|Several figures move in the darkness.|
A "Click!" and the surroundings are bathed in a brilliant light. The wide, unoccupied floor is illuminated. It's obvious someone left this place in a hurry.
CLARK: "Well, it's always adventure, isn't it? Day in and day out."
RALF: "Just how many times has this happened? Right when we think we've got 'em, they escape as if they were on to us."
CLARK: "And it's kind of creepy that we don't have a clue what they were up to here."
Leona, standing next to the two, senses something. She makes a dash toward the direction she intuits where her target is.
RALF: "Hey! What's going on, Leona?!"
Leona plunges into the darkness. The sound of blades clinging against each other rings out.
A young woman...no, the voice of a young girl can be heard.
The lights trail in the direction of the voice. A girl holding a whip snaps it around the knife that Leona is holding out and she whisks it from her.
CLARK: "Leona, stop. Who is it...?"
Leona steps back. The girl lowers her readied whip and salutes Ralf.
GIRL: "I'm from Axe Platoon."
RALF: "Axe Platoon? Aren't they supposed to be investigating another objective 20 kilometers from here?"
GIRL: "A number of platoons have been dispatched on this mission. A majority of the objectives are linked by underground passages. I followed one of them and ended up here."
CLARK: "So that's it, is it? Well? Did you come up with anything?"
GIRL: "I can only reveal the exact details of my investigation directly to my superiors. But I will say that all of the objectives are linked together and it appears that large-scale espionage has been taking place."
RALF: "Espionage? What kind?"
GIRL: "I can't tell you that. Excuse me. It's time for me to report back."
She turns her back to the three, and goes back into the darkness. Ralf and the others see her off.
RALF: "They're really robbing the cradle these days, aren't they?"
CLARK: "Yeah, I thought Leona was young, but she must be just out of diapers."
A few days later.
In Heidern's office. Leona, Ralf, and Clark stand at attention.
HEIDERN: "Take a look at this."
Heidern plops an envelope before the three. Ralf examines its contents.
RALF: "An invitation to KOF? There's another one this year, huh? Hmph.... Whoa! Four members to a team this time around, is it?"
HEIDERN: "That's what it says."
CLARK: "So I guess we'll be teaming up with our commander to enter this time around, huh?"
HEIDERN: "That's a big negative there, Shades! You should be able to see what's coming! Aniticipate!"
Clark takes the invitation from Ralf.
CLARK: "The venue of the tournament is.... Hnh...?"
RALF: "What is it?"
Clark hands the invitation back to Ralf.
CLARK: "Didn't you catch it?"
RALF: "Don't rush me.... What's this...? That's creepy. The more matches you win, the closer you get to a worse place."
CLARK: "It's a collection of all the places where we've been outwitted in all our recent missions up till now."
HEIDERN: "That's not the only thing. It appears that this year's tournament has none of the excitement of the same magnitude as last year. It seems that this tournament will most likely be a private affair."
RALF: "Just what does HQ think about this?"
HEIDERN: "The formation of a head office for espionage operations was decided on today. I'm to be the leader."
CLARK: "And just what does that mean for us?"
HEIDERN: "You'll enter the tournament and investigate what's going on behind the scenes of this year's event."
RALF: "And what are we supposed to do about our missing member?"
A knock at the door comes from behind the group.
The door opens. A familiar young woman enters.
HEIDERN: "She's transferred here from Axe Platoon. She has nearly completed her investigations."
GIRL: "It's an honor to serve with you. My codename in Axe Platoon is...."
Clark lets out a giggle. The girl shoots him a questioning look.
GIRL: "...What, do you mean by that?"
RALF: "It's your codename, isn't it? A simple mnemonic device is the best thing in a codename. You use that whip so they must call you 'WHIPPY,' don't they?"
GIRL: "It's 'SALLY.'"
Clark plays with the letters in his head.
CLARK: "S-A-L-L-Y means 'sortie'? How swashbuckling!"
