Apocalypse Witch:Volume 1
- 1 Novel Illustrations
- 2 Prologue
- 3 Chapter 1
- 4 Chapter 2
- 5 Chapter 3
- 6 Chapter 4
- 7 Epilogue
- 8 Afterword
“Incompetent,” said the demon. “Incompetent, incompetent, every last one of you is incompetent. Thus, Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah shall be immediately shut down!!”
A digital alarm clock went off in a dark room.
Utagai Karuta reached out from the large bed, but his fingers found something else instead. It was a lot like reaching for the book you wanted at a bookstore and accidentally bumping into another customer’s hand.
He was puzzled as someone spoke up from the darkness.
“Why would you set it so early, you goody-goody. Have you started training on your own?”
He narrowed his eyes toward the familiar voice and could barely make out a feminine silhouette in the darkness.
This was his childhood friend of the same age. The girl’s long hair had been dyed a strawberry blonde and she wore it in curly twintails. She had a curvy figure for her short height. …Except something was not right. Would a clothed girl’s body lines really be quite this clearly defined in silhouette?
Utagai Karuta had a bad feeling about this, so he asked about it from the bed.
“Wait just a second, Marika.”
“Isn’t it a little late for that? We’ve shared baths and beds in the past, haven’t we? And while I’m not proud of it, you know what my room is like. I bought too many new swimsuits online, so it’s basically a warehouse with no room to walk around. This is hardly the first time I’ve snuck over here to get some help.”
“That is definitely a problem, but it isn’t what I’m getting at here. I’m talking about your state of dress.”
“Oh, this?” The sexy silhouette needlessly put its hands on its hips. “You know I can’t get to sleep unless I’m nude, right?”
It was such a shock he rolled right out of the large bed.
As his last form of resistance, he grabbed at the sheet with his toes while rolling to the floor and threw it into the air. The girl’s muffled protests reached him after it fell right over her head.
“Oh, fome on. Is the familiar sight of your childhood friend really that much of an eyesore?”
“No, if anything it’s the opp-…!!”
(Oh, no!! Prime numbers! Pi! Anything that will distract me! Oh, I know! I can review my Crystal Magic knowledge!)
He frantically tried to refocus himself, but a few different pieces of bad luck aligned here. He really should not have messed with those weird IoT appliance settings. The automatic curtains were set to open at exactly three minutes after the alarm went off to help him get up in the morning.
The human internal clock was closely linked to sunlight, so artificially increasing the amount of light was one method used by jetlag recovery programs.
However, the image that crashed into Utagai Karuta’s heart was not the lovely morning sunbeams; it was a nude twintails girl shining bright in those sunbeams.
Of course, her body was somewhat hidden since he had kicked the sheet into the air a moment before.
“Good morning, Karuta-kun. The weather is fantastic again today.”
“Bwah! M-Mari-Mari-Marika!! Can’t you…can’t you cover yourself up better than that!?”
“Why bother when I’m about to take a shower? Oh, you’re fine with me getting the first shower of the morning, right?”
“And as thanks for letting me go first, you can enjoy a wonderful shower surrounded by the lingering scent of a lovely maiden.”
(Awawawawawawawa! The human race cannot – boobs – directly control the weather, but by detecting meteorological phenomena such as high and low pressure and then “riding that current”, we can prevent natural disaster and ensure largescale agricultural success – boobies – Crystal Magic is used by electronically controlling a Crystal Blossom using a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp and sealing a god’s name inside – boobs and tits – to produce miraculous phenomena such as producing fire from the hand or flying through the sky, so – ah ha, ah ha ha, no, I can’t focus at all!!)
Karuta’s mind was exploding for more reasons than one and Amaashi Marika must have been satisfied with his panicked cries because she cackled and disappeared into the bathroom.
The boy started agonized over the running water he could hear coming from the other side of that wall, but while pacing restlessly back and forth, he stubbed his toe on a piece of plastic by the window.
It was shaped something like a bamboo leaf, but it was larger than he was while lying down. That item looked like a single-person board with a round cover on top was actually a prototype civilian spacecraft. (You could probably go on a small journey with it if you were launched from a space station outside the atmosphere, but you would almost certainly die of loneliness.) The barrier to entry for space development had lowered a lot recently, so you could find these things even at a “school” like this.
He sighed, crouched down, and lightly knocked on the surface of the spacecraft.
He heard a knock form the other side.
“Sorry about all the noise. Did it wake you?”
He heard another knock that seemed to be saying “don’t worry about it”.
Then he looked out the window that no longer had the curtain covering it.
The room had a large bed, a table, a microwave, and an electric water boiler, but there was no kitchen or dining room. The bathroom that twintailed Marika had entered was a prefab unit that included a bath and a toilet. Some people might think that sounds like a hotel room.
That was close, but not quite.
The view out the windows showed the ocean. And this was clearly not the ocean near Japan. It was the hot and emerald-sparkling ocean found near the equator. This room was on a giant ship. At 500m long, it was nearly twice the size of a nuclear aircraft carrier.
Something flew by directly outside the window.
It caused the thick reinforced glass to rattle as it passed by and, if his kinetic vision was at all accurate, it appeared to be a human. It was a high school girl of around his age who had armor covering her arms and legs, wings on her back, and equipment made of a translucent and angular material.
This might be a very odd sight from a global perspective.
But Utagai Karuta was one of them, so it was a lot more familiar than his childhood friend’s nudity.
“Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah, huh?”
He once more thought about where he was standing and what force he belonged to.
He too was one of the magicians who wore a new generation Crystal Blossom at his chest.
“What, you didn’t take a shower? Gross.”
After simply washing off his face, Utagai Karuta chose not to respond to his childhood friend whose skin was flushed from her shower. He could not bring himself to admit he was worried what would happen to his blood pressure if he spent too long in a shower filled with such a girly scent.
They were wearing their uniforms for this “school”.
They both wore purple blazers, but that was not the best choice for a location so close to the equator. Some of the students jumped for joy at the more frequent opportunities for the female students to shower, but Karuta was not one of those. He simply hated all the sweat.
His one form of resistance was to wear a running shirt below his blazer instead of a dress shirt.
“You’re headed out for some training, aren’t you?”
“What about you, Marika?”
“The cafeteria stiiiill isn’t open, so I’ll go with you. The Catastrophe is coming up, but more than that, food tastes better when you’ve worked up an appetite.”
When the two left his room while chatting, a classmate named Kazamuki Gekiha poked his head out from the neighboring room.
Marika did not care at all if she was seen leaving Karuta’s room (with her hair wet from the shower), so she spoke to him with a puzzled look.
“What, are you training too? When did our class start actually putting in an effort?”
“Try to have a thought for the neighbors. Your couple’s comedy skits have been waking me up early every morning lately.”
“Sorry. But just to be clear, these are not ‘couple’s comedy skits’.”
Gekiha ended up joining them. It was too late to go back to sleep and he must not have wanted to waste the time. The loose fit of his uniform and his slouching pose gave him the quintessential delinquent look, but he never could have gotten into the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy if he was not smart.
“So where do you do your training?” asked Marika. “The gym? The pool?”
That question showed just how large this ship was.
The single ship contained enough living space, classrooms, labs, lecture halls, gyms, and indoor pools for the more than 700 students and faculty members onboard. It already sounded like magic without even getting to the Crystal Blossoms.
Crystal Magic could only be used by a select few, but its byproducts had scattered across the world. It was similar to the relationship between great firepower and ironworking. The many new materials and highly-efficient new techniques developed by Crystal Magic had most blessed the field of construction.
Simply put, buildings had grown taller, underground structures had expanded, and ships and planes had grown larger. The world’s scenery had been changed by what was added on top of the existing technologies.
“It doesn’t really matter where. Y’know, because my Crystal Blossom is a little weird.”
“You’ve got a point.”
“So I’ll go wherever you want to go. Where can you spread your wings the most?”
Once Utagai Karuta let the others choose, they knew exactly where they would train for the day.
They moved to the very back of that ship which was twice the size of a luxury cruise ship. The three of them arrived on the large flat heliport there.
Quite a few students had already gathered there, but they were not kicking around a ball or grappling each other on the heliport.
They were falling.
Falling from the edge of the heliport and toward the emerald-sparkling ocean.
“Tezcatlipoca, power up,” whispered curly twintailed Marika.
She wore something like a glass flower at her chest and it immediately began to move. The electrical signal emitted by a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp passed through cables thinner than hairs and the flower opened up. It blossomed. And then it shattered. The clear particles wrapped around her body and became cold armor that surrounded her arms and legs and extended in places to form blade-like wings.
The other notable feature was the rapier-shaped device made of what looked like translucent crystal. This was of course nothing as primitive as a device to slice through things with a honed blade. It would use ultra-rapid vibration and heat to obstruct the inter-electron activity that bound molecules together.
She did not need to worry about the flower petals. More were automatically supplied to make up for those that fell away.
“Thor, power up,” whispered Gekiha as well.
In his case, 10 large wings grew from his entire back.
His weapon was much less refined. It appeared to be made of the same delicate crystal as Marika’s, but it was designed as a cross between a chainsaw and Gatling gun that was longer than he was tall. His ability to easily swing it around in a single hand was another blessing of Crystal Magic.
Of course, not all Crystal Magic was the same. There was a large difference in the power one wielded depending on the deity being used. For example, these two could both produce a variety of phenomena that they wielded as weapons, but Marika’s Tezcatlipoca was based on light while Kazamuki Gekiha’s Thor was based on electricity.
Utagai Karuta breathed a soft sigh.
And he waved over at them with a smile.
They smiled back and then jumped from the edge of the heliport.
But there never was a splashing sound. Instead, there was a sound like a sharp whistle. He looked down to see the emerald sea split apart while the two of them freely skimmed just above its surface.
They moved faster than fighter jets and more delicately than figure skaters.
Legends said those forms could avoid 70 fully-locked-on missiles in a row and even shake free of a ship’s interception laser.
The flower at Karuta’s chest vibrated a bit while he remained back on the ship.
It quickly formed human voices.
They belonged to those two classmates who had gone on ahead of him.
“Whew! Okay, let’s start with some teamwork,” said Gekiha. “I’ll add markers for the slalom, so match my movements!!”
“I seriously doubt I’ll be on your team in battle, but, well, it’s just practice,” replied Marika.
“Man, those upperclassmen are something else, aren’t they?”
“Tch. They’re looking down on us again, aren’t they?”
Karuta also looked up toward the sky.
Crystal Magicians took a special kind of flower pollen into their bodies to “grow” that armor instead of “piloting” or “wearing” it. It was a lot more portable than the older staffs and card sets, and you could think of it like magical superconductors with nearly zero energy loss upon connection. The energy emitted by the Original Crystal Embryo said to exist at the center of the earth and the various powers pouring down from space would collide and create random “vortices of power” similar to occult high and low pressure fronts, but these monsters could access all sorts of supernatural phenomena by using their electrically-controlled Crystal Blossoms just like someone efficiently plowing their field or raising their sails to utilize the weather. Yes, it was just like the priests and priestesses of an older age who had performed sacred acts in accordance with a horoscope chart or calendar that showed everything from creation to destruction all so they coud obtain a power that brought people together to form a civilization.
But those rulers of the supernatural had a clear hierarchy among them.
Marika and Gekiha raced across the glittering ocean with ferocious speed, but there were a few silhouettes flying up above those classmates’ heads. They flapped their wings like angels or demons and they were likely Karuta’s upperclassmen. At the second year, they were known as Regulation 2.
It was like the difference between a small kart and a Formula 1 racer. Karuta and his classmates were only Regulation 1, so they had not even been given the right to fight alongside them in the school competition known as the Catastrophe.
Unless they used a special system known as Category Error.
“Kee hee hee,” laughed Marika. “Keep staring up like that and people will mistake you for a panty peeper.”
Karuta jumped and she continued the verbal attack while cackling.
“Don’t worry, even the students in the other years know my pathetic childhood friend isn’t going to try anything. Anyway, I don’t see any Regulation 3s.”
“You mean those dimensional travelers?”
“I doubt that part’s true. Although I wouldn’t put it past that Student Council President.”
Crystal Magicians did not use lift or jet thrusters to fly or to skim along the ocean’s surface.
Crystal Magic used an excitation vibration to shake the space and dimension itself and create an invisible sail that let them ride the great currents that formed those occult high and low pressure fronts. Still, the more physical resistance and footholds the better, so Regulation 1s were limited to the ocean while Regulation 2s could reach the sky.
So what about Regulation 3s?
Legend had it they could increase the excitation vibration to the point that they pushed the dimension past its limit and ruptured it. It was said they could pass through that dimensional rift and make the other side into their own territory as well. Simply put, they could perform dimensional leaps similar to warping or teleporting.
(Skimming across the water, flying through the sky, and dimensional travel. …Well, they should all be impossible, but that order does fit how hard it is to imagine them, I guess.)
There was a reason why they had taken this so far.
There was a logical and pressing reason why they needed to acquire such great power.
“Aim at the drones flying around free,” said Gekiha. “Let’s mark A00 through N99. I’ll drive them toward you and you finish them off. Let’s aim for 30 seconds. Or is that too much for you, Miss Marika!?”
“Ugh, really!? This is why I don’t want to be teamed up with a trigger-happy optical Gatling gun freak! Don’t hit those upperclassmen flying up there, okay!?”
“It’s not like it would kill them if I did. The spatial vibration field will protect them, plus they’re pretty much immortal even if I break through that barrier.”
Thanks to Crystal Magic, they could regenerate an arm or a leg if it was blown off. With anything other than a fatal blow, the damaged portion would be immediately crystallized and return to normal in about 30 seconds. …However, that opportunity was lost if the crystalized part was shattered by a further attack while it prepared to regenerate.
With a fatal blow, their entire body would be crystallized.
In that case, the regeneration period was unknown. Or rather, it depended on the level of injury. A slit throat might be fine after less than a year, but if their torso was bisected or their entire body was blown to bits, even a century would not be enough. And if part of their original body had been lost, then the time increased tenfold or even a hundredfold. It may have been like being placed in cold sleep while they slowly healed.
“Can I say something weird?” asked Karuta.
“That’s par for the course with you, so don’t worry about it,” said Gekiha. “So what is it?”
“I think even Crystal Magicians die when they’re fatally wounded. I mean, the healing of wounds and the regeneration of fatal wounds clearly use different modes. With regeneration, their clothing is solidified along with them. I guess it’s like the healing keeps their soul inside while the regeneration doesn’t.”
“You mean like those Egyptian mummies?” asked Marika. “They preserve the corpse because the resurrected soul will need it at their destination, right?”
“What does it matter?” added Gekiha. “Either way, you can still come back after being beheaded or having your heart shot through.”
Did that seem like a second chance to redo your life, or did it seem like a punishment that left you wandering the world in a state where you could never die?
Your interpretation probably came down to your personal beliefs.
Flight, a barrier, and regeneration.
Those were the “presets” shared by all Crystal Magicians. In other words, they were standard.
But they also had individual Skills based on the deity they wore like armor, so there was a lot offered in the deal.
“I do have the Gatling gun, but I’m mainly a close-quarters fighter using the chainsaw,” said Gekiha. “It’s just that I already had the rotation structure in there, so I figured I could put it to good use in other ways too.”
“Either way, it is severely lacking in style,” said Marika. “Also, isn’t the greatest advantage of your Thor the boomerang-like alterations to projectile trajectories? So why did you focus so much on close-quarters?”
Karuta watched from the heliport as those two had fun flying along the ocean.
“Do you think the Threat really exists?” he asked without thinking.
Kazamuki Gekiha clearly did not like the question.
“How should I know when we aren’t given any information on it? Is it human or a monster? Is it a plant or an animal? Is it a living thing or a machine? Is it micro or is it macro? We don’t know a damn thing. It could even be a legit god or demon for all we know.”
“But we do know cities are disappearing around the world,” said Marika. “And in some cases, entire small countries. They’re just gone without at trace, like someone used a giant eraser. That’s the one thing we do know.”
The great pressure felt like a soft hand pressing on the center of the stomach.
Cities and countries were disappearing around the world.
And it always happened overnight without anyone able to resist in the slightest.
Nothing at all had been announced regarding the cause and masking had been applied so not even civilian satellites could see what was going on, so disconcerting speculations continued to grow unabated.
What was this thing that had to be hidden from the world?
That was why this academy was built as a boat. And why it was surrounded by so many escort ships of various sizes. No fixed location functioned as a solid base anymore. Not a superpower’s metropolis, not a shelter deep underground, and not some secret garden at the ends of the earth.
It may not have been anything occult. It might turn out to be nothing more than an ordinary army made up of enemy soldiers. But with all information hidden, they were forced to skip straight past the cause and process and look only at the result. That was more than enough to make it a real nightmare.
“I hate how we’re asked to fight something without being told what it is,” complained Karuta.
“This giant school and the Catastrophe exist to make sure we’re ready when that surprise party arrives out of the blue one day,” said Marika.
The Catastrophe was divided up between Regulations, but it was still a major event that determined a clear hierarchy within the students of the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy. However, this was not a martial arts tournament where the students fought each other, a sports festival where their athleticism was measured, or final exams where their academic ability was put to the test.
The name said it all.
They were thrown into some great catastrophe.
“The rumors I’ve heard say they’ll do pretty much anything,” said Gekiha. “They might spread liquid helium high in the sky to create a bomb cyclone, or they might stuff a 1000m pit full of explosives to trigger an artificial volcanic eruption.”
“I’d take either of those over the one where you’re taken to a desert island only to have agar carrying a genetically-modified pathogen rain down on you from the sky,” said Marika.
“Um, I’ve heard you can wake up after the anesthetic wears off and find yourself in the middle of a military conflict somewhere in the world,” said Karuta.
Natural disasters, plagues, and wars.
The catastrophe could come in any form. There was no advance warning and they were free to work with or work against the other students they found with them.
There was only one win condition: overcoming the catastrophe the academy tasked them with and ending the problems it had caused.
The number of catastrophes they had safely overcome and how active a role they had played would be quantified and the entire student body would receive a final ranking at fixed intervals.
This was not useless “theories” that only worked on paper or in a ring. They had to improve themselves as Crystal Magicians such that they could respond to any and all dangers.
However, the possible catastrophes were so varied that this gave no real hint what they were being trained to face. In other words, what the Threat really was.
“Anyway, you were the one who invited me to train this morning. If you can obtain Skills just by staring up into the sky, knock yourself out, but if not, then how about you get going?”
He realized Marika was right. He had no rebuttal.
He placed a hand on his chest, traced his finger across the Crystal Blossom that looked like glasswork, and he whispered.
He whispered to the printed circuit board smaller than a stamp, to the cables thinner than hairs, and to the Crystal Blossom beyond them.
“Power up. …I’m counting on you, Aine.”
As soon as he did, his Crystal Blossom shattered. But not like it did for the other students. No translucent armor covered his arms and legs and no wings grew from his back.
His back swelled out and then something crawled out of his flesh.
It was a girl.
She looked like a lovely girl of about 13 or 14. She had long hair, her skin was more pale than white, and she wore a transparent-looking white dress decorated all over with glittering crystal.
He called her Aine, but he did not actually know if that was really the silver-haired girl’s name.
In fact, he did not know if she was really a living being with feelings of her own.
She held what looked like a drawn katana made of crystal. However, the back of the blade branched off like a jitte and a short laser gun unit was attached parallel to the blade.
The concept of “property” did not apply here.
The name Aine referred to everything from the girl’s heart to the sword.
“Unit ID Name: Aine – power up complete. What are your orders, Sacri-sama.”
“I really wish that was short for Sacred Master or something instead of Sacrifice…”
He brought a hand to his forehead.
Crystal Magic worked by sealing a divine name such as Zeus or Odin inside a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp to use the god’s legend and mythology to calculate out the horoscope chart or calendar needed to catch the supernatural winds. People could not manipulate earth’s atmosphere, but with a weather forecast, they could efficiently plow their fields and raise their sails. This was the same but used to wield miracles.
A slight mistake had been made.
In Utagai Karuta’s case, the Crystal Blossom had been activated before a divine name had been sealed inside, so the calculations had been made without anything to start with.
That had resulted in the creation of this unidentified crystal girl who did not rely on any known mythology.
He did not even know where the name Aine had come from.
The students who had been taking a break on the heliport looked up in slight surprise and focused on him. It was a little embarrassing, but they were interested in Aine and not him.
This was probably unique among all the students in the giant Ocean Crystal Magic Academy.
He had a fully separated Crystal Blossom.
“It’s pretty incredible,” said Gekiha. “Even if it’s hard to tell if it makes him a genius or a freak.”
“I’ll admit no one else can do that,” said Marika. “But it doesn’t give him any speed or defenses, so a single shot is enough to finish him off. I don’t see how it will help during the Catastrophe.”
“He could have her princess carry him around.”
“Ah ha ha! That would be perfect for that King of Wishy-Washiness.”
Their words were not as painful as the fact that they were not even wrong. Now, the trick to defeating Crystal Magicians during sparring was to aim for the gaps, so a Crystal Blossom like Aine could be seen as unbeatable since she moved all on her own. But that was useless when the entire school body already knew about it. They would simply focus their attacks on him. Of the preset abilities, the flight belonged to Aine, the regeneration belonged to Karuta, and they could both use the barrier, but there seemed to be some kind of conflict there because it was extremely weak. He could not deflect a single bullet the way things were.
Meanwhile, Aine silently tilted her head while waiting for a command.
“Aine, can you hear me?”
“Let’s do the usual test. I’ll vibrate the Blossom to send you my voice. Let’s see how long a distance I can stay in contact with you.”
This was a lot like mimicking a radio or tin can telephone, but he thought this had to be the most efficient method. As long as he was not defeated, she could not be broken by most any attack. It was like the difference between a bulletproof vehicle covered in thick armor and a box stuffed full of steel.
The boy sighed as he watched Aine hop off the edge of the heliport and toward the ocean. While dimensional leaps were too much for her, Aine actually could fly in the sky, but he felt it was best to show deference to their upperclassmen. (Marika and Gekiha may have been in a similar position there.) He himself had not done anything at all, so he sadly could not feel any pride in that accomplishment.
All he could do was stay in safe place and send messages to his crystal doll.
“Look, Karuta,” said Kazamuki Gekiha. “The sky is so clear today you can see that decorative junk in the distance.”
Drawn by his classmate’s comment, he looked to the horizon and saw something long and skinny rising up from it. He could not imagine how far it extended because it vanished into the blue sky.
“A space elevator, huh?”
He was pretty sure that giant structure had been developed in the name of carrying cargo into orbit more cheaply than with rockets or shuttles. It was still running, but it was deep in the red due to a number of reasons. Karuta and the others did not have much to do with the thing.
“To be honest, I’m relieved that project failed,” said Gekiha. “The Original Crystal Embryo is at the center of the earth and Crystal Magic uses the collision between the two powers here on the surface, so they say you can’t use it on a space station or a lunar base, right? Only 0.0002% of the population can use this, so it would be a huge waste if the modern age moved out into space and this ability was buried in the shadows of history.”
“The Original,” repeated Karuta. “We all use it, but no one actually knows what it is, do we? There are a ton of theories though, like that it’s a collection of knowledge embedded there by someone or that it’s the will of the planet.”
“That’s not our problem. Leave that to the theory group that never leaves their desks. Oh, and speaking of the elevator, had you heard some of the previous generation are visiting for an inspection? It’s those 5 known as the Problem Solvers.”
The Problem Solvers.
Those five were said to have successfully physically removed the Threat in combat.
And just as that name was mentioned, the blue sky was swallowed up by darkness as if a room’s lights had been shut off.
The other two fell silent.
Karuta was likely also staring up at the sky that had suddenly changed from the rising sun of early morning to the darkness of night.
“Is that their way of announcing their arrival?” asked Gekiha.
“One of those five can control solar or lunar eclipses, right?” said Marika. “I’ve heard eclipses keep happening wherever they go, but that is quite a performance.”
It was definitely impressive.
Karuta could only summon a crystal girl from his body, so he could never hope to accomplish this.
However, that did not necessarily mean that power would help win the Catastrophe that could be a natural disaster, a plague, or a war.
Not to mention in a fight against the unknown Threat.
“I get that they’re powerful, but it’s hard to say how impressive that is when you don’t know what the Threat is.”
“At the very last, they have to be more powerful than you, Mr. Pathetic,” said Marika.
The Problem Solvers.
Their ability in combat tended to get all the focus, but they were used for more than just fighting.
Their powerful magic could support an entire era.
That included everything from the world’s production facilities to things like garbage disposal.
Those monsters could run global-scale infrastructure all on their own.
They were known as monsters because of that energy that was too great to simply call “massive” and because of their influence on the world.
Karuta’s group had their hands full with just the fighting part, so these people were on more than just another level.
The world would grind to a halt without them.
The internet, convenience stores, and air conditioning did not simply exist. Someone was supporting all of those things on a daily basis. And those monsters were the ones supporting those everyday things for 5.5 billion people.
“North America, South America, Eurasia, Oceania, and Africa,” said Marika. “Whatever it says on paper, it’s those five who effectively hold it all together.”
“Yeah, just those five,” said Gekiha.
A mere five people kept the world economy going.
The hard work of the other 5.5 billion people did nothing more than transfer some bills from one of their wallets to another.
“I almost feel bad for those VIPs,” said Gekiha. “No one’s even focused on that elevator anymore. They gathered plenty of money in the name of carrying cargo more cheaply than with rockets or shuttles, but once they started running it, the fear of spreading debris led them to an indefinite ban on civilian use. In the end, it can only be used for public policy.”
“And I hear that public policy isn’t doing so hot either,” said Karuta. “Since the point is to carry the cargo cheaply, they get their funding reduced with each consecutive project. And since they can’t gather more clients, the price just keeps going down. It’s like marking down a million yen bag to ten thousand yen but not getting any more customers into your shop, so it’s pretty bad.”
“I hear the Problem Solvers are personally defending it because it’s a cornerstone of public policy, but is that really why?” asked Marika. “If the Problem Solvers traversed the planet in top form, no one would need armies anymore. Now that we have some actual cost-benefit data to work from, no one has any hopes for the field of space development, so it seems weird for them to keep protecting a portion of it. Kind of ironic that they’re being held back by a facility they can’t afford to get rid of. The adult world sounds like a real pain. Although maybe they’re letting some other people have some credit to avoid any silly resentment.”
“At any rate, this is what it means to be too blessed,” said Gekiha. “With those five, no one needs the political world, the business world, the military, or the government. If they wanted to, couldn’t they destroy it all? If all of them were sent out around the world all the time instead of sending them out one at a time every so often, I bet they might have been able to keep those cities, regions, and countries from disappearing.”
“But.” Utagai Karuta chose his words carefully. “Those Problem Solvers don’t use Crystal Blossoms like us. I hear they use the old-fashioned God-Worshiping Magic.”
“Isn’t that what makes it so impressive?” asked Marika.
“Yeah, it makes you wonder why they haven’t switched to Crystal Blossoms,” said Gekiha. “It’s scary that they can go into battle with the presets of flight, barriers, and regeneration. Well, maybe they aren’t part of the 0.0002% that can use them, but that just makes them all the more monstrous for standing at the top like that.”
Utagai Karuta sighed.
Crystal Blossoms. That cutting-edge magic technology controlled printed circuit boards smaller than stamps to produce various supernatural phenomena by catching the optimal currents produced by the occult high and low pressure fronts created by the collision between the energy emitted from the Original Crystal Embryo in the center of the earth and the various powers raining down from outer space.
But you could never reach the level of the Problem Solvers by mastering that path.
There were a lot of rumors about the Problem Solvers like that their attack power was so specialized that they could resolve any situation with a single attack, or that they could use a barrage as fearsome as an Aegis ship to shoot down every last grain of sand of whatever might oppose them, but the details were unknown. They were world-famous, yet so very little was known about them that it was kind of creepy.
If Karuta and his schoolmates were the ones reading the weather maps, then those five were the ones firing dry ice or thermobaric warheads into the sky to produce artificial rain.
The students here could not stand up to them no matter how hard they tried.
Plus, Karuta’s magic was not even the standard Crystal Magic that he already knew was no match for them. His had been twisted so badly it had become a fully independent girl the likes of which no had ever seen.
“Ah, eh, ee, uh, eh, oh, ah, oh.”
While he was thinking, Aine’s voice reached him remotely.
“Can you hear me, Sacri-sama?”
“Can you please call me something else? It’s creepy.”
They managed to kill a good amount of time training.
Once the cafeteria was open for breakfast, everyone naturally started wrapping things up without being told.
The training group arrived first, so it was not yet what you would call crowded. Karuta, Marika, Gekiha, and Aine managed to get one end of a table to themselves.
“Sacri-sama, I want that. The gold leaf castella.”
“Why do you always want to eat the most ridiculously expensive things?”
“If that is not an option, the gold powder yokan would be acceptable.”
“Okay, how about you try again after figuring out what my issue with the first option was?”
Aine silently tilted her head and her silver hair swayed while giving off a rainbow-colored shine similar to a disk.
“If you insist, I could always eat a gold bar directly.”
“The gold is the problem! And why do you even need to eat if you’re Crystal Magic!?”
“You have already asked that 72 times, but I will faithfully answer it yet again. My body is made of crystal – that is, a silicon semiconductor – so by taking in pure gold, I can expand my internal circuitry and obey more complex and higher-level requests. So you could say this is all meant for your benefit, Sacri-sama.”
“More complex? Like what?”
“Wait, why are you hanging your head and blushing with that complex expression!?”
Gekiha was clearly enjoying the show while chowing down on some toast with chocolate spread.
“You people are endless entertainment.”
“Hmph,” said Marika. “She was created from Karuta, so isn’t this just the ultimate one-man show? Hmph, hmph!!”
“I was including you in that ‘you people’.”
They continued discussing various topics from there.
They were teenagers, but their conversations tended to drift toward Crystal Magic.
“With crystals, converting the vibration into lasers or masers is the quickest way to a lot of firepower, don’t you think?” asked Marika.
“Wait, wait,” responded Gekiha. “Some of our upperclassmen have figured out how to use acoustic weapons.”
“You don’t just mean radar or sonar, do you?”
“I mean blasting things with pure sound. It’s like a fancy speaker cannon. Now, that’s not gonna kill us when we can negate the sonic boom of supersonic travel, but imagine getting hit by one of those head-on. It’s like a thick wall and it covers an entire surface. Wouldn’t that be an effective way to slow down enemies over a wide area?”
“And then blast them with lasers or masers? Now that would be the best.”
“Why do you like those shiny attacks so much?”
Meanwhile, a small hand tugged at Karuta’s sleeve.
It was Aine.
“Sacri-sama, if I am injected with argon ions or ions of a rare earth like yttrium, I could equip myself with a super thick laser. Woof, woof.”
“I hate to interrupt you when you look so proud of yourself, but which item on the cafeteria menu am I supposed to feed you for that?”
When he asked her that, she pulled her feet up onto the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees to curl up as small as possible. But not because she was hurt by his cold response. She simply did not like wide open areas. The civilian spacecraft shaped like a bamboo leaf in his room functioned as her bed.
So why did she have her own bed when she was usually contained within his body?
The answer was simple: she could not control herself as well while asleep, so when she rolled over or moved at all, her arm or leg would stick out of his stomach or back. And that was very creepy. The fact that most people with an out-of-body experience did so while asleep was perhaps no laughing matter.
“Sigh, I want to get inside you soon. (Squirm, squirm)”
“Can you find a better way of phrasing that?”
“Hey, I’m not one to kinkshame,” said Gekiha. “But the girl going inside the guy is taking things too far for me personally.”
Curly twintailed Marika looked baffled by this exchange and that was probably the normal reaction. Gekiha just had something of a dirty mind.
In the short free time they had until morning homeroom, Karuta visited the infirmary.
He did this every day, but not because he was ill or felt uncomfortable in class.
The giant ship’s infirmary had a bit of a unique design. The standard level was the same as normal schools: a simple examining table and a few beds divided up by curtains. The magic level was used to treat problems and side effects related to Crystal Blossoms and magic. And the isolation level was located even further in.
“Thanks for doing this so often. Just make sure you aren’t late for class.”
After receiving permission from the school doctor who wore a sweater and a tight skirt, he stepped into the isolation level to find a windowless space filled with a bluish light.
Large silhouettes lined the wall like the Greek sculpture section of an art museum.
These were all upperclassmen who had been transformed into clear crystal from head to toe.
They had been fatally wounded, so they had been fully crystalized as emergency treatment.
“Everyone wants to pretend this place doesn’t exist, so almost no one visits,” sighed the school doctor who had followed him in. “So I’m sure they are all delighted that you visit every day.”
It had happened for any number of reasons.
But not one of those reasons was valiantly battling the Threat.
What happened if there was trouble during a live fire exercise or the acrobatics at an air show? These victims of accidents had all been fatally wounded during classes or the Catastrophe, so the academy had retrieved them so they could wait for their resurrection.
“I’m not here out of kindness or anything,” Karuta said without thinking.
He came to a stop in front of a certain girl like he always did. She had glasses and a long braid. Several cracks ran through her just above the navel.
The time until regeneration differed depending on the severity of the injury.
The digital counter at her feet coldly counted down from nearly 550 years.
Even with cutting-edge Crystal Magic, resurrecting a single person from certain death was no easy task.
“I only come here to remind myself of the risk. The spatial vibration field and self-crystallization regeneration are not absolute. Death is our constant companion. …No one would be happy to know they’re being used as an example of what to avoid.”
“Even so.” The school doctor was undeterred. “The most painful thing for people is to be forgotten. To leave nothing behind and to not even act as a lesson for someone. So I do think they are happy you visit. Their life may not have gone as planned, but now they know it will at least be useful to someone.”
Just once more, Utagai Karuta looked up at the crystal girl standing on that pedestal.
Not even he knew what look was on his face.
Nevertheless, he spoke in a tone one would never use with a mere decoration.
“I’ll be going, Senpai.”
Utagai Karuta was not clever enough to say he had seen it coming, so he was a little surprised when he learned first period was being preempted.
“It’s those Problem Solvers,” said his awful friend. “They said they’re coming for an inspection and they asked to have the entire student body assembled. Really, they should’ve waited and made one hell of an entrance during the Catastrophe’s opening ceremony.”
He, Marika, and Gekiha joined the other students in leaving the classroom. Aine was not with them. She was in his stomach at the moment. And not in a grotesque way.
They arrived in a large space with a tall ceiling.
The wooden flooring was polished bright.
Plentiful lighting covered the ceiling.
Basketball goals were installed by the wall and something like a theatre stage was installed.
Any school would have a gym like this, but anyone would be surprised to hear this was contained inside a ship. Thick plastic sheets covered the entire floor and hundreds of folding chairs were neatly lined up, so it looked a lot like an entrance ceremony or graduation.
The boys and girls were separated, so they had to temporarily part ways with Marika whose curly twintails were dyed strawberry blonde.
“Damn, I hope the air conditioning isn’t broken when we’re on the freaking equator,” complained Gekiha. “That solar eclipse made for one hell of a hot night.”
“There are 600 students and 100 teachers. I doubt the gym was designed to hold that many people.”
“And now we have to listen to the headmaster drone on and on. Ugh, I hope that old geezer passes out from heatstroke first and foremost. It’s high time he felt the pain we’re all experiencing.”
Meanwhile, the ceremony began.
The first to show up was not the five Problem Solvers. Gekiha was right: it was the handsome gray-haired headmaster. He was very popular, he knew how to manage a business, he was excellent at political dealings, and most importantly, he was skilled with magic. It was rumored his penchant for hopelessly long speeches was the flaw god had given him to balance things out.
The elderly gentleman used the stage’s microphone to slowly read off a script that was not going to move anyone’s heart.
“Yes, all of you have been most diligent in your efforts, so we have prepared some further excitement for you. Excitement is an excellent thing and you could call it the seed of all learning. Of course, a seed is naught but a seed and can only grow once given proper soil, water, and sunlight. I am sure you are all clever enough to know what that means.”
Everyone was entirely relaxed.
He enjoyed talking and did not particularly care what other people thought about it. It was well known that he was not the type to yell at a student he noticed slacking off like an annoying guidance counselor might.
“So today, I thought we could let you hear a few words from the Problem Solvers, your five predecessors who have traveled the world while actually fighting the Threat. We have sown the seeds, but how those seeds will grow comes down to your decisions as you- bgwehhh!!!?”
No one understood what that sudden and disastrous end to the speech meant.
In that moment, Utagai Karuta was unable to speak a single word even though a human life had clearly just come to end before his eyes.
That life had been taken far too vividly to believe.
The elderly gentleman’s entire head flew from his shoulders and a cracking sound came from his body. His dignity as a Crystal Magician must have just barely won out because his body and clothing grew transparent and he solidified in something akin to cold sleep.
Karuta jumped in shock at the loud thud of the microphone falling to the stage next to the headless crystalized body. That was how far behind his senses and understanding were.
Most likely, something had been thrown.
It could have been a sword, a spear, an axe, or a staff, but he had not seen what it was.
But he did hear some footsteps. No more than footsteps.
A new figure stepped up onto the wing of the stage while everyone watched like wind-up dolls with broken springs. It was a woman. She was so androgynous that it took a moment to judge her gender, but it was a tall and slender woman with long white hair and wearing a pantsuit.
A very bad feeling enveloped Karuta’s entire body.
Without even a glance at the headless crystal statue lying at her feet, the woman kicked up the microphone and caught it in her hand. She brought it to her mouth and made an announcement.
That single word of complete rejection seemed to stab into them.
“Incompetent, incompetent, every last one of you is incompetent. Thus, Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah shall be immediately shut down!!”
Finally and at long last, the boys and girls forcefully stood from their folding chairs. That alone produced a deluge of sound. A normal person might have fled without a second thought. Or they might have collapsed to the floor, unable to even flee. But this was the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy. They were the next-generation fighting force prepared to combat the Threat that indiscriminately annihilated countries, regions, and cities around the world. They were the frontline fighters with Crystal Blossoms at their chests, so they chose to stand up as a solid wall to protest being called incompetent.
Almost as if their injured pride mattered more to them than the death.
Kazamuki Gekiha stood up next to Karuta. Marika may have stood up with the girls. The gym had become a forest of people. A thick forest.
But even so.
Utagai Karuta alone could not stand up. He curled up while soaked with sweat and tried to hide within that forest.
The headmaster had been a handsome gray-haired gentleman. At first glance, it might look like he would be easily defeated in an arm wrestling match, but he actually had great magical talent and had the skill needed to establish this enormous Crystal Magic school. Yet he had been taken out so easily? No normal person could have done that!!
