Continues on from Chapter 3 – The Holy Forest ~Ecbald Autonomous Region~
Continues on to Chapter 5 – Routine Daily Life and the Omen in its Shadow
Riding the Maestro Rosberg, Lars lead Ash and his party to the western part of the forest. Lucca and Gawain followed closely behind Rosberg. Silvia and Lancelot followed behind them, with Ash and Eco also riding on top. At the back of the pack were Rebecca and Cú Chulainn. Lastly, Celes and Cosette remained at the chief’s residence to look after Oscar.
After advancing through the forest for a fair while, their view suddenly widened into an open space. The surrounding environment changed from the dimly lit forest to a landscape that was drenched in sunlight.
Ash couldn’t help but hold his hand in front of his eyes as he momentarily struggled to adapt to the harsh sunlight.
“It’s so beautiful…!”
Eco said as her red eyes shone in admiration. A dazzling lake lay before them. It was as if a blue mirror had appeared in the depths of the forest. Everything around them was silent and calm, as if it were a hidden location that had been forgotten by the ebb and flow of time. Just looking at the reflective colour of the lake soothed and gave comfort to Ash.
Ash suddenly noticed a man-made building that stood by the shore of the lake. It was an incredible structure that had no roof nor walls. The stone pillars which were erected there appeared as if they were surrounding something. Upon each of the pillars were fine and delicately engraved arabesque patterns.
“Mmm. That is the legacy of the extinct elves – The Shrine of Jylhä.”
After Lars answered with a stern expression, Rosberg stopped at the entrance to the shrine.
“The legacy of the elves…huh?”
Ash gazed at the shrine as he imagined what the ancient past might’ve been like.
“—Welcome to The Shrine of Jylhä.”
A graceful figure abruptly emerged from amongst the crowd of pillars. It was an Ecbald girl with a soft expression and vivid appearance. The clothing that the girl wore was most like a priestess’ outfit. Standing amongst the surrounds of nature in the Ecbald Autonomous Region, her long, pure white gown vibrantly stood out.
“I am the head priestess, Frederica.”
Ash was surprised to learn that she was the head priestess. Given that she only appeared to be in her teens, Ash found it difficult to connect her appearance with the sacred and solemn role of a head priestess in his mind. Though, he had just heard from the chief that the Ecbald tribe were all quite long-lived. Thus, Frederica’s actual age was probably older than what she appeared to be.
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Ash Blake…”
Ash hurriedly hopped down from Lancelot to extend his greeting.
“I understand the situation. Now, please come over here—”
After listening to Lars’ explanation, Frederica quietly turned around and led the group of visitors into the temple.
“This is the trajectory illustration of the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’!?”
An enormously imposing and stately rock enshrined within the temple captivated Ash’s gaze. The surface of the rock was engraved with a crest that seemed to resemble the insignia of a royal family. If Ash wasn’t in the position of a challenger, perhaps he would’ve been fascinated by the beautiful emblem out of pure appreciation for its art—.
“This is insane…”
Just looking at it almost drove Ash mad. Based on the depiction, it was probably fine to regard it as a pair of wings. However, the picture was so detailed that it was terrifying. It meant that a challenger would have to bring every single feather to life. Just memorising the complete trajectory was a difficult task in itself. Moreover, Dragon Riding Dances were focused on both speed and accuracy, and its challengers weren’t given any allowance to slowly trace out that route. All that considered, this was not the time to shy away because the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ was the only way to save Oscar. After reinforcing his motivation, Ash turned to Lucca.
“We don’t have time to waste, so let’s start training today.”
Lucca clenched both fists in front of her chest as she nodded in agreement. Lars then revealed a serious expression as he exchanged glances with Ash and Lucca.
“If you’re going to perform the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’, it’s best to do so on a night with a full moon. Moonlight is capable of enhancing the effects of a Dragon Riding Dance.”
