Apocalypse Witch:Volume2 Chapter1
“She registered as Jane Ignition, but her real name is Natalena Blast. Age: 12. Sex: Female. Nationality: American. As her family name suggests, she is Anastasia Blast’s younger sister. Even if there is a large gap between their ages.”
They had gathered in the Student Council Room of the giant ship’s high school.
There was no better place for Karuta and the rest of the world’s strongest to speak in private.
Omotesandou Kyouka was operating a computer while seated in her wheelchair. The computer and the room looked downgraded from before, but the devices here had top administrative access to all the data in the ship’s server. They had higher priority than the machines in the headmaster’s office which was mostly just for show (even though Karuta’s group had not wanted it that way). Karuta and Marika’s arrival meant the actual Student Council members had to leave, so they gave the two intruders quite a glare.
Natalena was asleep in the ship’s infirmary.
Sleeping with her limbs and torso strapped down with thick belts could not be comfortable, but she would not notice. Until they made a decision, they had confiscated her Crystal Blossom and put her on a light anesthetic to keep her asleep. Anesthetics were convenient, but they were also medical goods. A drug like that did have a lethal dose, side effects, lasting effects, and allergies to worry about and, just like any other medicine, there was no guarantee it would work.
But that was about the only way to restrain someone who could use magic.
“Why didn’t we notice this until now?”
“So many people claimed to be Anastasia’s relatives, friends, or acquaintances that it probably hid the presence of this sister. The social networks for socialites were especially bad. Makes me glad I wasn’t one of the Problem Solvers.”
Anastasia may have been fine with it since it hid her actual family which functioned as her Achilles heel. It was like creating an artificial forest to hide a single real tree.
The identity of the suspect had been found by comparing her facial and skeletal data to video records from around the world. Since that was enough to blow her cover, Natalena may have been planning to end it quick. She had not prepared herself a way out in her nearly suicidal pursuit of revenge.
“Does that mean Anastasia was an American citizen too? We did hear she had a lot of influence in North America.”
They had hated that woman enough that they were willing to destroy the world if it meant defeating her. But thinking back, they had not even known what part of the world she was from. This peek at her ordinary life now came as a slight shock to Karuta.
He could not hide this.
That was the honest answer he found for himself. And if he tried and failed to hide it, it would only make matters worse. He had to be honest here and then make the following suggestion: This girl may be here for revenge, but her inexperienced blade failed to take anyone’s life. This is over now, so we shouldn’t kill her.
He wanted their trust, so hiding things would work against him.
Was this really the right thing to do? He was of course worried about that, but now that he had chosen to do this, he had to stick with it as best he could. He could not stop once he started.
Amaashi Marika gave him a dangerous look while leaning against the wall with arms crossed. What he had seen during the previous incident told him all he needed to know about her stance. She made a strict division between enemy and ally. She would do anything to protect the people she had decided were on her side. That was obvious enough from the laser sniper shot she had used to kill Elicia after the defenseless woman had surrendered and maybe even could have been brought to their side.
If taking in a new ally would disturb the perfected harmony they already had, she was not interested in taking them in.
That was Marika’s stance.
She was reliable as a childhood friend. Karuta had known her for so long that he was unconditionally placed on the allies list. But this was different. If he could not convince her here, she would kill Natalena without mercy. Even while the girl was unconscious and unable to defend herself.
And if he just let it happen, it would happen again.
The world’s strongest could get away with killing anyone who opposed them.
Even a 12-year-old girl.
He could not let that become the standard. That would only lead them past the point of no return on the same path Anastasia’s group had taken. If they were not the strongest, they would be found guilty and thrown in prison, so they would have no choice but to cling to the title of strongest no matter what. The concept of strongest would bind them.
“Does Natalena have any kind of combat experience?”
“Based on the records I have found, she has almost none, including training. She seems to have attended a local karate school for a while, but she quit after about 6 months. That sort of conflict may not have been her thing.”
“Then how did she manage to fake her name and identity?”
Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah was a crucial organization for combating the Threat which put the world in danger. Even with 1000 new personnel brought in, their backgrounds would all have been thoroughly checked.
There were a few options for slipping past that – rewriting the trackable electronic data, corrupting an examiner with a bribe or honey trap, and purchasing or stealing someone else’s personal information – but a 12-year-old girl who lived an ordinary life could not pull off those spy movie tricks on her own. For that matter, when had she learned about her Crystal Magic aptitude that gave her a chance at this revenge? That was not something she would have been tested for at middle school. And where had she learned about Anubis? If Anastasia had been hiding her true identity from her family, she never would have told them anything about her God Worshiping Magic.
None of it made sense.
Utagai Karuta spoke a frank conclusion.
“Someone else is pulling the strings. Probably from some safe place away from this ship.”
“They gave the necessary information to someone connected to Anastasia to remake them into an assassin. But did they really think an amateur like Natalena could kill the four of us? What if they were betting we would turn on each other over how to deal with Natalena after we defeated her?”
He had no evidence for any of this.
In fact, he did not particularly care if he was wrong.
He was only interested in redirecting their focus (especially that of hyper-aggressive Marika) toward someone other than Natalena. A nameless and faceless string-puller was perfect for that. While they tried to pursue that shadowy figure who might not even exist, they would not think about attacking someone within arm’s reach.
“In that case, we should not kill Natalena. We need whatever information we can get on this string-puller. If we let them get away with this, we might find Elicia’s parents or Yukino’s worshipers attacking us next. Also, we don’t know for sure that Natalena was working alone here. If she has a team hidden on Grimnoah, we need to locate them and get rid of them. Right?”
“You have a point,” readily admitted Omotesandou Kyouka. However. “In that case, wouldn’t it be in our best interest to keep Natalena Blast tied up while we torture her or use a truth serum on her? Would she really tell us the truth if we played at police and interrogated her? We are combat experts, not investigative experts.”
There were no positive or negative emotions in her voice. She sounded entirely dry and efficient.
First, he had to worry about them killing her.
Now he also had to worry about torture and truth serum.
This was insane, but even with more than 1000 students on Grimnoah and even with enough adult teachers to manage and teach them, no one was likely to oppose Marika or Kyouka if they made a decision. Not even that muscular gym(?) teacher named Kiyosawa Hadome.
Once the scales tilted in that direction, there would be no stopping it.
That was how powerful they were as individuals.
In fact, this second ship had been built for them.
“I certainly take issue with how Marika-san jumps right to ‘kill her’, but I take issue with your stance as well, Karuta-kun. Why are you so intent on siding with Natalena Blast? Where did this empathy come from? Thinking back, you might find it was artificially injected into you by Natalena herself.”
She had a point.
Now that she mentioned it, he could see it.
He knew nothing about Natalena, but the way she had cowered down like a small animal and used lots of ums and uhs when speaking had clearly been a way of putting him off his guard. Deciding to protect her based on that would indeed be the height of folly. Or did he feel guilty because he had killed Anastasia? If so, why? They had been in the right to seek vengeance and they had been given no other choice. Protecting her sister as a form of atonement would deny the very foundation of what they had done.
He thought about it.
And he gave his honest response.
“I can’t do that again.”
“Kill someone. We have no reason this time and killing people is supposed to be wrong by default! Last time, we had to kill them because the world was broken and that was the only way to fix it. But not this time!! Like it or not, we’re the strongest, so we should be able to use that position to show leniency and settle this without killing her. Instead of killing her because we have no reason not to, why can’t we not kill her because we have no reason to!? Isn’t that how the world is supposed to work!?”
“Then you do that, Karuta.”
Marika finally spoke.
As expected, she viewed things in very simple terms when it came to combat.
“But I will kill her. That way you don’t have to dirty your hands.”
