Apocalypse Witch:Volume 2
- 1 Novel Illustrations
- 2 Prologue
- 3 Chapter 1
- 4 Chapter 2
- 5 Chapter 3
- 6 Chapter 4
- 7 Epilogue
- 8 Afterword
- 9 ?
Top News!! Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah Releases 2nd Ship
Grimnoah has only recently gone public with the First Out Incident in which Anastasia Blast and her illegal armed group known as the Problem Solvers allegedly sunk the first ship, but with remarkable speed, a second academy ship, known as Second Grimnoah, has just held its launching ceremony at the Port of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture.
Construction of a three-hull ship with a displacement of 140,000 tons would normally take between 3 and 5 years, but they say the secret behind this lightning-fast release was purchasing a luxury cruise ship with a completed frame and outfitting it in accordance with Grimnoah’s needs. The purchase seems to have gone smoothly and the seller, Yokokawa Mitsuaki, President and CEO of Nanakai Steamers, had the following to say: “I cannot reveal the actual amount, but I can say it was more than three times what I had expected. I could hardly turn them down after they made such a kind offer, and this is a chance for one of our ships to make its mark in human history. I hope the ship is cared for and loved for many years to come.”
Choosing a passenger ship rather than a warship was a necessity to secure the living and educational space needed for 1180 students and faculty. Also, military commentators have speculated that ordinary armor would not be worth the high maintenance costs since it is a poor defense against the nonchemical/nonphysical attacks known as magic.
Crystal Magic is expected to combat the Threat which has placed the entire world in danger, so its wielders must be made combat ready and mass-produced as soon as possible.
During the upcoming test cruise in the Pacific, data will be taken on the ship’s weight distribution and wave making resistance while its range of movement is gradually expanded. Surprisingly, 38 countries or regions have declared this day a new holiday to celebrate the maiden voyage of humanity’s new fortress. (From Weekly Observations Editorial Department – Electronic Edition)
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The reinforced windows rattled from a sonic boom.
Needless to say, some Crystal Magicians had passed above the giant ship in a flight formation. They wore translucent armor and used Crystal Magic to draw out their full magic power with zero energy loss – a feat traditional wands and crystal balls could not match. That made flight an easy enough action for most any student, although it was only taught in the second year, known as Regulation 2, so this was unofficial practice on their parts.
At the same time, a girl could be heard breathing heavily.
She was on the outer edge of a large gym with its wooden flooring polished using a special wax.
It was a sunny day in the late April to early May time of year, but the seasonal temperature was irrelevant in the fully air-conditioned gym. There was another reason she was scattering beads of sweat in that temperate space.
Amaashi Marika had changed into short-sleeved gym clothes and she was currently jogging laps around the gym. Her heavy breathing was the result of intentionally pushing her body to its limits. The curly twintails swaying at the sides of her head were dyed a strawberry blonde. Not much needed to be said about her above-average chest or the healthy legs (+kneesocks) extending from her red bloomers. Only that all the movement was making it hard not to stare. Perhaps teenage girls had a perpetual motion machine installed in their bodies.
Translucent armor covered her arms and legs and she held a rapier-style weapon in one hand.
However, those things only served to weigh her down with the muscle assistance switched off. She might as well have been running around wearing an extensive suit of armor.
Running under her own power might seem inefficient when she could use Crystal Magic to soar through the sky at Mach 2 or faster, but Crystal Magic presented a threat in indoor spaces not seen in the open sea or sky. For example, anyone could build a machine that flew at Mach 2, but they could not create a machine that could fly around a convenience store at that speed without bumping into any shelves. Crystal Magic required perfecting both of those things. And when no one knew the identity of the Threat driving humanity to extinction, simply moving fast was not good enough.
However. Someone else was maintaining an even greater pace while seemingly unbothered by it all: the crystal girl named Aine.
She currently wore the same sort of gym clothes as Marika, but she was not even human. She had been summoned in place of the translucent armor because a certain boy had accidentally activated his Crystal Blossom before sealing a god’s name within the printed circuit board smaller than a stamp. She was something shaped like a pale-skinned girl.
“Hey, wait up, Aine-chan! Pant, pant. Stop already!!”
“You cannot catch up even if I stopped here. I have already lapped you twice.”
“Pant, gasp. Wh-why aren’t you out of breath?”
“Probably because I am anatomically different from a human.”
“And why are you wearing gym clothes!?”
“No matter how much I reasonably explained that wearing nothing at all is the best way to reduce the weight and air resistance, Sacri-sama refused to give me permission for some unfathomable reason.”
Once she reached the end of her last lap, Utagai Karuta hit the button on a stopwatch while seated on the edge of the theatre stage. Unlike the girls, he was wearing his purple blazer uniform.
She had no trouble responding after running at length while keeping a pace the average human could not match during a sprint. Unlike Karuta’s childhood friend Marika, she was not out of breath, she was not sweating, and her face was not flushed. Her high specs were obvious at a glance, but Karuta did not look happy.
“No change, huh?”
“Would you have preferred it if I sweated some? Wipe wipe.”
Aine grabbed the chest of her gym shirt and mimicked wiping sweat from her face with it. That tugged the shirt up, revealing her adorable navel in the gap between the short-sleeved shirt and the red bloomers. She had not been born from a mother’s womb, so it was honestly a mystery why she even had a navel.
“If you don’t get tired, you won’t grow. You gain strength by pushing your muscles and then letting them rest. This makes it sound like you’re stuck at this level of strength forever. That might be fine for now, but what about later?”
“Need I again remind you that I am a collection of silicon semiconductors? If my specs are not to your satisfaction, you need only feed me pure gold to provide me with new circuits thinner than hairs.”
He had always brushed that off as a joke during the previous incident, but it was sounding less and less silly as time passed. Did she need gold bars in lieu of protein or something? That would give her a truly pay to win leveling up system.
“Also, if your level of exhaustion isn’t apparent to us, it’ll be like attempting a boss battle without knowing your ally’s HP level. We need to find a way to grasp your limits from the outside.”
Would a modified pedometer or mobile watch work there? That girl was going to empty out his wallet fast.
“Pant, gasp, pant.”
Marika leaned against the gym wall while looking ready to pass out. Even her curly twintails were drooping. She could gain the blessing of Crystal Magic if she simply activated it, but it only weighed her down with the muscle assistance switched off. And even with that assistance, it did not hurt to build up your own strength. Magic was like a type of technology, so a malfunction or failure was always an option.
Karuta did not have to think about any of this since his Crystal Magic acted independently of his body.
Then again, he had to protect himself while Aine was fighting, so it would not hurt for him to build up enough strength to run away.
“Now, Miss Marika clearly has enough sweat to be need wiping. If only I could fulfill Sacri-sama’s sweat fetish so perfectly.”
“Here: wipe, wipe.”
“Wait, Aine-chan! That’s your gym shir- mgbbfbhfh!?”
Aine grabbed the chest of her short-sleeved gym shirt and began wiping off Marika’s face. Aine did not sweat and thus the shirt was as clean as a handkerchief, but it still felt wrong. Also, Marika was taller than Aine, so this pulled the shirt up a dangerous extent. Her navel was the least of Karuta’s worries now that the bumps of her ribs were coming into view.
“Aine, hey, Aine! That’s indecent!! And why aren’t you wearing a bra!?”
Karuta cut in since he knew she would not stop until he did, but the crystal girl tilted her head.
“Are we only allowed to use specialized towels for this task? That seems unnecessary, but if that is the way of things.”
“Hey, Aine, what are you- gwahh!?”
Karuta let out a deep yell because Aine bent over and shoved her head toward him.
The slender girl’s arms and head embedded themselves in his stomach. She looked a lot like someone fishing through a secret treasure chest, or like someone ducking below the curtain hanging at the entrance of an izakaya. When she pulled back out again, she held a washed sports towel that smelled of fabric softener.
“Phew. This will be more acceptable, I hope?”
“A-Aine, you, but.”
“How much stuff have you shoved inside my body!?”
Aine was “stored” inside him, so she could freely move in and out, but did this mean anything she was holding would pass through him as well? This new revelation about this own body brought a crawling to his fingertips. This was more than just seeing a mass on the X-ray. He was afraid he was full of crumbs from chips and sweet rice crackers.
Meanwhile, Marika wiped off her cheeks and forehead with the proper sports towel.
“Karuta, why aren’t you exercising?”
“I’ve got that thing after this, remember? I don’t want to go there with wet hair, but there isn’t enough time to blow dry it.”
“Oh, right,” said Marika.
Yes. He was attending a meeting that seemed wholly out of place for someone who had recently been sneaking around the world while obsessed with committing murder in the name of revenge.
He shrugged lightly in a way that showed he knew he would not fit in there.
“They call it an interview, but it’s really just an initial greeting for that movie they’re making about us.”
“Karuta> Looks like I can’t make 1st period. I’ll need to copy your notes later.”
“Yamanen> It’s just a class, Karuta-chan. But you’d better buy us lunch for this.”
“Hirosuke> How about I just film the whole boring lecture? Should put you to sleep in a hurry.”
The corridor looked like a polished hallway in a newly-constructed school. That was not entirely wrong, but it seemed excessive on a ship where weight was directly tied to fuel consumption.
Karuta could tell Grimnoah was designed more as a school than a ship as he walked down the hallway while chatting with his classmates on his phone. Class was starting, but he was not on his way to the classroom.
He stuck his phone in his pocket and politely knocked on a door.
“Hello, thank you for coming.”
As a high schooler, he was not confident he managed to keep his face from tensing when he stepped inside a reception room lined with leather sofas. Those dark and shiny sofas were meant for more dignified sitters, like a principal or board chairman. A normal student should not have been hopping into one of them.
A project plan and a simple pamphlet sat on the glass table.
As well as multiple voice recorders.
“As you know, we at Bernard have recently acquired your film rights.”
The people leaning toward him from the opposite sofa were apparently Hollywood producers. The speaker did not start by handing him a business card like a Japanese businessman would do, but he did casually exchange social media contact information.
“Central and Bunny & Berry would not leave well enough alone, so we ended up paying 10 billion of your Japanese yen to land the deal. But we are guaranteed to make back four times that much. We wish to present your story as realistically as possible; no unnecessary embellishments. We want to know all about how you sought revenge by dealing with all 5 of the world’s former strongest.”
Karuta sighed without letting them notice.
Nothing was more embarrassing than hearing someone sing your praises. They had committed a raw criminal act, so it was not something to be glorified. He would have rejected the offer if not for his friend who had been so cruelly shattered during that initial attack.
That boy had always laughed about how they would one day inspire a movie about their heroic battle against the Threat. Karuta had been unable to turn down an offer so similar to what that friend had always wanted.
“Now, let’s start with a general overview of events. Grimnoah was…excuse me, the first ship was attacked during mid-April in what has become known as the First Out Incident. That was in the oceans of Southeast Asia, correct?”
He just about burst out laughing as he replied.
The First Out Incident? No one involved had called it that. Not on Karuta’s side and not on Anastasia’s side. That was only the name that a PR company had spread after the fact.
And that was only as bait to get people talking and stir up interest in the coming film.
“The first to attack was Elicia ‘Saurus’ Luxverg. She used the old-style of God Worshiping Magic to have Vishnu slaughter all 700 faculty and students on the ship.”
“No, I think her Avatar – that is, the dinosaur – only killed about 2/3 of them. Some of us escaped the gym, myself included.”
“And then Yukino ‘Punish’ Arakawa and Jessie ‘Edge’ Marcus attacked?”
“I know Susannia was onboard too since she messed with the broadcast equipment. I can’t say for sure about Anastasia, who used Anubis, though. Maybe she was onboard, maybe not.”
“Regardless, Elicia, Yukino, Jessie, Susannia, and Anastasia – the five known as the Problem Solvers – made themselves targets of your vengeance.”
From there, Karuta explained everything himself instead of the producer asking questions. He explained how they fished the broken crystal statues from the ocean and hid them in a cave in Southeast Asia, how they knew the Problem Solvers would try to silence those students and teachers who would recover after enough time, how they bought a cheap used RV to use as a mobile base, and how they had needed to track down and kill the Problem Solvers before the secret cave was discovered.
He should not have been discussing any of this in such a nice sofa.
These words were meant to be uttered in a police interrogation room or from the defendant’s seat in court.
But the producers were visibly excited and they clapped their glove-like hands together. Especially when he described Anastasia’s ridiculous magic and how his group had defeated her. They all had the looks of someone enjoying undiluted entertainment before anyone else had the chance.
“And now that you have defeated those strongest 5, you have become the strongest of a new era: the Four Living Gods!! Truly incredible! Someone has finally overthrown this garbage era where AI is used to score each individual’s possibilities!”
“Yes, I suppose.”
Utagai Karuta formed a flat smile.
These people only wanted to know what happened with the Problem Solvers, so there was no need to tell them about the man in black he had spoken with afterwards.
The world’s strongest were not just some strong people.
There were people propping them up and profiting off of them and those people would swap them out like a burnt-out lightbulb if need be. Even Anastasia’s group had been driven into a corner eventually.
Oblivious to all of that, the producers moved to conclude their meeting while breathing heavily with excitement.
“Magic really is special. And you can’t keep up just by increasing the scale with CG manpower. The real deal is so different on a more fundamental level! We could never have imagined what a real fight to the death is like!!”
“This will be a hit. We’re all going to be filthy rich!! When I feel the pores opening on the back of my neck like this, I can tell I have a hit on my hands. That sense has never failed me yet, so don’t you worry about a thing. We will put your heroic actions up on the silver screen. Your struggle will become a legend told for ages to come!!”
Utagai Karuta was still smiling, but only because it had frozen on his face.
He was trying to decide whether or not to punch that producer.
And no one else there was aware how dangerously far his mental scales had tilted in that direction.
That initial meeting had been mentally exhausting, but it was over.
Karuta wanted to see how things were going before heading back to his high school classroom, so he pulled out his phone.
“Hirosuke> Class is about to end, so why not just skip the whole thing?”
“Yamanen> That’s definitely the better deal.”
(With Crystal Magic, everything is up to you. You don’t want to discover you neglected your studies once you’re facing some true monster in real combat.)
What did they even think the point of the Second Grimnoah was?
He sighed and started back toward his classroom, but someone called out to him.
“What are you doing here!? Shouldn’t you be in class!?”
His shoulders jumped in the middle of the hallway.
But when he hesitantly looked back, he saw a male teacher giving him an awkward look.
“Tch. Oh, it’s you. The great hero.”
“S-sorry. I do have the school’s permission for this.”
The man with short black hair and a muscular build contained in a running shirt and track pants was the type to stand out in a crowd, so Karuta recognized him as a middle school teacher. A high school student like Karuta would not normally be around the middle school teachers, but he often went around to different classes giving advice since he was one of the few people with any combat experience. That had given him frequent opportunities to visit the middle school.
And aside from that, the man was bound to recognize him since, for better or for worse, he was one of the world’s strongest known as the Four Living Gods. Also, the Second Grimnoah had been completed so quickly because Crystal Magic stood at the top of world, not just in second or third place.
In other words, Grimnoah was a largescale aircraft carrier loaded with Crystal Magic defense ships meant to make efficient use of Karuta’s group of 4. Nothing the others did meant much of anything without the Four Living Gods there.
In that sense, the teachers were more like engineers than anything.
It was necessary, but they ended up as something very different from a hero or fierce commander.
Another reason the teachers seemed to hold a weaker position than a student like Karuta was the barrier between theory and practice. The theory types only ever dealt with equations on a desk while the practice types had the actual experience of the hellish battles leading from the First Out Incident to the defeat of the Problem Solvers and their God Worshiping Magic. It was plain as day which type the world at large would give more focus.
Elicia, Yukino, Jessie, Susannia, and Anastasia.
The Problem Solvers had overlooked those theory types because they had not been on the first ship. They had survived because the killers had been unaware they existed. Otherwise, they would have been hunted down before Karuta’s group had completed their revenge.
Of course, no matter how it had happened, Karuta’s group was delighted to find survivors who could assist them.
The male teacher waved a hand as if shooing the boy off like a dog.
“I get it, I get it. If you’re done, then head back to your classroom. Don’t set a bad example for the other students.”
A clear voice cut in.
The male teacher grimaced even further.
The person who rolled up in a wheelchair was Omotesandou Hyouka.
She was Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah’s Student Council President and the only Regulation 3. Because all the others had died. They had brought in new students from all over the world after the incident with the Problem Solvers and before the second ship was completed, but that had not done anything about the number of upperclassmen. Even if they did let in 2nd and 3rd year high schoolers, those students would be unable to learn Crystal Magic in such a short time. Giving them false hope and then throwing them out into the real world would be cruel to an extreme. So whether the new students were admitted into the middle school or high school, they had to be first years who started from the absolute basics. The four survivors had discussed the matter and come up with that absolute rule.
She was a mature girl with long black hair and a curvy figure. After all, she was a third year in high school. Under Japanese law, 18 was no longer a minor. But the first thing anyone would notice was of course the wheelchair she sat in. She had not been born with a disability. That was one of the scars the previous fighting had left on her.
That also made her a thorn in the theory-based teachers’ sides.
She represented the students and she had survived the fight with those five even though it had left permanent damage.
She was technically only Student Council President for the high school, but she effectively ran Grimnoah as a whole. That prevented even those theory-based teachers from telling her to leave.
She softly tilted her head.
“Is something the matter?”
The male teacher openly clicked his tongue and then walked past Karuta.
“Sure, go tattle to her and create a nice comfy world for yourself, you damn brat.”
He whispered so only the boy could hear and then he left.
(You didn’t have to back down here, you know?)
Karuta honestly liked that sort of teacher. The man had been in the right and he did not change his stance even when the tide turned against him. It was right to get after a student out in the hall during class and he was absolutely correct that Karuta had to make sure he did not set a bad example for the other students. The teacher’s anger was misplaced since the interview with the film producers was an official offer, but he could not be blamed for it since he had no way of knowing that. Karuta was afraid of losing sight of his own basic morality if everyone started letting him do whatever he wanted just because he was “the world’s strongest”. In that sense, he was extremely grateful to have teachers like that one.
“Was that Kiyosawa Hadome-sensei?”
“You know all the middle school teachers’ names too?”
Karuta looked surprised, but the Student Council President did not react. Perhaps she did not consider that a noteworthy achievement.
“He’s a good person, isn’t he?” she said with a laugh.
“Yes, he definitely is.”
However, being a good person was not enough to survive. Not in this nonsensical world.
But why was the President here?
She had to be far busier than him.
“Sorry about today. I know it isn’t easy speaking with people from outside the school.”
“Yeah, but don’t worry about it, Omotesandou-san.”
“We’re getting a movie about us, are we? Ah ha ha. I really should be handling the interactions with the outside world, but I have so much else on my plate too.”
“I don’t mind. I’m one of the celebrated strongest too, so I need to figure out how to act like a representative of Grimnoah, no matter how tough it is for me. Not that all that support changes what we can actually do.”
Karuta had class, but he also did not feel right abandoning the President here. He also figured hearing Kyouka’s unfiltered opinion would be more useful than catching the last bit of class.
“Yamanen> Oh, that’s a million percent the right answer. Three cheers for having a hot president.”
He used his phone to apologize for the change of plans and got a baffling sort of praise for it.
He circled behind the wheelchair and grabbed the handles. Kyouka could do most anything on her own, but they had developed a habit of him providing a bit of support whenever they were together.
“Where to today?”
“I don’t have a destination in mind. I am inspecting the new ship to make sure it really is barrier free. I’ve mostly finished the high school, but I still have this half left.”
Life with a wheelchair did not sound like fun. This ship was 600m long and its three-hull design used a single deck to connect the port, starboard, and center sections. Simply visiting it all in a wheelchair was a lot of work.
“I need to check over what I can now. I don’t want to find out once we’re out at sea that an inconveniently placed bump keeps me from using the shower room.”
“Oh? Boy, are you so pure that was enough to get your imagination running wild?”
She had been in a habit of saying stuff like that during the previous incident as well. He always felt at a loss around her, but looking back, he could tell that had helped prevent him from being crushed under all the psychological pressure.
It was an enormous ship, but to reduce resistance in the waves, the left and right hulls grew narrower as they approached the water’s surface. The overall bow narrowed down to a point and the bow ends of the two parallel schools were angled much like a diagonally-cut piece of bamboo, so the ship actually looked slim. He spoke with Kyouka while they traveled down the interior corridors and visited the café, training room, and more.
“Speaking of interacting with the outside world, how are things going on social media?” he asked.
“Have you not opened up a public page because you don’t want to deal with anything more than direct messages with classmates? We have more friends than the president of a certain country I could mention. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re all on our side.”
“I had a feeling.”
“Tabloids these days will gather content online and publish it without any real checking. And the online news industry is even worse. They might call us the world’s strongest, but we’re officially still only high school students. More than half our online ‘friends’ are probably just waiting for us to get a big head from our one success and say the wrong thing.”
Her legs could not support her weight, but she could apparently still move them. She let him control the wheelchair while she kicked her legs like a small child.
“The celebratory mood hasn’t worn off yet, so we haven’t gotten anyone prominently attacking us. They know doing that will only get them swarmed by all our new fans. But once the heat dies down a bit, it’ll happen. Someone will ask us controversial questions related to race or religion and they’ll jump down our throats for our answer, even if we opt to say nothing. And when I say someone, I mean a lot of someones.”
“I will handle the aggro management, so don’t respond to anyone based on a gut reflex. Marika-san lets the blood rush to her head easily too, so keep an eye on her.”
“Her too? What are you implying?”
“Oh, dear. Did you not realize you were a hotblooded boy? You just don’t let it show most of the time.”
Kyouka laughed and then continued like she had just remembered something.
“Also, a lot more people will be trying to get at your login password, so be careful there too. Please tell me you didn’t use fingerprint or iris authentication.”
“Hm? I thought biometric authentication was safer.”
“With the attention we’re getting, who knows how many photos we’ve had taken. With modern resolutions, that’s a scary thought, so if you do use biometrics, make sure it’s something that can’t be seen externally. Like having an earphone measure the echo within your ear.”
This was sounding annoying already. She went on to describe exactly who to set up that strange new form of biometric authentication as well as the two-factor authentication. But at this complexity, he was afraid he would forget how to even reach the proper authentication screen. Yet when he started setting up the security questions just in case, the beautiful President really did get mad at him. So was so mad she really was calling him a pig and asking him if he wanted to die.
“If you really do fill that in with your favorite color and soccer team, then anyone can get in and change your password. Don’t forget that we live in an age where any old online store can use the accumulated data on you to display an ad customized to show a product you would want.”
“Sigh. Then should the backup just be a randomized alphanumeric password?”
“When quantum computers have proven themselves so good at performing random number calculations? Karuta-kun, you pig. Do you want to die?”
That was twice in one day.
An anger trigger was a sign of having found a weakness, so he felt like he had gotten to know that mysterious President a little more. The happiness that brought had to remain a secret though. He wanted to avoid an oversimplified interpretation where she assumed he loved having good looking girls berate him.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Now I’m worried about Marika-san.”
“She’s not like me. She’s a girl, even if she doesn’t always act like it.”
“That doesn’t solve anything,” said Kyouka in increasing exasperation.
They passed by a few students on their way. When those students moved to the edge of the hallway, it was not just out of politeness toward the girl in a wheelchair. The younger girls gave them looks of both respect and awe. They would never imagine he was currently being castigated over how he used his phone.
Yes, that trio of girls was even younger than a Regulation 1 like Karuta.
“Was it really a good idea to just go ahead and build a middle school too? The Sub Category, I mean. Keep forgetting to call it that.”
“The first ship only had the Main Category, but that didn’t work out very well, did it? Elicia’s dinosaur was enough to slaughter all 700 students and teachers. Sure, not all of them were directly killed by her, but we all had our spirits broken and we fled. We need to provide a more solid education at an earlier stage if they are to survive the harshness of combat.”
Nevertheless, they had still accepted a few hundred high school aged students to start at Regulation 1 in the Main Category.
“Seniority systems have long been decried as nonsense, but the barrier between school years is still a big deal for students. The Main Category students will be desperate to prove themselves when they have Sub Category students three years their junior nipping at their heels. Students with a goal in mind will improve. And unbelievably quickly. After all, pride is a more valuable currency than the yen or dollar for teenagers like us.”
Was the point to create a healthy competition that encouraged both sides to grow? Second Grimnoah was a three-hull ship with the three hulls connected by one deck, but the middle and high school buildings were separated out between the port and starboard sides. Physically separating the territory helped more vividly create an “us vs. them” mentality.
Karuta and Kyouka had been saying hello to so many younger boys and girls because they were inspecting the middle school side right now. Those students were either moving between classrooms or studying in the other classrooms. All of the teachers were the theory-focused types who could not manage actual combat since all the practice-focused teachers had been slaughtered. Gathering those theory-focused people had been a last-ditch method and it was causing issues here.
Yes. Karuta and Kyouka were skipping class to walk around the ship, but no teachers tried to stop them.
But Karuta did not feel like basking in that sense of privilege.
It felt more like people saw him as a monster and were keeping their distance.
“So now we’re the students with more experience than the teachers,” he said.
“They really don’t need to hold back with us. There’s still so much we need to learn. I sure don’t want to be undereducated when I’m thrown out there.”
The teachers had been overlooked during the previous incident since they were noncombatants, while Karuta’s group had actually fought with and defeated the Problem Solvers. Whatever their official titles were, the teachers felt guilty that those monstrous students had completed the task they should have completed.
So they were unsure how to approach Karuta’s group.
Instead of students, they were more often placed in the position of combat instructors.
“Do they think we can learn from teaching?”
The President smiled faintly. Karuta also felt more weight on his shoulders every time one of the new students asked him about something or relied on him for something. He could guess it was the same for Marika. It was like he was being pushed toward a mountain climbing trip without any time to prepare first. He was still in a T-shirt and shorts when deadly Mt. Everest awaited him. He could not escape the vague fear that he would be stuck up on that mountain the second something did not work out quite right.
Maybe the Problem Solvers had felt the same way when they were the world’s strongest.
Elicia Luxverg, Yukino Arakawa, Jessie Marcus, Susannia Evans, and Anastasia Blast.
Karuta’s group had killed all of them and taken their position as the strongest, so they were never allowed to claim any sympathy with those five.
“This is the last place,” said Omotesandou Kyouka.
They were at the very bottom of the central hull. The port and starboard hulls grew narrower as they approached the water, so only this central one truly functioned as the bottom of the ship. However, Karuta saw more to this place than that. It was not part of the middle or high school.
After opening a hatch as thick as a bank vault door, they found a vast space within. It may have been larger and taller than the gym where Aine and Marika had been jogging.
However, it felt as cramped as a train at rush hour. Steel racks were stacked up to the ceiling and they were packed as full as a library’s bookcases. Each one was covered with square doors. The upper levels were out of reach, so a mobile lift was needed for them. Although it might be faster for a proper Crystal Magician to fly up there themselves.
