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THE KING OF FIGHTERS XI
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SHION MAGAKI

IKARI TEAM STORY

Over a dozen soldiers in full dress gather at the graveyard on the city outskirts in the midst of a sudden downpour.
 A coffin and the deep hole it°«s destined to rest in have been readied as a passage from the bible is solemnly read from.

°»No matter how they°«re performed, I hate funerals. You with me, Clark?°…
 Ralf whispered at a level scarcely audible through the noise of the rain.
 °»Especially for a fellow contractor.°…
 Clark removed his sunglasses, revealing the wistful expression on his face.
The two had a long association. Ralf tacitly understood what Clark was about to say.

 The man supposed to by lying in the coffin had been 59 at the time of his death.
 He was at an age that had he lived a normal life, he°«d probably have had a wife, children, maybe a grandchild or two, and would soon be ready for a carefree retirement.
 In actuality, though, he had been lugging explosives around the world°«s hot spots until the time of his death. He most likely had no family, and even if he did spent most of his accursed life away from them. That, or he had soon separated from his family, having been driven violent by the horrors of war, and led a solitary life.
 And at this funeral, life°«s final ceremony, the only person who was not a soldier among the attendees turned out to be the priest.
 The priest closed his bible, and in his place the soldier leading the ceremonies gave the order.

 °»For the soul the brave of a brave soldier cut down in battle, Jim Oldgate°ń°…

 The tone of his voice was undeniably one of grief for his fallen comrade, but the quality of his practiced delivery suggested he had sent off a number of men up till this point.

 °»Saaa-lute!°…

 Barring the priest, everyone in attendance raised their right hand in perfect unison.
 Included in the front row along with Heidern stood Ralf, Clark, Whip and Leona.
 Whip held a small white flower in her left hand.

 Only his dog tag and that white flower were placed in the coffin. The flower in Whip°«s hand was a favorite of the departed. His actual remains, however, had been blown all over the battlefield, impossible to retrieve

 When the salute ended, the coffin was placed into the ground and buried.
 The soil soaked by the rain fell on top of the coffin, producing mercilessly loud thuds.
 Once the work had ended, the soldiers dispersed alone or in tight groups.

°»Ralf, Clark, a word, please.°…

 The one-eyed man dressed in a formal uniform of the first rank called Ralf, Clark and Whip to stop.

°»I°«m going to have you three join KOF again this year. And, naturally, this is an order.°…

 It was just as they had predicted. But the exclusion of Leona weighed on their minds. Must be due to the fact that°ń

°»The group calling themselves °∆Mukai°« are not the actual Orochi Hakesshu. That is obvious.°…

 This confirmed Ralf°«s very fears, and not only that Heidern continued, °»However°ń°…
 It°«s almost certain that they°«re trying to exploit the power of the Orochi in some form. In the previous tournament they succeeded in unleashing the Orochi, perhaps as the first step toward that end.
 Under that influence, Leona had temporarily lapsed into unconsciousness. It would be a rather difficult task to return her to normal.

 And there°«s one more thing to worry about.

°»Commander, I think it may have something to do with this mission but°ń°…
°»What is it?°…
°»It°«s about the giant airship we reported to you during our mission directly before our participation in the previous tournament. I thought some details remained unclear.°…
 The one-eyed mercenary replied without a change in his expression or the tone of his voice.
°»°ńWe°«re still looking into that matter.°…
 °»Is that so? I couldn°«t get it out of my head, being such a peculiar incident.
°»You°«ll be briefed if we learn any details. Meanwhile, concentrate on your new mission.°…
 °»Yes, sir.°…
°»The infiltration party will consist of you three°ĹRalf, Clark, and Whip. Dismissed.°…

 The three stood at rigid attention as they watched Heidern walk off.
 The first one to break the ice was Whip.
°»Well, there°«s something you don°«t see too often, huh Captain?°…
°»What°«s that?°…
°»Commander Heidern lied to us.°…
 °»°ńSo?°…
 °»What do you mean, °∆So?°«°… snapped Whip, not making an effort to hide her displeasure.
 Whip went on to explain that the ones putting their lives on the line for this covert investigation were themselves. If they weren°«t going to receive the information they needed, just who would be taking the greater risk?

°»Whippy, do you know the name of that flower you°«re holding?°…
 It was the last one remaining from the funeral offering. In Japanese it°«s called a °»kobushi,°… a flower of the magnoliaceae family.
°»Yeah°ńit°«s a magnolia.°…
°»In the language of flowers, that°«s °∆trust.°« Just how long do you think Clark and I have been with the Commander? If he decides there°«s no need to tell us something, he won°«t.°…
 Whip still had something she wanted to say but managed to suppress the urge.

°»Even so°ń°…
 It was Clark who had up till now kept his silence, but his eyes twinkled behind his sunglasses.
°»I can°«t believe Ralf actually used the expression °∆in the language of flowers.°«°…


 Ę® Ę®


 The laughter of Ralf and the others faintly reached the ears of Heidern, who had put some distance between himself and the graveyard.
 This time Heidern was supposed to lead quite°ńperhaps a force the size of a small country°«s.
 It was certain that he was keenly aware of the weight of his responsibility, but there was another reason beside that for his melancholy.
 (Adelheid°ń. Surely that was the name of that young man.)
 Leona was close nearby.
 The silent girl soldier made no attempt to brush back her blue hair dampened by the rain.
 (You are not the only one to suffer from the fate of your bloodline°ń)

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