Apocalypse Witch:Volume2 Chapter4
It took longer than a day, but they had defeated every last one of the Threat.
They had gone around destroying more and more and more and more of the Threat flooding the ground and sky.
Even though that enemy was not even strictly alive.
This was not the first night they had seen during the fighting. It was the second one.
The fighting had been fierce, but Utagai Karuta was one of the survivors.
And if the category of survivors existed, another category also had to exist.
A dray cracking sound reached Karuta’s ears.
It was the sound the small crystal shards scattering after his arm completed its regeneration.
This Threat had been artificial weapons created by Smart Arms, so the blinding laser emitted by his modified military flashlight could cause a malfunction in their sensors.
He could also use the Preset regeneration.
A human could derail a speeding train if they did not care what happened to their own body. They simply had to lie down and place their arm across the track. By jamming his hand into the joints of the mechanical legs, he could briefly stop them from moving. By having his own arm crushed to cushion the impact, he could prevent a fatal blow to his organs. He had avoided instant death and considered the cost-performance of each action to destroy his own body at maximum efficiency. Meanwhile, he had used Aine to slice through the center of the Threat and overcome the difference in numbers. It actually helped that the Threat was so large and packed together as a swarm. He could slip below one to escape the legs of the others, giving him a momentary shelter. At least until its stomach dropped to squash him.
He had to have destroyed more of them than even Marika who had used her superhuman flying instincts to bomb the Threat with frightening precision. His “poisoning” plan had worked well. The fake Threats could no longer evolve once they could not take in the parts of their fallen.
The weapon he used, his own destruction, and the strategy itself all came back to his own abilities.
Even so, the voices were still ringing in his ears.
“Help me!” “I don’t want to die!” “Aren’t you the world’s strongest!? The Four Living Gods!?”
He was haunted by the cries of the students who had trusted him right up until the very end when reality set it and they felt betrayed.
He could not live up to all their expectations.
The crystal scattered at his feet was not all the result of his own regeneration. Small hands, slender legs, and a cute face were lying there. They were translucent and not recovering.
Hadn’t she been the Student Council Treasurer?
He honestly did not even know her name. He remembered how coldly she treated him whenever he showed up to speak with Kyouka, but he also remembered how she had kept the other students away for him when Sanae died. She was not just some title. She was a human being who could pick up on people’s feelings and show them kindness. The fact that he only knew her by that title was a failing on his part, not hers.
And now she was gone.
“Altogether, that’s an entire class worth of kids dead!! Is this…is this what you wanted, Alice!!!???”
He knew his question would go unanswered.
That girl had been laser sniped by Marika and smashed to pieces by a Threat’s giant jaws. Not to mention the battlefield had moved around a lot during the fighting. Not even he remembered where exactly he had spoken with Alice Majority.
Despite everything, one group remained whole.
Karuta, Aine, Marika, and Kyouka.
The Four Living Gods were the ones that trio had actually wanted to kill, yet not one of them had died. Karuta knew from his own experience that plans had a way of going wrong, but still.
Their attempt had been an utter failure.
With the extreme fighting over, the supply of adrenaline may have stopped.
For whatever reason, he suddenly hit his limit.
He collapsed onto his side and felt like he could never move again. He simply pulled in the object in front of him. It was the crystallized head of the Treasurer with a bob cut.
The killers and the killed were gone, having accomplished nothing. That thought triggered an explosion of negative emotion within him. He had done this. The world he had created had driven them to this.
Even though he had believed defeating the Problem Solvers would change the world so these cruel sacrifices were no longer necessary.
He heard a weak and unreliable voice from beyond the blizzard.
It was Natalena Blast, another person trapped in revenge.
“That’s enough! Please stop fighting like that! You’re scaring everyone! Is that the ultimate form of Crystal Magic!? Destroying your own body to protect a non-regenerating flashlight!? Are we all going to end up like that eventually!? You’re the world’s strongest, so if you don’t pull yourself together, Grimnoah really will fall apart!!”
Now was the time to clean up the mess.
They had to check for any surviving Threats either in hiding or playing dead among the scraps, so everyone was combing the snowy terrain. With nonhuman opponents, they could not demand a surrender and the concept of war crimes did not apply. If they ran across a Threat, they would immediately destroy it.
But Karuta remained motionless on the ground, moving just his eyes to look over at the speaker.
It was indeed Natalena.
Only then did he slowly climb to his feet. Even if he had to force it.
She really was strong. There had been no guarantees out here, but she had found a survival strategy all on her own. Yes. Even when the Threat appeared in such numbers and could endlessly grow by devouring their own fallen, her ability to grab and swing around anything was just about the only thing that could defeat them head on.
Her Crystal Magic borrowed Anubis’s power. Before, she had attacked by using the thin wires and small grab buckets to grab at matter and swing it around as a blunt weapon. She had grabbed both solids and liquids from the area around her. Karuta had shown how to defeat that back on the beach that night. Her strength would probably rise if she grabbed something like explosives, magma, or powerful acid, but she did not use that sort of trickery here.
Instead, she chose a completely different fighting style.
She had grown yet again.
(She wasn’t using just solids and liquids. She was grabbing gasses and even plasma, which is known as the fourth state of matter.)
More than just grabbing containers or boulders, she could swing around water or the air to create her own cataclysms, like a flashflood or a powerful windstorm. She had even grabbed and twisted around explosions and blowtorch blades.
Just like her sister Anastasia, her destruction seemed more like magic than a weapon.
He had somewhat predicted this and even Omotesandou Kyouka had said the girl was powerful.
(She picked it up so fast. Scary fast.)
That young girl could transform a crisis into personal growth. At this rate, she might even surpass Karuta or Marika one day.
He had no proof of it, but he wondered if she would eventually be able to grab the dimension itself.
He could not begin to predict what would happen if she did that. As a Regulation 3, Omotesandou Kyouka had once been able to leap beyond this dimension, so perhaps she would be able to find the answer.