“Well, this is certainly a problem on the barrier free front.”
Still in her wheelchair, Kyouka unlocked a nearby door on the lowest level and slid out the rectangular slab of metal within.
A human made of transparent crystal lay on it.
That boy had been killed by the Problem Solvers and was waiting the centuries or even millennia needed to recover.
Karuta softly spoke his former classmate’s name.
That boy was not the only one. All of the doors in this vast space contained one of those cold victims. There were more than 700 of them. Their deaths, regrets, and tragedies were all carefully managed by alphanumeric codes. This was an archive dedicated to the foolish acts of the former world’s strongest.
“We need to live a life they would have been proud of.”
Karuta’s hands squeezed the wheelchair’s handles.
He would not let that happen again, not by the world’s strongest and not by the mysterious Threat.
He would create the strongest fortress that could withstand any bombardment so everyone could rest easy.
That was the conviction in Utagai Karuta’s heart.
After accompanying Omotesandou Kyouka to the recreation center, Karuta parted ways with the Student Council President. On his way to some vending machines instead of a proper café or cafeteria, he ran into two of his classmates: Yamane Deiri and Nekoumi Hirosuke.
“In that case, whoever loses a game of rock-paper-scissors buys the others a drink.”
“In what case, Yamanen?”
“Oh, shut up, Karuta. Rock, paper, scissors…ahh!? Even your luck is better than mine!?”
“Hey, you should have known Mr. Strongest was the king of luck. We’re talking about the guy whose Crystal Magic randomly gave him a little girl.”
“Don’t try to gloss over that you won too, Hirosuke!!”
The loser complained but still bought Karuta a can of corn potage.
“You choose your drinks like an old man.”
“Oh, right. Yamanen, let me copy your notes later.”
“I’m doing you a favor and I bought you a drink? Where did I go wrong?”
After discovering firsthand how unfair life could be, those awful friends left.
On his own again, Karuta reached for the pull tab. He found nothing was as cost effective as corn potage when it came to forcibly calming himself. Of course, it was essentially carbs cooked with a bunch of added sugar, so he knew Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka despised the stuff.
He enjoyed his classes these days.
But he was afraid that warmth was overwriting something else for him.
Namely, his old, shattered friends like Kazamuki Gekiha.
But instead of a special concern for the world’s strongest, that may have been more the feeling of a child after transferring schools.
This was the Second Grimnoah.
It held more than a 1000 people when the middle school and high school were both counted. It may have been even more lively than the first one and the talent gathered there was rare and useful, but he was still plagued by anxiety.
The ship was like a crab shortly after molting.
There were a few people with a solid core, like that male teacher named Kiyosawa Hadome, but as talented as the people were, would the next disaster really wait long enough for them to learn to use those talents? Would they have time for their soft shell and claws to harden?
He wondered where the next disaster would come from. Would it be users of another form of magic jealously trying to claim the title of strongest? Would it be the mysterious Threat that would supposedly bring death to the entire human race? Or would it be the people lurking in the shadows of the world who had set up all those confrontations so they could profit from them?
He did not know who it would be, but he knew for certain that there would be a next time.
Whatever form it took, it was coming.
“U-um, uh, Senpai?”
After drinking the corn potage a bit, he realized he had forgotten to shake it before opening the pull tab, but he heard a voice that was even more attractive than the corn that must have built up at the bottom of the can.
He saw a short girl with wavy shoulder-length blonde hair.
She looked about the same age as Aine, or maybe even younger. Then again, it was hard to judge her age in those standard gym clothes. She was definitely far younger than him, so she was probably in the middle school. The three year gap between them really was a lot for children. She looked so young that he had to wonder if he looked that much younger to Kyouka when she looked at him.
The girl’s shoulders were tensed and she had drawn her loosely-clenched fists in toward her flat (or rather, nonexistent) chest. He had not done anything yet, but she was flustered as she started talking to him.
“You’re a boy and one of the world’s strongest, so that means you’re Utagai Karuta-senpai, right!? I, um, this is my first time with Crystal Magic, so, um, I’m not sure I have it set up right, and, um.”
“Relax. You can take it slow, so let’s do this one step at a time.”
Karuta was technically a new student who had only arrived at Grimnoah this spring. He did not feel like he was in any position to be teaching other people, but ever since defeating the Problem Solvers he had learned to put people’s minds at ease using meaningless poses.
And wait. What was that disturbing logic she had used? He was a boy and one of the world’s strongest, so he had to be Karuta?
Did that make him the world’s strongest boy?
But he had only run around with a flashlight, since Aine counted as a separate member of the four!
(Stay calm, stay calm!! Ghghghgghhgghgghghg!? Keep your public face on!)
“F-first, names are important for this, okay?”
“Um, yes, uh, I am Jane Ignition.”
“Ha ha. I guess your name is important too, but I meant the name of your god.”
With Crystal Magic, the name of a god was sealed within a printed circuit board smaller than a stamp. You chose one that felt right to you, whether that meant Zeus, Odin, Svarog, or Shiva. Your magic was built on a foundation of equations based on the occult calendars or horoscope charts of their mythology or religion. The occult power pouring down from outer space would collide with the energy radiating from the Original Crystal Embryo at the center of the earth. That created something similar to high and low pressure fronts that could be used as a tailwind when accurately predicted using your equations, thus creating the magic of a new age.
“Listen, Jane. First of all, you need to know that whatever god you decide on can’t be reset or changed later on. The system just isn’t set up for it.”
“But you don’t have to worry. If you viewed the list of gods from around the world and selected one without succumbing to any unnecessary preconceptions, you should have chosen the best possible option for yourself. That’s why choosing your god is the very first thing you do after arriving. You ran around that labyrinthine library to search one out, right? That’s because getting any help from someone else will only lead you in the wrong direction.”
There were cases of people failing because they were not free to choose based on their first impression. For example, Karuta here had not sealed any god’s name within his due to a “mistake”. He viewed himself as a good example of what not to do.
“Once you choose a god’s name, you’ll have to get along with them. You might be worried now, but once you learn more about that god, you might discover how brave, strong, friendly, or human they are, giving you a chance to get closer to them. Polytheistic gods in particular have a lot to discover since they aren’t bound by a requirement to always be right. They can be unfaithful, they can be a coward, they can get mad and go lock themselves up in a room, or they can lie.”
“O-oh. Is that how it works?”
“Now, Jane, what god’s name did you seal in yours?” he asked with a smile.
The girl in a short-sleeved gym shirt and red bloomers fidgeted, rubbing her risqué bare legs together, and averted her gaze before parting her lips as if to gently reveal a complex of hers.
“Anubis. The Egyptian god of judgment.”
Something about that bothered him. A lot.
He recognized that name. But not in the context of Crystal Magic. Hadn’t one of the strongests beseeched Anubis to wield his great power using God Worshiping Magic?
Basing anything on that alone would have been silly. With how well known the pyramids and the sphinx were, Egyptian mythology was used a lot in the occult. It was unsurprising for a student to choose Anubis out of all the many gods in the world.
But when he took a closer look, he noticed this girl’s white skin and wavy blonde hair were awfully similar to a certain woman. And this was not a case of mimicking the clothing and hairstyle of someone based on newspaper and internet articles. Didn’t there need to be an awful lot of genetic similarity for two faces to look so alike!?
(Could it be?)
“Oh, looks like that rang a bell for you.”
His heart leaped.
It ran wild within his ribcage and behind his sternum.
(Is she related to the strongest of the strongest!? To Anastasia Blast!?)
“Then you should know why I have come to Grimnoah. Yes, you are the one who killed my sister and stole the position of world’s strongest from her in the name of revenge!! So you have no right to complain if the same happens to you!!”
The girl reached a small hand toward the beautiful flower pinned to the chest of her gym shirt.
She signaled the beginning of a battle.
This was something he had not anticipated during the previous incident: a clash between two Crystal Magicians!!
“Power up, Anubis! You’re the god of judgment who fought alongside my sister!! So take the life of this loathsome sinn-”
“No, Aine!! Don’t kill her!!!!!!”
The young girl’s mouth fell open and she did not last even a full second.
The Crystal Blossom on her undeveloped chest did shatter, but it was not given time to take its form as translucent armor. Aine slipped out from Utagai Karuta’s stomach and had time to even faithfully flip her sword around to strike with the back of the blade.
With a dull thud, a horizontal sweep of the sword caught the girl in the nerves on the side of her neck and she flipped to the side. She just about ended up like someone who had failed a cartwheel and slammed back first into the floor, so he quickly reached out his hands to catch her. Which required ducking below the path of Aine’s sword as it continued on. He ended up with her supported solidly in his arms, princess carry style. Her arms and legs were sprawled out limply as she was now unconscious. Even with the barrier and regeneration of Crystal Magic, that was no way to treat a young girl, but if Aine had used the sharp side of the blade, the girl’s head would have been chopped clean off and rolled along the floor.
It was unclear what kind of attack it was for, but translucent units shaped something like long skis had started to float up in midair. However, they vanished again before they could attach themselves to her feet.
Aine kept a cautious but expressionless eye on the unconscious girl while ready to use the laser gun unit attached at the base of her sword like a jitte.
“Could you explain to my why you have instructed me to only use nonlethal methods against all Grimnoah residents, no matter who they might be? To be blunt, unnecessary restrictions in combat are a pain.”
He shook his head without actually answering her.
This had been his mistake. They had needed to bolster Grimnoah’s forces in a hurry, but that meant inviting 1000 people to the ship all at once. He should have considered the possibility of someone sneaking in for other reasons. And while the Problem Solvers had been a target of revenge for his group, it was true that they had been loved by people all around the world. Most of those people had changed their tune and decided to support the new strongests instead, but not everyone would be willing to accept that.
Someone had killed this girl’s beloved family member and stolen the title of strongest from her sister.
It must have been impossible for the grieving girl to grin and bear it when the rest of the world was celebrating.
Of course, Utagai Karuta was no saint. He was not so above worldly matters that he could offer up his life if someone said they were going to take it. He would never give up no matter what kind of monster appeared before him. And if that monster’s fangs would also reach Marika, Kyouka, or anyone else he knew, he would use whatever underhanded methods were necessary to eliminate the risk. He was prepared to do what it took.
But. On other hand.
“Then you should know why I have come to Grimnoah. Yes, you are the one who killed my sister and stole the position of world’s strongest from her in the name of revenge!!”
The small girl had tears in the corners of her eyes while she lay unconscious in her hated enemy’s arms.
She was doing this for her sister.
She had said so.
Had she known what Anastasia was really like? Or had even Anastasia found herself unable to speak of such things in the warm household she had been born into?
She had provided this young girl a safe upbringing by keeping her separated from the cold battlefield, but now the girl was going under a fake name and identity while wielding a blade in the name of vengeance.
Even if it meant relying on the same weapon used to kill her sister.
And she had engraved that flower on her chest with the name of Anubis, the god who her beloved sister had relied on to the very end.
As if praying to that fearsome god of judgment.
“So you have no right to complain if the same happens to you!!”
Her justice was too pure.
Enough so for Karuta to realize just how far into the sticky darkness he had sunk without noticing.
He still thought he had done the right thing. That revenge had been necessary. But his group had still derailed this girl’s life. If they had not done what they did, this girl would still be living in the warmth of her family.
Jane Ignition, or the girl using that name at the moment, had followed the same path Karuta’s group had. The person who had taken an irreplaceable family member from her was being praised on TV as the world’s strongest, no one at all would say they had done anything wrong, and she could not bring herself to let that continue. So would he kill her? Just because it put him in danger? That did not feel like her just deserts or karmic retribution. Wasn’t that the same logic the Problem Solvers had used to justify their destruction of the first Grimnoah!?
He refused to take the same path as them.
By saving this girl, he would prove that they were not slaves to the position of world’s strongest.
Aine presented him with an extremely grounded question.
With that cold blade still at the ready.
“What shall we do? I will do whatever you decide for me, but based on past combat data, I highly doubt Miss Marika or Miss Kyouka will allow an enemy like this to survive. In all likelihood, sticking to nonlethal methods is only delaying the inevitable.”
What would he do?
It was time for Utagai Karuta to make a decision about the avenger in his arms who seemed far too young at only 12 years old.
“She registered as Jane Ignition, but her real name is Natalena Blast. Age: 12. Sex: Female. Nationality: American. As her family name suggests, she is Anastasia Blast’s younger sister. Even if there is a large gap between their ages.”
They had gathered in the Student Council Room of the giant ship’s high school.
There was no better place for Karuta and the rest of the world’s strongest to speak in private.
Omotesandou Kyouka was operating a computer while seated in her wheelchair. The computer and the room looked downgraded from before, but the devices here had top administrative access to all the data in the ship’s server. They had higher priority than the machines in the headmaster’s office which was mostly just for show (even though Karuta’s group had not wanted it that way). Karuta and Marika’s arrival meant the actual Student Council members had to leave, so they gave the two intruders quite a glare.
Natalena was asleep in the ship’s infirmary.
Sleeping with her limbs and torso strapped down with thick belts could not be comfortable, but she would not notice. Until they made a decision, they had confiscated her Crystal Blossom and put her on a light anesthetic to keep her asleep. Anesthetics were convenient, but they were also medical goods. A drug like that did have a lethal dose, side effects, lasting effects, and allergies to worry about and, just like any other medicine, there was no guarantee it would work.
But that was about the only way to restrain someone who could use magic.
“Why didn’t we notice this until now?”
“So many people claimed to be Anastasia’s relatives, friends, or acquaintances that it probably hid the presence of this sister. The social networks for socialites were especially bad. Makes me glad I wasn’t one of the Problem Solvers.”
Anastasia may have been fine with it since it hid her actual family which functioned as her Achilles heel. It was like creating an artificial forest to hide a single real tree.
The identity of the suspect had been found by comparing her facial and skeletal data to video records from around the world. Since that was enough to blow her cover, Natalena may have been planning to end it quick. She had not prepared herself a way out in her nearly suicidal pursuit of revenge.
“Does that mean Anastasia was an American citizen too? We did hear she had a lot of influence in North America.”
They had hated that woman enough that they were willing to destroy the world if it meant defeating her. But thinking back, they had not even known what part of the world she was from. This peek at her ordinary life now came as a slight shock to Karuta.
He could not hide this.
That was the honest answer he found for himself. And if he tried and failed to hide it, it would only make matters worse. He had to be honest here and then make the following suggestion: This girl may be here for revenge, but her inexperienced blade failed to take anyone’s life. This is over now, so we shouldn’t kill her.
He wanted their trust, so hiding things would work against him.
Was this really the right thing to do? He was of course worried about that, but now that he had chosen to do this, he had to stick with it as best he could. He could not stop once he started.
Amaashi Marika gave him a dangerous look while leaning against the wall with arms crossed. What he had seen during the previous incident told him all he needed to know about her stance. She made a strict division between enemy and ally. She would do anything to protect the people she had decided were on her side. That was obvious enough from the laser sniper shot she had used to kill Elicia after the defenseless woman had surrendered and maybe even could have been brought to their side.
If taking in a new ally would disturb the perfected harmony they already had, she was not interested in taking them in.
That was Marika’s stance.
She was reliable as a childhood friend. Karuta had known her for so long that he was unconditionally placed on the allies list. But this was different. If he could not convince her here, she would kill Natalena without mercy. Even while the girl was unconscious and unable to defend herself.
And if he just let it happen, it would happen again.
The world’s strongest could get away with killing anyone who opposed them.
Even a 12-year-old girl.
He could not let that become the standard. That would only lead them past the point of no return on the same path Anastasia’s group had taken. If they were not the strongest, they would be found guilty and thrown in prison, so they would have no choice but to cling to the title of strongest no matter what. The concept of strongest would bind them.
“Does Natalena have any kind of combat experience?”
“Based on the records I have found, she has almost none, including training. She seems to have attended a local karate school for a while, but she quit after about 6 months. That sort of conflict may not have been her thing.”
“Then how did she manage to fake her name and identity?”
Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah was a crucial organization for combating the Threat which put the world in danger. Even with 1000 new personnel brought in, their backgrounds would all have been thoroughly checked.
There were a few options for slipping past that – rewriting the trackable electronic data, corrupting an examiner with a bribe or honey trap, and purchasing or stealing someone else’s personal information – but a 12-year-old girl who lived an ordinary life could not pull off those spy movie tricks on her own. For that matter, when had she learned about her Crystal Magic aptitude that gave her a chance at this revenge? That was not something she would have been tested for at middle school. And where had she learned about Anubis? If Anastasia had been hiding her true identity from her family, she never would have told them anything about her God Worshiping Magic.
None of it made sense.
Utagai Karuta spoke a frank conclusion.
“Someone else is pulling the strings. Probably from some safe place away from this ship.”
“They gave the necessary information to someone connected to Anastasia to remake them into an assassin. But did they really think an amateur like Natalena could kill the four of us? What if they were betting we would turn on each other over how to deal with Natalena after we defeated her?”
He had no evidence for any of this.
In fact, he did not particularly care if he was wrong.
He was only interested in redirecting their focus (especially that of hyper-aggressive Marika) toward someone other than Natalena. A nameless and faceless string-puller was perfect for that. While they tried to pursue that shadowy figure who might not even exist, they would not think about attacking someone within arm’s reach.
“In that case, we should not kill Natalena. We need whatever information we can get on this string-puller. If we let them get away with this, we might find Elicia’s parents or Yukino’s worshipers attacking us next. Also, we don’t know for sure that Natalena was working alone here. If she has a team hidden on Grimnoah, we need to locate them and get rid of them. Right?”
“You have a point,” readily admitted Omotesandou Kyouka. However. “In that case, wouldn’t it be in our best interest to keep Natalena Blast tied up while we torture her or use a truth serum on her? Would she really tell us the truth if we played at police and interrogated her? We are combat experts, not investigative experts.”
There were no positive or negative emotions in her voice. She sounded entirely dry and efficient.
First, he had to worry about them killing her.
Now he also had to worry about torture and truth serum.
This was insane, but even with more than 1000 students on Grimnoah and even with enough adult teachers to manage and teach them, no one was likely to oppose Marika or Kyouka if they made a decision. Not even that muscular gym(?) teacher named Kiyosawa Hadome.
Once the scales tilted in that direction, there would be no stopping it.
That was how powerful they were as individuals.
In fact, this second ship had been built for them.
“I certainly take issue with how Marika-san jumps right to ‘kill her’, but I take issue with your stance as well, Karuta-kun. Why are you so intent on siding with Natalena Blast? Where did this empathy come from? Thinking back, you might find it was artificially injected into you by Natalena herself.”
She had a point.
Now that she mentioned it, he could see it.
He knew nothing about Natalena, but the way she had cowered down like a small animal and used lots of ums and uhs when speaking had clearly been a way of putting him off his guard. Deciding to protect her based on that would indeed be the height of folly. Or did he feel guilty because he had killed Anastasia? If so, why? They had been in the right to seek vengeance and they had been given no other choice. Protecting her sister as a form of atonement would deny the very foundation of what they had done.
He thought about it.
And he gave his honest response.
“I can’t do that again.”
“Kill someone. We have no reason this time and killing people is supposed to be wrong by default! Last time, we had to kill them because the world was broken and that was the only way to fix it. But not this time!! Like it or not, we’re the strongest, so we should be able to use that position to show leniency and settle this without killing her. Instead of killing her because we have no reason not to, why can’t we not kill her because we have no reason to!? Isn’t that how the world is supposed to work!?”
“Then you do that, Karuta.”
Marika finally spoke.
As expected, she viewed things in very simple terms when it came to combat.
“But I will kill her. That way you don’t have to dirty your hands.”
That was not what he meant. He wanted to protect everyone, including Marika and Kyouka, but if Marika refused, that was that. Her life was hers to live. Her thought process was simple and violent, but she was facing the crux of the issue.
If they did not all agree here, they would only do Natalena harm individually.
That was meaningless.
People only had one life, so if any of them played the “kill her” card on a whim, Natalena was dead. And that single mistake would drag all of them down. Just like it had with Anastasia’s group!!
“Ah ha ha. Looks like she outplayed you there, Karuta-kun.” Kyouka laughed innocently and winked. “Now, I think what you’re saying is right, but being right does not mean everyone will accept what you’re saying. If you fail to negotiate and you use simple emotion to force your view through, all you’ve done is reject our own feelings.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Well, we could draw lots to make sure it’s fair. Could you grab that notepad and red pen from the desk there?”
Omotesandou Kyouka tore off a blank sheet of paper, tore that into four quarters, and drew a red dot at the center of one piece. She tossed the four pieces into an empty box with a round hole on the top. The new Student Council probably used that when allotting jobs.
There was no way of calculating the right answer here. This suggestion looked hopeless at first glance, but then the boy realized what the Student Council President had done. She really was the adult in the room.
How many pieces of paper had she thrown in that box?
With enough for every member of the new world’s strongest, he had another option.
“Power up! Come on out, Aine!!”
The pale-skinned crystal girl slipped out from Karuta’s stomach.
She awaited orders with a tilt of her expressionless head and her presence changed everything.
“We don’t both need to win. You take my side here!”
“If you say so.”
That response made it hard to believe someone’s life was on the line. She made it sound like he had decided they would be eating gyudon for lunch at the school cafeteria.
Marika was unsure how, but she guessed things were changing for her.
“Wait! You think you have better odds if you have Aine-chan drawing for you too, but there are no absolutes in matters of luck!”
“Then what are you so worried about? C’mon, everyone, let’s stick our hands in there. Ready, go!”
Yes, Karuta was guaranteed a win with this method.
Marika gave a shout and Kyouka smiled in a conspiratorial way, but it was already over.
Karuta pulled his hand from the box first.
“There’s the red dot. I win. We will protect Natalena. Marika, no complaining, okay!?”
“~ ~ ~!!”
Red in the face, Marika spun fiercely toward Kyouka, but the Student Council President only shrugged.
“It sucks, but we can’t blame Karuta-kun in a game of chance, can we? We can only curse or own rotten luck.”
“You planned this from the start.”
“What ever are you talking about?”
That was the end of it. The door slammed open and shut with a sound like a bombing. Marika was so disgusted with them she had stormed out. But since she had agreed to the terms, she would not go and kill Natalena without telling them. If she did, Grimnoah would fall apart, starting from the four figures at its center – Karuta, Aine, Marika, and Kyouka. Since Marika’s focus was on protecting those on her side above all else, doing that would be counterproductive.
Karuta sighed while watching the door through which Marika had left.
“I’m amazed you came up with that on the spot.”
“Oh? I’m amazed you saw through it so quickly, Karuta-kun.”
All four of them had stuck their hands in the box at once.
But Karuta would win as long as either he or Aine drew the winning paper. So as long as Aine pushed Marika and Kyouka’s hands to the edge of the box, he could take his time feeling for the correct paper.
Kyouka had torn up a single piece of notebook paper and then drew a big red dot on it with pen. Only one of them had that, so he could recognize it by touch.
“Thank you so much, Omotesandou-san. I honestly couldn’t have done it without you.”
“To be clear, I wasn’t trying to be kind. Unlike Marika-san. I’m only helping you for the time being because we can’t get any information out of Natalena if we kill her now. As long as she remains alive, she can be tortured at any time. So if we can’t get enough information your way, I will suggest we make another choice. Between protecting her and torturing her.”
“And I will not help you like that next time. The rules are entirely different when you’re on your own. So, Karuta-kun, do you really think you can outdo me in a pure debate?”
“We both know I can’t.”
Kyouka was the master of trickery. If he had holed up in a room and thought for hours on end, he might have managed the same result, but she had won it in a split-second decision. Her idea had been excellent and she had proposed it at the best possible time, so Karuta and Marika both had let it happen without realizing anything had changed. If that cunning and that speed were turned against him, he would be cornered and torn to shreds before he could even think through his own position.
The schemer in the wheelchair laughed.
“Then give this everything you’ve got. I only care about getting results; the method used is irrelevant. If you can earn her trust and get the information out of her your way, then it is sure to provide a much brighter future for Natalena Blast.”
Of course, this did not mean Omotesandou Kyouka was fully and unconditionally taking his side.
“But if you fail, things will be different. Professional torture is not a pretty sight. The physical scars can be healed with magic, but the psychological ones are a different story.”
“I really, really don’t like you. Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to like you barbaric practical types.”
“I’m really not sure what to say other than sorry, Kiyosawa-sensei. And that I really do appreciate you taking this girl’s side.”
“The fact that you bother to bow your head despite being one of the world-renowned strongests pisses me off most of all!! Anyway, we have confirmed the inaccuracies in her personal information too. We have yet to decide how to deal with this, but I will commend you for not killing her.”
Utagai Karuta was inside Grimnoah’s infirmary.
A lot of movement could be heard in the distance since it was a break between classes. Based on the bits and pieces of voices he could hear, some boys were making paper airplane test flights in the long hallway.
A quiet groan left Natalena Blast’s lovely lips.
She tried to rub her eyes and realized her dominant hand would not budge below the blanket.
And it was worse than that. She was strapped down by thick belts on both her arms, both her legs, her undeveloped chest, and her waist, which had yet to develop its curves. That kept her from even rolling over from her back.
Karuta was casually peering down at her small face.
“Good morning, Natalena. Medical technology is an incredible thing. You woke up right on time.”
“What…ah!? What are you- ghh!!”
“Moving will only make it tighter. And I can’t blame you for not noticing the belts until now; we were keeping you on some light anesthetic. Using a plastic mask over your face.”
“H-how do you know my name?”
“How do you think, Natalena Blast?”
She must have felt like she had been placed on the chopping block while still alive. So many beads of sweat appeared on her skin that he wondered if it was some kind of side effect from the anesthetic. And the fact remained that he could have done anything to her if he wanted to. Even things her young mind could never imagine.
However, he secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
He was glad she seemed to be doing well. It felt weird worrying about an assassin trying to take his life, but he would not let anyone he knew dirty their hands with unnecessary killing or torture.
Murder was wrong.
Whether or not they could create a world based on that rule was dependent on what happened here.
In a way, the standard assumptions of the world as a whole were being shaken up by Grimnoah. Including whether people would feel sorry for Natalena for having her sister killed and failing to take revenge against that sister’s killer. If Karuta failed by letting her be killed or tortured, people would see it as her just deserts. The entire world would take that stance against a sobbing 12-year-old girl. Then his group would take the same path as the Problem Solvers. The supposed world’s strongest would be headed toward a literal dead end.
He had to earn Natalena Blast’s trust in the given time period.
And he had to use that trust to get information on the string-puller who had assisted her.
They were just like the police detective and suspect in the interrogation room.
They might start out as enemies, but they could build trust between themselves.
“What? Um, uh, what is this?”
She twisted her body to try to dodge what he tossed toward her flat chest, but then she stopped.