RALF: "SALLY?' That's a bit simple, isn't it? Oh, well. I look forward to serving with you 'WHIPPY.'"
Ralf extends his hand but receives a salute in turn.
LEONA: "Pleased to meet you."
Leona salutes the new addition. Next, Clark extends his hand.
CLARK: "Pleased to serve with you, Whip."
Her expression is a little disingenuous but she flashes him a smile.
HEIDERN: "Ooh, I like that. And I like you. The pleasure will be all mine."
Whip shakes his hand.
CLARK: "Quite a grip there. Doing work like this at such an age must be tough."
HEIDERN: "Not necessarily. I get a lot of laughs compared to where I used to work."
Clark looks over to Ralf. Ralf replies with a shrug of his shoulders.
HEIDERN: "Well, let's carry out a short briefing and get you on your way. Meet me in the briefing room in ten minutes and bring your gear. Dismissed!"
EVERYONE: "Yes, sir!!!"
|The surface of the ruins. It is not a relic of the past, but ruins that suddenly burst forth from the womb of the earth.|
Emitting a sound that one would think it's crying like a baby, the edifice screeches and surrounds itself in smoke, as if cradled by it.
The smoke does not let up. It smolders in the nasal cavities, and visibility is far from satisfactory. But gradually things become visible.
Twelve seconds later...
Heidern stares at the smoke before him. A single shadow is at its side, as if cuddling next to it.
Heidern continues staring at the sight and calls to the figure that is most likely one of his soldiers.
"Is that you, Ralf?"
The shadow begins to assume the form of Ralf.
"My status report, sir."
His voice is steady but a quick glance at him makes it apparent that he's pretty banged up inside.
"How did things go?"
"We recovered everyone. Clark and Leona both suffered external injuries but wounds are nothing serious."
The exchange lasts exactly twenty seconds.
"That's going to swell up like a blowfish."
Ralf doesn't follow him.
"I can see it."
By following the trajectory of Heidern's stare, Ralf finally realizes what he's talking about. The smoke subsides.
Heidern does not alter his expression. But a pained grimace seizes Ralf's face. He recalls an unpleasant memory.
The cause of it appears before his eyes once again.
Following the smoke is a huge hole.
Straight underfoot there is a huge, gaping hole as if some giant object had fallen from the sky and tore a hole in the earth before coming to a stop.
And farther down there is a "lid" that fits the size of the hole perfectly.
A few figures are already standing near this lid, performing some sort of procedure.
"Is that it?"
Ralf points exactly at the position where the figures are engaged in their project.
Under the "lid" there is yet another hole, and most of the workers are gathered around it.
"The very ground is crumbling. The thing that covered us from above was that lid. That hole had the lid on it that we opened to escape is.
"What sort of condition was it in?"
"The direct hit of the cannon shell did quite a lot of damage to the ground. It completely smashed it in. I was totally focused on the incident that was taking place right after I came to."
A member of the survey team approaches the two who swivel to look back.
"I have some news. We investigated below the "lid," but we found no survivors. The only things left behind was the disk we obtained here."
His emotions increase the length of Ralph's stride.
An enraged Ralf simultaneously appears in the squad member's eyes. The disk he holds out is knocked into the air and it lands with a plunk.
"No way! No survivors, you say? Where are the bodies? Have you found any?!"
Ralf's sticks his face into the squad member's again, violently bobbing it in and out of the latter's field of vision.
A feeling of overwhelming pressure seizes the squad member's neck and his vision clouds up. The only thing that is clear while in his gradually fading consciousness is the clear reverberations of Heidern's voice.
As he picks up the knocked-away disk, Heidern restrains Ralf with a glance.
"Let's hear the details. You weren't able to find any survivors, uh, I mean, bodies?"
Ralf realizes his excessive transgression as his superior officer puts a stop to his folly. The squad member opens his mouth even though he appears on the verge of collapsing.
