| 'Are you fine with that?'
The water dragon walked up front, and Sakuya followed behind. There were nothing but dangerous dragons around, and a moment's lapse could have her killed. To ease Sakuya's tensions, the water dragon had heard out her goal. It had heard of the undead dragon, but it didn't think that was a problem Sakuya could do anything about.
But after hearing Sakuya's goal, the water dragon turned despondent. Her life was short, and she had made the decision to end it... to the dragon who valued the soul, Sakuya's further actions felt exceptionally noble.
"I-I'm so scared I can't stop shaking. B-but you see... there's nothing that can be done! I can't live even if I want to! I wanted to try harder! I wanted to be together longer! So... at the very least, I should be helpful at the end."
As Sakuya's eyes went teary, the water dragon lowered its back. The sudden happenings left Sakuya surprised.
'I haven't let anyone ride me in over a hundred years. Be grateful. From now on, I'm going to have to insist I'll never let a man ride me. Temporary as it is, right now, you are a splendid dragoon.'
Sakuya leapt onto its back. The water dragon spread out its large, pale, transparent wings, and took to the sky.
In the cave that reeked of decay, Rudel took on the undead dragon. Perhaps it hadn't completely awakened, as its lower body couldn't move, only its upper half and right wing showing a range of motion. It was mostly bone, but some rotten flesh still ardently stuck to it. It was an extremely unsightly dragon.
'W-why... why are you alone...'
At Rudel's appearance, the black fog that had been taken in let out a cry that was almost a scream. But her voice had weakened from before, and it seemed the fog's awareness was gradually growing dim. The boar gave Rudel a simple explanation of the situation.
'This is bad. The black fog has been almost entirely taken in, and the undead dragon is attacking everything, no questions asked. To be quite honest, I think you should give up and retreat.'
"That's not an option. While it's also for my sake, Sakuya has business with the black fog. She can't be helped if it fades away. I can't step down, and it doesn't look like it'll let me."
The undead dragon used its arms to move towards Rudel. As a subspecies of gaia dragon, its arms had developed more than the other dragons. Its rotten flesh and body of bones was much faster than it appeared.
Pulling his sword, Rudel held his left hand up front and shot a bolt of light.
A number of those shots rained down on the undead dragon and exploded, but it continued its advance as if they had no effect at all. As Rudel tried to move from the spot, a sticky something that wasn't mud captured his feet. It had a stickiness to it, and to Rudel who had thought to fight a hit-and-run battle, he was conducting combat in an exceptionally disadvantageous location.
"It's faster than I had imagined!"
'You're in luck it isn't at full power. But if you want to use your full power, you'll have to get outside... it's a bit deep ahead, so be careful.'
The bird calmly relayed information on the dim cave interior to Rudel. A battle where it was hard to see had him hard-pressed. But as he had awoken as a white knight, the battle actually raged on quite favorably. He used his light bolts, and when an opening was made, he'd cut with his magic sword.
He continually secured points his opponents attacks couldn't reach as he began to push the undead dragon back.
"When it's head is practically bone, it's a mystery how it can tell our location."
As he ran the undead dragon gave chase, and Rudel calmly put up countermeasures. But the way things were going, he could foresee his loss in the end. Avoiding the arms and wings it swung around, he thought of nothing more than to save the fog.
'Sorry to intrude when you're in a good state of mind, but at this rate, you'll run out of mana or stamina. You'll eventually lose.'
The bird's conclusion was right. Having been able to fight so far on his own, Rudel was strong, but to the end, it was a human's strength. When compared to a dragon, it was only natural he was a bad match. Without any comrades to help him, Rudel fought by on his own as he tried to think up a means to get the black fog out of it.
"More than victory, saving the fog is our first priority. I came here to obtain a dragon. There's no point in just winning!"
On those words Rudel told himself, the boar gave a simple explanation.
'There is a way, but the dragon's original soul is the problem. On top of being ruled by feelings of fear and isolation, it's blocking off all interference from the outside.'
The bird took over the bird's explanation.
'Meaning your voice won't reach it. Its guard is so strong the black fog failed when it tried to interfere with it directly. It's the sort of monster that devours life to steals its soul away, and there's no point calling out to it from the outside... from the outside, that is.'
As Rudel ran around, the undead dragon started taking different action from before. Both its wings began to move, and gradually the rest of its body followed along. Alongside an overwhelming difference in physique, the limited space pushed Rudel into a corner.