He had returned her translucent Crystal Blossom, the source of her Crystal Magic’s power.
Then he pulled the blanket from her and began undoing the thick belts strapping her to the bed.
On the inside, he was scared. There was no right answer here.
But he had to look confident right now. This girl’s life was in his hands, so he had to see it through. He could not let his attitude regarding her change from moment to moment. He had to tell himself that while once more releasing that small predator.
“Those things are important, so don’t lose it again. Also, you’ll probably feel woozy for a bit thanks to the anesthetic, so be careful not to trip. The Preset barrier might not even work in your current state.”
“What, um, wh-what, uh, what are you doing?” she asked while getting up.
Her ums and uhs were apparently a natural thing and not some high-level disguise. Even after all her planning, surprisingly little had been an act, which he found very likable. She must not have been cut out for doing bad things. It was Karuta’s group that dragged her into this. It did not matter whether or not her revenge was justified; there was no need for her to sully herself that way.
Karuta looked to the side in a somewhat performative way.
“You also shouldn’t wear those gym clothes forever. The uniform designs were all just carried over from the first ship, but the bloomers are honestly a little much. Especially around the, um, crotch.”
“Oh, eh, kyah!?”
She blushed and frantically tried to hide herself with the blanket and Karuta could not help but laugh a little. She was far from a perfect avenger. She had not frozen over to the extent his group had. She could still return to her former life, so it was his job to make her want to do that.
“I’ll leave your uniform here, so shut the partition curtain and change into it. Then head back to class. You need to make up for what you missed while you were out.”
“A-are you sure you should, um, well, uh, l-let me go free? I could attack you in your sleep and learning Crystal Magic in class will only give me more tools for my revenge.”
She looked up at him in a nervous way. She looked like someone worried the food they were offered was poisoned. Or maybe she felt like she needed to act tough if she was to accept any kindness from her enemy. Karuta knew he would have been unsure how to respond if Anastasia had started giving him personal magic lessons to help make him stronger.
But he also had an obligation to keep the others safe. He was not her only target of revenge. If she was only interested in attacking him, he would have gone along with the farce, but things changed if she might attack Marika or Kyouka. It was even possible she would sneak into the engine room and blow up the entire ship to kill just him. That meant he had to take a harsher stance here.
“I will be taking measures against that. And you might just scream when I tell you what that means.”
When he faced her with a cheerful smile, she jumped and shrank down more like a small animal afraid of a loud noise than someone preparing for a fight.
“Aine,” he said.
A pale figure slipped out from his body. That was the actual “weapon” that had defeated Natalena, but the young girl looked confused. Her defeat may have been so quick and unexpected that she had no actual memory of it.
And Utagai Karuta made his announcement.
“Unless you encounter some sort of special circumstances, stay with Natalena Blast 24/7 from now on. And make sure she does not cause any more trouble. Physically make sure, I mean.”
The girl’s mind went blank.
But a further attack filled that blank with a form of utter despair for her sensitive early adolescent mind.
“Understood. I will not leave her side even when she is bathing or changing. Miss Natalena, we can share a bed tonight. You might have trouble sleeping at first, but I will solidly latch my arms and legs around you so you cannot slip out at night.”
She screamed, just as he had prophesied.
Aine expressionlessly tilted her head and provided some entirely unhelpful advice.
“Do not worry. You will have plenty of time to get used to it.”
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka sighed back in their semi-secret base that was the Student Council Room.
“What’s wrong, Omotesandou-san?”
She shook her head at the inquiry from the earnest-looking Treasurer with a black bob cut.
The Treasurer, Secretary, and all other members of the Student Council except for the President herself were Regulation 1. That pained Kyouka a bit as the only Regulation 3 remaining.
(Hm, maybe I should go have Karuta-kun or Marika-san comfort me later.)
No, she could not do that. While she saw them as equal accomplices who had shared good and bad times with her, those two would still see her as a distant upperclassman.
(This is such a lonely position.)
But maybe she had no right to complain.
There was something she had not told even Karuta and Marika who had helped her eliminate the Problem Solvers.
The students and teachers who had been killed and reduced to crystal during the First Out Incident were not in as desperate a situation as it seemed. At the cost of her own body, Kyouka had accelerated their regeneration speed ten-thousand-fold, so they would likely return to normal in a year or so at the most.
There were two important things to note here.
First, if the students and teachers assisted by Kyouka’s trick were cracked or shattered again from some external attack, they would lose that ten-thousand-times acceleration. Second, no one could be added to the list. So if someone from the Second Grimnoah were to receive a mortal wound, that was that. Kyouka’s trick would not apply to them, so it would take centuries or millennia for them to recover.
That had been a desperate measure that came at the cost of her life as a Crystal Magician, so it could only be done the once and there were no do-overs.
She had a simple reason for not informing her accomplices of this hope.
(I thought we could live happily ever after once we completed our revenge against the Problem Solvers.)
It saddened her, but she had resigned herself to holding this position. She had never been the type to smile bright and spread her arms below the shining sun.
Even if she did wish she could be that type.
(But it looks like there is more to this.)
The unknown Threat was attempting to drive the entire human race to extinction.
The human string-pullers made sure they benefited even from the battle between the world’s strongest and the Threat.
And now there was Anastasia’s sister.
That far too immature avenger seemed to be giving them a taste of their own medicine.
That looked like several distinct threads, but she had no idea what they might link back too. They might indeed be entirely separate, or they might all join together. She was concerned this might be a diversion meant to hide something, but it was also possible the answer had been right in front of her all this time.
(I can’t tell anyone about this.)
She quietly narrowed her eyes while viewing the black bob cut Treasurer and redheaded buns Secretary who adored her like two puppies. Parts of society were now supported by the assumption that Crystal Magic was the strongest and its practitioners would protect humanity from the Threat. There could be no doubts introduced about that future.
She would have to review each thing in turn.
So she began wondering where to place herself on the game board.
“Well, a coward only has one place here. I should focus on the messy human conspiracies, I suppose.”
The innocent and adorable Treasurer’s questioning gaze did nothing to stop the President’s thoughts.
(We know there are problems remaining, so if we let our guard down before grasping the big picture, we’re done for. I feel bad doing this to Karuta-kun and Marika-san, but revealing this secret will have to come later.)
Natalena Blast returned to her classes that afternoon.
She had to go by Jane Ignition there, which could be confusing.
“Geh. Cooking class immediately after lunch? Who thought that was a good idea?”
“Right, right? Whey not put it before lunch!?”
“Or they could at least make it something that has to sit, so we can eat it for dinner or a late-night snack.”
In the cooking classroom, the other 1st-year middle school girls were pouting their lips and booing while wearing bandannas on their heads and aprons over their uniforms. At that age, they were growing girls and their diet was directly linked to the figure they would develop as they grew up, but they put more effort into reducing their stomach value than into the possibility of increasing their chest value.
If Karuta’s memory served him, the woman with semi-long flaxen hair and a cheap tight skirt suit was Sophia Firenze. That nervous, theory-focused teacher stood in front of the large cooking surface that doubled as a teacher’s desk, but she must have known she would not be able to handle this because she had called Karuta in as a Temporary Substitute Teacher’s Assistant(?). Because he had experience and he was known as the world’s strongest.
He was not a teacher himself, so he should have been sitting in a corner like he was merely observing the class, but everyone was focused on him.
That was hard on his heart even over in the corner.
He had never wanted to be a Class Rep.
But right now, he had to hide the part of him that was worrying about screwing up and embarrassing himself.
He shined a laser pointer on the text already written on the blackboard.
“Okay, regeneration is one of Crystal Magic’s Presets, but it isn’t all-powerful. Alice, Riho, Sanae, everyone else, please pay attention. To the blackboard, not me.”
That track suit teacher must have happened by in the hallway because he sent a bitter look inside the classroom before walking off. For some bizarre reason, someone without a teaching license was teaching in their own personal style. Who could say what kind of false information and personal bad habits he would transfer to the listeners? Karuta could not agree more. He was as puzzled as anyone why he was doing this, but his concerns did not seem to reach the nervous female teacher.
The boy respected that teacher out in the hall, so he surreptitiously nodded back while sending the laser pointer along the blackboard text. That act was a lot like using a highlighter in a textbook. It helped deepen the students’ understanding, but he could not have explained anything without Sophia-sensei there to provide the accurate information in the first place.
“The regeneration is powerful enough to put any doctor to shame by healing any wound or illness in thirty seconds. It is fantastically effective on wounds received from an external source, but it has trouble with anything you are already missing. For example, oxygen, nutrients, or water. The regeneration can only heal non-lethal wounds. So if you starve to death, the healing process is skipped and you are immediately crystallized.”
That explanation was enough to eliminate the scattered discussions among the students and draw all their focus on the blackboard and him in the corner. His combat experience meant a lot here. Although he did wish the nervous female teacher would not look up to him like that, since she was the one with the accurate information.
Those noisy middle school girls required as delicate a touch as if he were working in an ammo dump full of static electricity, but if he thought back to when he was analyzing the Problem Solvers, he managed to calm himself some. After all, failing here would not mean losing his own or someone else’s life.
(Well, all this took was a bit of observation. It’s obvious those three are the center of the class, so I was right to single them out at the start. I think I deserve a bonus for this. By which I mean a dessert.)
Natalena was clearly uncomfortable here.
He could hardly blame her when she was being taught about the powers that took her sister’s life.
He could not tailor this class to everyone here, unfortunately. This was all very bad for his heart, but he managed to keep going without finding himself at a loss for words. He was over in a corner and the text on the blackboard had been written by a real teacher, so he figured he could not go wrong here. He had to remind himself he was not standing up on the gallows.
He could do this. He had kept his mind from going blank so far.
He knew what he had to say. And what order to say it in.
“In that sense, knowing how to acquire ingredients and how to cook them into an edible form are no laughing matter. You will be fighting against the Threat eventually and you never know what will happen on the battlefield. Do not assume you will always be supported by a strong supply line and transportation of goods like the textbooks so often assume. When isolated on the battlefield, you need the survival skills to get by on your own. If you have trouble in a kitchen with gas and electricity, you can never hope to cook outdoors.”
“Heh heh hehh.”
One of the main trio of girls laughed in a nasty way.
This signaled one of her unpleasant adlibs was coming, so he had to be on his guard.
Thus spoke the 13-year-old girl with tanned skin and silver hair who liked to stand out (and was quickly growing into a delinquent).
“Then I take it you’re confident in your own skills, Senpai?”
“Of course I am, Riho.”
He was of course terrified of the expectant way this younger girl was testing him, but he could not let that show.
“Whichever group gets me is lucky. I have a habit of making my own lunches for a change of pace.”
“Wow! Well, I hope you’re not all talk. We can be picky when it comes to food, after all.”
That impressed-sounding comment came from Alice, a girl with a blonde ponytail. But when she looked that surprised, it made him feel like she was actually mocking him.
They were not being assigned a specific dish to fix. Instead, they were given a list of numbers indicating the calories and necessary nutrients. Grimnoah’s cooking classes had you provide those numbers in 5 dishes or less. There were many different types of cooking. If you wanted to make it as simple as possible, you would have to check out the online recipes and nutritional science books yourself.
He noticed something odd about Sanae, a nervous-looking girl with glasses and with her black hair tied back into two tails. The tails began at the bottom of her head, so they apparently did not qualify as twintails. Anyway, she was dissolving a teaspoon of salt into a bottle of water, but that did not seem related to their cooking in any way.
Riho, from her team, smiled bitterly.
“Sanae, I’m pretty sure we’re fine since it’s the middle of class.”
“Ha, ah ha ha. But Utagai-senpai is here today, so I’m nervous enough to want my good luck charm.”
He could not figure out what they would be “fine” from or what kind of good luck charm that was. After some thought…
“Did you register your Crystal Magic with Bastet?”
“That isn’t one of those water bottles used to keep cats away. And if that was her god, why would she want to keep it away?”
When Riho refuted his thought that quickly, there was nothing he could do. Unfortunately, he did not know of any jinxes that used water bottles.
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Do not mind me. Now, let’s make some delicious food together.”
Natalena was being extra cautious and Crystal Girl Aine responded to the girl’s concern with her usual lack of expression. Surprisingly, Aine was wearing an apron. She was gathering confused attention since she was not part of the class, but being one of the world’s strongest may have been enough for them to accept this oddity without question.
Yes, Aine was also one of the Four Living Gods. When the person who barged in unannounced was a well-known athlete or actor, it apparently made for a pleasant surprise.
Natalena must have had some cooking experience because she began by disinfecting her knife and cutting board instead of getting right to chopping the vegetables and meat. But she was still focused on that crystal girl visible out of the corner of her eye.
“Wow, Senpai-san! You actually know how to remove the eyes of the potato!?”
“Are your compliments set to super easy mode, Sanae!? Were you a slave elf in some other world during your past life or something!?”
Utagai Karuta prepared the vegetables while chatting with the trio of girls at the center of the class. Natalena had been set free for now, but she could still have her revenge if she killed him. She had a knife, blunt objects, fire, and heated objects here. The kitchen was a cornucopia of weapons.
(Maybe he’ll let his guard down.)
If she was willing to accept mutual destruction – if she did not care what happened to herself – she could make an attack at close range here. He was not the only world’s strongest and this method would make things more difficult with the others, but she could at least take down one of them. She tightly gripped the knife in her small hand so no one else would notice.
(I just have to send him to hell before he can use his real power!!)
“Miss Natalena, that is not how you do that.”
She was hit by a sudden “attack” from behind.
Crystal Girl Aine placed her arms around the girl from behind and grabbed both her wrists.
“It seems to me a peeler would be faster with something as small as a carrot, but if you do want to use a knife, you do it like this. Be very careful you do not cut your fingers.”
It may have looked like a very hands-on lesson, but this was far more than that. Natalena was pushing so hard it made her red in the face, but Aine’s arms would not budge. It was like being made into a puppet or having your powered suit hijacked from the outside. She was powerless to stop it as Aine moved the girl’s arms to peel an incredibly thin layer of the carrot’s skin. Natalena’s resistance did not even cause her to cut her finger.
It was more like being held by a vise than handcuffs. It was so strong she feared that fighting too hard would smash her wrist bones.
“Oh? What’s this? Looks like those two are really good friends.”
“Um, Riho-chan? Are you sure they’re just friends? I think that biting of the earlobe is crossing the line into something else.”
“Jane-san’s blushing, so I think she’s into it.”
Natalena shook her head to deny it, but it did not look like that misunderstanding was going away.
Aine whispered in her ear so no one else could hear.
“Now for the finishing touch: a maid café’s secret ingredient. Let’s do it together, okay? Delicious Spell: Love Love Kaboom.”
“Stop, stop, stop, stoooop!! Um, uh, I’ll do it right, I swear!!”
Utagai Karuta sighed. The relief and exhaustion he felt when he left the room containing Natalena, his would-be assassin, told him just how nervous he had been. Plus, that cooking classroom had been full of younger kids. He really was out of his element when it came to public speaking.
During the short break in between classes, he glanced down at his phone and grimaced.
“Riho> Oh, no! Help me, Karuta-senpai! Today’s homework is too hard! What are the components of the fast-acting medicine used to heal eye strain which directly affects targeting performance? That’s practically alchemy, so why is it part of our home ec homework!?”
“Alice> Just so you know, she’s posting this with her phone while in the middle of changing in the locker room. Hopefully that exciting mental image will make you respond sooner.”
School wasn’t even out yet and they were already stooping to that level on social media. Regardless, he could not just give them the answer to their homework, so he would have to only tell them how they could solve it. He generally just copied the writing on the blackboard into his notes, so he only realized now how hard teaching was. You had to make it simple and easy to understand, but also make sure it stuck in people’s memories. If he could do that with ease, he felt like he could become a social media influencer or a top blogger.
That said, he had his own business to attend to.
He walked to the middle school faculty room on an invitation from that female teacher.
This was a strange place for him. He should have had no business in the middle school at all and the faculty room was a tense place for a student like him.
All the more so when all of the teachers were the theory-focused types brought in to replace the old teachers.
He was a practical type, so he used Crystal Magic entirely differently from them.
“Oh, Utagai-kun. Over here, over here.”
The teacher who had taken to him like a puppy energetically beckoned him over.
That was Sophia Firenze.
“Kiyosawa-sensei would let me have it if he saw this, so you came at the perfect time. Nicely done, Utagai-kun.”
She received that kind of treatment in the faculty room too? Karuta had to rub his fingers against his temples.
“So what did you need?”
“Not much. First order of business is this ginger pork meal.”
“Ah ha ha. I got carried away and made too much. But we can’t waste food, so let’s eat it together.”
He had already eaten too much with that cooking class immediately following lunch, yet now he had to share an oversized meal. That meant eating three lunches back to back, making for way too much. Was this teacher trying to give him a pimply face?
He accepted the chopsticks like he was looking up at a steep mountain he had to climb.
“Um, Utagai-kun, you have been helping out with my classes lately.”
“So, well, I was thinking you might be having trouble keeping up with your own classes. The more you help me, the less time you have for your own studies, after all.”
He was honestly surprised by this.
His eyes even widened.
“Sensei, you actually sound like a teacher right now.”
“You really shouldn’t make fun of someone when they’re trying to be nice!”
She was exactly right, so he had to apologize.
Afterwards, he noticed something curious on her desk.
It almost looked like a kid’s meal toy, but it was too weird for that.
“Sensei, what is that?”
“That is a model. Although it’s only based on secondhand information.”
Sophia Firenze gave it a loving look while her flaxen hair swayed. It was made of a light blue material that did not appear to be plastic. It was probably clay or something similar, but he doubted it had been molded by hand. It looked more like a machine had sliced pieces away to create the extremely intricate palm-sized model sitting on her desk.
He was not sure how to describe it.
It looked like a monster with a rhino beetle’s head and thorax and lots of octopus-like tentacles below that. It looked biological but also like a bizarre missile.
Sophia Firenze readily explained what it was.
With a smile on her face.
“That is what we predict the Threat looks like.”
They really existed?
He thought his breathing had stopped, but she quickly waved her hands in front of her face.
“Oh, but we don’t actually know if this is accurate.”
“Our focus is on theory, so we’ve don’t do any fighting ourselves. We never accompanied the Problem Solvers when they fought the Threat. Um…the headmaster of the first ship had a good relationship with those five, so information tended to spread from them to the headmaster and from him to us. Information only ever went in the one direction, though, so I don’t think the Problem Solvers knew we even existed. I hate to admit it, but we really didn’t have any information worth giving them.”
That was to be expected.
If that five had known of them, they would have been eliminated before even Grimnoah. Crystal Magicians who could not fight would have been the perfect targets for the people who wanted to obliterate that type of magic.
Sophia, who had survived without fighting, gave a weak smile toward Karuta, who had survived by fighting.
“S-so all the data this is based on came from the Problem Solvers and it’s hard to say how reliable that actually is. I mean, they were on such good terms with the old headmaster, but they still caused the First Out Incident. There is actually a really good chance everything they gave us was either entirely false or modified in some way.”
He wondered about that.
It was hard to say either way.
The odds of any malice there seemed to depend a lot on which specific member of the Problem Solvers was supplying the data. With Elicia or Yukino, he could imagine them maliciously altering the data just for kicks. But what if it was Anastasia? That hopelessly powerful strongest had been focused on preserving her position at the top by defeating any and all challengers, so he doubted she would use any trickery like that.
And he did remember one thing Anastasia had said.
“They do exist.”
“Whatever they look like, the Threat does exist. That woman said so even though we didn’t ask.”
After home ec, they had gym class.
Instead of Crystal Magic combat, it was a swimming lesson.
“Hm, at least they’re sensible enough to give us some exercise to work off the food.”
“Hm? Senpai, what’s with you? Feeling seasick?”
Alice, whose blonde ponytail made it hard to believe she could be anything but a cheerleader, gave him a puzzled look. She did not seem to consider the fact that he had eaten four meals already today with breakfast, lunch, cooking class, and the teacher’s ginger pork.
She was wearing a school swimsuit. And while Grimnoah was a giant ship floating in the ocean, they were using an indoor racing pool that reeked of chlorine.
For some reason, tanned and silver-haired Riho put her hands on her hips and laughed loudly.
“Wah hah hah! All these healthy girls in swimsuits got you excited, Karuta-senpai!?”
“Um, he’s having trouble answering, so should we take that as a yes?”
“Eh? He’s not an adult, so isn’t he in the clear for feeling that way? Now, any man saying that deserves a summary execution.”
Things were sounding dangerous already. It was unclear where the line between child and adult lay for them and it would likely change based on their mood. Was it Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka who had said they had to constantly worry about cameras? He decided it would be best to come up with his own line he would not cross instead of leaving that up to the girls.
Alice seemed confident in her swimsuit, but Sanae was the opposite. That glasses girl was blushing and hiding behind the blonde ponytail girl. When Riho moved in from the side, that trio of friends was complete.
“Help us with our warmup exercises, Senpai. Make sure you get all up close and personal with lots of body contact.”
“Okay, I’m definitely defining that as over the line.”
It turned out Kiyosawa Hadome, the teacher who used his muscles as a weapon, was indeed a gym teacher.
Karuta was here helping him.
However, the girls did not seem to have much respect for that muscular teacher.
“If Senpai can teach us, why do we need anyone else?”
“This is no laughing matter,” cautioned the man. “This is a pool, so what if there is an accident?”
“Oh, how scary. By the way, what’s with all the muscles? Doesn’t Crystal Magic armor buff your physical abilities?”
(Now that he had managed to settle his stomach some,) Karuta scratched at his head with a hand.
The students seemed to look down on the man, but they were sorely mistaken. Just as Marika had made a point of jogging in the gym, the translucent armor’s boost to your specs did not mean your base stamina was meaningless. You had to use the magic yourself, so you needed a strong body to use it to its fullest.
But they lost sight of that with the Utagai Karuta standing next to the man.
One was the world’s strongest and the other was not. Anyone would pale in comparison to that. Even though his specs were actually quite good when viewed on their own.
Karuta had not wanted to become the strongest and Kiyosawa Hadome had not wanted to not become the strongest. The only difference was whether or not they had been on the first ship and whether or not they had survived. That was all. The boy himself had fled the ship while abandoning so many friends seeking help.
(Who do they think Utagai Karuta is? This is all so silly.)
To correct their mistake, the boy called over to the students with a bitter look on his face.
It was bad for his heart, but he had to force a tough voice here.
“Yes, Senpai!? Pay attention, everyone!!”
The swimsuit girls and boys immediately stopped talking.
The male teacher blatantly clicked his tongue at how they formed a perfect line on the poolside and straightened their backs. He had wanted a line, but this one was not centered on him. Karuta had been trying to take the man’s side, but it had not worked out that way.
He felt intensely awkward, so he felt a need to whisper in the man’s ear.
“(I really am sorry about all the trouble, Sensei.)”
“(I already knew there was nothing I could do. Listen, I will speak up if you tell them anything wrong and I will step in if any of the students are in danger. This is your kingdom and you can rule as you please, but those are the two things I refuse to back down on.)”
He made sure to look Karuta in the eye as he said it, which actually put the boy at ease. This was how a teacher was meant to be. He was stubborn, but it was not about preserving his own pride.
Karuta took a deep breath to focus himself.
He forced himself into his public mode and began speaking.
“Think back to what you learned in cooking class because this is the same. Crystal Magic’s regeneration has trouble with damage coming from something you are missing, so it won’t help you if you drown. And your flight won’t always work the way you want it to. You at least need to learn how to float in the ocean or a river if you’re shot down.”
The tanned silver-haired girl gave a snort of laughter, but it was hard to look tough in a school swimsuit, especially one with her name written on the chest nametag in big black writing.
“That’s child’s play.”
“I said this is if you’re shot down. Are you sure you can manage it with an arm or a leg broken or with a broken rib impaling your lung?”
“We won’t actually do that to you for class of course, but take this.”
He tossed rolls of waterproof duct tape toward the group of middle school swimsuit students. On the inside, he was afraid none of them would actually reach out to catch them.
After trying it a few times, he found that people preferred to preserve the beauty of a situation.
“Fold up your dominant arm and wrap the tape around your torso to bind it there. For this first lesson, you only have to float on your back. You can buy this tape for cheap at any hardware store, but it will show you how difficult a slight change to your abilities can be.”
In fact, during the First Out Incident that sunk the first Grimnoah, quite a few of the students and teachers had helplessly fallen into the ocean when the giant ship had been sliced apart. They had dressed themselves in next-generation magic while being told they could do anything, but it had turned out they could do nothing at all while they suffered and died. Of course, he was not about to share that with these current students who were filled with hope for their future.
He continued while making sure to keep the emotion out of his voice.
“Form groups of three and have one of you try it while the other two help them if they sink. Swap out who floats every so often.”
Hesitantly, or maybe skeptically, the middle school students entered the pool with their dominant arms taped to them as instructed.
“Whoa, what’s going on!? I’m spinning and spinning and- gurgle gurgle!!”
“Riho, Alice. Help Sanae!”
Before Karuta had even finished shouting from the poolside, the muscular teacher had jumped in. The two girls apparently had trouble rescuing the third from the water, but Kiyosawa Hadome circled behind the glasses girl, supported her back, and lifted her from the water.
“I hope you learned something from this, boy!!”
“I’m sorry, Sensei! Thanks so much!!”
He had no choice but to bow down at a 45-degree angle.
Reality was so uncooperative. Since two other students had trouble rescuing the one, it looked like he needed to give them a float like a swim ring or kickboard next time. He decided he was a failure of a teacher from the moment he had told the students to use this method before he tested it out himself.
Nevertheless, Kiyosawa Hadome did not demand an end to the lesson as a whole.
He took into account who the students were wiling to listen to and who they wanted help from. Even if the boy was inexperienced and did things his own way. The man was such a good teacher he almost seemed dangerous. Karuta really wished he could stop teaching since it was so bad for his heart, but he had no choice but to keep going in his nice and clean public mode.
“If you think of the human body as a large float, then folding up an arm like that will mess with its balance. Which leads to what you saw there. Your usual habits get in the way and the assumption that you can float by going limp no longer applies. You try to float on your back, but you end up tensing one side and flipping over.”
“Do you finally get it now, Riho? If she had been alone among the large waves of the real ocean, she would have died. So think about how you can fix that and try it again.”
“Y-you aren’t going to tell us what to do?”
The glasses girl had grown even more timid than usual, probably because she had nearly drowned just now, but Karuta winked at her as he responded. His heart was still pounding, but he had to keep a smile.
“Don’t expect things to be easy on Grimnoah.”
The groups of three began their attempts.
This time, the rescuers were holding kickboards to give to their friend if that friend flipped over and started drowning. Their usual balance was off, so they would flip over if they tried to stay on their back in the usual way. But when they tried to shift their center of gravity in the opposite direction, they would tense up weirdly and they would start to sink. The idea sounded simple enough, but it was much easier said than done. Kiyosawa Hadome (a worrier who cared deeply about his students) jumped in to rescue one of them on occasion, but he had little to do once the boys and girls in swimsuits got the hang of it.
