The vehicle Mokona had provided for us had just come within sight of an underwater shrine when a strange feeling crept over me. It felt like there was a fight going on inside my body as someone else tried to take control of it. As I doubled over from the force of the energy roiling inside me and a blue glow appeared around me, Hikaru cried, “Umi-chan, what’s going on?!”
“I… I don’t know…!” I said, raising a hand to my forehead as the turbulence inside me reached my head. Then the vehicle entered the shrine with a splash and the roiling inside of me settled, leaving me feeling like I was floating outside my body. Whatever force was controlling my body made it straighten up and get out of the vehicle as soon as the bubble that had held in our air dissipated and then my body moved further into the shrine, taking me with it.
When Hikaru wondered where we were, I heard myself say, “The Mashin is here in the Shrine of the Sea,” in a voice that sounded almost hollow. I heard Hikaru ask how I knew that, then, and heard Fuu call my name, but the force controlling my body didn’t answer, simply moving me deeper into the shrine.
As my body moved further and further into the shrine, I saw a statue of a dragon framed by a pair of waterfalls at the top of a wide flight of steps. My body moved up the steps and stopped on the large dais at their top, right under the statue’s head. There was a rumbling sound and the statue began to glow, starting with the eyes and spreading from there.
The rumbling grew louder and then, with a loud crash, the dragon’s head began to move. As it moved, it lost the gray color of the stone, becoming a living blue dragon. The transformation from stone to flesh spread and the dragon leaned forward, dropping its head until the tip of its muzzle was at about the same level as my chin, its nose mere feet from my face.
An echoing voice said, “My name…is Selece,” and I knew that it was the dragon’s voice. “I am the Legendary Mashin that only the Legendary Magic Knight can touch.”
“The Legendary Mashin…” I murmured. I was surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth, since I had not realized that the force controlling my body had ceded it back to me. Despite the fact that I was in control of my body again, I still could not move, as Selece’s gaze kept me pinned in place.
“Young woman from another world, summoned to become a Magic Knight…” he said, “show me the Proof that thou art worthy of donning me.” I could hear the capital letter starting the word ‘proof’ as he spoke.
“Proof…?” I asked. What did he mean by that?
“Show me thy powers,” he said. “Show me the strength of thy Heart that makes thee worthy of becoming a Legendary Magic Knight.” Again, I could hear the capital letter on the word ‘heart’ in his speech.
“The strength…of my heart…” I echoed. How was I supposed to show that to him?
Before I could ask him that, though, there was a loud boom from behind me and I heard Hikaru and Fuu scream. I turned around just in time to see them collapse near the top of the steps leading up to the dais. Several yards away, there was a kid who appeared to be about eight, with some sort of fiery monster behind him.
“Hey!” the kid cried. “If you keep running away, you won’t be able to catch me!”
Had this kid been attacking Hikaru and Fuu while I was occupied with Selece?
The kid hopped up and down excitedly. “Come on,” he said, “you have to play with my friend.”
Before I could wonder what he meant by that, Hikaru groaned and my attention was drawn back to my friends. Both of them had their eyes shut and each of them was bleeding and scraped in several places.
“Hikaru!” I cried. “Fuu!” When they didn’t answer, I gathered them into my arms. “Hikaru…” I said, looking at their injuries sadly. “Fuu…”
The kid laughed. “Weak…they’re weak… I hate weak people. That’s why I don’t like Alcyone…that old witch. She lost so easily to weak people like you. That’s why Zagato got rid of her.”
I glared at him. How could he laugh about hurting people? “You hurt Hikaru and Fuu,” I said levelly, trying to keep control of my anger. The fact that he had hurt them was making it increase rapidly, but I wanted to at least find out why he had done so before I attacked him.
When he laughed again, my temper snapped. Letting go of Hikaru and Fuu, I stood up and moved so that I was between him and them. Then I raised my arms and began to call my magic to me.
As water began to swirl around my feet, the kid pointed at me and cried, “Go! Get that girl, too!”
The monster lunged towards me and I swept my arms around to point at it and shouted, “Mizu no ryuu!” A dragon’s head formed out of the water swirling at my feet and raced towards the monster, growing as it went. It engulfed the monster in its mouth and there was a boom as both of them disappeared.
“How could you…?!” the kid cried, clenching one hand into a fist. “He was my friend!”
“Friend…?” I echoed. Was he saying that the monster was his friend?
Then the kid stretched his arms out in front of him and cried, “Maxima!” A large circle containing a six-pointed star appeared in the air before him and a new monster came out of it.