But all of that was Natalena Blast’s personal situation.
He doubted he would ever forget the names of those 34. He had known her name was not on the list, but he did not know who all she was friends with.
He gently placed the Student Council Treasurer’s severed head on the snow and asked a question with haunted eyes.
“Are your friends okay, Natalena?’
The world’s strongest piece of shit had failed to protect everyone coming to him for help.
The extreme exhaustion and cold had taken their toll, but the psychological damage was even greater. He was about ready to mistake the snow for a down blanket and fall asleep right there.
But young Natalena gave him a frightened look. It was the look of someone seeing a horrific wound. Yet that boy had killed her sister and she had vowed to have her revenge, so seeing him in such a haggard state should have delighted her to no end.
“What will you do now?”
That was the fundamental question.
He did not have it in him to keep going right now.
“Are you going to keep at it? Even after seeing that?”
She bit her lip.
“What if I do say I will have my revenge?”
Toudou Riho had her throat slit for suggesting they stop. Moriyama Sanae had her belly devoured while fearing she had made a mistake. Alice Majority had lit the fuse of doom after losing everything.
What kind of answer would an avenger accept?
After thinking, Utagai Karuta opened his mouth again.
He was worn down and injured, but he could not stop here.
“I will stop you.”
“I will stop your revenge no matter what. Before you end up like this too.”
“How can you say that after killing my sister?”
Fair point, he thought.
It was a self-serving argument and it would sound shallow and idealistic no matter who it came from. When someone was boiling in the flames of vengeance, it did not matter how dangerous that vengeance would be. They could not rest until they succeeded.
“Fail in your revenge and you die. But even if you succeed, what you see before you is all it gets you.”
He spat out that truth. It was such a wasteful answer given all the lives cruelly taken. And now that he had learned the truth, he could not turn away from it.
He knew full well he could not recommend this path to anyone else.
“So I will stop you. No matter what it takes and no matter what anyone says! Natalena, I can’t let you face this dilemma!!”
Someone should have said this sooner.
At the very beginning.
Someone should have said it to Karuta’s group too.
And to Alice’s trio.
Someone should have prevented them from glorifying revenge as a noble goal. Someone should have stopped them before they had killed their first person and before it was too late. Someone should have dragged them away from the shadows and back out into the sun.
They had not had someone to stop them like that. Not that they would have listened while in the midst of their revenge. They would have gone mad with rage, decided that person was “one of them”, and added them to the list of targets. But even so, they had lacked someone who would silence those fools with their fists, show them an overwhelming power, and then rub their head, smile, and tell them everything would be okay.
Succeed or fail, revenge led to a dead end.
All who attempted it were doomed to sink into the depths of hell.
So he had to stop this young girl.
She could resent him, she could curse him, and she could spit on him.
But he would save her. He would give her enough of a future to eventually look back on it all and realize he had done the right thing. He knew where revenge led, so he would not back down here!!
“I took a loved one from you and words of apology will never bring them back.”
“So I don’t want to take anything more from you. Not a single thing. My hands are already stained with blood, so I won’t act like I’m in any position to give you anything, but I will put a stop to this to ensure you don’t lose anything more. I will end the chain of loss and violence here. And I’ll stoop to any level to do that!!!!!!”
Young Natalena pursed her lips.
As if to hold in what threatened to burst from her chest.
Then she whispered two simple words with a hand reaching for the Crystal Blossom on her flat chest.
He had failed to reach her.
Crystal armor appeared out of thin air and translucent units resembling long skis attached to her feet. Those weapons resembled spider legs or cranes, but they were the god of judgment’s scales. The wires and grab buckets allowed her to grab up to 16 things and swing them around as blunt weapons. Anubis, the Egyptian god of judgment, was the exact same god that Anastasia had once worshiped and relied on.
Aine started to raise her sword while standing alongside him, but he held his right arm out horizontally to stop her.
“Don’t, Aine,” he said without turning toward her.
“If you don’t like my orders, then cut me down with that sword. Right this instant.”
The look on Natalena’s face could not quite be described as smiling or weeping.
“If you’re trying to apologize, stop trying to look so cool!! You can start by crawling pitifully on the ground to make me feel better about this! I mean, this isn’t right. You’re a murderer! You have no moral high ground here, so you can’t talk down to me like this! I have the right to feel good about my revenge!! So…so why are you making me suffer like this!? Why are you making me feel like I’m doing something wrong!!!???”
Those words were like an epiphany to him.
He knew now why she had chosen Anubis, even if she may not have realized it herself.
“Wait, what did you just figure out? No, you can’t do this.”
“Anubis is a god of judgment. He assesses human souls and weighs them on his scales.”
Utagai Karuta’s legs gave out below him.
No, he took a knee and bowed his head in the presence of a god.
He looked through the trembling girl to the god of judgment within her.
“Anubis, I’m sorry.”
She had told him not to look cool and to crawl pitifully on the ground.
She was exactly right.
“I killed your partner. But the punishment for that belongs to me. So please don’t have this girl bloody her hands over it.”
She immediately kicked up a leg and had the crane unit grab a large mass of air using the grab bucket at the end of one of its wires, but that was all that happened.
It was not swung around.
She did not produce a weapon of wind.
She gently lowered her small leg.
Had Natalena Blast stopped herself? Nothing else should have been possible. Crystal Magic only sealed the god’s name in a small circuit board and did not call on the actual god the way God Worshiping Magic did.
But even so.
Something about this made Karuta feel like this was the direct result of him beseeching that deity.
Her voice was barely audible. Nothing remained of the intense emotion she had been forcibly maintaining before.
She could no longer keep it up. Even her translucent armor crumbled around her.
She bit her lip.
But the loss was still too much to bear, so tears filled the corners of her eyes and she spoke.
Almost like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“No fair passing the right of judgment onto someone else.”