I have to attack with all my might, otherwise... thought Rudel, but as the undead dragon unleashed its own full might, it exceeded his expectations. His goal had changed to saving the black fog for Sakuya's sake, and he had to give his all to avoid his own annihilation. He had been much too greedy.
"So I was too hasty..."
A red light took residence in the eye sockets of its skeletal head. As if to take the place of eyes, they focused on Rudel. Correcting his stance, Rudel laughed before the undead dragon.
His selfish self was strange. When he was aiming to be a dragoon, the very fact he was fighting a dragon was strange. And that he wouldn't give up even in this situation was even stranger. He had chosen such an idiotic option of challenging a dragon alone... but he didn't regret it.
"I'll definitely make you my dragon!"
Rudel took a large step towards the dragon before his eyes.
Sakuya and the water dragon finally reached the cave. From the entrance, they would hear the screams of battle and the sound of explosions. Light tremors broke out here and there.
'... This is a place a dead dragon remains prisoner. To think an empty husk could move again... I can't bear to see its eternal torment.'
The water dragon grieved the pain of its brethren, but there was fundamentally no means to save it. Neither side could interfere with the others. Sakuya on its back hardened her resolve as they set foot into the cave. It was originally a cave excavated out by a dragon, and the water dragon could pass through it with ease.
'You're nervous. It's not too late, you know?'
"I'm not giving up. I mean... this is the only way I can be useful."
Trembling as she smiled, Sakuya was too worried about the events going on in the cave to help it. If Rudel died, there was practically no point in her objective.
'They're cornered. The child inside, and you... hold on tight.'
As the water dragon hurried on in, the intense sounds of battle suddenly weakened. The explosions stopped ringing out entirely. In a panic, Sakuya called out Rudel's name.
As he crashed into the wall, Rudel no longer had the power left to move a finger. Because of his sturdy armor and shield, he had managed to persist in one piece, but his energy and mana to move had run reached its end. He had tried fighting the undead dragon with everything he had, but even with his full-power attacks he had prepared as his trump card, defeating the dragon was impossible.
Sakuya's voice suddenly entered his ear, but he was unable to respond to it. He noticed the large footsteps and vibrations gradually approaching him weren't those of the undead dragon.
'You're late, Sakuya!'
Having leapt out of Rudel's sword, the boar and bird had used what mana they had left to project their original bodies, frantically clinging onto the undead dragon to protect Rudel. But as the dragon thrashed about to remove them, they were only able to cling on. There wasn't any time.
They had preserved their power for that moment alone, but if Rudel died, then everything would be lost. The two had manifested. Manifested and bought some time.
His form Sakuya witnessed, it was the form of his dented, chipped armor with injuries around his eyes. It was impossible to tell from over his armor, but perhaps his body was in a terrible state as well.
His armor was stained black, and while his breath wasn't strange, it was weak. She couldn't see his usual self, full of confidence. But she didn't despite. Up until her mouth came close, she was smiling.
Finally sensing Sakuya's presence, blood flowed from Rudel's mouth as he wrung out his voice.
He was surprised at the entrance of another dragon, but having lost his vision, he couldn't confirm it. For now, he could only think of letting Sakuya escape to report to the country. He had pushed it and caused the undead dragon to awaken. Rudel recognized his own irresponsibility as he accepted his failure.
Not that he regretted working hard for his dream, he simply accepted the result. Sakuya thought that acceptance wasn't like him as all, but she could feel that his battered form had put up resistance to the bitter end. In truth, he was losing a lot of blood, and Rudel was on the verge of death.
But as Sakuya approached, she planted a kiss on Rudel's forehead.
"I'm sorry, Rudel. But if nothing else, I'll grant your dream..."
"Wha.. ar... ou..."
Sakuya's tears fell onto his face. Rudel couldn't understand what Sakuya was trying to say. His consciousness began to grow distant...
"Please, help me out! Take me over to it!"
Parting from Rudel, Sakuya requested help from the water dragon. The boar and bird weren't enough to hold back the undead dragon. Sakuya had intended to end things before it came to this. But speaking to results, Rudel was in critical condition, and the undead dragon had sprung to action.
'... Very well.'
The water dragon opened its mouth, creating a sphere of water and firing it with good momentum. It wasn't that the water came from its mouth, it gathered water from the area and shaped it into a spear. It smashed a number of those into the undead dragon, sending it flying into the opposite wall.
It was weakened from its battle with Rudel, and the water dragon was a dragon abundant in combat experience. It wasn't a simple attack, the dragon had compressed a considerable amount of water, and as those orbs collided they burst as if explosion. By compacting the water, it was able to fire something like a laser as well, but that didn't suit its objective, so it held back in its attacks.