“A full moon…huh. In that case…kuh…”
“The next full moon will be in around ten days. If you miss that, you’ll have to wait another month or so. If you delay it for that long, the Chevron Kingdom may already have erupted in flames.”
Rebecca explained, noticing that Ash didn’t seem to remember the length of time between each of the moon phases.
“In ten days…!”
Ash broke into a sweat upon realising the time pressure on them. As if to break the silence, Frederica solemnly said,
“According to the ancient books in this shrine, the most important thing for the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ is the relationship between the two Dragonars. The challenging Dragonars must care for each other, be kind to each other, and deeply understand each other. There’s a common saying in the East called ‘A-un Breathing’, and that is the state you two should strive towards.
Although it sounded unfamiliar, Ash felt an inexplicable affection for the word.
“In order to cultivate mutual understanding between the two of you, I think the best way would be…for Lucca-ojousama and Ash-dono to live together in the <Inner Sanctuary> of this shrine for the next ten days.”
In contrast to Frederica’s calm demeanour, Ash and the others all screamed in unison. Amongst them, the loudest voices belonged to Eco and Silvia.
“Is there something to be surprised about?”
Frederica tilted her head in confusion, though continued nonetheless,
“The two of you will breathe the same air, eat the same food, and spend the same time together. If you’re able to establish a mutual relationship in which you can understand each other without even speaking, you’ll naturally be able to complete the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’.”
“I understand. But…what kind of place is the The Shrine of Jylhä’s <Inner Sanctuary>?”
Ash asked Frederica as he glanced around at the inside of the shrine. As he gazed around, all he could see was an altar inside. There didn’t seem to be a door that led to an <Inner Sanctuary> anywhere. In the first place, how could the interior of a temple possibly be any good for Dragon Riding training?
“It’s normal for you to feel confused. After all, the <Inner Sanctuary> of this shrine is not a physical room. It is a special space constructed by the ancient elves using all of their magical powers. Its official name in the ancient language is <Espace Elfiore>.”
After listening to Frederica’s explanation, Ash began to understand.
“That’s fine with me. What about you, Lucca?”
“Yes, no problem.”
As if she had the utmost faith in Ash, Lucca nodded and agreed without hesitation. The next instant—
Eco and Silvia raised their eyebrows as they interrupted in protest. Even Rebecca stepped forward to express her opinion.
“I can’t say that I’m impressed about a young man and woman spending ten days alone in a closed room. As the Student Council President of Ansarivan Academy, I can’t overlook this kind of thing.”
Ash was shocked to hear even Rebecca’s opposition. It wasn’t so surprising for Eco and Silvia to object, though Rebecca’s shared sentiment with them was unexpected…
“I-In that case, why don’t we settle for a compromise? In order to avoid a situation where Lucca and I will be alone, we can have someone else join us…”
“That won’t do. Only the Dragonars attempting the ‘Twin-Winged Oratorio’ have the right to enter the <Inner Sanctuary>. As the head priestess, I cannot abide anyone breaking the rules.”
Frederica rejected Ash’s proposed compromise without hesitation.
“Haah…I guess there’s no choice but to accept. But…Ash, if you dare lay a hand on Lucca, you’re going to be in for some serious consequences, you know?”
“I agree with Eco! Moreover, if you take into account the lifespan of an Ecbald person, the fourteen-year-old Lucca is almost equivalent to a seven-year-old human! If you dare lay a hand on her, that’s a crime!”
Seeing both Eco and Silvia act so aggressively, Ash couldn’t help but retreat.
“I trust that you will act like a gentleman.”
“Of course, Rebecca-san!”
Although Rebecca’s tone seemed calm on the surface, it gave Ash an inexplicable sense of pressure deep in his gut. When the <Scarlett Empress> had such lofty expectations for him, he couldn’t afford to disappoint.
“Well, it seems like things have settled down. Frederica, please open the door to the <Inner Sanctuary> for these two Dragonars.”
Urged Lars, who had watched the situation develop with a wry smile across his face.
Frederica nodded and began to recite a chant.