Revenge was justified by converting your thoughts for the deceased into violence. It would lose its driving force if the deceased said to stop, but the dead could not speak. When seeking revenge for the dead, that absolute brake did not exist.
But Anastasia’s situation was different.
One of the pair remained.
Anubis, Egyptian god of judgment, had fought alongside Anastasia as part of the world’s strongest.
That was why Anastasia’s sister had chosen him.
But did he really see violence as the answer here?
This was the only way to stop her revenge. No blow could have been more powerful than the forgiveness of her sister’s partner.
It had been the same for Karuta’s group.
If Karuta had managed to speak with Kazamuki Gekiha once more and he had told him to stop that foolish quest for revenge, his spirit would have broken. He had been ready to betray the world and take on the strongest, but that attack was one that he could never have avoided.
He had said he would do whatever it took, so he had taken the girl’s right to justified revenge and handed it to Anubis instead.
“If you don’t go berserk here – if you can stop yourself from doing something unjust now that justified revenge has been taken from you, then you aren’t like Alice. It means you can still go back into the light of the sun.”
“You saw it through to the ugly end yourself!! You know revenge can work out in the end if you stick with it. Um, uh, but are you really saying I am worth rejecting everything you did to reach this point!?”
He smiled a little.
He felt like he had finally found a place for himself.
He was fine simply viewing that bright world from the shadows.
As long as he could provide a push back into the light when he found someone who had not crossed the point of no return.
Still, he carried the weight of the world’s strongest.
He would have to wear that crown without letting it crush him.
“Sacri-sama.” Aine seemed to have found something. She was looking in a different direction altogether. “Won’t this conclusion make her an enemy?”
That was enough to tell him who he would find in that direction.
She was the most reliable friend but she could also lose control in the worst possible way. Without her, his revenge would have failed very quickly, but without her, he would not have fallen this far either.
She had already activated her Crystal Magic armor.
Needless to say, she was not concerned about any of the fake Threats having survived. She was viewing a much more obvious target. That was the thing about her. She never considered the formless and unknown enemies.
Her own life was of secondary importance.
But when people she cared about would come to harm, Amaashi Marika would not hesitate to dirty her hands.
“Her revenge is over,” said Karuta in a weary voice.
“What proof of that do you have?”
He made an immediate decision.
Asking the other students or teachers for help here would be the height of folly. Not even Sophia Firenze or Kiyosawa Hadome could stop this fight. This was a clash between strongests. Marika did not care who else showed up. If they got in her way, she would mercilessly remove them from the equation.
That was the way the world worked.
And it worked that way because Karuta’s group had killed the Problem Solvers.
The twintails girl pointed at his face with her rapier-like unit.
“The mind is a fickle thing, so it’s easily swayed. She might not feel like taking revenge now, but the desire for vengeance might come back when she wakes up from her shallow sleep in the middle of the night. You’ve already seen what happens when an avenger goes off the rails, haven’t you? It doesn’t stop them. She’ll keep going and make you suffer in some way or another. Anyone after you for revenge must be eliminated, no matter how insignificant. And they must be eliminated in a way that leaves no room for swaying.”
This was a battle between friends.
It was the same ugly result reached by Riho, Sanae, and Alice.
Karuta was being drawn into the exact thing he had wanted to avoid.
But he could not stop it. And he knew why.
“Natalena is our top priority. Protect her even if it kills me.”
Aine’s mouth formed a small triangle as she kept her sword at the ready.
A clear change came over the look in Marika’s eyes, but he spoke all the same.
“Marika, you said people are easily swayed.”
“Then tell me. How can you trust me so much? You saw how cheap, persistent, and hopeless I am back when we fought the Problem Solvers.”
She did not even have to think about her answer.
“Because I know I can laugh and accept you no matter how much you might deceive me. That’s what it means to truly care about someone.”
Her words were accompanied by a slight smile.
It was true that she at least would not be swayed. She stuck with someone to the end. And it apparently had to be someone she felt that strongly about. He was touched, but it also explained why the list of people she would protect was so very short. She might even sink the new Grimnoah if it would protect Karuta or Kyouka. All while she claimed that was not the place for them.
At the same time, he found nothing to work with there.
He could beg her to trust Natalena because he did, but it would not reach her. She trusted him, not Natalena, so if he trusted Natalena and was betrayed, she would only see it as a “told you so” moment. She would only feel hatred for the deceiver and cut her down. The younger girl’s circumstances were irrelevant to her.
Worse, she was saying she would kill the girl before that could happen.
Because she did not want to even imagine seeing that boy soaked in blood and tears.
(It’s no good. There’s no way to stop this!)
This would not end like it had for Natalena Blast. Amaashi Marika had already successfully completed her revenge. She was tougher and surer of herself, so there was no opening there.
She was too much to handle.
And others might say the same about Utagai Karuta himself.
“Are you quite done?”
She spun her rapier around to shift the tip away from Karuta.
She directed it toward Natalena Blast, the 12-year-old girl who had lost her sister and her chance at revenge.
She did not hesitate.
“Then move out of the way. Be warned, try to protect her here and it will only mean more pain for you.”
“Sacri-sama, you may have forgotten, but my nonlethal mode for Grimnoah people is still in effect. This would be extremely challenging and is not recommended. Shall we continue nonetheless?”
“Of course we will!!”
It was time to steel himself. He stuck a hand in his blazer uniform and pulled out the modified military flashlight before stepping up beside Aine.
That positioned himself in front of the defanged and now harmless young girl.
He had sworn he would not take anything more from her. Not a single thing.
He had to live up to that.
“Aine, we need to work together to defeat Amaashi Marika, one of the world’s strongest! But don’t kill her, no matter what might happen!! I will never let you do that!!!!!!!”
Being known as the world’s strongest was fine and all, but what kind of world’s strongest did you want to be? That had to be where Utagai Karuta and Amaashi Marika’s opinions differed.