That was not what he meant. He wanted to protect everyone, including Marika and Kyouka, but if Marika refused, that was that. Her life was hers to live. Her thought process was simple and violent, but she was facing the crux of the issue.
If they did not all agree here, they would only do Natalena harm individually.
That was meaningless.
People only had one life, so if any of them played the “kill her” card on a whim, Natalena was dead. And that single mistake would drag all of them down. Just like it had with Anastasia’s group!!
“Ah ha ha. Looks like she outplayed you there, Karuta-kun.” Kyouka laughed innocently and winked. “Now, I think what you’re saying is right, but being right does not mean everyone will accept what you’re saying. If you fail to negotiate and you use simple emotion to force your view through, all you’ve done is reject our own feelings.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Well, we could draw lots to make sure it’s fair. Could you grab that notepad and red pen from the desk there?”
Omotesandou Kyouka tore off a blank sheet of paper, tore that into four quarters, and drew a red dot at the center of one piece. She tossed the four pieces into an empty box with a round hole on the top. The new Student Council probably used that when allotting jobs.
There was no way of calculating the right answer here. This suggestion looked hopeless at first glance, but then the boy realized what the Student Council President had done. She really was the adult in the room.
How many pieces of paper had she thrown in that box?
With enough for every member of the new world’s strongest, he had another option.
“Power up! Come on out, Aine!!”
The pale-skinned crystal girl slipped out from Karuta’s stomach.
She awaited orders with a tilt of her expressionless head and her presence changed everything.
“We don’t both need to win. You take my side here!”
“If you say so.”
That response made it hard to believe someone’s life was on the line. She made it sound like he had decided they would be eating gyudon for lunch at the school cafeteria.
Marika was unsure how, but she guessed things were changing for her.
“Wait! You think you have better odds if you have Aine-chan drawing for you too, but there are no absolutes in matters of luck!”
“Then what are you so worried about? C’mon, everyone, let’s stick our hands in there. Ready, go!”
Yes, Karuta was guaranteed a win with this method.
Marika gave a shout and Kyouka smiled in a conspiratorial way, but it was already over.
Karuta pulled his hand from the box first.
“There’s the red dot. I win. We will protect Natalena. Marika, no complaining, okay!?”
“~ ~ ~!!”
Red in the face, Marika spun fiercely toward Kyouka, but the Student Council President only shrugged.
“It sucks, but we can’t blame Karuta-kun in a game of chance, can we? We can only curse or own rotten luck.”
“You planned this from the start.”
“What ever are you talking about?”
That was the end of it. The door slammed open and shut with a sound like a bombing. Marika was so disgusted with them she had stormed out. But since she had agreed to the terms, she would not go and kill Natalena without telling them. If she did, Grimnoah would fall apart, starting from the four figures at its center – Karuta, Aine, Marika, and Kyouka. Since Marika’s focus was on protecting those on her side above all else, doing that would be counterproductive.
Karuta sighed while watching the door through which Marika had left.
“I’m amazed you came up with that on the spot.”
“Oh? I’m amazed you saw through it so quickly, Karuta-kun.”
All four of them had stuck their hands in the box at once.
But Karuta would win as long as either he or Aine drew the winning paper. So as long as Aine pushed Marika and Kyouka’s hands to the edge of the box, he could take his time feeling for the correct paper.
Kyouka had torn up a single piece of notebook paper and then drew a big red dot on it with pen. Only one of them had that, so he could recognize it by touch.
“Thank you so much, Omotesandou-san. I honestly couldn’t have done it without you.”
“To be clear, I wasn’t trying to be kind. Unlike Marika-san. I’m only helping you for the time being because we can’t get any information out of Natalena if we kill her now. As long as she remains alive, she can be tortured at any time. So if we can’t get enough information your way, I will suggest we make another choice. Between protecting her and torturing her.”
“And I will not help you like that next time. The rules are entirely different when you’re on your own. So, Karuta-kun, do you really think you can outdo me in a pure debate?”
“We both know I can’t.”
Kyouka was the master of trickery. If he had holed up in a room and thought for hours on end, he might have managed the same result, but she had won it in a split-second decision. Her idea had been excellent and she had proposed it at the best possible time, so Karuta and Marika both had let it happen without realizing anything had changed. If that cunning and that speed were turned against him, he would be cornered and torn to shreds before he could even think through his own position.
The schemer in the wheelchair laughed.
“Then give this everything you’ve got. I only care about getting results; the method used is irrelevant. If you can earn her trust and get the information out of her your way, then it is sure to provide a much brighter future for Natalena Blast.”
Of course, this did not mean Omotesandou Kyouka was fully and unconditionally taking his side.
“But if you fail, things will be different. Professional torture is not a pretty sight. The physical scars can be healed with magic, but the psychological ones are a different story.”
“I really, really don’t like you. Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to like you barbaric practical types.”
“I’m really not sure what to say other than sorry, Kiyosawa-sensei. And that I really do appreciate you taking this girl’s side.”
“The fact that you bother to bow your head despite being one of the world-renowned strongests pisses me off most of all!! Anyway, we have confirmed the inaccuracies in her personal information too. We have yet to decide how to deal with this, but I will commend you for not killing her.”
Utagai Karuta was inside Grimnoah’s infirmary.
A lot of movement could be heard in the distance since it was a break between classes. Based on the bits and pieces of voices he could hear, some boys were making paper airplane test flights in the long hallway.
A quiet groan left Natalena Blast’s lovely lips.
She tried to rub her eyes and realized her dominant hand would not budge below the blanket.
And it was worse than that. She was strapped down by thick belts on both her arms, both her legs, her undeveloped chest, and her waist, which had yet to develop its curves. That kept her from even rolling over from her back.
Karuta was casually peering down at her small face.
“Good morning, Natalena. Medical technology is an incredible thing. You woke up right on time.”
“What…ah!? What are you- ghh!!”
“Moving will only make it tighter. And I can’t blame you for not noticing the belts until now; we were keeping you on some light anesthetic. Using a plastic mask over your face.”
“H-how do you know my name?”
“How do you think, Natalena Blast?”
She must have felt like she had been placed on the chopping block while still alive. So many beads of sweat appeared on her skin that he wondered if it was some kind of side effect from the anesthetic. And the fact remained that he could have done anything to her if he wanted to. Even things her young mind could never imagine.
However, he secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
He was glad she seemed to be doing well. It felt weird worrying about an assassin trying to take his life, but he would not let anyone he knew dirty their hands with unnecessary killing or torture.
Murder was wrong.
Whether or not they could create a world based on that rule was dependent on what happened here.
In a way, the standard assumptions of the world as a whole were being shaken up by Grimnoah. Including whether people would feel sorry for Natalena for having her sister killed and failing to take revenge against that sister’s killer. If Karuta failed by letting her be killed or tortured, people would see it as her just deserts. The entire world would take that stance against a sobbing 12-year-old girl. Then his group would take the same path as the Problem Solvers. The supposed world’s strongest would be headed toward a literal dead end.
He had to earn Natalena Blast’s trust in the given time period.
And he had to use that trust to get information on the string-puller who had assisted her.
They were just like the police detective and suspect in the interrogation room.
They might start out as enemies, but they could build trust between themselves.
“What? Um, uh, what is this?”
She twisted her body to try to dodge what he tossed toward her flat chest, but then she stopped.
He had returned her translucent Crystal Blossom, the source of her Crystal Magic’s power.
Then he pulled the blanket from her and began undoing the thick belts strapping her to the bed.
On the inside, he was scared. There was no right answer here.
But he had to look confident right now. This girl’s life was in his hands, so he had to see it through. He could not let his attitude regarding her change from moment to moment. He had to tell himself that while once more releasing that small predator.