Aine, whose school swimsuit was inexplicably white, called out to him from the chlorine-smelling water.
“Lonely Natalena cannot find a third partner. Will you help us?”
“I am not lonely!! Um, uh, well, you’re scaring away everyone else by hanging around me! And why are you wearing that weird swimsuit!?”
“If you do not like it, I would be willing to remove it. Shall I?”
“Absolutely not!!” shouted Natalena with a blush.
She must have been surprisingly concerned about how the others saw her. This was a good sign since it meant she was capable of focusing on other things in the middle of her revenge. If she was not stubbornly fixated on it, she could be persuaded.
A different sort of tension snuck into Karuta through his fingertips.
He made sure not to let it show on his face as he made a suggestion.
“Okay, Jane-san. ‘Break’ your dominant hand. Place it over your chest like you’re grabbing your opposite shoulder.”
He had called her Jane instead of Natalena. Unlike Aine who did not care about such things (since she was not human), Karuta was showing a willingness to go along with her farce.
“Wh-why me? Anyone in our team could do it.”
“We already know the answer, so testing us is meaningless. There is a way of floating like this.”
After grabbing the roll of waterproof duct tape, Karuta whispered in the girl’s ear.
“(Also, binding my dominant hand in the pool might seem like the perfect chance to drown me, but it won’t be that easy. I won’t take your revenge from you right away, so keep at it until you’ve had enough.)”
This time, her small shoulders visibly jumped.
Karuta’s group had worried over how to maintain their desire for vengeance. As Natalena met setbacks, she would wither and be neutralized if she failed to overcome that issue herself. That was not his main plan with her, but he did hope it would happen.
He checked in the corner of his vision and noticed Kiyomasa Hadome (who knew of the “situation” with that girl) giving him a restless look. He really was a good teacher. His lack of popularity with the students had to be some kind of mistake. Karuta wanted to fix that, but his help would probably only hurt the adult’s pride. Human relationships were tricky.
Natalena did not notice any of that as she slowly opened her mouth.
“O-okay. Um, I’ll do it.”
(Is she sticking to her student role here? No, I suppose not. Is she trying to put me at ease so she can try and drown me while my guard is down?)
He pulled off some duct tape with a painfully-loud riiiiip sound.
“Aine, hold her in place to make this easier.”
“Eh? Wait, you’re the one tying me up!? Um, but.”
He was wrapping the duct tape around her dominant arm and torso, so he could not help but apply pressure to her soft skin through her swimsuit. Too much pressure to her chest would obstruct her breathing, so he had to use a delicate touch.
Still, being tied up by an older member of the opposite sex had to be a rare experience for her.
In a swimsuit at that.
Not to mention in front of all her friends at school.
And by the very person who had killed her sister.
“That should do it. Try taking three deep breaths and tell me if you have any trouble.”
“Sacri-sama, isn’t that an inefficient bondage method? Why did you divide it into an upper and lower band of tape? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to place it all directly over her chest. Nice and tightly of course.”
“Shut up, Aine.”
At any rate, her dominant hand had been tied in place while folded up and pressed against her torso. Now it was time for her to test things out in the pool. After moving hip deep into the water, she glared up at him.
“O-okay, um, here I go.”
“I’ll rescue you if anything happens.”
“I do not want your help!!”
She shouted at him and he nearly yelled back on reflex, but then her entire body flipped around. It was a lot like someone slipping on a bar of soap in the bath and falling backwards. At the same time, a dull impact ran through his legs. But not because she had kicked him.
(She grabbed ahold of me?)
True enough, this was about the only real method of assassinating him in the public eye like this.
Their battle was playing out below the water.
She was grabbing at her would-be rescuer while she pretended to drown.
She had one arm bound, but she would still be able to immobilize him using her legs and her left arm. Plus, no specialized skills were needed here. In ocean rescue manuals, rescuers were told not to approach a drowning person from the front, even if they were a child.
Even a drowning amateur had enough strength to kill a professional rescuer. And if she succeeded, she could drown him while making it look like she had merely been a poor victim all along.
“Natalena has locked her legs around your hips, yet her upper body is not floating back up to the surface. Are you sure this gurgling avenger is not simply drowning?”
“Are you trying to test my patience!?”
“N-now, now, Kiyosawa-sensei. Isn’t that enough?”
“Do not spoil the boy, Firenze-sensei!! Besides, a mistake of this magnitude would not have occurred if you were not using a student as an unlicensed assistant when you are supposed to be leading the class yourself! Then there wouldn’t have been a victim and no one would have been at fault either!”
“W-wah, wah!! I-I will hold him back, so you run away, Utagai-kun!!”
Achievement Unlocked: A girl who loves her beauty sleep so much she gets taken to the infirmary twice in one day!
Achievement Unlocked: A super thirsty girl who latched onto her Senpai’s hips with her swimsuit crotch and refused to let go!
“I want to die.”
Natalena Blast brought a hand to her forehead after getting up from the infirmary bed in her damp school swimsuit. Her face was deeply colored by gloom. That was not what you wanted to be saying first thing after waking up. What nickname would she have once she returned to the classroom? What would things be like on their class’s social media group? Those thoughts may have been spinning endlessly through her mind.
Utagai Karuta quietly watched the girl from the folding chair next to the bed.
A lot had happened.
That muscular teacher was almost too good a person since his anger was over Natalena being made a victim and Karuta being placed at fault by the situation. He began thinking about asking Omotesandou Kyouka to make a statue of the man. His deeds needed to be commemorated on the front bow. Although doing so might enrage him.
But Karuta hid all of that inside and smiled toward the girl.
“Are you awake?”
“First you fall asleep in your gym clothes and now in your swimsuit. The school doctor actually laughed when I brought you in.”
“You did both of those to me.”
“I will admit that lesson could use some retooling. And I apologize for that. But I thought it would have been inappropriate for a guy like me to change you out of your swimsuit while you slept. Or would you have preferred I did?”
“~ ~ ~!!!???”
She belatedly realized her situation and blushed so bright he thought her face would burst into flames.
“What are you trying to do here? Thinking back, you were weird from the beginning. If you had left me there, I would have died and this would have been over. But you went out of your way to save me. You have no reason to let me go free like this.”
He had no answer for her.
In a way, she may have been right.
There were several obvious missing pieces in Natalena Blast’s revenge story. A 12-year-old girl would have trouble faking her identity on her own and it was a mystery how she had learned that Anastasia used Anubis. There was probably a string-puller out there who had supplied her with that information. But did they have to keep Natalena alive to locate that person? They might be able to track them down without her, or they might be able to use her death to rattle them.
So what was he really doing here?
His explanations were just an excuse and his real reason came down to emotion. Then what exactly were those emotions?
He bluntly confessed the answer.
“I don’t want anyone to die.”
“Not again. I don’t want to be the killer or the killed. I can tell you that both options suck. You see on TV and online that people can grow endlessly cruel when they’re winning the war and that people can do any ugly thing if they’re backed into a corner, but that’s not true. Some people are cut out for it and others aren’t. With a certain kind of person, they can pull out all the stops and truly enjoy it to the end as long as they can justify their actions.”
He spat out the words, but who was he referring to there?
The 5 mass murderers who had used God Worshiping Magic? Or the Crystal Magic avengers who had gone around the world pursuing those 5?
Small hands gripped tightly at the edge of the blanket, small teeth bit at a lovely lower lip, and words too immature to call a curse left those lips.
“You won’t get what you want.”
“You don’t want anyone to die? You! You killed my sister!! My…my one and only and irreplaceable sister!! You took her from me!”
He said nothing.
It was not that he could not say anything.
He stood in a position where he could chop off the powerless girl’s head at any moment if he did not like what she said, but he chose not to. He was one of the world’s strongest and he used that authority to preserve the life of this girl who would normally have died by now.
He imagined how he would have felt in a similar position.
What if Anastasia had saved his life on a whim and said she would spare his life as long as he stayed in her castle?
(I would have dealt with it.)
He had once been an immature avenger too. For better or for worse, he had been blessed with others who shared his goal, their carefully-thought-out plans had worked out thanks to some coincidental luck, and they had managed to complete their vengeance.
(I would have managed even if I was kept like a bird in a cage and even if I was placed in a position where I would starve to death without her kindness.)
He did not need any special profiling skills or polygraph equipment to know.
The answer seemed to slip smoothly into his mind.
He had been down that path himself, so the killer intent directed his way allowed him to accurately predict something here. And obvious killer intent was only seen as praiseworthy among delinquents. With an avenger and someone hoping to stop them, such an obvious sign only made you easy to read.
(She’ll never back down on this, even if she can only survive on the crumbs her enemy drops below the table. This is the one thing she will stick to no matter what.)
“I, Natalena Blast, will tear your life to shreds. You killed my sister yet have the nerve to act like a mere observer, so I will kill you in your sleep!!”
“Is that so?”
She probably meant every word, but he sighed before responding.
“Don’t push yourself too hard, okay?”
“Stop making fun of me!!!!!!”
Someone watched the girl throw a pillow in anger.
But that someone was watching from the high school building located opposite the middle school on the combined deck of the ship’s three-hull structure. Some parts of the school building were full of people and others were deserted. The next floor down was noisy, but this hallway was entirely silent.
“Imi> Ugh, this is awful. You can’t count on online shopping at all. This swimsuit isn’t the right size. Marika, tell me how to deal with the cooling off period.”
“Marika> Don’t blame the store. It’s not their fault your body is growing so fast.”
“Imi> You say that, but what’s your cup size nowadays!?”
She was chatting with her classmates on social media while she watched.
The twintails girl sighed and coolly activated her Crystal Blossom. The translucent armor covered her body and she flipped around the rapier-like device’s guard to reveal a laser beam unit. Marika used Tezcatlipoca, who was linked to an obsidian mirror, so she could make attacks using light. Her accuracy was perfect. At this range, she could provide dental work if someone opened their mouth. As long as they were fine with having the surface burned away without any anesthetic.
“Tayori> Does the sale on the new summer colors begin in May? The world’s fashions are getting so vivid. I hate all those bright fluorescent colors. Do you know any more mature online stores that have better taste?”
“Imi> Why do you love wearing those skimpy things, Tayori? Is it about the airflow???”
“Tayori> Shut it, thick cotton girl. I’m talking about mascara right now. And are you trying to make tofu with those striped panties?”
“Imi> These are polyester, not cotton!!”
“Marika> Um, why are you including me in these shockingly embarrassing messages? Are you both digital exhibitionists or something???”
That gave her some time to think.
About Utagai Karuta, not Natalena Blast.
Things were not going well for him. He said he would persuade the girl and wait for her to have a change of heart. That seemed so uncertain and careless to her. Why did he fail to realize that he would be killed if Natalena chose the “betrayal” card just once out of the hundreds of decisions she would be making from now on?
She hated this. He was stupidly pure, but that was exactly why she refused to let anyone trample on his feelings. What that girl did now was not the issue. She was bound to do it eventually. That was a foregone conclusion at this point.
So Marika would kill the girl. That was the only way to keep them safe.
The way Karuta and Kyouka saw it, Marika could not do that now that she had lost based on the rules they had all agreed to. Because if she did, they would break apart and she would lose the person she was trying to protect. But those two were too naïve.
She did not care if she lost her own position here.
As long as she could protect the people she saw as “on her side” – namely, Karuta, Aine, and Kyouka – nothing else mattered to her. Her top priority was protecting those people she cared for and there was no real reason why her own name had to be on that list.
If they arrested her, so be it.
If she was kicked out of Grimnoah, she could deal with it.
If Utagai Karuta killed her after she saved him…well, she might actually enjoy that.
Whatever the case, Amaashi Marika was not going to stop here. She intentionally narrowed her focus. She made sure to view only this one point. She made sure she was aware of every last breath that target took.
She loudly clicked her tongue.
The voice came from behind her. The almost mechanical-sounding voice of course belonged to Crystal Girl Aine. She could tell without even looking back that the girl’s cold katana would be held out toward her back.
“So he saw through it all, huh?”
“Sacri-sama does not wish to fight you. He hopes you will keep that in mind.”
Karuta had lured her into this sniping point so Aine could sneak up behind her, but that was not what irritated her so much.
She was irritated that Aine was here at all.
“I can’t believe that moron. Does this mean he’s smiling and speaking with her while really and truly defenseless? When she’s honestly trying to kill him?”
Her voice was tinged with exasperation.
Did he feel he could only really speak with the girl when he set his weapon aside? That was a lovely enough sentiment to place in a textbook, but this was an assassin who had put together a plot to kill him and even acted on that plot. Once she knew he could not use Aine, she was certain to bare her fangs and activate her Crystal Blossom armor. And there was nothing Karuta could do once that happened.
Amaashi Marika did not think she was normal. A normal girl could not protect the people she cared about, so she had intentionally destroyed her own brakes and forced herself to make the cruel decisions. She knew that about herself.
But that childhood friend was different.
He remained unchanged and smiling as he wished for peace and disliked conflict.
Yet the most broken one among them was not Amaashi Marika or Omotesandou Kyouka; it was Utagai Karuta.
“Don’t you think we should kill Natalena Blast? Before she can actually harm someone?”
“Yes. But Sacri-sama has banned that and I will obey his inefficient command.”
He may have been even more broken than Aine who was not even human.
Yes, Aine had intended to kill Natalena from the beginning. Then Marika had suggested they kill her. Kyouka had gone on to suggest they torture her to get information from her, but she would not have cared much about whether the girl survived or not. She would not be a comedic dominatrix from a comedian’s skit. A true whip would have knots and metal hooks that tore into the skin and muscle. A torturer would strike people like that without batting an eye.
Natalena had attacked them, so they had no reason to show any leniency. Even the laws of their country allowed for self-defense.
Karuta might seem like the reasonable one, but he was in fact the odd man out.
Of course people would take a cold view of a someone trying to kill them or the people they cared about. Especially if they had been set free to do as they wished. You could not hope for morality, ethics, and universal humanity at a time like that.
How could he forgive her? How could he smile and trust the person holding that blade?
“Yes, I know. I have to give up this time.”
“Ideally, you would give up indefinitely and not just this one time. Stopping you every single time sounds like a lot of work.”
Aine made it sound like she could in fact do that, so it may have been a matter of pride for her.
Marika had lost this once, so she was not going to argue the point until she had redeemed herself.
“I just hope there are plenty more opportunities.”
“He could be killed in his sleep by someone he could have easily defeated if he tried. But I guess that does sound like an appropriate way for one of the world’s strongest to die, doesn’t it? That’s the path we’re on right now. A stereotypical one-way road to doom that someone else laid out for us. And, Aine-chan, don’t forget that you share Karuta’s fate if he dies.”
“I will keep that in mind.”
As various foreboding gears came together, school life at Grimnoah continued.
It would be May soon.
They would spend all of Golden Week on a field trip.
Between the Lines 1
The biggest difference between a tall tourist hotel and a long luxury cruise ship was the infrastructure requiring wiring and plumbing, like power, gas, and water. A ship would of course need to contain it all inside and supply itself with what it needed. Even when moored at port, it would need to keep its massive diesel engine running, using up a lot of fuel. But Grimnoah had a specialized connection joist on the side, allowing it to borrow from the land infrastructure when moored.
“Yeah, this is the life☆”
Tanned Riho brought her hands to her silver hair while a rain-like sound washed over her body.
She was in the shower room.
With over a thousand students and teachers and with a focus on combat education, the ship was well supplied with showers. Each room had its own bathroom and there were dedicated shower rooms distributed around. That would never happen on a warship or a tanker.
The room was lazily divided into booths, but those booths were not as cramped as a phonebooth. The partitions were only simple boards, so it would not be difficult to peek over the top or crawl below them.
Another girl had climbed up onto the partition to peek over at her from the adjacent booth. She had undone her hair and removed her glasses while showering, but the black-haired girl was Sanae.
“Hey, Riho-chan. Are we going to have water restrictions once we’re out at sea?”
“Not a chance. This is the great Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah, home of the world’s strongest.” The tanned and silver-haired girl laughed loud. “This ain’t #2 or #3. We’re talking about the #1 fortress in the world, so it’s gonna be luxury at all times. The normal rules of ships won’t apply here.”
“Yeah, the great.”
The frosted glass window in front of Riho suddenly opened.
Even starting from the deck, this was three floors up, but that was irrelevant when Crystal Magic allowed for flight. The blonde ponytail girl named Alice leaned exhausted against the window frame while surrounded by translucent crystals and with jagged armor jutting out.
“What are you talking about here??? I wanna join in.”
“Wait, you idiot! Don’t open the window! Remove that frosted glass and everyone can see me from the high school building over there!!”
“There are over a thousand windows on this wall, so no one will notice.”
“Liar! Karuta-senpai just looked right at me from the hallway over there! And he blushed before quickly looking away!”
The slender girl’s silhouette was extended quite a bit with that Crystal Magic armor active, so it was nearly impossible for the blonde ponytail girl to climb inside even with the window fully open.
“I’ll fall if I remove the armor, so pull me in.”
Riho grabbed that incarnation of self-indulgence by the hands to make sure she would not fall without her flight. Only then did Alice deactivate her armor. She was then pulled into the shower booth like the rope in a game of tug-of-war.
“Abwabwah. What? Why would you leave the shower on!? Ha ha☆ My uniform’s soaked.”
“You only have yourself to blame there.”
Alice did not seem to mind much. She actually laughed as she reached for her blazer uniform’s buttons. She did not have a change of clothes here, so she must not have given any thought to what she would do after stripping off her uniform and taking a shower. While watching Alice have trouble removing her blouse since it was wet and clinging to her skin, Sanae spoke up from the adjacent booth.
“Come on, you need to follow the rules, you two. We’re about to leave on a field trip.”
“Europe!! This isn’t even like a class trip or anything. I can’t believe a simple field trip is on such a huge scale. Grimnoah can just throw money around, can’t it!?”
Alice (who had grown the most of the three) laughed while exposing her body to the shower after removing her underwear, but Riho said nothing about having her shower booth hijacked. She did frown, though.
“Are you sure it’s going to be all fun and games? Just look at our normal lessons. The teachers all have a habit of betraying our expectations, right?”
“W-well, doing things by the book probably isn’t enough to fight the Threat.”
“Since it would take months to send Grimnoah to the other side of the planet, I heard we’re taking a normal airplane for this overseas trip, but it all sounds too contrived to me. Like they’re intentionally removing the normal defenses.”
The students would be a perfect target for anyone hoping to attack them.
Or for anyone who wanted to test their strength.
The nude blonde girl reached behind her head to undo her ponytail while she asked a question.
“Hm? What are you getting at, Riho-chan?”
“Alice, you’ve heard the rumors, haven’t you?”
Riho waved a hand dismissively.
This new generation did not understand the risk, so none of it felt real to her.
“They say this field trip is actually a cover for that deadly school festival they call the Catastrophe.”
There was no direct flight.
First, they took a flight from Osaka’s floating airport to Germany’s Frankfurt airport. From there, they flew to Northern Europe’s Reykjavik airport. That city might not sound familiar, but it was the capital of an entire country.
“I-I’m so tired.”
“Don’t collapse yet, Alice. We haven’t even reached the hotel.”
Utagai Karuta got after the girl (while nervous on the inside) and dragged his own luggage along.
Since the high school and middle school had been mixed together on the airplane, he had been forced into card game hell with Riho and Sanae the entire time, but he was not going to stick with them on the buses.
Someone else freaked out at that suggestion.
“Why waste such a golden opportunity, Utagai-kun!? Maybe you don’t realize how rare a treat that is since you have free access to the middle school, but you need to forget about us and accept this gift! Go to that 13-year-old paradise!!”
“Shut up, Hirosuke. Is that what you’re into? Hey, Yamanen, talk some sense into this-”
“Eh heh heh. Nothing quite like a female teacher. They’re so hot. Especially the innocent adulthood of a new teacher who’s just hatched from being a student teacher.”
“Is anyone around here normal?”
“Sacri-sama, waiting for orders is exhausting. Please give me some kind of command. I do not care what.”
“Karuta, you’re the weirdest one here.”
“Karuta, you’re the weirdest one here.”
The nervous, flaxen-haired teacher named Sophia Firenze was very unsure of herself, but Karuta was a high school student. He was pretty sure his adolescent heart would not survive being the only one in a bus full of middle schoolers.
“You did the right thing.”
For some reason, he received rare praise from Kiyosawa Hadome who wore his track suit even overseas. The man crossed his arms and stood there, not saying a word more, so Karuta was unsure how to respond.
He tilted his head while boarding one of the high school buses which drove them along a long, long bridge traveling north over the frozen ocean. Eventually, the resort they would be staying at came into view.
“I’m so glad my new swimsuit arrived in time,” said Marika with a smile while leaning forward from the seat behind him. “Sometimes it won’t arrive by the predicted date even when the site says it’s in stock.”
“Heh heh heh. Is that some red I see in your cheeks, Karuta-kun? I hope you’re ready to see just how much your childhood friend has grown.”
They were in the Arctic. The ice below this kilometers-long bridge was thick enough for polar bears to walk across it, but Marika was not being at all ironic.
Aine pressed her hands against the window after apparently spotting something outside. Karuta had taken the window seat, so she was leaning out over his lap.
“Sacri-sama, what is that?”
“A beach. And could you show some restraint? Your butt is wiggling in front of my face!!”
She entirely ignored the favor she was doing him because she was too interested in viewing something like bubbles outside.
Several translucent domes existed across the frozen ocean. The smaller ones had a radius of a few hundred meters and the larger ones had a radius of 2 or 3 kilometers. They were connected by countless clear tubes similar to an aquarium’s underwater tunnel.
Marika tilted her head while leaning against his headrest from behind.
“Which dome is ours again?”
“That’s what they call them. They say each dome is like a unique artificial world. Ours is the third biggest one.”
It was below freezing outside, but not so inside. The buses parked in front of the especially large C World dome before one by one passing through the double layer of gates into another world altogether.
Inside, they found a pleasant summer beach with a temperature of 28 degrees and humidity below 50%.
The girls who tended to hang out with Marika let out a cheer.
“Wow, that really is a pretty beach. It scores high enough that I might just grant it the privilege of lying out on that sand.”
“It’s like an extreme version of eating ice cream in a kotatsu,” whispered Marika while viewing the palm trees swaying in the artificial warm breeze.
“Wouldn’t making a hotpot with the air conditioning on full blast be a better analogy?”
Was Aine right about that? Either way, this definitely won the world record for the biggest waste of energy in the world. Karuta was pretty sure some book or another had made that official.
“I heard the bath is a hot spring,” he said. “Iceland is apparently a volcanic country.”
“Sigh. I want to go crawl in a small space,” said Aine.
“They apparently have a bath full of colloidal gold. Just like a radium hot spring, the weak radiation is supposed to be good for your health.”
“What!? Can I drink it by the tubful!?”
“You would only get a few sesame seeds’ worth if you drained the entire hot spring, weirdo.”
This was the world’s largest artificial beach.
It was known as the Crystal Beach.
The Arctic ice was rapidly melting thanks to global warming, so the Icelandic government had needed some sort of countermeasure. It had all begun when they took a lesson from snow crystals and worked to make the seawater freeze easier by constructing intentional impurities – aka, a certain type of artificial island – here and there in the icy ocean. Some had said it would be a waste to pour so much money into it without making use of the land, so they had started developing a largescale resort centered on a casino. It had since grown to include a luxury hotel, a shopping center, and more, with a giant translucent dome to surround the entire artificial beach.
It was hard for much of anything to survive in this extreme land, but development could continue without end as long as the cycle of money and greed got started.
The city had gotten started in much the same way as Las Vegas.
The buses pulled up in front of a 50-story luxury hotel (which fit inside the dome). When Karuta stepped out, he found piercing artificial sunlight awaiting him. That probably came from special infrared lights, which meant he was essentially having his skin lightly roasted by a giant oven. Although it was unclear if a day of sunbathing here would really give him a nice tan.
The new and nervous female teacher was already approaching him.
“U-um, uh, Utagai-sensei.”
“No! I am a student and I want to enjoy this trip!!”
“But I can’t possibly handle all of those powerful children, so will you please help me!?”
Hearing that, Marika smiled bitterly and waved him away. She dragged her suitcase over toward her girl’s group that included Matsuda Imi and Hashizaki Tayori to keep her distance from all that trouble. Aine simply tilted her head. She was waiting for orders, so she would not do anything on her own.
Was he really the only option?
After traveling overseas, he had to put on a school performance all on his own?
He was starting to tremble at this point, but he had always been the kind of person to do what was asked of him. Or you could say he lacked the courage to say no. He sighed and walked toward the middle school students. It took a lot out of him to maintain that public mode that lived up to people’s image of the strongest, an upperclassman, a veteran warrior, and a successful avenger, but he had no other choice right now.
He clapped his hands to gather the excited underclassmen’s attention. It almost felt like a ritual he used to switch modes.
“The teachers will get us all checked in, so once you receive your card key, carry your luggage to your room, and gather back in the 1st floor lobby. This Crystal Beach is the world’s largest airtight living space, so it is full of facilities that should be extremely useful when constructing a fortress city to defend against the Threat. This is all civilian tech, but there is still much we can learn from it, so keep your eyes open and take in as much as you can.”
“Ehh!? There’s a sparkling tropical beach right over there and you expect us to sit through another class in our uniforms, Senpai!? Don’t you want to see all us teenage girls in our swimsuits!?”
Tanned and silver-haired Riho immediately snapped back at him, but he could only shrug in response.
He was scared.
To be frank, if he was booed by all these girls here, he might end up reliving the moment in his nightmares, but he could not let it show that this bothered him at all.
He forced the feeling away and kept going.
“I don’t believe I mentioned what you should be wearing. But if you forgot to bring a swimsuit, then yes, you will probably have to head to the lobby in your uniform.”
Riho stared blankly at him, but Sanae clapped her hands together with a bright look on her face.
“He’s saying we can use that observation of the facilities here as an excuse to play around in our swimsuits.”
“You probably shouldn’t call it an excuse out loud. But hurry! There are a thousand of us in all, so the elevators are gonna be packed soon!!”
When Alice added that, Riho’s thoughts finally seemed to catch up. She frantically pushed her suitcase toward the elevators with both hands.
That settled things for now.
Once they all disappeared into the elevator hall, Karuta finally let out a long, long sigh. None of them meant any harm, but being exposed to all of their eyes at once was a living hell. That was just the one class, yet Student Council President Kyouka would address the entire student body. How could she do that with a smile? Was she just made of different stuff than him???
Sophia Firenze must have been delighted that she had avoided a breakdown of her class immediately after arriving because she bowed over and over with her semi-long flaxen hair swaying. Although that too was awkward for the boy who only wanted to be a student here.