When someone was about to face tragedy, one of them wanted to reach out a helping hand before they fell.
When someone near and dear to them was in danger, one of them was willing to destroy everything else in the world to protect them.
They were both strong and just, but they were both selfish and willful.
That was what made them the strongest.
And they had a power great enough to push all else aside and stay true to their personal beliefs.
The two high schoolers roared at almost the same time.
That was enough for Natalena Blast to stare, forgetting that her own life was at risk here.
This was on an entirely different level.
She used her own Crystal Magic correctly since she had absorbed everything the teacher’s told her, even if only as a way of making sure no one suspected her true motives. But correct was all it was. She only had the skills necessary to score well on the tests, which was something else entirely from what was needed to overwhelm an opponent in actual combat.
Karuta and Marika’s battle was from another world altogether.
Their powers had been honed for the sole purpose of killing, so as inappropriate as it might be, their clash was more beautiful than anything. Just as newly-developed weapons were given an aesthetic beauty in addition to simple functionality and durability, since they had to represent the nation that used them.
That was what it meant to be the strongest.
Just like the largest warship and the fastest stealth fighter gave off an aura all their own, people gained various accolades as they rose to those heights.
Or perhaps being the strongest gave you the power to distort the world around you to accept what you were as beautiful. That was the greatest attraction found only in the world’s strongest. It was a devilish charm that could only be obtained by being #1. They both used Crystal Magic, but there was something fundamentally different between Natalena and Karuta.
That crown was once worn by Anastasia Blast, but it had been stolen by Utagai Karuta.
There were two things that Karuta had to stop.
The first was Amaashi Marika’s flight. He could not fly, so he wanted to avoid being unilaterally bombed from above. The second was the powerful laser sniping with her rapier-like unit. It attacked at the speed of light, so it was nearly impossible for Aine’s sword to block it. Marika’s target was Natalena, so she would not be aiming that at Karuta or Aine. If a laser slipped between the two of them and put a hole between Natalena’s eyes, Karuta would lose.
“I rush her!!”
He swallowed his fear and clenched his teeth while forcing himself toward the girl.
He was willing to use his Preset regeneration. He would move in and lock weapons with her even if it meant a severed arm. That was his only way of keeping her from acting freely.
Marika smiled while readying her rapier.
It was a belligerent smile.
They had known each other a long time and had overcome deadly battles together, so they knew each other’s smallest tendencies.
Aine’s voice sounded distorted even though she was right next to him.
Of course it did.
It felt like an explosion, but it was not.
He had attacked with his modified military flashlight and Aine with her sword, but Marika caught those things on her rapier and mercilessly activated the translucent armor that enhanced her strength. That led to a great eruption. Aine flipped sideways in a tailspin to let the vector safely escape her, but Karuta could not do the same and he was launched straight upwards. The pain was so great he thought his arms were going to pull out of his shoulders as he flew 100m up. His ears throbbed painfully from the rapid pressure change.
A voice whispered in his ear. After launching him, Amaashi Marika had used the full strength of her armor to easily leap up higher even than him.
“You’re really weak for a Crystal Magician.”
He shouted her name on reflex yet still adjusted his grip on the flashlight, but he immediately realized that was a mistake. Only he cared about settling things with her. His childhood friend’s top priority target was not him.
In other words, she was going to bomb Natalena Blast who stood in a daze back on the ground.
He immediately revised his plan and shouted into the Crystal Blossom on his chest.
His own safety was of secondary importance.
“Aine!! Watch out for a laser bombing!! Us the snow below your feet!!”
The lag was less than a second, but Aine was faster. She used the jitte-like laser bayonet on the back of her sword to perform a horizontal sweep across the artificial land. The point was to evaporate the thick layer of snow on top.
White steam erupted upwards and that makeshift smokescreen hid Aine and Natalena from view.
Marika’s rapier fired a powerful laser beam down, but…
“The bombing has been diverted. Shall we play dead?”
“Don’t ask that when she’s close enough to overhear, you moron!!”
Yes, a laser was incredibly hard to dodge since it flew at the speed of light, but it did have its weaknesses. It would be weakened by any impurities in the air, like sand or moisture, and it could be bent or diverted by the temperature differences and other factors that caused mirages.
But if Marika continued to fire, she would eventually score a clean hit.
She was in the sky and that was the first thing that had to be changed.
“I’m stronger than you, so did you really think you could win? When you have no wings or engine to use?”
“Kh!! Aine, take care of this!!”
With an explosive sound, Marika began a roundhouse kick motion, but Karuta was hit from below. The ocean of white steam was instantly blown away, revealing countless destroyed Threats on the surface. Aine had stuck her hand in the destroyed armor of a black scorpion one and launched the anti-air explosion created from the combination of a pellet and laser.
She had reduced the power a lot, but the blast still hit him hard, causing him to bounce unnaturally up in defiance of gravity.
The upward movement let him dodge the girl’s roundhouse kick and he also spun his body around like a figure skater. He of course still held the flashlight in his hand.
He had no wings or engine.
But he still accurately targeted that aerial queen’s temple with the blunt weapon in his hand.
“Should I have given you a free hit?”
Her voice was already distorting.
He had no idea what had happened. All of a sudden, defenseless Marika’s body dissolved into flowing lines and a heavy blow stabbed into his spine from an impossible blind spot.
That was probably the rapier’s pommel.
“Even if you had hit, the Barrier’s spatial vibration field would have kept any damage from reaching me.”
Crystal Magic flight was not reliant on lift. How was he supposed to keep up with that? His breath was knocked from his lungs and his mind flashed in and out, preventing him from keeping his balance. He entered a wild tailspin high up in the sky.
He worked his oxygen-deprived lungs to let out a shout like he was coughing up blood.
Another explosion erupted on the surface.
He fell from a height of 100m, but he bounced in midair like an invisible cushion had caught him. That converted the potential energy to the equivalent of falling about 20m.