While curled up, Karuta desperately tugged on Gekiha’s pants to signal him to do the same.
His classmate gave him a puzzled look while holding his brutal crystal weapon that combined a chainsaw with a Gatling gun, so Karuta desperately shook his sweat-soaked face.
He told him no.
And a moment later…
That voice came from the speakers again.
“I am one of the Problem Solvers. You seriously do not understand our difference in power after seeing me for yourselves?”
Suddenly, the wall behind the white-haired woman broke through.
The floor shook below them.
No, the massive academy ship itself had tilted.
“I beseech thee, Vishnu, Indian God of Change.”
This was a divine power of transformation, but what in the world was it?
An enormous form moved up alongside her.
There were what looked like swords, like spears, like axes, and like staffs. And it was not limited to weapons. There were also shields and armor. There were what appeared to be rusted refrigerators and microwaves and crushed cars or containers. Even components like springs and gears were common.
No individual piece had any real meaning.
They all squashed together, gathered, and piled up to form something made of rusted metal. The monster waved a thick tail behind it, stood on two hind legs, had two forelegs folded up in front of its chest, and had a massive maw lined with razor-sharp fangs. It instantly broke through the top of the stage and grew large enough to graze the entire gym’s ceiling. It was…
“A dino…saur?” someone muttered.
It was not Karuta. In this worst case scenario, he did not want to do anything that would gather attention in a negative way. And that was why he was unable to stop Gekiha who was right next to him.
Something else happened before he could.
The woman calmly spoke into the microphone while facing so many crystal swords and cannons.
The roar was enough for everyone to flinch.
The unbelievably mass moved down from the stage.
The dozen or so trampled in the front row may have been the lucky ones.
The true horror came for those on the next rows.
The giant maw and fangs operated in just as gruesome a way as one would expect!!!!!!
“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, owwwwwwwwwww!!”
“I can’t-…no. what? My leg…my leg!?”
It was more of a smashing than a tearing.
There were no colorful reds or blacks. With the sound of shattering crystal, the boys and girls’ limbs were torn from their bodies, their torsos were shredded, and their entire bodies were obliterated.
It tore them apart with a bite and then shook its head as it chewed. Their remains were not just scattered around; they poured down on the heads of the survivors.
They had Crystal Blossoms, they had Crystal Magic, they had translucent armor, they had a spatial vibration field that protected their entire body like an invisible wall, and they could recover from any non-fatal wound in 30 seconds, but the combination of all those things meant nothing.
The mass, density, violence, fear, and slaughter were on another level altogether.
The continuing cacophony did not at all sound like human bodies being broken.
Their power was supposedly used for peace and their energy was supposedly used to support global infrastructure.
Like hell it is, thought Karuta.
No matter how you tried to justify it, that was still the worst power humanity had ever produced. It was like a tempting demonic sword that regained its true shine through battle and bloodbaths.
Still curled up and desperately tugging on his best friend’s pants, Karuta realized Gekiha was looking at him while standing there in a daze. The boy had entirely forgotten to cry as he trembled, so Karuta used his eyes to beg him to get down while he still could. But Gekiha did not. He simply shook his head.
And he moved his lips: Sorry, that was stupid of me.
Karuta was not given time to say anything in response.
The boy’s torso was sliced apart in an instant. His armor and weapon shattered like mere glasswork. And his upper body was simply gone. Only the remaining lower body rapidly grew transparent and was thrown to the floor like a broken sculpture excavated from some ruins.
Utagai Karuta clenched his teeth and desperately suppressed his voice by covering his mouth with hands coated with glittering dust-like shards. Tears streamed down his face like the sealed scream was finding another outlet.
The light was reflected wildly by all the crystal fragments scattered one after another.
The geniuses wielding Crystal Magic produced translucent swords and staffs from empty air and fired lasers, masers, and acoustic weapons from them, but just like that woman had said, they were no more effective than toothpicks. They could not deliver a lethal blow to that enormous carnivorous dinosaur, but they did seem to rile it up. And they received shattering destruction in response. There was no stopping it. While Utagai Karuta trembled and curled up on the floor, more and more fine crystal powder poured down on him like diamond dust.
It was all so cold and unrealistic.
But he knew this was what remained of the flesh that had once formed human beings.
(The Problem Solvers are doing this!! But why!?)
He felt something stirring inside him. The Crystal Blossom at his chest was pleading him: let me out, use me, cut down the threat before you.
He understood, but he ignored it. Using his Crystal Magic and releasing Aine from him would be a sign. A suicidal sign of starting a reckless battle. He could not do that. He did not want to die here.
Crystal Magic was like reading the wind and raising your sails.
The energy from the Original Crystal Embryo at the center of the earth and the various powers raining down from outer space would interact and produce variation points similar to high and low pressure, and their power simply read where those were and used the invisible tailwinds to produce supernatural phenomena.
But the Problem Solvers were different. They were like artificial rain. They used giant bombs or dry ice to directly alter the atmospheric pressure, produce clouds, and mess with the weather. They called in a storm for their own convenience. Studying the weather map was no use against a monster like that. Forcing up your sails would only get your ship capsized.
“Pant, pant! Gasp!!”
(What about Marika!? What happened to her!?)
His entire vision seemed covered in white static. This was an abnormality different from anemia or hyperventilation. This went beyond simply winning or losing. He got down on all fours and crawled along the floor that felt rough to the touch in order to reach the area where his childhood friend would have been sitting.
The rows of chairs were pretty much gone.
He was instead surrounded by transparent crystal statues that distorted the scenery like smoked glass when enough were gathered together.
He hid among those many “corpses” to escape the dinosaur’s notice and he covered his ears to keep out the voices of those fleeing in a panic.
After a few minutes of struggle that felt like an eternity, someone grabbed the sweaty boy’s hand.
“Karuta! You survived!?”
“Marika!!” he shouted without caring what anyone thought.
She had been smart and not armed herself with her Crystal Blossom.
He clung to and embraced that childhood friend to confirm she really was alive. Her scent, her warmth, and the pulse coming from her chest were all real. This curly twintailed girl was not some hallucination his brain had cooked up to escape the reality around him.
“…! Gekiha was…”
“I’m sorry, I, Gekiha, right in front of me, couldn’t stop it!!”
He was crying.
But this was not over.
They had not woken from the nightmare. The only way out was to survive on their own.
“Let’s follow everyone else,” she said. “We have to reach the exit.”
That was their only option.
He glanced behind him, but the white-haired woman had not moved a step from the stage.
(How strong is she?)
And the two of them held hands even though they were using so many others as shields and so many other students in the same situation were being lost. They somehow managed to leave the gym like they were following a powerful current.
That was when it happened.
They had not woken from the first nightmare, but a second one had already arrived.
“What, you started already? I thought the plan was to wait until we were all there.”
Below the blatantly unnatural night sky of a solar eclipse, an eyepatch woman cackled. She was a Western European with blonde hair and white skin, yet she loosely wore a brightly colored kimono.
She was one of the Problem Solvers.
She was riding a high-speed motorboat for the rich that could reach 150km/h on the open water. It was far too close to the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy. It would normally have received a warning from the surrounding escort ships before getting anywhere near this close and been fired on by autocannons and anti-ship missiles if it did not obey.
But none of that happened.
Only an eerie silence surrounded it.
A voice spoke from the motorboat’s radio.
“You like to play games too much. Try to imagine what it’s like for those on the receiving end. It’s kinder to use more clever methods like this.”
“A kinder way to kill them?” mockingly asked the eyepatch woman while looking straight up into the sky.
A large tiltrotor craft was just passing by during the eclipse, but she may have been looking at something much, much higher.
“I beseech thee, Lugh, Celtic God of Light,” said the voice on the radio.
She was looking past the sky and out into space.
In other words, the network of orbital weapons that surrounded the entire planet in a sphere one size larger.
A blinding beam of light dropped straight down.
The unnatural darkness of the eclipse was blown away by this strange flash of white.
Sinister black smoke rose from all around.
Every last escort ship had lost its ability to continue fighting and was doing its best to even stay afloat. And then more and more thick beams dropped down on each of them in turn like pressing a giant stamp down on them. The gray ships were already melting like sugar sculptures, but now they were torn in two and doomed to sink.
“What part of that terrifying mess is supposed to be kinder?” asked the eyepatch woman.
“At the very least, they are killed instantly and painlessly,” said the voice on the radio. “Surely that is better than the fear of being devoured alive.”
“The ones being killed don’t exactly get an opinion, dumbass. And killing’s killing no matter how you try to pretty it up. Cut the excuses and actually face your sins, you phony nun.”
“Tch. Why do I have to listen to a holier-than-thou lecture from a pirate?”
The eyepatch woman stopped the motorboat’s engine. She lowered the anchor, took the thick, netsuke-like fastener attached to her kimono’s hip, attached it to a nearby railing, and rolled the three dice she pulled from her kimono’s sleeve.
There was no real meaning in it. The result was the same no matter what she rolled.
It was simply a guide. As long as one side of all three dice was accurately facing the night sky, that would determine the desired “direction”.
“I beseech thee, Susanoo, Wakoku God of Violence.”
Once she said that, something happened without any warning at all. Something floated up like shimmering heat. Not even she understood which of the thee dice it was centered on, but at this size, it hardly mattered. The object that rose straight up, towered well above the eyepatch woman, passed by the tiltrotor craft flying overhead, and easily split the clouds in the night sky was an absurdly large sword.
It was in fact more than 100km long.
Depending on the angle at which it was pulled out, it could easily destroy a city around it. Even with nothing but water as far as the eye could see, there was still a risk of it reaching land.
That was why she had to set up a guide for its angle.
Before the giant sword could wobble as gravity reclaimed it, the eyepatch woman swung her right hand to the side and easily grabbed its hilt. That part alone was longer than a mop, but it was blatantly out of balance with the rest.
But it did not matter. The kimono woman placed her empty left hand on the bottom of the hilt and there was no hint of effort on her face.
Anyone who saw this might have mistakenly wondered why there were two space elevators now.
After all, 100km was enough to reach the bottom of the thermosphere.
It was such an absurd mass.
And it would produce such an overwhelming slash.
“That should do it.”
Yet she easily swung it down as if drawing out a semicircle.
It grew red hot like a shooting star and the disturbed air trailed after it like a contrail.
It rushed down along the perfect path to bisect the giant ship of the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy!!
The ship was the size of a luxury cruise liner, but it tilted diagonally.
This had to be more than just some rough water.
Karuta and Marika were thrown into the corridor along with so many other students.
A crack ran through the long corridor in front of them and then the seemingly sturdy corridor broke apart. A gap of several meters was formed in no time, so there was no crossing it.
“Wah, ah, ah, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!?”
A few people fell into that gap.
Flight, a barrier, and regeneration.
Those were the preset abilities of Crystal Magicians, so they could generally fly. Even if they had not learned to do that yet, they could definitely race along the ocean surface.
So why did they sink into the surging ocean?
Because they were afraid to fly. They instinctually understood that standing out in front of those Problem Solvers meant death, so the sky was not an option yet they could not find any other solution. So they were swallowed up and drowned by the dead-end of their own thoughts.
The few dozen who had made it to the other side of the gap stared back at them. Karuta and Marika could only watch as that “wreckage” tilted like a seesaw and sank into the sea.
Those people had not chosen this.
They had wanted to live more than anyone, but that was exactly what had dragged them to a watery grave.
“What…?” Still confused, Karuta trembled and stared at the unbelievable scene. “What happened!? Isn’t this ship the mobile fortress meant to combat the Threat!? Isn’t this the temple created from the best of Crystal Magic technology!? How could it be broken in two with a single strike!?”
All that remained before them was the deadly ocean dyed black by the eclipse.
The ocean spread out in panorama and it was filled with blazing fires and billowing black smoke. Those were the escort ships meant to protect this ship. They had not been taken out with artillery or missiles. He did not know what materials those large escort ships were made from, but they had been twisted like melted sugar sculptures.
“Wh-what is that?” asked Marika as the clouds in the artificially dark sky were blown away.
A thick beam of light dropped down to finish off a gray escort ship desperately trying to stay afloat. It was broken in two, sunk into the ocean, and even triggered a steam explosion as it rapidly boiled the seawater around it.
This was different from that violent dinosaur made from gathered scraps.
But it was still the strongest.
It was from a different field, but this was undoubtedly one form of the strongest.
This was a truly unreachable opponent and confronting them should be avoided at all costs.
Even from a distance, the beam of light was so bright he thought it had scorched his eyes.
He grimaced and placed a hand on the wall before making a suggestion.
“Staying here isn’t going to do any good, so let’s get out of here!”
Karuta and Marika ran down the other way of the broken corridor and a young woman’s voice spoke mockingly from the speakers installed all over the ship.
“Ding dong ding dong! Is everyone dead yet? That’s all Crystal Magic was ever going to accomplish. Gya ha ha ha ha!!”
At this point, he doubted this was some weakling.
More of the Problem Solvers were lurking on the boat.
More monsters on the same level as that dinosaur and that light spear.
“Our energy must be efficiently redistributed to combat the great Threat. And you? Well, you’re basically a bunch of rich kids, right? And I think we can all see how useless your Crystal Magic is, so you’re all just wasting a bunch of energy. You’re the bottom rankers, so it can’t hurt to get rid of you, can it? Yes, it’s all for the greater good.”
“Dammit, dammit, dammit!!”
“Heh heh heh. Bwa ha ha ha ha!! God, you’re so stupid! A Crystal Magic Academy? You thought you were some precious little chosen ones? Not a chance!! Get a clue, morons! You’re supposed to use your heads before it turns out like this, you spoiled little brats!! You couldn’t tell you were dragging us all down by wasting so many resources on your meaningless school for meaningless junk magic!? Gya ha ha ha ha!!”
“Karuta, don’t let her get to you. They have no reason to tell the truth here.”
He knew that.
But more than that, he could not stand this atmosphere where the people using so much violence had an absolute advantage and could get away with anything.
He had never even considered winning.
And he did not know how long he could continue hoping to survive.
So how much would he compromise next time? How much would those Problem Solvers take from him? He could feel himself falling into the abyss, but he could not find a solution either. He could only take his childhood friend’s hand and continue running.
It was a pointless act.
It had been checkmate from the beginning.
For a second time, that 100km steel weapon was swung down to directly strike the half-destroyed ship.
The other side did not need to wander the ship in search of the tiny bugs inside. They only had to use an overwhelming mass to break the ship apart until it could no longer remain afloat. That would successfully slaughter everyone.
Some of their own people might be inside that ship.
But one of the strongest could endure an attack by another of the strongest. It did not matter if the ship sank. Only the swarming bugs would pathetically lose their lives.
Karuta and Marika were thrown into the air along with the splintering ship materials. Karuta could find nothing to grab onto as he sank into the filthy sea.
He swallowed lots of seawater as he somehow scrambled to the surface. He grabbed onto a wooden board floating nearby.
He managed to catch his breath, but then he paled.
She was gone.
That twintail girl who always cheered him up was nowhere to be found.
“Marika! Where are you, Marika!?”
Gekiha was dead. He did not know what had happened to his other classmates or his homeroom teacher. Given the situation, there was no chance all of them would make it out alive. In this insanity, death was the default. In this world, “lucky” meant having your emergency recovery crystal statue shattered and having to wait centuries or even millennia before you could wake up again. But Utagai Karuta still could not bring himself to believe that his childhood friend might be “gone”.
“No, dammit, wait, dammit, Marikaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!?”
His vision grew dark.
“Pant, pant. Oh, shut up. I’m still alive.”
She looked so small he feared he would lose sight of her due to some slight waves on the ocean surface, but she was still there.
His childhood friend was clinging to an empty plastic tank and speaking through pale lips.
“I’m fine. I still have both my legs. …Assuming they don’t take any more damage, that is.”
“Ahh, sob, ahhhhh. Wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
He could not stop it.
He wept like a child.
That was all. Karuta and Marika had survived, but that was all. They were surrounded by broken panels and the wreckage of furniture like a river immediately following a hurricane. And almost nothing was moving. There would have been other childhood friends like the two of them. There would have been friends who had just so happened to meet today. And there would have been people in closer relationships of the romantic variety.
But none of them were here.
There were no other survivors as far as the eye could see.
A large shadow passed by above their heads as they floated in that ocean of death. It was a military tiltrotor craft. Ropes hung down from it and some young adults were grabbing onto those. These were clearly not students or teachers. The white-haired woman with the dinosaur was among them.
That finally clued him in.
That was a military tiltrotor craft.
Those were the people who possessed the power to battle the Threat which normally put the world at risk and overpowered humanity. Those were the professional God-Worshipping Magic users.
They were the Problem Solvers.
The strongest five.
“You call yourselves representatives of justice?”
Utagai Karuta gnashed his teeth and raised his voice as if roaring toward the heavens.
“You call this justiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice!?”
His voice reached no one.
In the spring of Utagai Karuta’s 15th year, his glorious school life at the Crystal Magic Academy was cut short by tears of blood.
And that marked the beginning of a boy and a girl’s journey around the world in pursuit of vengeance.
Between the Lines 0
“Nothing beats cooking for yourself,” said Amaashi Marika/
This was before Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah had sunk.
She was seated at a cafeteria table, but she had not ordered anything.
She was using chopsticks to nab the contents of a bento box while watching the other boys and girls going through their fierce lunchtime battle at the counter.
“Yes, I can’t help but think of the word bourgeoisie right now. Let them eat cake, indeed.”
“You have some nerve saying that while stealing from Karuta’s bento.”
“Sh-shut up. Don’t act like you didn’t swipe a meatball.”
“Argue all you want, but get away from my bento!”
Utagai Karuta’s complaints fell on deaf ears.
He did not make a bento every day, but he did from time to time. And his friends would find out even if he did not announce it. He could guess the smell gave it away, but there was nothing he could do about that.
“Anyway, did you hear what they revealed about the Catastrophe?”
“We’re in the same class, so it would be weird if I hadn’t,” said Marika. “It can be anything from a natural disaster to a plague or even a war. Basically, they throw us into some dangerous part of the world and tell us to survive, right?”
None of them liked the sound of that.
Karuta spoke up while making sure to eat his bacon-wrapped asparagus before it was stolen.
“Is Crystal Magic really that convenient?”
“Sacri-sama, if you are dissatisfied with my functionality, I recommend immediately supplying me with pure gold to expand said functionality.”
“I’d die of debt before I could use any of that convenient functionality. And why are you hiding below the table!?”
“Oh, it’s Aine-chan!” exclaimed Marika. “Here, I’ll give you an omelet.”
“Marika, feeding her from my bento doesn’t fill my stomach!”
They kept chatting throughout the lunch break.
“But I’m sure we’ll manage,” said Kazamuki Gekiha. He sounded confident. “Our upperclassmen have all overcome it, right? That just shows how much possibility there is in Crystal Magic. So we’ll be fine. We’re on the winning rails here, so we’ll get by as long as we aren’t derailed in some weird way.”
Was that true?
Maybe it was.
Karuta thought about it for a bit and then nodded.
How could they hope to keep going otherwise?
Elicia Luxverg is known as one of the Problem Solvers.
That lady is always busy battling the Threat that has shaken so many of our lives, but today she has kindly offered to spare some of that time for us!
“You exaggerate how busy I am, so please relax and enjoy the interview.”
Miss Elicia, you are known to have protected dozens of cities, regions, and countries from the Threat and your many legends include the salvation of New York, the defense of Hong Kong, and the protection of Sydney. You are also well known for not discriminating based on politics, ideology, religion, military level, race, or any other basis when it comes to reaching out a helping hand to a region in need. Of course, the same applies to the rest of the Problem Solvers as well.
“I just so happened to be dispatched to heavy populated areas, that’s all. When we receive information on the Threat, it does not matter if it will happen in a metropolis of a million or at a log cabin deep in the mountains. We must do everything we can and there is nothing more to it.”
All information on the Threat and your battles is kept hidden, but it seems you have earned the nickname of Saurus. Can you tell us why that is?
“Heh. I am unable to answer due to those very information restrictions. Sorry about that.”
Can you tell us anything about your future plans?
“Again, the information restrictions do not let me.”
In addition to the aforementioned battles, you are also heavily involved with the infrastructure for garbage disposal. I do apologize, but I have trouble seeing what a lovely woman such as you has to do with waste disposal.
“Nothing in this world is beautiful or filthy. There is only the cycle of resources and products, so if one side grows stagnant, the other will collapse as well. Everything on this planet is finite. Efficient recycling and the new resources acquired through it are the only way to extend humanity’s lifespan. In a way, that is even more crucial than combating the Threat. …Oh, am I starting to give you a headache?”
How about we end the discussion of your work here.
Now, according to some exclusive information we have received, you are currently single. That seems like such a waste for a woman of your caliber! What kind of guy would be in luck if he hoped to marry up with you?
“I really wish the information restrictions could have covered this as well, but you can’t have everything in life. Also, I do not like the entire concept of ‘marrying up’. If that is why you are interested in me, then don’t bother and save us both some time.”
So are you the type who wants to be supported by a man?
“Surely even I have the right to dream of a Prince Charming.”
Oh, what’s this!?
“Why the surprise? But if you must know, step one for winning my heart is to be stronger than me. Are you listening, all you princes out there? I await your challenge.”
The smiling face on the TV vanished as the screen went black.
No one had hit the remote’s power button. They had instead thrown the remote and broken the LCD screen.
The crystal girl in a clear white dress slowly tilted her head in the cramped room.
“I can’t stand it.”
“But the TV did nothing wrong.”
Karuta obediently bowed toward the silent TV, but it was too little too late.
Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah had been annihilated in a single day. The students and teachers were gone. How could that woman even talk about the Threat when she was destroying the world too?
Karuta had escaped the disaster with relatively minor injuries and Marika had injured both her legs during the escape but did not have to worry about any lasting effects. That was all thanks to the healing provided by Crystal Magic.
This was a tropical island nation relatively close to that equatorial region of sea.
The people on that island of junk spoke a mixture of languages including English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Japanese. A cheap used RV was hidden in a small cave on its coast.
Their academy had possessed a 500m ship of a new era, all the latest Crystal Magic equipment, 700 specialists counting both the students and teachers, and even escort ships, but nothing remained of that former glory.
Karuta heard a squeaking similar to a rusty faucet being turned.
It came from the sexy girl with long black hair inside the same RV as him.
Her name was Omotesandou Kyouka.
She had been a Regulation 3 and the Student Council President, but no matter how many commands she sent from her printed circuit board, her Crystal Blossom would no longer produce armor for her. Nor could she pull out her Flamberge, a flame sword said to be more than twice her height. The bare minimum of communication was the most she could manage. She had been talented enough that it was rumored she could travel not just across the ocean and through the sky but between dimensions as well, but due to a serious wound to her back, she could no longer even get out of that wheelchair on her own.
What had happened during that hell?
As long as the wound was not fatal, if a Crystal Magician’s limbs were chopped off, the damaged portion would crystallize and a rapid healing process would begin. After about 30 seconds, the crystal shell would be destroyed and they would be as good as new. But Karuta had heard the process would not function properly if a piece of shrapnel or something was lodged in the body such that it obstructed the healing.
Marika had been lucky and he had been even luckier.
But the Student Council President did not bemoan her fate.
In fact, she was wise enough to understand she was lucky simply to have escaped that hell alive.
“We were shown just how powerless we are, but we still chose a vehicle as our base. Is that a sign of just how much that school has influenced us?”
She spoke thoughtfully while slowly stroking her fingers along the edge of the fold-up table. A few handmade experimental Crystal Magic tools and printed circuit boards smaller than stamps were lined up on the table, but they were really little more than a child’s summer project. Keeping a Crystal Blossom fresh was no easy task.
The salvaged textbooks and reference books had soaked up so much seawater that the pages stuck together even after being dried, but using the information there, they had manually input the commands necessary to recover a digital user’s manual for the Crystal Blossoms.
One of the books they had found had that friend’s name written on the back in permanent ink.
The textbook was the one the boy used to share with Karuta when he forgot his own book back in his dorm room despite the dorm being on the same ship as the school. The book had a flipbook crudely scrawled along the corner of the pages. It was obvious the boy had put far more effort into drawing mustaches and glasses on the pictures of the scientists who made historic discoveries than he had on highlighting the sections that would be on the test.
It contained such private and even defenseless things inside it.
No one had expected this to happen.
They had also found some possible weapons: an extendable baton, a stun gun, pepper spray, and a military flashlight. But they had clearly hit rock bottom when Crystal Magicians were trying to gather weapons instead of using their Crystal Blossoms. If all was well, they would have been honing their occult skills instead.
Nevertheless, he had to say it.
Utagai Karuta did so while toying with the longish military flashlight.
“It’s too soon to look back on it all yet. We have to get back at them first.”
He quietly spoke Aine’s name.
The girl had been seated on the sofa bed’s armrest, so she tilted her head in response, causing her silver hair to sway and reflect a rainbow of light. That was her standard “awaiting orders” pose.
That mysterious crystal girl did not appear in any known mythology or religion.
She was the greatest weapon the boy had available to him.
He opened the RV’s door, Aine supported the wheelchair from behind, and they used the barrier-free electric ramp so all three of them could head outside.
The blue cave reflected the sunlight in odd ways and it looked something like the crash site of a passenger plane.
There were so many of them.
Hundreds of clear crystal statues were lined up in the cave. The broken arms and legs had been gathered up, they had been assembled like a puzzle as much as was possible, and their human silhouettes had been reclaimed.
But it was still not enough.
The braided girl he had seen in the infirmary had been whole, but it was still thought the cracks above her navel would take 550 years to heal.
He heard the splash of something parting the water’s surface.
Marika emerged from the warm ocean of that tropical cave while wearing a racing swimsuit and a leisure oxygen tank.
“Don’t bother with the next shift. The rest of the pieces are too small for human hands.”
Karuta glanced over at one of the crystal statues among those lining the cave.
That was Kazamuki Gekiha, his former classmate.
They had gathered as many of the broken parts as they could, but they estimated it would take 7000 years before the boy came back to life.
They could never speak to the boy again in their lifetime.
But it could have been worse. The people working on the escort ships had been normal people. For them, that ocean really had been a watery grave. They had no second chance.
Marika tossed aside the oxygen tank and Student Council President Kyouka spoke to her.
“Even with the nonhuman girl, there’s only four of us. …Do you really think we can win against those world-class Problem Solvers?”
“More than that, whatever our reasons might be, I get the feeling we’ll be seen as terrorists.”
The girls seemed to be testing the waters with their words.
It was obvious they were not serious about backing out.
“We have to do it.”
“Why?” “Because it wasn’t anything great about us that let us survive that,” honestly admitted Karuta. “If we had actually tried to face them, we would have died. If we had run away like normal, we also would have been killed. The only reason we’re still here is because someone else was killed in our place. We hid in the forest of students and took shelter behind the shields of teachers to escape with our lives. We shut out the voices begging for help or wishing for a quick death and focused only on our own survival!!”
That was a very ugly way of putting it.
In a peaceful country where war was but a distant memory, they might have been criticized for that.
But no one laughed. They had all gone through that hellish rite of passage.
The only glimmer of hope was that those people had been Crystal Magicians.
They were stuck in cold sleep for what felt like an eternity, but they did have a chance at reawakening one day.
But therein lay the problem.
“Once those Problem Solvers notice this, they’ll resume the search. They’ll act like agents of justice to gain allies around the world who will rat us out almost immediately and then this cave will be discovered in what amounts to a witch hunt. Once that happens, there’s no stopping them. If Gekiha and the others are shattered into dust, baked into tiles, and used to pave roads all over the world, it’s over. They’ll never regenerate after that.”
If they could not be killed, there were other options.
There were ways of leaving someone unable to die but also unable to ever recover.
Just like something was obstructing the Student Council President’s healing.
“So we can’t let that happen. We have until they find this cave. We need to hunt all five of them down to cut off pursuit. The world has gone insane, so we need to fix it. I’m willing to do whatever it takes because this is our duty after surviving that hell!!”
He could feel a flame burning in his heart.
This was no different from self-harm. He was only burning himself with his own fury.
But he could not let those five get away with this.
Gekiha had apologized in his final moments and said he had been stupid.
But that was wrong. What was foolish about getting angry when the adult who supported your worth was killed and when your entire world was ridiculed and destroyed before your eyes? But that decision had led to such a disastrous result. The correct choice had been twisted to the point that it looked stupid. Someone had to make them pay for that. And that someone had to be Karuta’s group here since they had managed to survive.
The Problem Solvers were in the wrong.
They would make sure those five admitted it themselves.
“It’s true that might not be the most popular choice in the world. For the other 5.5 billion people out there, your classmates and the rest of the school’s students are irrelevant. What you are considering might only spread chaos through the world. But you don’t need to face that shame alone.” The Student Council President spoke softly. “Because we too refuse to let those pieces of shit take anything more from us.”
Karuta wiped away the tears that had welled up from his anger.
It was time to briefly forget about Kazamuki Gekiha and his pleasant days in the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy.
He coldly looked to the future.
“Now, what information do we have on Elicia Luxverg?”
A blatantly artificial light joined the mysterious blue light covering the cave wall.
Crystal Girl Aine had pulled a projector out from the RV.
Once she had regathered her wet hair into curly twintails, Marika leaned against the side of the RV while the Student Council President operated a remote control. Instead of the broken TV, it belonged to the projector Aine had dragged out.
“That was a live broadcast, so we know she is in this city’s broadcast station.”
A general map of the city was the first thing displayed.
The red dot in the center would be the broadcast station.
A large circle was drawn around that dot and it extended well outside the city.
“There is a heliport at the broadcast station and there are plenty of ports and airports within a helicopter’s flight range. If the control towers leave her flights off of the maps like they do with a president’s personal plane, then we will have no way of tracing her. Well, civilian apps have apparently revealed the routes of such planes, but there is another problem.”
Marika guessed at what the Student Council President meant.
“Elicia plays a role in the global infrastructure, right?”
“Yes. The Problem Solvers have a great influence on the world as a whole, but Elicia’s influence is especially strong in Oceania and the surrounding ocean. In other words, this tropical region is her home turf.”
“Her share of the global infrastructure is the garbage disposal and recycling. That monster needs less than half an hour to completely break down a large passenger plane or tanker that would normally take years, right?”
“Yes. She seems to have more than 20 megafloat ‘resource bases’ on the seven seas so she can let that dinosaur of hers run wild. And each of them is larger than Manhattan.”
Elicia’s dinosaur had been small enough to fit inside the gym, so why did she need such large structures for it? The answer was obvious.
Without the buoyancy and stability provided by that size, the dinosaur could easily flip over the entire megafloat once it was unleashed.
“Those resource bases can travel the world’s oceans by letting several boats pull them along and they also function as airports, naval ports, and submarine bases. They will retrieve passenger planes, tankers, submarines, or anything else when it reaches its lifespan. If she arrives by plane and takes a sub to another airport on a nearby continent, tracking her will be nearly impossible.”
“So we have to do it here before she disappears,” said Utagai Karuta.
They were all staring at the red dot on the map: the broadcast station.
When the Student Council President hit a button on the remote, the cave wall was covered by all the data she had been able to gather on the location in question. She had likely gotten most of it from the internet. It included exterior images, the number and locations of entrances and exits, a list of the companies that had designed and constructed it, estimated locations of the cameras and sensors installed around the building, and even photos of the trucks used to ship in materials or cater lunches.
“How did you get all this?” asked Marika while drying off her racing swimsuit with a bath towel.
“Well, it is a TV station. A lot of information had already been gathered by people straddling the line between fan and stalker who want to lie in wait for someone outside or even make their way to a dressing room.”
Omotesandou Kyouka gave a bewitching smile.
She had not managed to acquire the official plans for the building, but she had acquired a set of estimated layouts assembled by “volunteers”. Not only was the layout estimated based on the exterior appearance and the number of columns, but it even included actual studio numbers, so some of the parties involved may have snuck in as part-timers or cleaners.
“Broadcast stations are one of the critical pieces of infrastructure mentioned as possible terrorist targets, right? Should all this info really be out there?”
“Yes, you never know when it could fall into the wrong hands. Like ours.”
Also, the broadcast station in question was an ultra-tall building that stood 200-stories above the ground.
It was surrounded by a jumbled assortment of prefab buildings and barracks, giving that wealthy district the look of a sundial with the broadcast station in the center.
This was the same as the giant ship that had been the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy.
The new materials and technologies created as side effects of Crystal Magic had created a tendency for buildings and vehicles to grow extremely bloated and large.
“The building doubles as the actual broadcast tower, doesn’t it?” Marika softly sighed. “Y’know, Southeast Asia isn’t where I would expect to find the world’s largest entertainment broadcast station.”
“The TV industry is all about fighting over a piece of the pie,” said Karuta. “When a major content creator establishes themselves, they apply pressure on everyone around them. The domination of Hollywood has forced the European film industry out of densely-populated China and India, so they have been wandering the world in search of their El Dorado where they can find hundreds of millions of people. That’s why everyone seems to want fancy broadcast equipment and stations just because ‘that’s what they do in the West’.”
“So just like tea plantations, it’s all about making money,” added the Student Council President. “In that case, the security must be pretty strict. I wouldn’t recommend charging straight in using Crystal Magic.”
“Agreed, Omotesandou-san. Besides, we can’t hope to defeat Elicia that way,” he spat out hatefully.
“Sacri-sama,” cut in Crystal Girl Aine. “If you wish to avoid a direct battle with Elicia Luxverg, couldn’t you wait until she boards a helicopter on the rooftop? They do not possess Crystal Blossoms and thus cannot fly, so shooting down their aircraft seems like the most effective method.”
The answer to that was simple enough.
“That would mean attacking the helicopter pilot as well. And unlike with a car driver, they would never survive.”
“Basically, we don’t want to get other people involved in this,” said Marika with a bitter smile. “Was that too complicated for you, Aine-chan?”
But just because they had to reject that idea did not mean it was worthless.
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka smiled a little.
“But attacking her when she’s off the ground seems like a decent idea, don’t you think?”
“If we do attack her in the broadcast station, how do we avoid harming the other people around?”
“I want to avoid that, of course, but if you recall, that station is a crucial piece of infrastructure,” said Marika. “We can’t allow Elicia to escape, but if we intentionally trip an alarm after capturing her, I would hope everyone else would be evacuated.”
“Then leave that to me while the rest of you focus on the battle,” said Omotesandou Kyouka. “I might be in a wheelchair, but I can still be useful. I want to help protect everyone…and help get back at those five.”
“Um, what exactly will you be doing?” cautiously asked Marika.
“People will let their guard around someone who looks like this, don’t you think?” The Student Council President shrugged. “I can mess with the gas pipes around the station’s grounds to trigger an explosion. I will omit the details, but that is sure to put them on high alert. And if it gets the nearby tourists to escape, that’s all the better, right?”
It was far from a bad idea.
Karuta and Marika exchanged a glance and a nod.
“Trying to break into the main entrance while they’re on high alert would be ill advised.”
“But we are Crystal Magicians. We can sneak in through places normal people would never even consider.”
“Then let’s go with that.”
They had long worked together while training for the Catastrophe and that paid off here. They were thinking more or less the same thing.
“Then it’s time to really get down to business.”
“Elicia ‘Saurus’ Luxverg. How do we send that dinosaur woman to her grave?”
Several reports were displayed on the cave wall.
They had not taken any photos or recorded any data during that horrific tragedy. They had used those loathsome memories to draw out a diagram of the ships and written out what had happened back then in as much details as they could manage.
They would not let any of those deaths go to waste.
They would find a solution here and complete their revenge.
“That monster was made from weapons, shields, and other junk and it was shaped like a 15m carnivorous dinosaur.”
The Problem Solvers were valuable to and influential within international society in a number of ways beyond combatting the Threat.
They used their great power as a foundation of global infrastructure.
“That might not be all she can do. For example, its size may have been scaled down to match the ceiling of the gym.”
Elicia helped with garbage disposal.
She was especially useful when it came to breaking down giant structures such as passenger planes and tankers.
“But even then, I doubt it’s more than 50m.”
That would be easy enough for her. No longer did hundreds of people need to spend six months or a year using blowtorches to dismantle an old rusty tanker. That dinosaur could do it in less than an hour…no, less than half an hour.
“How can you be so sure about its size?” asked Marika.
“From how deep the ocean is where that huge ship sank. If that dinosaur could grow to 100 or even 1000 meters, she wouldn’t have needed to summon it inside the ship at all. She could have had it stand on the bottom of the ocean and use its great maw to tear through the entire ship.”
In such a one-sided fight, it seemed unlikely she had been holding back or bluffing in case it came in handy later. Assuming she was not extremely cautious, Karuta’s reasoning was sound.
The Student Council President nodded in agreement.
“I wonder if it would count as being an entirely separate power like Aine-san,” said Omotesandou Kyouka.
Being compared to that woman in any way made his skin crawl, but he suppressed the personal feelings.
“But sending my Aine at her would not be enough. Her mass and power are simply too great.”
“Sacri-sama, if you wish to expand my functionality-”
“No relying on uncertain factors. That’s no different from hoping you can draw on some ‘hidden talent’.”
“But that’s the real problem.” Strawberry blonde Marika rubbed her chin. “That dinosaur isn’t stopping time or teleporting through space. Nor is it shooting beams from its eyes or breathing fire. It’s just overwhelming mass. It converts its weight into power and forces its way through. …There’s nothing clever there, yet no one can stop it. If we don’t find a solution to that, we don’t even have a starting point.”
White-haired Elicia must have been quite confident in her power.
Otherwise, she would not have killed the headmaster in front of everyone, stepped up onto the stage where she had almost no cover, and stood in front of nearly 700 people. She had practically been asking them to concentrate fire on her.
Crystal Magicians had the preset abilities of flight, barriers, and regeneration.
God-Worshiping Magic provided none of that, yet that strongest of the strong had instantly sent Karuta and the others to pandemonium despite their cutting-edge presets and skills.
“No, please continue. Something is bothering me about this. It’s right there on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite lay my finger on it.”
He was curious about the way Kyouka held a hand to her cheek, but he decided to focus on brainstorming ideas…or rather, listing off the problems and discussing them.
“Marika, not even your Crystal Blossom would work, right? Even your lasers and masers would have difficulty against a mass that large. It’s like the difference between a vehicle covered in bulletproof armor and a solid hunk of steel.”
“More than that, would destroying it even accomplish anything? It’s like a bunch of nails gathered together by a magnet, so wouldn’t it regenerate each time we damaged it? I mean, that dinosaur seems even less biological than Aine-chan.”