A short distance away, he noticed Natalena Blast standing there silently without following the others.
He was curious about how she was standing there in her uniform and with her beret on her head.
And he had wanted some kind of reason to approach her anyway.
When he did, he grabbed the handle of her suitcase.
“I’ll carry that for you.”
“Y-you don’t have to do that.”
“Sacri-sama. Lonely kids do not know how to process kindness, so trying to help can actually hurt them and make them resent you. You must be on the lookout for hidden pride.”
“I am not lonely!! And I am not some child who does not understand kindness, so I will gladly accept your offer!!”
Natalena blushed and snapped back at Aine with tears in her eyes, but the crystal girl did not react. She was not even human, after all. Shouting at an ATM because you did not understand how it worked would change nothing about its politely-worded messages.
They had gotten a late start, so there was a long line waiting for the elevators.
When Karuta’s group joined the end of the line, his phone vibrated.
“Hirosuke> Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who’s that blonde cutie!? Aine-chan wasn’t enough for you!?”
“Yamanen> Wait, where’d that delectable teacher go!? How could you let her get away!?”
He immediately blocked them. Unaware of that interaction on his phone, Natalena looked up at him and pouted her lips.
“Have you ever seen the Threat? I mean, um, you did just give a speech about what would be useful in a fortress city.”
“I haven’t,” he readily admitted. Inside, he was surprised to find how dry his voice could sound. “But Anastasia said they do exist.”
“At that point…or rather, she was dedicated to the path of the strongest and gave no thought to the future, so I can’t imagine she was lying out of self-preservation or to trick us. We still don’t know what the Threat is, but cities, states, and countries are still disappearing. Even with the Problem Solvers gone. That means it was not all being faked by Anastasia and the other four.”
The Problem Solvers had been the worst, but if they had functioned as humanity’s defense against the Threat, then it was Karuta’s group that had destroyed that thick barrier and left nothing to replace it.
So now it was their turn.
Not even the God Worshiping Magic of the previous world’s strongest had managed to fully eliminate the Threat, so it was obvious that task would require significant power.
They had to thoroughly train these children before that clash occurred. They had to be able to protect their own lives with the strongest power.
Karuta’s group had failed to do that when they were new students on the first ship, but they had to make sure it happened this time.
“Of course,” said Natalena under her breath while looking away from him. Almost like she was squeezing a broken protective charm in her hand. “My sister wouldn’t lie. She was one of the Problem Solvers who risked their lives to protect everyone right up to the very end.”
They changed in their hotel rooms instead of a dedicated dressing room.
“Don’t we need to go, Sacri-sama? Hurry up. Why are you hiding in the bathroom?”
“I’d love to hurry, so would you please put some clothes on, Aine!! That’s an order!!”
Aine normally closed herself up in a civilian spaceship shaped like a board or bamboo leaf, so she had claimed below the bed as her space here. But that must not have been enough room to change. Karuta had changed into his swimsuit (while pressing his full weight against the bathroom door to desperately fight back against her) and they eventually managed to head out into the hotel hallway and onto an elevator with their beach sandals slapping on the floor. This was a tropical oceanside resort, so it was not considered bad manners to walk around in a swimsuit.
The air-conditioned elevator was made of glass, but Karuta’s eyes were on his partner’s outfit, not on the scenery visible through the glass.
“Aine, why are you wearing a school swimsuit on an overseas trip? And that white one at that.”
“I will again reiterate that wearing nothing at all would be most functional, but since you insisted I wear one, I went with this as it was Miss Marika’s recommendation.”
His blunt comment led the crystal girl to bow her head before ramming into him.
Those things on her head stabbed into him.
“Ow!? Wait, what are those two things on your head!? Are they hardened hair, or legit horns!?”
“Lady Kyouka also approved of this choice. Human tastes are a mystery to me, but she said it was the best possible choice. With a raised thumb.”
Karuta had to hold his head in his hands while driven into a corner of the elevator. Kyouka was definitely treating Aine like a toy.
“Well, as long as you don’t walk around naked.”
“Because it’s embarrassing.”
When they arrived in the 1st floor lobby, Yamane Deiri and Nekoumi Hirosuke ran away at full speed for some reason. Just as he wondered if he was finally experiencing the true loneliness of being the strongest, he heard someone speak to him in Japanese.
It was muscular Kiyosawa Hadome.
That was apparently who had scared off the other boys. He really had issues with that.
“The class you are looking after is supposed to belong to Firenze-sensei. I know she came to you, but try not to steal her job as teacher.”
He fell silent and Aine tilted her head in confusion.
“Um, Sacri-sama. Is school a place of romance for the teachers as well? I do suppose their opportunities for meeting potential partners are about as limited as on a desert island.”
“Not so loud, Aine. Shh!!”
“Silence, both of you. She is the niece of a professor who helped me earn the tuition money I needed, so I need to help her however I can.”
That made sense to Karuta.
He now understood why this teacher was so concerned about that nervous female teacher. While kids like him threw everything into the two boxes of friendship and love, the adult world was more complex.
“You might think you are helping her, but if she stops trying to improve, she will have trouble running a classroom. So please do not rob Firenze-sensei of her opportunity to learn.”
“Understood, Sensei. I will be more careful.”
Even a child like him knew he had to give an immediate and direct response to this.
Kiyosawa quietly clicked his tongue and looked away.
“Also, this is an important trip for you too. You shouldn’t have to waste your time because of an issue with the teachers.”
“If you’re this considerate, how in the world don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“What makes you so certain I’m single!?”
The man was really mad now, so Karuta had to make a run for it.
He and Aine split up and ran toward the midsummer beach.
“Well, that doesn’t sound like fun. But are you sure you should be here, Karuta-kun? Marika-san spent a very long time choosing her swimsuit, so she might not be happy if you ignore her.”
That comment and a laugh came from sexy Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka.
Karuta was all sweaty. Splitting up with Aine had not been a smart move. The man had immediately locked onto him and attacked, so losing that mass of muscles had taken a lot of work. He realized now that sending Aine after the man to slow him down would have been the smart play.
“Ah, pant, gasp. So what are you doing there?”
“Artificial though this beach is, I would have trouble swimming with these legs. Still, I wanted to get into the beach spirit, you know?”
The upperclassman girl wore a black bikini and kicked her long legs like a child. The beach and palm trees below the powerful mechanically-created sunlight were pretty and all, but they two of them were not even close to the crashing waves. She was lying in a plastic kiddie pool with her legs sticking out since they did not fit. With her curvy figure, the kiddie pool and childish feet kicking created a guilty sort of imbalance.
But Karuta had not been asking about that.
“You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing there?”
She gave a different sort of smile with her index finger pressed against her lips.
The previous childish smile was now a bewitching smile with a maturity beyond her years.
“I’m intentionally doing this in secret, so why would I give the answer out loud? If you assume they will always appear in sunglasses and a black suit, you are sorely mistaken.”
So this was about that.
He could see why she had sent the other Student Council members away.
He knew she could not get them involved, but he secretly had trouble with the waves of jealousy the rest of the Student Council was sending his way.
Regardless, this topic meant he could change his mode as well.
Instead of the squeaky-clean public mode or the usual high school mode, he put on his mask of the true avenger who played dirty.
“You mean they’re here?”
“They’re like cockroaches. If you found a place in the world they aren’t, I would want to move there right away.”
That was enough to convince him. She had always been good with computers. He had wondered why she had a phone, a mobile router, and some other devices at the bottom of the water in her kiddie pool, but she was apparently busy gathering information. If they were everywhere, then she could steal their information no matter where she was. By placing that device there, she could use a quicksand app she had written to gather up the invisible signals flying through the air, decode them, and convert them into actual text and images.
Karuta’s group was facing a few different issues.
The most pressing was the chain of revenge being continued by Natalena Blast (almost certainly with the help of some sort of accomplice).
They also had to worry about the Threat and the global string-pullers who worked to profit even from the clash between the world’s strongest and the Threat.
Karuta was dealing with Anastasia’s sister, Natalena Blast.
But Kyouka apparently planned to do battle with a different part of the world.
He grabbed a carbonated drink in a can (which had become rare in Japan with the exception of energy drinks) from the pool water and took a sip while pretending to glance over at the seabirds flying through this enclosed sky.
“That’s in your hands, then.”
“Of course it is. So you go complete your job.” Omotesandou Kyouka placed a hand over her mouth and laughed. She turned in a different direction than him. “Young-looking Aine probably makes it easier for you, but it means a lot that you can infiltrate the middle school since even a single school year can feel like an impassable barrier. For now, try to keep their attention. Earning that girl’s trust would help everyone out.”
He glanced in the direction she was looking and then sighed.
That trio of girls was waving over at him in their swimsuits. The tanned and silver-haired girl hopping up and down in the center and waving with both hands was Riho.
He waved back and whispered too quietly for those three to hear.
“This isn’t easy, you know?”
“I imagine not.”
“I’m only a new student who arrived back in April. I can’t admit it to anyone else, but I only survived by pure luck. Who can say what happens if the Threat shows up here and now? But those girls innocently believe that I can protect them no matter what happens. Because I’m one of the world’s strongest Crystal Magicians.”
“Stop thinking of it as deceiving them. It’s a lot easier if you think of it as giving them hope.”
“They say Costa Rica alone has millions of different insects and other animals.”
“What are you talking about?”
Utagai Karuta frowned while the girls tugged on his hand and forcibly added him to their team, so tanned and silver-haired Riho laughed loud. She did not have any tan lines from a school swimsuit, so she must have had a full-body tan.
All this attention from a large group scared him.
But they were all ordinary people and he could remain relaxed here.
Or as relaxed as was possible while on a foreign beach with girls in their swimsuits. He saw only soft, healthy skin everywhere he looked. His soul would have been eaten away if he were not in his public mode. It was still plenty bad for his heart, though.
“Noah’s ark supposedly carried two of every animal, right? But how many would that be with just insects? That boat would’ve been crawling with bugs.”
That was not a pleasant mental image, but the swimsuit girl had a reason for saying this. A blue butterfly fluttered by in front of them and it landed on the hibiscus decorating Riho’s pink-colored drink. There were also hummingbirds coming to a stop in midair and quetzals with beautiful green feathers flying in the enclosed blue sky.
Needless to say, those animals were not native to the Arctic. The domes of the Crystal Beach could maintain this pleasant 28 degrees and less than 50% humidity even if nuclear war covered the entire world in a new ice age. Riho stepped back while opening her mouth wide and looking overhead.
“It’s just so incredible! Hot!?”
She gave a sudden hop, jiggling her small chest, because she had pressed her back against a large metal box. It was taller than she was, but it was not a vending machine. It contained one of the smoke exhaust buttons that were placed all around this enclosed dome.
Karuta sounded exasperated.
“This is supposed to be a tropical beach, so the sand and metal are going to be hot.”
“Why did they have to recreate that part of the experience!?”
Riho complained while Sanae pressed something against her back. It appeared to be a drink, but it was colorless. Was it that personal one she had made in cooking class where she only added a bit of salt to ordinary water?
Sanae tilted her head in a gentle way.
“If this system becomes more common, will they be able to create any environment anywhere in the world? Um, like underground, deep underwater, or at the top of Mt. Everest?”
“And outer space too.”
Alice apparently had more of an imagination than Sanae, but Karuta made sure to anchor them to reality as soon as possible.
“The tech isn’t that all-powerful. First of all, it uses a massive amount of energy. Supply that with ordinary petroleum and supplies will dry up in no time.”
“Wait, then how do these ones exist???”
“An obvious but good question, Riho.”
Her Crystal Blossom’s communication must not have been enough for her because Riho had two phones strapped to her thighs, so maybe he should have complimented her for facing the question herself instead of immediately searching for the answer.
“Iceland is one of the world’s most volcanic countries. It’s a treasure trove of hot springs and the heat of the endless magma bubbling up from underground spins the turbines.”
Karuta pointed toward the ground.
This was an artificial island, so he was actually pointing much further down than that.
“If you wanted to build a similar-sized facility underground or on the ocean floor, it would need to be at a location with plenty of geothermal energy to absorb. But at the same time, it would have to be in a safe zone that would not be caught in earthquakes or in volcanic blasts. Access to the energy doesn’t help you much if a large eruption wipes your city off the map like Pompeii or Saint-Pierre. Meeting both conditions is easier said than done. And outer space would be even harder.”
“Ehh? Yeah, there’s no magma up there, but wouldn’t sunlight provide endless energy?”
“The solar panels wear out, Alice. The sunlight in outer space is very powerful since it is not weakened by the atmosphere and various types of debris will wear down the surface of the panels like a sandstorm. A solar furnace that uses a bunch of mirrors to focus light on a single point, raising the temperature to around 3000 degrees, would be more realistic, but I doubt even that would work. And in a spaceship, you would have to worry about other resources than energy, like air, water, and food.”
“Hmm?” Alice placed a finger on her slender chin and stared up into the artificial blue sky. “Then wouldn’t the moon or Mars be good?”
Her imagination was harder to deter than he thought. There would be other bottlenecks for developing these facilities on other celestial bodies, but discussing that would be straying too far off topic.
“This is off the record, but you will probably be asked to submit a report on the final day of the trip. If you’re afraid you’ll get too caught up in playing on the beach to remember everything you’ve learned by then, I recommend using your phone to record everything that catches your attention. Take short videos instead of photos, record your own voice, and keep the location data for where you filmed it. That will make it a lot easier to bring it all together later on.”
“For real!? Those thoughtless teachers are going to force us to finish off our trip with schoolwork!?”
He nearly said “well, it is a school field trip”. This had given them an excuse to have lots of fun out here, so he felt like they should thank those theory-focused teachers.
“Um,” whispered Sanae while shrinking down. “Should you really have told us that?”
“I don’t see why not. It’s traditional for upperclassmen to teach their underclassmen what will be on the test. You might not interact with other years much in class, but clubs and committees are a different story, right?”
Of course, Karuta and Marika had been hit by the First Out Incident before they could experience any of that themselves. He honestly did want to experience that school life he never thought he would return to.
Riho put on a mischievous smile.
“Hehh heh heh.”
“I notice you made sure to tell just us in secret. I see what’s going on here, Senpai. We’re your favorites, huh?”
“I never said I was only telling you. I know if I let a few of you in on the secret, word will get out in no time.”
“Not happening. We’re keeping this to ourselves to make all this easier for us!”
She was like a selfish princess, but he could not help but laugh. He was actually fond of that way of thinking. You learned how the rules worked and then took advantage of them. That was exactly how he had managed to take on those monsters he never should have been able to defeat.
“Then how will you stop me from telling some of the others?”
“We just have to pin you here.”
Riho grinned and left her hibiscus-decorated drink with a nearby salesperson.
Then she grabbed a plastic ball she had bought cashless.
“Sanae, Alice! Surround him! We just have to play with him so much he’s too exhausted to say a thing!!”
The sunset had to be artificial.
Sunsets and sunrises worked different from normal in the Artic. At around June, they would experience the midnight sun where the sun never set throughout the night, but the beginnings of that effect should have been showing themselves now.
Also, all of the Crystal Beach’s facilities were covered by domes of varying size. They looked clear at first glance, but even the earth’s atmosphere bent the sunlight to create the blue of the midday sky and the orange of sunset. If the sunlight could be adjusted using electronic polarization technology, the sky of morning, noon, and twilight could all be reproduced. You could even program astronomical events that did not exist in nature.
Amaashi Marika’s strawberry blonde hair swayed as she killed time at a beachside open-air restaurant. It was a lot like a larger version of a gazebo since it had no walls on any sides to allow the wind through. She wore what looked like a racing swimsuit, except it had a large hole in the stomach area. Some might have thought it looked a lot like she was wearing only black belts.
Couples were common here, so not even Karuta wanted to approach her without Aine with him.
“Sorry. I got held up.”
“I could tell. I’ve been waiting here forever.”
Karuta apologized while sitting down at the next counter seat and she responded while boredly sipping at the straw in her bright green mixed juice made from melon, kiwi, and more.
“Hm? What’s wrong, Aine-chan? Not that you talk much normally.”
Aine was refusing to look Marika in the eye. The childhood friend tried to peer up at the crystal girl’s face from below, but she hid behind Karuta. Finally, she spoke up in a vanishingly quiet voice.
“Miss Marika, why are you showing off so much skin? Is it for venting heat or cutaneous respiration?”
“You’re wearing a swimsuit too, Aine-chan. Wait, why won’t you look at me either, Karuta?”
“Well, um, that…doesn’t leave much to the imagination when viewed from the side.”
“Of course it doesn’t. This is an overseas trip, so we’ve got to make the most of it. Oh? What’s this? Feeling a little overexcited about your childhood friend’s unexpected growth, Karuta-kun? Wah hah hah!”
Meanwhile, the crystal girl thought for a bit and asked a question.
“Are you saying I too am wearing something embarrassing?”
Karuta and Marika exchanged a glance.
This was odd. Aine of all people was feeling embarrassed? Karuta recalled that he himself had said being naked was embarrassing back on the elevator.
Was she learning?
That inhuman dummy had never shown any sign of doing that before, but was that an option now!?
A bright light pierced vertically through Utagai Karuta’s body. He could guide her down a path different from that overly open Marika and different from Kyouka who was willing to show some skin in order to tease the boy in front of her.
He grabbed Aine’s small hands and held them between his own.
“You don’t have to be like that nudist childhood friend or that mature devil of a Student Council President!! You can be an honest, modest, and above all sensible girl! Aine!!”
The shameless curly twintails girl smiled and whispered her own message to the crystal girl.
“Aine-chan, Aine-chan. Don’t let him trick you. Try sleeping in the nude once and I promise you you’ll never go back.”
“No, don’t you drag her into your world!! I have a responsibility to raise her right! She needs to be a proper lady with a sense of shame!!”
During the childhood friends’ strange discussion, Aine circled behind Karuta to use him as a shield against the overly exposed girl. Then she “stored” herself inside his back without a word.
“Oh, she ran away.”
“That’s far better than you giving her some weird habit of stripping. Anyway, let’s get down to business.”
Karuta ordered a soda and some fries.
“So how’d it go?” he asked.
“Did you expect anything to happen? Even the ocean is enclosed in this artificial beach, so it’s not like Hawaii or Guam where man-eating sharks can be lurking around.”
His childhood friend pointed at a small figure with her chin: Natalena Blast.
She rested her head in her hand.
“Are you sure you should have left her alone? She seemed pretty reliant on you. All she’s been doing all day is collecting shells and kicking at the waves. You could have at least sent Aine-chan in to tease her or something.”
“This was necessary.”
“You’re not very nice.”
That was not a very nice thing for her to say. When pushing didn’t work, wasn’t it the Japanese tradition to try pulling, based on the legend of Amaterasu?
“To make things very clear, I do not want that girl to die. No matter what. I don’t care if she can resent me as long as she’s alive.”
“But I also know that you and Omotesandou-san can only accept so much. I mean, she’s said herself she wants revenge against us, so it’s natural to not want that threat around. So I want to get her to open up as quickly as possible. I said no matter what, right? So I’ll do whatever it takes. Playing dirty is my specialty.”
“I am aware of that.” Marika re-crossed her legs in an irritated way. “Since staying by her side didn’t change anything, you’re trying to make her feel lonely so she’ll realize she needs you, right? And once that balloon is full to bursting, you’ll approach her again. Once a slight prod of a sharp needle can make it pop, you can keep the costs to a minimum.”
She made him sound like a con artist, but they had no real requirement to bring Natalena to their side.
If it was too much trouble, there was always Marika’s murder plan and Kyouka’s torture plan.
That might not tell them anything about the accomplice who had given the young girl information on Anastasia’s death and arranged a false identity she could use to take revenge, but they would at least eliminate the immediate assassin.
But he would not let that happen.
Maybe it was cheap and maybe it was a dirty job, but he was struggling to make a connection with Natalena.
He had said himself that she could resent him as long as she remained alive.
“You’re too soft.”
“No need to apologize. I’ve accepted that you’re just the kind of person who won’t kill for no reason. I mean, even back then you weren’t willing to harm anyone unrelated to our revenge and you even showed signs of trying to save the Problem Solvers.”
“Again, this isn’t criticism. I’m just confirming what I already know.” She took a sip through her straw and she asked what sounded like a pure question. “So tell me this: is it really possible to take the weapon away from someone intent on revenge? I mean, it sure as hell wasn’t possible when it was me. Same for Aine-chan and the President. Once we got started, you were the only one who was shaken at all.”
That may have been why she was asking.
She peered into his eyes as if hoping he could provide the answer since she could not figure it out herself. It was actually a very pure look.
“Well? You would be hard pressed to find more obvious villains than those five, but if they had used some kind of idealistic argument to get you to stop your inconvenient revenge, would you have agreed even though you had a legitimate reason for revenge?”
If he said no, it raised questions about the effectiveness of his efforts here and now.
But if he said yes, it raised questions about how they had seen their revenge through to the end and killed those five. If they could have given up, then none of it had needed to happen.
“That’s a tricky question.”
“I’ll give that answer 50 points.” Marika was blunt but smiling. “But that’s not a failing score. I would’ve punched you if you gave an immediate yes or no.”
“Youch!! Th-that stings!”
“Hmm, you might have a sunburn. I thought these were bright IR lights, but they must have UV in them too.”
“Whew. I never thought I’d get to soak in a hot spring after traveling all the way to Europe.”
That trio of girls could be heard beyond the wall. Karuta had heard the hotel had a large bath, but he had not expected it to be open air. Hot springs were found the world over, but this place may have imported the Japanese style.
It was night and Karuta was of course not in the women’s bath. He was on the ordinary walking path on the other side of the tall wall around it. Tomorrow, they would spend the morning on their field trip activities and the afternoon would be free time, so he was helping the nervous female teacher preview those field trip activities.
“Eh, eh heh heh. This is so much easier with you around, Utagai-san.”
“I get that what you call me changes when you get anxious, but I really don’t want a teacher being that formal with me. It makes me feel like I’ve become some permanent fixture in the school after being held back year after year.”
She bowed at 90 degrees and apologized, but that was exactly the kind of thing he wished she would stop doing. Wished a lot.
He recalled what that muscular track suit teacher had said. She was asking him for help, but if she stopped trying to improve, she would have trouble running a classroom. That was exactly right.
“It would probably be best to create a simple quiz and have them visit different facilities themselves, similar to a scavenger hunt. Turning the lesson into a game is the best way to hold their interest.”
“Th-thanks so much.”
“You would need to word the questions in a way that forces them to see the things for themselves to answer them and you need to warn them not to search on their phones. At our age, we’ll put a lot of effort into not having to put in much effort.”
“S-so should I have everyone shut off their phones?”
“You can tell if they turn them on by monitoring the GPS location transmitted by the phone, but…hm, they can shut off the GPS in the settings or for a specific app. For this, you should probably gather up everyone’s phones for the duration of the lesson, like they do in gym class. You would also need to send teachers to keep an eye on the sample phones at the stores and the rental ones at the hotel.”
“At the hotel?”
“Renting them out is a convenient service since they can translate, provide maps, call a taxi, make reservations at restaurants, provide walking times to tourist destinations and religious institutions, and even stream adult content. No one uses the pay-per-view on the room’s TV these days.”
Sophia Firenze blushed bright and did a spit take before he had finished his explanation.
That theory-focused teacher who spent all her time at a desk had quite a few weaknesses.
But had he always been this kind of person? He had surprised himself with that joke. Was it the age difference that let him act more openly? He knew he never could have said that with Marika or Kyouka. In fact, he was generally the one being teased by the girls his own age.
After parting ways with the teacher, he bought some plain soda water at a vending machine near the hotel. It was so hot he had a hard time believing this was an Arctic night, but that heat had left him thirsty. He had stuck to sweet drinks during the day, but he was starting to think he needed to watch his sugar intake.
He opened the bottle and took a sip before seeing a familiar face.
It was Natalena Blast.
She was not wearing her swimsuit anymore. However, she must not have been careless enough to wander outside in her pajamas, even if this was a relatively safe tourist location. She was wearing her purple blazer uniform, just like he was. But why was she walking toward him? He soon realized what must have led to this.
He could still hear those noisy middle school girls from beyond the wall.
If he could hear them, they may have been able to hear him.
She shook her head.
“Come over here anyway. If that muscular teacher on patrol sees you here, it won’t end well.”
She was drawn toward the light of the vending machine like a butterfly to a bright light. She stood next to him while he drank his soda water and she leaned against the vending machine. Since she had just left the bath, a sweet scent wafted from her nape.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said.
“I don’t think you’re a bad person.”
She sounded certain.
He just about smiled hearing it.
“I still count as a good person after killing 5 people?”
“A good person can be in a situation that requires killing 5 people. Isn’t that the story?”
But he had felt like he could not push that interpretation onto her.
She was Anastasia Blast’s sister.
She had a legitimate reason to seek revenge.
“I know you aren’t the kind of person who would give up on someone’s life if you didn’t have to. So if you did kill someone, you must have had a reason strong enough to warrant it.”
Both her small hands clutched tightly at her skirt as she forced out the words.
She seemed like such an awkward girl to him. This would be so much easier for her if she did not even consider his circumstances. She could have gone through with her revenge just fine if she just killed him because she had a reason to do so.
Just like his group had.
She really was not the type to do bad things. That put her in a lot of danger, but he was also honestly jealous.
“But…but I just can’t reconcile that with the sister I knew. It doesn’t fit! The Anastasia Blast I knew fought to protect everyone from the Threat! She was a strong person who dedicated her entire life to that!! She wasn’t the cruel mass murderer people are making her out to be in the news!!”
“So please tell me.”
Her lips formed the words “power up”.
He stepped away from the vending machine upon hearing a series of bending sounds.
She had activated her Crystal Magic armor while leaning back against the vending machine, so the sharp armor jutting back from her small body had torn the metal vending machine apart.
This was Anubis, God of Judgment.
The same god once used by a certain strongest.
“Show me who you were when you faced Anastasia Blast. Show me your anger, your fear, your joy, and your justice!! If I can see the look in your eyes then, I know I can understand. Because I’ll see my sister’s true face reflected in the crystal ball of your eyes!!”
He let out a soft sigh and tossed the half-empty bottle of soda water in the trashcan next to the vending machine.
With both hands free, the latest form of the world’s strongest whispered his answer.
“If you insist.”
He had a belligerent smile on his face.
It was the same smile he had hated more than anything when seeing it on someone else’s face.
Marika clicked her tongue while leaning against the other side of a palm tree about 400m away.
“If you insist? What is that idiot thinking?”
Voices would only reach around 150m outdoors, but that did not apply to Crystal Magicians. She had used a method similar to how sailors used to raise their collars to make sure they could hear their crewmates during a storm. And crystal armor allowed for a much higher level of audio collection.
However, her phone received a call with perfect timing.
She clicked her tongue before even covering the backlight with her hand and checking the screen.