Still, 20m was the same as falling from the 5th or 6th floor of a building. After his unnatural bounce, he flew along a curving path Marika had not expected before plummeting down toward the ground.
The white ground spread out before his eyes.
But this was ice, not snow. He was above the frozen sea.
(I just have to avoid hitting with my head!!)
He had no control over his flight, but he swung his left arm just before impact to intentionally unbalance himself. Instead of falling on his head, he crashed into the ice with his shoulder.
He broke through the 80cm layer of ice and into the ocean below.
He thought his entire body was going to break apart.
His shoulder was entirely crushed and he could tell the thick bone had ended up deep inside his torso.
The pain was so great he actually could not pass out.
A fall from 20m created enough force to break right through ice thick enough for a 300kg polar bear to walk around on. A normal person would have died if they were submerged with a wound that bad.
But Utagai Karuta was not normal.
No matter how gruesome the wound, Crystal Magic would regenerate it in 30 seconds as long as it was not fatal.
Marika must have realized that.
Several lines of light broke through the ice above to attack.
He held his breath to continue hiding below the thick ice. The laser sniping had poor aim, most likely due to the oceanwater between them. It was the same as experiments run by passing light through a tank of water, and this water had waves.
He was submerged in the frigid ocean with his clothes still on. And even if he was righthanded, nearly his entire left half was covered in distorted crystal. It was much like the lesson he had given the kids back at Grimnoah. He had to focus on balancing himself to avoid spinning in the water.
Also, escaping to the surface would not help with an 80cm roof overhead. Crystal Magic regeneration could heal most any wound, but it could not provide him with oxygen.
He needed to figure something out himself.
Fortunately, this was not enough to interfere with the transmission from his Crystal Blossom.
He heard a cracking sound as the crystal covering half his body broke away, meaning he could move his arm again. That was convenient, but it also meant he had spent 30s in this frigid water. He barely had any air left in his mouth.
(I’ve been stuck relying on Aine this whole time!)
Marika wore her translucent armor, so he did not need to feel bad for making use of his own equipment, but he still clenched his teeth. He needed to open his mouth to speak, so he could not afford to fail here. He took action by releasing his remaining oxygen into the sea.
“Aine! Begin anti-air fire on Marika. Use metal shells this time!! 20-30mm autocannon class ones. You need quantity, not detailed calculations!!”
“That will have no effect on her.”
“I don’t want it to. Your nonlethal mode is still in effect. Now fire!!”
He heard muffled explosions through the water.
An ordinary assault rifle would be stopped by the spatial vibration field, but this had to be more than that. When Marika deflected them with her rapier or something, they would crash down into the thick ice, cracking and breaking it.
Shells poured down on the ocean.
(With just the one hole, she could aim there and fire once I surfaced, but with cracks everywhere, she won’t know where to expect me!!)
His head burst above the water and he took in a lungful of oxygen.
But he did not feel much in the way of relief.
The moment he touched the open air, his hair and eyelashes rapidly froze. It could be easy to forget while underwater, but this was an icy hell of -15 degrees.
Was it Student Council President Kyouka who had said he could lose an ear?
He would not last long.
This needed to be a short battle. He moved his trembling fingers to grab at the jagged edge of the white ice floating in the ocean. It was only 50-60cm up from the ocean surface, but if the different pieces of ice happened to pinch together while they rocked in the waves, he would be crushed.
It was a risky climb.
And once he crawled back up onto the icy land, he found his childhood friend smiling and crouched on the edge.
One of her icy hands grabbed at his throat and she stood up, as if stretching out her folded-up legs. He was dangling from her grip like a bluefin tuna on the fishing rod. He clutched at the hand on his neck and kicked at her thighs to knock her off balance, but she would not budge.
“Like I said: you’re weak.”
He had no way of arguing with that. She did not even need to strangle him or apply just a bit of force to snap his neck. If she kept things like this, he would freeze to death in the icy wind after just a few minutes.
“If you could send Aine-chan in on her own, you would be stronger than anyone. But since your command range is limited and you have to be on the battlefield with her, you have no defense if the enemy focuses on you. Especially when Aine-chan can only do what she’s ordered to do. It scares me to think what she would be like if she had those specs and could act autonomously with a mind like the President’s.”
“You’re unique as a Crystal Magician, but special doesn’t necessarily mean better. Straying from the standard path is an inherently risky choice.”
He heard something like cracking plastic.
His purple blazer uniform was freezing, starting from the outermost edges. At this rate, it would freeze to his skin and he would develop severe frostbite.
He heard another voice.
His vision darkened with despair.
The person standing there should not have been there. Natalena Blast was trembling and had tears in her eyes. Where had Aine gone? What could Natalena do against Marika with just her crystal armor and Anubis’s scales of judgment to work with?
“Please stop this!!”
The air roared as it was torn apart, but this was not Natalena’s doing.
Well before her ski-like scales could split apart into crane arms and thin wires, Marika’s rapier accurately pierced her crystal weapon. The scream of shattering glass may have been the sound of the special vibration field breaking. Cracks also ran through her cold armor and it began to shatter, but Marika did not wait around. She broke and shattered every last one of the translucent weapons resembling spider legs.
She seemed to be doing it as an afterthought.
Natalena could grab solids, liquids, gasses, and plasma, but not even she could reach Marika’s level.
It seemed to demonstrate the divide between a strongest and just another part of the group.
Marika did not even glance in Natalena’s direction. She still held Karuta’s neck in her hand while she spun her rapier around in the other hand and made short work of Natalena’s weapons.
“Don’t worry.” She spoke coldly to this person who was not her childhood friend. “And make no mistake. I held your life in my hands from the beginning. Nothing you do here can influence whether or not you survive this.”
She was desperate now.