"I...am...sorry. I take back what I said. We were unable to find any survivors. But a body ws found."
As Ralf once again begins to crowd the squad member, Heidern puts himself between him and the hapless investigator, then continues his questioning.
"Were they male? ...Female?"
"Any special characteristics? Did you check it out?"
"Did you say...special characteristics?"
Hit with an unexpected question, he goes through the fragments of memory and information among which remain none to answer the question.
The squad member takes out a memo on which various fragments of information were listed and begins his report, regaining most of his composure.
"I'll report the information that we have ascertained at the present time. The sex of the corpse was male, as I mentioned before. One area of the body was significantly injured, but the body was for the most part unscathed. As far as his clothing is concerned, he was wearing a coat equipped with some form of armaments. And, this...I don't know whether I should mention it...there was something puzzling...."
Heidern answers the pausing squad member.
"Was it his face?"
"Yes, sir. Have you heard about it, commander?"
"Good job, soldier. Continue your investigation."
Heidern's words drown out the squad member's question. No, Heidern intentionally cuts off him off. Appearing upset, the squad member returns to his mission while Heidern presents Ralf with the disk.
"Does this look familiar?"
The disk in Heidern's hand still bears the code on it that Ralf had seen once before.
Ralf's memory is as clear as ever. Just whose disk is this?
Ralf, however, denies his impulse to utter the answer.
Heidern cannot help but notice that the expression on Ralf's face clearly gives away that reluctance.
"This must be Whip's disk, isn't it?"
There is no reply. Heidern takes this as an affirmation.
"I'll continue to survey the site. I want you to analyze the contents of this disk. Whip was also a member of the intelligence division. Maybe she obtained some intel before her death."
Heidern ventures to say what Ralf could not bring himself to do. Heidern holds the disk in front of Ralf's eyes as he approaches, as if trying to negate this possibility.
"It's an order."
As Heidern passes him the disk and begins to leave, Ralf, in a rare moment, stops his superior officer with a thinly voiced appeal that seems to squeeze out through his mouth from deep down in his throat.
"Sir...may I ask you a favor?"
Heidern does not look back. Ralf continues, ignoring this reaction.
"I want you to assign me to the investigation."
An instant passes. Naturally, there is no response. Ralf reflexively grabs Heidern's arm before he can walk away.
"I beg you."
He increases the strength of his grip. His hand is covered with injuries.
This hand speaks volumes to what appalling measures Ralf must have gone to escape.
Heidern places his own over this injured one. But Heidern's gesture is not one of approval to Ralf's request; no, just the opposite. Heidern tightens his slightly more powerful grip on Ralf's arm.
An chilling sound issues from it. Coupled with this unexpected surprise, a pain heretofore unknown to Ralf runs through his limb.
Heidern looks down at Ralf who has dropped to his knees.
And even farther above the two, the rays of the sun suddenly begin to look upon the two through the spaces in the clouds.
Ralf looks at Heidern's face, but the expression on the face above his conveniently hidden by the sunlight behind him; Ralf cannot confirm his expression.
The increasing shadow of Heidern's grows colder than ever, and Ralf finally opens his mouth.
"I cannot very well entrust a survey mission to a squad member who has not satisfactorily recovered from his injuries. Analyze the disk!"
"You don't know for sure! You don't know she's dead!"
He knows his behavior is vain.
But for Ralf this action was the only method before him.
As before, Ralf is unable to discern Heidern's expression.
Indifferent words are spun from the cool shadow.
"Yes. That's why I'm saying we should set things straight. That disk just may be the answer to your hopes."
Ralf is shocked at this—shocked at himself for concluding that Whip must be dead.
And Heidern had realized his fatalism too. Heidern already begins to walk away.
Ralf is unable to pursue him any further.
Just how long was he there?
Without giving any time for thought, Ralf remains here kneeling.
The sunlight from on high has become more intense, making the contours of the huge hole that spreads before his eyes more vivid.