“Now it’s you!? God, does everyone know exactly what I’m thinking!?”
“Bringing a mobile device along when you plan to kill someone is a no-no. So what’s this? Are you so starved for information your Crystal Blossom alone didn’t feel like enough?” The Student Council President laughed. “Also, don’t get all bent out of shape over this. Your actions are trivial to predict because you care about those on your side so much. Anyway, no sniping here, okay? Do that and Karuta-kun will cry.”
“See, that’s enough to stop you. That’s all I need to tell just how much you care about us.”
“Shut up.” Marika pouted her lips. “Noticed anything else?”
“You mean like that muscular teacher who’s still busy patrolling around outside, or those three middle school girls spying on this from the gazebo? I wonder what those three were doing out here. Were they going to invite Karuta-kun to do some fireworks but Natalena beat them to the punch?”
Marika looked up instead of toward any of the mentioned people. Only so many locations would give you a view of Karuta, Marika, the patrolling teacher, and those three girls. And sure enough, she saw someone using a hand mirror to peek out from an unnatural gap in the curtains.
“Room 2801. A corner room, huh? Based on the lighting, is that a bathroom?”
“Oh, you noticed?”
The President could not use much in the way of Crystal Magic and she used a wheelchair. If she really was up on the 28th floor, it seemed like she would have no way of stopping Marika from taking a sniper shot, but Marika decided it was best not to underestimate that girl. After all, she had taken out one of the Problem Solvers all on her own.
“But he’s at a disadvantage in a one-on-one fight. He doesn’t have any armor to wear since Aine fully separates from him. She only has to concentrate her fire on the soft flesh visible in front of her.”
“Yeah, about that.”
It was unusual for that black-hearted President to hesitate to speak.
But that was not what this was. Marika belatedly realized the girl was pausing for effect to further enjoy this.
“I really doubt he’s going to use Aine-chan here,” said Omotesandou Kyouka.
“Yes, Madam Guest. Miss Kyouka and I are taking turns washing each other’s backs.”
“Bfff!?” spat Marika.
Why had she just heard Aine’s emotionless voice over the phone? She had seemed embarrassed of her swimsuit during the day, but bathing with another girl must not have been an issue. However, that was not the real problem here.
“Wait!! You mean Karuta really is on his own!?”
“Yes, he is empty. Aine-chan is not within him, so he should have no way of fighting.”
After several heavy metallic sounds, two translucent ski-like units appeared out of thin air and attached to Natalena’s feet. They were not actually skis of course. Since she had chosen Anubis as her god for Crystal Magic, this had to be some related symbol.
That god was symbolized as a dog or jackal and his stories did indeed involve a long, rod-like tool.
Karuta could guess that was what these were, but he could not tell how they would be used to attack. Were they like the catapults used to fling large rocks that would bring down medieval castle walls?
(Anubis judged the souls of the dead and the result of that judgment was shown by the tilting of the scales.)
Was this how she began the process? She went out of her way to speak to the god whose name was sealed inside the small circuit board. Just like the former world’s strongest who had beseeched their gods to bring about miracles.
“You were the one and only god my sister relied on! So please give me the power needed to save her soul!!”
The calendar based on Anubis provided an understanding of the occult atmospheric pressure. The two skis suddenly opened up like fans on the front and back. This created a total of 16 crane arms or spider legs. Thin wires were rapidly ejected from the ends of those legs. At the ends of those wires were objects not quite like metal jaws and not quite like metal flowers. Due to seeing the arms like crane arms, Karuta saw them like grab buckets that used 8 movable parts to grab grains or coal from a cargo ship.
(They grab, lift up, and swing around.)
“I get it!!”
Just as the boy groaned that, the wires thrown in completely different directions began to move like they had a mind of their own. The grab buckets bit at and grabbed a giant rock, an electric cart for the walking path, and the crushed vending machine.
The grab buckets were only the size of golf balls, but they spread out to the size of a small dog’s jaws and bit into the surface of their target.
They grabbed everything that would function as a blunt weapon and swung them around.
Some were swung vertically like a meteor falling from the heavens.
Some were swung horizontally like an axe felling a large tree.
She seemed to have forgotten about her short skirt as she sometimes made a large roundhouse kick, sometimes kicked up high or dropped her heel back down, and sometimes placed her hands on the ground to smoothly cartwheel to the side. Each time, all that mass created a raging storm of motion.
It was too elegant to call martial arts, but too savage to call ballet.
“I’m not done yet!!” she roared as something odd happened.
She grabbed more things, but these clearly followed a different set of rules. A single grab bucket pulled out a cube of sand more perfectly formed than a shipping container and another lifted up all the water in a nearby fountain. The size of the buckets was irrelevant.
He had forgotten that this was magic.
(Yeah, this is what I should’ve expected from Anastasia’s sister!!)
This covered solids and liquids. He did not know how much more Natalena could do, but this was plenty on its own. Most likely, she could grab all of the moisture from the air to create 0% humidity that would sap his strength, or she could pull up a building at its foundation to topple the entire massive structure.
It did not matter if any individual attack was intercepted. Her strength was found in the near limitless supply of weapons she had. The only way to cut her off from her ammo was to throw her out into the vacuum of space.
Anubis was a god of judgment.
No matter how many of the dead were lined up before him, they were humans and he was a god. He would never compromise in his judgments due to their numbers. A single god could overpower countless numbers of the dead and force them to obey his rules. That was how it was meant to be.
“You still have a long way to go.”
“This is efficient, I’ll give you that, but maxing out efficiency isn’t how the strongest does things. The real world’s strongest is more wasteful and pours in resources on an absurd scale without even thinking about how much they’re using. They use such an insane amount that you don’t even know how to process what you’re seeing!!”
Karuta smiled and stuck a hand into his blazer uniform. He pulled out a thoroughly modified military flashlight. It was strong enough to use as a club, but that was not what mattered here.
The light had been replaced with a powerful laser emitter. With the amp on the back and the kind of diffusion lens used in laser printers, it could be made to send out a wedge of truly blinding light.
Pain in the eyes was a unique thing. It was not something you could suppress or ignore.
“Your scales are admittedly powerful.”
Having one of her eyes taken out temporarily must have thrown off the girl’s depth perception.
Karuta rolled to the side to dodge the boulder she dropped from above and the electric cart sweeping in horizontally was deflected upwards when it crashed into the boulder embedded in the sandy beach. The masses of sand and of water were similar. He just had to make sure his vision was not obscured by what remained after they burst like balloons.
“But whether you’re using a solid or a liquid, morning stars work by gathering up strength as you swing them around, so it takes some time before they actually hit. Giving me time to see them and think about them is a critical flaw. At the very least, Elicia, Yukino, and Anastasia had eliminated any such openings. Even if it meant burning through earth’s resources all on their own!!”
A quiet cracking sound followed.
Crystal Magic would heal any non-fatal wound in 30 seconds.
But that also meant it took 30 seconds for even the smallest injury. If they were attacked again in that time and the crystallized part was shattered, it would never recover.
So she could not use one of her eyes for 30 seconds now that the laser had injured it, causing it to crystallize. Not many people could shake free of the fear of permanently losing an eye in order to take immediate action.
The scales that resembled crane arms or spider legs began to squirm.
Natalena swung in several more flails while she performed flips and cartwheels. She grabbed a great mass of sand to create a landslide and she grabbed some water to swing around a highly pressurized liquid, but Karuta kept his cool. Natalena Blast lacked the curse-like intimidation that her sister Anastasia had demonstrated.
If you were only strong enough to cause external damage, you could not bind anyone.
In other words…
“You’ve lost your depth perception without that eye. Your attacks might be powerful, but they’re entirely meaningless when you can’t aim properly.”
Was that enough for it to all crumble away? Was non-strongest magic really that fragile?
“And Crystal Magic isn’t all powerful. I know that all too well since we so thoroughly lost to God Worshiping Magic that one time. Our magic is a flawed thing that can be defeated any number of ways if you know what you’re doing!!”
He did not hesitate to walk forward through the horizontal and vertical storm of blunt weapons. Her depth perception was shot, but that did not mean she could not see him. A single hit would crush him or bisect him, yet he showed no sign of fear.
How frightening did that make him to the small girl who only had this?
“Are you going to fly? Yeah, I suppose that would be your safest bet.”
By the time he spat out the words, she had already spread out her armor and flown straight up. Invisible sails caught the occult high and low pressure fronts. He could not use the flight Preset, so vertical distance was much safer for her than horizontal distance. And once she was up there, she could obliterate him with a unilateral aerial bombing.
She had much more freedom of motion in midair. She could rotate her body vertically or horizontally and build up plenty of centrifugal force in the blunt weapons.
But it was her and not Karuta who grimaced.
“You thought you could fly without depth perception?”
“And in this domed Crystal Beach no less. Crystal Magic flight has acceleration surpassing that of a fighter plane, so you’ll crash into the ceiling in less than a second at max speed.”
Crystal Magic had to be used very differently indoors and outdoors.
With the tall palm trees, taller buildings, and the C World dome itself, this Crystal Beach was full of obstacles. This was not the open sky where she could fly around as she pleased.
While she immediately applied the brakes and tried to come to a stop in midair, Karuta took just three steps to the side while looking up at her. A metal box the size of a vending machine stood unnaturally up from the sandy beach.
Those devices were unique to this place. They were only needed in this enclosed environment.
The label called it a “fire prevention emergency smoke exhaust device”.
He only had to slam down the added amp on the back of his flashlight.
The reinforced glass of the safety cover broke and he pressed the large button within. Immediately, a portion of the translucent ceiling opened and the pressure difference set the air in motion. Just like water drawn into a drain, an artificial blast of wind blew toward the ceiling.
Natalena spun around.
She had already been unstable while stopping so rapidly, so she was completely swept away by this unexpected gust.
“Here’s some advice for free.” Karuta was calm enough to tap the flashlight on his shoulder. “Your greatest attack is that makeshift morning star made using the wires and grab buckets, but you can still get tangled in those wires yourself.”
But she did not slam into the ground, crystallizing her entire body.
The many thin wires caught in the branches of the palm trees that decorated the sandy beach and her small body ended up suspended and swaying side to side like a bagworm. A normal human would have been squeezed to the point of tearing their body apart, but she had the blessings of Crystal Magic. She was protected by the translucent armor and the barrier-like spatial vibration field and any parts the wires did dig into were quickly crystallized for the regeneration process.
These wounds would heal.
Because she could use the latest form of magic.
Her shoulders shook while she swayed upside down in the air.
He had not been her superior in Crystal Magic. He had surpassed her on the more fundamental level of thoughts. And he still had the fighting power known as Aine on top of this.
He put his hands on his hips and looked up at the palm tree.
“So. How did you like our first sparring match?”
If no one died in a battle, it was not true combat. Just like mahjong and poker transformed into entirely different games when money was bet on them.
If he had lost, she might have killed him.
But there were tears of humiliation in Natalena’s eyes after being spared.
“Why didn’t you show me what you saw in my sister!?”
“Because this is what I saw,” he responded with a faint smile. “Anastasia was constantly fighting anyone who might become the next strongest. Day after day, she killed those challengers to keep her title as strongest, until that one day when she lost. Maybe the other four were different, but that was who she was.”
So to put it another way…
“That monster named Anastasia Blast wasn’t interested in anything other than being the strongest. She wasn’t even interested in fighting someone unless they might be the next strongest.”
“Are you saying she recognized your skill? Which is why she went all out and fought you!? Showing you a side of her I never saw!?”
“I have no way of proving it since I didn’t record it all or anything, but unlike Elicia and Yukino, I doubt she ever attacked anyone who did not qualify under her rules. No matter what. At the very least, she wasn’t a pathetic enough person to feel satisfied attacking the weak and defenseless.”
Of course, that was only the one-sided assessment of the person doing the attacking.
For Karuta’s group, who had everything taken from them out of the blue, the attack had seemed entirely random.
“Just like us, she only killed when it was necessary. And it isn’t necessary with you, Natalena. Not for me and not for her. So this is what I think she would have done if she was fighting you as you are now.”
The small girl bit her lip. Tears spilled from her eyes, but these were not fueled by humiliation.
Someone’s younger sister spoke quietly.
“This is…who my sister was? If people weren’t good enough for her, she made them feel this pathetic?”
“She was my family. Are you saying I knew nothing about my own sister?”
“That I can’t tell you.”
That was a non-answer, but it was the truth.
He awkwardly looked aside as he said more.
“But learning the truth won’t necessary make you feel better. That’s what it means to be human.”
He was in a lot of trouble.
Utagai Karuta was forced to take a seat on the hotel hallway floor of all places while being lectured.
“Now, now, Karuta-kun. You should know better than activating the fire alarm when there isn’t a fire. You’re supposed to outgrow that in elementary school☆”
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka’s calm knew no bounds, but he could not look her in the eye. That attractive adult girl(?) was wearing a short skirt while seated in a wheelchair while he was seated on the floor, so the hem was at exactly his eye level. It was such a dangerous situation he did not have it in him to chat. She had the impeccable etiquette of a perfect adult, yet she seemed to have the unreadable compound eyes of an insect. Also, he found she wore a cute yellow color. That was a surprise, but it also made an odd amount of sense to him. What exactly was yellow had to remain a secret. Throw any more fuel on the fire and she really would kill him.
He was actually appreciative of muscular Kiyosawa Hadome here. The fact that this had been left with the President instead of the teachers like him showed a calculating side of that capable teacher.
“Wow, I hear Senpai pressed that button! We all wish we could press it, but he just goes and does it. Is he a spirit of adventure made flesh!?”
“We’re in a foreign country and we don’t know the local laws, so wasn’t he afraid?”
“There’s a fine line between brave and dumb, and I’m not sure which side of it he’s on.”
Kyouka glanced back over her shoulder and all the cracked-open doors in the hallway slammed shut. But Karuta could guess information was still spreading like wildfire via Crystal Blossoms and social media.
The President sighed.
“So how did it go? You had Aine-chan end it instantly the first time and you did it without Aine-chan this time, so does this mean Natalena Blast isn’t much of a threat?”
If he said she was not, would Marika and Kyouka be less insistent about how to deal with her?
He considered that, but abandoned the idea. If they found out he was lying, the pendulum would swing back in the opposite direction hard.
“No. She hasn’t realized how to use it yet, but that is incredibly powerful.”
“At the very least, none of the Problem Solvers were this type of fighter. I doubt I, Aine, Marika, or you have anything like this either. It’s all so ill-defined, making it seem a lot like magic. That’s where its strength lies.”
“I see. I will keep that in mind.”
That was when he heard a creaking sound. And looked up at the ceiling.
“Was that the base isolation system? I guess they would have earthquake countermeasures in such a volcanic area.”
“Karuta-kun, don’t you dare use this an excuse to get up. There is a blizzard of -15 degrees outside, you know? Visibility is less than 10m and the maximum instantaneous wind speed is more than 40m/s. That’s at hurricane levels, so it isn’t too surprising to find some malfunctions in the C World dome structure.”
That was a scary thing to imagine. If a single crack formed in the translucent dome for some reason, the pleasant summer air would vanish and they would find themselves in a giant freezer. That would wipe out all the living things inside, including the humans.
Omotesandou Kyouka brushed back her hair in an exasperated way.
“What, did you think you didn’t play a role in that? You are the one who needlessly opened the smoke exhaust, which poses the largest latent risk. What was your plan if the automatic door froze open and refused to close again? Were we supposed to ball you up and shove you in the duct to keep the cold air out?”
“I’m sorry, Omotesandou-san!!”
The seeds of that silly discussion blossomed into toxic flowers the following morning.
It began at breakfast.
1000 people would not fit in a normal restaurant, so they had rented out an entire one-floor banquet hall.
The middle and high school naturally separated out into two distinct groups, but Karuta and the rest of the world’s strongest were also forced to sit at a table all their own. The Student Council Treasurer with the black bob cut and Secretary with her red hair worn in buns sat at a nearby table while giving Karuta a withering look of hatred, but Kyouka only smiled and stayed with his group.
The middle and high school students only mixed together when getting their food. Marika’s friend Imi used a finger and her eyes to send Karuta a warning as he passed by, so he looked over that way and saw…
“C’mon, all of you. You need to eat some vegetables.”
“Ehh? But this is a buffet where we can choose what we want to eat, Sensei.”
“And they have chicken strips! I’m gonna eat chicken strips until I pop!!”
Sanae, the black-haired bespectacled member of the usual trio of middle school girls, could not turn down the muscular track suit teacher’s high-pressure request and had her plate thoroughly customized. She had apparently been caught at the drink section while making her special drink by adding a pinch of salt to some water. She must have had trouble telling him no when she knew he meant well.
Karuta also overheard a conversation the food workers were holding. The ordinary guests who were not from Grimnoah were apparently all talking about catching glimpses of something outside the translucent dome.
And that something was looking in at them from the white blizzard outside.
“But no one can say what exactly it is,” said Marika with her strawberry blonde twintails swaying.
Karuta felt the large hotel’s buffet had a way of revealing people’s true nature. With a plate full of sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, and corn cooked in butter, Marika was going for a very powerful meal. And she ate it all with white rice.
“And isn’t it -15 degrees out there? What ever happened to that talk of global warming thinning the ice? I bet a polar bear could hibernate out here just fine.”
“Marika-san, um, where are your vegetables?”
“Eh? Corn’s a vegetable.”
Marika sounded legitimately puzzled as she shot down Omotesandou Kyouka’s gentle change of subject. Kyouka’s plate was only vegetables and fish, so no carbs to be found. This was an all-you-can-eat buffet and she was only eating a single small plate’s worth of food for breakfast. The two of them had excellent figures, but they had apparently developed their breasts in very different ways.
Aine was only interested in pure gold, so she had nothing at all on her plate. In fact, she seemed more focused on the golden shine of the knives and forks, but she stopped gnawing on them when she realized they were brass and not gold-plated.
“Sacri-sama, they were saying it is something inhuman wandering around outside, weren’t they?”
“We can rule humans out pretty easily anyway. A stray dog has a better chance out there than we do. Dogs use their fur to keep out the cold when pulling those sleds.”
It did not seem to be a wild animal, but it was not humans who had forgotten the wild either.
That had led to speculation from those laypeople.
“But do you really think it could be that?” Marika frowned. “Do you really think the Threat could be what’s watching us from the blizzard?”
They all fell silent.
It would be simple enough to deny it, but no one knew what the real Threat was.
Karuta wanted to ask Sophia Firenze who had created a possible model of them, but unfortunately, he did not see her nearby at the moment. That was not too surprising when over 1000 students and teachers were filling this single large space. It was an even larger scale than the average party.
“I don’t know.” Omotesandou Kyouka sighed while poking at her seaweed salad with a fork. “But true or not, those rumors could lead to unnecessary panic. And they may only be linking those strange gazes with the Threat because they’re seeing the Crystal Magicians who are meant to combat the Threat.”
Needless to say, a riot inside could cause a fire or destroy the C World dome’s walls just as much as an attack from the outside could. If there were signs of it, they had to put a stop to it.
A girl hesitantly approached them.
It was Alice, the well-developed blonde ponytail girl from that trio.
“Have you seen Riho-chan? She was with us during the roll call before breakfast.”
She had probably intended to ask Karuta for help, but she was speaking a little more politely than usual. Marika and Kyouka must have seemed like more distant figures for a middle school girl.
“What, has she gone missing?” asked the boy with a frown.
“It’s a buffet, so I assumed she had gone to get some more food, but it’s been a while and she hasn’t come back.”
He could imagine that girl skipping class, but not a meal. This was a breakfast buffet at a luxury hotel, so it was unlikely she would try to sneak out in search of better food. Any of them could slip out if they tried, but she had no reason to. This did sound unusual.
He set down his knife and fork and stood from his chair.
He took a deep breath to secretly switch modes. He needed to be in public mode now.
“Where have you searched so far?”
“Nowhere really. Wait, are you saying this could be bad?”
“Aine,” he said to the pale-skinned crystal girl. They asked the receptionist at the banquet hall exit leading to the elevator hall since they would have the most information, but they only shook their head. They said they would have noticed any students walking out.
“Just to be safe, what special abilities does your Crystal Magic have? Could she have turned invisible or altered someone’s memory?”
“Riho-chan’s is Verdandi from Norse Mythology, so no, she can’t.”
“There are three of you and one of them uses Verdandi?”
“Ah ha ha. Bingo. I use Skuld and Sanae-chan uses Urd.”
The Crystal Blossom at Alice’s chest suddenly shattered and expanded into her armor. There was a lot of fabric fluttering in a risqué way. The translucent crystal formed armor and a miniskirt with feather-like decorations in places. It did make her look a lot like a Norse goddess. She did not seem to have a weapon, but the pointed parts of the skirt and feather decorations were apparently all sheathed short swords.
“Watch out behind you.”
“Oh, whoops. Sorry, did I hit you?”
She apologized to a middle school boy while storing the armor once more.
The name of the god sealed inside the Crystal Blossom’s small circuit board could not be changed, but apparently even that could lead to friendships. That did explain why they seemed downright inseparable.
Anyway, if the receptionist was to be believed, Riho had not left the buffet hall.
Before Karuta could turn his head, a shrill scream exploded.
By the time he turned around, Kiyosawa Hadome was already running alongside him.
They ran over to find Sophia Firenze fallen to a sitting position. The track suit teacher grabbed her shoulders to support her and she seemed entirely unaware of all the students focused on them. Her flaxen hair was plastered to her cheeks while she held her hands over her mouth and stared at something with her eyes as wide as could be.
Her gaze was fixated on the bathroom door.
Kiyosawa started to move in that direction, but then he seemed to notice Sophia’s weight. He had said she was the niece of a professor who helped him earn tuition money. He was clearly having trouble deciding whether he should leave her there and go check or stay here with her.
Karuta hesitated for a moment too, so he went with another option.
“Understood. Although I imagine you will be checking for yourself soon enough.”
With crystal sword in hand, Aine poked her head into the women’s bathroom and took a look around like she was peeking inside a shop she frequented. Then she turned back and emotionlessly beckoned him over.
“She is dead.”
She stated it so plainly he thought he had misheard her at first. The nervous teacher’s head slumped back at an unnatural angle, so Kiyosawa Hadome quickly propped up her body weight.
Meanwhile, Aine continued speaking in a mechanical way.
“Casualty report: One corpse was found with entire body crystallized. Based on the physical traits-”
“No…wait. What are you saying? That can’t be true!!”
Alice cut off the crystal girl with a shout. Sanae rushed over after hearing her friend’s voice, but Alice did not seem to notice.
She may have been afraid that letting someone put it to words would make it actually real.
But Aine did not even tilt her head.
“Based on the physical traits, this is almost certainly the individual we are searching for. The damage took the form of a large horizontal gash to the throat, but…”
She would not stop.
The way Aine spoke of it like an unexpected casualty during a mission may have helped reduce the shock, but it also did not treat a human life with the appropriate weight.
Alice grabbed Aine’s slender shoulders and shoved her out of the way of the bathroom door. She took a look inside and fell back onto her butt.
Just like she had run full speed into an invisible wall.
She had been rejected by that forbidden space and gained nothing from it. Despite her explosion of energy just now, her entire body went limp and her hands wandered slowly through the air. She more or less clung to Aine’s left thigh, but the crystal girl ignored her while continuing her mechanical report.
“But it does not appear to have been done with a simple horizontal cut. It looks like something applied force from both sides of her throat, like a pair of scissors. Also, I discovered this on the scene, so it is likely related.”
Aine held the tip of her sword out toward Karuta.
No, she held out the thing impaled there.
He asked about it without thinking. He had to ask.
“What is that?”
He heard a grinding or squealing noise.
Or was it a voice?
The thing looked something like a slipper-sized pill bug. Except this metal bug shined dully in the light and had large steel mandibles that were sharper than scissors. The tanned and silver-haired girl named Riho had crystallized, but her blood remained on the weapon. Those mandible blades shined a horrifically vivid red.
Was this a weapon?
Something flashed through Karuta’s mind.
What was it Anastasia Blast had called the Threat?
A Metal-Derived Autonomous-Origin Higher Lifeform Combat Weapon.
“Aine, kill that thing.”
“Kill it now!! Hurry!!”
She only tilted her head.
And it was too late.
The windows in this large space gave a view of an artificial summer beach.
But all that was rejected by a deafening sound of destruction.
Someone had broken through the outer perimeter of the C World dome and the blue ocean froze over in an instant.
Since this one was small enough to slip through ducts and water pipes, it had likely been a scout meant to perform reconnaissance and sabotage. It was exactly the same as how human special forces would send in a small camera to check on the interior of a building before entering it themselves. Had Riho stumbled upon it by chance, so it had silenced her?
The main unit was waiting somewhere else.
What was it they had heard talk of this morning?
Something was looking into the dome from the fierce blizzard outside.
And people wondered if it could be the Threat.
Whatever it was had finally arrived. By destroying the foundation of this temporarily livable environment, they had taken the best possible action toward eradicating all life here.
Most likely, this was something inhuman working to destroy all that was human.
Between the Lines 2
Age at Death: 13 (Born April 13). Sex: Female.
Height: 145 cm. Weight: 38kg. Measurements…is that really necessary?
The first casualty of Second Grimnoah. On Sacri-sama’s orders, I scanned the women’s bathroom attached to the 6th floor banquet hall. The above individual was found collapsed face down by the sinks near the bathroom entrance. She died of blood loss or suffocation after her throat was slit by a sharp blade. Some uncertainty remains concerning the cause and time of death because her entire body crystallized, preventing standard forensic medicine techniques. Based on observations of the wounded area, it appears her throat was forcibly slashed from both sides at once by a set of two blades, such as scissors or a bolt cutter. Based on the severity of the wound, it will likely take 56 years for her to recover.
To reiterate, the time of death can only be estimated. Security camera footage of the bathroom entrance will likely be useful there. There will be no footage of the attack itself since cameras are not installed inside for privacy reasons.
The Sub Category Regulation 1 students noticed Toudou Riho’s absence at around 8:20 AM. Their homeroom teacher discovered her and screamed at around 8:30 AM. Assuming no trickery involving body doubles and assuming the entire group is not lying, we can assume she was killed in the women’s bathroom during that time.
Toudou Riho was not collapsed with her head pointed toward the exit. There was also no sign of her trying to crawl away and escape. Thus, I expect she was killed nearly instantly.
There were also some cosmetic products scattered across the floor.
The only other notable observation was the lack of any apparent damage other than the actual fatal injury. There were no injuries on her arms suggesting she tried to defend herself. The same applies to the women’s bathroom. There were no signs of a struggle on the floor or walls. The sink mirror and the frosted glass window were undamaged.
A unit we are tentatively calling a Mini-Scout Threat was found on the floor as well. The blood on it makes it almost certain its metal mandibles were used to tear open Toudou Riho’s throat.