Young Natalena was not stopped by her shattered armor. She charged right at Marika. She was struck by the rapier’s guard, pummeled by the bottom of the grip, and knocked to the snow over and over. The point was aimed her way and she was stabbed in the shoulder or side, but she still kept at it. Seeing it was enough to squeeze at Karuta’s heart.
Natalena Blast was battered and beaten, but she would not stop.
She clenched her teeth, suppressed the fear, and kept getting back to her feet. He felt certain she would have done the same even without the Crystal Magic regeneration.
But she was not doing any of it to protect herself.
“Let go!! Let go of Utagai Karuta! If you want to kill me, then just do it! He was already forgiven! My sister’s Anubis forgave him! We clenched our teeth and stopped the chain of violence. So what are you doing!? Call yourself the strongest or whatever else, but there’s no more reason to make anyone suffer! So why!?”
She had forgiven her enemy and given up on revenge.
In fact, she was even risking her life and shedding tears for the person she had so hated.
That was something Karuta’s group had never managed to do.
She held his throat tight enough for him to suffocate or even to snap his neck, but when he got out a groaning voice, his focus was not on himself.
“Are you still going to kill Natalena? She isn’t like us. She has far more humanity left. What right do we have to judge her when we couldn’t stop ourselves from reaching the end!!”
“I will if necessary.”
That was all Marika said.
She did not waver in the slightest.
He could not allow her to veer off course like this. If she killed Natalena based on her own personal rules, it truly was over for her. It might be hypocritical after what they had done, but he had to teach her that no one here had the right to judge someone like that, no matter how much they had suffered.
(I…have to end this.)
Marika had descended from the air and he assumed that was to avoid any more largescale anti-air attacks using the remains of the decoy Threats.
But this was the last chance to fight back against her.
(If she takes flight again and buys time up there, I’m done for. There will be nothing I can do to protect Natalena, so I have to end it here!!)
“I can imagine you want to end this here, but how exactly do you plan to do that?” The girl who knew him better than anyone said something horrifying. “There is no end in a battle between Crystal Magicians. Blow off some limbs or tear into their side and they’ll just regenerate it all in less than 30 seconds. So the only way to end this is to provide a fatal blow. It’s the only way.”
“I win as long as I kill Natalena Blast, but what about you? I won’t stop no matter what you do, so are you willing to deliver a fatal blow to stop me?”
He had been fundamentally mistaken here.
He knew this was psychological warfare meant to break his spirit, but he could not just ignore what she said.
Marika had a concrete win condition, but he did not.
He could not possibly kill his childhood friend, which was why he had ordered Aine to remain in nonlethal mode. He wanted to save Natalena, but he could not offer up someone else’s life instead. And Marika was endlessly coldhearted about this. She was willing to earn his hatred as long as she could protect him. She would even take herself hostage.
He was trapped.
He never had had a path to victory here.
“Let’s end this silly game,” spat out his childhood friend with a look colder than ice. She was no longer even looking at Natalena while the girl cried and grabbed at her. As if she did not even consider the girl a fellow human being. “Karuta, I kind of like how open to change you are, but that’s exactly why someone has to protect you or you could never survive in this world. We didn’t ask for this, but now that we’re at the top, we have to live here.”
He had to think.
He desperately worked his oxygen-deprived mind while she held him up by the neck.
He had to correct things from here. How could he turn this into a win? This battle would never end unless one or the other of them had received a fatal wound. How could he save both Marika and Natalena under those rules?
Revenge was a fruitless act.
For the avenger, for the target, and for everyone else.
What condition did he need to bring an end to that chain of violence!?
“Natalena Blast isn’t the world’s strongest, but anyone who isn’t has the right to challenge and defeat us,” said Marika. “So I will show no mercy here. No matter how powerless the challenger, I will destroy any and all who try to tear apart our world.”
How was that any different from what the Problem Solvers had done when they decided Crystal Magic was unnecessary and decided to nip it in the bud.
No matter what anyone said, Marika was his childhood friend.
He could not allow her to go down that path. And the strongest who was always with him had already told him how he could turn this around and win. His eyes were squarely on Amaashi Marika who sent a cold look back at him.
Why had she started talking at all?
If executing Natalena Blast was her top priority, she should have ignored him as he crawled half-dead from the ocean and she should have used that time to slice the 12-year-old girl to pieces. Even now, Natalena was thoughtlessly clinging to her in an explosion of emotion, so a single jab of her rapier would skewer the girl and give Marika what she wanted. So why?
The answer was obvious.
He just had to think back on what she had said. Something was missing there.
“Why drag this out when you know you won’t kill me? Delay too long out in this cold and you’ll freeze to death.”
That was why Marika was doing this.
Nothing she had said was a lie. But she had avoided mentioning her own Achilles’ heel. Killing Natalena was her win condition, but what was her lose condition? Failing to kill Natalena was not the answer.
To break Karuta’s spirit, she could not allow him to figure this out.
So he only had to shout at the crystal girl who could operate separate from him.
“Aine, cut right through my neck to cut off Marika’s arm!!”
There was a distorted breath, like someone’s throat had convulsed.
Bu it did not come from Karuta, who had given the order, or Aine, who had received it.
It did not even come from astonished Natalena who was desperately trying to stop the twintails girl.
There was only one person left.
Marika had the upper hand while lifting the boy up by his throat, but she had the look of someone who had just been run through with a sharp blade.
“I would, Marika. This was never about you hating Natalena Blast,” he roared with a grin.
Yes, she had used herself as a hostage and he had learned just how effective a tactic that could be.
“You want to eliminate anything that threatens those you care about. That is what drives you! So without me, you lose any reason to kill Natalena. Marika, you’re smart, but trying to hide that lose condition only accentuated the fear behind it!!”
“You can’t do it.”
She was nearly laughing.
No, she had tried to laugh and failed. She could not suppress the emotion she wanted to hide behind the laughter. She had even forgotten about Natalena grabbing at her hips.
Yes, because this issue was far more important than her target.