“Those things are important, so don’t lose it again. Also, you’ll probably feel woozy for a bit thanks to the anesthetic, so be careful not to trip. The Preset barrier might not even work in your current state.”
“What, um, wh-what, uh, what are you doing?” she asked while getting up.
Her ums and uhs were apparently a natural thing and not some high-level disguise. Even after all her planning, surprisingly little had been an act, which he found very likable. She must not have been cut out for doing bad things. It was Karuta’s group that dragged her into this. It did not matter whether or not her revenge was justified; there was no need for her to sully herself that way.
Karuta looked to the side in a somewhat performative way.
“You also shouldn’t wear those gym clothes forever. The uniform designs were all just carried over from the first ship, but the bloomers are honestly a little much. Especially around the, um, crotch.”
“Oh, eh, kyah!?”
She blushed and frantically tried to hide herself with the blanket and Karuta could not help but laugh a little. She was far from a perfect avenger. She had not frozen over to the extent his group had. She could still return to her former life, so it was his job to make her want to do that.
“I’ll leave your uniform here, so shut the partition curtain and change into it. Then head back to class. You need to make up for what you missed while you were out.”
“A-are you sure you should, um, well, uh, l-let me go free? I could attack you in your sleep and learning Crystal Magic in class will only give me more tools for my revenge.”
She looked up at him in a nervous way. She looked like someone worried the food they were offered was poisoned. Or maybe she felt like she needed to act tough if she was to accept any kindness from her enemy. Karuta knew he would have been unsure how to respond if Anastasia had started giving him personal magic lessons to help make him stronger.
But he also had an obligation to keep the others safe. He was not her only target of revenge. If she was only interested in attacking him, he would have gone along with the farce, but things changed if she might attack Marika or Kyouka. It was even possible she would sneak into the engine room and blow up the entire ship to kill just him. That meant he had to take a harsher stance here.
“I will be taking measures against that. And you might just scream when I tell you what that means.”
When he faced her with a cheerful smile, she jumped and shrank down more like a small animal afraid of a loud noise than someone preparing for a fight.
“Aine,” he said.
A pale figure slipped out from his body. That was the actual “weapon” that had defeated Natalena, but the young girl looked confused. Her defeat may have been so quick and unexpected that she had no actual memory of it.
And Utagai Karuta made his announcement.
“Unless you encounter some sort of special circumstances, stay with Natalena Blast 24/7 from now on. And make sure she does not cause any more trouble. Physically make sure, I mean.”
The girl’s mind went blank.
But a further attack filled that blank with a form of utter despair for her sensitive early adolescent mind.
“Understood. I will not leave her side even when she is bathing or changing. Miss Natalena, we can share a bed tonight. You might have trouble sleeping at first, but I will solidly latch my arms and legs around you so you cannot slip out at night.”
She screamed, just as he had prophesied.
Aine expressionlessly tilted her head and provided some entirely unhelpful advice.
“Do not worry. You will have plenty of time to get used to it.”
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka sighed back in their semi-secret base that was the Student Council Room.
“What’s wrong, Omotesandou-san?”
She shook her head at the inquiry from the earnest-looking Treasurer with a black bob cut.
The Treasurer, Secretary, and all other members of the Student Council except for the President herself were Regulation 1. That pained Kyouka a bit as the only Regulation 3 remaining.
(Hm, maybe I should go have Karuta-kun or Marika-san comfort me later.)
No, she could not do that. While she saw them as equal accomplices who had shared good and bad times with her, those two would still see her as a distant upperclassman.
(This is such a lonely position.)
But maybe she had no right to complain.
There was something she had not told even Karuta and Marika who had helped her eliminate the Problem Solvers.
The students and teachers who had been killed and reduced to crystal during the First Out Incident were not in as desperate a situation as it seemed. At the cost of her own body, Kyouka had accelerated their regeneration speed ten-thousand-fold, so they would likely return to normal in a year or so at the most.
There were two important things to note here.
First, if the students and teachers assisted by Kyouka’s trick were cracked or shattered again from some external attack, they would lose that ten-thousand-times acceleration. Second, no one could be added to the list. So if someone from the Second Grimnoah were to receive a mortal wound, that was that. Kyouka’s trick would not apply to them, so it would take centuries or millennia for them to recover.
That had been a desperate measure that came at the cost of her life as a Crystal Magician, so it could only be done the once and there were no do-overs.
She had a simple reason for not informing her accomplices of this hope.
(I thought we could live happily ever after once we completed our revenge against the Problem Solvers.)
It saddened her, but she had resigned herself to holding this position. She had never been the type to smile bright and spread her arms below the shining sun.
Even if she did wish she could be that type.
(But it looks like there is more to this.)
The unknown Threat was attempting to drive the entire human race to extinction.
The human string-pullers made sure they benefited even from the battle between the world’s strongest and the Threat.
And now there was Anastasia’s sister.
That far too immature avenger seemed to be giving them a taste of their own medicine.
That looked like several distinct threads, but she had no idea what they might link back too. They might indeed be entirely separate, or they might all join together. She was concerned this might be a diversion meant to hide something, but it was also possible the answer had been right in front of her all this time.
(I can’t tell anyone about this.)
She quietly narrowed her eyes while viewing the black bob cut Treasurer and redheaded buns Secretary who adored her like two puppies. Parts of society were now supported by the assumption that Crystal Magic was the strongest and its practitioners would protect humanity from the Threat. There could be no doubts introduced about that future.
She would have to review each thing in turn.
So she began wondering where to place herself on the game board.
“Well, a coward only has one place here. I should focus on the messy human conspiracies, I suppose.”
The innocent and adorable Treasurer’s questioning gaze did nothing to stop the President’s thoughts.
(We know there are problems remaining, so if we let our guard down before grasping the big picture, we’re done for. I feel bad doing this to Karuta-kun and Marika-san, but revealing this secret will have to come later.)
Natalena Blast returned to her classes that afternoon.
She had to go by Jane Ignition there, which could be confusing.
“Geh. Cooking class immediately after lunch? Who thought that was a good idea?”
“Right, right? Whey not put it before lunch!?”
“Or they could at least make it something that has to sit, so we can eat it for dinner or a late-night snack.”
In the cooking classroom, the other 1st-year middle school girls were pouting their lips and booing while wearing bandannas on their heads and aprons over their uniforms. At that age, they were growing girls and their diet was directly linked to the figure they would develop as they grew up, but they put more effort into reducing their stomach value than into the possibility of increasing their chest value.
If Karuta’s memory served him, the woman with semi-long flaxen hair and a cheap tight skirt suit was Sophia Firenze. That nervous, theory-focused teacher stood in front of the large cooking surface that doubled as a teacher’s desk, but she must have known she would not be able to handle this because she had called Karuta in as a Temporary Substitute Teacher’s Assistant(?). Because he had experience and he was known as the world’s strongest.
He was not a teacher himself, so he should have been sitting in a corner like he was merely observing the class, but everyone was focused on him.
That was hard on his heart even over in the corner.
He had never wanted to be a Class Rep.
But right now, he had to hide the part of him that was worrying about screwing up and embarrassing himself.
He shined a laser pointer on the text already written on the blackboard.
“Okay, regeneration is one of Crystal Magic’s Presets, but it isn’t all-powerful. Alice, Riho, Sanae, everyone else, please pay attention. To the blackboard, not me.”
That track suit teacher must have happened by in the hallway because he sent a bitter look inside the classroom before walking off. For some bizarre reason, someone without a teaching license was teaching in their own personal style. Who could say what kind of false information and personal bad habits he would transfer to the listeners? Karuta could not agree more. He was as puzzled as anyone why he was doing this, but his concerns did not seem to reach the nervous female teacher.