“Which leaves an endless hell as the only option.”
“Can’t we just blow away that old woman herself before the dinosaur even shows up?”
If a surprise attack were to succeed, that would indeed be best.
But there was a problem.
“We can’t plan for that,” said Karuta. “Not when we don’t know how the dinosaur is summoned or how long the summoning takes after the command is sent.”
“Yeah,” said Marika. “Let’s hope it isn’t inside her body and can be summoned in an instant like with Aine-chan.”
“We still need to have a plan for if the dinosaur is there in case the surprise attack fails.”
Pale-skinned Crystal Girl Aine tilted her head.
Her silver hair swayed as she spoke.
“So are you saying the dinosaur is big, it can freely change forms, it can be stored anywhere, it can be summoned in an instant, and it’s impossible to destroy?”
“Whoops!” said Marika. “This sounds pretty bad when you spell it all out like that!!”
“Then why did Elicia Luxverg step up onto the stage back then?”
Everyone turned to look at Aine.
She kept her head tilted as she continued.
“Sacri-sama and I have some similarities with Elicia and the dinosaur. I am a fully separate power made of the strongest armor, while Sacri-sama remains unguarded.”
“What’s your point?”
“In that case, stepping up onto the stage was meaningless.” Aine answered his question bluntly and directly. “The safest and most effective arrangement would have been for Elicia to never even board the ship. She could have released the dinosaur and watched the havoc from a safe distance. But that is not what she did.”
“Then Karuta must be right about the dinosaur’s max size being no greater than 50m. If she summoned it outside the ship, it would sink to the bottom of the ocean.”
“Even that does not explain why Elicia made a direct appearance. It would have been better to send the dinosaur into the gym alone while she sent instructions from some hidden location. And remaining on some separate ship throughout would have been the best option.”
“Um…then was it a matter of pride? Did she feel the need to actually stand on the stage and declare war on us?”
“Wait. Dinosaur woman wasn’t the only Problem Solver there. The ones behind that light spear and that giant sword were there too. Did they really all board the ship?” Utagai Karuta dug down to the crux of the issue. “If not and attacking from outside the ship was an option, then why did Elicia bother boarding? It wasn’t a matter of pride and she wouldn’t bother putting on a show for mere ‘bugs’. I mean, we know the other members weren’t on that stage.”
“So was there some logical reason like an issue of distance?” The Student Council President was muttering under her breath. “Can she not control the dinosaur if she is too far away? But…”
How far Karuta’s instructions could reach Aine was a crucial issue, so it may not have been wrong to assume distance was a restriction.
But besides that…
“Why did she step up onto the stage?”
If distance was the only issue, she could have hidden backstage or in a duct. They thought back to what Elicia had said so confidently back then. More than that, they reviewed every last movement she had made.
Why had she stood in the most noticeable and thus must dangerous location?
“Or are we looking at this wrong? …Oh!”
Omotesandou Kyouka seemed to have realized something, but Marika and Aine still looked puzzled.
They could not let the impact of the scene distract them. They had to think back to the original position that woman had so wanted to stand in. Where had that dinosaur come from? What had it broken through? What did it mean for her to stand with her back to that? What position had been important enough to warrant facing 700 students and teachers?
Utagai Karuta directed his thoughts outward once more.
He looked the others in the eye and gave the answer.
“Why did she want to stand with her back to the wall?”
What they needed to gather was simple.
They might be hard to come by in Japan, but they were not exactly rare in this country.
Karuta and Marika were walking in the gap between the slums and the wealthy. It was a unique scene where a driver was waiting in a black limo right next to where a man in a worn-out coat was gathering empty cans.
“That should be enough shotgun shells,” said Karuta. “I’d love to buy as much as we can carry, but they might get suspicious if we buy too many in one place. Maybe we should visit a few different stores.”
“What about the traps?” asked Marika.
“Igniting them won’t be very difficult. A single spark will do the trick, so we can create fuses out of a battery and aluminum foil. Of course, we’ll need a different device to switch them on.”
“We’re going to detonate them by radio? But there are bound to be signals on all sorts of frequencies flying around all the way up to the heliport!”
“Not to mention from the bugs set up by obsessive fans. Yeah, it might be best to pretend to be tourists while we walk around the building and check what frequencies are in use. There must be a bandwidth no one is using. More importantly, Marika, you’re our only hope here since you’re the only one who can use a standard Crystal Blossom. Do you really think you can do this?”
“Yesss, III caaaan. I’d really prefer to use lasers or masers, but I guess a non-nuclear photon rocket would be best here.”
“Whatever the case, you should test fire it first. We don’t want to find out too late that the force of impact knocks a connection out of place.”
“Obviously. In that case, I’ll want some rubber adhesive that works on building walls and some cushioning material if we have the budget.”
The two of them were out shopping.
Aine had stayed back in the RV to support the Student Council President just in case. That would not make much difference if one of the Problem Solvers tracked them down, but Aine would be able to fight off any thugs who tried to rob the place.
“I can’t believe former Crystal Magicians like us are buying parts for weapons at a hardware store,” said Marika.
“I’m down with anything if it gives us a chance.”
“Also, Aine-chan really was a lot of help, so how about you buy her a reward?”
“You mean a snack covered in gold leaf or powder? Do you think that would really construct semiconductor circuits in her body?”
“The whole thing is too unprecedented to say. I’ve never even heard of another Crystal Blossom that eats.”
“And she’s stored inside my body, so what happens to me if she builds pure gold circuitry inside her?”
“Wait, I thought gold leaf desserts weren’t digestible.”
They discussed that while pushing a shopping cart through a large store.
The cart’s handle was labelled “Stainless Steel – Fifth Generation Material”.
(You even see it here.)
This was a sign of Elicia Luxverg’s influence. She used her dinosaur to tear apart the passenger planes and tankers gathered from around the world because that efficiently dismantled them into usable resources that could be recycled. That was why first generation resources, the iron or aluminum directly dug up in a mine, were almost never seen anymore.
The news was playing on the phone of a customer who passed by.
“Steel dropped in value by 2 dollars and 50 cents today while aluminum remains stable at 40 dollars and 27 cents. Speculators are saying the influence on first generation resource deals will be…”
Marika whispered while reaching for a product.
“There’s something wrong with human society when the unrefined rocks are more valuable.”
They had a list of what they needed, but like they said before, buying it all at once place would raise suspicions. They did not have much time, but they still walked around town visiting different stores to purchase bits and pieces of their list while also visiting unnecessary shops along the way.
“Ohh, I just remembered alllll my new swimsuits are at the bottom of the ocean with the ship.”
“Let me buy one. Just one! It’ll help camouflage what we’re doing!!”
“You already bought that racing swimsuit for diving, remember? And you got away with buying a leisure model because the ocean is so warm around here!”
“Listen, Karuta-san. Just like a school bag and a brand-name bag are entirely different things, that swimsuit and this swimsuit are entirely different!!”
And so he was dragged into a sporting goods store.
The look in his childhood friend’s eyes was already scaring him.
“Ohh, I love this dizzying feeling of being surrounded by so many price tags. Heh heh, I can just buy them all, can’t I? I can buy as many as I want, right?”
“Are you insane, you greedy girl!? You’re just using the price on the tags to feel like you’re rich! Plus, we don’t have any real income!!”
“We gathered a bunch of valuable stuff from the sunken ship.”
“But it isn’t unlimited. Besides, we decided to leave 95% of it in the cave for when Gekiha and the others eventually wake up. We only have the bare minimum to work with.”
“Bikinis are nice, but the design is so perfected there isn’t much room to have fun with it.”
“You’re not even listening, are you!?”
“This is a necessary part of the bare minimum. Now, let’s check out the one pieces…ohhh! They’ve got a real tricky one here, boss! This doesn’t cover the navel or back at all! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
He had no idea why that was so funny to her. At the very least, he knew it had nothing to do with good fashion sense. She was the stereotypical shopaholic in that she was bound to cool down half a day after buying it and badly regret her decision.
That meant there was nothing he could do now.
She charged straight into the fitting room with a risqué swimsuit.
“Hm, hmmm. Hm, hm, hm, hmm.”
“Come to think of it, there’s no real reason for me to wait for you here, is there?”
“Are you trying to kill me with loneliness by having me try on clothes all on my lonesome? And check out this stupid swimsuit! It’s hilarious!”
Curly twintailed Marika threw open the partition curtain, but that was when it happened.
She was indeed wearing a swimsuit, but that forceful action caused the shoulder straps to come undone, leaving her very much topless.
Karuta had to cover his face with his hands.
He was fairly certain he had seen a pair of indescribably bright mounds(?), but it would be best not to pursue the matter.
“See, what did I tell you!? These are really cheap!! They’re poorly made, so you can’t trust them!!”
“~ ~ ~ ~!! W-wait just a second!!”
Marika blushed bright red and quickly ducked back into the fitting room. In the RV, she would sleep naked with only a single sheet covering her, but she was apparently still reluctant to directly show everything off by complete accident. And she seemed well aware that this was in no way Karuta’s fault. Being a clever girl could be difficult sometimes.
Meanwhile, the young woman at the register grinned over at him. He had a bad feeling she was the type of salesperson who left the sample on the verge of breaking and then claimed whoever broke it had to pay for it.
“This was all a setup!?”
“But, sir, you enjoyed the show, didn’t you?”
It saddened him he could not deny it, so he paid for it to silence the woman. He could only laugh.
“Bwa ha ha ha!”
“Ah ha ha ha!”
This was a world of only love and peace. Utagai Karuta’s laughter was even uglier than when he had felt so cornered by the Problem Solvers.
Once the fitting room curtain opened again, the two of them were complete strangers once more.
“Ugh…what do we do with this broken swimsuit?”
“Even if we do defeat Saurus with it, do not let this part get in the history books.”
He drove the point home with a more decisive look than was strictly necessary.
At any rate, the preparations were complete.
It was time to face one of the world’s strongest.
It was time to attack one of the Problem Solvers.
It was time to exact revenge on Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg.
That absurdly large broadcast station had a range that crossed national borders to cover the entire Southeast Asia region.
After growing to a bloated 200 stories tall, there was one thing it was bound to have: elevators.
They needed quite a few of those to quickly and comfortably transport a large number of personnel and materials such as props.
There were general elevators for tourists and audience members, shipping entrance ones that could carry an entire loaded midsized truck, special ones that let entertainers sneak out the back way, and business ones for the other personnel.
The white-haired woman named Elicia Luxverg was riding a VIP elevator. It was made of glass to give a view of the evening cityscape, so it may have been similar to those at a resort hotel.
Its riders would normally be accompanied by station staff acting as a guide, their secretary, or a bodyguard, but Elicia was different.
She had a simple reason for refusing any of that:
“They would get in the way.”
The giant building had an unusually complicated layout to make sure the entertainers could avoid running into obsessive fans, but Elicia had learned her own way around. She also kept track of her own schedule down to the minute or second and she could intercept any unexpected attacker.
She was the world’s strongest all on her own.
With power on her level, not harming the people around her was the most difficult part of resolving any trouble that occurred. After all, her dinosaur did not allow for finetuned control. She went to the trouble of smiling for the cameras and performing some lip service for the masses, so she wanted to avoid making mincemeat out of an ally. That would waste all the effort put into that hours-long facial workout.
(Although the best form of defense is to keep your location a secret.)
In that sense, being at an obvious landmark and leaving by helicopter was not the best choice. If she was being honest, driving a half-rusted used car through a small road lined with plywood and prefab buildings was more her style.
Currently, she caught scent of something inside that empty elevator.
She pulled out her phone and made a video call to the station chief on the top floor.
“I am scheduled for four interviews, a one-on-one talk, and then dinner with some ‘influential people’, correct?”
“Y-yes. I do apologize for the busy schedule when you must be exhausted, but just think about how much good will come from-”
“Cancel them all.”
She did not bother responding to his peace-dulled confusion.
She summed it all up as much as possible.
“You need to prepare yourself. You have an intruder.”
Her prediction proved accurate.
A moment later, the elevator’s lights cut out, informing her of a power outage.
She heard an ear-splitting screech similar to sparks scattering as a train’s wheels were caught by the emergency brakes. The elevator came to a rapid stop on its way to the top floor.
It was evening. The building was so tall these higher levels would somewhat extend the time until sunset, but it was still horrifyingly dark. Did the loss of the artificial lights really make this much of a difference?
Her phone’s screen cast some light into that darkness, but the call had ended.
It said “no signal”, so it must have been using this very broadcast station and tower to make the call. But there was no chaos in the city she could see through the glass, even though a largescale blackout would likely cause accidents at the traffic lights and train crossings. That meant the power was out only for the broadcast station.
(National broadcasts are key to restoring order in emergencies. Counterterrorism measures in place for this crucial infrastructure should have it back up in less than five minutes, but surely they don’t hope to attack during that short time.)
The digital floor display had vanished with the power out, but this was probably near the 190th floor.
The next noise she heard came from the center of the metal elevator door. A katana-like blade made of crystal jabbed out at her chest height. It slid down along the gap between the double doors and sliced through some kind of latch like a hot knife through butter.
The automatic doors were forced open by human hands to reveal who awaited her.
“I recognize that blazer.” The world’s strongest kept her voice low but she smiled despite being trapped in a dangling birdcage. “A survivor of Grimnoah, I take it?”
It was a slender boy.
He was accompanied by a pale crystal girl wielding a bladed weapon.
A stagnant light filled his eyes as he introduced himself.
“I am the one who will kill and surpass you.”
How did they reach that point?
That bloated broadcast station was 200 stories tall.
It was bound to have a solid security network of guards, cameras, and sensors, but security was surprisingly lax at one point: the orange-dyed rooftop.
“No one would ever expect someone to enter a 200-story building from the very top,” laughed strawberry blonde Marika with translucent armor covering her body.
There was of course a heliport on the station rooftop, so they would have the bare minimum of control equipment. The entire station could function as a largescale broadcast tower so they did not have to use an external one and they could use the distortion in that signal to detect any approaching aircraft.
“If you fly straight up along the building’s wall, the radar can’t detect you,” said Karuta after being carried up to the top. “Although a normal plane or helicopter would definitely crash into the building if they tried it.”
At 200 stories, they were more than 1000m up. The oppressive equatorial heat was swept away and replaced by a light chill. The nearby planter even had lovely alpine plants growing in it.
“If you ask me, we won’t be accepting interviews at TV stations.”
He suddenly recalled what his old friend had said.
“Won’t Crystal Magicians like us be more like special forces? Y’know, we’ll be wrapped in a veil of mystery that gathers the public’s attention without having to show off to the media. But we’ll be able to go see the movies based on Crystal Magicians and laugh at how inaccurate they are. Heh heh heh.”
Come to think of it, hadn’t that flipbook in the corner of his stuck-together textbook been an imagined scene from those movies he dreamed of?
Karuta narrowed his eyes, let out a white breath, and whispered under his breath.
The back of his purple blazer swelled out unnaturally and pale Crystal Girl Aine appeared from within.
“Aine, prepare your weapon. We’re up against one of the Problem Solvers, so we can’t hold back in the slightest. When I give the signal, you give this your all from the very first move.”
Aine swung her right hand and what looked like a crystal katana appeared there. The base had a jitte-like fork with a laser gun on the short end.
“You too, Marika.”
“Leave it to me.”
There were sensors on the rooftop exit, but they would mean nothing before long.
They did not even need to cut the sensor when the entire station would be flooded with alerts.
Karuta and Aine pressed against either side of the door while Marika headed to the boxes lined up where they would not get in the way of the heliport. Those were the large exterior air conditioning unit, the water tank, and the gear boxes for the many elevators.
“Now we have to wait for that Student Council President.”
They took their positions and waited for things to begin.
And begin they did.
The bright guide lights for helicopters all went out.
As soon as the TV station building blacked out, Aine’s sword sliced through the door’s hinges like a hot knife through butter and Karuta kicked the door in. Marika jumped into an elevator shaft through a different entrance.
The Student Council President’s voices reached them through the vibration of their Crystal Blossoms.
Omotesandou Kyouka’s job was to use gas line explosions to destroy the normal cables and the transformers outside the broadcast station and then to observe the TV station using binoculars.
“Elicia is using the third VIP elevator from the left. Um, it should be stopped at the 190th floor.”
“The power should be back up in about five minutes, so make contact before then!”
Karuta and Aine ran down the dark emergency stairs to reach the elevator in question. He would have to use the crystal girl to neutralize anyone they ran into along the way, but fortunately, that was not necessary. That was probably thanks to the highest area being used for the executives, so it was nowhere near the actual production area. There were very few people this high up.
“It’s about to begin.”
Utagai Karuta clenched his teeth as he left the emergency stairway and ran down a hallway.
The fear in his mind was joined by an odd heat.
“It all starts here!! Aine, we’re about to challenge Elicia ‘Saurus’ Luxverg, one of the world’s strongest with the Problem Solvers! You need to be ready too!!”
They arrived at the 190th floor’s elevator hall.
Aine’s sword sliced through the metal door and Karuta helped pry it open.
And on the other side…
At long last.
It really did feel like so very long.
Utagai Karuta encountered his sworn enemy.
The woman had long white hair and wore a pantsuit.
The stopped elevator was like a dangling birdcage trapping her.
But there was no fear on Elicia’s face.
She returned her phone to her pocket and did not even pull her hand back out.
“How stupid are you? You could have just played dead, you know? Or are you here to receive the honor of being trampled below the great Elicia Luxverg’s feet?”
“Just you try it.”
Aine kept her sword at the ready and the boy took a step back from the dangling elevator. The avenger boy stepped into the safe zone of the solid elevator hall and he smiled with sweat soaking his body.
“You are standing on very thin ice right now. Safety devices? Emergency brakes? There’s no way those things can support the weight of that huge-ass dinosaur. Summon it here and all that will snap, sending you tumbling nearly 200 stories down to the ground. But if you’re fine with that, then summon your strongest.”
This was their first move.
It was all logically sound. If Elicia summoned her prized dinosaur, the elevator’s wires and emergency brake shoes would snap and she would fall. And if she hesitated, he would send Crystal Girl Aine toward her. Summoning the dinosaur meant falling and not summoning it meant getting sliced and diced. By normal standards, this was checkmate.
Assuming the monster known as Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg fell into the categories of “normal” and “standard”.
She laughed. Her undaunted ferocity sent a chill down Karuta’s spine.
“Aine!!” he immediately shouted. “Cut her down!!”
But the crystal girl did not follow his command.
There was a simple reason for this.
“I beseech thee, Vishnu, Indian God of Change.”
That reason was directly behind him.
It came from the sturdy elevator hall floor, but still within five meters of Elicia.
Tens or even hundreds of thousands of rusty metal pieces gathered together to produce a dinosaur as if it were rising up from a body of water.
Aine’s pure white clothing whipped around as she immediately changed the course of her blade. Instead of attacking the target directly in front of her, she used it as a shield against the dinosaur approaching from behind the boy.
That must have been the correct choice.
But the dinosaur made from a jumble of swords, spears, axes, and bows had much more force behind its charge. It sent Karuta flying horizontally with the crystal girl trapped in the middle. They were thrown through the pried-open door and into the elevator.
He did not feel the solid floor.
He was instead surrounded by something oddly warm, soft, and feminine-smelling.
Elicia had spread her arms to catch him and then buried his face in her chest.
Sweat poured from his body.
When he looked up from her chest, he saw a grin on the white-haired woman’s lips.
He did not have a second – or even an instant – to spare.
His shout was answered by the crystal girl swinging her clear blade upwards.
The laser beam fired along the curving course of that blade tore through the elevator’s ceiling.
The thick wires, safety devices, and emergency brake latches were all destroyed and the boxy birdcage began to fall.
It happened in the moment just before the charging dinosaur broke through the doorframe.
The dinosaur just missed the dropping elevator, so it seemed to have crashed through the glass wall beyond that and flown out into the evening sky, but Karuta and Aine were too busy to check.
They had entered freefall along with the rectangular box.
Their weight seemed to vanish. Just like a weightlessness experiment using a rapidly descending aircraft or an astronaut training facility using the extra-large freefall inside a broadcast tower, they were able to forget about the concept of weight while still on earth.
This must have been a bit of a surprise for Elicia as well because he was released from her slender arms.
Once freed from her chest, Karuta glared at his sworn enemy.
“Your dinosaur is a gravity attack using its great mass, so can you really make use of it in a weightless world!?”
“A meaningless question. You have failed to trap the crucial dinosaur – my Avatar – in this weightless cage.”
“Don’t be so sure. This prevents you from abandoning the old one and summoning a new one inside the elevator. That makes you powerless. I can have Aine cut you down now or I can wait for you to die from the fall!”
“Again.” Elicia floated in the weightless box while pointing her thumb toward the orange world beyond the glass. “I said it was a meaningless question, didn’t I?”
A reddish-black cascade could be seen out there.
It was a rusty collection of weapons like swords, spears, axes, and bows, of junk like refrigerators and cars, and of components like screws and springs. They had abandoned their dinosaur form to enter freefall along with the elevator. In fact, they were maintaining the exact same speed to remain alongside it.
Then they formed the carnivorous dinosaur’s maw once more.
Within the resultant deluge of horrific sounds, Elicia Luxverg kept her back to the destruction and bathed in the light of sunset so her body’s outlines seemed to be burning.
“Now, ghost, I will be leaving. Incidentally, do you have an effective means of escaping this?”
“If not, then it is you who will be splattered on the ground.”
“Kill her now, Aineeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!”
The crystal girl responded with the short laser gun on the jitte-like branch of her transparent sword, but something else was faster.
The dinosaur had fully regained its form and the claws of its feet dug into the small concrete wall built along the steel beams running between the glass panels. It used this to slow down while crashing its great maw through the glass.
The tremendous vibration threw off Aine’s aim.
The beam of light scorched the empty air right next to Elicia’s face, but she did not bat an eye.
It was all over if the dinosaur took the entire elevator into its jaws. Elicia could escape by climbing onto the dinosaur, but the other two would be stuck inside as the elevator was tossed out into the evening sky like used gum.
But that was not what happened.
Just before it could, an orange beam of light pierced vertically through the elevator from top to bottom. A twintail girl with sharp crystal armor growing from her body flew into the large hole this created in the ceiling.
The girl must have been too focused to respond.
She took Karuta and Aine’s hands while they floated in the artificial weightlessness and she flew down through the hole in the floor.
Sounds of destruction continued from up above.
Most likely, the dinosaur had dug its claws into the TV station’s wall to gradually slow its descent with the elevator in its mouth.
“Marika, this isn’t over! We haven’t rid Elicia of her ‘strongest’ yet!!”
Marika turned ninety degrees away from the elevator shaft to break through the thick glass wall and fly outside.
They faced Elicia, who was riding the dinosaur’s shoulder, from a distance of 20 meters.
However, they were standing on the vertical glass wall.
Karuta’s group was supported by Crystal Magic flight and Elicia was using the dinosaur’s claws digging into the wall, but they were both freed from the concepts of gravity and the ground.
They stood on that glass battlefield.
“So you are finally facing me head on, ghost.”
The white-haired woman was delighted.
They had dropped a lot, but their surroundings still looked like a sunset ocean. Their glass footing glittered as it reflected the orange light.
Some artificial light was mixed in with that.
The lights inside were turning back on. The broadcast station was coming back to life as it switched over to emergency power.
They had expected the blackout to last about five minutes, so all this could not have taken any longer than that.
What a dreadfully intense battle this had been. It felt like they had been fighting for days.
“Are you all out of tricks? Then let’s end this with me sending you back to your graves. Your experience on that sunken ship should have taught you that you cannot defeat my Avatar in an exchange of pure violence.”
Marika and Aine.
The boy could not even stand on this wall without those two girls’ support, but he still spat back a response.
“Don’t screw with us.”
“My obvious superiority is not enough to deter you? If this is what you’re like, I can’t imagine how you managed to survive back then. …Do it.”
Crystal Magic and God-Worshiping Magic.
The wielders of those different powers took action simultaneously.
They charged straight ahead on that glass ground to take the shortest route toward a clash.
A single hit from that dinosaur meant death.
The spatial vibration field and auto-regeneration were useless. Not even the 700 people in the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy had been able to defeat this world’s strongest. Just because Karuta’s group had gained a few personal reasons for fighting now did not mean they could overturn everything that happened and defeat this dinosaur.
That had never been their intent.
“Marika! Our footing!!”
The guard of her rapier-like weapon moved. It had covered the back of her hand before, but now it turned inside out like a broken umbrella in a gust of wind to form a firing unit. A blinding beam of light surged from there.
Their footing was nothing more than glass.
It shattered and the flat battlefield suddenly vanished, as if the three of them were diving underwater.
Elicia briefly looked puzzled while left behind.
But then she clenched her teeth.
Something else had begun.
Before making their move on the 200-story broadcast station, Karuta and Marika had gathered materials and made preparations in the jumbled city.
“That should be enough shotgun shells. I’d love to buy as much as we can carry, but they might get suspicious if we buy too many in one place. Maybe we should visit a few different stores.”
Those shells that scattered small metal balls were used for hunting and riot suppression, but they were not hoping to load them in a gun and fire them.
Elicia was known as the world’s strongest, so nothing like that was going to affect her.
“What about the traps?”
So they were using them differently.
They had chosen a method of detonating those shotgun shells without using a gun.
“Igniting them won’t be very difficult. A single spark will do the trick, so we can create fuses out of a battery and aluminum foil. Of course, we’ll need a different device to switch them on.”
They would function as tiny little bombs.
Aiming them at her would almost certainly fail. Even if one of the metal balls grazed her skin by pure luck, the explosive energy would not have been aimed in a single direction by a gun barrel, so it would not have much destructive force.
“We’re going to detonate them by radio? But there are bound to be signals on all sorts of frequencies flying around all the way up to the heliport!”
So it was a bluff.
They only had to make the target think she was being targeted by bullets or explosives.
“Not to mention from the bugs set up by obsessive fans. Yeah, it might be best to pretend to be tourists while we walk around the building and check what frequencies are in use. There must be a bandwidth no one is using. More importantly, Marika, you’re our only hope here since you’re the only one who can use a standard Crystal Blossom. Do you really think you can do this?”
What they had done was simple.
They attached a wireless detonator to the shotgun shells and then coated them with adhesive.
Then they only had to throw them against the TV station wall from a distance.
That would turn that wall into a minefield.
“Yesss, III caaaan. I’d really prefer to use lasers or masers, but I guess a non-nuclear photon rocket would be best here.”
Was that all it took to defeat Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg?
She had stood in front of 700 Crystal Magicians and used her massive dinosaur to block all the attacks sent her way and then crushed them all underfoot, so was this really enough to harm her?
“Whatever the case, you should test fire it first.”
The answer was yes.
“Obviously. In that case, I’ll want some rubber adhesive that works on building walls and some cushioning material if we have the budget.”
Pop pop! Pop!! Pop pop pop!!
Elicia heard small explosions bursting all around her.
She also heard something whizzing through the evening air, so had they included nails or fishing hooks to make this more lethal? Or were they using shotgun shells?
It was the same either way.
Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg was one of the Problem Solvers, but she was only human herself. If she was shot with a bullet, she would die. If she was caught in an explosive blast, she would be torn apart.
(Did they lure me here? No, I should assume they placed explosives all around the station’s walls so they would have traps everywhere!!)
She did not know which it was.
She was the strongest when it came to physical attacks, but she was not clairvoyant or prophetic, so she had no way of knowing the quantity and location of the explosives.
And to reiterate, a single hit would kill her.
One of the world’s strongest would be killed in a trap set by some ghosts she failed to kill.
After they broke through the orange-shining glass wall and entered the broadcast station again, Karuta finally felt a solid floor beneath his feet. He used that to run through the building along with Marika and Aine.
“She doesn’t have a body of steel and she can’t use Crystal Magic, but she always shows up on the front line and leaves herself open to attack. Why?”
They could hear the small explosions – no, gunshots – even from here.
If they did not reach their destination before those ended, they really would have no tricks left up their sleeves.
“The answer is simple: because nowhere is safer than by her dinosaur. That’s why she stood on that stage in front of 700 people in the ship’s gym. That dinosaur is tough enough to deflect any attack, but it can only shield one direction at a time. So her biggest fear was for the 700 people to spread out and attack separately. If she was surrounded, there would be a chance of an attack slipping through the gaps in her dinosaur shield and reaching her. That’s why she took a position where all those gazes were fixed on her from a single direction.”
“She can only summon one of those dinosaurs. She can’t summon a second or third with the same mass and she can’t split the one into two smaller ones. If she could, she could stay in hiding with a bodyguard dinosaur while she sent in an attack dinosaur!”
What was Elicia doing now that she was surrounded by explosions on that building wall?
Was she unsure which direction to use her dinosaur shield?
“Karuta-kun, be careful. Elicia is acting oddly.” Student Council President Kyouka contacted him via Crystal Blossom vibration while she observed the exterior of the station with binoculars. “It isn’t shaped like a dinosaur anymore. It looks more like a crumbling donut as she forces it to shield her in all directions!”
“That’s fine.” Karuta’s group ran up the emergency stairs. “We were hoping she would panic and not know what to do, but this still keeps her from using the dinosaur.”
They ran down the hallway.
“I just hope she hasn’t considered this possibility!!”
They arrived at the glass wall decorating the floor.
From Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg’s perspective, they were approaching from below her feet.
She had broken down the dinosaur and spread the rusty junk out in a donut shape to protect herself in all directions while it still maintained a single form, but those “all directions” were only in two dimensions.
Had Elicia forgotten she was using a glass wall like the floor?
Karuta’s fist broke through the thick reinforced glass wall.
This was a first.
His sworn enemy cried out in surprise for the first time while he grabbed her ankles and dragged her inside.
He threw her to the floor.
The blow to her back left her collapsed there.
From there, she must have seen what looked like a demon pulling an extendable baton from his purple blazer’s pocket.
The two girls faced the broken window from either side of him. The junk donut was rapidly retaking its shape, but before it could, they used the beams fired from their katana or rapier weapons to blast the half-formed donut and forcibly tear it away from the wall.
Once gravity took hold, the dinosaur fell toward the orange surface.
Elicia reached out a hand from the floor, but there was nothing she could do.
“Can you instantly eliminate that one and summon a new dinosaur? Of course you can’t. If you could effectively warp it around like that, you wouldn’t need to stick by its side to stay in the one safe zone on the front line. Once it takes form, you’re stuck using that one.”
“This is the 104th floor, so how long do you think it’ll take for it to climb back up the wall?”
“As long as we kill you before then, we win.”
He swung the first horizontal blow toward Miss Strongest lying screaming on the floor.
When he felt the raw sensation reaching his wrist through the weapon, he knew for certain that Elicia really did use God-Worshipping Magic.
She did not have the barrier or regeneration of a Crystal Magician’s presets.
He could do this now.
If he attacked her exposed human body, he could defeat this strongest!!
After delivering a second and third blow with the baton as if slapping her back and forth, it was the baton that broke and bent in a shallow V-shape. It was hollow inside to make it collapsible, but it was also quite cheap.
“This thing’s useless.”
He tossed it aside and pulled another weapon from his pocket.
These were knuckledusters, aka brass knuckles. He passed the four fingers of his right hand through the holes, clenched it, and prepared to throw a punch toward Elicia Luxverg with those brutal rings on his fingers.
He answered her with a solid thud.
But this did not last long either. After sitting on top of her and throwing several punches to her face, he heard an odd sound from the base of his index finger. A portion of the finger crystalized and began the 30-second healing process. He must have damaged the bone. Even though he had the barrier-like spatial vibration field, weakened though his might be.
“Dammit, are you kidding me?”
He tossed aside the useless hunk of metal and pulled out a modified military flashlight.
Elicia guarded her face with her hands. She looked just like some confused girl trying desperately to protect herself from the violence raining down her way without warning.
“How long have you been doing this!? We still haven’t killed a single person! You think this is enough? You expect me to believe you’ve learned your lesson!? You think you’re some helpless victim and it would be wrong to kill you? To hell with that!! You have to take responsibility for what you did! And that means you have to die, you piece of shit!!!!!!”
The flashlight was meant to blind an enemy, not beat them. It had a laser pointer in place of bright LEDs and its special laser pointer lens could spread that light out like a flashlight to fry someone’s eyes. This method was well known for being used by ill-mannered sports spectators and people trying to obstruct aircraft. But with a reinforced stainless steel exterior that lived up to the “military” descriptor, with the weight of the large battery, and with the amplifier attached to the back, it worked well as a baton.
He remained sitting on her and beat her some more.
He must have been screaming something as he did so, but not even he heard what it was.
White-haired Elicia Luxverg had been using her hands to guard her face, but eventually something must have snapped inside her. She went limp and stopped resisting.
Only his heavy breathing continued.
This was the person who had torn Kazamuki Gekiha in two, sunk the entire Ocean Crystal Magic Academy ship, and slaughtered the other 700 people in that school who he had smiled alongside as fellow Crystal Magicians. No, the number of deaths had to be several times that when the escort ships were included.
If the Problem Solvers learned that the crystalized victims were in that coastal cave and that those people would eventually reawaken, they were sure to desperately search the world until they found them. They would smash up those crystals as many times as it took, mix the pieces in with tiles or bricks, spread those around the world, and make absolutely sure those people could never be resurrected.
He knew that.
He knew every bit of that.
Despite the heat blazing in his mind, he also felt something terribly bitter building up in the pit of his stomach. As he continued to punch Elicia, he grew irrationally angry at her for not just dying already and for clinging so stubbornly to life.
Killing people was hard.
That should have been obvious, but it really was hard.
So how could they do it so easily?
The hand holding the bloody modified military flashlight dropped.
There were tears in the eyes of Elicia Luxverg’s misshapen face.
He may have been crying too as he sat atop her.
No matter how unfair those tears were to each other.
“Sacri-sama,” said Crystal Girl Aine with a composed expression. She was not warning him that the woman really would die if he kept this up. “If you are having trouble achieving your goal, wouldn’t it be fastest to use me? I can end it with a single strike of my blade.”
His shoulders rose and fell as his mind finally focused on reality once more. The heat of rage did not go away, but he managed to question himself again. Would he kill her or not? Would he kill to give her a tiny taste of her own medicine? Would he stoop to her level here?
A tremor ran through his body.
For a moment – only a moment – Gekiha’s supposedly shattered face appeared in his mind’s eye.
He threw the flashlight weapon to the floor and loudly clicked his tongue. While still sitting on her, he grabbed the collar of that Problem Solver who looked like a squashed red sack.
“I have questions.”
“Tell me about the other Problem Solvers! What can they do and what are their weaknesses!! Give me every last piece of even remotely useful information you have! Keep anything to yourself and I’ll kill you. I should really be doing that regardless. Got that!?”
Her face was too swollen to tell her eyes from her nose, but she still nodded repeatedly.
He wanted info on the other Problem Solvers: their hideouts, where they generally lived their lives, the kind of magic they used, and their weaknesses. Elicia’s dinosaur was magic, so it was a technique. It was nothing more than information that anyone could learn. That dinosaur was a fearsome enemy now, but it would help immensely to be able to use it themselves.
He had dealt with this now.
Or so he though. Right up until a beam of light stabbed into one of Elicia Luxverg’s temples and out the other.
A blinding light similar to welding exploded a moment later.
He blinked his eyes for a bit to deal with the burning pain in his eyes and then he realized the person he was holding by the collar had died. Her entire head was gone. There was not much blood because the top of the neck had been burned entirely black.
“What, we were trying to kill her, weren’t we?”
He raised his head, but he could not turn toward the voice.
He had never heard such an icy voice.
“Let’s say we tied her up and dragged her back with us. Then what? We don’t know what she needs to summon that dinosaur, so we have no guarantee even if we take all her weapons and armor and even strip her naked. That surprise attack wouldn’t have worked again and we’d be helpless if she was ready for us. Killing her makes the most sense.”
Utagai Karuta shut his eyes just once and then relaxed his hands. The corpse plopped lifelessly to the floor. Nothing remained of her dignity as the strongest. She was meat. Nothing more than a hunk of meat.
“Are you upset?” asked Crystal Girl Aine while slowly tilting her head. Her long silver hair swayed as she gave him a curious look. “If you had just used me, she would not have stolen your kill.”
They returned to the RV they were using as a mobile base.
“Was I useful? I used the gas explosion to make sure everyone was evacuated, I cut standard power to the broadcast station, and I kept watch with my binoculars. That was a lot of work, but I’m pretty sure I kept anyone from being hit by the falling glass.”
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka was waiting for them in her wheelchair.
She had blended into the background to provide logistical support, but she must have returned to the RV ahead of them. Also, the RV’s driver’s seat had been customized for her, so the gas and brake pedals could be operated with buttons on the steering wheel.
“Oh? You actually killed her, didn’t you?” was the first thing Kyouka said when they returned.
“But you don’t look very happy. Why aren’t you delighted we defeated one of the world’s strongest and took revenge for everyone?”
The boy looked up with his childhood friend and the crystal girl on either side of him.
Was he smiling or crying?
That avenger could no longer say for sure.
“I’m not sure myself.”
And he said more in his heart:
I don’t think we’re the kind of people who could appear in those action movies you dreamed of.
Between the Lines 1
Elicia Luxverg had been perplexed when she first heard that term.
Magic was the term for divine miracles performed by human hands, but this new version apparently did not require going to the gods themselves. A printed circuit board was hooked up to a unit known as a Crystal Blossom, a god’s name was sealed inside, and it was installed with a program based on that god’s legends and myths to “ride the supernatural currents” similar to someone reading the weather map before tilling their field or raising their ship’s sails.
Was that really possible?
And if it was, wasn’t it irreverent?
“It doesn’t bother me,” replied Elicia Luxverg’s shadow.
That was no metaphor. The outline of her shadow on the floor changed to create a shape very different from her own.
That was Vishnu, God of Change.
He was one of the primary Hindu gods alongside Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer. He was the preserver and one of his jobs was to take the form of ten different Avatars to resolve any problems that would disturb the public order.
Elicia’s dinosaur could be seen as a version of those Avatars created using Vishnu’s power to freely change forms.
“How can it not bother you? They are basically creating papier mache gods and drawing on your power without permission. It isn’t even an issue of good or evil. Can a real god like you really allow that to happen?”
“This isn’t about that.” Her shadow’s shoulders shook in amusement. “You cannot preserve the status quo simply by letting the flow of time take over. Standstills lead to the change known as stagnation. As a preserver god, I believe I understand just how difficult it is to preserve things. To be honest, I suspect the world has grown stagnant by the title of world’s strongest staying with you for so long.”