The boar and bird separated from the undead dragon, and this time the water dragon pinned it down from above. Perhaps it was losing its ability to maintain its body as its bones and flesh easily tore and snapped. But even now, there was no sign it would stop moving.
While it was held down, its skeletal head remained as it was. It violently moved its mouth, its red glowing eyes fluttering tempestuously. There, the black fog began to regain consciousness.
'T-this is... so that's what it is.'
Sakuya approached the undead dragon's mouth with her body that was nearing its limit. Perhaps understanding the general gist of things, the black fog confirmed the present situation with the boar and the bird.
'Even bringing a dragon here, and yet Rudel still hasn't a dragon of his own?'
'It's just as we thought. Rudel will never be chosen by a dragon.'
'The dragon holding it down is one that Sakuya brought.'
'... You're the goddess from back then, right? You've thought up quite the audacious thing.'
The boar and bird kept it simple, but they explained the events up to now. As the black fog consented, it altered its ignition goal. At first, it had intended to use the undead dragon's remains. But here they had Sakuya, a girl with the soul of a goddess. If everything was assembled, there was no need to waste it.
'Sakuya, was it? Are you fine with this?'
The skull of the undead dragon before her eyes. Sakuya felt fear as she nodded. The water dragon saw that, and everyone apart from Rudel could guess what she was going to do.
For the sake of just a single human, Sakuya and the three beasts would become sacrifices.
Sakuya turned only once to looked at Rudel, shedding tears as she muttered with a smile. Seeing the unconscious, fallen Rudel, she recalled all that happened since she obtained a body. A majority of her happy memories only came after she attained physical form. Someone was always with her and she was never lonely.
It was all things she could never obtain in her time as a goddess.
"Goodbye, Rudel. I loved you."
Sakuya leapt into the mouth of the undead dragon. In what was originally the sturdy jaw of a gaia dragon, Sakuya lost her life in an instant. But her soul was taken in... and that was her goal...
'Looks like it went well... is it my turn next?'
'You're going first?'
'It doesn't matter. We'll disappear all the same.'
The water dragon parted from the undead dragon that had stopped moving. Seeing the actions of Sakuya and the three, it had a good guess at everything they were trying to do. So it made a proposal.
'You've saved my kinsman, so I'll help out too. You lot are much too awkward for the task.'
'I see, thank you.'
After giving a word of thanks, the black fog stopped resisting and plunged into the undead dragon on its own.
'You have my deepest gratitude for your assistance. I'm leaving Rudel to you.'
The boar said its thanks, turned to mana, and faded away. As its body dissolved into grains of light, those grains made off in Rudel's direction.
'Why am I even here... it doesn't look like I can pay back this debt.'
The bird complained, but the water dragon shook its head.
'It was originally our problem for not being able to save this one. I can only wonder why we left it so long to begin with... anyways, don't think of this as a debt. Go forth with peace of mind.'
'... It really is a strange tale. Why are we... it couldn't...'
The bird tried to say something before disappearing like the boar. But the three of them gave off a satisfied feel. The bird dissolved into light, and as that light headed off towards Rudel, the water dragon roared in the cave. At the same time, the dark cave was wrapped in a warm light. That roar from the cave resounded all throughout the dragon dwellings.
As Rudel regained consciousness, he couldn't see, but he felt he was being protected by something warm. Opening his eyes, he found he wasn't in the cave; it was a vast space of white nothingness.
"T-this is... my body doesn't hurt. What happened to me? Why can I see? Where's Sakuya!? What happened with the undead dragon!?"
As he regained consciousness, he gradually recalled the events that led him there. But he couldn't understand the situation. Keeping wary of his surroundings, he thought, when a voice called out to him from behind.
'Rudel, it's alright.'
He turned to find Sakuya standing there with a smile. Relieved, Rudel tried to approach Sakuya, but no matter how far he proceeded, the distance between them wouldn't shrink. Feeling some anxiety, Rudel called loudly for her.
"Come over here, Sakuya!"
Sakuya made a troubled face as she shook her head. And this time, some voices came from his right. The voices of the fog, the boar and the bird. They were in their original large forms, letting out an air as if they were relieved. But he wasn't able to approach them either.
"What' happened!? Where are we!? Are you all..."
Some part of him understood that his bad premonition had hit the mark. But he couldn't' accept it. Sakuya looked at Rudel's panic, giving a warm smile as she held her hands out as if to splash water on him. Atop her palms floated something that gave off a warm light.
