenly visit, the group entering the forest had already been decided beforehand. The first of those was Lucca, who was responsible for leading the way. As the representative of Avalon’s Holy Dragons’ Emperor Knights, Ash. The descendant of Avalon’s Holy Dragons’ Emperor family and Ash’s Pal, Eco. The Fourth Princess of the Knight Country and ambassador to the Escavaron, Silvia. Silvia’s attendant, Cosette. President of Ansarivan Dragon Riding Academy’s Student Council and skilled at negotiation, Rebecca. Lastly, the living shell of Oscar and her caregiver Celes. Because Oscar had lost the ability to walk on her own, she had to sit in a wheelchair and be pushed along by Celes.
Unfortunately, Mirabel decided to stay on board the ship. Although Ash had hoped that she would join them, and Mirabel herself held an interest in the Ecbald people who were distantly related to the ancient elves — there were still many unsolved mysteries about the magic ship Escavaron. Mirabel wished to conduct an analysis of the ship whilst it was parked and stationary.
Under Lucca’s guidance, Ash and his party continued their advance into the forest. The tree branches and their leaves formed a natural barrier, and the faint rays of sunlight that meandered through the gaps in the foliage almost seemed heavenly. Their destination was the chief’s residence in the Ecbald Autonomous Region.
“Hey, Lucca. What kind of person is the chief? I always had the impression that chief is someone to be feared…”
Ash directed his question at Lucca as she continued forward without looking back.
“He’s a strict but kind person. Everyone has respect for him.”
Although usually slow to react, Lucca answered the question without having to think. It seemed that the chief had the popular support of his people. Such a person might hold an important clue to the narcotic’s antidote.
Inadvertently, Ash noticed a curious sight. There were hut-like buildings scattered amongst the trees.
“What is that…?”
Lucca raised her head and looked at the tree which Ash was pointing to.
“It’s an Ecbald-style house. The Ecbald people are accustomed to living on trees.”
“Really? It’s the first time that I’ve heard of this.”
While Ash gazed at the treehouses as if he was a sightseer…
A sudden, startling roar broke the tranquillity and invited noise into the forest. The forest began to stir as if it had a life of its own. The frightened wild birds all scattered in unison. Moreover, the sound of drums, flutes and harps began to play all around them.
“Wait! What’s happening?”
Ash couldn’t help but freeze on the spot out of surprise.
“Hey, it’s so loud!”
Eco’s body also trembled as she wrapped her arm around Ash’s tightly.
“Hwah! C-Could it be…a super-ancient vengeful spirit!?”
Silvia’s face turned pale as she held onto Cosette with a tightening embrace.
“Oh my, it’s okay, don’t be afraid.”
As expected from Cosette, she remained as calm as water even in an abnormal situation, and she simply gave Silvia gentle back rubs. In fact, Ash found it hard to even imagine what Cosette’s face would look like if she was afraid.
Rebecca and Celes stood by Oscar’s wheelchair, guarding her and keeping a careful watch of their surroundings.
“—Chief Lars’ daughter, Lucca, has returned!”
A shout came from afar.
“Lucca, could that be someone you know?”
Ash nervously asked.
“It’s a normal occurrence…”
Lucca blushed as she lowered her head in embarrassment. At that moment…
“Lucca! It’s not winter vacation yet, so why are you home?”
A majestic voice resounded loudly through the forest. After a while, accompanied by low-pitched footsteps that seemed to shake the entire forest, a single Dragonar appeared from its depths. It was an intrepid Ecbald man who looked to be roughly forty-five years old. He was tall and muscular in build. He was dressed in native Ecbald-style clothing with a flaxen brown colour tone. He also wore exotic ornaments such as necklaces and bracelets. The man seemed to exude a rugged and wild nature which was rather different from the stereotypical image of Ecbald people. His skin was tanned a healthy wheat colour which seemed completely disparate from the delicate image of a fairy. However, the most unusual thing was his unique riding style — he sat cross-legged on the Maestro’s head. If the students of the Dragon Riding Academy were to imitate him, they would surely be scolded by the instructors for being ‘improper’. After taking a glance at Ash, the man loudly declared his name.