“So isn’t this a good opportunity to stir things up? This feels weird since I’m more or less praising the acts of that god of destruction and dance, but this should be a pretty good deal for you. Finding someone who will help you improve yourself is always a good thing.”
“There are already four other people with the title of world’s strongest.”
“You mean that group of five who have their hands tied because of a stalemate akin to nuclear strategy? When was the last time any of you fought each other?”
“What are you getting at here?”
“I am saying you cannot stop the world from changing, so you should position yourself to use that change as a tailwind. You five are so evenly matched you cannot hope for any more experience points there. Not as enemies or as allies.”
“I didn’t think you were the kind of god who gleefully sought out enemies.”
“Who says this new group has to be an enemy?” Her shadow laughed in amusement. “A formidable opponent can also be the kind of friend you can really open up to. That is what it means to find pleasant preservation.”
“A friend, huh?”
A special G21 summit is being held here in London. The signs point toward the topic being countermeasures against the Threat that has shaken so many people’s lives, so there is reason to suspect the Problem Solvers have been summoned here for more than just summit security.
The Problem Solvers are very busy, but we have managed to get Miss Yukino Arakawa to spare some time to speak with us.
“I must apologize, but I cannot provide any of the gossip you are likely hoping for.”
Is there indeed a connection between the G21’s primary topic and the Problem Solver presence here?
“I am simply providing security for the summit, so I have not even been informed what that main topic is. Thus, I cannot answer that question.”
The five of you are like our guardian deities, but you are also a central pillar of global infrastructure. If conditions destabilize, would it hinder those services?
“There is nothing to worry about there. For one thing, I am not sure what you even mean by conditions destabilizing and what do we have to fear anyway? Everyone watching this footage continues to receive power to their homes and what greater symbol is there of a rock-solid system there? Everyone is under our protection. Do not forget how reassuring that is.”
So to be absolutely certain, you are saying the Threat is not approaching this city and there is no need to evacuate?
“That I can answer with a wholehearted yes. The appearance of the Threat can be predicted in advance, so if danger signs are detected, the information will be immediately released and evacuating all of you will take top priority. And even if a full evacuation is not possible, there is nothing to worry about while we are in the area. We will swiftly deal with the Threat and keep the damage to a minimum.”
But no information on your battles with the Threat has been released and some tabloids and online news sites have voiced concerns that your success rate at driving back the Threat is not as high as we are led to believe.
“Are you making intentionally provocative statements to see how we respond? Information on the Threat is not released because we do not want unnecessary fear and chaos to spread to safe regions. Also, our combat methods are meant for use against the Threat, so we do not want knowledge of them to spread and perhaps fall into the wrong hands. I imagine some of the people making a fuss about the information restrictions are more interested in us than in the Threat.”
Also, it has been noted that Miss Elicia is absent this time.
“No comment☆ Mystery is the spice of life. Plus, we are talking about me at the moment, are we not?”
A loud crash echoed through the RV.
Instead of switching off the TV, someone had thrown the remote and broke the LCD screen.
“Oh, dear. How thoughtless of me. Sorry if I made you jump. Hee hee hee.”
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka smiled in a way that showed she was not at all sorry about what she had done.
The weather forecast for the night had been way off.
Or rather, the weather forecast “during the solar eclipse”.
Utagai Karuta and Kyouka were alone in the RV. Amaashi Marika and Aine were out getting some food for them all. He doubted those two would screw anything up and they could probably force their way through any problems even if they did. Before the attack by the Problem Solvers, they had been Crystal Magicians preparing to battle the Threat that was indiscriminately erasing countries, regions, and cities around the world, so even with the bolstered security during the summit, the police would not be enough to restrain those two.
They were in London.
It would have been unbelievable before the introduction of Crystal Magic, but the new materials and technologies that had led to a ship as large as their school had also created passenger planes large enough for an RV to fit in the general cargo bay. Those colossal ferry planes were often compared to winged whales.
Of course, it was that large size that meant it took years to break them down by hand and led to the entire human race relying on Elicia’s dinosaur.
Those five were given free rein because no one wanted to question their comfortable lifestyle.
And Karuta had been the same right up until he had everything taken from him.
“So we’ve been living together for a week now. This is really dragging on, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
He was living with Marika, Kyouka, and Aine. This small space with no real partitions was filled with girls. He was focused on taking revenge on the world’s strongest, hiding the crystallized teachers and students in the tropical cave, and protecting them from the Problem Solvers, but without those exceedingly heavy topics, he would have been overwhelmed in a different way.
The Student Council President laughed quietly.
“Are you starting to see the real me through the cracks in the ideal vision you had of me? I just hope I haven’t disillusioned you.”
“I never really knew anything about you. You were too far beyond my reach.”
“My, my. I don’t like it when people build walls to separate us. I thought I had won the election with my promise to keep things casual and friendly with everyone.”
That might have worked in a normal school, but they had been learning Crystal Magic to fight the Threat which could entirely erase a metropolis of a million people overnight. The top of their hierarchy would be the future world’s strongest, so no one could just walk up and talk to them like it was nothing. Instead of being called a pervert and receiving a slap, the entire earth could be destroyed.
“Boo, boo,” said Kyouka while childishly puffing out her cheeks. “Ahh, ahh. I’d love to be friends with Karuta-kun and talk with him more, but how am I supposed to remove this imaginary wall between us?”
“What are you talking about now?”
“Perhaps we just need to get to know each other more intimately. Oh, I know. We could take a bath together.”
She laughed at the indescribable look on his face.
“I should hope so.”
“But I am feeling sweaty, so I’d like a shower. Karuta-kun, can you help me?”
“Wait, were you kidding or not!?”
That said, he had no choice but to help her here. The RV had been customized in a number of ways, but it was not entirely barrier free.
It was a high-grade vehicle with beds, a sofa, a stove, a fridge, a microwave, a washer, and a dryer, but the bath was not up to the standards a Japanese person was used to. To save space, it only had a shower contained in a stall no larger than a phonebooth. There was no actual tub.
After pushing her wheelchair over to the shower, it was time to get to work. He needed to place his hands on her back and behind her knees and lift her into the shower room. That princess style was not strictly necessary, but when he had lifted her over his shoulder like a sack of rice on the first day, she had refused to speak to him for about half a day. That was apparently also called bandit style.
“Heh heh. I got Karuta-kun to princess carry me.”
He tried to empty his mind so he did not focus on the softness and warmth in his hands or the scent of her hair while he gently placed her butt down on the small floor of the phonebooth-sized space. She was still wearing her uniform at this point, but he could not help her change. She was not like a certain idiot who was willing to sleep in the nude with only a single sheet covering her.
“Okay, Karuta-kun, bring me a change of clothes.”
“And if I scream, come rescue me. I will leave the door unlocked.”
“I really don’t think you can drown on the floor here.”
“Just do it.”
She shut the door that folded up to the side to save space. Digging through a girl’s possessions was embarrassing, but she had given him permission and she needed a change of clothes or she would be stuck in there naked.
(This one is her bag, right?)
Given the limited space of the RV, they each only had a single sports bag of personal possessions. Kyouka had a sexy and mature appearance, but her bag had a cute pastel color design.
The neatly underwear neatly folded up within came in a lot of surprisingly colorful varieties.
Clear your mind, clear your mind!! he told himself.
He moved aside the thick metal detachable disk drives at the top of the bag and reached for the items he needed.
(She wants something to sleep in, so that means a large dress shirt and underwear. Um, this should work. The top and bottom should have matching colors, right?)
“This is to sleep in, so I don’t need a bra.”
He jumped and looked back.
His upperclassman’s teasing voice reached him from the shower room.
“They’re big in a number of ways, so they make it hard to sleep in a number of ways.”
Her words were making him feel things in a number of ways, but the bigger problem was how the foldable door was sitting partially open. A hand stuck out from there and dropped a blazer, a blouse, a pleated skirt, and finally some stripped-off underwear.
“Wait, um, Omotesandou-san!?”
“I am about to take a shower. If I left them in here, they would get soaked.”
She was absolutely right, but she was also absolutely teasing him.
With some laughter a little too mature to call impish, her hand pulled back inside and the door pulled all the way shut. Finally, he heard the gentle sound of running water.
Utagai Karuta focused even harder on clearing his mind.
Ahh, ahh. That sexy Student Council President is in that phonebooth-sized shower room, her beautiful butt must be seated on the floor since she can’t stand up, and is she holding the shower hose in one hand to wash herself off? Is that warm water flowing down her hair and dripping down the contours of her body!? Is it, is it, is it!?
A minor big bang was occurring in his brain.
And then he heard her voice from beyond the foldable door.
“Hold on. Didn’t you promise to come save me if I screamed?”
“Yeah, but that was way too fake!!”
“Just get over-…hyahn!? (Thud!)”
“Huh? Omotesandou-san? What was that?”
“Bubble, bubble, bubble, gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.”
“Geh, are you for real!?”
She could not have stepped on the soap and slipped since she was seated, so had she sat her big butt on it and slipped that way? Talk about a miracle. He decided he wanted to be reborn as a bar of soap in the next life. However, life-threatening crises were not always some big dramatic thing. People could drown even in a puddle.
That was why he rushed over and reached for the shower room door.
“We’re back! We bought the brands of oil and powder you asked for. Everything’s a real mess with the collapse in the first-generation resource markets for iron and aluminum, though. And man, the food situation in England can only be described as yikes. I just about fainted checking out the supermarket.”
“It turns out London has a Japanese confection store. Their gold powder monaka was the best.”
The two girls returned with the best timing imaginable.
And the wet-haired, mischievous, and laughing girl curled up on the bathroom floor was not helping matters.
The resultant chemical reaction was more explosive than a thermobaric weapon.
The record for the world’s most dangerous mixture was broken on that day.
It was 2PM in London.
However, the mysterious solar eclipse meant it was as dark as midnight.
“Now, I would like to get down to business.”
“You need to apologize first! Apologize for everything!!”
“What are you so upset about!? And what am I even apologizing for!? What did I do wrong in that situation!?”
Curly twintails Marika had been collapsed on the sofa bed for a while, but now she threw her hands in the air and shouted back at him.
“Ughh, ahhhh! You need to apologize for having such bad karma!!”
“This is getting awfully dark awfully fast! Besides, that Student Council President set me up!”
This may have been a lot like their noisy days back at the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy. Karuta himself sensed something nostalgic in this storm he was caught in.
But things had changed.
They now had a sexy eye of the storm.
“Oh, how could you, Karuta-kun? After everything we did while they were gone, you’re trying to place all the blame on the girl?”
“Hey, don’t blush and place your hands on your cheeks like that. Was a thermobaric weapon not enough for you?”
Karuta asked this of the Student Council President who was wearing the dress shirt she used as pajamas. Crystal Girl Aine was standing expressionlessly in a corner of the RV, but she was simply awaiting further orders. She must not have understood the danger here because she silently tilted her head.
Karuta got straight to the point as coldly as a bank teller just before closing time.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough of that! Let’s get back on topic!!”
“(Oh, dear. Yet she’s the one who sleeps in the nude. How hypocritical of her.)”
However, the Student Council President was mature enough to keep those personal thoughts to herself as she got down to business.
“Our top priority target this time is Yukino Arakawa.”
She used the projector to cover the wall with photos taken from news sites or online articles.
“Unlike Elicia and her dinosaur, this woman did not directly board the ship. That makes it hard to say anything for certain, but she is almost certainly the one who sank the escort ships with the light spears. I saw her giving instructions from the open cargo door of their tiltrotor craft and, while it is unconfirmed, she is well-known for ‘bringing an eclipse’ wherever she goes. So she is likely in London right now. Of course, we do not know what the Threat itself is, so who knows how reliable any of this information is,” added the wet-haired Student Council President. “Every member of the Problem Solvers is a monster, but Yukino’s light spear is one I want to get rid of as early as possible. Both because of how destructive it is and because of its wide range. We should assume she controls everything within the range of that unnatural eclipse. That means there is no real safe zone on the surface of the earth. If she knows where you are, you are dead. The longer this fight drags on, the more information on us will become available, so I want to take care of her before she can narrow things down too far.”
Take care of.
Get rid of.
In other words, they were going to kill her just like they did Elicia.
This was very different from their classes where they had planned to face the Threat but had no concrete image of what that would entail.
Karuta was having trouble deciding if he could call that “growth” or not.
“But what even is that light spear?” he asked as if to distract himself from that issue.
Curly twintails Marika waved a hand dismissively while still puffing out her cheeks.
“Who knows, but it looked like laser beams from the sky.”
“I doubt she is using bombers because the attack came from much higher. I imagine she has something in satellite orbit, but I cannot say much more than that.” The Student Council President placed a finger on her lips. “Still, we do know the Problem Solvers were in charge of defending that space elevator that was thought to be useless junk, so what if there is a connection there?”
“You mean it might be solar power generators or interception satellites?”
“I have heard some rumors,” began Omotesandou Kyouka with a sigh. “It was never completed, but there was something known as the Sunny Side Up Project. It was said to be history’s largest planetary expansion project.”
“A fried egg?” asked strawberry blonde Marika while frowning on the sofa bed.
“Only fried on one side if you want to get technical,” responded Crystal Girl Aine while still tilting her head.
Kyouka sighed softly before continuing.
“The identity of the Threat is unknown, but it is known it does not leave the atmosphere. This plan intended to bring the ordinary citizenry outside the atmosphere and transform the blue planet into nothing more than farmlands and a cage for the Threat. The base of the elevator is supposed to be quite sturdy, so the combat personnel and the maintenance team for the unmanned farms would have been stationed underground there. There were blueprints showing a network of station houses surrounding the planet in a sphere one size bigger, so it was apparently more about expanding the surface of the planet instead of traveling out into space. Hence why it was known as a planetary expansion project.”
When looking at a cross-section, was the earth seen as the yolk and the outer shell seen as the white?
If you were going to slice it apart, a boiled egg or Scotch egg seemed more accurate, but whoever named it had probably let their personal egg preference dictate the choice.
“Its primary material was supposed to be a solid foam that is harder and more heat-resistant than steel and can also swell out to fill a large space with only a small amount of the original material. The presentation said the living space and the farming zone would be kept entirely separate so human-made contaminants would not find their way back into nature…but it was a little over the top even for an endeavor meant to support 5.5 billion people. The earth’s rotation differs between latitudes, so it seems like their network would fall apart if they did not find some way to match their relative speeds.”
The earth was already surrounded.
Sunny Side Up played two roles.
First, it allowed environmental adjustments on a global scale. By efficiently increasing the amount of natural land, there would be more food for the human population “temporarily” living in satellite orbit.
“So the light spears use their immense heat to stir up the air and create winds and rainclouds.”
And second, it would eliminate the Threat lurking on the surface.
“And at the same time, they are a weapon meant to literally shoot down the Threat?” asked Karuta.
He looked awed but also exasperated by the large scale of it all.
“Even if one shot is not enough, they must have thought they could wear the Threat down by continually firing from outside the atmosphere. Or maybe it was only meant to distract the Threat if it got too close to the farmlands. It is unclear how permanently it was meant to ‘eliminate’ the Threat.”
But it was more than enough when used against human beings.
Karuta and the others had learned all too well how powerful it was when it sunk those escort ships one after another.
“Since it has not been demolished, I imagine it is benefiting the world through its production facilities and power generation. Even without a largescale microwave or laser power transmission system, that remnant of an older age may still be in use to transfer the power.”
“The space elevator.”
“If it can carry a payload to the ‘outer shell’ for less than 1% the cost of using a rocket or shuttle, then it could be used to transfer batteries the size of cargo containers back and forth. That could provide just enough of a reason to not demolish that elevator. Yukino’s strength in the global business world is said to be in Eurasia, but everything from Europe to China is a little much, don’t you think? She would need some kind of product that can cover half the planet.”
It was meant to be a warning for the Threat and to save the entire world.
But who was it that had converted it into no more than a rusty old tower?
Did the blame lie with Crystal Magicians like Karuta whose methods turned out to be cheaper?
“The eclipse might not be the result of some massive object appearing overhead. It could be the sky was already covered and the holes of the ‘net’ close up when Yukino prepares for combat.” The Student Council President tapped her wheelchair’s armrest with a finger. “Of course, chemistry and physics are not enough to explain a system like this. Like I said, the earth’s gravity and rotation would tear it apart if they do not match the relative speed of the entire network, but constantly using thrusters to preserve that would drain all the energy they had hoped to generate. That means God-Worshiping Magic must play a role. I believe Yukino’s specialty is the Celtic light god Lugh. He is a war god also known as ‘the god of the long arm’. Yes, that would be perfect for energy production and projectile attacks.”
If the connection between the space elevator and the Problem Solvers was closer than officially recognized, then they might not have been pleased with the Crystal Magicians who rejoiced at the elevator’s failure. (Mostly because Crystal Magic only worked on the surface, so moving onto that “outer shell” would be a problem for them.)
But more than that, the Problem Solvers used the God-Worshipping Magic of the previous era instead of Crystal Magic. Had the rise of Crystal Blossoms looked like a threat to them?
(No, there are too many unanswered questions about them.)
“Anyway, that was very bold of you, Karuta-kun,” began Kyouka with a sigh. “One of the Problem Solvers is gone. The world might not want to accept it, but the other four will know. And then you send them an anonymous message.”
She operated the projector to display the message in question.
Marika spoke up in a mixture of exasperation and awe.
“ ‘One of you is gone now, but I happen to know where you can find someone even stronger than Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg. I would like to meet you for an interview, so what would be a convenient date?’ ” Once the curly twintails girl finished reading it aloud, she put on a mischievous smile. “You could take that as letter of responsibility, you know? You are aware of Elicia’s death despite it being covered up, you say you know where to find someone even stronger, and then you say you want to meet them.”
“But they can’t ignore it, can they?” bluntly asked Karuta. “They know Elicia is dead, but they won’t know who did it. They won’t want someone like that to slip away and disappear. It doesn’t matter to them if the author of the letter is that person or not. They just want to crush anyone it might be. And they just have to keep it up until the problem has stopped.”
Crystal Girl Aine kept her head tilted throughout and she spoke while her silver hair shook.
“So they will rush in despite knowing it is a trap?”
“It may be more accurate to say we’re getting them to set up a trap and wait for us,” spat out Karuta. “The Problem Solvers are international society’s most prized possessions, so they have to be held in reserve. We are pursuing them as much as they are pursuing us. We can’t let them go into hiding. Our top priority is Yukino Arakawa. That is the bare minimum here. We have to take her out first, but then we need to take out as many other Problem Solvers as we can while we’re at it. After all, we know they’ve all been summoned to London for the G21 summit.”
They would take out the Problem Solvers.
He could say it so easily, but only because they had already done it once with Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg. He knew they could be defeated. Proving that did wonders on the psychological front.
And with that in mind, he ran right into the problem he had been trying not to think about.
“Okay, then that’s our next target,” said Marika.
“Yukino Arakawa,” said Kyouka. “This sounds like a worthy challenge. I have no complaints about holding a fight to the death against her.”
Karuta could not immediately say the same.
A bitter feeling had been building up in his gut throughout the planning, but Aine spoke to him while standing in a corner of the RV.
“Do not worry, Sacri-sama.”
“No one will steal your kill this time. Let’s make sure we kill her ourselves.”
If she was not shaped like a cute girl, he might have punched her on reflex.
London was flooded with garbage and experiencing an eclipse.
The city managed an odd harmony between the asphalt roads and old-fashioned brick apartments, but piles of trash bags filled the sidewalks and even spilled out into the streets. Those piles were as tall as people. It might look like a boycott or strike by the sanitation workers, but it was not.
This was due to Elicia’s defeat.
While she had been in charge of garbage disposal, she did not actually deal with the household trash for 5.5 billion people. She had primarily dealt with breaking down large passenger planes and tankers, but with that role no longer being fulfilled, someone had to pick up the slack. Just as a small slowdown could lead to a long traffic jam, the pressure gradually spread and finally rose to the surface like this.
But no one was openly complaining about it.
They had bigger issues to worry about.
That city of fog was on high alert.
A curfew had not been put in place, but checkpoints had been set up while police cars and armored vehicles made irregular patrols. Helicopters equipped with floodlights were flying through the false night sky and patrol boats were navigating the rivers. The people who just wanted to grab a pint at their usual pub before staggering back home would sober up quick after being assaulted by a storm of police questioning.
A cheerful voice spoke from the disaster radio on the edge of a flower bed. It may have been left there by a homeless person driven away by the police.
“It seems the rising trend for Coronel Pharmaceutical stock is related to the global delays in garbage disposal.”
“Well, if unsanitary conditions lead to an outbreak of disease, sales of disinfectant and antibiotics are bound to rise. Also, Coronel has recently purchased a promising startup to enter the insecticide field, so they must expect a rise in the anti-fly and anti-roach markets as well.”
“Finding a way to benefit from anything is a human strength, isn’t it? Now, all the investors have already noted these things, so it is unlikely buying any shares at this point will amount to much. So what brand will be rising next? Could it be Gaia Agriculture who are receiving a flood of orders for home compost kits?”
“Stain Breweries might not be a bad guess. I bet a lot of people will want a drink after seeing the garbage flooding their city. Ha ha ha.”
In one such city, Karuta and Marika exchanged some quick words after stepping out of the RV.
“Okay, let’s do this as planned.”
They set off in different directions. Also, Marika was not flying. She ran along the ground because taking flight and gathering attention would be an excellent way of getting herself shot down by one of those enormous light spears.
London’s streetlights kept things plenty bright despite the eclipse, although things were far from cheerful given the high alert. That was probably thanks to Yukino Arakawa herself. She provided power for the world, which allowed the pre-existing power stations to supply electricity for government supercomputers and particle accelerators that were making good progress on developing new drugs for incurable diseases.
And yet she had killed so many people like they were garbage.
It would make true philanthropists cry.
Karuta avoided those streetlights that felt like symbols of condescending charity and walked down a dark and deserted sidewalk while lightly touching the modified military flashlight in his blazer pocket. He muttered something under his breath while confirming its presence.
The back of his blazer swelled out and the mysterious crystal girl named Aine emerged. She had silver hair, white clothing, a crystal sword, and a laser gun on the short end of the sword’s jitte-like branch. She gently held the weapon in her hand while quietly awaiting orders.
Karuta focused on the flower petals at his chest that would replenish themselves after scattering.
“You too, Aine. We’re heading different ways from here on.”
The pale girl’s cheeks puffed out a bit from within.
She may not have liked that idea.
“It’s about efficiency. I explained why this is the most effective plan, didn’t I?”
“Understood. Take care, Sacri-sama.”
“Do you really have to call me that?”
Neither of them sounded particularly happy with what the other said, but they still split up without any further words.
British food is bad.
Back at the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy, he had wondered if that commonly-held belief was really true, so he had snuck into the cafeteria kitchen and attempted a cooking experiment with the help of an exchange student from London. The result had been so-so and he had ended up with some indigestion, but since the exchange student himself had tilted his head when eating it, something of Karuta’s Japanese cooking may have wound up in those fish and chips. The truth of the matter remained a mystery to him.
That exchange student was no more.
Everyone there had been transformed into broken crystal statues.
He threw out his sentimentality and focused on the cold world of vengeance once more.
Their plan this time was simple.
“The Problem Solvers act as a kind of symbol, so they cannot leave their posts during the G21 summit. If they are seen running around, it will be reported as something being terribly wrong.”
A transmission that used no electricity reached his ears.
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka was speaking to him through the vibrations of his Crystal Blossom that was controlled by a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp.
“Yukino Arakawa is in the Palace of Westminster. That’s the national parliament building that is best known for its clocktower. It is nearly 10km from the RV as the bird flies. Sorry, but there was no getting any closer with all the checkpoints.”
“We’ll manage,” he replied. “Besides, it’s the light spears that worry me.”
“Really, isn’t a hit from that going to vaporize us no matter what?” cut in Marika. “And it moves at the speed of light, so you can’t dodge it after seeing it coming.”
“That is not necessarily true if you reach Regulation 3,” said the Student Council President in a joking way. “I don’t think we need to discuss Yukino’s God-Worshiping Magic. It is not worth thinking about. The average Crystal Blossom cannot stop something like that.”
“Then we just have to make sure she doesn’t fire it.”
“Well done, Karuta-kun. Yes, even if she has satellite weapons that can target any part of the world, how is she aiming them? She only ever fires on a single point. If we don’t let the impact of it all distract us, we might just be able to find a way through it.”
Karuta considered that point while staying in the shadows cast by the piles of trash taller than he was.
Targeting that school in the ocean would have been easy. Even the escort ships had been plenty large. Targeting by eye was simple enough on the empty ocean, but things would not be so simple in a labyrinthine metropolis like this.
Also, the Problem Solvers worked for the government and were seen to represent justice, so they would not have to rely on illegal things like bugs or spy cameras. They could use all of the official security measures to monitor the ordinary people.
“A lot of effort went into London’s counterterrorism infrastructure, so they have more than 5 million stationary security cameras, don’t they?” he asked.
“You can also add phones, intercoms, drive recorders, and countless other devices to the list,” added Kyouka. “The total number of lenses might be greater than 10 million.”
“Are you saying Yukino Arakawa is using that to aim?” asked Marika. “But…”
“That’s right, Marika. The data from that many cameras is far too much to manage with nothing but manpower. We just have to hope we aren’t caught by the program made to automatically detect suspicious people.”
That was why Karuta was intentionally choosing the shadows that were made all the deeper by the brightness of the streetlights.
London was a crime-prevention city with more than 5 million security cameras alone, but the plan felt accelerated and rushed. They must have had to acquire the requested number of cameras in a hurry and within a limited budget because each individual one was of poor quality. And cheap cameras had trouble with light contrast. When they automatically adjusted for the bright areas, the shadows would be entirely blotted out.
People could be identified with facial recognition, color charts, skeletal structure, and walking pattern these days, but none of that mattered when the original data was wiped out.
Also, the piles of trash bags rose up like walls in places not accounted for in the initial crime-prevention plan, so they would physically block the cameras’ view at times.
“But Yukino controls all the stuff in satellite orbit, doesn’t she?” asked Marika. “Can’t she look down at us from there?”
“She can, but satellite photos can’t use facial recognition as long as we don’t look up into the night sky,” said Karuta. “And we can intentionally alter our walking pattern. Night images end up grainy when the brightness is enhanced and thermo images only show the silhouette. That means she can tell someone is there, but not who.”
“Hee hee hee. Marika-san, London is a city of 8 million,” said Kyouka. “Include the tourists and commuters and that number passes 13 million. They might be on high alert, but there is no curfew in place and a lot of people are going to want to head out just to get videos or social media content. She can’t exactly vaporize someone just because they seem suspicious.”
“After all, London has more than 10 million lenses,” repeated Karuta.
There had been no witnesses other than her targets during the attack on the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy. It had essentially been the most wide-open closed room possible, so she had been allowed to use as much power as she liked.
But things were different here.
The Problem Solvers were the world’s strongest. That system and service that protected and glorified them would bind Yukino Arakawa here.
Karuta received a transmission from Aine while a dark flame burned in the pit of his stomach.
“These are all assumptions and you do not know anything for certain.”
It was possible she had some unknown surveillance system that had already revealed their location to her.
Or she might lose her cool and fire her light spears on the city of London.
After thinking for a moment and slowly letting out a breath, Utagai Karuta responded.
“That is why we split up before starting toward the Palace of Westminster.”
If one of them was arrested or reduced to ashes, another could reach Yukino.
Once they were close enough to her, her absurdly powerful attack would hit her as well, so she could no longer use it.
That was their plan.
That was their choice.
The more he thought about it, the dizzier he felt. He made a point of regulating his breathing while he passed a group of walking police officers and some police cars. Since all he had in his pocket was a flashlight, he was not in any danger if they did stop him, but he still did not want any information to reach Yukino at the top.
While he just barely slipped past both the mechanical lenses and the human eyes, a voice informed him that something was not right.
“Hold on a second. This is odd. What’s going on?”
He spoke up in confusion, but he noticed it too before long.
It reached his ears, or maybe his skin.
A strange tension filled him like a weak electric current coursing through the surface of his body. It was like a premonition of a coming explosion. The police must have received word of something via radio because they grew much more active.
“Hey, you there!!”
A deep voice called out to him and one of the police shined a flashlight on him.
He narrowed his eyes and covered his face with a hand to protect his eyes while the middle-aged officer jogged over.
An unpleasant pressure bore down on him and he gradually lost control of his pulse.
But the police officer let out a breath and said something he did not expect.
“Are you a resident? Or are you a traveler? Either way, you should find a building to get inside!”
“It’s starting,” said the police officer with tense sweat on his face. “A riot is starting.”
The Palace of Westminster was the national parliament building symbolized by its giant clocktower. It was blocked off by even more barricades and armored vehicles than the rest of London during the high alert.
An Asian woman with short black hair sat on the rooftop.
She wore a nun’s habit…expect the slits in the skirt were too risqué and she was not wearing a cross anywhere on her person. She was also holding a metal staff taller than she was. She had a tall but slender build and her closed eyes gave her a somehow calm air.
Her name was Yukino Arakawa.
She was the Problem Solver who used the optical bombing known as a light spear.
This job should have been a simple one.
The death of Elicia Luxverg, AKA Saurus, had been a painful blow. They had also learned that the assassin was here in London. But the city was on high alert, so if anyone did anything suspicious, the network of police would immediately restrain them and she could drop a light spear there. They would have no chance to dodge or defend before they were vaporized along with a few police officers.
If she received an alert or two, she could have dealt with this so easily!
“We demand all of the governments and the Problem Solvers release what information they have on the Threat!!”
“You have a duty to explain what happened to the missing countries, regions, and cities!!”
“How can we sleep knowing that could be us tomorrow!? I have a kid at home!!”
(Why must they all do this!?)
As that deluge of voices reached her like a distant rumbling, Yukino softly clenched her teeth behind her calm expression.
Her earphones played the voices of requests from police officers who did not properly understand the situation.
They were not asking for help from the power of the Problem Solvers.
“Problem Solvers, do not move from your current positions!”
“We must make sure the G21 summit comes to a close with the best possible security in place, so we lose if you move from your posts.”
“Don’t use tear gas! Bring out the water trucks! Bloody hell, why don’t any of the shops have their shutters down!?”
If her trap was not functioning, she was effectively in the jungle with a ferocious beast.
The safest option would be to leave this place and go into hiding, but the police would not let her. They insisted she stay put and get attacked.
She was seething inside, but then someone else contacted her.
It was a fellow Problem Solver.
“Kah kah kah. Don’t get so upset. And you call yourself one of the great Problem Solvers?”
“Besides, the police don’t know what’s going on. Not even that Elicia kicked the bucket. Of course they’re going to take a laxer view of things.”
“I am aware of that.”
“The media has a strong presence here and there are also a lot of amateur video obsessives who think they’re part of the media. Keep grimacing and you’ll lose all that pretentious vanity you love so much.”
Yukino thought for a moment.
The Problem Solvers preserved global order. If they were shaken, it would cause unnecessary chaos in countries and cities around the world. That was why their external image was so important, but that was also why they could not afford to be wounded in any noticeable way.
Even if it was only a scratch achieved through some kind of nightmarish beginner’s luck.
After completing the necessary calculations in her head, she slowly stood up from the roof.
“Then there is something I can do about it,” she said to her colleague. “I beseech thee, Lugh, Celtic God of Light.”
“Hold on, you aren’t doing that in London, are you? I know I’m not one to talk, but you can’t exactly ‘hold back’ with your weapon. You should let one of the others deal with this or it’ll just be a slaughter.”
“If necessary, I can have Anastasia take care of it.”
“Are you for real?” The person on the line sounded half shocked and half amused. “You really plan on crushing London, a city of 8 million? And in the middle of a G21 summit at that?”
The nun with large slits in her habit raised her staff as she responded.
She did not hesitate to give this answer.
Utagai Karuta was curled up on a corner of the sidewalk with his back to the road.
The police were no longer here. They had probably withdrawn to the barricade. The sidewalk and road were both filled with men and women. It was like a flood of human flesh. They carried makeshift torches made by wrapping bandages or old rags around metal bats and lighting them and they shouted angrily as they smashed the windshields of cars parked on the road and of store windows that did not have their shutters down.
(Elicia managed the world’s garbage disposal facilities, so her defeat has apparently drastically reduced the price of first-generation resources like iron and aluminum that used to be as valuable as gold or platinum. So did they lose their jobs or something?)
That was Karuta’s analysis, but he was wrong.
This is what they were shouting:
“How are we supposed to get over our fear when we don’t know what the Threat even is!?”
“The government is only keeping it a secret to spread fear and confusion so they can increase the defense budget. You’re making a mockery of our tax money!!”
“Release the information! The real information!! We have a right to know!!”
Youths were setting fire to the piles of trash bags and entering the buildings through broken windows. Cash registers were thrown out onto the streets and boxy ATMs were dragged out and pried open with crowbars. Sweat, perfume, smoke, rotting garbage, and what was that? Many different smells mixed together and raw anger blotted out all else.
Karuta contacted Marika and Kyouka in annoyance.
“They claim to want information on the Threat, but I think they’re mostly here for the looting or to blow off some steam. Maybe a tenth of the people here seem to be protesting out of legitimate outrage. I bet a lot of people had their savings go down the drain after Elicia’s defeat. Omotesandou-san, was there no sign of this coming!?”
“In hindsight, there was. The Problem Solvers will never announce that one of them was defeated, not even to the ordinary police officers. Because it would damage their reputation as the strongest. I thought security was oddly strict, but I guess there were some suspicious activities besides our own.”
“There are a ton of people here too,” said Marika. “I’m just thankful they still haven’t reached the point of dragging people out and beating them up.”
“Marika, you’re a girl, so watch yourself among all those rioters.”
“Oh, you’re worried about me? …Kyah!?”
“Just kidding. Ah ha ha!”
She was laughing innocently, but his heart had skipped a beat. He doubted any of these people would know they were responsible, but if they really had lost their savings due to the collapse in the iron and aluminum markets, then they might want to attack Karuta’s group for causing that. Sweat soaked his brow while his carefree curled twintails childhood friend whispered in a conspiratorial tone.
“But doesn’t this seem like the perfect opportunity? The rioters are taking out all the cameras with their bats and spray paint. With the usual surveillance network not working, we might be able to get close to the Palace of Westminster where that Problem Solver waits.”
“I doubt it will be that simple.”
Karuta was still concerned, so Marika argued her case.
“It would damage the G21’s reputation if they called off their international summit over some simple rioting, so they’ll stay there and so will the Problem Solvers guarding them. Yukino can’t escape right now. See, it’s the perfect opportunity.”
He too had considered it in a corner of his mind.
Could they take a shortcut while the police and the surveillance network were focused on the rioters? Or could they guide the rioters toward the Palace of Westminster? He was sick of this cheap idea of justice that was more of an excuse than anything. Almost everyone he knew had been crystallized and shattered before his eyes and his body seemed to burn with a desire for vengeance, so he found that kind of justice was more distasteful than wax food samples.
But could they really control it?
And what would happen if they could not?
“We have to do it,” said Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka. “Our feelings about this are too strong to restrain just because we ran into some unexpected trouble, right?”
He slowly exhaled and stood up from his curled-up position. He was unsure if he should follow or fight the flow of rioters, but he decided to take a different route to the Palace of Westminster while the police were focused on those rioters. Of course, he was using them either way.
With that thought, he nonchalantly slipped off of the frenzied major road and into a small alleyway.
That was when it happened.
A light spear fell from the sky.
He had no idea what this meant.
It had hit on the next major road over, a mere 20m away from him.
It was more sudden than a lightning strike and brighter than a spotlight.
A cascade of people filled the sidewalks and street there and one section of them was mercilessly vaporized. Human bodies were instantly converted into a spray that splattered over the surrounding road, walls, and survivors, creating a living hell of intense heat and pain as if boiling water had been thrown around.
This attack had been powerful enough to split the school’s escort ships in two.
A diameter of ten meters was torn away and the twenty meters around that was covered in a scorching hell. The unbelievable heat melted the asphalt and the stone walls of the centuries-old buildings glowed red like an oven.
Screams erupted from all around.
The many garbage bags flew through the air like popping popcorn and the heat robbed them of their shape as bags before they hit the ground. Crushed candy boxes and toilet paper tubes burned as they spread out through the air. So many trailing light sources fell on the city like the burning arrows pouring down upon a besieged castle.
No one would have known what happened and would not have known where to run. It devolved into a panicked shoving match that caused a dominos-like chain reaction spreading out from the landing points.
Karuta dizzily pressed his back against the alley wall.
“What in the hell!?” he roared before his confused mind finally remembered how to feel pain.
His entire body was covered by an itching pain as if he were being pricked by thousands upon thousands of needles.
He looked down to see his clothing was unnaturally swelling out from within. He touched his face to find it felt oddly rough. Was that a problem with his cheeks or with his fingertips? Whatever the case, his entire body had been injured and the crystallization was healing him. This had broken right through his weakened preset barrier.
If something else hit him now, it was all over.
If his body parts were torn away along with the healing crystals, he would lose them forever.
He would lose any chance at recovering.
He lost control of his breathing at the thought.
And during that hellishly-long 30 seconds, it happened again.
The night was swept away.
The attack lasted ten full seconds, but it was further away this time. He could take a more objective view of how strange that light and heat was. It was like viewing the sun stretched out like a sugar sculpture.
“I saw it too!” said Marika with a fair bit of panic in her voice. “Yukino is using her light spears on London!! All to silence the rioters!!”
“The rioters are bringing down their defenses and preventing her from locating her real targets: us,” said Kyouka. “She must intend to annihilate them along with us if they insist on getting in her way.”
The crystal fragments fell from Karuta’s body with a dry cracking sound.
His limbs and face were fine.
They were all healed up.
“But how…how can she get away with this? This is the site of the G21 summit, so there’s a ton of reporters around! Not to mention the normal people can take videos with their phones and upload them! Is Yukino Arakawa committing social suicide for this!?”
“She may be playing the villain.” He was not sure what the Student Council President meant by that. “And since the Problem Solvers regularly battle the Threat, they can just say London was annihilated in an attack by the Threat. They can claim to have done their best to rescue the people of London but ultimately failed to save everyone.”
“But…but that’s absurd…”
“She can get away with it. Remember that no one knows what the Threat is or any details about the God Worshiping Magic used by the Problem Solvers. People are only aware of the end result: cities and countries erased overnight. So in the worst case, can’t they just lie about who was firing those light spears?”