The hand that holds the disk.
The hole that widens its maw before him.
Something snaps within Ralf.
Ralf beats the ground. He hits it hard. Again. And again.
The strength that wells up from the anger at himself moves to his fists, showing no signs of abating. His fist aches, as if it is about to be torn apart.
Along with the pain comes the realization that this is his atonement for assuming the worst about Whip.
But for Ralf, however, this is not the time to rationalize his thoughts.
Unbeknownst to him, his fists covered in blood, are no longer red but instead encrusted in sticky mud.
In stark contrast to the serene landscape, Ralf's screams usher forth to break the silence.
|Late in the night, three figures appear at an installation that seems to be some sort of research lab.|
"Nuts. This place is empty, too."
A blond-haired man dressed in black rasps. A red protector is attached to the man's right hand.
"We were seconds too late."
A woman gently stroking the whip in her hand mutters.
"This just goes on forever.... Well, I guess I'll look around. ...It doesn't seem like anything dangerous is nearby."
A large man of roughly two meters in height responds while surveying the premises.
To be honest, the three were impatient. Up till now, these three had destroyed quite a bit of NESTS branches.
But recently someone appears to be equipped to anticipate their every action.
All facilities related to NESTS that they have raided have come up empty.
"How do you suppose they anticipate our every move, Whip?"
The mammoth male wonders out loud...and Maxima cannot suppress his irritation in his query as he ventures an answer.
"I haven't the faintest idea. But we don't know for certain that all of our intel is fresh. So if someone beats us to the punch, we may just have to live with it...."
"...No, I'm sorry. It's not that I don't trust you. But...hey, K', don't you think there are a bit too many mysteries this time around?"
"What are you getting at?"
The blond-haired K' mutters incredulously.
"They're holding another KOF this year, right? Nothing strange about that, happens all the time. But did you check out the roster this time? There's a NESTS team! A NESTS team! Think about it. Why would a secret syndicate that tried so hard to keep itself hidden all of a sudden make such a point of using their name in public?"
"Only a privileged few know about NESTS. It looks like they've surfaced at last."
"Why would it be necessary for those clowns that destroyed an entire city want the world to know their name? Wouldn't it be in their best interests to stay behind the veil...?"
"There's no point trying to reason this out. ...I'm out of here, to our next objective!!"
All three assume a combat position. K' asks Maxima in a whisper.
"...Maxima, can you see it?"
"Yeah...I don't know how it concealed itself, but my heat sensors caught them."
The moment Maxima mumbles his answer, the figure moves into action.
The figure slips by Maxima's side and appears for an instant in front of K'.
Then the figure aims at K' and brings his arm down.
Almost simultaneously, K' jams his fists forward, flame shooting from it.
A violent roar rips through the darkness, but misses the figure. The fist the form swung at K' is stopped by Whip's bullwhip.
"Tsh, looked like I got a little carried away...."
"Sorry, K'. But you really should try to avoid unnecessary conflict. Well, let's hear your story."
The three bind the man to a chair near the center of the room that's illuminated by the moonlight seeping in from the window. All three know this man with the pig-tail. He's their "old pal" Lin.
"...Is this, perhaps, the reason for you tailing us?"
Whip sticks a picture in front of Lin's eyes. Lin is clearly affected by it.
"...I thought as much. If you're going to follow us, one day you're bound to meet up with this guy, right?"
"One of those tight-jawed types, eh? ...Ah, whatever. ...How about it? K', shall we make Lin a teammate and enter the tournament?"
"Do as you like."
"Hey, hey, K', Whip, are you serious? You'll never know when this guy's going to screw us over."
Maxima, clearly rattled, urges his colleagues to reconsider.
"...If you're worried about that, I'd find something else to worry about...."
Lin murmurs dryly.
"Ungh. This guy's quite the hardcase. Well, if K' and Whip are all right with this, I guess I can play along. Well, in the spirit of friendship, let's shake on it..."
