Had been out for an hour? For two? That was the feeling Shouki got from the exhaustion and pain he couldn't shake off, but his surroundings told him otherwise. The eastern sky was already beginning to dye a purplish red.
While Angel Storage still drifted through the sky, it carried an air as if any and everything had been an illusion. The skies above them had no portal leading to hell. The deck carried not a drop of the monster blood that had definitely rained down. Zephirum's moored airship was gone, not even a single demon was anywhere to be seen.
But the holy knights were there. Surrounding the heretic hero. Shouki was on his knees with even firmer restraints than before. Metal loops terribly heavy for how thin they were. They were likely low-grade orichalcum. It was a trial just to raise his upper body.
And once Shouki raised his soiled face, he saw three figures in vestments ahead of him.
One was Cardinal Ritsuko. Perhaps her wound wasn't anything too serious. Her complexion was terrible, but she was properly standing on her own two feet.
One was well-tanned, a giant stature with shoulder guards and breastplate over his vestment. The strong-armed military god and former captain of the first order of holy knights, Cardinal Andrieux. An angular, stern man who looked like he would suit a war hammer or ae far more than a staff.
The final one, a sacred treasure wielder on par with Ritsuko whose looks came off as fine as a French doll. Cardinal Schopenhauer, whose beauty had her adherents praise her as their princess goddess.
Meaning at that moment, all the cardinals had assembled on the deck of Angel Storage. Apart from the ones holding swords and spears at a kneeling Shouki's throat, the other knights stood at attention perfectly still, seemingly so tense they stifled even the slightest breath.
The only one not so was Makoto in a corner. Noticing the ruckus, she had raced in from the control room, only to find the assembly's top brass all decked out. The knights blocked her path, and not permitted to approach Shouki, she was making an anxious face.
"… So how long do I have to stay like this? My legs are going numb."
He had been given a sorry little amount of healing, enough to stop the bleeding in his leg, but the pain was still intense. As a matter of fact, that was what was making him numb, not the weight on his knees.
"Act as strong as you want. It won't last."
Andrieux said, his stern swarthy face scowling even harder.
"The prophet will be here soon. You must endure until we can hear their words."
As Schopenhauer said that in an unintonated voice, the knights whose tensions were already stretched thin silently stiffened even more. One look showed that even Makoto's eyes were round in surprise.
A little while after Schopenhauer's words, a broadcast played across the ship.
'Connection established with super Long Distance Transport Circle at the grand temple, activating. Please keep out of the center back of the deck.'
A few moments later, a magic circle surfaced on an open hatch. Net a dizzying glimmer, and once the light was gone, a human shadow remained.
The first one who appeared was a silver-haired youth with a smile as warm as a spring breeze. But the clothes Shouki saw him in weren't the bishop clothes he had seen him wear before. He wore the same vestments as the three before him.
"… It has been a while, Shouki. It saddens me that our reunion must come under such circumstance."
The man who he had fought side-by-side with at the Tokyo Temple now showed a sorrowful expression on his down-turned face.
Shouki had no words to return. The other Cardinals were a different story.
"Ferriol. That robe is, I see…!"
"Hmm… I see you received an appointment."
"I knew you had it in you, Ferry."
After returning a small bow at the praise from the three who he now matched rank with, Ferriol dropped to one knee, angling himself towards the magic circle that had started surfacing once more.
The knights, those suppressing Shouki included, hurriedly uniformly imitated him in a fluster. They were clearly acting strange.
Eventually, the circle lost its light.
What was left behind was the form of a woman, delicate as Meeko.
A pure white, thin robe as if it had been bleached in the snow. The hair visible under the hood she wore was white. It was not a sign of her age, her hair and matching eyebrows were almost transparent, beautiful like freshly unfurled silk thread. What proved her to be the prophet, an old ornament that looked like a cowbell hung at her neck.
Her mature and calm features didn't fall short of Meeko, but unfortunately, those beautiful eyes of hers were completely shut. Her eyelids were firmly shut as if she were asleep.
"They are all bowed in respect."
That exchange gave certainty. Sadly the prophet who could see through anything couldn't see herself. In her hand wasn't the staff held by the high-ranking members of the assembly, but a blind man's cane.
"Then… please raise your faces. Be at ease."
No one could follow such orders. Each and every one of the knights raised their heads a few centimeters at most. Of course, Shouki alone looked straight at her, half amazed. To think the head of the Sacred Assembly that would chase evil at times to the point of unhinged cruelty would be such a fleeting woman… he hadn't even dreamed it.
"Ferriol. Where is the hero?"
"Please walk straight."
Rising to his feet, Ferriol took the Prophet's arm, leading her to support her body as he walked. Even as he did so, tap, tap, her white cane waved left and right to confirm her footing. Slowly. One step at a time. Where the other cardinals waited, she was just a few steps from Shouki.
"Y… yes. I am Hasebe Shouki."
At his low voice from his kneeling position, the Prophet turned her head down. While her eyes couldn't see, even so, Shouki stared into her sealed sockets; and perhaps sensing that, she gave a small nod.
"… Shouki. Henceforth as his proxy, I shall be conducting a trial before the Lord. Are you prepared?"
Yes. Shouki's strangely calm heard responded without any hesitation.
A trial before god was a formula. A false front to lead those who held great influence in the Sacred Assembly to their death. Looking at it the other way, such an event would never be held without good enough reason to kill the defendant. A formula to a promised death.
On the contrary, it brought Shouki's heart to a realm of clear serenity. For kicking and screaming would no longer do a thing.
The Cardinal in shoulder and breast armor, military god Andrieux read out the charges with a thick voice worthy of his stature.