As the monster surged towards me, I swept my arms down and cried, “Aoi tatsumaki!” A cyclone of water surged from my hands and engulfed the monster, which screeched as it was destroyed.
The kid cried out as the monster was destroyed and then he once again thrust his arms out in front of him and shouted, “Maxima!” The circle and star that appeared this time was much, much bigger than the first one and six monsters came out of it.
I swept my arms above my head and cried, “Mizu no ryuu!” Two of the monsters were destroyed by my spell, but the others continued towards me.
Oh no! I thought. The monsters that I couldn’t finish off…! I didn’t have time to finish the thought as they reached me more quickly than I had expected.
I flinched away from the nearest one and raised my arms to shield my head, but instead of feeling the pain I expected from the monster’s attack, I heard Fuu shout, “Mamori no kaze!” and a wall of wind appeared between me and the monster, pushing it away.
“Fuu!” I cried, turning to look at her.
She was crouched down, leaning heavily on the steps, with one arm extended towards me. “…It looks like I’ve developed another spell….” she said, smiling weakly. Then her eyes closed and she collapsed.
“Fuu!” I cried again, rushing over to gather her into my arms. I was grateful for her assistance, but I couldn’t help feeling that she shouldn’t have done so in her current condition.
Almost as soon as I had gathered Fuu into my arms, a monster’s shadow fell over us. Before I could do anything, however, I heard Hikaru shout, “Akai inazuma!” Thunder sounded just behind me and I spun around to see the monster that had been pushed back by Fuu’s spell being destroyed by a burst of scarlet lightning. Turning back towards the steps, I saw Hikaru kneeling to Fuu’s left, a bit of lightning still crackling around her outstretched hand.
“Hikaru!” I cried.
“…Umi-chan…” she said, “are you okay?”
“What about yourself, Hikaru?!” I asked.
She gave me a weak smile, then winced and collapsed. Like with Fuu, I couldn’t help feeling that she shouldn’t have helped me.
“Hikaru!” I cried again, dashing towards her. “Hikaru!” Before I could reach her, though, one of the remaining monsters moved between us. It slashed its claws at me and I cried out in surprise as I jumped backwards to avoid them. Then I summoned my sword and dodged away between the other two remaining monsters.
“You’re doing pretty well,” the kid said. I had almost forgotten he was there.
As I turned to parry a blow from one of the monsters, I noticed how far I had moved. Oh no! I thought. I’m getting farther away from Hikaru and Fuu! All of the remaining monsters were now between us.
Furious, I slashed at the nearest one, trying to make my way back to them. “Hikaru!” I cried. “Fuu! Answer me!” After a few more slashes, the monster I was attacking fell, but the remaining two were much closer to Hikaru and Fuu than they were to me.
I called Hikaru and Fuu’s names again, but they still didn’t answer. They were so vulnerable right now, with me too far away to protect them.
Then the kid realized that same thing. “Grab those girls!” he cried. At his command, the monsters turned away from me and seized Hikaru and Fuu in their claws.
“Hikaru!” I screamed. “Fuu!” Who knew what the monsters would do to them?
The kid laughed. “These girls are like dolls,” he said as the monster holding Fuu tugged on one of her arms. “I think I’ll have them play with my friends.”
“Stop it!” I yelled. I couldn’t imagine Hikaru and Fuu surviving if the monsters used them as toys.
Then something scraped against stone behind me and I turned to see what it was. It was Selece. I had completely forgotten about him in my concern over Hikaru and Fuu. Why wasn’t he doing anything? He was a Mashin. Wasn’t he supposed to help the Magic Knights?
Right after I thought that, he spoke again. “Show me thy powers. Show the strength of thy Heart that makes thee worthy of becoming a Legendary Magic Knight.”
“The strength of my heart…” I repeated. He had said that earlier, but I still had no idea how I was supposed to show that to him. Was that why he wasn’t doing anything—because I hadn’t proven myself to him?
The kid’s voice broke through my thoughts. “Those girls are weird. They might die soon from their wounds, but they still used magic to help you.” He giggled. “They’re stupid.”
How dare he call Hikaru and Fuu stupid?! “Stupid…you say?” I ground out through clenched teeth.
“They’re stupid,” the kid repeated. “Only stupid people get hurt to protect others.”
I wasn’t going to let him get away with insulting Hikaru and Fuu like that, especially not when it was his fault that they were hurt in the first place. “Apologize,” I said.
At some unspoken signal, the monster holding Fuu handed her to the other monster and came to stand behind the kid. “Did you say something?” the kid asked. The smirk on his face made it clear he knew exactly what I had said. Then the monster behind him jumped over his head towards me.