The boy respected that teacher out in the hall, so he surreptitiously nodded back while sending the laser pointer along the blackboard text. That act was a lot like using a highlighter in a textbook. It helped deepen the students’ understanding, but he could not have explained anything without Sophia-sensei there to provide the accurate information in the first place.
“The regeneration is powerful enough to put any doctor to shame by healing any wound or illness in thirty seconds. It is fantastically effective on wounds received from an external source, but it has trouble with anything you are already missing. For example, oxygen, nutrients, or water. The regeneration can only heal non-lethal wounds. So if you starve to death, the healing process is skipped and you are immediately crystallized.”
That explanation was enough to eliminate the scattered discussions among the students and draw all their focus on the blackboard and him in the corner. His combat experience meant a lot here. Although he did wish the nervous female teacher would not look up to him like that, since she was the one with the accurate information.
Those noisy middle school girls required as delicate a touch as if he were working in an ammo dump full of static electricity, but if he thought back to when he was analyzing the Problem Solvers, he managed to calm himself some. After all, failing here would not mean losing his own or someone else’s life.
(Well, all this took was a bit of observation. It’s obvious those three are the center of the class, so I was right to single them out at the start. I think I deserve a bonus for this. By which I mean a dessert.)
Natalena was clearly uncomfortable here.
He could hardly blame her when she was being taught about the powers that took her sister’s life.
He could not tailor this class to everyone here, unfortunately. This was all very bad for his heart, but he managed to keep going without finding himself at a loss for words. He was over in a corner and the text on the blackboard had been written by a real teacher, so he figured he could not go wrong here. He had to remind himself he was not standing up on the gallows.
He could do this. He had kept his mind from going blank so far.
He knew what he had to say. And what order to say it in.
“In that sense, knowing how to acquire ingredients and how to cook them into an edible form are no laughing matter. You will be fighting against the Threat eventually and you never know what will happen on the battlefield. Do not assume you will always be supported by a strong supply line and transportation of goods like the textbooks so often assume. When isolated on the battlefield, you need the survival skills to get by on your own. If you have trouble in a kitchen with gas and electricity, you can never hope to cook outdoors.”
“Heh heh hehh.”
One of the main trio of girls laughed in a nasty way.
This signaled one of her unpleasant adlibs was coming, so he had to be on his guard.
Thus spoke the 13-year-old girl with tanned skin and silver hair who liked to stand out (and was quickly growing into a delinquent).
“Then I take it you’re confident in your own skills, Senpai?”
“Of course I am, Riho.”
He was of course terrified of the expectant way this younger girl was testing him, but he could not let that show.
“Whichever group gets me is lucky. I have a habit of making my own lunches for a change of pace.”
“Wow! Well, I hope you’re not all talk. We can be picky when it comes to food, after all.”
That impressed-sounding comment came from Alice, a girl with a blonde ponytail. But when she looked that surprised, it made him feel like she was actually mocking him.
They were not being assigned a specific dish to fix. Instead, they were given a list of numbers indicating the calories and necessary nutrients. Grimnoah’s cooking classes had you provide those numbers in 5 dishes or less. There were many different types of cooking. If you wanted to make it as simple as possible, you would have to check out the online recipes and nutritional science books yourself.
He noticed something odd about Sanae, a nervous-looking girl with glasses and with her black hair tied back into two tails. The tails began at the bottom of her head, so they apparently did not qualify as twintails. Anyway, she was dissolving a teaspoon of salt into a bottle of water, but that did not seem related to their cooking in any way.
Riho, from her team, smiled bitterly.
“Sanae, I’m pretty sure we’re fine since it’s the middle of class.”
“Ha, ah ha ha. But Utagai-senpai is here today, so I’m nervous enough to want my good luck charm.”
He could not figure out what they would be “fine” from or what kind of good luck charm that was. After some thought…
“Did you register your Crystal Magic with Bastet?”
“That isn’t one of those water bottles used to keep cats away. And if that was her god, why would she want to keep it away?”
When Riho refuted his thought that quickly, there was nothing he could do. Unfortunately, he did not know of any jinxes that used water bottles.
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Do not mind me. Now, let’s make some delicious food together.”
Natalena was being extra cautious and Crystal Girl Aine responded to the girl’s concern with her usual lack of expression. Surprisingly, Aine was wearing an apron. She was gathering confused attention since she was not part of the class, but being one of the world’s strongest may have been enough for them to accept this oddity without question.
Yes, Aine was also one of the Four Living Gods. When the person who barged in unannounced was a well-known athlete or actor, it apparently made for a pleasant surprise.
Natalena must have had some cooking experience because she began by disinfecting her knife and cutting board instead of getting right to chopping the vegetables and meat. But she was still focused on that crystal girl visible out of the corner of her eye.
“Wow, Senpai-san! You actually know how to remove the eyes of the potato!?”
“Are your compliments set to super easy mode, Sanae!? Were you a slave elf in some other world during your past life or something!?”
Utagai Karuta prepared the vegetables while chatting with the trio of girls at the center of the class. Natalena had been set free for now, but she could still have her revenge if she killed him. She had a knife, blunt objects, fire, and heated objects here. The kitchen was a cornucopia of weapons.
(Maybe he’ll let his guard down.)
If she was willing to accept mutual destruction – if she did not care what happened to herself – she could make an attack at close range here. He was not the only world’s strongest and this method would make things more difficult with the others, but she could at least take down one of them. She tightly gripped the knife in her small hand so no one else would notice.
(I just have to send him to hell before he can use his real power!!)
“Miss Natalena, that is not how you do that.”
She was hit by a sudden “attack” from behind.
Crystal Girl Aine placed her arms around the girl from behind and grabbed both her wrists.
“It seems to me a peeler would be faster with something as small as a carrot, but if you do want to use a knife, you do it like this. Be very careful you do not cut your fingers.”
It may have looked like a very hands-on lesson, but this was far more than that. Natalena was pushing so hard it made her red in the face, but Aine’s arms would not budge. It was like being made into a puppet or having your powered suit hijacked from the outside. She was powerless to stop it as Aine moved the girl’s arms to peel an incredibly thin layer of the carrot’s skin. Natalena’s resistance did not even cause her to cut her finger.
It was more like being held by a vise than handcuffs. It was so strong she feared that fighting too hard would smash her wrist bones.
“Oh? What’s this? Looks like those two are really good friends.”
“Um, Riho-chan? Are you sure they’re just friends? I think that biting of the earlobe is crossing the line into something else.”
“Jane-san’s blushing, so I think she’s into it.”
Natalena shook her head to deny it, but it did not look like that misunderstanding was going away.
Aine whispered in her ear so no one else could hear.
“Now for the finishing touch: a maid café’s secret ingredient. Let’s do it together, okay? Delicious Spell: Love Love Kaboom.”
“Stop, stop, stop, stoooop!! Um, uh, I’ll do it right, I swear!!”
Utagai Karuta sighed. The relief and exhaustion he felt when he left the room containing Natalena, his would-be assassin, told him just how nervous he had been. Plus, that cooking classroom had been full of younger kids. He really was out of his element when it came to public speaking.
During the short break in between classes, he glanced down at his phone and grimaced.
“Riho> Oh, no! Help me, Karuta-senpai! Today’s homework is too hard! What are the components of the fast-acting medicine used to heal eye strain which directly affects targeting performance? That’s practically alchemy, so why is it part of our home ec homework!?”
“Alice> Just so you know, she’s posting this with her phone while in the middle of changing in the locker room. Hopefully that exciting mental image will make you respond sooner.”
School wasn’t even out yet and they were already stooping to that level on social media. Regardless, he could not just give them the answer to their homework, so he would have to only tell them how they could solve it. He generally just copied the writing on the blackboard into his notes, so he only realized now how hard teaching was. You had to make it simple and easy to understand, but also make sure it stuck in people’s memories. If he could do that with ease, he felt like he could become a social media influencer or a top blogger.