“I am Lars Nordenskiöld Sarlinen! Chief of the Ecbald Autonomous Region!”
The chief’s residence was located deep within the forest.
Ash gazed up in amazement. Before his eyes was a plant that seemed to have come out of a fairy tale — a super gigantic broad-leaved tree. Moreover, a traditional Ecbald-style building sat on the tree. The house might’ve been repeatedly rebuilt to stay in line with the tree’s growth, so its appearance was rather complex and strange. It looked like a combination of several wooden buildings. Lars skilfully leapt down from his Pal’s head and landed at the front door of the tree. However, Ash and the others were unable to follow suit. Lars considerately lowered a rope ladder for them to use.
“You guys can climb up with this.”
Ash grabbed the end of the rope ladder and turned around to look behind him.
“Umm, who’d like to go first? I don’t mind going last.”
Originally, Ash’s only intention was to abide by the spirit of chivalry and show courtesy towards women, but his intentions were misunderstood.
“Hey, Ash. Do you really want to…peek at our underwear that badly?”
Silvia was the first to retort with trembling clenched fists. It was only then that Ash noticed — indeed, all of the ladies wore skirts today.
“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t notice! I’ll go up first then.”
“Of course you will!”
Ash eagerly climbed up the ladder as if he was deliberately avoiding any opportunity for Silvia to scold him further. Once Ash had climbed up the tree, Eco, Silvia, Rebecca, Cosette and Lucca followed in that order. Celes and Oscar were last.
“Are you okay, Celes?”
“Don’t underestimate me! I don’t need your help!”
After stubbornly refusing to accept any help, Celes picked up Oscar who was in a dress. However, the rope ladder was a shaky tool to begin with, making it even more difficult for Celes to get up whilst carrying another person. However, if she tried to concentrate on climbing up the ladder, Oscar would fall off if she wasn’t careful.
At that moment, the Maestro which had been dozing off under the tree — Lars’ Pal slowly stood up.
“Huh? W-Wait a minute…!”
Celes was taken aback as she clamoured in confusion. Ignoring her cries, the Maestro extended its forelimbs. It used its forelimbs to support Celes and Oscar, gently lifting the two of them up. In the blink of an eye, Celes and Oscar had been escorted to the entrance of the chief’s residence. Moreover, the Maestro also cleverly picked up Oscar’s wheelchair and elevated it up to the entrance.
With a dazed expression, Celes thanked it.
After responding in a sleepy tone, the Maestro returned to its peaceful slumber.
Following the guidance of a maid, Ash and the others arrived at the drawing room. The style of the drawing room was unique in that guests could sit directly on the floor. An incense burner mounted on the wall filled the room with the scent of cedar trees. The most surprising thing was how spacious the room was, making it especially unbelievable that this structure had been built atop a tree.
“—Apologies for the wait.”
After a while, Lars appeared in the drawing room. He dauntlessly sat down cross-legged and then glanced around at everyone.
“H-Honoured to meet you. I am Ash Blake…”
Although slightly intimidated by Lars’ intrepid demeanour, Ash still declared his name.
“Oh, so you’re Ash Blake-dono? I’ve heard tales of your deeds. You defended Fontaine City together with your Pal Eco, and shortly after that, you declared an independent country with the magical ship Escavaron as territory. You snubbed that Prince Uriel off, didn’t you?”
“You know about all of that?”
“Of course. The Knight Country’s government has had a long history with the Ecbald Autonomous Region. News like that reaches me very quickly. It’s just…I never imagined even Lucca would be on board the Escavaron…”
After saying that, Lars stared straight at Ash. At this point, Ash realised something of significance — was Lucca’s identity similar to that of Silvia? An Ecbald princess?
“In having your dear daughter join our campaign…does that present a problem?”
Ash quivered as he inquired.
“No, I don’t mind.”
Ash was surprised by Lars’ unexpectedly swift and outspoken expression of approval.
“Lucca personally told me about the selective training camp. Thanks to your help, Lucca was able to ride Gawain again, and she was even successful in performing a Dragon Riding Dance. As her father, I will not forget your act of kindness, Ash-dono.”
“P-Please raise your head!”