He was truly speechless.
What did this mean? Did it not matter at all to Yukino Arakawa if there were witnesses of her committing mass murder? Could she escape all responsibility by calmly saying the Threat did it, she had nothing to do with it, and it was a shame what happened to London? How convenient a world did those strongests live in!?
“Sacri-sama, this could be an opportunity.”
“Yukino attacking the rioters is proof that she does not know where we are. That means we can safely approach the Palace of Westminster and catch her off guard.”
“Nothing else we do can stop her from firing those light spears. If your goal is to reduce the total number of deaths, then I recommend taking the shortest route to defeating Yukino.”
Even now, the world was intermittently switching between night and day.
The heat would last anywhere from a few seconds to a few dozen seconds, so how many lives were being lost each time?
He clenched his teeth so hard he thought they would break.
But he could not come up with anything cleverer than Aine’s cold answer.
He pressed his back against a wall near the alleyway entrance and scratched at his bangs with a hand. He started to turn away from the main road filled with screams of fear and anger.
But he stopped.
A lot of people had fallen in that pandemonium of light, heat, and shoving, so the survivors were desperately trying to remain in that category by crawling below or climbing over the others.
He saw someone there among the rioters who had been demanding information on the Threat be released.
A small girl was sitting on the ground with a handmade sign. She must have come here with a parent or older sibling.
Utagai Karuta had crossed those piles of shattered crystal statues. While the other students wearing the same uniform had fallen, he had pathetically crawled behind those statues to escape the dinosaur. This was not his first time doing this, so he should have been able to do it again no matter how painful it was.
Except he had seen the messy writing painted on that handmade sign: “Tell us what happened to my big brother and the others at Grimnoah!”
He slammed his forehead against the alleyway wall.
His barrier meant he felt almost no pain, but memories of the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy returned vividly to his mind.
He could taste the fish and chips he had made late at night in the kitchen with some help from an exchange student in order to learn if British food was as bad as they said.
He could not do it.
He had hit his limit.
“Aine. And Marika too. Change of plans.”
“Yes, Sacri-sama. What should I do?”
“You two take the shortest route to defeat Yukino Arakawa. Stop her from firing those light spears as soon as possible to keep the damage to a minimum.”
“I’ll do that, but what about you?” asked Marika.
He pulled the modified military flashlight from his blazer pocket and took a deep breath.
“I will draw her attention. Yukino has completely snapped, but if she knows where her target is, she won’t have a reason to indiscriminately attack the rioters. If I keep her focused on me, fewer of the ordinary people will die, so I’ll approach her in as noticeable a way as I can manage!”
“This isn’t a debate, Aine. Just do it!!”
That last command was not just directed at the others.
And there was one other thing he had to do before he got started.
He shouted from the entrance of the alleyway and the girl’s shoulders jumped. He did not care if he scared her and he did not need her trust, so he simply told her what she needed to do.
“Get inside immediately! Any sturdy building will do!!”
It looked more like she was running from him in fear than heeding his warning. She made sure to take the sign with her as she frantically stood up and ran toward a shop made of stone and metal.
She would be safer there than in the open outdoors.
But their fate still counted on what Karuta himself would do next.
He would not let them be targeted. No matter what.
He once more turned away from the main road and ran further into the back alley. However, he was not abandoning the people who had come here to protest. Quite the opposite. If he was going to draw the attacks toward himself, he needed to stay away from them. Getting them caught in the attack too would be meaningless.
Gathering Yukino Arakawa’s attention from a distance was easy.
She was using the city’s security network to search for her target’s location.
(I just have to start taking out every camera I come across!!)
He reached into one of the scattered garbage bags and pulled out a half-full drink bottle that’s contents had turned to sludge. Then he only had to splatter that across the lenses peering down at him. While he did that three or four times, he felt a great pressure bearing down on his stomach.
The oddity would be reported immediately and an area with the security down would likely be seen as dangerous.
Focus would shift from that horrific main road to this back alley.
(I’m just getting started!!)
In her nun’s habit given large slits in the sides, Yukino Arakawa smiled in amusement on the building rooftop.
Her smartphone’s screen displayed a warning.
Cameras in one area were being destroyed one after another. She doubted this was just the rioters doing it on a whim. The spread of the damage was too quick for that, so it felt a lot more like someone was specifically targeting her “eyes”.
(Could you not bear it any longer? In that case, killing some more civilians to rub it in your face might be amusing.)
She considered that detour, but decided to focus on her main target.
She raised the staff in her other hand and sent a command up to satellite orbit.
“Now, let’s brighten this dark screen with a light spear.”
A blinding light spear crashed down from the heavens.
Karuta had known there would only be a few seconds of lag between taking out the cameras in an area and Yukino finding it suspicion, so he took off running to put as much space between himself and that location as he could. Nevertheless, something like a blazing wind slammed into his body. He had escaped a direct hit, but the fearsome heat had expanded the air and formed an invisible wall.
The blow to his back shattered his barrier.
He rolled along the filthy alley.
Strange cracking sounds continued on and on as crystals covered most of his body. The thirty second countdown began. Another attack before then and it was all over. The healing process would be stopped, everything would be torn from his body, and he would die. That was plainly obvious to him.
He checked behind him from the ground and saw both walls of the alley were orange and melted. The piles of trash had become pillars of fire reminiscent of giant fir trees burning down in a forest fire. The alley surface had melted like a sugar sculpture and it had collapsed down to create a large hole. That may have connected to the sewer or the subway.
He slowly got to his feet.
He scattered crystal fragments across the ground as the healing completed.
He resumed running.
They had feared Yukino could search for them using thermo images taken by a satellite, but he was starting to think that was not a concern. The heat here was so high that the entire area would be blotted out with white. She could not use that to see if her target had survived.
(I only have to focus on the surface cameras.)
He clenched his teeth while taking out a few more security camera lenses with a drink or a spray can to draw the light spears toward him. He once more felt a sunburn-like pain in his skin.
The slight lag was working out for him, but the more cameras he took out, the more data she would have to predict his route. If her prediction was accurate enough and she fired where she expected him to be, he was done for. He would be vaporized before he could even feel the pain.
He was running around and barely avoiding death, but for some reason, there was a smile on his face.
He had no idea what it was he wanted to do, but he felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders for the first time in a while.
“Ha ha ha ha ha! Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
He had attended Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah.
He had learned Crystal Magic that used a Crystal Blossom via a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp.
He had trained to combat the Threat that put the world in danger.
In the end, what had he really wanted to do?
He no longer had that right. His days at that school and the future he had envisioned for himself had been stolen by the Problem Solvers and his group had sullied it themselves when they used Crystal Magic against Elicia after she had already surrendered. But the remnants of that dream had remained there somewhere in his heart.
However, that thought was interrupted.
Even if he outsmarted them and protected the civilians, the great evil of the Problem Solvers was still out there. And one part of that evil, the demon named Yukino Arakawa, was making her next move.
The night sky shined bright.
He knew this had to be another light spear, but instead of cowering in fear like an animal, he used his rational mind to send himself running even a step further before it hit.
But something unexpected happened.
The light did not gather together.
The brightness in the night sky endlessly expanded instead of taking the form of a spear.
A chill ran down his spine.
It almost looked like a giant suspended ceiling of fiery heat dropping down to crush the city of London!
Blinding light erupted out.
It covered a diameter of more than 10km directed north from the center of London. The light and heat were so great it seemed to swallow up the entire city there.
Yukino Arakawa laughed on the rooftop just outside of its range.
Her short black hair blew in the night wind and she spoke with staff in hand.
Night turned to day. No, it was more like a video that turned out entirely white because the exposure was set wrong.
A sunburn-like pain covered Karuta’s entire body. And it did not end there. The pain increased endlessly. He knew he could not stay here, so he slipped below a car parked on the curb.
His fingers were moving oddly.
Pointy crystals stuck out from all over his body like distorted scales.
(What’s happening now!?)
The attack continued for more than thirty seconds before night returned. He clenched his teeth at the pain, waited for the healing to complete, and checked on things outside. After a thirty second interval, white light filled the world once more.
“Kyah!?” screamed Marika.
“We did not see this phenomenon before,” said Aine.
“But we can survive brief exposure to this,” he said. “Can she switch between a focused and wide-angle version? Or…”
The next attack came, but when he took a closer look, he realized the blinding light did not fill the entire space.
It was more like a polka dot pattern or a mesh.
Countless light spears were piercing the city of London at a set interval. There were tens, hundreds, or even thousands of them and the space between that mesh of attacks was roasted by the residual heat. It was like how a grill efficiently heated food.
“Is this a scattershot!? She doesn’t just have the one satellite weapon. How many weapons are staring down at the planet!?”
“Sacri-sama, the light spears appear to be firing on the same coordinates each time. She likely scanned London’s terrain and calculated the optimal layout for evenly cooking everything with the radiant heat.”
“Thousands of attacks she can fire simultaneously with the added bonus of roasting an entire city if she scans the terrain?” said Marika. “I see. I suppose you would need something like that to count as one of the world’s strongest.”
“But, Marika, as convenient as this is, it isn’t immediately effective. She must be waiting for me to screw up, which means she’s lost track of me.”
“Argh, maybe it would be easier to travel along the subway tracks.”
“Sacri-sama, this much damage is within acceptable bounds for me. I can continue as is.”
“Pretend it’s hurting you. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb otherwise.”
He crawled out from below the car in between shots.
He had not expected this at all back then, so it was pure luck that he had told that girl to escape indoors.
And he had learned something. The attacks and the pause between attacks both lasted about thirty seconds. Once he knew that, this scattershot mode was no threat. By running into a boxy smoking area or a building with its windows smashed by the rioters, he could take shelter while making his way toward the Palace of Westminster. When he ran across a rioter writhing on the ground, he did his best to shove them underneath a nearby car.
He gasped for breath and felt sweat unpleasantly soaking his body, but there was a thin smile on his face.
“I’m not afraid of you anymore, Yukino Arakawa.”
The hunter ran through the dark city of London which had been transformed into a fiery hell.
He was drawing ever closer to the Palace of Westminster where his prey awaited.
“I think you screwed this one up,” said another one of the Problem Solvers over the phone.
Yukino Arakawa calmly responded from atop the building rooftop.
“What makes you think that?”
“You had to destroy London? Sure, these things happen. But there’s a G21 summit being held here and some of the people in attendance will know about the God-Worshipping Magic we use. They’ll know who did this and you won’t be able to pass this off as the work of the Threat.”
“Hee hee. Don’t you worry.” She laughed and tapped the bottom of her staff against the rooftop below her feet. “Once I am done, I will raze this building as well. I just have to eradicate anyone who knows the truth of the Threat and the Problem Solvers, right?”
“We’re talking about multiple heads of state here.”
“Why would that matter? More importantly, have you managed to contact Anastasia? I cannot blame this all on the Threat without her approval.”
“Well, I’m willing to bet she’ll go along with this. She wouldn’t want the framework of the Problem Solvers to fall apart over something this stupid.”
“Is that so? In that case…”
“It looks like you were a little too slow.”
The voice speaking over her phone sounded disappointed.
Yukino felt a chill down her spine and attempted to analyze why that was, but it was too late.
She turned around to find a boy in a supposedly eradicated purple blazer standing on the same roof as her.
He said nothing.
His shoulders rose and fell as he caught his breath, he held a military flashlight that looked plenty heavy to use as a blunt weapon, and he slowly – very slowly – walked toward her.
Yukino Arakawa’s cheeks tensed somewhat.
Once he was this close, she could no longer use her light spears. They were so powerful she would destroy herself in the blast too.
This was checkmate.
Even if she did not like the result, the time for games had ended.
So with staff in hand, she spread her hands toward the approaching boy. Almost like she wanted to say they should abandon their plans for a picnic and head home early since it was raining.
She made a suggestion with a truly reluctant smile.
“Okay, I surrender. You win.”
She sounded like someone throwing their cards on the table because they ended up one card short of a winning hand.
She sounded like she was only going to lose a few stacks of chips.
“Let’s end this here. This is a fairly good deal for you too. I am one of the Problem Solvers, so I have a lot of pull with the world’s governments and I can get all of your past crimes wiped from the record. You’ll be pardoned! Yes, pardoned for everything! You can return to ordinary society without worrying about a thing! Wow, isn’t that incredible!? You can get off scot free, you lucky devil☆”
The boy did not respond.
He had not spoken a single word since arriving.
“And as a special bonus, we will stop pursuing you. I promise and swear it. I mean, you were looking for a way out after starting this and getting in way over your head, weren’t you? You were stuck on the path you had set for yourself. I mean, how long were you going to keep doing this revenge stuff? Did you really think you could keep getting away with it? It’s important to know when to quit while you’re ahead and the last train is about to leave as far as that is concerned. I have your ticket right here. I’m compromising quite a bit here, so you should really be thank-blwehhh!?”
Something exploded in her nose.
By the time she realized he had smashed the soft cartilage with a full swing of the military flashlight, she was already rolling along the rooftop.
The fiery pain caused her to let go of the staff and hold her face with both hands. She felt something sticky and a warm liquid dripped from between her fingers. An iron flavor spread through her mouth.
Her eyes opened as wide as they would go and she crawled on all fours while trying to figure out what was happening while her mind went blank with confusion.
Then scorching rage exploded in her mind.
“Y-y-you!? You hit a woman in the fa-gwelgh!!!!!!”
He did not speak a word.
Not a single one.
Instead, he swung down a second blow. This time to her jaw. Or was it her cheek? All she knew was that she felt a bone in her face breaking, her teeth no longer fit together right in her mouth, and her face’s skin felt unnaturally stretched. Now she really sensed danger. She knew she was in trouble. This boy had shut down all attempt at communication. He was not treating her like a fellow human being. He looked down on her with cold eyes like she was no more than an insect as he determined where to hit her next and then mercilessly swung down that heavy flashlight.
A storm of blows awaited her. She did not even have time to think about standing up. She curled up, protected her head with her hands, and simply endured it the best she could. Her anger at this unreasonable situation was ultimately overwritten by the fear of having her understanding of the world no longer apply. Her body was enveloped by a feeling closer to heat than pain as she incessantly repeated the same word in her heart.
Why, why, why?
It’s wrong to hit a woman in the face. And it’s definitely wrong to use a blunt weapon to do it.
All I did was unilaterally attack a useless school, slaughter all the teachers and students, and use my power as one of the Problem Solvers without bothering to listen to any of their screams or cries for mercy. That was a mere 700 people. Not that I actually counted. The escort ships? What, they count too??? Then that’s even more reason I can’t be blamed for missing one. Why does this have to happen to me just becomes one of them survived!?
“Ah, ahhhh, ahhhhhhhhhh.”
There was one thing here Yukino Arakawa did not realize.
And since she had never once lost – at least to another human being – that was hardly surprising.
The Problem Solvers always won crushing victories in any conflicts between humans. Her opponents had always grown utterly fed up with war, so when she brought up the possibility of a ceasefire or making peace, they would jump at the chance and accept even the worst terms. Yukino saw war as something she could switch off as easily as a lightbulb. She was always the one that decided when it ended.
But not this time.
This was entirely different.
This was a quagmire of a battle that would never end once it had begun. It would continue until one side or the other was dead and there was no room for compromise or negotiation.
She had never experienced this since victory was always assured for her.
And that had led her to push the snowball down the hill without realizing what it would mean.
Every last part of her mind was trapped in a vortex of pain she had never before experienced and in the fear that she might lose.
She was fundamentally different from this boy whose loss was all but guaranteed but would try to tear out his enemy’s windpipe with his teeth even if his arms and legs had all shattered.
She could keep moving, yet she stopped.
While battered, bruised, and curled up in the fetal position, all she did was tremble. The purple blazer boy grabbed her black hair and mercilessly yanked her head up. He looked her in the eye and crouched down to speak.
“Work with me. Tell me everything you know about the Problem Solvers, about why you attacked our school, and about the Threat!! I have no reason not to kill you, so if you don’t want to die, you’ll have to give me a reason yourself! Got that!?”
It was like a switch had been thrown.
Suddenly – truly suddenly – a lightbulb went off in Yukino Arakawa’s head.
This boy did not want to kill her. He was inspiring so much fear and dispensing so much violence and he had driven her a step away from death, yet he was acting like he had done nothing wrong. She could tell from the look in his eyes that he did not actually want to do this. He did not want to take revenge. He was using the Problem Solvers’ actions as an excuse to fight and playing the victim to take the next step guilt free.
Was she going to lose to this?
Was she going to let him use her to have his happily ever after?
Before she had even taking this fight seriously?
When she still had not just her teeth but her arms and legs too???
Something ignited deep in her gut.
She reached out a battered hand and grabbed her giant staff that was lying nearby. The blazer boy immediately tried to grab her wrist, but it was too late. And this was not a tool used to hit people.
“To hell with that. To hell with all of that, you garbage heap!! Don’t act so smug just because you briefly delayed getting fried! If you want to be blasted that badly, then today’s your lucky dayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!”
“Wait, you idiot! You’ll hit yourself too!”
“I don’t give a crap! Blowing myself up with my own attack is a hundred times better than losing to some asshole acting like he’s some blameless victim!!!!!!”
He tried to steal away the staff but gave up on that and collapsed away from her instead.
“I beseech thee, Lugh, Celtic God of Light!!”
While sprawled out on the rooftop, Yukino Arakawa saw a point of glittering light in the night sky.
And a moment later, a light spear capable of slicing through an escort ship vaporized its own wielder.
Pain exploded from his body like he had been sprayed with boiling water.
“Ah, ahhhhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!”
He could tell his body was covered with distorted crystals.
His weak barrier was no use at all. He rolled and writhed on the roof. He forced himself to think of the pain as a good thing since it meant he was still alive. This pain was caused by vaporized Yukino Arakawa. He had been burned by the steam that had been her flesh.
More than half his body was covered by pointy crystals.
He was hit by the stench of human flesh being cooked.
Yukino’s last form of resistance clung to him with a feeling like melted cheese. He desperately tried to tear it away, but his dominant hand’s elbow and shoulder would not move. They were completely locked by the crystals.
He could only wait until the preset effect had healed his full-body burns. An intense feeling of disgust caused the core of his body to stir like an active volcano, but forcing himself to move during the healing process would be like opening a chrysalis or cocoon from the outside. If he carelessly ruptured it, he might never return to normal again.
He moved just his left arm as much as he could to wipe off his face and body and rid himself of the source of the pain.
It felt like being bitten by the corpse of the person he thought he had killed.
After thirty seconds, the crystals that provided him new skin fell away.
“Pant, pant, gasp.”
He rolled over, tried to catch his breath, and rubbed his eyes.
It happened again.
They had died again. They had disappeared before his eyes. Yukino had chosen death herself instead of one of his partners dirtying their hands, but the death still stung in his heart.
At any rate, this was two down.
The danger of the light spear was gone too. The people of London no longer had to suffer and the city would not be wiped off the map to cover up the evidence.
A girl’s voice reached his ears while he thought about all that.
It belonged to Marika, his childhood friend with the curly twintails dyed strawberry blonde. She had activated her Crystal Blossom unit and descended onto the rooftop from the night sky.
“Were you trying to save her like last time?” she continued.
“Your decision to act as a diversion had nothing to do with revenge either. You were throwing away your own life to ‘go the other way’ and save the rioters who got caught in this mess, weren’t you?”
He gasped and looked up.
There were tears in Marika’s eyes as she bit her lip.
She threw aside her crystal rapier and gently got down on her knees.
She lay down on top of the boy while he lay collapsed on his back and she pressed her small face against his chest.
“No fair!! We said we were going to fight together to protect everyone, we said we were going to take revenge on the Problem Solvers for that, and we gathered everything we needed to do it! So why do you keep going back and forth on this? We thought for ourselves and figured out a way to hunt down the Problem Solvers, so why do you keep giving yourself an out as insurance? Don’t leave us behind like that… Don’t leave us behind here!!”
Still lying face up, he wrapped his arms around her back, held her close, and rubbed her head.
“I’m sorry, Marika.”
“You won’t leave me behind again? You won’t leave me all alone in this dark world?”
He slowly inhaled and exhaled before continuing.
“I’ll join you in hell.”
Not everyone was aware what exactly was happening there.
At a point four or five kilometers northeast of the Palace of Westminster, an eyepatch woman stood on a rooftop in the City district, a business region filled with modern buildings. She was a beautiful Western European woman, but she wore a brightly colored kimono.
(I lost the connection. Does that mean she really did get herself killed?)
“I beseech thee, Susanoo, Wakoku God of Violence.”
With that thought, she pulled three dice from her kimono’s sleeve and casually tossed them. The multiple upward-facing surfaces acted as a general guide as an enormous sword suddenly appeared out of thin air. It truly was more than 100km long. When standing upright, that absurd length was enough to reach the bottom of the thermosphere and to be mistaken for a space elevator. That massive weapon was far too much for a human to wield.
“Well, not that it matters.”
Four or five kilometers was just about to the horizon. Sending out some paper balloons equipped with cameras would be enough to expand her field of vision, but she could not rely on tricks like that with the giant sword taking up both her hands.
However, she knew the target had to be somewhere around the Palace of Westminster. And it did not really matter if that was not entirely accurate. If she made a vertical slash with this sword, it would blow away everything in the vicinity. Of course, that would also destroy all the buildings and take all the lives along the line to that point, including the G21 heads of state in the target building, but she did not care.
She had already agreed to do this.
Yukino Arakawa pissed her off, but that woman’s suggestions had always been clever.
“Sayonara, Yukino-chan. I’ll crush them along with your corpse!!” she shouted.
A blazing red trail similar to a shooting star and a contrail of disturbed air accompanied the absurdly long sword as she swung it down in both hands.
But something happened before she could complete its hemispherical course downwards.
A gunshot rang loud in her ears.
There was a gaping, volleyball-sized hole in the center of her chest.
The sword was supported by her magic power, so it vanished into thin air.
The eyepatch woman lost sight of when to die and slowly turned around while coughing up blood.
She heard a metallic squeaking.
A sexy girl with long black hair had arrived on the roof with her at some point. The girl sat in a wheelchair and held…was that a handgun??? But something was clearly out of the ordinary. Instead of the magazine being inserted into the bottom of the grip, it was inserted in front of the grip like with a submachinegun or assault rifle. Also, it was far too big. The magazine was the size of a thick metal detachable disk drive.
“Excuse me, lady, but I assume you are Jessie Marcus who controls South America? Oh, perhaps it was rude of me to skip all the formalities like that. How careless of me. But I do not need to explain why I am killing you, do I?”
Her voice was calm but also contained a hint of charm that seeped into you.
And it was mixed with a toxic intent to kill.
“This uses 12.7mm rounds. Those are generally used for heavy machineguns or anti-materiel rifles. Shrinking this down to a handgun size was not easy, but that lets me carry it wherever I like by hiding it on my lap.”
“Oh, you look surprised. Did you think a girl in a wheelchair couldn’t fire such a large bullet? It is true it might break my wrist to fire this one-handed. Or maybe it would flip the entire wheelchair over. But surely you must know the answer. Or did you do all that without knowing? I, Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka, have already lost 58% of my body. I am like a dented-in doll that cannot maintain a human silhouette without supplementing my internal structure with my own Crystal Blossom.”
“After all, I had to do my duty as Student Council President after your rampage. I used my Crystal Magic to accelerate the time limit of the sleeping teachers and students by a rate of 10 thousand. All at the cost of a single body: my own. There is actually a good chance they will recover in less than a year.”
Then why had she not told Karuta and Marika that?
The answer was simple.
Whether it would take ten thousand years or a single month, a moment’s carelessness would reveal that cave’s location to the Problem Solvers and take away those teachers and students’ lives all the same.
Those five had to be killed to prevent that. So to preserve the other two’s burning desire for revenge, she had decided it was best not to tell them about the possibility of a more positive and hopeful future.
That was her plan.
Knowing might make them relax and trigger doom for them all, so she could wait until later to reveal that happy surprise.
“Firing such a large caliber gun in a wheelchair was something of a gamble, but I am willing to learn when it means a new way to kill you five. And I was bored stuck in this chair anyway.”
How had this happened?
The woman moved her mouth, but no words came out.
So the Student Council President continued giving the answers.
“The trick when setting up security cameras is to use as few as possible to eliminate all blind spots. The most common method is to place two cameras in opposite corners of the coverage area. When they are staring at each other, they each eliminate the blind spot below the other.”
So the Problem Solvers had done the same.
They placed the light spear in one corner of London and the giant sword in the opposite corner. Together, they could cover the entire district.
“Besides, the two of you are very similar. You both have surefire attacks with an extremely long range. Once you have our location, we are as good as dead. On the other hand, the motion is so large and the lag between attacks is so great that you do not want anyone approaching you. In that sense, it was not hard to realize the two of you would be covering for each other.”
They had held the Problem Solvers in place with that note that essentially claimed responsibility for the previous attack and announced another was coming. They had also decided to take out as many Problem Solvers as they could manage on the site of the G21 summit.
So Kyouka had known this would happen.
Just as they relaxed after defeating their primary target, another nightmarish attack would arrive.
So she had needed to take things a step further to save her partners.
But to put it another way, if the those two were positioned at opposite corners to cover for the other if anything went wrong, this was their biggest chance. They could easily work out where another of the Problem Solvers was hiding in London. And once something happened to Yukino Arakawa, the owner of the giant sword would be entirely focused on Yukino.
“To be honest, I don’t care what your name is, I don’t care what kind of person you are, and I don’t care what that giant sword of yours really is. I imagine it is uses weight-based magic that makes it feel light for you but heavy for your opponent, but, again, I really do not care. Only one thing matters to me: was that magic used to destroy our school?”
And that meant she would neglect to focus on everything except for Yukino.
It would create enough of an opening for a girl in a wheelchair to arrive this close.
“Are you familiar with the disgraceful idea that British cooking is bad?”
The Student Council President once more aimed her customized handgun at the eyepatch woman who still stubbornly refused to collapse.
She did not announce checkmate.
“People say their desserts are nothing but sugar and butter and their dinners are only flavored with salt and oil, but they are enjoying those things wrong. The food here is not made to be eaten on its own. The desserts are meant to be eaten with tea and the dinners are meant to be eaten with whisky or brandy.”
This was not over yet. She could keep going. The further she went, the more she could savor the flavor of revenge. Her entire body trembled at that fact.
“I thought there was no need to insist on revenge if it meant reducing my body to this. I thought I would stop at some point before straying as far as personally taking someone’s life. But really, this is the same as British cooking.”
She could preserve her pure desire for revenge even with the more hopeful estimation of when the teachers and students would recover.
That true exacter of revenge made a bold announcement with that extra-large gun in hand.
“It’s strange, really. My heart balks at the thought of killing, but when I eat it with some revenge on the side, it goes down oh so smoothly. Yes, I fear I could get hooked on this☆”
Another resolution was reached.
With no one to interrupt, she indulged in more and more and more revenge until she was practically drowning in it.
Between the Lines 2
Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah.
Yukino Arakawa had a single thought about that.
“I think that old man has the wrong idea about this.”
All the world’s resources and assets had to be focused on the Problem Solvers if they were to combat the Threat, so they had developed a project to eliminate anything that would interrupt that. Whether it was a physical presence or an online one, once it grew large enough, people would naturally start to gather. So they had to crush those things.
That was the idea anyway, but…
“He wants us to give a speech at the opening ceremony of their Catastrophe event? For real? All he’s done is gather a bunch of needless talent, so their classes are entirely pointless.”
“But he is completely serious about this.”
The shadow cast at her feet changed form and spoke with a refined male voice.
That was Lugh, Celtic God of Light.
“Some people think an elite few geniuses will crack under the pressure of everyone’s lives bearing down on their shoulders and they have a tendency to bring mass-production systems into the military field. Of course, the problem is that his attempt to help you is only taking your position from you.”
“Are you saying that old man is a danger to us?”
“Perhaps. But to be honest, I’m jealous. Fighting on the side that is doomed to fail is a warrior’s honor. I know I shouldn’t say this when I’m the one lending you this power, but always standing on the side of certain victory causes you to fester.”
“We cannot afford to be picky.”
“Fair enough.” Her shadow calmly scratched its head. “But anyway, the idea of a magic academy is pretty nice even if we ignore the whole Crystal Magic thing. Again, I shouldn’t say this when I’m lending you this power, but God-Worshipping Magic is so powerful that you can’t really practice using it. If someone developed a way to efficiently teach it, I might be saved from seeing the unsightly result of people borrowing my power and losing control the very first time they use it.”
“You need not worry about that,” said Yukino in a voice much kinder than the people she knew would imagine from her. But she was not announcing that she would create such a magic education system. “I am the strongest working with you now, so as long as I stay with you, you do not need to think about what will happen with the next one.”
“Yeah, well, you say that, but…”
“Well, um, uh, man, I’m really not sure how to put this.”
“If you have something to say, then just come out and say it. You are a god, aren’t you? Then you do not need to hold back with a mere human.”
Yukino wore something like a nun’s habit with bold slits in the sides, but her religion was not the monotheistic one symbolized by the cross and a holy book.
She only folded her hands in prayer to the god who had taken her to a higher stage.
That was why she felt no hesitation at all when it came to wielding that tremendous power. It was the ultimate performance that showed the world that she was connected to a god who loved her.
Even if that performance meant burning away her own body.
It was the same as exchanging rings and going on a honeymoon.
Sometimes you wanted a physical symbol of it all.
“Wh-what are the others doing?” asked her shadow. “Like Jessie of the giant sword.”
“She is the same as ever. It is hard to tell if their compatibility was devastatingly bad or devastatingly good because she is still developing into a complete berserker with no apparent distinction between her and Susanoo. Of course, that might be one way of bringing yourselves together.”
“So she just wants to fight and doesn’t care why, huh? I’ll admit I see the appeal.”
“Lord Lugh, surely you are not showing an interest in another human woman.”
“Course not.” Her shadow wagged its finger. “Bloodthirsty fights to the death are a warriors’ honor, but that isn’t something you enjoy along with the woman you’ve fallen for. The one thing I couldn’t stand to do is push you toward certain death.”
Yes, we are here in Rio de Janeiro.
As you can see, the city’s borders are blocked off by barricades and yellow tape so us normal folk are not allowed to see inside. Footage from helicopters or drones is not an option because the area has been declared a no-fly zone and civilian satellites have been forced to mask the data they release in accordance with the International Peaceful Usage of Space Treaty.
The details have not been announced as per the usual information restriction, but rumor has it the Threat did this.
Time and again this month, the Problem Solvers have been less than successful and people suspect this incident could have been entirely prevented if all five of those strongests had been deployed as usual, so public groups appear to be requesting the information be released.
Elicia “Saurus” Luxverg.
Yukino “Punish” Arakawa.
Jessie “Edge” Marcus.
Those three are known as the public face of the Problem Solvers while the other two have not left as much of an impression on us since they are more like secret weapons kept hidden from the public.
Some tabloids and online news sites have been suggesting there are not in fact five Problem Solvers and those three are it, but the truth will likely be difficult to find since not a single government is willing to say anything on the matter.
Meanwhile, the Threat remains an issue.
We can only pray that the Problem Solvers quickly recover from whatever is troubling them.
The LCD TV went silent in the middle of the news.
No one had hit the power button on the remote. Amaashi Marika, a girl with twintails dyed a bright strawberry blonde, had thrown the remote at the screen.
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka smiled softly.
“Oh, sorry. That just pissed me off way too much is all.”
Marika pouted her lips, but she did actually bow her head.
They had taken their RV out of England and to the fellow European nation of Germany. They had a simple reason for that: two of the Problem Solvers had been killed during the G21 summit. The country was bound to be locked down while a largescale search began. Britain was an island nation, so it could be locked down more tightly than other nations. Once the circle closed around them, there would be no escape.
But why had it not been locked down immediately? They could guess the higher ups decided not to explain to the normal police what had happened because they feared the chaos and panic if word of what happened got out.
Either way, they had needed to escape while they still could.
Marika glanced over at the dead TV.
“How long are we going to be able to watch TV like this?”
“Yes, defeating Yukino caused the Sunny Side Up network to break apart in earth’s gravity, didn’t it?” said Kyouka. “The system was not 100% reliant on that, but losing a major source puts pressure on everything else.”
“Yeah, I hear the houses that run on solar power are having the solar panels stolen from their roofs now. It might not be long before people start stealing car batteries.”
Yukino’s defeat had destabilized the world’s power supply. The governments that had been using her for general power were scrambling to get their old power stations running at full capacity again, but that would leave the government supercomputers and particle accelerators without power.
Those were used to develop new drugs for incurable diseases.
Or so it was claimed to secure the budget to keep them running.
If they stopped, it was sure to cause various problems.
Utagai Karuta blankly listened to them from the sofa while losing himself in thought. Their revenge had reduced the number of Problem Solvers, which in turn increased the fury of the Threat. Quite a few countries, regions, or cities had entirely disappeared overnight this month alone and many unrelated people had met an unfortunate end.
Everyone talked about it like they were blaming Karuta’s group.
It was almost like the Problem Solvers were intentionally holding back to increase the damage done so they could place the blame on them.
But Karuta also had another thought.
“Does the Threat even exist at all?”
That was a fundamental question.
He had started to wonder back in London. Yukino Arakawa had tried to escape responsibility for mass murder by shoving the blame onto the Threat. What if they had done that over and over in the past? The Threat might exist or it might not, but someone was clearly taking advantage of the situation.
The Threat was beginning to function as a means of manipulating public opinion through fear and confusion and as a veil to cover up inconvenient truths.
That thought painted the previous news report in a different light.
Search out the villains who are attacking the Problem Solvers. The world needs to come together and hunt them down.
If the Problem Solvers had really destroyed several cities just for that, then they had brought their villainy to a whole new level. But at the same time, he could not help but note that the people who had destroyed their giant ship of a school could easily pull it off.
Not only did they have the ability, but they also had the lack of scruples.
“Anyway.” The Student Council President clapped her hands together in front of her large chest. “The dinosaur, the light spear, and the giant sword. We’ve taken out half of the Problem Solvers now, but you could say the real challenge is yet to come. You know why that is, don’t you?”
Crystal Girl Aine shook her rainbow-glowing silver hair, fluttered her transparent white dress, and quietly tilted her head in a corner of the RV.
Karuta sighed and refocused his mind.
“Unlike those three, we have no records of the other two fighting. We’ve defeated all the ones we saw use their God-Worshiping Magic at our school.”
“Yes. Our experience and data allowed us to put together a detailed plan and that made all the difference. The Problem Solvers are the world’s strongest and now we will be forced to go in blind and adlib our way through it.”
“By the way, Sacri-sama, is it possible the Problem Solvers not seen at your school did not actually participate in that battle?”
Aine seemed to be speaking on behalf of Karuta’s reluctance to kill, but it was him who rejected the idea.
“We know the dinosaur was on the ship and the light spear and giant sword most likely attacked from outside, so that means there was at least one more of them there: the woman who laughed over the ship’s speakers. This is only a guess and we can’t rely on it too much, but if four of them were a part of it, it seems unlikely just the one sat it out.”
There was no real cloud on Marika or Kyouka’s faces.
It felt wrong to consider the possibility that one of the Problem Solvers was actually a good person. They could not imagine it even as a hypothetical.
“But to be honest, going in blind is not going to be easy,” spat out his curly twintails childhood friend with a bitter look on her face. “What kind of attack do they use, how powerful is it, what’s its range, how often can they use it, etc. And beyond that, without knowing their name or where they live, we can’t fight them or even approach them. An intuition-based game of concentration using all 5.5 billion people on the planet doesn’t sound very promising.”
“We do have something to go on there,” said the Student Council President as she smiled and pulled something from the chest of her blazer.
It was a card-sized electronic device.
“The light spear woman was obliterated, but the giant sword one remained a little more intact, so I swiped her phone. And I made sure to modify it so not even the owner would be able to track it. …And by ‘modify’, I mean I checked the device’s plans and drove a nail through the transmission chip.”
“Are you saying that might tell us the location of a Problem Solvers base or personal information on the other members?”
“It’s worth looking into, don’t you think?”
Note: the gold leaf is contained in a separate package. Sprinkle it on to enjoy the crunch!
“Is gold leaf actually crunchy?” groaned Utagai Karuta while reading the Japanese confection’s package.
A small plastic bag contained thin flakes that glittered gold. There was only about a pinch or two at the most. Instead of a single folded piece, it was even smaller than pieces of katsuobushi. It may have been more like a powder than a leaf.
They had bought this on the black market.
They had used that kind of sketchy store instead of a legit one because of the influence of the Problem Solvers’ defeat. The light spear had not been the only one to die in London that day.
The giant sword woman had as well.
The Student Council President had defeated the one who apparently controlled the world’s industrial side.
Simply put, that woman had run a giant all-purpose factory that could make anything if you sent her a request via email. For normal corporations, everything leading up to that email had mattered far more than the production infrastructure. In other words, the value of intellectual property like designs and plans had skyrocketed. They had started using analog microfilm as a countermeasure against hackers, that had led to the spread of business-oriented banks that specialized in safe-deposit boxes for that microfilm, and companies called for armored cars as readily as motorcycle couriers.
Then that entire system had collapsed overnight.
Corporations around the world had lost that all-purpose factory, but they could not prepare their own production infrastructure so quickly. They could not supply the products for the orders they were receiving. They all had to build their own factories in a hurry, but they needed money to pay for that. They were forced to sell off all sorts of things: their buildings, the designs of their products, and even human beings in the form of layoffs.
The chaos was unlikely to end soon.
The shelves of retail stores were empty and the foods and everyday items sold on the black market were going for exorbitant prices. It had reached the point where it was said you needed a knife or a handgun to even start haggling.
(But this won’t last forever.)
Karuta observed the situation with a somehow cold look in his eyes.
(Humans always find a way of bringing things back to normal. And I’m used to being hated by this point, so you can’t use them as hostages, Problem Solvers.)
Meanwhile, there was Crystal Girl Aine.
She must not have cared in the slightest about that human interplay of joy and sorrow because she was already leaning forward without considering the hem of her transparently white dress.
“H-hurry! Hurry up and sprinkle that crunchiness on the yokan and then give me permission to eat it! Pant, pant, ahh, woof, woof!!”
“This is looking more and more like some kind of dangerous withdrawal symptoms, so are you sure it’s safe to let you have this!?”