'I managed to persuade him. I managed to obtain his body... this child will return to the flow of souls, and he said we could do what we wanted with his body. He told me to tell you he's sorry.'
"What are you talking about!? Just get over here already!"
Reaching out his hand, Rudel tried to grasp Sakuya. But Sakuya started to let out light, without even trying to move. This time the black fog called over to Rudel.
'Making a fool of yourself, and at the end, you give up with a satisfied look about your face!? What happened to your promise with me, you damn fool! ... I'll forgive you just this once. There won't be a next time.'
Next was the boar. Saying it was his turn, he sent some words to Rudel.
'It was surprisingly fun. When we were born for nothing more than to get in your way, I get the feeling we were able to oppose it in the end. This is my gratitude. I want you to accept it... turn it into the power to oppose.'
As the boar disappeared, the armor and sword equipped on Rudel let off light. The armor that gave of an uncouth feel was adorned with lovely ornaments. On both the armor and the sword, a pattern began to surface. In his left hand, the shield he had never held appeared. It wasn't a large shield, but it was adorned with decorations to match the sword and armor, a pattern across it.
That same pattern on the boar and the bird faintly surfaced on them all.
That white, gleaming form was surely worthy of the white knight.
Next, the bird called over to Rudel. As those around began imparting words of parting, Rudel thought his heart was being plucked out. He wanted to scream at them to stop, but his voice wouldn't come out.
'Since you injured your eyes, do you want me to give you some? I have a lot of eyes, I always thought I had a few too many. Oppose it to the end... it's unfortunate I won't know how it turns out, but if it's you...'
Right after, Rudel felt something in his eyes, but now wasn't the time for that. Before his eyes, the bird had disappeared. He desperately sprinted, but the distance would never close. It was the black fog's turn.
'From me, you'll be getting a heart. It's a heart I obtained from changing my path, but it's not like ill intent was all I ever gained. I shall give you the heart of a dragon... when I've done so much for you, next time, you better not give up until the end! Everyone's cheering you on.'
The black fog disappeared as it if had cleared up. Rudel looked at Sakuya and reached out his hand again. But Sakuya didn't try to take it. She only looked at him and smiled.
"What I shall give you is a goddess' soul. With this, you have a dragon's body, heart and soul together. I'm sure you'll get an amazing dragon! You're inheriting the goddess Sakuya-sama's soul after all!!"
Seeing her usual energetic form, Rudel turned sorrowful. It was all a result of him not wanting to drag anyone into his dream, and it had all backfired.
"Is it my fault? Was I wrong? Why do you guys have to go so far!? It's just my petty, selfish dream! There's no reason for you to sacrifice..."
Sakuya confronted Rudel, screaming to interrupt his words. Touching both her hands to her hips, she made a pose to clearly signal she was angry as she scolded him.
'You dream is my dream too! It's a dream everyone wants to grant! So it isn't a dream for you alone anymore. It's a dream that Izumi and Luecke and Eunius and Lena and Stupid Aleist all want to come true! There are lots of them. There are lots of people supporting your dream!'
"But even so, this is a seed sown by my own selfish actions. It's all my fault!"
So you don't have to become a sacrifice, Rudel tried to continue on, but he ended up stopping. Because Sakuya was crying.
'I'm sorry. It must have been lonely. It must have been painful. But Rudel, you're not alone anymore. I'm begging you, please notice it! You'll make everyone sad.'
On those words, Rudel cried as well. He didn't know why, but his tears welled out. Sakuya wiped her tears and smiled as she made a plea to Rudel.
'Can I make one final request?'
Rudel wiped his tears as well as he smiled at Sakuya. It was the sort of painful smile where you could tell he was forcing it. But thinking that Sakuya wouldn't want to see any more of his pitiful form, Rudel made a smile.
"Sure. It's my time to do something for you."
'You have to look after Izumi, okay? Treasure her. And tell everyone I said hi. And also, and also...'
After a stream of trifling requests, Sakuya finally made a serious face as she looked at Rudel. She told Rudel to kneel and offer up a prayer, so Rudel abided. After taking a deep breath, Sakuya returned to her goddess speech as she did with Izumi.
Her current form was more sublime than it had ever been before.
'I am she who doth show the way; I am she who shall show he who opposes fate his path... Thou shalt be the strongest of dragoons. Thou shalt be the strongest of knights. Thou shalt become the shield that protects the country and the weak. Henceforth, you shall be the White Dragoon... farewell, mine beloved.'
Rudel's consciousness grew distant once more...