“Jylhä Aalto Kronvar Somersalmi…”
Soon, the stone floor in front of the altar began to transform.
Accompanied by the sound of shifting earth, a section of the floor began to glow. A magic circle similar to a <Seikoku> appeared on the stone floor. No, the magic circle appeared more complex than an ordinary <Seikoku>. It was probably a rather high-level magic ritual.
“This is a magical teleporter. Ash-dono and Lucca-ojousama, please come over here with the dragons—”
Following Frederica’s instructions, Ash and Lucca respectively mounted Lancelot and Gawain, and then moved on top of the magic circle. The area that the magic circle covered was vast enough that even two Maestros standing upon it side-by-side left ample room.
“I’ll start the teleportation now—”
Frederica declared, and with that, a dazzling burst of radiance instantly enveloped both Ash and Lucca.
Their field of vision faded into a vast expanse of white, and their bodies amazingly seemed to float in mid-air. After a while—
“This is the <Inner Sanctuary>?”
Ash was dumbfounded the instant that he opened his eyes.
“It’s also my first time here.”
Likewise, Lucca turned her head as she continuously looked around. Surrounding the two of them was an endless expanse of natural scenery. The dazzling sun hung high in a corner of the azure sky. Contrary to the outside world where winter was approaching, the climate of the <Inner Sanctuary> was warm and comfortable to the point that it felt hot when wearing a coat. Before them was a vast verdant grassland upon which a large slate of rock was situated — it looked exactly the same as the one that was enshrined on the altar. There was also a small glimmering lake beyond it. A small wooden cottage stood by the shore of the lake. It was probably a place exclusively intended for the challengers to live.
Lancelot and Gawain both let out energetic roars. They looked excited and impatient to soar into the sky.
Ash hurriedly pulled on the reins to keep Lancelot grounded.
Lucca also stroked the back of Gawain’s neck before it finally settled down. It seemed that this place was a rather comfortable location for the dragon species.
“I can’t believe that such a vast space was constructed with magic…”
The scene before his eyes caused Ash to reaffirm the greatness of the elven race that had existed in ancient times.
[—It appears that both of you have safely arrived in <Espace Elfiore>.]
At that moment, a solemn voice resounded through Ash’s mind. He was not overly surprised though, given that he had experienced telepathic dialogue with both Navi and Racquel IV.
“Is that you, Frederica-san?”
[I apologise for using telepathy to communicate with you. How is the situation on that side?]
“Hmm. Although I’m a bit surprised by the surroundings here…there aren’t any major problems to speak of.”
[Then, I’ll make preparations for the magic ritual first — this is so the teleportation magic will activate ten days from now. After all, teleportation magic isn’t something that can simply be activated at will…]
Hearing the slight stutters in Frederica’s words, Ash understood what she meant.
“I understand. So, we’ll be staying here for the next ten days.”
[I’m pleased that you understand, Ash-dono. By the way, there are reserves of wheat flour and spices, but you two will have to be self-sufficient for any other food.]
The surprising words left Ash dumbfounded.
“What? When you say that we’ll need to be self-sufficient, what…”
[You’ll need to hunt small animals, catch fish, pick nuts and wild plants…there are many ways. The <Inner Sanctuary> also faithfully reflects the relationships in the ecological food chain, so you don’t have to worry about a lack of food.]
Ash almost fell off Lancelot’s saddle.
[Ash-dono, you might feel unaccustomed to such a lifestyle, but it shouldn’t be an issue given that Lucca-ojousama was born and raised in the forest.]
“Yes, I’m used to it.”
Lucca nodded as she affirmed Frederica’s presumption. It appeared as though any issues regarding their livelihood would be best handled by Lucca.
[Lastly, I have a message for you from the Chief. “Focus on your training. Try not to get hurt.” —That is all.]
“Thank you. Please give our regards to the Chief.”
After saying that, their communication channel with Frederica ended.