Her eyes were spinning and drool dripped from the corner of her mouth. She looked so frail that she would break if you held her too tightly, but that only made it look all the more inappropriate when she was staring so intently at the powdered contents of a small plastic bag. That mystery crystal girl did not rely on any god’s name to accurately calculate out the collision of the energy from the Original Crystal Embryo at the center of the earth and the supernatural forces pouring down from outer space, but at times like this, she made him look like the bad guy.
It was Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka who smiled gently.
She held a small plate containing a mille-crepe that was not a convenience store product. Karuta did not know the name of the tea she had on the table either and he doubted he would remember it even if she told him.
“My, my. But if you refuse to give it to her now, I am pretty sure she would throw a tantrum that would cause the RV to burst open like a jack-in-the-box.”
“She’s asked for gold powder and gold leaf before, but that doesn’t really change the flavor, does it?” asked curly twintailed Marika.
That girl lay on the sofa bed with a bunch of cheap snacks piled around her. When the time had come for each of them to choose their own snacks, she alone had ignored the luxury items and gone for quantity over quality.
“It is not an issue of flavor and the nutrients required by the human body are irrelevant to me. I need gold, pure gold. By adding wiring thinner than hairs inside my silicon semiconductor body, I can expand to even greater heights!!”
“I don’t really get it, but it’s creeping me out.”
How had this happened?
It was going to take some time to analyze the smartphone they had swiped from the giant sword woman’s corpse, so they had nothing to discuss concerning the other Problem Solvers who never made media appearances. With nothing to do, they had decided to head out and buy some food.
So where had the money for that come from?
That too was simple.
“The Problem Solvers really are loaded, aren’t they?”
“Impressively so. Can you see now why all the powerful nations want to call themselves the guardians of the law despite how annoying that position is?”
Basically, they had stolen more than just the phone from the giant sword woman.
They had taken a life without leaving any room for argument, they had checked over the corpse and stolen everything of value, and they had bought some luxury items with that money to take a nice break. As reluctant as Karuta had been, he could not deny they really were living the lives of avengers at this point.
Slender Crystal Girl Aine was the most lacking in morals (since she was not human) and now she was all fired up. Was he imagining things or was her long silver hair stirring?
“Sacri-sama, how long are you going to tease me? If you don’t give it to me soon, I am going to enter a rebellious phase.”
“I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to use a rebellious phase.”
“Can anyone really say they used their rebellious phase the way they were ‘supposed to’?” asked Kyouka
“Does that mean even our gentle Student Council President had a rebellious phase?” asked Marika, whose interest here was straying from the point a little.
Meanwhile, Karuta first removed the main yokan from the small wooden box and placed it on a small plate on the side table. Once that was on standby, he only had to open the small plastic bag and sprinkle on the gold leaf.
“Listen, Aine. I will sprinkle the gold leaf on like you want, but this yokan is for the two of us to share. Do not eat the whole thing yourself, okay? And I mean it! No matter what, do not eat the whole thing the instant I sprinkle this on!!”
“Woof, woof, woof!!”
“Not exactly inspiring confidence here!!”
Going without a snack while everyone else had one would be too psychologically taxing. He kept a cautious eye on Aine who was in a very untrustworthy spinny-eye mode while he grabbed the small bag of gold leaf in both hands. Gold leaf or not, this was little different from the packages of soy sauce or Worcester sauce that came with convenience store bentos. He slowly tore off the top edge using the score in the side.
“Oh, crap. I got some on my finger. I should have tapped on it to get it to settle in the bottom first.”
He just about wiped his finger off on the thigh of his pants, but a viselike grip grabbed his wrist first.
It was the gold-loving girl Aine.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait!! You’ll break it, you’ll break it, you’ll break it, you’ll break it!!!”
“And don’t just start sucking my finger like that! Stop it, Aine! I’ll do it right, okay!?”
“I han’t let it go hoo waste.”
His shouting accomplished nothing. He really did use his full strength to try and pull away, but this wrist was trapped more securely than in the base of a guillotine. Meanwhile, the boy’s fingertip was at the mercy of Aine’s surprisingly warm mouth. It felt like she was using her tongue to thoroughly clean off the bottom of the finger, the top of the nail, and even below the nail.
Seeing the enjoyment and love on her face as she consumed the gold leaf filled him with a weird feeling. She looked so much like a human, but this consumption of metal was an undeniable oddity. While it was true humans needed to consume iron and zinc, they would not start chomping on a screw or nail. Aine, on the other hand, probably would eat a pure gold screw or nail if she was given one.
It was unlikely that pale crystal girl would show any sign of rejection such as metal poisoning.
Meanwhile, the oddity of it all was accentuated by how her mannerisms were the same as a cute girl.
Something was shaken in his heart. The scene before him greatly worried him.
“Fwah… I will let you off the hook with just that, but pure gold is a valuable rare metal. If you do not treat it with the proper care, I will never forgive you even if you are my Sacri-sama.”
“You do know that would amount to a gentle form of suicide, don’t you?”
His wrist was finally freed from her viselike grip, but it sounded like he needed to be more careful from here on. In fact, he was a little worried that the Problem Solvers might throw pure gold caltrops on the ground in battle to distract her.
“But this stuff looks pretty tricky to use since its even thinner than katsuobushi. If I just sprinkle it on like normal, some of it would probably end up off of the plate.”
“Starting now, I will hold my breath until you have completed your objective,” announced Aine.
“You don’t have to do that. Besides, I just have to do it away from my face, you don't have to keep staring at me like that!!”
During that discussion, Utagai Karuta moved the small bag as close to the yokan as he could before sprinkling its contents.
However, a demon interrupted him.
“Mh. Oh, I got the rare planaria character! Hey, hey! Look, Karuta! These things can multiply endlessly if you keep cutting them apart! And finding one in your animal snacks is supposed to increase your monetary luck, so…ah…ah…”
He had a bad feeling about this.
And his bad feeling proved accurate.
A great wind blew in just as he was attempting such delicate work. The glittering gold leaf should have fallen straight onto the yokan, but it was all blasted in the wrong direction.
Specifically, all over the body of the boy who had been so carefully handling the bag.
Karuta began to sparkle all over, but it may have been more like a human disco ball than a scene shown in shoujo manga vision.
Now, a question.
What had happened to his fingertip when he got just a bit of gold leaf on it earlier?
“Wait! Stop, Aine! This is an ord-…”
A fairly serious hell of stickiness soon followed.
Just before the collision, Karuta tried to ignore the reality facing him by noting that the Student Council President cleverly grabbed her teacup from the side table and retreated.
Time continued to flow even during that disaster, so it was late at night before long.
Aine loved small spaces, so she had retired to the prototype spaceship shaped like a bamboo leaf (because it was creepy having her arms and legs stick out of Karuta’s body as she tossed and turned in her sleep) and strawberry blonde Marika went to sleep in her usual spot on the sofa bed (with only the one sheet covering her nudity yet again). She ended up tossing and turning a lot herself, so that sheet seemed worryingly inadequate.
The faint light of a laptop screen was the only thing illuminating the RV at the moment. A cable connected the device to a smartphone.
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka was staring at the computer screen in just a large dress shirt.
“Are you still not going to sleep?” asked Utagai Karuta from behind her.
“I have to look after these babies.”
She apparently meant the computer. That phrasing made him curious how she mentally categorized Crystal Girl Aine.
The screen had a few windows open, but they all had a ton of alphanumeric text scrolling quickly by. He could guess she was trying to break some kind of encryption, but he doubted human eyes were quick enough to follow what was going on. His weren’t, at least.
“C’mon, it won’t take that long to decrypt. Karuta-kun, you can go ahead and get to sleep.”
“If it won’t take that long, then I’ll stay up with you.”
“Oh, dear. Trapped by my own wording.”
She gave a bewitching smile and leaned her head a bit to the left. He did not realize what that meant at first, but when she traced her finger along the shoulder that’s smooth skin was left exposed by the baggy dress shirt, he finally realized what she was inviting him to do.
“I’d be too embarrassed.”
“It’s my thanks for staying up with me.”
He got the feeling she would not move on unless he went along with it. He endured the silence for a bit, but he finally gave in to the awkward elevator mood.
He placed his chin on the shoulder she had “opened” for him. They both viewed the screen as if he were rubbing his cheek against hers while embracing her from behind.
He could sense the heat of her soft cheek and the scent of her hair.
And while giving him all that, she also whispered to him.
“Once we know what is inside the giant sword woman’s phone, we should have a fair amount of information on the other Problem Solvers. Then we can finally get to work.”
“Karuta-kun, are you hoping the decryption fails?”
Since he was essentially embracing her from behind, she must have felt him jump ever so slightly. She may have also noticed his elevated heartrate.
If not for the need to protect the defenseless students and teachers, they may not have had to bare their fangs like animals.
If not for their revenge, the people in this RV might have been able to smile together in an ordinary classroom or clubroom.
Part of him definitely felt that way, but that part of him had made his childhood friend cry back in London.
She had asked him not to leave her – leave them – behind.
“Don’t worry,” said Omotesandou Kyouka. “I feel something similar.”
At first, he thought this was some kind of leading question, but then she revealed what she meant.
“Revenge, vengeance, making them pay. It is simple enough to say, but I thought we were bound to fail at some point or another. I thought our desire for revenge would waver at some point and that would allow it to be worn down, transformed, and faded. And that is almost certainly what would have happened if I had been thrown out into the world all on my own with nothing but this wheelchair to work with. In fact, I may not have been able to take the very first step. There is no way I could have attempted anything as impressive as eradicating the Problem Solvers who rule this world.”
“But it’s strange.” The Student Council President in just a dress shirt seemed to be smiling, but he was too close to see her expression clearly. “People I can call partners gathered around someone as weak as me and coincidence stacked on top of coincidence to allow us to survive this long. My desire for revenge never faded and I really am working toward eradicating the Problem Solvers. ‘In a time of need, we only need to work together.’ Hee hee. When I said that at the school assembly, I never imagined it would come to mean something like this. At the time, we had found a blanket and cooler stuffed into the empty space below the heliport and we were trying to figure out who had gone to the misguided effort of setting up such a perfect slacking-off spot with both shade and a nice breeze.”
Did that mean…
“Sorry,” said Karuta. “If we hadn’t run across you, you might not have been led astray like this.”
“Now you are just being overly self-conscious. Just like I could not have done anything on my own, I doubt the rest of you could have made it this far without me. You would have been defeated at some point or you would have failed to take the first step and stewed in your own hesitation. Don’t you think?”
“Also, I doubt we could have lived a normal life even if we never started down the path of revenge. Like I said, we would have stewed in our own hesitation. Especially me since I have plenty I can use as an excuse. I may have ended up living a life where I blamed these legs any time I failed or gave up on something and where I worked to inspire sympathy in everyone around me.”
Karuta had no right to decide which was the better path for her.
She had to live her own life.
That was all there was to it.
A change occurred on the laptop screen. The scrolling alphanumeric text came to a stop and a new window opened instead. It showed a human-readable list of files.
“And here we have another coincidence to add to the stack,” said the Student Council President in only a dress shirt. She sounded partially excited and partially disappointed. “Now we should find some clues and leads. It seems our path of revenge has not come to an end quite yet.”
The Problem Solvers were the world’s strongest. They were the one clear method of fighting back against the Threat that was shaking international society. That meant great fortune naturally gathered around them along with plenty of assets, property, and real estate.
Finding their hideout or base was not as simple as finding the house in a residential district they had taken out a loan to purchase. They had nearly 2000 properties registered in their names around the world.
Twintails Marika breathed an exasperated sigh in the RV.
“This isn’t going to narrow anything down at all.”
“In fact, it makes them feel like international businessmen who are so constantly moving around the world that they don’t even think of things in terms of having a home or nationality,” said Karuta. “It’s more like they simply borrow some space in a mansion or luxury apartment wherever they happen to be at the time.”
“But can you see any strange activity among all that?” asked Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka while using the projector’s remote to display their list of data distributed as dots across a map. “It seems they have completely given up on guarding the space elevator and are flying around the world with their activities scheduled out to the second. Really, all five of them working together like for the elevator was a rarity and it looks like they generally work alone.”
“But they’re the center of the global infrastructure, right?” asked Marika. “Then can’t we lie in wait at those facilities?”
The Student Council President’s answer was simple.
“How many seats do you think they have in the five continents excluding Antarctica? They might each specialize in one continent, but their influence extends to the entire world. And each of those locations are so heavily guarded that making a careless approach would be enough to wear us down. And I am talking about the large armies of ‘ordinary people’ who gather around profit. Individuals like us who have no real backing can’t hope to stand up to something like that.”
“Ugh,” groaned Marika.
“Do not worry. There is a loophole. It looks like they have a tendency of returning to a specific location after completing a few jobs. It is not a stop on the way to their next destination and this is something they have done for a while and continue to do now.”
“Where is it?”
“Finland. The very country we are hiding in now.”
It was an Arctic world outside.
Looking through the frosted windows showed thick snow and a lake covered in ice. It was hard to believe they had been taking classes in a sweaty equatorial region not long ago.
“This is most likely their true hideout or base. Whenever something happens, they gather here and hold a secret discussion amongst themselves. They do not need to worry about the paparazzi, leaks to social media, or laser listening devices here, so this is where they reach a consensus. If they do not want anyone overhearing their conversation, I imagine they will hold it here. This is much more useful than that space elevator they have already abandoned.”
The five Problem Solvers had already been reduced to two. Having more than half of them killed was sure to have shaken even the world’s strongest. Their presence at the usual elevator would stand out too much. They wanted to escape the rush of government officials and media reporters so they could let out the feelings building in their guts and plan a comeback as soon as possible, so there was a good chance they would be here.
“If we happen across them here, we get what we want,” said Karuta. “And if they aren’t here, that’s convenient too. We know they visit here frequently, so we can set up a bomb or sabotage the gas line or something. Then we just have to watch from a distance and wait for someone to show up.”
“Also, I found some personal information on the remaining members. Only the smallest piece, though,” added the Student Council President. “The remaining two are named Susannia Evans and Anastasia Blast.”
“That’s all?” After waiting for more and receiving only silence, Marika voiced her disappointment. “Um, isn’t there something about the God-Worshiping Magic they use or records of their past battles?”
“I said it was only the smallest piece, didn’t I?” Kyouka did not sound any more pleased about it. “I get the feeling they knew the details of each other’s magic so well they did not bother keeping any records on it. Maybe it’s like how you don’t bother typing out your own phone number into your address book.”
“Th-then forget how they fight. What about their field of infrastructure? We might be able to figure something out about their magic from that.”
Marika dug in her heels because she wanted any information she could get, but the Student Council President sighed.
“Susannia controls largescale agriculture. She apparently helps establish food bases and holds back the spreading of the deserts. It is said her presence in the business world is felt strongest in Africa, but she is working to increase the greenery in all five continents save Antarctica. Since there is no guarantee she will be in Africa, it is fortunate that we could narrow things down to Finland. On the other hand, it is unclear what role exactly she plays in the largescale agriculture. Civilian satellites have only shown extremely large mechanized farms. Is she controlling the plants, controlling the machines, or controlling the moisture or weather?”
Karuta had heard of this too.
With uniform largescale farms covering most of the world’s grain-producing regions, individual regional brands were dying out. Specialized farms that produced things like French grapes, American beef, German potatoes, or Japanese rice worked to create the best possible version of their products through selective breeding and genetic modification and, once their flavor and nutrition reached acceptable levels, those genetics were incorporated into the grain-producing region farms that spread to the horizons in order to earn vast fortunes. It was sort of like a buried treasure tour where you were given a vague map of where to dig.
The food Karuta’s group ate every day was soaked with the sweat and tears of their friends’ killer.
And her flesh and blood were baring their fangs.
“Um, then what about Anastasia?” asked Marika.
Marika had been hoping for a more pleasant answer, but this was an even greater bombshell.
“Anastasia Blast is most strongly associated with North America and, unlike the other four, she is directly involved in managing the military infrastructure. But it is unclear what exactly that entails. Is she providing the necessary intelligence and firepower for the troops on the battlefield, is she transporting personnel or materiel, or is she developing or producing new weapons? In fact, what does it even mean to control the military on a global level? If she holds a central position that surpasses the interests of individual nations, then how does the world even function?”
None of this provided any answers.
Even intellectual Omotesandou Kyouka was reduced to questioning her own information.
Karuta summed it up for them.
“So in the end, we’re going in blind.”
“I did find photos of them.”
The Student Council President used the projector remote to display two photos on the wall.
The redheaded woman with a long braid was Susannia Evans.
The blonde woman with wavy hair was Anastasia Blast.
This part alone looked something like the resumes sent in to a modeling agency. Did they have natural good looks, had they spent a lot of money to that end, or was it both? And no matter how beautiful they were, they were undoubtedly two of the world’s strongest five.
These monsters were powerful enough to stand alongside the dinosaur, light spear, and giant sword women.
But it was fortunate to have photos.
At the very least, they would not foolishly attack the wrong person. They did not want to start a direct confrontation if they could help it, so it meant a lot that they could start fighting without having to call out to them and confirm their identity first.
On the other hand, that was all this gave them.
Even with extensive planning beforehand, they had only just barely won out in their previous battles. The tragedy on that sunken ship had hinted at what to do. But things were different now. They had no idea what Susannia and Anastasia could do.
When first seeing that dinosaur, Karuta had not known what to do and ended up crawling among the broken crystal statues. He had been unable to prevent the 700 students and teachers from being trapped in a nearly eternal sleep.
They were up against something on that same level here.
And they had to win the first time.
It would be just like that initial hell.
It would be a repeat of that nightmare.
They were essentially throwing themselves back into that colorful world of trauma they had never wanted to experience again.
“We have to survive this,” said Utagai Karuta.
They were avengers, so this was an odd thing to say. They were supposed to be the ones who snuck up and killed their opponents in their sleep.
But this was how he saw it.
“Aine, Marika, Omotesandou-san. It all comes down to this, so let’s pull through.”
Once he left the RV, the biting cold struck Utagai Karuta’s entire body.
His breaths were white and the snow crunched below his feet.
Instead of in a city, they were on a pure white mountain covered with conifer trees, so the road and the slope were nearly indistinguishable.
“It’s hard to believe that there’s this much snow during April,” said strawberry blonde Marika while breathing into her hands.
They knew where the Problem Solvers’ base was, but they could not exactly drive the RV right up to it. They had to walk from a few kilometers away. Kyouka’s wheelchair could not travel through the deep snow, so she was forced to remain in the RV. If Susannia or Anastasia’s magic was anything like the light spear, flying would be suicide. Drawing attention to themselves would get them shot down.
“But when you get down to it, what is even left?”
Karuta frowned at that odd phrasing, so his childhood friend explained while walking alongside him.
“They’re all the world’s strongest, so they must stand at the top of different categories, right? For example, a dinosaur inferior to Elicia’s would not have a spot in that group.” She thought for a moment. “The dinosaur, the light spears, and the giant sword. If you rule those out, what kind of ‘strongest’ is left? They were all so insane it’s easy to focus too much on the specific power and lose sight of what genre it belongs to.”
Karuta had not considered looking at it like that.
Those strongest five all had some kind of magic they had all accepted as the strongest in some way. After thinking some himself, he decided to list off whatever random ideas came to mind.
“What about mind control?”
“We definitely haven’t seen that one. Maybe they could choose a target and weaken them?”
“Or travel through time. Like go back to before their target was born and change history.”
“You’re getting pretty out there now. So how about creating parallel worlds?”
“A super-adaptive lifeform that keeps evolving from one second to the next would be pretty scary.”
They had been joking with each other at first, but a weight gradually built in their stomachs and they began talking less. If any of their guesses happened to be right, that was the enemy they would have to face. It was not the most enjoyable topic of discussion.
After walking a while, they spotted what looked like a log cabin next to a frozen lake.
If the information Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka had found was accurate, that would be the Problem Solvers’ hideout. There were no other obvious buildings in the area.
The first three Problem Solvers had provided garbage disposal, power, and production, but they apparently knew how to use low-tech solutions as well. While so much of the global infrastructure was collapsing, this isolated log house seemed to be doing just fine.
It may have beewn similar to Karuta’s group in that RV that was not registered to any city or country.
Back at Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah, he had brought a blanket, a music player, and a cooler into the space directly below the flat heliport to skip class and goof off. Marika had gotten after him for stuff like that, so it had primarily become a secret base he shared with Gekiha and Aine. He remembered the oddly liberating feeling of being cut off from the flow of time while everyone else was in class like they were supposed to be.
What had this log cabin been for those five?
How comfortable had they found that white villa cut off from the rest of the world?
“There’s a car parked next to it,” he quietly noted while viewing it from afar. “And the snow is piled up on the windshield. At least 3cm thick.”
“I picked up the recent weather data,” said Kyouka from back in the RV. “There have been a lot of on-and-off flurries recently, but not heavy snowfall. I doubt that car has been there for even a full day.”
Karuta and Marika exchanged a glance.
If that car did not belong to a maintenance company that made periodic visits to perform upkeep on the building, then they had already drawn one of the two cards they wanted. Was Susannia Evans or Anastasia Blast visiting? Or were they both here?
To be careful, they checked the license plate and sent that information back to Kyouka, but she did not have much luck with a search.
“No matches. I suppose that’s the Problem Solvers for you. They must have enough influence with the world’s governments to keep their information secret.”
The tension increased because this was clearly no normal car.
They still had no real answers as they were forced to charge blindly into likely death.
Crystal Girl Aine slipped out from Karuta’s back.
She silently tilted her head with her special crystal sword in hand.
“Sacri-sama, if you wish to acquire information to increase your odds of success, you could always send me in first.”
“No, I can’t. Did you forget that we’re catching the Problem Solvers by surprise? They’re only gathering here because it’s a safe hideout. If we make any kind of attack and they grow more cautious, they’ll never come back. Then they can hide anywhere in the world and we’ll be forced to search them out from among the full 5.5 billion population. That clearly isn’t going to work even if we have 100 years to work with. So…”
So what did that mean?
They had to end it with this first attack. They had to kill whoever it was with their own hands.
Was that what he wanted to say? Proudly and with head held high?
He felt like his curly twintails childhood friend was giving him an appraising look.
“Anyway, we have to go do this, don’t we?” she said.
“Yeah, we do.”
They cautiously walked toward the lakeside log cabin.
There was no one in the car. They circled the building, but they could not see inside because all the windows had the curtains shut. In addition to the car, they found some firewood and mortar materials haphazardly piled up.
But Marika pointed at one window.
“The window is fogged up and it looks like there’s smoke coming from the chimney. It’s warm inside.”
That would never happen with a deserted log cabin. This was like a more old-fashioned version of determining if anyone lived there by seeing if the power meter was turning.
So someone was there.
At least one member of the Problem Solvers was inside. A great pressure weighed on his stomach. Was that person watching them from the crack in the curtains even now? Was it possible they could slice right through the log wall to attack? Or was his group already caught in some kind of spell? All sorts of speculation swirled through his mind.
He shook his head.
That was like a toxin of his own creation. He would wear himself down before the fight even began.
“Let’s compare the fog on the windows. That should tell us which part of the cabin is warmest. If someone is here, that’s where they’ll be. Whether they’re using firewood in the fireplace or an air conditioner running on a generator, they won’t want to waste their fuel this deep in the mountains.”
“Yes, Sacri-sama. I can break through any window or door here.”
“That’s nice to know.” He smiled. “But if we’re doing this, let’s try to be cleverer about it. Everyone will be cautious of what they consider to be the possible entrances, so if we break through a wall, we might be able to catch them in a psychological blind spot.”
Marika activated her Crystal Blossom armor and worked with Crystal Girl Aine to blow through the outside wall.
They no longer needed to be careful about footprints and otherwise hide their presence. In fact, it all came down to what they could accomplish in this few seconds of confusion and uncertainty. The three of them stormed inside.
It was a large space that looked like a combined dining room and kitchen. Pieces of the wall and window were scattered across the wooden flooring, but it must have been a pristine space to begin with. A fire danced in the fireplace at the wall, but that was it. The TV and audio system were powered off and silence hung over the place like in a classroom at night. They did not see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense someone there.
“They aren’t here?”
“We just have to keep looking!”
They were up against one of the Problem Solvers. Every second counted, but splitting up here would be the height of folly. They stuck together while cautiously moving through the cabin. They threw open the many doors.
They found a bathroom with a bathtub, a large drying room for clothing wet with snow, and a food storage room piled high with cardboard boxes. There was no staircase and the flat log cabin did not have individual bedrooms. It was less like a villa for the wealthy and more like a nicer version of a mountain climber’s cabin. And despite their tension, there was no one there.
Marika kept her Crystal Blossom armor out and gently spun the rapier in her hand.
She also frowned.
“Did they notice us approaching and run off? There weren’t any footprints in the snow when we circled the cabin, but they might be able to fly like I can.”
“You think one of the Problem Solvers fled without firing a shot? I’ll admit it’s hard to say since we don’t know what kind of world’s strongest they are, but that’s hard to imagine.”
“But, Sacri-sama, there was a car parked out front and there is a fire in the fireplace. Plus, this cabin seems too primitive to be remotely controlled.”
There had clearly been someone here.
Yet it had not simply been a meeting for the Problem Solvers to reach a consensus.
So why was no one here now?
And why would they leave signs of their presence like the car and the fireplace?
He finally looked up and ran toward the closest window while ignoring his confused-looking childhood friend and the crystal girl. He threw open the curtain and checked outside.
There should have been a frozen lake out there.
But when he saw something else filling his vision instead, he reflexively swore.
Thick ice covered a lake with a gentle elliptical shape measuring 300 meters long, but that ice was broken through from below.
What emerged was a giant cannon that looked like a steel tower tilted on its side.
The diameter alone was 10 meters, so the barrel could fit a 20-ton dump truck inside. The length was impressive enough to cover the full length of the lake. It glared at the log house from so close that aerial footage of the scene would look more like a pool cue just before it struck the cue ball than like a projectile weapon aimed at point-blank range.
“Hee hee☆ I beseech thee, Persephone, Greek God of Death.”
A beautiful woman sneered with that cannon connected to her shoulder.
The fearsome shell it then fired could have reached the moon if fired at the correct angle, but it instead erased the log cabin from the face of the earth.
A fearsome tremor spread out in all directions, making it feel more like a tactical weapon that used shockwaves instead of an explosive blast. As that propagated outwards, it triggered avalanches on all the nearby mountains and the conifer trees pointing sharply up toward heaven were knocked to the ground.
The log cabin was truly eliminated in an instant.
The countless splinters blasted away by the explosion functioned as projectiles as they scattered all around while breaking the sound barrier. Even if the cannon’s aim had been somewhat off and even if the target had fled the cabin and dove into the snow, that sandstorm of wooden fangs would have turned them to mincemeat.
There had been no escape anywhere on the face of the earth there.
Which was why they had gone elsewhere.
“Kh!! Wh-what was that? That thing that burst from the lake, I mean!! Is that a military application of one of those mass drivers that use staged detonation acceleration!?”
They had gone up.
Twintailed Marika had blasted the roof with her Crystal Blossom’s laser beam and then escaped into the sky, so now she was shouting questions while soaked with a tense sweat and breathing heavily.
But oddly enough, Karuta’s heart had gone cold.
He worked his mind while clinging to her hips and dangling down.
This opponent had not hesitated to destroy their own secret base to achieve their objective. No matter what memories that cabin held for them, they had blown it away along with the attacking assassins.
There really was no common ground there.
Karuta recalled the secret base he had built below the giant ship’s heliport. The Student Council had found it while he was away, dismantled it, and confiscated the things he had left there. That had not taken his dorm room or classmates from him, but it had still saddened him. So much so that he had felt no desire to build a new one.
Then he opened his mouth.
This opponent’s blatant deadliness rid him of any guilt.
“This must be her genre of world’s strongest.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“This is the world’s strongest mechanized human. She’s a cyborg.”
He thrust the reality of the situation into Marika’s dryly smiling face.
This felt like it would be Anastasia who controlled the world’s militaries, but could he really just assume something like that?
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka had said Susannia was the monster who controlled the global agricultural infrastructure, but it was hard to tell what role she actually played. The civilian satellites only showed giant mechanized farms.
That meant this could be Susannia too.
“Did she lure us in so she could blow us up and ensure her own safety!?”
Crystal Girl Aine was not with them.
The boy clenched his teeth and looked down where not even the foundation of the cabin remained.
But he did not have time for sentimentality.
He heard a dull rumbling as the giant cannon changed its angle.
“Here it comes!!”
“Wait, really!? Okay, hold on tight!!”
The entire concept of sound vanished.
Their ears only felt some kind of compression.
While dragging around some dead weight, Marika flew in a complex figure eight to desperately avoid the back-to-back cannon blasts. This was not just an issue of weight or air resistance. The rapid changes of altitude brought changes in atmospheric pressure, the rapid movement brought inertia and air friction, they needed oxygen, and their body temperature could not fall too far. She was used to providing those protections for herself, but she had to provide them for Karuta as well this time since his weak barrier was not enough. That placed a greater burden on her.
“She doesn’t have cluster bombs, does she? That would be the worst! We’d have countless smaller explosives filling the air like fireworks!”
“We’ll be lucky if that’s all she has. We’re talking about a Problem Solver – one of the world’s strongest. She might not be entirely reliant on that one giant cannon!”
Just as Karuta gave that warning, they heard a sound like explosives splitting through a steel panel on the surface. A chill ran down their spines when they realized something had been purged, and then something stretched out its silver wings from above the frozen lake. The device installed on that person’s back ignited. They took flight with fearsome speed, almost like they had transformed themselves into a surface-to-air missile.
It was a tall woman with her red hair worn in a long braid.
She wore a skintight special combat outfit that resembled a black diving wetsuit, but various “components” must have torn through from within because her soft skin was showing all over her back and limbs like she was covered in torn stockings.
Karuta recognized her.
He had seen her photograph earlier.
This was different from a Crystal Blossom that was controlled using a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp and cables thinner than hairs. They had to begin a dogfight against a Problem Solver using four steel wings and several jet engines the size of a water bottles.
Crystal Blossoms used magic to ignore inertia and air resistance while flying, so they allowed for a dimension of flight not possible with fighter crafts. Simply put, they could make right angle turns at supersonic speeds with no risk whatsoever.
But this Problem Solver could apparently do the same with her older form of magic. Just how much had that beautiful silhouette been modified? A normal pilot would have blacked out from the blood not reaching their brain. In fact, they might have had all their blood vessels burst from the pressure, but she was flying through the biting chill without an oxygen mask or even goggles to cover her eyes. Any air force official or even UFO researcher who saw this would probably throw in the towel.
And no matter how cutting-edge the technology, the fundamentals were the same.
Unless they hoped to start some close-quarters combat using a sword or spear, head-on charges were rare during dogfights. The standard in aerial battles was to take up a position on your enemy’s tail while keeping them off your tail. Since Marika was the one being chased now, she constantly had to dodge redheaded Susannia Evans’s attacks. She could spin her rapier around and target behind her, but being on your opponent’s tail still gave you a tremendous advantage.
Both Susannia’s arms opened up from within.
The next thing they knew, both her arms were gone, something like the framework of a fan was spreading out, and that framework was revealed to be several cannons of various sizes. The volumes did not seem to match.
Beams of red light pierced the white sky either as tracer rounds or as a form of intimidation. And not just a few; it was like a shower. Marika somehow managed to dodge them by twisting around and spinning her body like a spring or coil, but that kept her from flying freely through the sky. Just like in a chess problem, every move she took was being gradually guided toward the position where she could be taken out.
“Shut up, you dead weight! Let me focus!!”
“Then could you manage if you dropped me?”
“~ ~ ~!! What did I say about not leaving me behind here!?”
That kindness may have been one reason she could not make any headway in this battle. Not only was she facing one of the Problem Solvers, someone she could not afford any kind of opening against, but she was attempting it while handicapped with this dead weight clinging to her slender waist. She had no chance like this. The two of them would be shot at some point and it would all be over.
Also, Susannia Evans’s transformation was not over yet. She must have grown impatient because she expanded even more weapons that were stored in her body. Her four wings grew to eight, the number of jet engines increased, and the area around her ribs stirred before several small supporting arms burst out like shrimp legs. Also, each of those arms was holding the grip of a Gatling gun made of several cannons or a laser beam cannon with exposed excitation rods.
Each new component further tore her wetsuit-like special combat outfit, but it no longer looked like a woman exposing her soft skin. This could only be described as a grotesque collection of machines.
“What the hell!?” Marika’s eyes bugged out as she flew around the sky, scattering shockwaves as she went. “Does that really obey the law of conservation of mass!? How do you fold all that up to fit inside that body!?”
Susannia had matched their speed while gradually taking an advantageous position, so they did not have a moment to lose.
After some thought, Karuta spoke up.
“Marika, we know we can’t escape, so do you think you could instead slow down to get us closer to her?”
“We’re 300 to 400 meters away already. That’s ‘right in front of her’ as far as dogfights are concerned. Even if I ‘returned’ the air resistance parameter to normal as a special maneuver for rapidly braking, getting within 50 to 100 meters of her is the best I could manage. And with how she’s been moving, I doubt even catching her by surprise will get her to overshoot us. But!! The closer we get, the harder it will be to dodge her attacks!”
“She’s using laser beams that move at the speed of light, so distance doesn’t really matter.”
“Surely you aren’t planning something suicidal like intentionally taking a hit to damage her with the Crystal Blossom fragments you scatter behind us.”
“This is nothing that heroic, but you’re in the ballpark.”
His casual response left her speechless.
He hesitated like a normal person more than the others did, but his ideas tended to be more out there than the others. And he made a suggestion while holding onto his childhood friend’s hips.
“We only have one shot at this. We can shatter her assumption that she’s safe if she’s on our tail.”
“What do you mean?”
“There is no safety here. Because we’re true avengers who are here to fight to the death.”
In that instant, Susannia Evans was closing in on her target using the many pieces of data and guidelines displayed in her biological vision, but she also wondered something beyond the tactical situation directly in front of her.
What had happened to that crystal girl from the reports?
It was obvious the enemy would prioritize the living over the nonliving. And if that girl had been abandoned when they escaped the log cabin, she would have been shattered along with the building.
But based on the fragments of information they had from the broadcast station and London, that was a Crystal Blossom that functioned entirely separately from its user.
It could be stored inside that user’s body.
So which was it?
Was the crystal girl there or not? And how would that influence this battle?
Just as she wondered that, the twintails girl altered how she flew. She rapidly braked to move in close to Susannia. If this was not some kind of tricky close-quarters combat using a sword or spear, then there was no real merit to getting closer. They may have been foolishly hoping she would overshoot them, but she was not about to fly past them and let them take up the offensive position on her tail.
But then something else happened.
Something burst from the back of the boy clinging to the twintails girl.
It was Aine, that deadly weapon with a delicate and slender body and pale skin.
The crystal girl took a very simple action.
She did not use her specially-shaped sword. Nor did she participate in the dogfight.
In that highspeed aerial world of dogfighting, she simply separated from her sacrifice boy. She was unleashed. She did not cling to anything, the fierce headwind pummeled her, and her silver hair spread out while reflecting a rainbow-colored light.
She was forcefully launched.
The slender girl flew backwards. Yes, she was slammed straight toward Susannia Evans who was on their tail.
Susannia frantically tried to dodge, but it was too late.
“You goddamn- agh!?”
She collided with a mass of a few dozen kilograms while moving at the speed of an artillery shell. That would normally have shattered both their bodies, but the crystal girl did not so much as crack. The shrill shattering sound that accompanied the impact was likely from the spatial vibration field of her preset barrier. She grabbed onto Susannia from the front. Her soft but cold arms and legs clung to Susannia like an octopus or squid’s tentacles or like a drowning child trapping the would-be rescuer who had jumped into the ocean or river to save them. And she squeezed with a tremendous viselike grip.
She chose bondage as a form of attack.
Susannia’s flight used magical power, but she could not altogether ignore the laws of physics like the brooms or Santa’s sleigh seen in storybooks. Her spread wings were forcibly folded back up and her bottle-sized jet engines were crushed, so she could no longer keep her body airborne.
“Wait, ah!? Dammit, you!!”
“Do not worry.” The cold girl rested her chin on Susannia’s shoulder and whispered in her ear with her legs still tangled around her. “I am not so fragile that I will shatter after a freefall drop from this height at this speed.”
“Persephone, do something!!”
Susannia’s face tensed as she sent a request inside herself to open all the shock-absorbing structures on the surface of her body. But that request was not answered. Aine’s tight hold on her body prevented the hatches from opening.
From there, they were a lot like a shooting star.
The two of them crashed into the snowy surface with their supersonic speed intact.
The result looked horrific.
A large portion of the white scenery had been torn away to reveal the contrasting dark soil below.
Marika viewed the 20m-radius crater from the sky and then slowly descended toward its center with the boy still clinging to her hips.
Crystal Girl Aine was waving to them from there.
Susannia Evans’s location was unclear. Or rather, she was scattered across everything. More than just torn apart, it looked like she had been reduced to shreds. And the mechanical components with a dull silver shine were scattered over an even wider area that passed beyond the crater. The disastrous scene looked like a passenger plane crash site and Marika gave an annoyed comment while having her Crystal Blossom armor and rapier withdraw.
“It really was like fourth-dimensional storage. This is more than just a multitool. You could probably build a pyramid with all of this stuff. How was it all contained inside the volume of a human body?”
“That was probably the magic she used. Anyway, that is Susannia Evans defeated. But what should we do now, Sacri-sama? If we are lucky, Anastasia Blast will be here too, but if not, we will have to start from scratch in searching for her.”
“Look, this is all iron, aluminum, and stainless steel. It’s all been refined from non-recycled first-generation resources,” pointed out Marika. “Back in their ‘age of peace’ before we started picking them off, that would have been a pile of treasure.”
“I am only interested in pure gold,” insisted Aine.
Karuta belatedly let out a slow breath while listening to their conversation.
He had killed someone. It had happened so quickly it still did not feel real.
He had not had any other options.
“She could fly and probably swim through the ocean too, but does she really travel the world like that?” asked Marika. “She was like their top secret weapon who kept away from the media, so I bet they would want to avoid letting anyone see her using her magic…or using those weapons, I guess.”
“What are you getting at?”
“She would use normal transportation as much as possible. That car next to the log cabin was bait and she blew it up with her first attack, but she might have had another car or a helicopter hidden somewhere further away. If we can find that, we might be able to find some information in there.”
Utagai Karuta thought to himself while listening.
They had defeated a Problem Solver. Susannia Evans had been scattered across the ground.
(But is this really over?)