Based on the circumstances, she likely had her throat slit in a single attack, giving her no time to resist. She must have lost all strength and died before she could activate her Crystal Magic or even scream. It is unknown how the Mini-Scout Threat got in, but as it is the size of a slipper, it had many avenues of entrance, including the toilet pipes and the air duct in the ceiling.
(Stay calm. You need to think.)
Utagai Karuta shut his eyes and breathed deep. A middle school girl was dead, the dome had broken, creating an icy hell, and the Threat covered every inch of things beyond the blizzard. The damage was definitely spreading, but…
(This isn’t a bunch of unrelated trouble rushing in from all directions. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Keep an open mind. This is all one connected problem!!)
He opened his eyes again and viewed the reality out the 6th-floor window.
They were in the C World dome, a sealed space with a radius of 2km. The west side had been broken through and something like a fierce white steam was pushing in from there. It was similar to the white breaths leaving people’s mouths in the midwinter. The difference in temperature between inside and out was rapidly freezing the moisture in the air.
Eyes were visible beyond that expanding white curtain.
They glowed red and there was more than just the one pair.
In fact, they did not always come as mere pairs. The sizes, shapes, numbers, and relative heights all differed. They eyes staring back at them were so numerous they looked like sinister stars in the sky. At such long range, it was hard to judge the scale of this swarm, but their “legs” crushed the large tour busses on the side of the road like tissue boxes.
That meant the creatures were larger than that. Harder and heavier, too.
With a great roar, an 8-story parking garage was torn from its foundation and knocked over.
Being on the 6th floor was no reason to feel safe. If one of those charged at the building, they would be crushed immediately. There were sounds of straining metal and scattering sparks, but were those due to the legs and hard carapaces rubbing together within the white fog? This was what it meant to have no ground to stand on. With all this going on, they had no idea where to even begin, Crystal Magic or not.
The banquet hall they were using for their buffet had large windows on the wall, giving a perfect view of the approaching hell. The asphalt road was torn up, the palm trees were snapped, and straining noises could be heard before the identity of this enemy could be seen. The exterior of the window froze over and the white frost obscured their view.
“Uh,” someone groaned.
It was not Karuta. One of the male students viewing the scene out the window – if you could call it that when nothing was reaching his mind – screamed and ran for the exit.
It was a familiar face: his classmate Yamane Deiri.
“You idiot! Sensei, please stop him!!”
Karuta shouted over, but the female teacher was still seated on the floor. Her mind had yet to start moving again after running across Riho’s death, but she did not seem to realize this left her defenseless.
Kiyosawa Hadome started to get up, but then he stopped. He had not noticed, but Sophia Firenze was clutching at his shirt like a small child.
Due to the chaos, the childish action was terribly strong.
Her fingers were clenched so tight they had grown white and they refused to budge. Kiyosawa looked Karuta in the eye and then shook his head with a tongue click. Not even an adult could free himself from that grip so easily.
“Aine! Don’t let this start a trend!!”
“You have not removed my nonlethal mode for Grimnoah residents. May I cut the target’s Achilles tendons?”
He ignored that question and instead grabbed a salt shaker from a table which he then tossed to Aine. She tilted her head before reversing her blade and swinging it like a baseball bat.
A clang rang out with the perfect speed and angle.
The shaker did not break, but it did tear through the air, crack fleeing Yamane Deiri in the back of the head, and cause him to trip forward. Karuta used that moment to drive his point home to everyone there, middle and high school alike.
(I’m sorry, Yamanen!! I’ll buy you a drink later!!)
“There are over 1000 people here, so trying to use the elevators and stairs like normal would clog everything up and we’d be stuck! Do you want to helplessly wait for death here!?”
The students who had started to get up from their seats froze in place when they heard that. Not many people would immediately agree to fight now that the Threat had shown up. But no one would stick with their escape plan if they knew it would mean being stuck here until they died a pointless death.
They had at most a few minutes and at worst half a minute until the clash began. If they did not come up with a plan by then, they would be attacked with nothing to show for it and the casualties would only grow.
Marika slipped away from Imi and Tayori to approach him and whisper in his ear.
“What exactly are we going to do? Hole up in here?”
Her breath was already visible in the cold.
The hotel’s central heating was still on and none of the windows had broken, but the indoor heating system was insufficient. Since the exterior of the windows had frosted over in a matter of moments, things had to be 10 or even 15 below freezing outside.
“That isn’t possible,” cut in the track suit teacher supporting Sophia. The cold may have been affecting him far more than the students in their uniforms. “We can’t stay here in this cold. And I don’t just mean the room temperature. The water pipes will freeze and the power circuits might malfunction depending on the type. If the switchboard goes out, the building’s power goes along with it!”
If they stayed here, they could not survive the cold. The necessary infrastructure would not last.
Besides, a fortress was not a defensive line. The defensive line had to be held in front of the fortress. There was no time for the preparations needed to hold off a large army, like setting up gun emplacements and laying a minefield.
So Karuta did not hesitate.
“We have to abandon the C World dome. The Crystal Beach has other domes, like A and B, so we can escape there and regroup. As long as we can keep the people safe, we can let the Threat rampage through the C World dome to analyze how they attack.”
He heard something heavy scraping along the floor.
Still sitting on the floor, Alice was looking up at him with Sanae supporting her shoulders. And she had her arms around the clear crystal that symbolized her dead friend.
That was what happened if they died.
No visual could have more vividly shown that.
“You said yourself there are 1000 of us. If we try to escape now, we’ll clog up the escape route and be stuck here!!”
“Normal people would, yes.”
Karuta had immediately stopped a male student from running across the floor to reach the elevators and stairs outside the banquet hall. If that set in as their best bet, it would create a meaningless struggle between the Crystal Magicians.
In other words…
“One of the Crystal Magic Presets is flight. As long as we coordinate things, you can all escape through all the windows on the walls.”
“With more ways out than just the stairs and elevators, there won’t be any congestion. Flight is technically only taught to Regulation 2s, but you’ve all been practicing it in secret, haven’t you? We had been at your level. Who here can’t fly!? That’s nothing to be embarrassed of, so just ask someone nearby for help and grab on tight!!”
That set them all in motion.
The windows in the banquet hall did not open, so a flood of people rushed toward the hallway. The tickets for survival had just gone on sale and they were all taking it very seriously. All in all, the high school students were generally grabbing the hands of a middle school student to help them fly. But both age groups were new at this. Given their ages, the middle schoolers may have had more room for growth, but the high schoolers had more guts.
In truth, Karuta did not know what the right answer was here. He was only in high school too. But he knew how important it was to provide options for fighting, hiding, and escape and he knew that he could never say out loud that he did not know what he was doing. If the world’s strongest had thrown in the towel, everyone would panic.
“Alice! Take Riho with you!!”
“We can’t leave her here. She was lucky to only have her throat slit, so you can see her again in a few decades. But not if she’s caught in all this and shattered!”
“I’m…aware of that!!”
The blonde girl clenched her teeth, wiped away the tears, and picked up the heavy crystal statue.
She likely wanted to argue with his definition of “lucky”, but she still flew out the window along with Sanae. Giving her an objective, whatever it might be, had given her the strength she needed to survive in the face of this crisis. For Karuta, his ugly revenge had played that role.
“I can’t fly. Neither can Omotesandou-san.”
“Then what shall I do?”
“You work with Marika, Aine. Yes, if you can, fly the waiters and cooks out of here. Omotesandou-san!!”
The President kept her confident smile even now.
Or had she decided now was not the time to let it slip?
“Oh? I could have escaped on my own.”
“When you have trouble getting out of your wheelchair on your own and need Aine’s help washing your back? C’mon, let’s go!!”
“Hee hee. I really wish the Student Council kids could show this kind of initiative. I had them escape ahead of me, so this can be our little secret. Otherwise, they would get all jealous of you again.”
“Is this really the time?”
“It is exactly the time. The normalcy of the standard rules is needed most after a casualty.”
Kyouka too called it a casualty.
Had she concluded that the military rules were the best format for rationally bringing order to human lives? Or she may have been more concerned than she let on that her heart was influenced by the shock of what happened. Just like motion sickness, there was no way to stop it once it started.
Karuta circled behind her, grabbed the wheelchair’s handles, and began running. He should not have been moving that quickly with someone in the wheelchair, but they had no time. Kyouka seemed to enjoy it like someone riding a makeshift thrill ride.
She grabbed the armrests tight and spoke up with enjoyment in her voice.
“This is the 6th floor, so is the elevator our next stop?”
“Do you want to get trapped inside? We’re using the stairs!!”
He snapped back at how she seemed to be testing him with that question.
He could already see his breath. The coldest he could imagine was 0 degrees Celsius, where puddles would freeze over, so it terrified him for the temperature to be dropping well below that. Even though this was not a snowy mountain in the winter. They were inside a well-maintained tourist hotel, even if all the hallway windows had been thrown open for their escape.
It looked like the dome had been broken through in more than one spot.
“They’re coming from this direction too?”
“You already knew we couldn’t stay here and defend ourselves, right? We have to abandon the C World dome.”
They had only been able to see out the one direction from the banquet hall, but the opened windows in the hallway showed another white curtain with many eyes lurking beyond it. The C World dome had been attacked at multiple points simultaneously, opening more and more holes.
Kyouka waved something toward him while he pushed her wheelchair toward the stairs.
It was a phone.
“The phones no longer have a signal.”
“You mean they destroyed the antenna tower or the undersea cable connecting back to the mainland?”
“Hard to say if they have that kind of intelligence, but this means calling for rescue is not an immediate option.”
The transmissions they could send with their Crystal Blossoms did not have infinite range, so they could not contact anyone on the other side of the planet.
On the other hand, this was Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah’s field trip, so if they were still gone after the scheduled return date, the world would quickly take note. The world’s strongest would make for valuable allies, so nations around the world would send out their armies to get in their good graces.
“This trip was scheduled for all of Golden Week. We still have 5 days until our scheduled return date and I seriously doubt we can last that long out here.”
“Not to mention that I’m not sure what an army could really do about this even if they did notice we had not returned,” added Kyouka. “If this is the real Threat, then only the world’s strongest should be able to do anything about them.”
These were the source of the unnatural disappearances of cities, states, and countries in a single night.
They had finally shown themselves, but they would never have remained such a problem for so long if they could simply be bombed into oblivion by drones.
That was when a dull rumbling shook the entire hotel.
At first, Karuta cautiously glanced out the window, assuming the owners of those many eyes behind the white curtain had arrived at the hotel, but then the Crystal Blossom at his chest vibrated to produce a human voice.
This was apparently being broadcast to everyone and not sent to him in particular.
The speaker may have wanted to find some peace of mind in someone approving of his actions.
“This is Yamane. My Kagutsuchi bombing is working! Ha ha. Crystal Magic really is the world’s strongest. Ha ha ha ha ha!! I ain’t afraid of the Threat!”
But Karuta had to shout back at him.
They still had no idea what this opponent could do. The first time you saw an enemy, you had to escape to safety and let them reveal their hand. They could not predict what this enemy would do and they could not fly well inside the dome. Plus, Crystal Magic was not all-powerful against an unpredictable attack.
A moment later, Karuta’s retinas were fried by a lightning-like flash of light.
This was not just a laser beam.
As soon as something was launched from the ground, explosions scattered in every direction from a certain point in the air. The translucent dome had only been broken in a few defined points before, but now it was completely blown away. Shards rained down on the rapidly-freezing tourist city.
One space elevator method was to use a laser.
A powerful laser would be fired on the bottom of a container connected to a wire and the heat would cause a rapid expansion of the air that launched the container upwards.
This was a variation on that.
First, a small pellet made of some sort of heavy metal was launched into the air and then a powerful laser or electron beam was fired into that. And instead of directing the force in a single direction, the barrier of air was formed in all directions equally. The result was a spherical explosion. Enough energy to launch something into space was fully converted into lethal force. The destructive power had to be equal or greater to a thermobaric weapon.
The destruction was massive.
Karuta could not tell which flyer in the frigid sky was Yamane Deiri, but the several people there suddenly stalled and dropped like poorly-designed paper airplanes.
Their crystal armor shattered and arms and legs were torn from their bodies.
“They might not be dead yet.”
Karuta clenched his teeth hard, but the President calmly observed the scene outside the open window.
“If they make sure to make an emergency landing on a building rooftop instead of falling all the way to the road, they can survive this.”
That was exactly what happened.
A different voice arrived over their Crystal Blossoms.
“Th-the person called Yamane-senpai was hit! Um, it will take 30 seconds for his wounds to heal, so we need to buy him time to withdraw. Someone fly in formation with me!!”
“Be careful. Was that a glass laser?”
“This opened up the space overhead. I don’t know about the laser, but the pellet looked like a normal metal bullet, so won’t we be safe if we keep away from that!?”
(Is that Sanae and Alice? This can’t be an easy time for them. I’m impressed how well they’re holding together!!)
This was not over yet. Yes, as long as the wound was not fatal, a Crystal Magician would heal in 30 seconds. Losing an arm or a leg was not enough to give up on their survival. That did not count as a casualty.
And their enemy here finally broke through the white curtain hiding them.
They were finally revealed.
What even were they?
Solid eyes glowing red.
They were different in size and shape to the pill bug that had killed Riho in a surprise attack.
Enough so that it was unclear why they even bothered with the element of surprise.
They were like scorpions larger than dump trucks. Except instead of the pincers used to protect the head(?), they had something like 5-fingered human hands opening and closing. The grooves running along the palms flashed with a disconcertingly wet yellow light. They were brimming with massive energy.
The thick tail was shaped like an airbrush, so did that launch the pellets?
And did the palms fire the lasers that hit the pellets to cause the explosive expansion of air?
Except that was just one of the designs.
Carnivorous plants the size of cars were crawling at the scorpions’ feet, opening and closing coffins as mouths. The entire swarm of creatures was entirely covered by giant ants with revolvers instead of their six legs. Some were like giant squids with their head, belly, or whatever you called the main part covered with gaping mouths lined with teeth like dentures. Did they directly bite things, did they send out ultrasonic waves that created some kind of omnidirectional barrier, or did they snipe things with pressurized water? Karuta could not even hazard a guess.
They had never seen any of these monsters before.
Just like with the Problem Solvers, ignorance was a terrifying thing.
A dark mass was rippling in from beyond the broken dome. Instead of a single giant unit, this had to be a different swarm crawling over the Threat that had already arrived. The total number was impossible to guess.
To save their allies who had stayed in the buildings to avoid being swallowed by the swarm, the students continued making bombing runs from the air. Some were shot down by the omnidirectional explosions caused by the scorpions, but others made accurate strikes from 10m above their targets to slam an explosive blast and clear glass shards toward them.
Some of the Threat were broken by this and others were not.
When one of them was broken, the rest of the swarm would walk right over the unmoving mass of black metal, crush it, and devour it. The surviving cannons and armor would be cannibalized while the swarm marched onward with no drop in speed.
Yes. This was not about defeating them or not.
The Threat remained a threat even after they were defeated.
“What the hell?”
Utagai Karuta had done his best to remain calm and act the veteran in front of the middle school girls, but he was really a freshman who had only arrived at Grimnoah at the start of April and this was his first time seeing the Threat. With no one watching, the mask quickly slipped.
“What the hell is going on!?”
“They look more mechanical than biological to me. They also seem to be strong advocates of recycling. Humanity could stand to learn a thing or two from them.”
Only that unfathomable President could remain calm at a time like this.
The Threat could not be entirely destroyed unless the entire swarm was destroyed.
Even if they walked across a minefield and marched straight into a hail of machinegun fire, only the units out front would be destroyed and the rest would customize themselves based on the surviving parts of the fallen. A desperate resistance would only create more powerful monsters that would easily trample on humanity’s military bases.
(This is worse than I imagined.)
There was a full swarm of them and they cannibalized their dead.
He had not known how frightening an enemy could be when they had no sense of self-preservation.
This was entirely different from the Problem Solvers who they had only needed to kill even if it meant mutual destruction. The more these monsters were defeated, the more powerful they would grow. This would explain why the insane firepower of Anastasia’s group had not been enough to fully eliminate this.
There were hundreds, thousands…no, maybe more.
(We can’t push them back with strength! Their attack types and parameters are up to us. If we go at this wrong, we could end up creating the ultimate monster that no one can hope to defeat!)
“But if we don’t fight, we’ll just be killed. …Okay, you need to get out of there once you finish regenerating! Some of them might be able to fly for all we-!!”
Karuta’s throat grew bone dry when he heard what sounded like an electric shaver but much larger.
Some looked like giant octopuses with red and green lights attached to their round bodies and with their sucker-attached arms spinning in alternating directions. Some looked like flying fish with razor-sharp pectoral fins and a metallic sheen. They borrowed their shapes from actual plants and animals, but they used their parts in entirely different ways. Countless shapes left the swarm and invaded the sky with movements reminiscent of coaxial rotors or surface-to-air missiles.
(Already!? They customize themselves and evolve to match their needs way too fast!!)
“Ksshh. Y-you make it sound like we are recklessly trying to prove ourselves.”
Someone else’s voice cut in.
He recognized it.
“Everyone is trying to buy enough time for the ordinary people to escape. Um, uh, we think we might be able to distract the Threat from the ground by fighting back from up in the sky!”
Utagai Karuta fell silent for a moment.
Meanwhile, another transmission reached him.
“Listen, that blast might cover a massive area, but it’s only a shockwave. You can reduce the damage by hiding behind a building!”
“Wh-when hiding, make sure to look out for any of them that have fallen to the ground. You can stay out of view from the surface using the walls or ceilings at the top of a tall building.”
“The flying ones aren’t the most maneuverable things, so they can’t keep up with dogfighting alongside the buildings and end up crashing into the wall. I’ll show you what I mean, so you need to learn how to do this!!”
That was the teachers, Kiyosawa Hadome and Sophia Firenze. Their focus on theory left them without any combat experience, but they must have been hiding the trembling of their legs and putting on a courageous face to keep the students from panicking.
It was still possible to save them.
They could survive this and get back on their feet. They all believed it.
The Student Council President quietly clicked her tongue.
“They beat us to the punch. I know you, Karuta-kun, so I bet you were planning to leave the others and sabotage the boiler in the basement or something. That way the big explosion and subsequent fire would draw the Threat’s attention long enough for everyone to escape. No matter what you do, you refuse to get other people involved.”
The boy had no answer to that.
He only smiled and spoke under his breath.
“We’re all such idiots, aren’t we?”
But he liked what he was seeing. He enjoyed this recklessness. This seemed a far better use of Crystal Magic than flying around the world in secret to have revenge.
“Natalena, do the ordinary people have an evacuation route?”
She seemed to hesitate for a moment, but then she began her report. Had she decided now was not the time for revenge? Ironically, she may have been a lot like him. Neither one of them would get other people involved to accomplish their goal.
“According to a hotel worker I picked up along the way, the dome has a central heating facility used to keep the entire thing warm. Um, so in addition to the heaters in the individual buildings, there is another one for the dome as a whole. The central heating facilities for each dome are connected underground, so, um, well, that is apparently to ensure the dome can receive heat from another dome if its heater malfunctions.”
That was evidently insufficient when the entire dome had been blown away, though.
Still, they could make use of that.
“Once the heat supply extracted from the lava is cut off, it’s only a large tunnel. Um, if the workers, guests, and other ordinary people who can’t fly are guided through there to the adjacent B World dome, they should be safe from this army of the Threat!”
It was a decent idea. Far better than using any surface path. Marika, Natalena, and the rest may have been fighting primarily in the air to prevent the Threat from evolving into something that dug through the ground.
This of course required caution since it all went out the window if the Threat learned of the heat tunnels, but it was still better than flying around with ordinary people in their arms when they could be shot down at any time by the explosion produced from the heavy metal pellets and lasers. Unlike Crystal Magicians, normal people would die of blood loss if an arm or leg was blown off.
“Is there anything I can do?” asked Karuta.
“Do not head outside on the surface. And…”
Another explosive boom shook the entire 50-story hotel. Several beams of light shot down from the sky to pierce into the main road, primarily taking out the scorpion-like Threats that functioned as wide-range antiaircraft weapons using lasers and bullets. The person responsible zigzagged through the air to slice through some flying octopuses and flying fish with her rapier. She was handling the dogfighting in her spare time.
“Is that Amaashi Marika-senpai? She’s so powerful it’s probably best to just leave her be. What is with her? Um, she isn’t using the buildings as cover while approaching, so she’s staying exposed to their fire yet dodging those huge anti-air explosions while bombing them. I appreciate it though, since this is gradually bringing us closer to holding air superiority.”
“Oh, dear,” said Kyouka. “It looks like Marika-san’s berserker tendencies have been fully unleashed. Does she see herself as the adorable knight protecting you and Aine-chan?”
This was not entirely a good thing. Defeating the Threat here would only power up the next wave that would cannibalize their parts. That meant Threats other than the scorpions would have those pellets and lasers equipped. And those evolved versions would be even more powerful and precise.
The same could be said of the flying ones. The Threat had begun with coaxial rotors and missiles, but they would probably find that to be insufficient and soon begin devouring their crushed allies to evolve. That repeated optimization would continue on and on until they finally had the top speed and mobility needed to surpass Crystal Magic.
“Marika-san’s biggest flaw is how she gets so caught up in protecting things now that she forgets to consider what happens next.”
Either way, they needed a fundamental countermeasure here. For example, they could destroy the enemy so utterly no usable parts remained, or they could do something to prevent the scraps from being recovered. But what exactly that would be and whether it would actually be usable on the front line were entirely unknown.
“Anyway, um, if you can’t fly, you aren’t any help here,” said Natalena. “You need to take the President into the central heating tunnel!”
“Don’t push yourself too hard. You only have to buy us time, so we’ll prepare the evacuation route for you!”
When he ended the transmission, he found the President laughing for some reason.
“She’s such a good girl,” she said.
“We are the people who killed her sister, remember? If she really was prioritizing revenge above all else, she could have given us false information to isolate us so she could attack us in the confusion.”
Natalena was not that kind of person.
She was forcing the gears of revenge to turn right now, but they would stop once she found something more important along the way. She would set it aside and focus on what ever had to be done right now.
She could do that.
The title of good person definitely belonged with Natalena Blast. Karuta’s group had failed to do that. They had prioritized their revenge no matter what it would have meant for the rest of the world.
They had lacked the courage to come to a stop.
Because they had known they could not start up again once they did stop.
For the stairs, he spun the wheelchair around 180 degrees so he walked backwards to descend the stairs ahead of it. He could have run down the stairs while princess carrying her, but there was no guarantee they would find a spare wheelchair at the bottom. There were no windows in here. He did not want to see those things for a moment longer than necessary, but the lack of information still clutched at his heart.
This hotel was the tallest building in the C World dome, so it contained a large casino within it. It could even be called the center of the dome.
That meant the central heating facility was located below it.
After descending three floors underground, they found bare concrete walls very different from the luxurious interior of the hotel. The thick metal door was already open. Inside, they found machines like a large cargo ship’s engine crammed in tight and leaking white steam.
“It’s still a little warm in here.”
“That won’t last long. And watch out for the steam, Karuta-kun.”
“Head out into the -15-degree air while somewhat damp and you might have an entire ear fall off.”
He fell silent and went pale, so she laughed and said more.
“Don’t worry. Even if you ignore my kind advice, you still have your regeneration, right? Fourth degree frostbite is nothing to be afraid of☆”
Further in, they found another metal door.
That led to the heat tunnel.
They peeked inside and saw darkness gaping as wide as a highway tunnel. But instead of concrete, the floor, walls, and ceiling here were made of stainless steel.
They saw light in the distance, but not from stationary fluorescent lights. These light sources were moving around. Karuta tensed up, thinking they might be strange “eyes”, but they were not. A large group of people was using the backlights of their phones and other devices to light their way through the tunnel. The walls and ceiling were apparently reflecting the artificial lights.
“We caught up.”
“Given the state of things up above, this is more or less a miracle.”
He guessed they were about 400m away from the tourists and workers. They easily closed that distance even with him pushing the wheelchair, so the other group must have been slowed by their numbers. After all, that was everyone from the C World dome. As seen at Shinto shrines during New Year’s and in the city during Halloween, a large gathering of people took a long time to move.
Once Karuta and Kyouka arrived at the tail end of the group, a waitress, tour guide, supermarket worker, and convenience store worker still in their uniforms noticed them and kindly shined their flashlights over to light their way. The group had not collapsed to the point that they were willing to shove aside a schoolgirl in a wheelchair to get through faster.
(But what do we do now?)
(We’re up against overwhelming numbers here, so protecting one specific dome for 24 hours straight is honestly unrealistic. It’s all over as soon as they break a single hole in the dome, so the attackers have the clear advantage there. Also, where did the Threat even come from? Do they have a mothership or command tower? Either way, we need some way to go on the attack if we’re going to end this.)
“Karuta-kun, something isn’t right.”
Hearing that, he noticed a deep sound. It was not the tremors from the aerial battle fought by Marika, Natalena, and the others. This was more mechanical, like heavy gears moving. It was hard to tell in the crowd, but he could detect some angry yelling and shouting further up from here.
That sound had to be the door to the B World dome shutting.
“Wait!” he shouted. “We aren’t all inside yet!!”
“You’re from Grimnoah, aren’t you?”
A different sort of voice shouted back from beyond the crowd.
The male voice was full of the superiority rather than relief of someone who had already ensured their own safety.
“I’ve seen you on those online news sites. You’re Utagai Karuta and Omotesandou Kyouka. The representatives of justice who defeated the Problem Solvers to become the new world’s strongest!”
Karuta was taken aback when this complete stranger identified him.
And this stranger’s voice carried an emotion Karuta was not responsible for.
“Then this is none of our business. You just have to go do your jobs! Go save us! Go fight the Threat out there!!”
(This isn’t the time!)
Karuta clenched his teeth, but someone else had something to say as well.
“We’re normal people, so the Threat would have no reason to attack us.”
This place was ruled by the ominous elation of having outdone the world’s strongest. No, of having shoved them down to stand above them.
During disasters, it was said the EMTs and volunteers supposedly there to help would sometimes be intentionally stingy with their rescue supplies so they could laugh as they watched the victims suffer. The line between the rescuers and the rescued could turn the weak-willed into frightening tyrants.
“So this must be your fault. If you Crystal Magicians hadn’t shown up, the Threat never would have attacked the peaceful Crystal Beach!!”
Utagai Karuta thought his heart would stop.
That argument was of course nonsense.
It was unknown if the Threat was even intelligent enough to prioritize who they attacked and areas around the globe were attacked whether or not Karuta and the other Crystal Magicians were there. There was no causal relationship between the attack on Iceland’s Crystal Beach and Karuta’s school’s presence.
The correct answer was not what mattered here.
The atmosphere seemed to strain.