The unexpected development had already been enough to make Ash panic, but the words that Lars uttered after lifting his head were even more astonishing.
“You truly are a gentle person, Ash-dono. I see, it’s no wonder that Lucca is so attracted to you. Hahaha!”
Lucca’s face reddened as she attempted to stop her father, but Lars simply laughed. Unlike the Paladin Oswald, her father seemed rather open-minded and tolerant of his daughter’s romance. Soon, a serious expression returned to Lars’ face and he gazed at Eco.
“The girl with dragon horns on her head…I see, so you’re the young dragon Eco? No, perhaps it’d be more correct to call you Holy Dragon Emperor Eco-dono?”
“T-There’s no need, you can just call me Eco like normal…”
Eco shyly lowered her head. The next person that Lars focused on was Silvia.
“And you are…Your Highness Silvia?”
“Yes. Long time no see, Lars-dono.”
Silvia revealed an invigorating smile. It appeared that she knew Lars. As the chief of the Ecbald tribe, Lars certainly would’ve had many opportunities to visit Fontaine Palace.
“Haha. I barely recognised you in that school uniform, Your Highness. Getting down to business, since you’ve personally come to visit…I presume that you must have encountered some rather daunting problems on your journey.”
After saying that, Lars directed a sharp glance at Oscar. Oscar sat in a wheelchair behind Ash and the others unnervingly like a porcelain doll. Ash sat up straight as he decided to explain what had happened thus far.
“The thing is, we’re actually looking for a way to cure Oscar—”
After listening to Ash’s explanation, Lars walked over to Oscar’s side and began to observe her for a while.
“…Hmm. These are extremely rare symptoms.”
Eventually, Lars sighed as he made a grave expression.
“The narcotic <Galatea> huh…I’ve only read about it in a book, so this is the first time that I’m seeing it with my own eyes.”
“Do you have any way of producing an antidote? If there are any herbs that you need, we can go and forage for them. No matter how dangerous the location might be, we’ll take the Escavaron to go in search of it.”
Lars shook his head as he rejected Ash’s plea.
“It’s impossible, Ash. I think you should already be aware that narcotics are taboo elixirs made by sacrificing human lives. Even if there was an antidote, it would also have to be made at the expense of precious lives.”
Upon learning of this hellish truth, Ash clenched his fists and trembled.
“…If what you say is true…even if we capture Kiira and force her to reveal information on the antidote — we won’t be able to synthesise it. Regardless of the situation, human lives aren’t to be trifled with.”
Ash sombrely nodded as he expressed his agreement with Rebecca.
“Of course. It’s just that…it means we have to abandon hope of finding an antidote and seek an alternative way of saving Oscar…. Kuh, what are we supposed to do now?”
At this rate, the outcome would be far more complicated than just being unable to save Oscar. Once a civil war broke out in the Chevron Kingdom, there was potential for the entire continent to be plunged into chaos, let alone the Kingdom itself.
“Damn it…we came all the way here already. Why is this happening…”
Celes murmured in a regretful tone as she clenched her teeth. Tears streamed down her right cheek as she knelt on the ground in frustration. Everyone present was silenced by the cruelty of the situation and a murky atmosphere filled the drawing room.
“—No. It’s not as if there’s no alternatives at all, Ash-dono.”
Lars’ words broke the heavy silence.
“Is that true!?”
Ash eagerly leaned forward. Like someone backed into a corner, he looked into Lars’ sharp eyes with hope.
“It would be the Zeroth Dragon Riding Dance — ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’. It is the secret technique of the Dragon Riding Dance.”
Ash was shocked. He had heard Lucca mention the name of that dance before. However, Lucca didn’t seem to be familiar with its effect.
“Does this mean that the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ can activate healing magic?”
Ash sought confirmation while he suppressed his overflowing emotions.
“It might be possible, but it might also not be possible.”
“Strictly speaking, this dance is more like a religious ritual. However, once performed successfully, it might bring about a miracle.”
“Chief, I have to say that this method you’ve described is overly vague…”
Following Silvia’s question, Lars made a troubled expression.
“I do apologise, Your Highness. However, I cannot make any guarantees. After all, the last time that a performance of the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ succeeded was seven hundred years ago…”
“It’s been that long?”