He had no basis for his doubt. Everything had gone as well as could be hoped. It might as well have scored a perfect 100, but that was why it did not sit right with him. Things had been different with Susannia than with the other Problem Solvers. They had not glimpsed her magic at the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy and they had not had any advance information on how she fought. Careful planning had just barely been enough before, but now they had been forced to go in blind and adlib their way through the battle. It was like being thrown back into that nightmare world in Grimnoah. They had been helpless their first time against that dinosaur and those light spears. They had only managed to stand up to them after seeing that magic, analyzing it from multiple angles, and using a surprise attack.
Yet they had won so easily this time?
This was the world’s strongest who used mechanization God-Worshiping Magic and it was already over? It had not been easy by any means, but was she really weak enough to be fought off using some adlibbed plan like that? Could she really be called the world’s strongest like this?
There was a bigger question.
Was Susannia Evans’s God-Worshiping Magic really and truly about mechanization?
“That composite armor is made from carbon, aramid, and fluorine-treated steel panels. These fiber optic cables were probably used for signal transmission. No, maybe they were for the laser beams’ power transmission. But they use chloride glass? In that case…”
The girls watched in confusion as Karuta stepped out of the dark soil crater and began checking through the scattered junk.
“What’s with you? What’s so interesting about all that wreckage?”
“Are there some rare earths worth a lot of money? Ah!? Could you gather all the semiconductors in these devices and melt them down to obtain a fair amount of pure gold? (Tremble, tremble.)”
“No, something isn’t right,” he cut in. “It is true modern medicine can artificially connect severed muscles and nerves. Even organs can be replaced with mechanical devices to a certain extent. And it’s probably all a lot more lenient when you can use magic to help. But this wreckage scattered around here is still strange.”
“Yeah, anyone could tell this wouldn’t fit in that body.”
“I don’t mean that. I’m talking about the materials used.”
“Yes. The composite armor and artificial organs are all of the highest quality, but a human body would never accept these. The armor would lead to metal poisoning and the organs would be rejected by the body and necrosis could spread to the surrounding cells as well. There are a lot of medical devices made to be implanted in the body – artificial muscles, pacemakers, implants, etc. – but the materials used are chosen carefully. Yet I see none of that caution here. The things I see here would have been suicide for Susannia, so it doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe for a normal person.” Marika did not quite seem to get what he was trying to say. “But doesn’t that just mean she has some magic to force her way through that?”
“Maybe, but that changes things.”
This was his main point.
“Let’s say Susannia Evans had some God-Worshiping Magic that let her modify her entire body, fill it with dangerous materials, and completely suppress any kind of rejection. That would mean her magic wasn’t about mechanization or becoming a cyborg.”
“Wait, you don’t mean…”
“Her God-Worshiping Magic was one that doesn’t let her die. Or maybe one that causes her body to recover from any and all wounds interior or exterior.”
He breathed in and out before making his final statement.
“What if Susannia Evans’s God-Worshipping Magic was for regeneration!?”
In hindsight, the mechanization idea had never made much sense.
Even if you used largescale agricultural machines to cultivate the desert and desalinate the seawater, that scorching land was not going to become fertile so easily. Even with a supply of freshwater, the soil had to be properly developed or it would not contain the necessary nutrients and minerals. So how had Susannia done that?
The answer was simple: she had sown some form of nutrients across the vast desert.
For example, she could have chopped up her own flesh and blood. And conveniently enough, she had called upon the name of Persephone, a deity who, along with her mother Demeter, was closely related to the spring crop and winter hunger.
What had been used to grow all the world’s produce? What was indirectly contained in the foods they had been eating all this time?
But they did not have time to suppress an urge to vomit.
A clump of snow slowly rose up behind surprised Marika.
“Aine!!” shouted the boy.
The crystal girl shoved the curly twintails childhood friend out of the way just before something swept diagonally through that space. It was a scorching blade similar to a gas burner. Aine could not dodge in time, so her slender left arm was severed at the elbow. The barrier formed by a spatial vibration field was no use. The arm spun through the air and fell to the snow. Either she had no liquid circulating her body or she “tightened” the end of the stump because there was no bleeding.
A redheaded woman emerged from the snow with what was more like strings than scraps of cloth draped over her. Was this the result and power of her regeneration? Her skin was tight and had an almost polished sheen to it and there was no sign of anything like a scar.
(This is after she was torn to pieces.)
Time seemed to have stopped, but Karuta still gulped.
(This is well beyond anything Crystal Magic can do. How far does her regeneration go!?)
After being shoved out of the way, Marika finally managed to send a command to the printed circuit board smaller than a stamp, reequip her Crystal Blossom armor, and grab her rapier. She and one-armed Aine attacked from two directions at once. She slashed with a blade made from lasers or masers created from the vibration and excitation of crystal.
Susannia’s movements were far from perfect, but that must have been why she chose to make herself a mechanized cyborg. And she had used her regeneration to entirely ignore the burden on her physical body.
She had lost her mechanical parts and was nearly stripped bare, so she only had just the one close-range burner sword to work with. That was not enough to fully defend against Marika and Aine who had become incarnations of Crystal Magic. She took a few solid blows from the slashing lines of light, so her neck and torso were sliced right through.
But that was not enough to stop her.
None of it mattered to the Problem Solver who could regenerate.
She immediately recovered and resumed fighting without even collapsing. No matter how much they sliced and diced her, she never stopped. It was enough to give the illusion that they were fighting a liquid rather than a solid.
When her one arm was dangling down only half-severed, she cut it the rest of the way off herself to trigger a regeneration from the base.
She would not stop. Karuta had no idea what they could do to win this. Could the world’s strongest of the Problem Solvers really bend the rules of the world this far?
(Is there some core part like her brain or heart? Is she supported by some other object like a magic circle or some ritual artifact? What are we supposed to destroy? What can we attack to end this!? Does her regeneration have none of the rules that Crystal Magic has to follow!?)
“What should we do!?” asked Marika. “Withdraw for now!?”
“The target currently only possesses a close-range weapon,” said Aine. “If we fly into the sky to bomb her from a distance, we should be able to unilaterally attack her.”
“We don’t know how much of the wreckage scattered around here she can still use! Don’t give her any freedom! We don’t stand a chance if she reconnects to her cyborg weapons. That trick we used in the dogfight won’t work again!!”
Opening up her own gut without anesthesia to stuff filthy machines inside while on the receiving end of a fierce aerial bombing would be entirely insane, but Susannia Evans could pull it off. If she could handle the pain, her regeneration would do the rest. She could survive even the most absurd forms of mechanization.
Karuta hated the fact the he could only watch since he had no special abilities himself.
“She’s almost like a planaria. No, she’s even worse!” said Marika. “We’re lucky the cuts don’t bubble out to create multiple copies of her, but she regenerates way too fast!!”
(Wait, a planaria?)
He was reminded of a cruel experiment shown on a TV science program.
And it was something that only worked with the incredible regenerative ability of a planaria.
“Aine, Marika. I want to try something, so aim for her arms!”
“We’ve chopped those off countless times already!!”
“Don’t cut them off like that. Slice through them lengthwise!!”
He was no longer talking about the woman like she was a human being, but Crystal Girl Aine mechanically complied.
She swung her crystal sword to slice between the middle and ring finger of braided Susannia Evans’s right arm and straight up to near the elbow. Instead of severing the arm, she opened it up in a floppy V-shape.
Susannia moved her other hand in response.
She intended to slice off her partially-damaged arm with the burner sword. She had done this before.
On his cry, Marika’s rapier pierced Susannia’s left hand to pin it in place.
“Kh, damn you!!”
For the first time.
Truly for the first time, the Problem Solver’s face twisted.
And a moment later, the regeneration began with a wet sound.
The split V-shape of her right arm did not reconnect. Instead, two right forearms grew out from her elbow.
“There’s a cruel experiment you can do using a planaria’s regenerative ability,” spat out Karuta. “If you partially damage them instead of fully severing their body, another body will emerge from the sliced portion. And it doesn’t just apply to the main body. Cut through the head, and it will grow two heads, brain included. Although I don’t know if that means your personality – or whatever you would call that mass of thoughts – is copied over or if it would be more like having two brains in the same body.”
The same thing was happening here.
Susannia’s regeneration was so absurdly good that they could take advantage of it.
Defeating her was not possible
Same for killing her.
But there was a way of ending the battle and keeping her from living her life even if they did not actually take her life.
“Marika, Aine.” The exacter of revenge made another cold statement. “Do not sever anything. It can be her arms, legs, torso, neck, or head, but just slice her up while keeping things attached like a kid trying to cut up some ingredients their first time cooking! That will transform her into no more than a hunk of flesh. Throw her soul into a prison of flesh where she can never, ever again move of her own free will!!”
A loud splashing sound echoed from the lake filled with thick broken ice.
Karuta, Marika, and Aine were watching the source of the sound.
Karuta spoke while viewing the spreading ripples.
“How’s your arm, Aine?”
“Fine, Sacri-sama. This is not a problem. I have collected the severed arm, so it will automatically reattach once I return to your body. I will have to look after the Crystal Blossom at your chest during that time, though.”
“Come to think of it, our armor does recover from any damage when we have it withdraw,” said Marika. “Although it does seem like we’re breaking the law of conservation of mass when we do it.”
Then this was not a problem.
Only one Problem Solver remained: Anastasia Blast. But those Problem Solvers were all the strongest of some field. He definitely wanted to be in top form before attempting that final battle.
Also, Aine had lost her arm after shoving Marika out of the way on his orders. He would have felt bad if the damage was permanent.
Then a transmission from Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka arrived via their Crystal Blossoms.
“Karuta-kuuun, Marika-chaaan? All the bangs and booms seem to have stopped, so has everything ended safely?”
“Yes, only Anastasia remains now.”
“Then I hate to ask this of you now, but can you help me out?”
“The previous avalanche completely buried the RV, so I’m kind of trapped inside. Now, it is large enough to have plenty of oxygen and I have enough of food and water to last a while, but being buried alive is not exactly great from a mental health perspective.”
Karuta and Marika exchanged a glance.
Then they looked around them again. The road and the forest had vanished below the white, so judging distance had become incredibly difficult. It felt like everything had been buried and the entire terrain had changed.
“Where did we park the RV?” he asked.
“I thought you would remember! Was there no landmark or anything!? And how many degrees below zero is it out here? I really don’t want to be stranded outside!!”
One-armed Aine did not seem to feel any pain as she slowly tilted her head.
The three of them turned their back on the lake – on the secret base someone had built – and got to work digging the Student Council President and the RV out of the pure white.
They had no more interest in the lake.
Or in what had sunk into its depths.
Utagai Karuta felt a strange smile rising within him when he found himself more worried about the doll’s missing arm than in the clump of mortar stuffed with what had once been the human being named Susannia Evans.
Was that because this instance of revenge had not required an actual death?
Or was he getting used to it, growing corrupted, and crossing the point of no return?
Not even he knew the answer to that question.
Between the Lines 3
She wanted to change.
It could be a good person, a bad person, a rich person, a poor person, a popular person, or a hated person for all she cared.
She simply wanted to become someone other than who she was here and now.
That was all.
That was Susannia Evans’s one and only desire.
She had intentionally turned away from the colors she liked and made frequent and wild changes in her hair and fashion choices. She had even tried plastic surgery on several occasions. She had also attended seminars that claimed they would change your personality.
She had changed herself inside and out, but none of it had satisfied her.
There was a hole inside her she wanted to erase, but it had remained with her to the very end.
“I am sorry.”
Her shadow changed shape.
The tearful and gloomy woman it formed did nothing but apologized without end.
“I am sorry, I am so very sorry. And all because I needed your help.”
She was Persephone, Greek God of Death.
She had technically been the goddess of spring, but she had gained that new attribute after Hades, Ruler of the Underworld, had taken her away. After spending too long in the underworld while also possessing the breath of spring, she had gained the ultimate regeneration that surpassed even Crystal Magic.
It was the worst possible curse for Susannia who wanted nothing more than to change or be changed.
If she received plastic surgery or even burned or sliced up her face, it would always return to normal, so she could never ever escape being “herself”. No matter how hard she tried to distance herself from it, she would be dragged right back to it like she was wearing a collar with a rubber band attached.
She had felt resentment.
She had half cursed it.
But none of it had been directed at her constantly crying shadow. Persephone was a deity who had always been toyed with by fate, so Susannia’s anger was directed at the fate that continued to torment her so.
“Don’t worry. It doesn’t really matter.”
“…? What do you mean???”
“There is still hope. I actually have high hopes for that Crystal Magic and Grimnoah.”
“You mustn’t interact with the enemy. Building any kind of emotional attachment will only lead to suffering down the road.”
“I don’t mean it like that.” Susannia smiled a little. “It isn’t on my level, but Crystal Magic has an excellent healing and regeneration power, right? And there are hundreds of them. …The error rate might be higher for them, so they might happen across some environment or circumstances where the healing or regeneration doesn’t work. Wouldn’t that be some must-have data? Then I can be freed from this rubber band of regeneration and finally escape being ‘me’. Nee hee hee.”
“I am so sorry. What I most want is for you to stop hurting yourself. I am so sorry. And I am supposed to be the one supporting you.”
“Hey, it’s fine,” said the woman without even a pause. But instead of being dismissive, it sounded like this was something so obvious to her it did not require any time to think. “This difference in opinion only happened because you’re still worried for me after so long, and that does make me happy, you know? No matter what end result it might lead to.”
Susannia and Persephone observed the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy from the outside until they finally arrived at a certain conclusion.
With an excellent regenerative ability, removing foreign objects from the body became difficult.
Something as simple as preventing bleeding did not allow the toxins out of the body. The system meant to repair their body would run in vain until their stomach and blood vessels were properly cleaned out, so they would end up in a repeating loop of needless crystallizations across their body.
For Crystal Magicians, it was hard to tell how much of a substance would be helpful versus harmful, so they apparently had to be very careful when taking medicines.
But what if you took that in the opposite direction?
Susannia only had to drive a wedge into her own body. If she could fill her body with artificial objects, machines, and components to intentionally trigger metal poisoning and rejection, her loathsome regeneration would be unable to keep up. She would make it spin its wheels so much it could not handle larger changes such as plastic surgery.
Susannia smiled and bowed in prayer toward her shadow that was still sobbing.
And she addressed her nemeses who had also reminded her what it meant to be alive.
“Thank you so much, Grimnoah.”
The public relations and state-run broadcasting networks of the world’s governments all remain silent, so the reporting from commercial broadcasters such as ourselves has become all the more crucial in bringing all of you the latest information.
We hope we can provide you with as much information as possible to eliminate your anxieties and fears while helping you view the world as it truly is.
First of all, there is still no news concerning the disappearance of the Problem Solvers. We have received no information or word related to them. We have decided that in itself is an important message of some kind.
Your memories of the chaos in London are probably still fresh, but the bits and pieces we have received from the local EMTs and medical examiners shows evidence that the chaos was part of an intentional attack on the Problem Solvers. The host nation of England and the rest of the G21 nations have not officially confirmed this, but it certainly sounds plausible. For example, couldn’t the silence of so many governments actually be loosening the restrictions on information and allowing previously unheard witness accounts to be heard on social media and elsewhere?
This also raises concerning questions about Miss Elicia Luxverg who has made no media appearances since her live interview broadcast across Southeast Asia.
Have they been injured in the fight against the Threat?
Are they being targeted by something other than the Threat?
Or is it both?
And if it is fellow humans attacking the Problem Solvers, what is their motive? The Problem Solvers can be seen as the foundation of the modern world. You could even call them the five pillars that support all of our lives. Why would someone want to take those away or destroy them?
In the past, we saw the occasional attempt to assist in the Threat’s destruction after linking it to religious motifs or passages from books of prophecy, but those were all one-off or short-term events and they never led to anything significant. After all, the Problem Solvers are the world’s strongest, so they have the strength to break through any plans built against them.
But perhaps that is not always the case.
We find this unidentified Individual X to be more frightening than the Threat. Whoever this is may be even stronger than the Problem Solvers. In other words, they are a truly uncontrollable monster. Perhaps one that surpasses even the Threat. As individuals, we would like to focus our attention on this Individual X. We will do our best to accurately grasp the danger at hand so that we do not trap you with needless confusion and speculation. Stay true to your usual self and do not be led astray by baseless rumors and fake news. That is the only way to deal real damage to Individual X.
The flat-screen TV fell silent once more.
Crystal Girl Aine had thrown the remote at it to see how her reattached arm was doing.
“If it is broken, you do not mind if I dismantle it and extract the gold from the circuit boards, do you? That would be a much more efficient use for it.”
Aine showed no sign of guilt and instead made a strange suggestion while on the verge of drooling.
They had driven the RV from Northern Europe’s Finland to a rural Russian city to hide out. The news was more or less the same wherever they went. The only difference was the language being used.
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka sighed.
“It feels like we are finally at home with being the villains.”
“They keep telling everyone to remain calm, but the scripts they read are clearly trying to get everyone worked up. In fact, they’re treating us like some kind of cryptid. Not that being seen as a terrorist would be much better,” said strawberry blonde Amaashi Marika while pouting her lips.
The Threat did not matter here.
Whether it existed or not, the governments had definitely used information concerning it to stir up anxiety and confusion among the people and manipulate public opinion to their liking.
No one trusted Anastasia, the final Problem Solver any longer.
It was doubtful she would simply return to guarding the space elevator.
The heads of state had to be at a complete loss now that they could not contact her. They wanted to make a comment through the Problem Solvers. They could not stir up anxiety and confusion and they had lost their means of controlling public opinion. Now that the ordinary people had regained their calm, they had to be erupting with the appropriate emotions toward those heads of state who had sat around having the Problem Solvers handle everything. At this rate, a few governments might even collapse. If the timing matched well enough to appear simultaneous, coordination within international society could be lost.
Right now, the enemy before their eyes mattered more than the Threat that they had no information on.
But this was still chaos and some might lament that needless chaos. Entire cities or nations might oppose it.
Nevertheless, Utagai Karuta’s group could not stop now. With even one Problem Solver remaining, the tropical cave containing the 700 Crystal Magicians could be found and they could all be left unable to regenerate which seemed like a fate worse than death. Even if they could never speak with those 700 again and even if there was a seemingly infinite expanse of time separating them, they could not let any further danger reach Kazamuki Gekiha and the others. They had defeated four Problem Solvers, but they would still lose everything if they gave up now. They could not save anyone’s life if they did not see this revenge through to the end. Not even a single life.
“So what do we know about the last one?” asked Karuta while looking up from the sofa.
“Discussing Anastasia Blast requires discussing what we recovered from Susannia Evans.”
“Huh?” Curly twintails Marika tilted her head while playing rock-paper-scissors with Aine. “I don’t remember finding her car or snowmobile or something.”
“Oh, dear. Did you forget?” The Student Council President gave a bewitching smile while turning toward the girl helping the crystal girl test out her arm. “We managed to collect something very important indeed: the cyborg parts stuffed inside her gut. They were scattered all around that crater, weren’t they?”
“With products that specialized, neither the hardware nor the software will be found for sale on the general market and only a select few places will be able to produce them from a technological standpoint. So they can lead us to a hideout that the Problem Solvers fully trusted. And investigating the data on the control circuit boards was enough to see some rather distinctive signs.”
Kyouka shut off the room’s lights and operated the projector’s remote.
A red mark appeared at one point on the world map she displayed on the wall.
In other words…
“Silicon Valley in the United States of America. After they reorganized to handle everything from social media to drone factories, the city’s scenery has changed to become something like a strange precision industry district. One good example is the precision electronic weapons plant owned by Smart Arms, one of the world’s largest international arms companies. That is the most suspicious place. The supply of power and now food has been destabilized, but that money drain continues to run with a staff of around ten thousand and without using the giant sword woman’s factory☆”
Karuta just about asked how she could act so unconcerned when they were the ones that caused it, but perhaps he was too soft since he had yet to actually kill anyone.
“I wonder if arms production was one thing the all-purpose factory would not do.”
“But, Omotesandou-san, that’s the place that supplied Susannia with her parts, so why would we find Anastasia there?” cautiously asked Karuta.
“There is no guarantee, of course,” agreed Kyouka in the darkness. “But what if the online flow of money proves the factory has maintained an unnatural level of security even after Susannia went missing? This is the downside of relying entirely on an outside PMC to avoid military oversight as much as possible. We know someone other than the original owner is hiding out there, and who is the most likely suspect?”
“I suppose another Problem Solver would have an easy time slipping right in there. Plus, Anastasia is in charge of the military infrastructure and her share of the global business is in North America. This would have been the perfect fit for her.”
“Yes, very well done, Karuta-kun. You get a gold star from me.”
Of course, this could always be a trap.
The flow of data could have been faked to draw out Karuta’s group. Just like how the log cabin in Finland had been used.
“Arms corporations do business with entire countries, right? If Anastasia is hiding out there, wouldn’t the head of the company report it? Y’know, to the US President or someone.”
“Someone may be weighing their options. After all, this is the last remaining Problem Solver and no fighting force is rarer. The company might want that last member to be indebted to them or the White House may secretly want Anastasia all to themselves.”
This talk of the US President and the White House had no real basis to it, of course. Karuta spoke up while making sure not to let cowardly speculation bind their actions.
“Also, Anastasia is in charge of the global military infrastructure. I don’t know what exactly she does, but her presence is key to the jigsaw puzzle made from the national borders on the world map. Any country would want to control her if they could.”
“There is no way to know where word of her presence is being stopped, but this factory is still fishy. Of course, that means it is also extremely dangerous.”
“Nothing will change if we don’t go there, huh?”
“Even if it is bait or a diversion, we might find another hint based on who gave the order and through what channels.”
The Student Council President pressed a button on the projector remote to display a photo of Anastasia Blast.
She was a sexy woman with long, wavy blonde hair.
They of course wanted as much information on her as they could get before fighting her, but there was unfortunately nothing else to display here.
“Just like with Susannia, she does not make public appearances. We took out Elicia in a surprise attack while she was out on her own, but they were waiting as a group at the London summit and Susannia had set a trap in Finland to kill us. …And yet Anastasia did not make an appearance at either of those.”
“So she’s either very cautious or a coward.”
That was an odd thing to say about a Problem Solver, but some people were both cowardly and powerful. Those people would go nuts and use everything at their disposal to crush even a small honeybee approaching them. That panic could create an opening, but they also never let their guard down or compromised. If someone like that had the power of the world’s strongest, they could be even more dangerous than someone who calmly worked out the optimal solution to their problems.
And what if that person directly controlled the world’s military infrastructure?
“We’re going in blind against the strongest again,” bitterly stated Marika while playing with Aine.
They had initially thought Susannia Evans’s God-Worshiping Magic was about mechanization when it was really about regeneration. If a misreading like that led them to make a misstep here, they could be wiped out. It was only natural to want to avoid returning to such a nerve-racking situation.
“But we can’t come to a stop, can we?”
“No,” agreed Karuta with a shake of his head. “We have to end this here.”
Silicon Valley, USA.
After hearing this was the world’s largest arms plant and that it had been kept separate from the giant sword woman’s all-purpose factory, Utagai Karuta had pictured an area covered in steel and concrete, toxic-colored smoke obscuring the sky, and the clanging of metal sounding around the clock, but the reality was much different.
The blue sky was refreshingly clear, green grass covered the ground, and a small bridge crossed a clear stream that glittered beautifully in the sunlight.
“A city of semiconductor factories needs clean water and air,” said Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka while looking out the RV’s window. “Hundreds of thousands of people live in San Jose, but other parts of Silicon Valley only have around ten thousand people. I hear the areas along the highways connecting the cities tend to look like this.”
“I’ve also heard the deserts are shrinking even in America,” said Marika. “They’re all starting to fill in with green thanks to the desert agricultural plants connected to Susannia’s mechanization…or regeneration, I guess. And thanks to the insects and small animals, I imagine they won’t need a certain someone’s flesh anymore once things reach a certain point. This greenery restoration work has its downsides, doesn’t it? If those areas take in too much weed DNA, not even off-road cars would be able to get through.”
People were not going to starve for the time being.
The quality of the food might drop, but once the farmers stopped focusing solely on the profit gained by the perfect selectively bred or genetically altered crop, the food would reach an acceptable level once more.
On the other hand, there was nothing here except for giant boxy factories and truck stops. There were no commercial locations outside of gas stations, diners, and pay showers, so acquiring food did not look easy. It was so bad they had needed to stock up at a supermarket in a town on the way. Even that had been difficult since Susannia’s loss had left the supermarket shelves nearly empty. (Stock would not run out that quickly, so that was probably due to other people stocking up so they could hole up in their personal shelters.) Tourists would visit en route to other places, but no one would stay there for long. Their RV would stand out if it stuck around for too long. Silicon Valley was known for its precision machinery plants, but in the places with nothing, there really was nothing.
Strawberry blonde Marika gave a skeptical look toward the “excuse” that was applying new pressure to the already limited space in the RV.
“Will this camera and telescope really work as insurance?”
“Stargazing is the #1 reason why someone would visit a place with no famous tourist destinations and where finding as much as a gas station is difficult, right?” said Kyouka. “And if we need clean air and as few artificial lights as possible, our presence here sounds all the more plausible. If we call ourselves meteor hunters, then we even have an excuse for being in some remote area or private property.”
“Hobbyists who collect fallen meteorites and sell them for cash.”
They had taken a few astronomical photos and stored them on flash memory in case someone questioned them further. Surprisingly, it was the Student Council President herself who got the most into it. She had seemed endlessly calm and composed to Karuta, but she may have had a more girly side to her that loved astrology and horoscopes.
How visible had the stars been back on the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy?
He found he could not really remember.
The sky had to have been full of stars in that tropical ocean so far away from human civilization, but the giant ship itself may have emitted too much light.
Could the Student Council President have spent every night back then peering into a telescope and sighing at the unsatisfactory results?
At any rate.
The odds were good Anastasia Blast was hiding inside that plant.
And if they were going to attack, they were going to do it by the book. The focus on security would be lowest just before dawn. Waiting until then had been agonizing because they could not move, but they had also been so nervous it was hard to sleep. They had also needed to adjust their own biorhythms to match the timing of the attack. They had finished dinner before sunset and gotten what sleep they could in the early evening to late night.
“Hey,” said Marika while lying on the sofa bed like usual. “What do we do once we’ve finished our revenge?”
“I doubt we can return to a normal life. Even if we were justified, we still traveled around the world killing people. That said, guarding the crystal statues in that cave would only draw attention to them. Once we’ve dealt with the Problem Solvers who will actively search it out, it would be best for Gekiha and the others to leave it be.”
Crystal Girl Aine responded without giving it much thought while standing in the corner of the RV like usual.
“I am your Crystal Blossom, so I assumed I would stay with you after this.”
“Yeah, and I’m your childhood friend, so staying with you might be for the best.”
They seemed to be settling on a conclusion without letting him voice his opinion.
And the Student Council President naturally joined in.
“Once this is all done, I suppose I will step down as Student Council President.” She gave a somewhat sad-looking smile. “And are you going to kick me out after all we have been through? Doesn’t that seem a little cold?”
“So we’ll all stay together, huh?” said Utagai Karuta.
One of Marika’s eyebrows shot up.
“What, you got a problem with that?”
“I didn’t say that.”
These four(?) had been the only ones to escape that giant ship with their lives. Those survivors had decided to use every ounce of strength they had to take revenge against the seemingly unbeatable Problem Solvers. That was all it had been in the beginning So while it might sound cold, they were only together by chance. If it had been someone else who had survived, the group holding this discussion now would have been different. That was all that held them together.
Yet the next thing they knew, they had developed much stronger bonds.
Karuta had not realized it until now, but it felt weird to think of them saying bye and going their separate ways once this was over.
“Where should we go once it’s over?” he asked.
Marika and Kyouka gave separate answers while arguing with each other.
“I’m sick of the garbage-filled cities. I’d like to take it easy on a tropical island.”
“Ehh? Don’t the Alps sound nice? There’s no better retreat! And it makes you sound fancy.”
“I’m gonna say no thanks to anything that requires dressing warmly. Besides, I like the beach better than the mountains.”
“Ugh, I take it you’re not shy about being seen in a swimsuit, huh?”
“I love swimsuits. Bring on the micro bikinis and slingshots, if you ask me. Nothing helps keep your body looking nice like showing it off.”
Marika began some bewitching laughter and the Student Council President glanced over at Karuta for some reason.
Meanwhile, Aine stated what she wanted.
“I do not mind where we go as long as I am with my Sacri-sama.”
“I mean, you don’t really have a choice but to be with me, do you?”
“I will be happy as long as I have enough pure gold to bathe in.”
“What, are we supposed to search out El Dorado? Your request has got to be the most difficult one.”
Their discussion had a laid-back atmosphere, but a part of Karuta’s mind thought it sounded like some far-off future.
It did not feel like something that could happen in less than a day’s time.
Speaking their dreams out loud did not make them feel any more real. It was not that he did not want these things to come true. Part of him really did think they sounded nice. But he could not shake the feeling that there was some thin transparent film separating him from them. Something told him things would not play out quite so conveniently.
The options laid before him felt so weightless, flimsy, and unsatisfying that he had to watch himself lest he speak a truly impossible wish such as “I want to go back to our school”.
This was their final battle.
The battle against Anastasia Blast had been saved for last.
She was a Problem Solver, one of the world’s strongest.
They could not plan ahead or construct a detailed strategy and they were forced to go in blind, making this extremely dangerous.
Whether this was their first opponent or their last, it was all over if they died. They would lose everything.
No one knew how this would turn out.
But there was one thing he could say for certain: we don’t live in a kind enough world to give us that ideal ending.
“Once this is over, I just want to take some time to relax.”
“We can do that. We’ve just been way too busy lately.”
The promised time had arrived.
It was better called early morning than late night. Karuta and Marika left the RV at 4:10 AM, which was just barely before dawn. They were in a truck stop for long-distance drivers. Those places were usually busy even late at night, but this early morning period was apparently an exception. Everyone had their seat reclined while they slept below a blanket with an empty stomach.
The sky was changing from dark blue to purple.
Just like in his memories of the Ocean Crystal Magic Academy, he found it difficult to imagine the arrangement of the stars as the darkness faded away.
Curly twintails Marika looked up and trembled a bit in the chilly air before speaking up in annoyance.
“I can tell why we chose this time. Of course, we’re headed to the weapon production plant of the world’s largest arms company that didn’t even get help from the giant sword woman, so I doubt the place is this quiet.”
“If we only knew Anastasia was there, we wouldn’t have to sneak around like this. This is going to be the final battle, so we might as well break in and end it quickly.”
Of course, that assumed this opponent was someone they could defeat that way.
As they walked out of the truck stop and toward the semiconductor plant, they received a transmission from Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka who was waiting back at the RV.
“Karuta-kun. This is the world’s most secure factory, but do you remember how to get in?”
“It’s not really all that complicated.”
To keep out industrial spies and terrorists, the factory would have cameras and sensors set up inside and out. There were sure to be a thousand or even ten thousand in all.
But there was a way around that.
“Sensors are meaningless if they can’t sound the alarm after detecting an intruder,” he said.
“Yes, we only have to set things up so the alarm will sound around the clock and refuse to turn off,” said Kyouka. “Security will probably work hard to search the area at first, but they will gradually give up on that. Once they realize the sensors are malfunctioning, it will not take long for them to start yelling at the alarm to stop.”
“And no will notice us sneaking in when all the sensors are already sounding the alarm? Wow, that’s like the polar opposite of ninja action,” joked Marika while walking alongside him.
It might seem ridiculous, but there was no chance of sneaking in and covertly achieving their goal when they wanted to fight one of those Problem Solvers. Chaos would arrive sooner or later, so it all came down to deciding when that was.
The factory grounds were a 3km square and they included employee dorms since it existed in such an empty area, so it looked something like a small village. It was all locked down by a fence and gate, though. There were also a few large, boxy factory buildings and warehouses for temporary storage of products and materials.
On the way there, they spotted an unmanned transformer substation surrounded by a tall fence. Backup power would likely kick in if they destroyed that and it would require some very technical skills to bypass the switchover and cut power to the sensors.
But if they only wanted to cause a commotion, things were much easier.
“Marika, blast that thing,” said Karuta.
“Oh, so we’re finally getting started.”
After she said “Tezcatlipoca, power up”, the Crystal Blossom worn at her chest shattered and covered her arms and legs with translucent armor and wings. She swung her rapier to fire a laser beam from the unit inside the reversed guard that resembled a broken umbrella on a windy day. She sliced right through the fence and the boxy concrete building of the transformer substation.
Alarms began blaring from the sleeping factory and lights switched on with the brightness of a baseball night game.
Karuta gave a snort of laughter.
He had already experienced this while traveling through London while the city was on high alert. Bright lights seemed like they would help locate suspicious people, but the extreme contrast actually created blind spots in the shadows. It looked like they had little to worry about.
“Okay, we have to play the rest by ear.”
“This is getting exciting!”
Marika again used her laser beam to slice through the chain link fence to gain access to the factory grounds.
But something seemed off once they stepped inside.
“Is something wrong?” asked the Student Council President.
“Um, we set off the alarms as planned, but there’s no one inside,” answered Marika. “There’s no sign of the security PMC or any workers who should be checking around after this extra-loud alarm clock woke them up.”
The alarms and bright lights most likely reacted automatically when the sensors detected something. They were overcome by an eerie feeling similar to arriving at school like normal but finding yourself alone there even as the bell rang to signal the start of class.
Then all the alarms went dead.
They had chosen a method that would make the alarms hard to shut off, yet everything went silent.
A young woman’s voice spoke from the emergency broadcast speakers set up around the area.
“No need to be so shy. The doors are unlocked and the PMC has been called off. Hurry on in. I really wanted to speak with you.”
“Whether you want to speak or not, you do need to meet with me, don’t you? You must be dying to kill me since I’m the last survivor. So hurry it up. I am waiting in the general reception lobby of Building A Floor 1.”
“(Yeah. We know there’s someone suspicious here, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be waiting there.)”
They stood back to back to keep an eye on their surroundings as they slowly made their way toward Building A.
Meanwhile, the young woman continued chatting from the speakers.
“Hey, Utagai Karuta. What are your thoughts on the Threat?”
“Oh, did I put you on your guard? It was not easy gathering information on you. I mean, checking the bodies wasn’t really an option when they all sank with the ship, so it was extremely difficult figuring out who we failed to kill. The report cards held by various governments and that fully separate Crystal Blossom you call Aine ended up being the keys there. A rare weapon can have its downsides in practice.”
This was more than just a unilateral broadcast.
She knew where they were and could see his wordless reaction.
“I don’t care what the Threat is at this point. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn you made it all up.”
“Ha ha. But that wouldn’t make any sense at all.”
It was her response that did not seem to make sense.
But he doubted she was lying at this point. She was not begging for her life, so she felt no need to worry how they felt about her. If she was going to silence them through death, she would not need to protect her image with them.
So what did that mean?
“The Threat does exist,” said the scratchy voice coming from the speaker. “It is hopelessly powerful, it is brutal with no room for negotiation, and not even the five of us working together could defeat it. It is known as a Metal-Derived Autonomous-Origin Higher Lifeform Combat Weapon, but who knows what that means. Whatever it is, it causes real damage and the world’s governments must not have been satisfied with how we were just barely restraining it. That is why they decided to develop and introduce new technologies such as your Crystal Blossoms.”
“Then why did you crush our school underfoot? Couldn’t we have all just gotten along?”
“Wasn’t fighting us enough to tell that we use entirely different formats?”
Her words seemed to decisively cast something aside.
“Your power is useful. It has in fact driven us to this point. But suddenly bringing a new weapon to the battlefield is certain to introduce confusion into the maintenance and utilization of all the weapons. We would trip each other up and fail to live up to our potential and that would cause the barely-contained equilibrium to collapse. We had restricted the damage to the occasional region or city, but from that moment on, the future of the 5.5 billion population would only grow darker and darker.”
“More power is not always a good thing. We suggested a future where the five of us continued to be updated until we could one day defeat the Threat. Everything beyond that would only hinder that future.”
“Are you kidding me? You slaughtered so many people just because they followed a different standard, yet you expect us to repent?”
Did she resent Karuta’s group just like they did the Problem Solvers after their friends were killed?
“There is a punishment for every crime. Either I will kill you or you will kill me. But even if you defeat me, you will not escape this hell. Once you become the world’s strongest, the reality of the Threat will be thrust before you. No matter what happens, you will not find rest.”
Marika’s eyes wandered as she asked a question.
“Damn her. Is she really this insane? You killed so many people and you aren’t even talking in terms of good and evil? To hell with that! Do you not even realize what you did was wrong!?”
“We merely held different positions. And do you remember what we were tasked with protecting? You should have been able to see it from that giant ship.”
It was like a decorative piece of junk.
It was a skinny silhouette rising vertically from the horizon.
Karuta recalled what Kazamuki Gekiha had said while laughing.
“The space…elevator? What about it?”
“The world is reshaped by the victors. There was an age of mythology, there was an age of natural science, there was an age of majority rule, there was an age of God-Worshiping Magic, and now an age of Crystal Magic is arriving.”
“And you didn’t want that?”
“It all comes back to the different positions we held. We brought our magic to the table because we sensed that ordinary scientific technology would not be enough to construct a fortress against the Threat. The planetary expansion of Sunny Side Up was one option. But there were plenty of others. Elicia wanted to build a submarine city that perfectly recycled all of its waste, Yukino wanted the aforementioned planetary expansion, Jessie wanted to use largescale cold sleep to pseudo time travel tens of thousands of years into the future when the world’s environment would have recovered, and Susannia wanted to use special suits based on biological structures to endure the harsh environment. I too brought an option to the table like that. Although mine was rather bizarre. But more than that, it came down to whether or not we could construct a means of combating the Threat under own power. You could even say that was the requirement to join the Problem Solvers. Not all of it was necessary. As long as just one of us bore fruit, we would have a chance of defeating the Threat.”
“You don’t mean…”
“Yes, as you Crystal Magicians rose to prominence, you got in the way of those things. Your side effects – that is, the absurdly tall buildings and ridiculously large ships and aircraft – sucked the resources dry in the blink of an eye. No matter how bizarre a fortress civilization the five of us tried to create, your new technologies would get in the way. The planet would dry up and humanity would be wiped out before the Threat could do it. Nothing developed from Crystal Magic can defeat the Threat.”
How much of what she was saying could they believe? Karuta could not tell how much was true, but he knew something in there was not right. But as he focused on that camouflage story, he could not deny one thing. Whatever the specifics were, the birth of Crystal Magic was threatening to thoughtlessly destroy everything God-Worshiping Magic had built up.