As he turns to look back at Lin, he sees that their captive's already long gone.
"What a crud! It's the rules to leave with at least a salutation!"
"Walk it off, Maxima. With Lin as our teammate, the tournament will be a breeze. Don't you think, K'?"
Without answering, K' takes his leave of the place. Alone, K' looks up at the night sky.
My past...my future...they took them both...NESTS...the root of my abilities...Krizalid...Zero...the powers that oppose me...Kula....
"That K' looks like he's got a lot to chew on."
"Yeah, but we've got to bring this to an end at any cost. For all those who have fallen victim to those scum..."
"Yeah, you're right...And for my own sake...I must destroy NESTS!"
"...You said a mouthful."
The two look up at the night sky. The light from the countless stars in the sky pours onto this trio.
|The one who visits the unmarked room is an old man near the age of ninety.|
His long grey hair, and similarly grey moustache. The gourd hanging from a string dangles as he walks. When he knocks on the door with the gourd, the sound of a dry thud and sloshing liquid resonates. The contents of the gourd: booze.
"You're in there, aren't you? Show yourself, you whippersnappers."
The door opens straightaway - but only a few centimeters with the chain lock still fastened. The man who peaks out from the crack is tan with silver hair, wearing a black leather jumper, and the hand resting on the doorknob dons a red glove.
"You...if I'm not mistaken, are called Chin Gentsai...."
"That's my name, sonny, don't wear it out. I hoped you'd at least remember the name of someone you've fought countless times before."
"...Excuse me. So what the hell do you want?"
Chin wordlessly taps the chain lock, indicating his desire to be let in. K' looks down upon the geezer from a difference in height of 20 centimeters.
"Hey, K'. How about showing a little respect towards your elders?
Maxima appears, making Chin look up another 20 centimeters more from K''s mug. "Master Chin, I presume. Do come in."
Maxima, reaching over K''s shoulder, undoes the chain and ushers Chin Gentsai in.
"Hey, big guy. You need to teach your young charge a little more manners..."
...bellows the one and only Chin, whose breath reeks of alcohol.
Chin scowls at "the young charge" who repeats his question with his usual surliness. But the scowl is lost in his overly long locks, going unperceived by the others.
"I am but a pathetic old man with a brief future before him."
"You don't look the part."
K' retorts quietly. Chin indeed looks as if he will no doubt live another 200 years, but ignoring the chide he produces a letter from his inside pocket. It's an invitation to the King of Fighters.
"I know you love this, don't you? The KOF."
"Don't trifle with me, old man! Of all the things I loathe...."
Had Maxima not grabbed his shoulders, K' would have rung Chin's neck.
"Would you do me the favor of desisting with the teasing of my partner? He's not yet familiar with the ways of polite society."
"I sense it this time, too. That 'evil presence.' It exceeds that of the time when the thugs from the Orochi and NESTS were on the rampage.
"What's that to us?"
"Hey, pipe down and listen. ...Yet, Master, if that's the case, wouldn't it be better if you had entered the competition the same as always and ascertained the true nature of this evil presence without even bothering with the likes of us?"
Chin lets out a sizable sigh.
"A keen observation. But this time that won't fly. Because of those two...that is..."
...Kensou and Pao, who triggered the awakening of the mysterious behemoth of a presence.
These two are now spending their days in rigorous training at an undisclosed location to one day confront the presence.
"We four are going to sit this out. I'm sorry, but for now it's the ideal choice."
"Wait. Did you say we four?"
"I certainly did."
"Even that cute idol goddess?"
"Athena? Indeed. Indeed."
Maxima, employing his "Maxima-devised" software, searches the web.
He finds information available to the general public. The results soon appear.
"I thought so. I checked the list of KOF participants and her name's on it!"
"What?! ...What did you say?!!!"
