༺ Territorial Imperative ༻
They say that when you commit a sin, the Sky God, Mother Earth, and you yourself all know. If asked who among the three knows first, the faithful of the Sky God might deny it, but the answer is none other than yourself.
Those about to do wrong are usually aware. They look around nervously, unable to blend into their surroundings, moving in a fluster until eventually, they commit the deed in utter tension.
If caught, they’ll freeze as if severed from time, their eyes daring about. Then they’ll either make a run for it or play innocent. And that’s the evidence of being the first to recognize their sin. It’s a display of guilty conscience, so to speak.
Unfortunately, the regressor didn’t even have that. She had shredded and scattered her guilty conscience to tiny bits throughout her 13 time loops.
“You also agree, right? I’ll deal with it.”
On second thought, her guilty conscience was close to negative. You also agree? What kind of mental circuitry did someone need to reach that conclusion? Why was she so convinced that I’d naturally agree?
The regressor’s 13th plug-and-play thought circuit really went beyond my imagination. It was probably fortunate that my mind reading only worked halfway. One wrong read and I might end up with contaminated sanity.
I immediately yelled to prevent her from doing anything stupid.
“Stop! You amputee production manager. What the heck are you trying to do?”
But as soon as I was about to raise my voice, the regressor swiftly swung Chun-aeng.
Skyblade Art, Fall’s Edge. The sword traced a boundary in the air, akin to the face of a towering precipice where the wind would collide. The path of the wind was severed by the sword’s line. For one minute, the wind would carry nothing into that space. Neither scent nor sound.
What an overpowered sword. Then again, I guess it had to be that good enough for the regressor to carry it around from the start of her regression.
As I grouched internally, she muttered in similar discontent.
“Why? Aren’t you a laborer? Although I don’t know if that’s true or false, since you’ve entered here, aren’t you against the Military State?”
“That’s true. Whatever the case, I am trapped here.”
“Then there’s your answer.”
Chun-aeng spun wildly in the regressor’s hand for a few moments before she caught it swiftly, took a stance, and fixed a glare beyond the office door.
“Besides the people who were already here, I’ll take down every dog of the State that comes down from now on. One by one as they come.”
“Sorry, take down what?”
“The State’s dogs.”
Astounded, all I could do was gape, trying to form words. So, the regressor was going to kill every person affiliated with the State who came down from now on. Seriously.
“Let me explain it simply. Listen up. There are two types of people in the State: the ones who want to control everything possible, and the ones who want to control even the impossible. And the one in that office right now is part of the most extreme radicals of the latter group.”
Concluding that truly straightforward explanation, the regressor proceeded with a clear-cut conclusion.
“That’s why, I’ll kill them before they do anything unnecessary.”
“The colonel is a pawn, but who cares? I know killing her will draw a reaction. They’ll either go mad and swarm down, or just keep watching like cowards. If they come down, I’ll kill them. Otherwise, I’ll let them be. Either way, the State won’t have any more presence in Tantalus. That way I can protect the people here.”
Her logic was exceedingly straightforward. Azzy and Tyr, who could end up becoming the Fragments of the Apocalypse, were still normal. The biggest unknown factor of them, yours truly, turned out not to be State-affiliated. The only variable left was the intervention of the State. Therefore, she would eliminate it. Completely.
So this… was the regressor’s perspective? Instead of untying the knot of complications, she’d rather cut it with Chun-aeng. It was reasonable in a way, but wasn’t she a bit reckless?
I cautiously asked her.
“Um, what about supplies then? Won’t they be cut off if you kill people as they come?”
“I have rations in my Pocket. I prepared them in case of emergencies. I’ll share them.”
“You kept rations to yourself while the others survived on canned beans?!”
So this… was the regressor’s level of preparedness?
“But we could get hurt fighting against the State! What if they start a barrage of bombs with supply crates?!”
“They’re not dumb enough to drop bombs where there’s no danger if left untouched. Besides, I can handle basic bombs, and even if you get injured, I can make simple healing potions… If worse comes to worst, turn to Tyrkanzyaka. You could just become a vampire, no? I bet she’d be pleased too.”
So this… was the regressor’s character?
“But that doesn’t mean we can stay here forever. Or is that what you’re really thinking?”
“Not forever. A way to escape will appear soon. If ‘she’ falls from the surface, then probably… things will end one way or another.”
｢Whether I die or she dies, the remaining others can escape. The abyss will collapse.｣
The emotions I felt from the regressor were a mix of vague unease and grim resolve. It was akin to a gladiator settling their life before an uncertain battle. This was the regressor’s determination.