That said, he had his own business to attend to.
He walked to the middle school faculty room on an invitation from that female teacher.
This was a strange place for him. He should have had no business in the middle school at all and the faculty room was a tense place for a student like him.
All the more so when all of the teachers were the theory-focused types brought in to replace the old teachers.
He was a practical type, so he used Crystal Magic entirely differently from them.
“Oh, Utagai-kun. Over here, over here.”
The teacher who had taken to him like a puppy energetically beckoned him over.
That was Sophia Firenze.
“Kiyosawa-sensei would let me have it if he saw this, so you came at the perfect time. Nicely done, Utagai-kun.”
She received that kind of treatment in the faculty room too? Karuta had to rub his fingers against his temples.
“So what did you need?”
“Not much. First order of business is this ginger pork meal.”
“Ah ha ha. I got carried away and made too much. But we can’t waste food, so let’s eat it together.”
He had already eaten too much with that cooking class immediately following lunch, yet now he had to share an oversized meal. That meant eating three lunches back to back, making for way too much. Was this teacher trying to give him a pimply face?
He accepted the chopsticks like he was looking up at a steep mountain he had to climb.
“Um, Utagai-kun, you have been helping out with my classes lately.”
“So, well, I was thinking you might be having trouble keeping up with your own classes. The more you help me, the less time you have for your own studies, after all.”
He was honestly surprised by this.
His eyes even widened.
“Sensei, you actually sound like a teacher right now.”
“You really shouldn’t make fun of someone when they’re trying to be nice!”
She was exactly right, so he had to apologize.
Afterwards, he noticed something curious on her desk.
It almost looked like a kid’s meal toy, but it was too weird for that.
“Sensei, what is that?”
“That is a model. Although it’s only based on secondhand information.”
Sophia Firenze gave it a loving look while her flaxen hair swayed. It was made of a light blue material that did not appear to be plastic. It was probably clay or something similar, but he doubted it had been molded by hand. It looked more like a machine had sliced pieces away to create the extremely intricate palm-sized model sitting on her desk.
He was not sure how to describe it.
It looked like a monster with a rhino beetle’s head and thorax and lots of octopus-like tentacles below that. It looked biological but also like a bizarre missile.
Sophia Firenze readily explained what it was.
With a smile on her face.
“That is what we predict the Threat looks like.”
They really existed?
He thought his breathing had stopped, but she quickly waved her hands in front of her face.
“Oh, but we don’t actually know if this is accurate.”
“Our focus is on theory, so we’ve don’t do any fighting ourselves. We never accompanied the Problem Solvers when they fought the Threat. Um…the headmaster of the first ship had a good relationship with those five, so information tended to spread from them to the headmaster and from him to us. Information only ever went in the one direction, though, so I don’t think the Problem Solvers knew we even existed. I hate to admit it, but we really didn’t have any information worth giving them.”
That was to be expected.
If that five had known of them, they would have been eliminated before even Grimnoah. Crystal Magicians who could not fight would have been the perfect targets for the people who wanted to obliterate that type of magic.
Sophia, who had survived without fighting, gave a weak smile toward Karuta, who had survived by fighting.
“S-so all the data this is based on came from the Problem Solvers and it’s hard to say how reliable that actually is. I mean, they were on such good terms with the old headmaster, but they still caused the First Out Incident. There is actually a really good chance everything they gave us was either entirely false or modified in some way.”
He wondered about that.
It was hard to say either way.
The odds of any malice there seemed to depend a lot on which specific member of the Problem Solvers was supplying the data. With Elicia or Yukino, he could imagine them maliciously altering the data just for kicks. But what if it was Anastasia? That hopelessly powerful strongest had been focused on preserving her position at the top by defeating any and all challengers, so he doubted she would use any trickery like that.
And he did remember one thing Anastasia had said.
“They do exist.”
“Whatever they look like, the Threat does exist. That woman said so even though we didn’t ask.”
After home ec, they had gym class.
Instead of Crystal Magic combat, it was a swimming lesson.
“Hm, at least they’re sensible enough to give us some exercise to work off the food.”
“Hm? Senpai, what’s with you? Feeling seasick?”
Alice, whose blonde ponytail made it hard to believe she could be anything but a cheerleader, gave him a puzzled look. She did not seem to consider the fact that he had eaten four meals already today with breakfast, lunch, cooking class, and the teacher’s ginger pork.
She was wearing a school swimsuit. And while Grimnoah was a giant ship floating in the ocean, they were using an indoor racing pool that reeked of chlorine.
For some reason, tanned and silver-haired Riho put her hands on her hips and laughed loudly.
“Wah hah hah! All these healthy girls in swimsuits got you excited, Karuta-senpai!?”
“Um, he’s having trouble answering, so should we take that as a yes?”
“Eh? He’s not an adult, so isn’t he in the clear for feeling that way? Now, any man saying that deserves a summary execution.”
Things were sounding dangerous already. It was unclear where the line between child and adult lay for them and it would likely change based on their mood. Was it Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka who had said they had to constantly worry about cameras? He decided it would be best to come up with his own line he would not cross instead of leaving that up to the girls.
Alice seemed confident in her swimsuit, but Sanae was the opposite. That glasses girl was blushing and hiding behind the blonde ponytail girl. When Riho moved in from the side, that trio of friends was complete.
“Help us with our warmup exercises, Senpai. Make sure you get all up close and personal with lots of body contact.”
“Okay, I’m definitely defining that as over the line.”
It turned out Kiyosawa Hadome, the teacher who used his muscles as a weapon, was indeed a gym teacher.
Karuta was here helping him.
However, the girls did not seem to have much respect for that muscular teacher.
“If Senpai can teach us, why do we need anyone else?”
“This is no laughing matter,” cautioned the man. “This is a pool, so what if there is an accident?”
“Oh, how scary. By the way, what’s with all the muscles? Doesn’t Crystal Magic armor buff your physical abilities?”
(Now that he had managed to settle his stomach some,) Karuta scratched at his head with a hand.
The students seemed to look down on the man, but they were sorely mistaken. Just as Marika had made a point of jogging in the gym, the translucent armor’s boost to your specs did not mean your base stamina was meaningless. You had to use the magic yourself, so you needed a strong body to use it to its fullest.
But they lost sight of that with the Utagai Karuta standing next to the man.
One was the world’s strongest and the other was not. Anyone would pale in comparison to that. Even though his specs were actually quite good when viewed on their own.
Karuta had not wanted to become the strongest and Kiyosawa Hadome had not wanted to not become the strongest. The only difference was whether or not they had been on the first ship and whether or not they had survived. That was all. The boy himself had fled the ship while abandoning so many friends seeking help.
(Who do they think Utagai Karuta is? This is all so silly.)
To correct their mistake, the boy called over to the students with a bitter look on his face.
It was bad for his heart, but he had to force a tough voice here.
“Yes, Senpai!? Pay attention, everyone!!”
The swimsuit girls and boys immediately stopped talking.
The male teacher blatantly clicked his tongue at how they formed a perfect line on the poolside and straightened their backs. He had wanted a line, but this one was not centered on him. Karuta had been trying to take the man’s side, but it had not worked out that way.
He felt intensely awkward, so he felt a need to whisper in the man’s ear.
“(I really am sorry about all the trouble, Sensei.)”
“(I already knew there was nothing I could do. Listen, I will speak up if you tell them anything wrong and I will step in if any of the students are in danger. This is your kingdom and you can rule as you please, but those are the two things I refuse to back down on.)”
He made sure to look Karuta in the eye as he said it, which actually put the boy at ease. This was how a teacher was meant to be. He was stubborn, but it was not about preserving his own pride.