Chin, being the Chin he is, is this time taken completely aback. Behind her master's back, Athena has gathered together two other members and completed her application to participate in KOF before he had a clue.
"What is this treachery?! Why did Athena...? Hey, can't you tell me, big guy?"
"M-Me? Tell you...? How should I know about this?"
Maxima winces at Chin, who begins to rant with a vigor that quickly sobers him up.
"Dagnabbit! She told me she had to do a concert, and while she was away from me, she must have...I don't understand her. This time our foe cannot be stopped with some hastily assembled gaggle of girlies."
"Just smack her into submission and drag her back with you, old man."
"You don't know Athena's true nature...She's a kind kid, but she's stubborn, too. Once she decides something, there's no going back. She must have concluded that this time she's going to face the 'evil presence' in her own way. She kept quiet because she was concerned for me and the other two, I bet."
"Well, things being what they are, I can tell you everything. Like why I've come to ask a favor of 'you two.'"
Chin begins to speak grimly and solemnly.
The "presence" this time resembles that of the Orochi but is also unique.
Not only that, the inscrutable and unknown presence is surging.
And Kusanagi and Yagami are closely related to it.
The evil presence is mighty, comparable to the strength of the Orochi, and it is difficult to say whether even the likes of Kusanagi and Yagami could defeat it. What's more, these two are still feuding among themselves.
But the situation is not without hope.
If the "evil presence" cannot sense that other being...
If the second Kusanagi, who was created by man, still exists....
"Now I understand, Master Chin. We're nothing more than "insurance."
"Insurance? You mean "sacrifices," don't you? Or just "openers" for Kusanagi's main act.
"...You get the picture. I'm making a self-serving request."
"But during the tournament we just may come up against Kusanagi, you know?"
"We'll drive off that bridge when we come to it. What's vital is that there be mighty fighters to counter the 'evil presence.'"
"OK. I hear you, Master Chin. We have too much idle time on our hands these days anyway. Entering KOF again with this guy wouldn't be so bad. Hey, you don't mind, do you?"
"Thanks, whippersnappers. I owe you."
Chin for the first time deeply bows in gratitude.
"As you see, I am grateful."
"...Don't grovel. It's annoying."
Chin, continuing to bow, averts his gaze from K'.
"Well, it looks like we're in. Myself, K', and along with us...?"
"Curses. What'll we do about the remaining member? That young...you know, that child with chestnut-brown hair. No, she won't do. She's too childish. Much younger than Athena is, don't you know?"
"You need not worry yourself. I have the very pro we need."
"You know, don't you, Maxima?"
"Ah, that dependable dominatrix is still around...but I believe she is presently involved in a mission with that squad of mercenaries, isn't she?"
"Ask me if I care! Make her a timely offer she can't refuse. I leave the particulars up to you."
"Why do I get all the grief? Jeesh!"
Two weeks later. Whip, in debriefing as a result of the completion of her mission, is promptly given another assignment.
"Link up with K' and Maxima. Form team. Enter KOF."
As did Chin, the leader of a band of mercenaries - Heidern - also senses the presence lurking in the shadows of this year's KOF and dispatches his squad.
Their struggle is just about to begin anew.
|Ten soldiers in full-dress uniform gather around a gravesite, as the sky begins to release the first hints of a coming downpour. As the coffin is prepared to be lowered into the hole, a pastor reads a passage from the Holy Bible.|
Ralf made a quiet aside to Clark, his voice obscured by the sound of the falling rain. "No matter how many of these I have to attend, it never gets easier."
"That's the price we pay for being mercenaries," Clark replied. His sunglasses were off, revealing a gloomy expression.
Ralf and Clark had known each other for many long years, and each knew there was no need to say anything further.
The man being interred died at the age of 59 years old. Had he lived a normal life, he should have had a wife... kids... even grandkids. He should have been preparing for his upcoming retirement, to live out his final years relaxing. However, he spent his life with guns and ammunition as constant companions, and even if he'd had a family, the lure of the battlefield would have eventually torn it apart... and he would be just as alone as before.