But… but you know… you can’t die. The world will end if you do. Whether the world rewinds or another Apocalypse comes, what about the people left behind? Why don’t we stop it from happening first? Stop it and then think.
With a clouded expression, I started speaking.
“Er, by the way. I just did some bribing earlier, yeah? Could you wait a bit until the effects kick in?”
“Don’t you understand? Those maniacs are even more dangerous than bombs. Even against a mere colonel, you never know what kind of tricks they might have up their sleeves!”
Mere colonel? They usually had some clout in the Military State, yet she gave them such little regard.
Oh, but your kind is allowed to do that. Whew, sometimes I can’t adapt to the scale of things here.
As I stood there uncomprehendingly, the regressor tsked and withdrew Chun-aeng.
“If you can’t believe me, then I may as well show you right now. Come, look. See what the colonel is up to after coming here.”
At that moment, I sensed an intention to leave from inside the warden’s office; the colonel had begun to move. The regressor also noticed this and gestured for me to come closer.
As I approached, she grabbed Chun-aeng and assumed a middle stance.
Skyblade Art, Fall’s Edge. She sliced through the air, and the celestial blade silenced the whispers riding the wind, stopping both scent and sound. The flow of air was severed at a single division, enclosing me and the regressor within an isolating barrier.
In that state, the regressor pointed her sword downward. A gust of wind emanated from Chun-aeng as she invoked the Cycle of Water: wind, cloud, rain, and dew.
The condensed space within the sword unraveled, and suddenly, a thick mist of dew filled the expanded area. The mist, which should have dispersed into the world, rebounded from Fall’s Edge.
The regressor conjured mist to obscure our figures, then gripped the sword again.
Skyblade Art, Heavenly Mirror. A mirage, the ethereal projection cast by light’s arduous journey, was recreated within a meager one-meter range. Now, our forms were concealed within the bending light.
Right after that, the door of the warden’s office swung open and the officer emerged. Coincidentally, part of the wind from Chun-aeng brushed past her hair. Puzzled by the presence of wind within the abyss, the officer looked around in confusion. Her gaze briefly landed on me and the regressor, but we remained hidden thanks to the regressor’s concealment.
Shaking her head, the officer made her way toward the stairs, her military boots resounding with each step. Hands locked behind her back, she vanished down the staircase.
The regressor heaved a sigh.
“Whew. Rushing it like that winded me a little.”
“A stealth technique? Amazing. I didn’t expect it to work right before her nose.”
At my pure admiration, the regressor acted nonchalant despite feeling a bit proud.
“Hmph. It’s nothing special. It blocks sound and scent and makes your presence faint, but it doesn’t work against the strong who go around radiating energy.”
“Did you use this when you tried to spy on me before? That’s one impressive ability. Yet all you use it for are shady purposes.”
“…Just shut up and follow the colonel.”
Only the sound traveling through the air could be blocked. We descended the stairs cautiously in case our footsteps were heard.
The officer reached the courtyard of the abyss. Taking her place in an area illuminated by a daytime light, she took out a rubber ball in one of her hands. The jet-black ball was elastic, resilient, and fit snugly in her palm. It was a toy much more enjoyable to play with than my makeshift leather ball.
Bop, bop. The officer bounced the springy rubber ball on the ground a few times. Once she was ready, the officer called for Azzy.
“King of Dogs!”
In response, Azzy poked her head out from around the corner. The officer bounced the ball again before hurling it toward the other side of the courtyard.
“Here’s a gift!”
The rubber ball soared high and far. After flying for a while, it bounced on the ground a couple of times and rolled all the way to the opposite end of Tantalus. Wagging her tail at the sight of the ball, Azzy couldn’t contain herself any longer and took off running.
Azzy happily sprinted on all fours, chasing the ball and attempting to catch it in her mouth. Despite missing and getting the ball bouncing off her face, her excitement only grew, prompting her to pursue it once more.
After a few more unsuccessful attempts, Azzy returned to the officer with the rubber ball in her mouth and dropped it. The officer picked up the ball in a disciplined manner, offering perfunctory praise.
“I will throw it again. Here!”
｢It’s indeed as it was written. The King of Dogs doesn’t suspect me… It should be easier than expected to make it obedient.｣
The officer was taming Azzy with sinister intentions, and witnessing the sight made me feel devastated.
“You see? She’s a lieutenant colonel, yet the first thing she does is try to train the Dog King. Isn’t that suspicious?”
The regressor crossed her arms, continuing in a mutter.
“My prediction was right. She’s with the ‘Human Regime’. They aim to tame the Beast Kings and bend them to their will… Who knows what they’ll do in the future. It’s better to deal with the issue early… Are you listening?”