Ash was stunned.
“Indeed. Are you aware that Lucca’s biological parents passed away due to a pandemic?”
“…Yes, I heard.”
Ash nodded with a solemn expression.
“Since ancient times, the Ecbald Autonomous Region has suffered from an influenza outbreak every few hundred years. Even though our people are skilled in herbal medicine, we’re powerless against pandemics of this kind. According to historical records, an infectious disease which broke out seven hundred years ago was the worst in history…it was so deadly that it almost wiped out the Ecbald tribe altogether.”
Ash nervously gulped.
“At that time, in order to save the people who were caught in dire straits, the Dragonars of the Ecbald tribe came forward. The Dragonars bravely attempted the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’, and at last they succeeded. And so, a miracle occurred. The patients who were once on the brink of death recovered one after another, the Ecbald people survived a crisis that threatened the extinction of their kind, and they have survived to this day.”
“In that case, if Lucca can successfully perform the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’, there’s a chance that our wish may come true, and Oscar can be cured…?”
“It’s not as simple as that, Ash. As the name of ‘Twin-Winged’ suggests, the zeroth dance requires two Dragonars for successful execution.”
Ash recalled his conversation with Lucca from last night. It was once Kiira’s dream to perform the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ with Lucca….
“Then, could we please ask you to partner with Lucca—”
Ash held onto a glimmer of hope as he gazed at Lars. At present, the only Dragonars of the Ecbald tribe were Lars and Lucca. In order for the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ to succeed, they had no choice but to pin their hopes upon those two.
“…I’m deeply sorry, Ash-dono.”
Ash was so emotionally shocked by Lars’ rejection that he almost jumped up.
“Stay calm, Ash.”
Silvia placed her hand on Ash’s shoulder.
“Lars-dono may appear to be youthful in appearance, but he is in fact, quite old. And it also seems that his Pal, Maestro Rosberg, is too old to fly at high speed now…”
As embarrassment caused his face to turn red, Ash’s gaze wandered back and forth between Lars and Silvia. No matter how he saw it, Ash thought that Lars was in his forties. He certainly appeared to be in the prime of his life….
“Her Highness Silvia is correct. After all, I’ve been alive for a century and a half. Needless to say, I also participated in the Xenoglavia War.”
“I can’t believe it…”
Eco was also considerably surprised by this. She stared intently at Lars’ face.
“Although not as exaggerated as the extinct elves, the Ecbald people are already a long-lived race when compared to ordinary humans. The average lifespan of our race is around two hundred years, and the rate of our aging is also very slow. Ash-dono, to give an example, when you turn fifty, Lucca will probably have her coming-of-age ceremony.”
“Hmm, I didn’t see this coming…”
Silvia let out a grumble. It seemed the revelation of Lucca’s long lifespan had aroused a sense of crisis for her as a woman.
“In terms of a woman’s weapons, slow aging is almost foul play.”
Surprisingly, even Rebecca’s expression became serious.
“Hey, Eco! Don’t you think so as well?”
Silvia whispered into Eco’s ear. Although her voice was quiet, it still reached Ash’s ears.
“Huh? I may look like a human female, but I’m a dragon, so I don’t think I’ll age immediately? Besides, I’m still a young dragon, so I don’t have to rush.”
Eco put deliberate emphasis on the word ‘immediately’.
“Kuh! That’s way too…!”
Leaving aside Silvia who was somewhat depressed, Ash asked Lars,
“Chief. Based on what you’ve said, doesn’t this mean that the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ won’t work either? I’ve heard that only Ecbald Dragonars possess the necessary inclination to perform a Dragon Riding Dance.”
“That would be the case, normally speaking. However, as long as you have this ring…even an ordinary human may be able to take the place of an Ecbald person.”
With a serious expression, Lars removed the ring that he wore on the little finger of his right hand.
“I will entrust you this ring.”
Ash was at a loss for words, but he accepted the ring anyway. It was a silver work of art with exquisite engravings on both sides. A large gemstone was set on top of the ring. The gemstone was an exquisite emerald that seemed to symbolise the breath of the forest itself.