"The counts are as follows. One, despite knowing of the coup d'etat in the Kantou Agency, to deliberately neglect to report in order to prioritize achievement! Two, to guide and shelter a Demon! Three, to follow that Demon and take refuge in the nest of Demons! Four, to support that Demon Organization with the killing of a great many holy knights!"
"Hold it right there, old geezer!"
The one who suddenly raised a scream was Makoto. She droned on with a sharpness that made those around her shrink back.
"What do you mean he prioritized achievement at the Kantou Agency!? When you lot were twiddling your thumbs and waiting, are you in the position to say such a thing!? Even if you ignored those old farts from the committee when they came crying, the report was raised!"
Makoto tried pushing her way forward, but the knights still blocked her. She kept shouting so at least her voice was heard.
"This time was the same! If Hasebe weren't there, this ship would have been sunk by now! This world would be swallowed by a torrent of monsters! All thanks to your valiant efforts to open the gate!"
But no matter how she flared up, the story wouldn't get across to the Cardinals. No one had the ears to listen. When it came to Ritsuko, by the time Meeko awakened, she was out cold from the wound Elsion had inflicted. As she apologetically shook her head at Makoto, she honestly didn't remember a thing.
"Y… you all saw it, didn't you!? You all heard his conversation with Demon Meeko! You should all be aware of why she saved us!"
Makoto sought agreement from the knights. As expected, they didn't answer. They didn't answer even if they wanted to. That was simply how absolute an existence the cardinals and prophet were to them.
From the outset, whenever Makoto's eyes went to them, they would avert their own to hide in the shadows of their visors.
"You are before the prophet. I ask you keep your rash remarks in moderation."
Andrieux said. And Schopenhauer took over.
"Unfortunately, there are no traces that the gate was opened, or any evidence that any monsters descended from it."
"In that case, the blimp is also gone! And there's no evidence Hasebe killed any holy knights…!"
"I'm sure the knights will be more than willing to testify to that."
The moment she heard Andrieux's words, Makoto's expression paled in rage.
"I see…! So that's your game…! By setting someone up with all your sins, you get out of recognizing your failure…! That's how the Sacred Assembly has continued putting on a show of perfect justice…!!"
"It's fine, Makoto."
While Shouki powerlessly said so, Makoto obstinately shook her head.
Shouki showed the one who took his side a sincere smile. She restlessly lowered her fist clenched so strongly her nails were digging in.
"It's fine. Thank you."
Makoto had presumably strike quite far into the core of the Sacred Assembly. If she got any more involved, it wouldn't be strange if her life was met with in danger.
"While there was an interruption… they are all grave sins unbecoming of a hero. All worthy of certain death. May the Lord's judgment be swift and precise."
Once he had finished, Andrieux respectfully stepped down. Makoto looked away with a pathetic face. And upon seeing she had resigned herself, Shouki turned back to the prophet.
He knew this was the conclusion he had desired. He didn't know whether he'd successfully protected Meeko or not, but if no one else, upon awakening, she herself recognized that he had. And Meeko sealed the path to repay him.
He knew it better than anyone. So that was enough.
"Shouki. All that is left is the verdict. Do you have anything to say?"
Shouki thought a bit at the prophet's words.
He gave a strong nod, there was one thing he just had to say. This was the end. He would at least die with a laugh.
"Then go ahead."
Shouki straightened his back with a firm resolution.
"As the prophesized hero… I carried out the justice I believed in."
"If you say the one chosen by God is wrong, that makes you the heretics!!"
The Sacred Assembly's identity capsized from the basis. An outrageously deep silence.
Ferriol whose gentle face was his selling point, Ritsuko whose eyes were always narrowed in a smile, the beautiful Schopenhauer, and Andrieux as grave as a gargoyle. Each and every one of them stared so blankly it was almost cute.
The prophet feebly hung her lovable mouth half-open.
Finally unable to bear it any longer, Shouki decided it was time to send them off with a laugh.
"Ufu. Ufufufu. Ksks… ufufu…!"
Only for the Prophet to break into laughter first. She held her mouth, her shoulders shaking.
"… Andrieux. I haven't the means to oppose those words. Indeed, he is the Hero."
"B… but this man has ended the life of so many of our knights…!"
"You will find there is not a drop of blood on his sword. The proxies have taken custody of it, you should give it a thorough inspection… and all he pierced through with an undrawn sword, right… it must have been his justice. Even so… ufufu."
Astounded, amazed, astonished, aghast.
"Ksks… Ritsuko. Ritsuko, where are you…?"
As Ritsuko walked over, the prophet began groping around her collar and talking to it.
"You're back after refueling, are you? It's alright, I mean you no harm. Quit watching from back there. Come over and take these kids home… fufufu."
Truly, what could be projected in her unseeing eyes?
"A… aah!? What in the blazes!? It's a microphone!? This small…!? Taki you idiot! You huge idiot!! Hey, Takase, can you hear me right now!? Next time we meet, I'll get you for this, fool!!"
"Now everybody, we should get back ourselves. We can't leave the Grand Temple empty forever."
The prophet said to the cardinal and slowly turned.
By the time he noticed it, Shouki had the same blank look himself.
"So… umm… Miss Prophet? In the end, what am I supposed to…?"
"The Lord has recognized your justice. Dear hero… please continue putting your efforts towards it. Kss… Ksks… aah, how fun…… ufufufufu. I'm glad I cam… ks, ufufu."
A while later.
Shaking off the knights and stumbling forward, Makoto laughed from the pit of her stomach as she clung to Shouki with her finest smile. With all her momentum she pushed him down, and led Shouki into laughing himself. The grand laughter resounded on and on without end, all the way to the rising sun.