“You can’t possibly do it!! Is this textbook righteousness? Or do you feel guilty about what you did to Anastasia? You only met Natalena a few days ago! It’s wrong to throw away your life for someone you barely know!!”
That childhood friend valued the length of a relationship above all else, so this had to be truly unbelievable for her.
“If you really believe that, then why did you hide your lose condition?”
“You knew that old softy Utagai Karuta might do it. That subconscious fear led you to hide that worst possibility. So that’s exactly what I’ll do. Listen, Marika. It isn’t just Natalena Blast I’m trying to protect. I want to protect you from this blood on your hands!! We hated the Problem Solvers so much we went around killing every last one of them, so we can’t afford to be led astray!! We have to bring happiness to the world we created. We stand at the top, so we have to get along with Natalena and the others who couldn’t stand at the top!! If we force people to go without happiness or trample on people’s happiness, then we aren’t any better than the Problem Solvers!!!!!!”
For that, he was willing to offer up his life. He did not care what happened to him.
He gathered his last ounce of strength to put on a smile with his neck still in her grasp. Marika’s smile had grown twisted as she tried to hide her fear, but his was a pure and kind smile.
Natalena was trembling and clinging to Marika’s hips for a different reason than before. She seemed to be staring at something that would pay them a silent visit in the near future.
“You can’t do that!! Amaashi-senpai, um, isn’t there anything you can do!?”
Something was indeed approaching from behind Marika.
His weapon approached with a crystal sword in hand.
“I win,” he said.
“Cry and wail all you like, but don’t expect human emotion or standards to reach Aine. You yourself said all she can do is follow my orders and only I can call her off. So, Marika, the only way to cancel Aine’s execution command is to kill me.”
The crystal armor, the Preset regeneration, and the rest of Marika’s magic would generally only protect her. Even the barrier was not perfect. If Aine attacked with all her might, Marika might be able to defeat her. But Karuta would die if the crystal girl got even one attack in before then.
He thought of her as a kind girl.
She could say and do some extreme things, but she generally only ever thought about others. He would protect her no matter what. She only looked so frightening because her blade was directed at him. She provided the greatest sense of comfort when she was using that to protect him.
This parched world could use a hero like that.
But if she was going to stay true to herself, he would not hesitate to do the same.
Just as she was the strongest in her own way, he could be the strongest in his own way.
His idea of the strongest was not to slaughter all else and stand tall in a giant pool of blood.
It was to stop all hopeless conflict no matter what toll it took on him.
Would she do nothing and watch as Aine killed the boy, or would she kill Karuta to remove that execution command? Both options ended the same way. That ultimate sadist brought tears to the eyes of the kind girl who had been by his side as far back as he could remember. And that absolute scum said one last thing with a smile on his face.
“This is goodbye.”
There was nothing she could do.
Aine’s sword swung down at max speed and severed Marika’s arm at the wrist, translucent armor and all.
The deadly blade mercilessly and silently passed right through Utagai Karuta’s neck.
“Hmm, I see.”
Elsewhere, Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka muttered to herself in a knowing sort of way.
She was toying with a phone.
Needless to say, this was not a commercial device. It was an indiscriminate signal interceptor that connected to multiple mobile routers, gathered the many EM signals flying around, and decrypted them.
(She was given Anastasia Blast’s secrets and sent to the Second Grimnoah with a new identity. I had thought Natalena was fairly ineffectual for how much information and support the string pullers provided.)
If they were powerful enough to rewrite someone’s identity at will, they also could have disguised a military elite or an intelligence agent as a student or teacher and sent them to Grimnoah. There was no need to rely on Crystal Magic if they were only interested in killing. The assassination would be much easier using invisible germs, gas, or radiation.
This was Anastasia’s sister.
Kyouka had thought the string pullers might be using that avenger and her obvious motive as a symbol to inspire more people to fight back. But their communications had been cut off early on and the string pullers had made no attempt to restore them. If that was their goal, they should have been spreading word of it far and wide, but there was no sign of that happening.
“They never expected anything from her.”
Kyouka smiled bitterly at how dry her voice sounded.
She had realized there was no going back for her.
(They were trying to tear us apart over how we would deal with Natalena once we defeated her. Come to think of it, we even considered that possibility early on. I thought that threat had passed once Karuta-kun smoothed things over for us, but I guess that’s still the crux of the issue.)
She tapped her wheelchair’s armrest with the corner of the phone.
(Maybe I dug too deep here. They seem to be rather short-tempered for how thick a veil they used to hide their true face. How childish.)
She had always been considering the human string pullers more than the Threat or the avenger who used Crystal Magic. She had created this signal interceptor out of a phone and mobile routers in order to steal away the digital information of the pursuer who never seemed to leave them alone.
And that had angered them.
She did not know exactly who they were, but…
(If they felt the need to act, I must be getting close.)
She actually saw this situation as an opportunity, but that may have been why she worked so well as the Student Council President at the top of Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah.
(If you’re afraid of someone digging deeper, the best thing to do is show no reaction at all and let it pass. They may have thought they won this round, but they’ve only dug their own graves. Now I have a destination, so I only have to follow the path displayed to me.)
Whatever the case, now was the time to act.
She had only just arrived on the correct path, but if she ran out of strength now, she could never hope to reach that destination. She did not know how the battle between Karuta and Marika would turn out, but if they could not overcome this, there was no chance of victory left.
“Will the conflict bring us closer in the end, or will it tear us apart? That alone will change the fate of the world.”
The flump of something hitting the ground was shockingly soft.
White snow had accumulated on the icy land and someone had fallen limply into it.
Aine had mechanically obeyed her instructions. After the follow-through of her sword swing, she kicked at the deep snow to maintain her stance.
Amaashi Marika was not staring at her severed hand.
That did not matter.
But not because it would regenerate. She had never even been placing her own life on the scales.
Small crystal shards were scattered everywhere.