Karuta took a deep breath to focus himself.
He forced himself into his public mode and began speaking.
“Think back to what you learned in cooking class because this is the same. Crystal Magic’s regeneration has trouble with damage coming from something you are missing, so it won’t help you if you drown. And your flight won’t always work the way you want it to. You at least need to learn how to float in the ocean or a river if you’re shot down.”
The tanned silver-haired girl gave a snort of laughter, but it was hard to look tough in a school swimsuit, especially one with her name written on the chest nametag in big black writing.
“That’s child’s play.”
“I said this is if you’re shot down. Are you sure you can manage it with an arm or a leg broken or with a broken rib impaling your lung?”
“We won’t actually do that to you for class of course, but take this.”
He tossed rolls of waterproof duct tape toward the group of middle school swimsuit students. On the inside, he was afraid none of them would actually reach out to catch them.
After trying it a few times, he found that people preferred to preserve the beauty of a situation.
“Fold up your dominant arm and wrap the tape around your torso to bind it there. For this first lesson, you only have to float on your back. You can buy this tape for cheap at any hardware store, but it will show you how difficult a slight change to your abilities can be.”
In fact, during the First Out Incident that sunk the first Grimnoah, quite a few of the students and teachers had helplessly fallen into the ocean when the giant ship had been sliced apart. They had dressed themselves in next-generation magic while being told they could do anything, but it had turned out they could do nothing at all while they suffered and died. Of course, he was not about to share that with these current students who were filled with hope for their future.
He continued while making sure to keep the emotion out of his voice.
“Form groups of three and have one of you try it while the other two help them if they sink. Swap out who floats every so often.”
Hesitantly, or maybe skeptically, the middle school students entered the pool with their dominant arms taped to them as instructed.
“Whoa, what’s going on!? I’m spinning and spinning and- gurgle gurgle!!”
“Riho, Alice. Help Sanae!”
Before Karuta had even finished shouting from the poolside, the muscular teacher had jumped in. The two girls apparently had trouble rescuing the third from the water, but Kiyosawa Hadome circled behind the glasses girl, supported her back, and lifted her from the water.
“I hope you learned something from this, boy!!”
“I’m sorry, Sensei! Thanks so much!!”
He had no choice but to bow down at a 45-degree angle.
Reality was so uncooperative. Since two other students had trouble rescuing the one, it looked like he needed to give them a float like a swim ring or kickboard next time. He decided he was a failure of a teacher from the moment he had told the students to use this method before he tested it out himself.
Nevertheless, Kiyosawa Hadome did not demand an end to the lesson as a whole.
He took into account who the students were wiling to listen to and who they wanted help from. Even if the boy was inexperienced and did things his own way. The man was such a good teacher he almost seemed dangerous. Karuta really wished he could stop teaching since it was so bad for his heart, but he had no choice but to keep going in his nice and clean public mode.
“If you think of the human body as a large float, then folding up an arm like that will mess with its balance. Which leads to what you saw there. Your usual habits get in the way and the assumption that you can float by going limp no longer applies. You try to float on your back, but you end up tensing one side and flipping over.”
“Do you finally get it now, Riho? If she had been alone among the large waves of the real ocean, she would have died. So think about how you can fix that and try it again.”
“Y-you aren’t going to tell us what to do?”
The glasses girl had grown even more timid than usual, probably because she had nearly drowned just now, but Karuta winked at her as he responded. His heart was still pounding, but he had to keep a smile.
“Don’t expect things to be easy on Grimnoah.”
The groups of three began their attempts.
This time, the rescuers were holding kickboards to give to their friend if that friend flipped over and started drowning. Their usual balance was off, so they would flip over if they tried to stay on their back in the usual way. But when they tried to shift their center of gravity in the opposite direction, they would tense up weirdly and they would start to sink. The idea sounded simple enough, but it was much easier said than done. Kiyosawa Hadome (a worrier who cared deeply about his students) jumped in to rescue one of them on occasion, but he had little to do once the boys and girls in swimsuits got the hang of it.
Aine, whose school swimsuit was inexplicably white, called out to him from the chlorine-smelling water.
“Lonely Natalena cannot find a third partner. Will you help us?”
“I am not lonely!! Um, uh, well, you’re scaring away everyone else by hanging around me! And why are you wearing that weird swimsuit!?”
“If you do not like it, I would be willing to remove it. Shall I?”
“Absolutely not!!” shouted Natalena with a blush.
She must have been surprisingly concerned about how the others saw her. This was a good sign since it meant she was capable of focusing on other things in the middle of her revenge. If she was not stubbornly fixated on it, she could be persuaded.
A different sort of tension snuck into Karuta through his fingertips.
He made sure not to let it show on his face as he made a suggestion.
“Okay, Jane-san. ‘Break’ your dominant hand. Place it over your chest like you’re grabbing your opposite shoulder.”
He had called her Jane instead of Natalena. Unlike Aine who did not care about such things (since she was not human), Karuta was showing a willingness to go along with her farce.
“Wh-why me? Anyone in our team could do it.”
“We already know the answer, so testing us is meaningless. There is a way of floating like this.”
After grabbing the roll of waterproof duct tape, Karuta whispered in the girl’s ear.
“(Also, binding my dominant hand in the pool might seem like the perfect chance to drown me, but it won’t be that easy. I won’t take your revenge from you right away, so keep at it until you’ve had enough.)”
This time, her small shoulders visibly jumped.
Karuta’s group had worried over how to maintain their desire for vengeance. As Natalena met setbacks, she would wither and be neutralized if she failed to overcome that issue herself. That was not his main plan with her, but he did hope it would happen.
He checked in the corner of his vision and noticed Kiyomasa Hadome (who knew of the “situation” with that girl) giving him a restless look. He really was a good teacher. His lack of popularity with the students had to be some kind of mistake. Karuta wanted to fix that, but his help would probably only hurt the adult’s pride. Human relationships were tricky.
Natalena did not notice any of that as she slowly opened her mouth.
“O-okay. Um, I’ll do it.”
(Is she sticking to her student role here? No, I suppose not. Is she trying to put me at ease so she can try and drown me while my guard is down?)
He pulled off some duct tape with a painfully-loud riiiiip sound.
“Aine, hold her in place to make this easier.”
“Eh? Wait, you’re the one tying me up!? Um, but.”
He was wrapping the duct tape around her dominant arm and torso, so he could not help but apply pressure to her soft skin through her swimsuit. Too much pressure to her chest would obstruct her breathing, so he had to use a delicate touch.
Still, being tied up by an older member of the opposite sex had to be a rare experience for her.
In a swimsuit at that.
Not to mention in front of all her friends at school.
And by the very person who had killed her sister.
“That should do it. Try taking three deep breaths and tell me if you have any trouble.”
“Sacri-sama, isn’t that an inefficient bondage method? Why did you divide it into an upper and lower band of tape? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to place it all directly over her chest. Nice and tightly of course.”
“Shut up, Aine.”
At any rate, her dominant hand had been tied in place while folded up and pressed against her torso. Now it was time for her to test things out in the pool. After moving hip deep into the water, she glared up at him.
“O-okay, um, here I go.”
“I’ll rescue you if anything happens.”
“I do not want your help!!”
She shouted at him and he nearly yelled back on reflex, but then her entire body flipped around. It was a lot like someone slipping on a bar of soap in the bath and falling backwards. At the same time, a dull impact ran through his legs. But not because she had kicked him.
(She grabbed ahold of me?)
True enough, this was about the only real method of assassinating him in the public eye like this.
Their battle was playing out below the water.
She was grabbing at her would-be rescuer while she pretended to drown.