Swinging my free hand up to point at the monster, I shouted, “Mizu no ryuu!” There was a boom as the monster was destroyed and I stepped deliberately towards the kid. “I said, apologize.”
The kid started backing away from me. “Ma…” he started, trailing off as I took another deliberate step towards him. Then his back hit a pillar and he raised his hands and shouted, “Maxima!”
A star inside a circle appeared and two monsters started to come out of it, but before they could finish, I jumped forward and slashed my sword through the star, causing them to dissipate. Then I lunged towards the kid and he cried out as I pressed my sword up against him with both hands.
“Apologize!” I demanded, pulling my sword away and sweeping it around to touch the tip to his throat.
“Wh-why do I have to apologize?” he stammered.
“You insulted my friends!” I said.
“Your friends?” the kid asked.
“Yes!” I said. “Hikaru and Fuu are my dearest friends and incomparable comrades!” Even though I had only known them for three days, I truly meant what I had just said. “I will not allow you to insult them!”
“Friends…?” the kid repeated.
Had he heard anything I had said? Before I could ask that, however, a shadow fell over me, Spinning around quickly, I shouted “Aoi tatsumaki!” and the monster was destroyed before it could attack.
“Aaaaah!” the kid cried. “He was my friend, too! How could you?!”
“Friend?” I repeated. He was friends with these monsters?
“Yeah!” he said. “These creatures are my friends!”
I slapped him across the cheek, hard. “How can you make your friends attack other people?!” How could he deliberately put them in harm’s way? “Is it okay for us to hurt or kill your friends?!”
“It’s not okay!” he cried, rubbing the red mark left by my slap.
“Then you understand why I get mad when you hurt my friends, right?” I dropped my sword and placed both hands on the kid’s shoulders, pressing him back against the pillar. “Aren’t you sad when your friends get hurt?” If he wasn’t then he didn’t really think of them as friends, no matter what he had said. “You feel like you need to help them when they’re in trouble, right? Then let my friends go!” I shook his shoulders as I cried the last sentence, letting go as I finished speaking.
The kid turned to look up at the creature—I couldn’t continue to call it a monster now that I knew it was his friend—holding Hikaru and Fuu with an oddly hesitant expression on his face, like he wasn’t sure what it thought of him now. It seemed I had at least made him think about what he was really doing.
The creature looked back at him and, although its bird-like features made it hard to read its expression, it seemed sort of sad. Then it crouched down and lowered its hands.
I dashed over to it as soon as its hands started moving down, crying Hikaru and Fuu’s names joyfully. “Are you all right?” I asked. I knew they wouldn’t answer, since they were still unconscious, but saying it made me feel better.
Once the creature’s hands were low enough, I eased Hikaru and Fuu out of its grasp and settled them against the pillar the kid was standing beside. Then I turned back to the kid and was pleased with what I saw. The creature had lowered its head and the kid was gently patting its beak.
“Those creatures are your friends?” I said. I knew he had said it before, but it seemed so strange that I needed to hear it again.
“Yeah. But everyone says that these guys aren’t my friends because they look funny… They tell me that I can’t be friends with them because they’re monsters…” Tears had started rolling down his cheeks. It appeared I had hit a sore spot with my question. “Nobody realizes that these guys are really kind… Nobody understands…” He hiccoughed out a sob and raised a hand to wipe at his tears.
“I understand,” I said, reaching out and patting the creature’s beak.
“Huh?” The kid looked up at me in surprise.
“They’re worried about you,” I said. The way this creature was acting towards him now that the fight was over was proof enough of that. And that made me feel sort of sorry about the creature I had destroyed while I was menacing him over apologizing. It had just been trying to protect its friend. “Like how I get worried about Hikaru and Fuu, they’re worried about you.”
The kid looked flabbergasted, like he had never expected to hear anyone say anything the least bit like that.
That was when I realized I was thinking of him as ‘the kid’. “Say, what’s your name?” I asked. Now that we were talking to each other instead of fighting each other, I felt I really ought to find out what it was.
The kid looked at me with a slightly scared expression, then mumbled a word. It sounded like…
“Huh?” I said. “Muscat?” That was a tasty name. A weird name for a person, but Muscat grapes were yummy. Did they even have them here?
“Ascot!” he cried.
Oh. I couldn’t really say that that sounded more normal, since all Cephiran names seemed strange to me, but at least it made more sense. “Okay,” I said. “Ascot. Do you hate us?” I had been wondering that since we started talking. It didn’t seem likely, but I wasn’t sure why else he would have attacked us.
“Huh?” he said. “No! That is… I don’t really…”
He seemed confused about what he wanted to say, so I cut him off by asking why he had attacked us.