For safety reasons, they normally would’ve changed into their Dragsuits, but neither of them had expected the situation to evolve in this way, and so neither had brought their Dragsuits. They simply had to start training in their uniforms.
“Instructor, could you please give me some tips on how to perform a Dragon Riding Dance first?”
Ash jokingly asked.
“C-Calling me ‘Instructor’ is too…”
Lucca felt so embarrassed that she buried her face into Gawain’s face.
“I’m sorry, really. I didn’t mean to tease you or anything.”
Ash couldn’t help but smile upon seeing how Lucca’s shy reaction was much more pronounced than he had expected.
“In actuality, you are quite experienced when it comes to Dragon Riding Dances.”
“So regardless of whether it’s some mental concept, or tips on what to pay attention to, I hope you’ll be able to give me some pointers.”
Lucca finally lifted her face.
“I’m not going at giving verbal explanations. It should be faster with actual experience…”
Ash made a wry smile.
“Then, could I trouble you for a ride on Gawain? I haven’t ridden a dragon with you since the Selective Training Camp.”
“Yes. I only started to notice you because of that time…”
Lucca’s elven ears were dyed the colour of roses and seemed so hot that they could emit heat.
Not expecting Lucca to make such a statement, Ash also blushed in turn. Lucca looked much cuter than usual on this particular day. Moreover, the two of them also happened to be the only people around. Within <Espace Elfiore>, there was no concern that anyone could interrupt whatever was going on…. Just as Ash worried over such things, Lucca leaned toward him from Gawain’s back.
“…Ash? You’re not thinking about anything dirty, are you?”
The distance between their faces almost startled Ash. Her amethyst-like eyes glistened with a watery reflection.
“Uwah! I wasn’t thinking about that!”
“I don’t mind…”
“N-Nothing! Please forget what I just said…”
Lucca buried her face in the fur of Gawain’s back again.
After Lucca finally calmed down, Ash straddled onto Gawain’s back.
“Hold on tight.”
“Heeding Lucca’s warning, Ash decided to hug her firmly from behind. Her waist was very slender, much like that of a glass doll. Lucca’s body warmth was faintly transmitted to Ash through the contact of their bodies. If they were wearing their Dragsuits, then perhaps Ash’s mind wouldn’t be so distracted by Lucca’s body given that a layer of hard armour would separate them…. Suddenly, Ash’s nose picked up a herbal fragrance. It was different from the usual fruity scent that most female students had. However, Ash thought that this scent was very fitting for Lucca.
“Then, let’s start off by tracing out ‘one wing’.”
Upon hearing Lucca’s voice, Ash’s consciousness was brought back to reality.
“Got it — wait, you’ve already memorised the trajectory for ‘one wing’?”
A surprised expression formed across Ash’s face as Lucca lightly nodded to confirm the fact.
“After seeing the slate just then…I’ve memorised most of it.”
Ash was once again in marvel of Lucca’s talent. She had memorised an extremely complex trajectory in such a short span of time. It was no exaggeration to describe her talent as sheer brilliance.
“Let’s do some warmup exercises first.”
Gawain let loose a roar in response to Lucca’s intentions. Its enormous body gradually accumulated magical energy. It then spread its wings and took flight. With the wind against their faces, both of them moved farther and farther away from the ground. Ash focused his mind as he hugged on tightly to Lucca’s waist.
—Come on, I have to learn all of this!
After a while, with their warmup exercises done, Gawain paused and hovered motionlessly in mid-air.
Just as Lucca murmured that to herself, Gawain began to move.
A gust of wind whistled into his ears.
Ash clenched his teeth. He had experienced a dance during the Selective Training Camp — [The Amrita of Purification]. That one was certainly magnificent in its own right, but it just couldn’t be compared to this one. In addition to their flight speed, the centrifugal force generated by each turn was on a different level.
“Wait…this is too much!”
“The show is just getting started.”
“Don’t speak or you’ll bite your tongue!”