The boy had collapsed into the thick snow. The snow was so deep she could not see the wound, but there was no questioning what happened. She had been holding his neck and Aine had severed that hand from behind him. Slicing off her hand like that would require the sword to pass through his neck.
His head had been severed.
Even if it could be hard tell given the lack of blood caused by the distorted crystal covering everything.
The Preset regeneration would heal any non-mortal wound in 30 seconds.
But that did not apply to the mortal ones.
With his head removed from his body, there was no saving him.
Would it be centuries? Millennia?
At the very least, she could never speak to him again in her lifetime.
The girl screamed and her legs crumpled beneath her.
Natalena was still clinging to her, so she was pulled down too and unintentionally ended up with her arms around Marika’s head. But she was not really that strong in the face of such horror, so once she began to wobble, she lost her balance and they both collapsed fully into the snow.
Her voice was weak.
But Marika did not care about Natalena Blast who had tried to protect Karuta no matter what or Aine who was tilting her head and awaiting further orders. She had to protect that boy at all costs. If violence would not bring him back, then she no longer had any reason to wield it.
But the boy must not have considered whether or not his childhood friend would be able to find a new reason to drive her actions once he took away her old one.
He had broken her.
She was broken.
One of the world’s strongest had their very core bent and mercilessly shattered. She could feel it so clearly inside herself. She screamed and screamed, but it never even occurred to her to turn her rapier toward her own throat. Even suicide required some kind of driving force behind it. With all her hope lost, she could not even seek revenge. She would simply stop moving at all and wait for the end to come.
At first, she thought it was a trick of the wind.
“Do you get it now, Marika?”
But it was not.
She clearly heard that voice. She hesitantly turned toward it with tears covering her face.
“U-um.” Natalena hesitantly spoke up as well.” Amaashi-senpai, um! Something isn’t right. Isn’t that girl his Crystal Magic!?”
Yes. Crystal Girl Aine was tilting her head like normal while holding the sword that had killed the boy. She was awaiting further orders. She looked so different, but she was still Crystal Magic. Marika had never heard of a Crystal Magician’s armor remaining after their death.
What did that mean?
In a panicked frenzy, she threw aside her rapier-like device and crawled over to dig up the snow.
“Wait!! Are you kidding me!?”
She pulled out Utagai Karuta’s head.
But it was not alone. She did not know how, but it was still connected to the rest of him.
She simply had not noticed before because he had collapsed into the deep snow and then Aine had kicked the snow to cover up his head. The crystal shards scattered by her own severed hand had made it look all the more like he had been decapitated.
The half-frozen boy smiled weakly as he spoke.
“This will always be a card in my deck. Every single time you begin a rampage, I’ll throw that sucker right down on the table. I didn’t go through with it this time, but I really will shatter your hope next time.”
“But…how?” She still found it hard to believe and she looked like she was trapped in a bad dream. “Aine-chan’s sword must have passed through your neck to cut off my hand! There’s no other way she could have done it from that position!”
“I do not have a core or main body. ‘Aine’ refers to everything from my heart to the tip of my sword,” answered Aine with her head still tilted. “I am generally stored within Sacri-sama’s body, only emerging when needed. So everything from my heart to the tip of my sword can be contained within his body.”
A silly-sounding gasp escaped Marika’s mouth.
“I stored the sword in the back of his neck and pulled it back out from the front.” Aine was as emotionless as a machine, making it sound like she had simply passed the blade through the water’s surface. “That allowed me to accurately sever your arm without harming his neck.”
He had not had time for such a complex command.
He had only told her to “cut right through my neck to cut off Marika’s arm”.
But that was with another factor already in place.
“He had left me in nonlethal mode for everyone from Grimnoah.”
“Wait, you mean…?” said Natalena.
That command went back to when he had first met and defeated her.
And that command naturally included Utagai Karuta himself.
So Aine had needed to obey his verbal command without violating that older command. He had used those multiple conditions to accurately control her.
The pale girl moved her eyebrows in a troubled way.
The human concepts of good and evil really did not apply to that crystal girl.
“It would have been much easier without that in place. To be blunt, I really wish someone would convince him that unnecessary restrictions to my combat are a pain to deal with because I have had no luck trying to explain it to him myself.”
That was why he had survived.
He still had his life.
But something had happened here. Even if his childhood friend was not physically harmed, his faked death must have psychologically scarred her.
And he had told her he would play that card whenever she tried something like this.
He said he really would break her next time.
“Do you want to keep going?”
He was half frozen and held in the arms of that sobbing girl, but he did not hold back.
Just like he could never kill her, he had stopped her by completely breaking her spirit.
“Aine, cancel nonlethal mode. You can go for the kill next time.”
Aine replied coldly.
The silly practice round was over, so it would be real next time.
“With that unnecessary burden lifted from my shoulders, nothing can stop me next time.”
That loophole was gone now. If he told Aine to kill him, she would do so. Marika’s actions here could lead to the severing of a bond a decade and a half old. So Karuta was asking her if she was still going to insist on this silly battle between two strongests.
He saw the fresh trauma there and tore into that still-bleeding wound.
He was asking her if she would make that fear real this time.
This was no longer the world’s strongest.
The person holding half-frozen Karuta was no more than a weeping girl who had nearly been forever separated from someone she cared about more than anyone in the world.
“No, no, please noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!”
“Yeah,” groaned Utagai Karuta.
He had won. He had successfully stopped Amaashi Marika.
But when had he become someone who would feel victorious after bringing his childhood friend to tears? That was like slapping a small child on the cheek or kicking an old man in his bent back. It was a taboo one must never commit.
Something had changed in him.
Someone had changed him without him even noticing. He could only reach one conclusion based on everything he had seen while hunting down the Problem Solvers and everything he had glimpsed behind the scenes afterwards.
This was something he doubted any of Anastasia’s group had said out loud but that all of them must have felt deep down.
“Being the world’s strongest is a curse.”
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