And so it was that all who attended his funeral, save for the pastor, were fellow soldiers.
The pastor closed his Bible, and the commanding officer prepares to give his order.
"We have come to pay our final respects to Jim Oldgate, a fine comrade and a true hero..."
Though Heidern felt certain that his subordinates grieved for the loss of a comrade, he glanced at each of them in turn, noting their unflinching, stony expressions.
All in attendance, except for the pastor, brought their right hands up to salute in seamless unison.
Attending were Heidern, Ralf, Clark, Whip and Leona. Whip held a small white flower in her left hand.
The casket held nothing more than a set of dog tags and another white flower. In life, the deceased had always had a preference for them. Upon his death, his remains were scattered such that it had been impossible to retrieve them.
When the order was given, the soldiers dropped their salute, and the casket was lowered to the bottom of the grave. The rain began to fall harder, each drop giving off a heavy noise as it struck the empty coffin. At last, the work was finished, and the soldiers began gradually to disperse.
"Ralf & Clark, I need to talk to you," Heidern said, his spotless regulation dress uniform marred only by his eye patch. He then called Whip over as well.
"As you know, it's time for another King of Fighters, in which you are to participate. That is, of course, an order," he said.
All of them had expected this, but they were slightly troubled by the fact that Leona was being left out of the conversation.
"We've established that Mukai's colleagues are most definitely not part of the Orochi Hakkesshu."
Though Ralf's concerns had not diminished, Heidern continued on. These folks most definitely had plans to make use of Orochi's power. This had apparently been why, in the last tournament, they had broken the seal on Orochi itself. Its influence had once had a devastating effect on Leona, causing her to lose her mind and become brutal and savage until she had been restored to her normal self. She had no memory of her actions in this time, but snapping her out of it had been exceptionally difficult.
One other thing preyed upon his mind.
"Professor, I get the feeling there's some connection between that and this mission..."
"What's that?" replied Heidern.
"Just before the last tournament, we received reports of a mysterious giant blimp. I think we may be able to get some more specific information on it this year."
Without so much as a mild tremor in either his expression or his voice, the one-eyed man replied, "...Continue your investigations."
"I see. Something about this has been bothering me."
"You'll have the details as soon as I do," said Heidern. "For now, I need you to concentrate on your current assignment."
"The three participants will be you, Clark and Whip. That will be all."
The three of them stood at attention as Heidern took his leave. Whip was the first to speak.
"Colonel, don't you think this is a little strange?"
"What do you mean?
"Well, wasn't Heidern lying just now?"
Whip felt that the situation merited more of a response than "So?" But she held her tongue. They were going to be the ones risking their lives on an assignment. So why weren't they being given all the pertinent facts? Didn't that just make it more dangerous?
"Whip, do you know the name of the flower you're holding?"
Only one of the flowers remained. In Japan, they were called "Kobushi," and were a type of magnolia.
"...It's a magnolia," she said.
Ralf nodded. "To put it kind of fancily, it's just about trust. I can't even begin to tell you how many years we've been with the professor. He says only what he feels he needs to say. Nothing more."
Whip just barely managed to bite back a reply.
"Oh, yeah..." Clark, who had been silent throughout it all, replaced his sunglasses in their accustomed position and laughed. "That's the colonel's idea of 'fancy talk."
As Heidern continued walking, the sound of Ralf and the others' laughter made its way faintly to his ears. Now, the responsibility for commanding a national army fell to him. He was well-aware of just how heavy a burden that responsibility could be, but that was not the reason for his heavy heart.
"Adelheid...," he thought to himself, "Yes, that was that young man's name."
Leona walked along with him, never straying far from his side. She was soaked, but made no motion to get the water out of her blue hair. She was the reluctant daughter of a soldier.
"If I can protect just one from that cursed bloodline, you will be that one..."