It was not an issue of each individual power.
The rise of that new power was like an invisible hand attempting to drag God-Worshiping Magic from its throne.
Was that what the Problem Solvers had been fighting?
“For one thing, we never considered you Crystal Magicians yourselves to be good or evil,” continued the voice over the speaker. “The real issue was the Original Crystal Embryo. That gave humanity something we did not need. We could have continued combating the Threat with decent results, but that was getting in our way. Its thoughts and lifespan are unknown, but Crystal Magicians can only be found within humanity. Perhaps it hopes to wipe out the entire species and let a new green ecosystem spring forth over the course of tens of thousands of years. Perhaps it wishes to reorganize the pyramid so humans are no longer at the top.”
“Have you started to question it yourself now? Not even I know what will become of humanity if we abandon any new path and stick with what we have. Perhaps the resources and food will quickly run out and we will all die, or perhaps Crystal Magicians will find a new solution that not even the Original Crystal Embryo considered. But I do not like having the choice taken from us. Humanity must decide whether we do something or not. We do not need to cling to the skirt of that Original Crystal Embryo.”
They had nearly arrived at Building A.
Karuta and Marika gulped while the speaker continued.
“And this is not an issue of good or evil. It is about different positions. There was an age of mythology, an age of natural science, and an age of God-Worshiping Magic, and then Crystal Magicians were rising to the forefront. This is nothing complicated. The world is reshaped by the strongest. The strongest get to decide how the world works. In our attempt to work together and combat the Threat, we once got in someone’s way and led to the deaths of our predecessors and now others are similarly getting in our way. We remain the strongest until we are eliminated. When we are defeated is when the title of strongest is passed on. That is all it means to be strongest. It is a flimsy thing that leaves you so readily.”
He finally understood why she did not work with the other Problem Solvers. She wanted to combat the threat in every way she could and she wanted to use her full strength to achieve victory, but she did not think she would survive in the end. If other people’s lives were necessary to achieve victory, she would crush them and she would not hesitate even if her own name was on that list. She made no attempt to avoid the inevitable fall awaiting her. She would wait for it to reach her and she would crush it head-on once it did. She had survived this long that way. And she truly stood at the peak if she had managed to hold the title of the strongest with so little planning behind it.
“Simple, isn’t it? It might happen today or it might not. That is how we have lived our lives.”
They never arrived at the general reception lobby of Building A.
Something happened before they could.
The entire giant boxy factory was slashed diagonally from within.
Everything collapsed and so much dust filled the scene.
But that screen was sliced through and swept away so nothing remained.
Below the purple sky, a woman grinned at Karuta and Marika. She had long, wavy blonde hair and she wore a tight skirt military uniform with a yellow and black coloration that signified danger.
“I beseech thee, Anubis, Egyptian God of Judgment.”
This was Anastasia Blast.
She was the final Problem Solver and the undeniable world’s strongest.
She defined today’s justice, but she might not define tomorrow’s.
“So let us begin yet another day in our apocalyptic lives. There is no good or evil here. This is no more than a waking dream until I destroy someone or they destroy me. The shape of the world supported by the ‘strongest’ is no more than an illusion drifting in the gap between dreams.”
There was no need to hold back at this point.
Utagai Karuta summoned Crystal Girl Aine from his back and shouted to Marika who had already equipped her Crystal Blossom armor and rapier.
“Aine, you move out ahead! Marika, you take flight!!”
He gave instructions using his physical voice instead of the Crystal Blossom vibrations and, while Anastasia was focused on them, he moved straight toward her.
He pulled his modified military flashlight from his blazer’s pocket, activated a blinding beam of light made by combining a laser pointer with the special lens used for printers, and silently shined it toward Anastasia’s face.
“Do you know what magic is?”
He heard a distortion in the black-uniformed woman’s voice and suddenly she was standing right next to where the laser was shining.
“That term refers to all attempts to understand the world around you that are based on worshiping the divine or believing in a religion. Can an arrangement of cards explain the Tree of Life? Can a special calendar reveal the day of the world’s destruction? Can a certain series of dance steps summon the rain at any time? The specifics go by many different names, but the root principle is the same.”
Karuta continued to aim his blinding laser from the ground while twintails Marika switched her rapier’s guard to its reversed firing mode and launched truly deadly lasers from the sky, but none of them hit. They were not allowed to hit. Even with the speed of light on their side, Anastasia kept “disappearing” and they could not get in a proper hit.
(What? Is she teleporting or something? Or is she reading our thoughts as we aim!?)
“It is a simple matter.” Anastasia remained standing still. I said magic is all attempts to understand the world around you, didn’t I? That means it also applies to any attempts to understand the Newtonian physics that allows you to tangibly experience invisible quantum physics.”
“Simply put, I can dodge attacks made of light if I move faster than the speed of light. And light is constantly hitting my body. If I add my own strength to the light that is already pushing my body, it establishes the following equation: (The speed of light) + (My athletic ability) = (My current speed). If I can add just a little bit on top of the standard value for light, then of course I can surpass it.”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
That explanation was so absurd he suspected it was solely meant to confuse him.
It was such childish logic. No, even small children understood nothing could exceed the speed of light. Anastasia was producing such extreme results, yet the foundation of it was contradictory to an extreme. That creeped Karuta out to no end.
“And this is not limited to the speed of light. You saw the other Problem Solvers, did you not? Horoscopes and calendars? Your Crystal Magic may simply read the flow of power between heaven and earth, but did you really think that was enough to manage the world’s strongest power?”
The dinosaur, the light spear, the giant sword, and regeneration.
It was true those each felt like the strongest because they were from such different categories.
Any attempt to understand them had been abandoned by categorizing it all as God-Worshiping Magic.
He could not hope to understand them, yet there they were. That may have been what made them so frightening.
“There was an age of dinosaurs, an age of stone tools, an age of staffs and crystal balls, an age of guns and steam, and many others. I suppose the previous age was of electricity and petroleum. But we wiped it out. It was our ability to do that which established the age of God-Worshiping Magic and earned us the title of world’s strongest.” Anastasia laughed. “God-Worshiping Magic users are not brilliant geniuses or wise sages. In a way, we are the dumb ones. The power pouring down from space, the energy rising from the center of the earth, and the invisible mountains and valleys created by those things colliding are all irrelevant. While you stare at those occult weather maps, we create our own bomb cyclones. Because we can. …And once you reach that point, you reach a world where the speed of light is such a flimsy restriction.”
Her power felt like some kind of joke.
This was the definition of magic itself.
She was an incomprehensible monster in human form. Karuta felt his skin crawl while facing her, but then he realized a fundamental fact.
This was not over yet.
She could move faster than light. It felt like there was no hitting an enemy like that, but that was not true. That was simply how most people would view it since they thought of the speed of light as an absolute boundary.
(Anastasia’s childish form of evil does not think of…no, does not believe that light is the world’s fastest. She believes that plenty of things move faster than light.)
(So she knows how to conquer light, but she does not believe that is enough to bend the world to her will. It could be vibrations, or electrons, or wind, or fire. She believes that plenty of other ordinary things have the possibility of surpassing light. So, so, so…)
“Aine! Hit her directly!!”
(This only lets her dodge laser attacks since they use light, so another form of attack has a chance of hitting her!!)
A roar of wind came from a katana made from a translucent, crystal-like material. It had a jitte-like branch on the back of the blade and a special laser gun unit was attached there. Crystal Girl Aine’s clear white dress fluttered around her as she raced forward with weapon in hand.
There was less than 20m between them.
Her nonhuman legs could clear that distance in a single second.
But Anastasia laughed and took a step back.
That was all it took to kill Aine’s speed. She stopped. For some reason, she was running and running but could not reach the woman in a yellow and black uniform.
“I move back every time you move forward, thus you can never reach me.”
“Now you’re dragging out old Greek nonsense!?” shouted Marika from the sky while she charged in like a meteor with rapier in hand.
Anastasia could not use that method for an attack from above since she could not sink down into the ground. She could not bind the attack with the magic that let her ignore distance and speed, so Marika should have been able to reach her. However…
“The moon is pulling me toward it, so I can fly.”
Marika quickly pulled back her rapier, but then the weapon and her right arm’s armor were blown away. Even though she was using a barrier that (unlike Karuta’s) could deflect machinegun fire. The roar came a moment later. The twintail girl just barely avoided crashing and instead made an unsteady emergency landing.
Anastasia had passed through at a speed too fast to follow with the naked eye and her own right fist had been destroyed and her arm bones were sticking out at her elbow.
She stopped in midair, laughed, and kissed the back of her destroyed hand.
“I can kiss it and make it better.”
What happened next goes without saying.
There were no time limits or detailed rules like there were for Crystal Magic.
Sweat poured from Karuta’s body while he looked up from the ground thanks to the ordinary bonds of gravity.
Instead of tension or a fear of the unknown, seeing the true nature of magic filled him with disgust.
It was not that Anastasia did not know how things really worked.
She had said she could fly because “the moon is pulling me toward it”. That basis required knowledge of universal gravitation, but she still prioritized her own thoughts and believed in them without a shred of doubt. Because that was the age and the world they lived in. Was this her pride in claiming the title of strongest and remaking the world as she saw fit? Even if all the possibilities of every other parallel world would not allow this ridiculous conclusion, this world was different.
This was magic that distorted a world its user had truly never seen. It was a lot like drawing a map of the ends of the earth based on your imagination instead of actually going there.
(What do we do? What do we do!? This mixed up feeling from her is different from that dinosaur or light spear! It’s way worse! Is it even possible to come up with and follow a plan for someone like this? Can we really outdo the bomb cyclone itself simply by reading the weather map and following what it says? That just doesn’t sound realistic. She takes it so far I can’t see any way to outdo her!!)
Aine jumped back toward him with her special katana in hand.
Marika waved from where she had landed a short distance away. She had taken a hit from Anastasia, but she could apparently keep fighting.
“Give me your instructions,” said Aine. “What should I do next?”
That response came not from Karuta but from Anastasia in the sky overhead.
The yellow and black uniform woman smiled with the purple sky behind her.
“This is a taste of our apocalyptic everyday life. We are always destroying someone and we will be destroyed by someone someday. You started this, so let us end it. Are you out of options? What happened to your trump cards? Is it over already? Then it would seem today is not the day I die. I will hold onto the title of world’s strongest till at least tomorrow.”
Was this how it worked?
He did not know how many secrets and mysteries the world held. He had no way of checking to see which ones would blossom and cover the world if they were supported in the normal way. But their light faded so easily when up against something as baffling as this God-Worshiping Magic that was so mixed up and seemed entirely impervious to their every effort.
“All I did was recite a simple hex, focus my own actions on defense, and respond with the appropriate reactions to your attacks.”
They watched as floating Anastasia pulled something from the chest of her tight skirt military uniform.
The thick card set looked a lot like it could be for poker, but that was unlikely.
Or perhaps this was the original form of a card set.
“So now I will go on the offensive. Didn’t I say that magic refers to all attempts to understand the world around you? And that one of the prime examples is trying to explain the Tree of Life with tarot cards?”
The cards flew.
They followed some sort of rules to spread out like a shield in front of her.
“Technically, this is not how they are meant to be used, but I do promise you it will be entertaining.”
“Enjoy my strongest.”
The ground broke apart and a giant form rose up behind Anastasia in the sky.
Size-wise, it was like a giant mountain more than 100m tall.
Shape-wise, it had a bizarre silhouette resembling a bipedal dinosaur crossed with a grotesque deep sea fish.
It felt like a great symbol of ruin with how it repeatedly crumbled and re-solidified at its outlines and how it gave off a strangely sweet rotting smell.
Karuta and Marika were too overwhelmed by the yellow and black to move. Crystal Girl Aine silently tilted her head, but she would not act unless she was given instructions.
“There are many different forms of tarot divination. Reading the future is the most well-known, but they can also be used to determine your compatibility with another person, to organize your own feelings…or to seek out something in the past that has already been lost.” Anastasia spoke with the giant form behind her. That monster seemed to accept that thing as perfectly normal. “This was originally an attempt to recreate a lost lifestyle by using the 22 cards of the Major Arcana and the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana. In other words, to revive a ruined civilization. But strangely, when I dropped the fishing line into the depths, I ended up catching more than just the one I was after. The line must have been a little too strong because it appears I have fished up every last thing known as a lost civilization.”
“What…are you talking about?”
“Yes, yes! This one caught even me by surprise, but now I can believe it. I had not acquired just the one specific lifestyle. Oh, no. I had fished up all of the civilizations that have vanished since the dawn of history. Altogether, that is a series of 1056 dooms and apocalypses.”
What the hell was that?
How were they supposed to defeat something as absurd as that?
The category of civilizations could not be measured with something as simple as countries or populations. Thanks to the spread of globalization in modern society, it was impossible to say how many civilizations there were. If this woman had over a thousand methods of destroying an entire civilization – be they a meteor, a flood, a virus, a war, or quieter options like depopulation or isolation – she might be able to destroy the entire world with just a small fraction of them.
Karuta was overwhelmed.
He was truly speechless.
Someone had said Anastasia Blast was in charge of the world’s military infrastructure.
Was this what that meant?
She could protect her allies and kill her enemies. She could alter the power balance. The military was nothing more than the means of using lives to control the rising and falling of civilizations.
She viewed the world before her on the level of civilizations, so she did not focus too much on each individual life. If she appeared before a hero or dictator powerful enough to single-handedly destroy an entire civilization, they would realize for the first time they were nothing more than a side character. Even the Demon Lord with the power to destroy humanity would be killed instantly by a flick of her fingers.
All civilizations would fall one day.
Even if globalization progressed to the point that the entire planet could be considered a single civilization, it would still fall apart eventually if viewed in the long, long term.
That explained why she rose above the interests of individual nations.
If she could do all this but was still considered an ace on active duty – in other words, she could not fully destroy the Threat and retire – it made sense why the entire world so feared the Threat.
(What do we do?)
Utagai Karuta’s eyes rolled in his head and sweat soaked his body as he searched for some kind of salvation. Marika tried to catch her breath while down on her knees and Crystal Girl Aine awaited orders at his side. Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka was also waiting back at the RV. Who could he order to do what in order to overturn this ridiculous situation!?
(Gathering all the current civilizations won’t be enough to match the total number that have been destroyed in the past. So what about Aine? She’s made from a Crystal Blossom from head to toe, so she doesn’t count as part of humanity and she might be able to deal damage from outside this conflict between human civilizations. No, that wouldn’t work. I still form the foundation as the Crystal Magician, so she’s only a portion of my civilization. Not to mention that Crystal Magic as a whole was created by human hands. So it can’t defeat that collection of our predecessors’ knowledge!)
“Hold on. Is that an ‘oh, no’ I see on your face?” There was clear amusement in Anastasia’s voice. “But I hold every civilization that has been destroyed since the dawn of history, avenger. And that would include that lost time that was stolen before your eyes and that you desire above all else. I do not know where in here the 700 from your Ocean Crystal Magic Academy can be found, but since their small Crystal Blossom civilization was destroyed, it must be found here.”
That boy was not dead.
It would take a long, long time, but he would recover eventually.
But what if he was trapped in that large framework of a destroyed civilization?
“Ha ha ha! But instead of hoping for a reunion, your thoughts jumped straight to ‘oh, no’. That is who you truly are. You say you are fighting to protect the dead? You claim this revenge is to prevent us from taking everything from you? If that were truly your priority, you would have seen this as an opportunity, just like those nobles who indulge in seances to meet their departed loved ones again.”
This was the last remaining world’s strongest.
This was the temptation of Anastasia who controlled the world’s military infrastructure…no, who controlled the entire field of doom.
“This is the true essence of my magic.”
She moved her right hand like she was holding an invisible brandy glass and the frighteningly large form began to swirl around.
By the time a deafening roar reached his ears, the collection of doom had compressed to the size of a softball and dropped into her hand. Then it crawled out to surround her entire body. Some of it covered her limbs and some spread across her spine to cover her with yellow and black armor.
It almost looked like an incomplete Crystal Blossom.
That giant monster of more than 1000 meters had been made from all the civilizations that had met their doom in the past, yet even it was only a material to be used.
The world’s strongest reigned supreme as an individual. She was not like Karuta who let the entirely separate crystal girl do the fighting.
“Now, it is time for the final act,” she said while giving off an even more intensely menacing aura.
Even an ordinary person could tell this was the most efficient way to use that. They could tell this would bring about the ferocious destruction of the world’s strongest far more than letting that 1000m monster run amok.
“All who cannot overcome the doom of a civilization shall be crushed by my wall of doom.”
A yellow and black explosion followed.
As soon as he realized that was Anastasia Blast charging forward, the decisive moment had already arrived.
In that final moment, Utagai Karuta imagined a horribly faded vision of the past for some reason.
Marika was smiling by his side like usual and Student Council President Kyouka was there even though she had actually been a distant person who he had rarely ever met.
He saw the classmate who had been lost and should not have been lost.
He saw Kazamuki Gekiha.
It all came down to this.
Anastasia had become a yellow and black spear intent on piercing the earth, but then a puzzled look appeared on her face. The time did arrive, but it was far different from what she had expected.
There was someone in front of her.
An ear-splitting clang rang out. The preset barrier meant nothing. The noise sounded like crystal colliding with crystal, but that meant it was a sound of collision and not destruction.
In other words, her attack had been stopped.
Crystal Girl Aine had moved in front of Karuta with her pure white outfit fluttering around her. She held her translucent modified katana in both hands. Instead of breaking or shattering, it had stopped yellow and black Anastasia Blast’s max speed charge from the sky.
“We came all this way carrying the weight of Grimnoah’s 700 people on our backs.”
An unpleasant straining sound could still be heard, but this was not over. She did not collapse. The target before Anastasia’s eyes would not die. Karuta gave a roar while the crystal girl protected him.
“You have every civilization that has ever been destroyed? You have 1056 kinds of doom? Who cares!? We can overcome that without even trying!! So what if you have an ice age, floods, eruptions, and even manmade atrocities and wars? That might have been too much in an age before those things had happened, but those rules no longer apply.”
They glared directly at each other.
As long as he realized something so simple, he could stand on the same level as that world’s strongest who held every kind of doom.
“Don’t underestimate Crystal Magic. Maybe no one else has ever been able to overcome that wall, but we’re different!!”
“Have you forgotten? Those destroyed civilizations include that school that taught Crystal Magic.”
“So you think you could crush us if you sent all five Problem Solvers after us? Even though we’ve already taken out four of you!?”
People grew stronger when they persistently worked toward a goal.
They could gain the power to overcome the kind of disaster that once would have been unavoidable doom for them.
“So we will overcome this! The doom of all past civilizations is no more than an obstacle we must surpass here!! We have to show you we’ve changed, that those older eras are a thing of the past, and that we’ve conquered those things so you can rest easy!!”
This had nothing to do with the occult high and low pressure systems.
It was not the same as using brute force to grapple with a monster who could create as many bomb cyclones as she liked.
They had to search out a way to control this magic user named Anastasia Blast who could be seen as the world’s strongest form of doom. It did not matter if these were cumulonimbus clouds or a bomb cyclone. People had used horoscope charts and calendars to learn the rules needed to bring disasters onto their side. They had learned to store water, farm the land, sail the seas, and so much more. They could not stop just because they did not understand something. They had to conquer it.
They had to attack Anastasia Blast and bind her with the rules governing her that not even she was aware of!!
“Humans are not the dinosaurs who met their doom and were no more. We won’t just tremble in fear! No matter how pathetic, ugly, or lame it might be, we know how to learn from our mistakes and overcome them!! So we won’t let it end with our defeat. What you brought to that boat was undoubtedly doom, but that’s exactly why we have to keep going so it doesn’t end there!!”
They finally pushed back.
That childishly evil voice finally gasped.
“We can learn from tragedy. The pain drives us to claim something even greater in return! The greater the doom you place before us, the stronger we will grow. From the moment you failed to kill us with your very first attack at that school, the small snowball had started rolling down the hill. You can try to stop it now, but we’ve already grown well past your expectations!! So much so that this isn’t going to end with the simple revenge we initially planned it as!!!!!!”
A cracking sound rang out, but not from Crystal Girl Aine. It came from Anastasia who was supposedly still charging forward.
“Yes, that’s right. I wanted to save everyone, even though I knew it wasn’t possible!” roared the boy. He roared straight at that absolute enemy known as a Problem Solver and one of the world’s strongest. “And not just Gekiha and the other crystallized students and teachers. I wanted to save Marika who was so excited by any glimmer of hope and by the thought of revenge. I wanted to protect the Student Council President’s smile!”
He had known revenge was the right thing to do, but something about it had not sat right with him.
He had felt oddly satisfied when he practically threw his life away to save the ordinary people participating in the protest in London.
If that was who he really was, then surely it had to be the driving force that had brought him so far against the Problem Solvers!!
“I wanted to tell them to stop dirtying their hands with revenge!! I wanted to tell them not to forget who they were back in that happy school!! So I took on as much of the burden as I could to prevent them from crossing the point of no return! That might sound like a ridiculous joke to those of you we were killing, but I risked my life for that!!!!!!”
The next thing he knew, sweat was soaking her face.
There was a smile plastered to her face as she spoke her mind.
“That may be true.”
But the world’s strongest was the world’s strongest to the end.
“But that equation only applies to you; it does not apply to the entirely separate Crystal Blossom that has no civilization of its own.”
The cracks rapidly shifted toward Aine’s translucent katana. They spread through her pale hands and arms like the propagation of pressure.
If she shattered, Karuta would be defenseless.
Then he could not avoid Anastasia’s attack, but he doubted Aine could push Anastasia back even if he gave the order now.
He breathed in and out.
What did he need to end this revenge?
He thought about it, arrived at a conclusion, and raised his voice.
“Return to me, Aine!!”
Both Anastasia and Aine looked taken aback.
Then Aine fell back. She slipped inside the boy’s stomach.
It was obvious what would happen once that wall, dam, and plug was removed.
The max speed charge was completed.
Anastasia’s arm, the yellow and black armor surrounding it, and the long claw-like thing extending from there pierced the boy’s side. The single attack was enough to break right through the spatial vibration field of his weak barrier. He doubled over and coughed up blood.
And then Anastasia realized something.
The tactile feedback of the blow sent a strange tremor up her spine that her brain finally managed to verbalize.
(I missed…his vitals?)
Those were the words that came to mind, but her knowledge rejected it. She had attacked his vitals. She had followed the muscle memory that let her pull that off with her eyes closed. And yet Utagai Karuta had not died. There was still life in his eyes.
She heard a cracking sound.
She thought it might be crystals enveloping him to heal the wound she had just made…but it was not.
(No, did he intentionally harm himself to produce crystals in his body that lifted up his organs!? He forcibly rearranged his own insides!?)
Either Anastasia’s attack or the intense burden he put on himself caused him to cough up a large hunk of blood.
But he smiled.
The boy smiled fiercely.
He gathered his strength.
He grabbed onto Anastasia’s outstretched right arm with both hands and gave a command along with more blood.
“Come out, Aine!!!!!!”
Yes, as long as the Crystal Blossom was not active, the translucent armor would not take damage. As long as he was prepared to take the blow himself, he could preserve his trump card in a place of absolute safety.
So he had hidden his ultimate weapon inside his body.
He had hidden it and pulled it back out.
All so he could take Anastasia Blast’s head off in this moment.
The world’s strongest’s eyes opened wide.
For probably the first time in her life, she looked like her throat had gone dry.
It was the same look the Problem Solvers had carved on the faces of everyone in that Ocean Crystal Magic Academy.
In other words, a look of fear and terror.
In the few seconds of motionless forced upon her by punching through her target’s gut, the doubled-over boy’s back stirred.
His purple blazer pulled up.
The top half of a slender grim reaper with pale, pale skin popped out. She wielded a katana made of a cold, crystal-like substance and a short laser gun that branched off like a jitte. With her target within killing range, the crystal girl in white moved as accurately as a clockwork device.
There was no sound.
But the slash entered at the woman’s shoulder and cut diagonally down from there.
Utagai Karuta felt woozy.
Not even he knew how he was still standing right now. An unbelievable amount of blood flowed from his side where the long claw slipped out. He should have been the one to die after losing so much blood.
But for some reason, the first to collapse was the woman in a yellow and black military uniform. He felt like he had no choice but to look down on her.
That was his duty as the victor.
His childhood friend Marika frantically ran over. She and Crystal Girl Aine supported his unsteady body and he finally managed to let out a rusty-smelling breath. The wound must have been deep because the sound of spreading crystal had yet to stop.
A beautiful blonde woman was collapsed at his feet.
He could more or less tell that there was no saving her. Nor did she beg for her life.
Her yellow and black armor melted away.
He asked her a question as she lay collapsed on her back and slowly stopped moving with her face on its side.
“You could have twisted your wrist to widen the wound before pulling your hand out. That would have shattered the healing crystals and kept me from ever recovering. In other words, you could have killed me. Why didn’t you?”
Marika belatedly looked over at him in shock. If he had made a single mistake – no, if things had gone normally – he would not have made it. She seemed to finally realize the tightrope walk he had made.
On the other hand, Anastasia did not look his way.
She may have already gone blind.
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“This is my apocalyptic everyday life. I am always destroying someone and I will be destroyed by someone someday. If that day is today, then I must give up the title of world’s strongest. I have no interest in taking you with me. I have become an ordinary woman and you have become the world’s strongest.”
“But be careful.” She continued with a thin smile directed at who knows where. “You will now find yourselves trapped in a life where you must combat the Threat as the world’s strongest. On the path of the strongest, fellow humans will constantly get in your way as they try to help or have decided they are your rival and you will find no allies outside of your immediate group. If you ever wish to bow out, then let your guard down for even a moment. You will be devoured in no time at all. Either by the Threat or by your fellow humans.”
Karuta, Aine, Marika, and Kyouka.
Those four would reign in place of the previous five.
They would be the four rulers of a new era.
Was that what this woman was saying?
“I’m not interested in being the strongest.”
“But there is no escaping it.”
“You will not be able to escape being the world’s strongest any more than we could.”
The boy could not say if the Crystal Blossom’s healing would be enough or if this would count as a fatal blow and his entire body would be solidified. He desperately kept himself conscious in order to ask this question.
He wanted to know the answer.
“What were you Problem Solvers? Where did you start from?”
“Before being bound by the title of strongest, we were no more than an ordinary girl and her friends.”
Her words sounded like some kind of curse.
“And now I have relinquished the title. The world’s strongest form of violence is considered justified simply because it is the world’s strongest. So now that I have fallen, nothing will work to defend what I do or say. So let me say this one thing to you, the new strongest who so foolishly reached this point.”
Anastasia Blast gathered the last ounces of strength from the fading flame of her life to speak these final words.
“I am sorry about what happened at Grimnoah. We were scared.”
The last of the world’s strongest was gone.
After hearing her out, the tension inside Karuta finally snapped and his mind fell into darkness.
He thought he heard someone shouting in his ear, but he could no longer respond.
His revenge, the driving force supporting his soul, had reached its conclusion on that day – in that moment.
Between the Lines 4
“Crystal Blossoms?” the world’s strongest magician had once asked. “You think that could defeat us and become the next strongest?”
“Of course,” replied the old man who had been her sworn friend. “And once there are enough of them, the world’s distortion needs not be focused on individuals any longer. Crystal Magic will protect you five, so you can finally step down from the stage, Anastasia.”
If he was being honest, Utagai Karuta had not really thought about life after completing his revenge against the Problem Solvers. Or more accurately, he had never really had a clear vision of actually pulling that off. He had assumed they would either be killed along the way, or complete their revenge, protect the tropical cave containing Kazamuki Gekiha and the others from discovery, and then be captured by government pursuit leading to either their execution or a simple assassination without a trial.
Also, he had lost a lot of blood after being stabbed in the side.
Crystal Magic could heal even the deepest wounds in 30 seconds as long as they were not fatal. However, he had scattered crystal fragments in London, Northern Europe, and America. It should have been about time someone tracked them down, surrounded them, and captured them.
But that was not what happened.
The world was apparently a lot more colorful than they had thought.
He woke up to find himself in what was obviously the finest medical facility of an advanced nation. The wound itself would have closed up thanks to his Crystal Magic, but the extreme exhaustion was a different matter. The blood transfusion was a huge help.
There were no bars on the windows and the door was sitting open.
This was not how an international terrorist would be treated.
Of course, they were not terrorists.
“Welcome, our new world’s strongests. That title has been granted to the three of you. Or the four of you, I suppose,” said a large man in sunglasses and a black suit who looked like he had stepped out of a movie. The nondescript outfit actually made it stand out like a uniform. “This information has yet to be released to avoid unnecessary confusion, but the official announcement should come soon once international public opinion has been properly gauged. The old age has ended and the next has arrived. Instead of the five Problem Solvers, it is you four Crystal Magicians who bear the title of world’s strongest.”
“Everyone is sure to look up to the four new world’s strongests and your Crystal Magic will surely spread across the world in record time. Mr. Utagai Karuta, we do not know how common your entirely independent version is. You may be the only one in the world or more and more might pop up all around you. If that does happen, you might see those pale girls accepted as your neighbors at school and in the office. The world will look like an entirely different place. Much like how the Problem Solvers were so popular on TV.”
“What are you trying to do?”
“Nothing at all. All we do is position ourselves with the world’s strongest and adjust to match the current age where they reign supreme. All so we can one day create an age where we must not tremble in fear of the Threat.”
“But that will cause problems for a lot of people, won’t it? I don’t know what country you’re an agent for, but a bunch of governments are going to collapse after this, right? In fact, some entire countries might collapse before the next government can rise up. The world was entirely reliant on the Problem Solvers, both for the morale boost they provided and for the physical infrastructure they created.”
“Perhaps so.” The man in black shrugged. “But what does that matter?”
Some feeling Karuta could not identify crawled along his spine as he lay in the bed.
“Garbage disposal, power, industry, food, and the military. The global infrastructure in those fields collapsing will indeed bring chaos, but the human race will return to its natural state. There will be some changes, but it will settle down with time. Complain though they will, people have no choice but to adjust to the new age.”
“There were once many countries and many civilizations out there, but most of them fell. Nevertheless, humanity as a whole remains intact. Even now, as we are exposed to the Threat. So why must we try to stop the natural way of things at this point?”
“Who are you?”
“Who do you think I am?”
He was different from the still-unseen Threat and from the group of five centered around Anastasia Blast.
There was something stranger and nastier about him.
He supported the world’s strongest so he could use them to his own ends and reap the benefits.
He was a part of some deep, deep darkness.
“Please take good care of yourself, Mr. Utagai Karuta. We long for the new world you will bring us as the world’s strongest. We long for it more than anyone else.”
That was all the large man in black said before setting a fruit basket on the side table.
He said one last thing as he left.
“Oh, right. About Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah.”
“The Problem Solvers are gone, so are you going to announce what happened there too?”
“How can we tell the tale of the new world’s strongests if we do not? As those Crystal Blossoms spread across the world, we might just consider commissioning a second ship. Especially since your missing friends will one day reawaken. Of course, this is only if you wish for it.”
“How much do you people know?”
“About that lovely blue cave in Southeast Asia? Let’s just say that we probably know more than you do. Yes, you should probably ask Student Council President Omotesandou for details there. Those people should recover much sooner than you expect, so a second ship probably will be necessary to have a place for them. And to advertise your tale of bravery.”
With that, he looked back from the wide hospital room’s door.
The corners of his lips were curled into a smile below the sunglasses that hid his emotions.
“Of course, any and all announcements will omit our involvement as they always do.”
That was all.
Karuta could not chase after the man right now.
And he was supposed to be the world’s strongest?
Anastasia Blast’s dying words replayed in his mind.
“I am sorry about what happened at Grimnoah. We were scared.”
They were scared, but of what? He had initially assumed she meant the Threat or of Crystal Magicians like him getting in their way, but she may have been referring to something else entirely.
He clenched his teeth while connected to the medical devices around the bed, but then some familiar girls came to visit him.
One was his curly twintails childhood friend, Amaashi Marika.
The other was the Student Council President in a wheelchair, Omotesandou Kyouka.
Now that Utagai Karuta was with them, the new world’s strongests had been gathered.
“I’ve heard. We definitely had to defeat the Problem Solvers, but someone else out there set the stage for it all. And they must have been snickering to themselves while watching our school sink to the bottom of the ocean.”
“Are you saying what I think you are, Karuta-kun?”
“I am, Omotesandou-san. Our revenge isn’t over quite yet.”
That man had mentioned a second ship.
He had said they would need a place for Kazamuki Gekiha and the others who would wake up unexpectedly soon.
If they could provide that, they could also take it away.
If Karuta’s group were not the kind of strongests that group wanted, if they were not a beneficial kind of strongests, that group would switch over to a different group of strongests. And it was obvious what would happen to Karuta’s group once they were no longer needed.
What had happened to the Problem Solvers who had used God-Worshiping Magic as the world’s strongest?
He knew that better than anyone.
If Karuta’s group followed this path, they would eventually be made helpless and meet the same fate. Yet if they left this path without a goal in mind, only ruin awaited them.
The only way out required strength.
They needed much, much more strength if they were to arrive at a happy ending that no one had thought of before.
“Power up,” he muttered under his breath.
A pale girl crawled out from the stomach of his surgical gown.
That mysterious crystal girl was not found in any known mythology or religion.
“Unit ID Name: Aine – power up complete. What are your orders, Sacri-sama?”
He slowly inhaled and exhaled.
Their position would change from here on. They would begin their lives as rulers instead of challengers. That gave them a lot more freedom.
The Problem Solvers had once stood before them like an insurmountable wall.
He may have glimpsed a true evil that even those five had been helpless to resist.
So he spoke the powerful words that answered the question asked by the crystal girl who was quietly tilting her head awaiting orders.
“Our revenge continues, so come with me.”
They would remain running through the darkness instead of in the light.
The world’s strongest could easily be swept aside and thrown out, so they were not about to stop here.
This is Kamachi Kazuma!
For some reason, I get the occasional urge to write a revenge story. This is a collection of the various ideas I had gradually built up whenever that urge hit me. It was originally darker than this, but it ended up like this in the end. I am just glad it ended up as a completed novel.
I had trouble deciding what kind of magic to use, but I ended up focusing on weather and calendars this time. Do you all remember the Central and South American calendar that supposedly claimed the earth would be destroyed in the year 2012? First it was 1999, then it was 2012, and now they’re talking about when AIs will surpass humanity. Even if I make a living based on this, I’m still impressed with all the different things they manage to come up with. Anyway, the fact that I still remember it may be a sign that it struck a chord with me. But to get back on topic, all civilizations around the world have tried to accurately predict the weather and climate conditions, especially when it comes to preventing disasters, providing a stable food supply, and planning the courses for ships. Like it said in the book, priests and priestesses carry the special power to bring people together to form a civilization and I thought that would be a nice theme to go with.
With the collision of energies coming from outer space and from the Original Crystal Embryo in the center of the earth, I created a magic system based on occult high and low pressure systems that people have to learn to read in order to wield their power, similar to how people read the weather map to grow wheat, prevent flooding, and raise their sails. I initially thought it would make for a prettier image to compare it to an aurora, but I ended up unifying the magic rules with the weather forecast format. You can think of the weather lady as a Halloween witch and the isobars behind her as a magic circle. The Catastrophe never actually happened (on the first ship), but just as the name suggests, that event is all about overcoming disasters. I thought that and the unidentified Threat lurking beyond it would make for a decent goal for them. What did you think?
I see God-Worshiping Magic as being the people who can’t read the world’s atmospheric conditions and instead locally determine the weather using artificial rain.
In that sense, there is an absolute wall between Crystal Magic and God-Worshiping Magic, but the former contains possibility the latter lacks. That should be the easiest way to sum up the balance of power there.
That said, I thought it would make for too surreal a visual if they were waving around calendars and horoscope charts instead of magic wands, so I rearranged that into an electronic device. And exposed circuitry would not be very appealing, so I expanded the idea from silicon wafers to silicon and then to silicon lifeforms to arrive at Crystal Blossoms.
I seem to see a certain romance in the idea of silicon lifeforms since I used that as a main gimmick in Blood-Sign and then this too. Making the protagonist’s weapon an expressionless girl he can give commands to is probably another form of romance.
Crystal Blossoms and Aine. They are both luxuriously beautiful yet delicate and brittle. I tried to include plenty of contrasting elements there, but I will leave that for all of you to judge.
The overall theme was focused on the idea of “the strongest”. But in addition to having strongest characters go on a rampage, I also decided to focus on what being the strongest would mean. That should be most obvious in the second half of Chapter 4 and the Epilogue.
No one can be the strongest all on their own.
Either they follow the existing rules to become the strongest or they become the strongest and twist the rules to match them.
When God-Worshiping Magic was the strongest, its users created a world that was most comfortable for them. And some people were sacrificed for the continuation of that age and their prosperity.
But once Crystal Magic rises to the forefront, it will apply pressure to God-Worshiping Magic.
This might look like a standard revenge story at first, but I hope you also saw it as the story of one set of strongests being overwritten, devoured, and removed by another set. When you view the big picture, you should be able to see why the Problem Solvers acted so unreasonably at the beginning of the story.
And before Crystal Magic or even God-Worshiping Magic, this fruitless cycle has repeated again and again in this novel’s world. I think of it kind of like humans being thrown in the furnace and hammered in order to gradually strengthen their culture and civilization.
Then what does it mean to be the strongest?
And who benefits most from propping them up?
I created a setting where the novel’s world should open up quite a bit if you think about those questions.
Being the strongest requires being surrounded by a system that praises that power.
You can think of the strongest as being both the characters themselves and that which creates the necessary situation. I think the people who place them on those rails and urge them onward are much more frightening, but what about all of you?
If you could destroy that surrounding system, wouldn’t that make you the true strongest?
I give my thanks to my illustrator Mika Pikazo-san and to my editors Miki-san, Anan-san, Nakajima-san, Yamamoto-san, and Mitera-san. Thank you for helping me with this new series! They were wearing school uniforms, but the Crystal Magic armor could not have made it easy. Sorry for all the trouble I put you through.
And I give my thanks to the readers. This was a series of merciless battles, but it was the interaction of the boy and the girls that supported that. I focused a lot on that alternating slowing down and speeding up of the pace, but how did you like it? The standard methods won’t work and winning does not necessarily give you what you wanted, but this was still the story of a group who kept fighting to the end. I hope you enjoyed it.
And I will end this here.
It’s fairly unusual for me to use a katana as a main weapon, isn’t it?
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