“No I’m not!”
Did that really matter? She was trying to snatch away the dog I spent months training! I endured so much throughout the process! I pushed through even when my throwing arm reached its limit, fed her every single day, gave her pets, and even groomed her fur! Yet she was going to be swayed by some medal-adorned officer in uniform?
“Th-that wag-happy dog! You’d instantly wag just because she brought a slightly bigger and bouncier rubber ball?”
“Uh, because she’s the Dog King? Ack, hey. Stay still. If you move too abruptly…”
“You think a mere toy is enough to seduce Azzy? In your dreams! I already know everything she likes from the months I’ve spent with her!”
Ignoring the regressor, I hurried back into the prison and bounded up the stairs, taking them two steps at a time until I reached my room. I grabbed my rubber ball and a bunch of steel discs from a drawer and returned to the yard. I tossed all the items right in front of Azzy.
Azzy, who had been fetching the black ball in her mouth, stopped in her tracks upon noticing the discs.
“Azzy, c’mere! You graduated from the ball a long time ago! Since we finally broke the double disc limit, it’s about time we move on to triple discs!”
Azzy’s gaze darted between the officer and me, then in the next moment, she dropped the rubber ball and ran straight toward me.
I raised three discs in front of her, and launched them into the sky at slight intervals. Bouncing off the ground, Azzy caught one of the discs in her mouth. Following that, she propelled herself off the outer prison wall, snatching the disc that was positioned higher than the first. Finally, she extended her body to aim for the last disc.
“Aww, you came up a bit short…!”
Failing to reach with her mouth, she simply caught the disc with her paw. Once she landed, I took back the discs while praising her.
“It’s cheating to use your paw, but good job anyway. That’s how it’s done!”
I petted Azzy as she bounced with excitement beside me.
Meanwhile, the officer, who lost Azzy in the middle of playing, approached me with a menacing look beneath the brim of her tightly pulled hat, her military boots thudding loudly.
“…Laborer. Why are you hindering me again?”
I answered unflinchingly.
“It’s called territorial imperative, Madam Colonel. If you want to befriend Azzy, you’ll have to get through me first.”
“…You wretch. Do you truly have a death wish?”
“Oh my. A scary face like that will make even the friendliest dogs run the other way.”
“How dare a lowly miscreant show attitude to a State officer…!”
The furious officer took a step forward, but just then…
[Quell your murderous intent, soldier.]
A voice emerged from the shadows, not so much through vocal cords but as if the trembling darkness itself spoke.
The officer recoiled, her teeth clenching tightly in response to the foreboding aura it emanated.
[I care not for your business… However, let me reaffirm one thing. Hu is under my protection, and if any harm should befall him… I shall not remain silent.]
The swirling shadows delivered a stern admonition. It felt like the voice of a demon speaking through the darkness, or perhaps like the world itself issuing a solemn warning.
As the officer cowered, experiencing a level of fear surpassing intimidation from the voice, I tapped the shadows and spoke in a friendly manner.
“Tyr, if you’re to keep watching like that, you may as well just come over.”
The voice lost its world-devouring presence and suddenly faltered. After a brief pause, Tyr resumed speaking from the shadows again, albeit with a slightly weakened tone.
[…I—nevermind. As you mentioned, how can people be together every day? It is only natural to have moments of separation.]
“Are you sulking because of what I said?”
[It is not that I’m sulking, but rather that I believe you were right.]
“If you’re going to do it, then do it right. What’s the point if you’re going to plant eyes in the shadows anyway.”
[…Then, may I come over?]
[I shan’t be a minute.]
Soon after, the doors of the underground armory opened. Tyr quickly flew toward us, perched atop her floating coffin with limbs gathered daintily. She had been waiting behind the doors all this time, ready to burst forth at any moment.
The All-Stars were now assembled. The regressor was hiding with her arms crossed in displeasure, but she was on my side nonetheless. Azzy’s affection still leaned heavily toward me. And as for Tyr, words were unnecessary.
The officer must have recognized what she faced now. The wall she had to overcome.
“I can’t give Azzy away. If you think you can entertain her better than me, go ahead and try!”
The officer glared at me intensely, chewing her lip, but she knew better than to act out in front of everyone. It didn’t take long for her to resign herself and turn on her heels.
｢He is openly limiting my actions. Does he know my true identity…? No, a mere petty criminal couldn’t possibly be aware. It must be nothing more than a fight for control.｣
Walking away from me, the officer made a certain decision.
｢It’s slightly regrettable to employ it at this early stage, but there is no choice. I must use one of the three packages he bestowed upon me for dire situations…!｣
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