“Zagato?!” I cried. I should have guessed it might have been because of him.
“He said it would be troublesome if you became Magic Knights…” Ascot sounded sort of uncertain, like he was rethinking what he had done.
“Are you one of Zagato’s followers?” I asked.
“No way,” Ascot said.
“Then why?!” I knew I sounded indignant right then, but I couldn’t help it. “Why are you doing what Zagato says?” If he wasn’t one of Zagato’s followers, why did he care what Zagato said?
“It’s not that simple,” Ascot said. “A while ago, I got a messenger from the castle and he said Zagato wanted to see me. Because I’m a Paru, I thought I was called to summon something at the castle…but when I got there, Soru Zagato asked me to help.”
“And that’s the only reason you’re siding with Zagato?!” I really was indignant now. That was a very flimsy reason to betray his country and it seemed pretty simple to me.
“No!” Ascot cried. “He said I could be with my friends! He said I could live in the castle for as long as I wanted! Everyone said they hated my friends! They said to get out of their way! No matter where I went, they treated me like a nuisance!”
That does make things a lot less simple, I thought. If he’s never been able to stay in one place because of his friends, Zagato’s offer to let him live with them in the castle would have been irresistible. And Zagato had undoubtedly told him that with the proviso that he had to help Zagato if he wanted to stay. But still…
“Have your friends ever caused any trouble to ordinary people?” I asked. “Like breaking something or hurting someone?” If they hadn’t…
“Never!” Ascot cried. “They never hurt anyone or anything unless I tell them to!” Tears appeared on his cheeks again as he spoke.
“Then stand up for them!”
Ascot looked at me with a surprised expression on his face, like that had never occurred to him.
“Your friends have scary appearances, but are good creatures, right? What are you going to do if you don’t trust them?! If there’s nothing wrong, don’t let people push you around!” If he had pushed back, he might have been allowed to stay in one place before Zagato had reached him. “If you follow Zagato and make them do bad things, they really are going to be bad creatures! You’re going to turn them into bad creatures! Do you want that to happen?!”
“…No…” he said, sniffling as tears ran down his cheeks.
I knelt down and placed a gentle hand on his forehead. I hadn’t meant to make him cry. “I only met Hikaru and Fuu a short while ago,” I said, “but they are already dear friends. They are comrades that I can be proud of. When I am with them, I can become stronger. I can try harder. It makes me learn to like myself more and more. You have to think about what you can do to make your friends happy, too.”
Ascot sniffled again as the tears stopped falling. “I’m sorry,” he said.
I finally had the apology I had asked for earlier, but his repentance seemed to demand some recognition, so I smiled at him and said, “And I’m sorry for attacking your friends.”
As soon as I finished speaking, light flared all around us. As I raised my hand to shield my eyes, my armor started to glow. There was a cracking sound and a hissing noise and when I could see clearly again, my sword was floating in front of me. Its shape was different from the one that Presea had formed and my armor was different from what it had become when we found the Escudo.
“My armor changed again!” I cried. “And my sword…” I grasped the sword’s hilt and drew it closer. The crossguard now featured a real jewel instead of the dull stone that had been there before. And wrapped around the jewel was… “…A dragon?”
Something scraped against stone and I turned to see Selece inclining his head towards me. I had forgotten about him again. “Legendary Magic Knight,” he said. “I do approve of the strength of thy Heart, with which thou believest in thy friends.” Then light blazed in a circle around him and he—morphed would best describe it. When his form solidified again, it was vastly different. He still had a draconic appearance, including wings and a tail, but his shape was now humanoid and he looked like a machine.
“A robot…” I said, awed. I had wondered what he meant earlier, when he had talked about me donning him and now I knew. I was certain that somehow, I would ride inside him like I was using a mecha from some manga.
“However, thy Heart is not yet ready to don me,” he said. “When thou hast awoken to thy true powers as a Magic Knight, I will appear before thee again.” Then light blazed around him again. He dissolved into the light and it coalesced into a huge, brilliant beam that hit the jewel on my armor’s breastplate with a physical force. When I could see again, Selece was gone.
“It…disappeared…” I said, looking down at my armor in bemusement. Had he been stored in the breastplate’s jewel like my sword got stored in the gauntlet’s jewel?
Then two very familiar voices sounded from behind me. “That…was the dragon…?” Hikaru said.
“It looks like the Mashin are actually giant robots,” Fuu said.
I turned around gleefully. “Hikaru!” I cried. “Fuu! You’re all right!” The three of us came together in a hug and I felt like everything was perfect.