“Father. Doesn’t that ring serve as proof of the chief…”
Lucca interjected from the side with a worried expression, but Lars stopped her from saying anymore with a stern look on his face.
“That doesn’t matter. The ring may indeed be a treasure that’s been handed down to the leader of each generation since ancient times, but it’s a cheap price to pay in return for Ash’s grace. Besides, I’m still the chief whether I have the ring or not, and that won’t change. I believe that the residents of the forest will also understand.”
After seeing Lucca nod to express her understanding, Lars focused his eyes on Ash.
“Try it on.”
Although slightly puzzled, Ash slid the ring onto his finger. While the ring was originally worn on Lars’ little finger, it was just the right fit for the index finger on Ash’s left hand given their difference in build. Ash suddenly felt a burning sensation as if his entire body had been set alight.
“Uwah! What is this…?”
Ash hurriedly looked down at his body. The sensation wasn’t painful or unpleasant. On the contrary, it felt as though his blood surged with passion and excitement. The <Seikoku> on his left arm also reacted to the ring, glowing radiantly and emitting heat. It felt as thought a connection had formed between the ring and his <Seikoku>.
“Listen closely, Ash. That gemstone is a magic crystal refined by the elves in the distant past. In other words, you could regard it as the elven version of a Bright Dragon Crystal. It is a unique crystal, as it is the only one in the world left by the purebred elves.
“You’re giving me something that precious!? Is that really okay?”
“When you put that ring on, you can gain the same attributes as an Ecbald person.”
“So, you mean that I can also perform a Dragon Riding Dance? Thank you, chief!”
Despite Ash’s cheerful demeanour, Lars maintained a firm expression.
“I’m not sure if you’re just jolly or brave…but if a Dragon Riding Dance fails, there’s a chance that you may die. Moreover, you’re now the Commander of Avalon’s Holy Dragons’ Emperor Knights. As someone in a position of power, you cannot sacrifice your life so easily. It would also be feasible to find another suitable partner for Lucca.”
The words carried more weight because Lars himself was chief of the Ecbald tribe.
“No, it’s precisely because I’m the commander that I can’t allow anyone else to do it.”
Even so, Ash remained resolute in his determination.
“Well said, Ash!”
Upon hearing that, Eco immediately lauded him.
“Mmhmm, that’s certainly just like Ash.”
“You’re acting more and more like a leader.”
Silvia and Rebecca generously praised him. However, Lars solemnly confessed to everyone,
“This introduces a problem though. When Eco becomes the Holy Dragon Emperor…I’m afraid that it will be difficult to synchronise with Gawain due to the large difference in their body size. Ash, I’ve heard that you’re a genius dragon tamer, is that right…?”
“Yes, I can ride all dragons.”
“If that’s the case, it’d be better if you choose a Maestro that’s physically balanced to partner with Gawain.”
“I understand. Speaking of a Maestro with a similar build to Gawain…I guess Lancelot?”
“Hmm. There shouldn’t be any problems if it’s with Lancelot — Your Highness Silvia, is that okay with you?”
As soon as Silvia, Eco suddenly interjected,
“Wait a minute! If you’re going to ride Lancelot, then it means that Lancelot will also feel ‘that sensation’…and I won’t approve of that!”
“That sensation? Eco, what are you talking about…?”
Ash tilted his head in confusion.
What is Eco going on about?
For some reason, Eco blushed and lowered her head.
Is she just jealous that I’ll have to ride another dragon this time?
Although Ash couldn’t pinpoint a reason for her behaviour, he decided to focus on the Dragon Riding Dance instead.
“By the way, chief. I still had a question for you.”
“What would that be, Ash-dono?”
“What kind of trajectory is drawn in the sky for this so-called ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’?”
Ash began to feel nervous as the chief became silent and didn’t answer for a while.
“…Good question. Rather than try to explain, I think it’ll be quicker if you see it for yourself once.”
Lars slowly stood up as he said with a solemn expression,
“I will guide all of you to [The Shrine of Jylha]—”
“The Head of Ecbald ~A.S.B.1365.12~” is closed.
(All 4 of 4 parts) (18/11/20)
Continues on to Chapter 4 – The Elves’ Great Secret