She had one arm bound, but she would still be able to immobilize him using her legs and her left arm. Plus, no specialized skills were needed here. In ocean rescue manuals, rescuers were told not to approach a drowning person from the front, even if they were a child.
Even a drowning amateur had enough strength to kill a professional rescuer. And if she succeeded, she could drown him while making it look like she had merely been a poor victim all along.
“Natalena has locked her legs around your hips, yet her upper body is not floating back up to the surface. Are you sure this gurgling avenger is not simply drowning?”
“Are you trying to test my patience!?”
“N-now, now, Kiyosawa-sensei. Isn’t that enough?”
“Do not spoil the boy, Firenze-sensei!! Besides, a mistake of this magnitude would not have occurred if you were not using a student as an unlicensed assistant when you are supposed to be leading the class yourself! Then there wouldn’t have been a victim and no one would have been at fault either!”
“W-wah, wah!! I-I will hold him back, so you run away, Utagai-kun!!”
Achievement Unlocked: A girl who loves her beauty sleep so much she gets taken to the infirmary twice in one day!
Achievement Unlocked: A super thirsty girl who latched onto her Senpai’s hips with her swimsuit crotch and refused to let go!
“I want to die.”
Natalena Blast brought a hand to her forehead after getting up from the infirmary bed in her damp school swimsuit. Her face was deeply colored by gloom. That was not what you wanted to be saying first thing after waking up. What nickname would she have once she returned to the classroom? What would things be like on their class’s social media group? Those thoughts may have been spinning endlessly through her mind.
Utagai Karuta quietly watched the girl from the folding chair next to the bed.
A lot had happened.
That muscular teacher was almost too good a person since his anger was over Natalena being made a victim and Karuta being placed at fault by the situation. He began thinking about asking Omotesandou Kyouka to make a statue of the man. His deeds needed to be commemorated on the front bow. Although doing so might enrage him.
But Karuta hid all of that inside and smiled toward the girl.
“Are you awake?”
“First you fall asleep in your gym clothes and now in your swimsuit. The school doctor actually laughed when I brought you in.”
“You did both of those to me.”
“I will admit that lesson could use some retooling. And I apologize for that. But I thought it would have been inappropriate for a guy like me to change you out of your swimsuit while you slept. Or would you have preferred I did?”
“~ ~ ~!!!???”
She belatedly realized her situation and blushed so bright he thought her face would burst into flames.
“What are you trying to do here? Thinking back, you were weird from the beginning. If you had left me there, I would have died and this would have been over. But you went out of your way to save me. You have no reason to let me go free like this.”
He had no answer for her.
In a way, she may have been right.
There were several obvious missing pieces in Natalena Blast’s revenge story. A 12-year-old girl would have trouble faking her identity on her own and it was a mystery how she had learned that Anastasia used Anubis. There was probably a string-puller out there who had supplied her with that information. But did they have to keep Natalena alive to locate that person? They might be able to track them down without her, or they might be able to use her death to rattle them.
So what was he really doing here?
His explanations were just an excuse and his real reason came down to emotion. Then what exactly were those emotions?
He bluntly confessed the answer.
“I don’t want anyone to die.”
“Not again. I don’t want to be the killer or the killed. I can tell you that both options suck. You see on TV and online that people can grow endlessly cruel when they’re winning the war and that people can do any ugly thing if they’re backed into a corner, but that’s not true. Some people are cut out for it and others aren’t. With a certain kind of person, they can pull out all the stops and truly enjoy it to the end as long as they can justify their actions.”
He spat out the words, but who was he referring to there?
The 5 mass murderers who had used God Worshiping Magic? Or the Crystal Magic avengers who had gone around the world pursuing those 5?
Small hands gripped tightly at the edge of the blanket, small teeth bit at a lovely lower lip, and words too immature to call a curse left those lips.
“You won’t get what you want.”
“You don’t want anyone to die? You! You killed my sister!! My…my one and only and irreplaceable sister!! You took her from me!”
He said nothing.
It was not that he could not say anything.
He stood in a position where he could chop off the powerless girl’s head at any moment if he did not like what she said, but he chose not to. He was one of the world’s strongest and he used that authority to preserve the life of this girl who would normally have died by now.
He imagined how he would have felt in a similar position.
What if Anastasia had saved his life on a whim and said she would spare his life as long as he stayed in her castle?
(I would have dealt with it.)
He had once been an immature avenger too. For better or for worse, he had been blessed with others who shared his goal, their carefully-thought-out plans had worked out thanks to some coincidental luck, and they had managed to complete their vengeance.
(I would have managed even if I was kept like a bird in a cage and even if I was placed in a position where I would starve to death without her kindness.)
He did not need any special profiling skills or polygraph equipment to know.
The answer seemed to slip smoothly into his mind.
He had been down that path himself, so the killer intent directed his way allowed him to accurately predict something here. And obvious killer intent was only seen as praiseworthy among delinquents. With an avenger and someone hoping to stop them, such an obvious sign only made you easy to read.
(She’ll never back down on this, even if she can only survive on the crumbs her enemy drops below the table. This is the one thing she will stick to no matter what.)
“I, Natalena Blast, will tear your life to shreds. You killed my sister yet have the nerve to act like a mere observer, so I will kill you in your sleep!!”
“Is that so?”
She probably meant every word, but he sighed before responding.
“Don’t push yourself too hard, okay?”
“Stop making fun of me!!!!!!”
Someone watched the girl throw a pillow in anger.
But that someone was watching from the high school building located opposite the middle school on the combined deck of the ship’s three-hull structure. Some parts of the school building were full of people and others were deserted. The next floor down was noisy, but this hallway was entirely silent.
“Imi> Ugh, this is awful. You can’t count on online shopping at all. This swimsuit isn’t the right size. Marika, tell me how to deal with the cooling off period.”
“Marika> Don’t blame the store. It’s not their fault your body is growing so fast.”
“Imi> You say that, but what’s your cup size nowadays!?”
She was chatting with her classmates on social media while she watched.
The twintails girl sighed and coolly activated her Crystal Blossom. The translucent armor covered her body and she flipped around the rapier-like device’s guard to reveal a laser beam unit. Marika used Tezcatlipoca, who was linked to an obsidian mirror, so she could make attacks using light. Her accuracy was perfect. At this range, she could provide dental work if someone opened their mouth. As long as they were fine with having the surface burned away without any anesthetic.
“Tayori> Does the sale on the new summer colors begin in May? The world’s fashions are getting so vivid. I hate all those bright fluorescent colors. Do you know any more mature online stores that have better taste?”
“Imi> Why do you love wearing those skimpy things, Tayori? Is it about the airflow???”
“Tayori> Shut it, thick cotton girl. I’m talking about mascara right now. And are you trying to make tofu with those striped panties?”
“Imi> These are polyester, not cotton!!”
“Marika> Um, why are you including me in these shockingly embarrassing messages? Are you both digital exhibitionists or something???”
That gave her some time to think.
About Utagai Karuta, not Natalena Blast.
Things were not going well for him. He said he would persuade the girl and wait for her to have a change of heart. That seemed so uncertain and careless to her. Why did he fail to realize that he would be killed if Natalena chose the “betrayal” card just once out of the hundreds of decisions she would be making from now on?
She hated this. He was stupidly pure, but that was exactly why she refused to let anyone trample on his feelings. What that girl did now was not the issue. She was bound to do it eventually. That was a foregone conclusion at this point.
So Marika would kill the girl. That was the only way to keep them safe.
The way Karuta and Kyouka saw it, Marika could not do that now that she had lost based on the rules they had all agreed to. Because if she did, they would break apart and she would lose the person she was trying to protect. But those two were too naïve.
She did not care if she lost her own position here.