It was rare for Lucca to voice such stern criticism, so Ash quickly shut his mouth. Their speed instantly increased, and they continued to gain altitude as well. At some point, their distance from the ground had reached the point where they had a panoramic view of the entire lake. The air around them grew colder and thinner.
—H-Hold on! Just how high are we going to fly!?
Just as Ash thought so, they took a sudden turn and dive. Gawain completely stopped using magic and began to free fall. From Ash’s perspective, this was no different from an uncontrolled crash. The ground’s surface seemed to approach them at a terrifying speed.
—We’ll die…if this goes on, we’re definitely going to die!
Just as they were about to crash into the ground, Gawain forcefully unleashed its magical energy. While an enormous crater was generated on the ground, Gawain swiftly began its ascent again. Ash breathed a sigh of relief. However — Ash immediately realised that this flight was no different than a death-defying act, and that this was just the overture of the oratorio. It was truly an experience in all directions. Lucca and Gawain danced to their heart’s content, as if to exemplify that the essence of a Dragon Riding Dance was just beginning to unfold. The sky-spiralling performance continued without rest. Ash could feel the blood gradually draining from his face. The next moment, his vision suddenly faded to black.
Ash was in a state of momentary shock. Even though his eyes were wide open, he couldn’t see a thing at all.
“No way! Why…uwaaaaaaaaaaahhh!”
Whether it was on a physical level or a mental level, Ash was on the verge of collapse. Just as Ash screamed, he was thrown off from Gawain’s back. His body floated lightly through the air, much like a projectile fired from a crossbow.
After hearing Lucca’s cry, his consciousness drifted away.
The instant that Ash opened his eyelids ever so slightly—
Lucca’s tearful face smothered the entirety of Ash’s blurred vision. There was a sort of soft sensation against the back of his head. It was then that Ash realised he had been asleep on Lucca’s lap.
“Am I…still alive?”
It appeared that his body was fine. Ash still vividly remembered what had happened just before losing consciousness. He was thrown into the air because the grip strength in his arms had faltered. Lucca had probably noticed just in time and ordered Gawain to turn back to help. If not for Lucca’s prompt realisation, Ash probably would’ve plummeted to the ground — sharing the same fate as a smashed piece of fruit. Ash couldn’t help but shudder as soon as the thought entered his mind. Although he still felt chills run down his spine, he tried to get up nonetheless.
“Don’t force yourself!”
Unexpectedly, Lucca firmly held Ash’s head down. The sensation of her soft yet elastic thighs put Ash in a daze. Inadvertently, Ash also took notice of another icy sensation. There was actually a wet towel on his forehead. Although Ash was grateful for Lucca’s kindness, this wasn’t the time to relish it.
“There’s something I’m curious about. Before I lost consciousness, why did my vision go completely dark…?”
“That’s a blackout. I’ve also had that experience.”
Ash was also familiar with the term. When he first joined Dragonar Academy, the instructor on Strada riding technique had explained it. When there was tremendous pressure on the Dragonar, it could result in brain anaemia as blood was concentrated in the lower body. It would result in symptoms such as darkening vision and breathing difficulties. Moreover, the condition induced by pressure in the opposite direction was known as redout. As suggested by the name, one’s vision would be tinged red because blood was concentrated in the blood vessels of the eye. Ash nervously gulped. What lay ahead was more training for the Dragon Riding Dance — that was bound to be accompanied by the risk of blackout and redout.
“I didn’t think I’d face such a setback as soon as we started training…”
Ash couldn’t help but heave a deep sigh. However, he would not be able to move forward by pitying himself. His most immediate goal was to get used to the speed and strong centrifugal forces of Dragon Riding Dances.
“Lucca, it looks like you’ll have to bear with me for a while…will you still accompany me?”
Upon seeing Ash’s extended hand, Lucca faintly nodded as she outstretched her own to clasp his.
“The Shrine of Jylhä ~A.S.B.1365.12~” is closed.
(All 5 of 5 parts) (18/12/20)
Continues on to Chapter 5 – Routine Daily Life and the Omen in its Shadow