As long as she could protect the people she saw as “on her side” – namely, Karuta, Aine, and Kyouka – nothing else mattered to her. Her top priority was protecting those people she cared for and there was no real reason why her own name had to be on that list.
If they arrested her, so be it.
If she was kicked out of Grimnoah, she could deal with it.
If Utagai Karuta killed her after she saved him…well, she might actually enjoy that.
Whatever the case, Amaashi Marika was not going to stop here. She intentionally narrowed her focus. She made sure to view only this one point. She made sure she was aware of every last breath that target took.
She loudly clicked her tongue.
The voice came from behind her. The almost mechanical-sounding voice of course belonged to Crystal Girl Aine. She could tell without even looking back that the girl’s cold katana would be held out toward her back.
“So he saw through it all, huh?”
“Sacri-sama does not wish to fight you. He hopes you will keep that in mind.”
Karuta had lured her into this sniping point so Aine could sneak up behind her, but that was not what irritated her so much.
She was irritated that Aine was here at all.
“I can’t believe that moron. Does this mean he’s smiling and speaking with her while really and truly defenseless? When she’s honestly trying to kill him?”
Her voice was tinged with exasperation.
Did he feel he could only really speak with the girl when he set his weapon aside? That was a lovely enough sentiment to place in a textbook, but this was an assassin who had put together a plot to kill him and even acted on that plot. Once she knew he could not use Aine, she was certain to bare her fangs and activate her Crystal Blossom armor. And there was nothing Karuta could do once that happened.
Amaashi Marika did not think she was normal. A normal girl could not protect the people she cared about, so she had intentionally destroyed her own brakes and forced herself to make the cruel decisions. She knew that about herself.
But that childhood friend was different.
He remained unchanged and smiling as he wished for peace and disliked conflict.
Yet the most broken one among them was not Amaashi Marika or Omotesandou Kyouka; it was Utagai Karuta.
“Don’t you think we should kill Natalena Blast? Before she can actually harm someone?”
“Yes. But Sacri-sama has banned that and I will obey his inefficient command.”
He may have been even more broken than Aine who was not even human.
Yes, Aine had intended to kill Natalena from the beginning. Then Marika had suggested they kill her. Kyouka had gone on to suggest they torture her to get information from her, but she would not have cared much about whether the girl survived or not. She would not be a comedic dominatrix from a comedian’s skit. A true whip would have knots and metal hooks that tore into the skin and muscle. A torturer would strike people like that without batting an eye.
Natalena had attacked them, so they had no reason to show any leniency. Even the laws of their country allowed for self-defense.
Karuta might seem like the reasonable one, but he was in fact the odd man out.
Of course people would take a cold view of a someone trying to kill them or the people they cared about. Especially if they had been set free to do as they wished. You could not hope for morality, ethics, and universal humanity at a time like that.
How could he forgive her? How could he smile and trust the person holding that blade?
“Yes, I know. I have to give up this time.”
“Ideally, you would give up indefinitely and not just this one time. Stopping you every single time sounds like a lot of work.”
Aine made it sound like she could in fact do that, so it may have been a matter of pride for her.
Marika had lost this once, so she was not going to argue the point until she had redeemed herself.
“I just hope there are plenty more opportunities.”
“He could be killed in his sleep by someone he could have easily defeated if he tried. But I guess that does sound like an appropriate way for one of the world’s strongest to die, doesn’t it? That’s the path we’re on right now. A stereotypical one-way road to doom that someone else laid out for us. And, Aine-chan, don’t forget that you share Karuta’s fate if he dies.”
“I will keep that in mind.”
As various foreboding gears came together, school life at Grimnoah continued.
It would be May soon.
They would spend all of Golden Week on a field trip.
Between the Lines 1
The biggest difference between a tall tourist hotel and a long luxury cruise ship was the infrastructure requiring wiring and plumbing, like power, gas, and water. A ship would of course need to contain it all inside and supply itself with what it needed. Even when moored at port, it would need to keep its massive diesel engine running, using up a lot of fuel. But Grimnoah had a specialized connection joist on the side, allowing it to borrow from the land infrastructure when moored.
“Yeah, this is the life☆”
Tanned Riho brought her hands to her silver hair while a rain-like sound washed over her body.
She was in the shower room.
With over a thousand students and teachers and with a focus on combat education, the ship was well supplied with showers. Each room had its own bathroom and there were dedicated shower rooms distributed around. That would never happen on a warship or a tanker.
The room was lazily divided into booths, but those booths were not as cramped as a phonebooth. The partitions were only simple boards, so it would not be difficult to peek over the top or crawl below them.
Another girl had climbed up onto the partition to peek over at her from the adjacent booth. She had undone her hair and removed her glasses while showering, but the black-haired girl was Sanae.
“Hey, Riho-chan. Are we going to have water restrictions once we’re out at sea?”
“Not a chance. This is the great Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah, home of the world’s strongest.” The tanned and silver-haired girl laughed loud. “This ain’t #2 or #3. We’re talking about the #1 fortress in the world, so it’s gonna be luxury at all times. The normal rules of ships won’t apply here.”
“Yeah, the great.”
The frosted glass window in front of Riho suddenly opened.
Even starting from the deck, this was three floors up, but that was irrelevant when Crystal Magic allowed for flight. The blonde ponytail girl named Alice leaned exhausted against the window frame while surrounded by translucent crystals and with jagged armor jutting out.
“What are you talking about here??? I wanna join in.”
“Wait, you idiot! Don’t open the window! Remove that frosted glass and everyone can see me from the high school building over there!!”
“There are over a thousand windows on this wall, so no one will notice.”
“Liar! Karuta-senpai just looked right at me from the hallway over there! And he blushed before quickly looking away!”
The slender girl’s silhouette was extended quite a bit with that Crystal Magic armor active, so it was nearly impossible for the blonde ponytail girl to climb inside even with the window fully open.
“I’ll fall if I remove the armor, so pull me in.”
Riho grabbed that incarnation of self-indulgence by the hands to make sure she would not fall without her flight. Only then did Alice deactivate her armor. She was then pulled into the shower booth like the rope in a game of tug-of-war.
“Abwabwah. What? Why would you leave the shower on!? Ha ha☆ My uniform’s soaked.”
“You only have yourself to blame there.”
Alice did not seem to mind much. She actually laughed as she reached for her blazer uniform’s buttons. She did not have a change of clothes here, so she must not have given any thought to what she would do after stripping off her uniform and taking a shower. While watching Alice have trouble removing her blouse since it was wet and clinging to her skin, Sanae spoke up from the adjacent booth.
“Come on, you need to follow the rules, you two. We’re about to leave on a field trip.”
“Europe!! This isn’t even like a class trip or anything. I can’t believe a simple field trip is on such a huge scale. Grimnoah can just throw money around, can’t it!?”
Alice (who had grown the most of the three) laughed while exposing her body to the shower after removing her underwear, but Riho said nothing about having her shower booth hijacked. She did frown, though.
“Are you sure it’s going to be all fun and games? Just look at our normal lessons. The teachers all have a habit of betraying our expectations, right?”
“W-well, doing things by the book probably isn’t enough to fight the Threat.”
“Since it would take months to send Grimnoah to the other side of the planet, I heard we’re taking a normal airplane for this overseas trip, but it all sounds too contrived to me. Like they’re intentionally removing the normal defenses.”
The students would be a perfect target for anyone hoping to attack them.
Or for anyone who wanted to test their strength.
The nude blonde girl reached behind her head to undo her ponytail while she asked a question.
“Hm? What are you getting at, Riho-chan?”
“Alice, you’ve heard the rumors, haven’t you?”
Riho waved a hand dismissively.
This new generation did not understand the risk, so none of it felt real to her.
“They say this field trip is actually a cover for that deadly school festival they call the Catastrophe.”
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