The tail end of the group had been cut off along with them like the lizard’s tail, so they turned dead eyes toward Karuta and Kyouka. The waitress, tour guide, supermarket worker, and convenience store worker who had kindly lighted their way before had changed their tune entirely. There was no way to know which was the real them since they would be isolated if they did not side with the group here. That much was obvious enough to see.
“What does that have to do with us?” Finally, one of the tourists got things started. “I’m not with these monsters!! Help me! I can’t use Crystal Magic! I’m not like them! I’m human like you!”
Karuta understood it was an emergency.
He understood you had to make some extreme decisions to survive.
Those words seemed to strip away all the kind feelings found in human beings. And that one woman was not alone. Voices of agreement spread like wildfire until the tunnel was inundated with criticism and jeers. If they were told they would be let in if they beat up Karuta and Kyouka, they would have mercilessly ganged up even on the girl in a wheelchair. They would have done it with dark smiles on their faces all while telling themselves they had done nothing wrong.
“I’m getting the feeling this won’t work,” said Omotesandou Kyouka with a tone of disinterest. But she was not talking about whether or not he and she would be let into the B World dome. The answer there was obvious enough already.
The heavy rumbling sound did not stop, despite the other normal people still out here.
“Wait, no! Why!?”
“Weren’t you listening!? We’re human too! You only need to shut them out!!”
“Wait, wait! I have a small child with me! Are you going to abandon a child!? Can’t you at least let me in!?”
Those on the other side did not care.
Only the C World people were assuming any kind of camaraderie while they forced ugly smiles on their faces and tried to be accepted. The B World people held those lives in their hands, but they only wanted to ensure their own safety by closing that door as quickly as possible.
The survivors who had made it through the door in time were already on the other side – they were B World people now. They showed no sign of attempting to stop the door from closing or even begging the door operator to stop. Because if they rocked the boat before that door was fully closed, they could always be thrown out of that safe zone. They had to be smiling thinly as they watched the suspension bridge cut away immediately after they safely made it across. Because they were safe, unlike the poor “others” stuck on the other side.
Utagai Karuta did not bother with this any longer.
He had something more important to do.
“Get away from the door.”
“What!? You dare order us around when it’s your fault we’re stuck here in the first place!?”
“That door has to way tons, so do you really want to be caught in it when it closes!? Hurry!!”
His words fell on deaf ears.
Were they going to continue trusting in the good will of humanity and let that thick metal door crush them?
The President must have already given up on them because she spoke without a moment’s hesitation.
“Okay, let’s head back. There’s nothing we can do here.”
“But if we leave them here-”
“How are we supposed to deal with the few dozen stuck on this side? I can’t use Crystal Magic and you left Aine-chan back there. If a group this large insists on being smashed into mincemeat, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. I’m sure they will continue trusting in the good will of humanity as they are crushed like bugs. Or do you want to rush in there and get crushed along with them?”
“Shut the hell up!” he shouted back without thinking. “Natalena left them in my care. She told me to get these people to safety while she fights the Threat!”
“Oh? I don’t recall her saying quite that much.”
“Maybe not in so many words, but you have to read between the lines! If she didn’t trust me, she wouldn’t have left these powerless people with me. Listen, I stole her sister from her. Yes, the Problem Solvers had to go, but Natalena doesn’t have to agree!! And now you want me to betray her good will too? I can’t keep doing this. How much more do we have to keep taking from that little girl!? Are you kidding me!!!???”
Omotesandou Kyouka only shrugged.
And she spoke.
“Then give it a try, but the door will be closed in 30 seconds.”
“Show me how cool you can be, Karuta-kun.”
Grabbing them by the shoulders and dragging them away one by one would be too slow. He looked around the tunnel and noticed a small but thick fire-resistant door on the wall. He opened it to find an AED bag. He pulled out the device and found a lithium ion battery far larger than the ones found in phones or handheld game systems. It was the size of an energy drink can. He used the unnecessary plastic casing to create a trumpet-like shape, used the metal clip on the inside to intentionally cause a short, and tossed the battery inside.
He could blow off his hand doing this, but he had the Crystal Magic regeneration.
“Cover your ears, Omotesandou-san!!”
He than aimed it toward the remaining people.
But aimed a bit upwards instead of straight on at them.
The sexy girl in the wheelchair covered her ears with her lithe hands just before the high-capacity battery burst with a deafening noise. The explosion’s shockwave was directed in a single direction, making it an acoustic weapon. But sound being what it was, it could be absorbed or reflected.
For example, the sound that flew above the crowd’s head could hit the wall with the door beyond them and make a U-turn right back to hit them head on.
Hit by the blast of sound, Karuta himself toppled backwards. As did the crowd trying to push their way toward the door. The solid group was knocked back toward him.
That settled things.
One group had made it to the other side of the door, and the other had not. A dull metal boom finally sounded. If he had been just 3 seconds later to act, the dozen or so nearest the door would have been crushed.
The President said something to him, but his ears were ringing too badly to hear it. As large a space as this was, using an acoustic weapon in an enclosed tunnel was tantamount to suicide.
Eventually, he could make out some of what Kyouka was saying with a smile.
Her words seemed designed to act like a knife to the heart.
“This isn’t going to be the happy ending you want.”
She was quickly proven right.
A young man slowly got to his feet after being knocked away in the nick of time. But his brow was wrinkled in a way Karuta had never seen before. Karuta was actually amazed that human facial muscles could do that and then the man began yelling.
“What the hell is wrong with you? I was almost there…I was so close to getting through!! Unlike you monsters, I was chosen! I was supposed to get through there!!”
He had not given up.
Even with that hope forever lost, he had not awoken from the dream.
It was like seeing an old man so obsessed with the horse races that he ended up glaring at the horse track’s ATM in the hopes that would somehow make it give him money that was no longer in his account and, when that did not happen, go running to a loan shark. The yelling and shouting actually inspired pity rather than anger.
“Leave immediately,” said a voice over a speaker installed in the tunnel.
That was probably meant to provide warnings to the inspection and maintenance crews.
There was no tremor in the voice.
Did that person think this was the C World dome group’s fault since the machine had closed the door automatically and they had been given plenty of warning? It was not that simple and they were sure to be overcome with regret down the road. They would forever have to live with the fact that they had left people to die. Especially when those people had been begging for help.
“Half an hour should be enough for you to return the way you came. You have that much time before we switch on the heater. To be clear, the dome’s central heating system produces a massive amount of heat. So turn back now unless you want to stick your head in a giant oven powered by the heat of lava!!”
Several people began to cry.
But eventually, someone realized something. And that realization quickly spread through them all.
Since the B World dome had abandoned them, these people stuck in the tunnel had to find someone else to rely on. And the only option was the Grimnoah Crystal Magicians they had been treating like garbage until now.
A uniformed waitress looked Karuta in the eye with a disturbing smile.
She apparently wanted him to forget everything that had happened a moment before.
The look on her face said she would do whatever it took to make that happen.
Her smile looked like an extremely detailed rubber mask that had been forcibly stretched to fit on her face. And she was not alone. They were all like that, even the young man who had been yelling at them.
In a way, the ability to lick at someone’s boots and become their slaves if that was the only way to survive may have been another form of human strength. But that was something Karuta’s group could never imagine doing since they had fought back against the Problem Solvers to the end, despite knowing those five were the world’s strongest.
“Karuta-kun, are you done here? Then let’s head back.”
Omotesandou Kyouka did not sound bothered at all.
When you truly gave up on someone, perhaps you did not even feel anger or hatred toward them.
“There’s nothing for us here. Not even human resources. If we are to band together and survive, we need to secure the necessities. We can work up a new plan centered on that.”
The boy squeezed the wheelchair’s handles tight.
He felt ashamed.
Did this qualify as living up to Natalena Blast’s trust in him?
Did it really?
He had saved their lives.
But that was all he had done.
The waitress, tour guide, and others would surely have nightmares about this day for the rest of their lives.
Nothing was more absurd and horrifying than when life bared its fangs against your idea of justice and pride.
He did not want to change who he was. He wanted to remain someone who could look Gekiha and the other crystallized people in the eye. It was that selfish desire that had led Karuta’s group to fight back against the former world’s strongests and annihilate them.
The Threat filled every part of that icy world, both the land and the sky, and they showed no sign of being driven back on either field.
(How far have they evolved?)
Karuta grimaced when he returned to the surface and viewed the battlefield, but he at least saw no obvious changes in the flying ones. The Crystal Magicians had the upper hand there. For now, anyway.
But Marika and the others appeared to have intentionally gathered on a single point while defending a location that did not actually matter to them. They were intentionally losing those battles and withdrawing bit by bit. The Threat must have had some level of intelligence because they would go to the effort of digging through the defended location after Marika and the others left. As if wondering what the Crystal Magicians were so intent on defending.
In truth, those were only the unmanned devices that produced the artificial waves of the now frozen beach.
“Yes, looks like this has evolved beyond a silly battle where both sides are simply comparing their specs.”
While the gradual withdrawal paid off, Karuta used his Crystal Blossom to contact Marika and the others. He made sure to use the hotel, theatre, and other tall buildings to stay out of view from the Threat as he regrouped with the others. He felt out of breath simply traveling along the asphalt.
This was already the Arctic.
It was so cold the palm trees and hibiscuses had frozen instead of withering. He did not want to think what happened to the colorful animals.
And amid it all…
Natalena Blast forgot all about the visible breaths escaping her mouth as she viewed not Karuta but the 20-ish people following after him. She had seen the hopeless looks in their eyes.
Her anger flared up.
Or maybe this was a pure emotion that could actually worry about others.
“What did you do to those people!? I thought you said you would get them to safety while we risked our lives fighting out here? How could you do this!?”
He could only weakly shake his head.
He had no answer for her.
That 12-year-old girl must not have realized that digging back up that issue was like a rusty knife to a festering wound for those ordinary people who had felt so powerless they had abandoned their goodness.
They must have felt blinded by the bright light of Natalena Blast’s eyes as she faced the Threat head-on out of no more than a desire to help others. They must have been crushed under the weight of the fact that they had chosen selfishness, that had backfired, and they had even failed to die.
“Kill me,” groaned a vanishingly quiet voice. It was the young man who had stubbornly yelled at Karuta earlier. “Use me as bait to fight the Threat or whatever. I can’t stand to go on like this.”
Karuta ignored that outright. They might not be happy, but he was not going to let them die now that he had saved them. Besides, people who jumped to suicidal that easily tended to be the type to change their tune quickly once their life was in immediate danger. And that was not Karuta judging someone he disliked; these people really had abandoned the Grimnoah students to win the B World dome’s favor and then been abandoned themselves. Someone who was willing to risk their life for something from the beginning would not have done that. Karuta really wished they would learn a lesson from this. His patience had been stretched dangerously thin.
Marika must have figured out what happened when she saw the boy’s exhausted face and saw the President whistling nonchalantly while inspecting her nails. She knew they had encountered some kind of malice, so the twintails girl put a hand on her hip and made a suggestion.
“We can carry those 20 with us. There are 1000 of us, after all. It isn’t efficient, but that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Aine emotionlessly approached.
She still held her drawn sword in one hand, so he would prefer she not move too close, though.
“What exactly will we do now? The delaying tactics using decoy defensive locations will stop working before long. We need another objective.”
He had put off making a decision here. Kiyosawa Hadome and Sophia Firenze were watching him from a distance, but the adults apparently had no intention of butting in. For better or for worse, the lives of Grimnoah’s 1000 were in the hands of the world’s strongest. That included his classmates, the middle school underclassmen, the Student Council, and the teachers. The number was even greater when including all the ordinary people in all the other domes.
This was different from risking just their own lives to seek revenge.
The weight was bearing down on him, so he took a deep breath before speaking.
“Could we gather them all in one place and bomb them with all our firepower?”
“We’re already exhausted.”
Marika did not explain what she meant, but he caught the implication that an explanation would only bring despair. They might be able to destroy the small Threats individually, but they could not be entirely wiped out. And if even one survived, it would cannibalize the defeated ones to become an even more horrific Threat. After defeating the occasional Threat and finding it only inspired unwanted growth in their foe, Marika and Aine had thrown in the towel. That was why they had resorted to deceptive delaying tactics using decoy defensive positions.
They never would have used delaying tactics if they could win in a direct fight.
Those were the tactics of the losing side.
“First of all, we can’t stay here in this broken dome.”
C World dome was already an icy hell of -15 degrees.
Holing up in a surviving building and cranking up the heat would not be enough. All concrete structures were not made equal; some had better insulating structures than others. The ones inside the dome had been designed for a tropical environment, so they could not keep out the cold.
Not to mention the many Threats lurking in this space. Even if they managed to hide for the time begin, it would not last. They would be found and the battle would begin anew.
Needless to say, the Threat was powerful.
If they were going to fight, they had to go on the offensive.
They could not allow themselves to be caught by surprise while asleep or eating.
“But it also doesn’t look like the other domes will let us in. They expect us to fight the Threat for them. In fact, they even think the Threat is here for us, so it’s our responsibility.”
“Then what? We go outside?” asked Marika. “That’s a -15-degree blizzard, just like in here. Crystal Magic does give some protection against the cold since we have to fly around at high altitudes at Mach speeds, but we won’t last out there forever. I imagine we’ll reach our limit after a full day – 24 hours.”
Aine glanced over at the armed students hanging around a short distance away.
“Just so you know, some of them have suggested we attack another dome and occupy it. Since the B World dome abandoned us, that seems like the best candidate. There have been non-fatal casualties in the high school, such as Yamane Deiri and Matsuda Imi.”
“Stop them from doing that. It wouldn’t solve anything.”
Karuta immediately rejected that idea.
That plan was likely fueled by a desire to protect the middle school, not to run wild out of pent-up frustrations. Karuta understood the desire to look like a proper upperclassman, even if only to keep your own will from breaking.
“Whether you break in through the double-layer front gate or the dome’s exterior, an armed attack will only break the seal and create another -15-degree space. And even if you did manage to take control, that ends once the frustrated ordinary people riot. They do not need magic to blow a hole in the dome wall using a propane tank found behind a restaurant. They would choose to throw out hope themselves.”
“Wh-why would we have to go that far?” Natalena hesitantly spoke up. Her feelings must have been complicated, but she must have decided she could not stay stubbornly silent when everyone’s lives were on the line. “We can fly using Crystal Magic, right? So instead of staying here, um, why not fly across the ocean to escape to the Icelandic mainland?”
“We don’t know how many of the Threat are out there. In fact, it’s recklessly optimistic to assume what we see in here is all of them.” Marika winked with a hand on her hip. “What if they have those anti-air pellet cannon scorpions out in the ocean waiting? If they have the entire Crystal Beach surrounded, flying out there would only get us shot down.”
She had once fought a true dogfight with Susannia of the Problem Solvers, so her superhuman flying skills might be enough to find a spot to slip through the gaps of those wide-range explosions, but they could not force the middle and high school freshmen to do the same thing.
“What will it even accomplish for us to run away?” asked the crystal girl with a tilt of the head that sent her long silver hair swaying. “If humanity has no means of defeating the Threat better than Crystal Magic, then they will continue to pursue us even if we run, destroying any armies that try to stop them. If we escape to Iceland, wouldn’t it only turn Iceland into the next battlefield?”
Natalena was shocked into silence. That must have been a difficult fact to face.
That pure girl had yet to exact her revenge, so she could not let herself bring disaster to innocent people. If she did that, she would lose the right to feel righteous hatred toward her target of revenge.
And sending Marika alone into the storm of explosions to seek rescue would also be fairly meaningless. Any government she went to would demand that the Crystal Magicians do the fighting here.
But how had it worked in the past? They knew the Threat had eliminated cities, states, and countries around the world, but they did not know how that had eventually ended. Only that cities would suddenly disappear. They had never heard of the Threat staying somewhere and setting up a country for themselves, or them gradually expanding their territory of death. It was generally considered to be a series of random attacks where they suddenly appeared and just as suddenly disappeared, like a game of whack-a-mole.
If they stayed here to the end without a plan, they might figure that out firsthand.
Although they would join the dead, unable to pass that information on to anyone else.
The Threat would not spare them on a whim. The Threat’s past actions made it clear they would destroy everything when they made an appearance. Grimnoah’s students were already caught in the center of that unpleasant legend. If they did nothing, they would be killed just like those past examples.
So Karuta decided resistance was the only option.
“We still need to figure out how, but we’ll have to defeat the Threat here. What other choice do we have when running away won’t ensure our safety?”
“B-but we don’t stand a chance, do we?” asked Natalena.
“We know they can be defeated.”
Young Natalena may have found his confidence strange, but he had a reason for it.
“The Problem Solvers fought them off. They couldn’t fully eradicate them, but they still succeeded in saving individual cities.”
“They were as human as we are, so we should be able to do the same thing. At the very least, we proved we’re stronger than God Worshiping Magic on that day.”
Those five had been the worst of the worst and lowest of the low, but Anastasia would have felt no need to lie when she was willing to accept her death whenever it might come. When they had fought the Problem Solvers, they had doubted whether the Threat even existed, but they had to accept it now that they had seen it for themselves.
Those five had been the lowest of scum, but they had still fought to protect the world.
“We know there is a way, so we just have to find it. What we need is time to think, so we need to find that no matter what.”
They must have had a few different options at that point.
They could have remained in the destroyed living spaces of the C World dome, they could have left the dome altogether, or they could have attacked one of the surviving domes to steal their supplies and necessities.
But those were only options in the most abstract sense.
The nervous female teacher hunkered down and shivered as Karuta and the rest looked her way. She could apparently use Crystal Magic, but her focus was on theory. She could not bear the pressure of choice in actual combat.
Kiyosawa Hadome shook his head. He might be able to make the decision itself, but he was not confident that the 1000 students would obey since he inspired so much fear and unease in them. He had not been reincarnated in another world, so the people around him would not just unquestioningly accept everything he said as long as it was correct. Everyone had to bet their own life on their choices here and they would lose everything if they died.
That made this a job for their only Regulation 3 and their Student Council President: Omotesandou Kyouka.
“Don’t you dare say this is because I’m the closest to being old☆”
“No one was even considering that, so why bring it up at all? Putting your foot in your mouth?”
He looked away from the President with the gentle yet scary voice.
He hoped that would make her forget he said anything.
“Anyway, look at this.”
She readily spoke up as if grabbing an invisible card between her fingers and pulling it from the deck.
Her decision here could lead to a great many deaths among the Grimnoah students and the ordinary people. For that matter, it was entirely possible an absolute victory was not even an option here and sacrifices would be unavoidable no matter what they did. Yet she showed no hesitation. Their elected President chose a path for them all.
That was the usual way of things, which might sound simple enough, but it was like performing a tightrope walk between skyscrapers. You only had to stand on the edge of a deadly precipice to realize just how difficult it was.
“Surviving in the great outdoors seems like the best bet we have here.”
Karuta and the others crossed the shattered transparent exterior wall to exit the dome.
The actual temperature could not have changed much, but a chill crawled up from their feet.
They could tell they were now outside, where they were not guaranteed to survive.
Also, the Crystal Beach itself existed on a few artificial islands floating in the ocean. That artificial land had been constructed as an impurity to induce freezing and stop the thawing of the Arctic ice due to global warming. But that alone had been considered a waste of resources, so they had grown into a largescale resort centered around casinos and hotels.
The translucent domes and aquarium-like tunnels were not the entirety of the space.
If they could endure the -15-degree environment, there was plenty of white land there.
And once outside…
Utagai Karuta was digging through the snow. After everything that had happened, they were forced to labor in the cold.
The hellish President had put it this way:
“The frigid environment is effectively identical outside and inside the C World dome, but the limited space of the dome is overrun with the Threat and we only risk an all-out attack if we remain here and are discovered. If the temperature is 15 below freezing either way, it would be safest to put some distance between us and the dome.”
She had made it sound so simple, but she had put some thought into it.
“We also cannot attack the other domes. As Karuta-kun said, damaging the outer walls would let the -15-degree air inside, ruining the survivability of the domes. We have no choice but to fight the cold out here. But to put it another way, our options expand significantly as long as we can clear that -15-degree barrier. We would be able to focus on the fight and we would be able to go on the offensive next time.”
“Pant, pant, gasp. Goddammit.”
“Sacri-sama, you have stopped working. Swearing will not accomplish anything here.”
“Why do we have to make two of them, one for me and one for Aine? And I can’t boost my physical abilities with Crystal Magic armor like the others can!”
They had to deal with the cold somehow, but there was nothing but white snow out here.
Their only option was to make use of that snow.
“I never though my life would depend on playing in the snow like a child.”
“Have you never heard of igloos?” asked Kyouka. “These are homes built from snow bricks by the Inuit who live in Alaska.”
Her wheelchair was nearly useless with the snow jamming up the wheels, so Aine was busy building her igloo. The beautiful girl took the time to watch over the high school boys who had started a snowball fight despite the dire situation and the black bob cut girl from the Student Council who was chasing after them trying to get them to stop.
“The snow bricks have air packed within, giving the igloos the same insulative properties as a down jacket. A house made of solid bricks won’t do much good against the Threat anyway. No matter how much time we spend fortifying our defenses, they’ll be knocked down as easy as a house of straw, so isn’t it the perfect time for quick shelters that are easily built and easily abandoned? Igloos are apparently built as temporary winter homes.”
Their magic gave them a limit of 24 hours out in the cold, but they could reset that by getting rest somewhere warm. Similarly, when fighting the Problem Solvers, they had first acquired a cheap used RV instead of weapons or armor. If you were going to fight, you needed a safe home where you could take your time and think.
“Pant, easily built, gasp, my ass. If you’re, gasp, going to say that, how about you try it? Ugh.”
“How am I supposed to do that in this wheelchair? And why in the world do you think you’re building one for Aine too? She’ll obviously be sharing yours.”
“Wait, is that yours Aine is working on!!!???”
“Done!” said an innocent voice.
Karuta was sticky with sweat despite the blizzard and he looked back to see twintailed Marika already standing next to a completed single room home (making full use of her Crystal Magic armor). She had had enough time left over to find two large palm leaves carried here by the wind and place them on top so the igloo looked something like a snow rabbit.
“Is that good enough? I hope this will get me through the night.”
“The shape of the entrance is special. Adjust it to keep out the cold and it apparently gets fairly warm inside.”
Real igloos were apparently lined with fur to keep the heat in, but these used waterproof tarps instead. Acquiring enough of those for 1000 people might sound difficult, but this was not a natural part of the Arctic. They had apparently come across some kind of construction area, so they could dig through the thick snow to find all kinds of artificial objects.
Thus spoke the reliable President:
“There was an awful lot of empty space outside the dome for an artificial island, so it was simple enough to guess more was either under construction or had been abandoned mid-construction.”
Marika’s snow rabbit became a trendsetter. When the middle schoolers saw it, they began adding personal touches to their own igloos – giving them cat ears of snow or sticking in branches meant to be reindeer antlers. That was also helpful in a practical sense, because it helped them recognize their own igloo out of the otherwise indistinguishable dumpling-like lumps of snow. Although some got carried away, added too much snow, and crushed their own igloo.
The high schoolers had finally ended their snowball fight. Exercise was a good way of staying healthy and dealing with stress, but it was enough to horrify Karuta who had not even finished his own igloo.
“Man, where’d they get all that energy? You would think we were building snow sculptures for a winter festival or something.”
“How is this any different from ordinary homes? The color of the roof has no bearing on your life inside it, but that doesn’t stop people from being particular about those things,” said Marika. “And what’s with you? Have you still not finished your basic igloo?”
“I can’t keep this up. Please, Marika, can I spend the night at your place?”
“My home has no place for unromantic, self-serving guys. Get lost.”
Karuta caught himself before retorting that she had no problem slipping into his dorm room because her room was too full of online shopping packages.
Aine did not seem at all bothered by the cold of the blizzard.
“I have completed the igloo. What should I do now?”
“Well,” said Kyouka. “It’s a little plain as is, so I’d like something to make it stand out as much as Marika-san’s. Could you make two snowmen at the entrance? Something delightful, like the komainu at a shrine.”
“If you’re done, then help me! Actually, don’t steal control of Aine from me in the first place!!”
That President was full of unpleasant surprises. She had a way with words, like she was blessed with a natural ability to manipulate people. Since Aine only tilted her head in silence, she may have belatedly started questioning why she was performing this physical labor for someone other than her supposed master. He guessed that President would find a way to take advantage of the Three Laws of Robotics in approximately a microsecond.
At any rate, Karuta and Aine would be stuck out in the blizzard until his igloo was complete. Since the crystal girl would not do anything until ordered to, he grabbed at her.
Specifically, at those unidentified things on her head.
“Aine, why you were helping her doesn’t matter. Just help me now, okay?”
“Bwagh!? N-no bedroom activities where people can see us!!!!!!”
Her reaction was unbelievably weird.
“That…was a mistake. Oh, no.”
Aine would not bat an eye when she killed someone or had her arm sliced off, yet she just blushed red and shouted something on reflex. Karuta could only stare, but for some reason, the crystal girl only fidgeted uncomfortably and would not explain. Was it possible even she did not understand what that was about?
Then the President held a hand to her grinning mouth.
That was a bad sign. That elite girl was about to unleash some extremely unwelcome mischief.
“How could you do that, Karuta-kun? You do know an animal’s horns are a symbol of its reproductive capability, don’t you?”
“Bhkghd!!!??? Don’t drop bombshells like that with a smile on your face!!”
“I was only stating a simple fact. Now, wait until the two of you are alone to tend to those two things, okay?”
Come to think of it, hadn’t Aine started rubbing those against him when they were alone in the elevator? That was when he had called her weird for wearing that white school swimsuit. What had she meant by that???
“Once your phone has a signal again, I recommend looking up why moose antlers are so big.”
“Does that mean Aine is a quiet but really, uh, ‘horny’ girl!?” asked Marika. “And that’s why she has those two impressive things!?”
“Yes. And you wouldn’t want someone begging you for it in broad daylight, even if you were down for it, would you?”
“Can the both of you please stop making up definitions for who I really am...?”
Anyway, evening had arrived by the time Karuta and Aine finished digging out the snow to make their igloo. They had been attacked by the Threat in the morning and been on the run since, so they had spent almost an entire day out in the icy cold. Plus, they only had this temporary shelter that they would have to abandon immediately if the Threat attacked again.
“It all feels so fruitless.”
And it was not over yet. It could be hard to tell in the Arctic, but it was evening. They had not eaten anything since the hotel’s breakfast buffet that morning, so they were presented with an obvious problem.
“We need to find some food. Water we can get by melting snow with magic.”
“Dammit, can’t we solve all of this with Crystal Magic? There are plenty of harvest goddesses, right? Like Sif from Norse mythology, Kisshoten from Buddhism, or Demeter from Greek mythology. Let’s worship those powerful ladies to get some bread and rice popping out of thin air.”
“Hmm, all of that magic is used to boost your power by eating divine food, so overusing it would probably destroy your body from within. Karuta-kun, don’t come crying to me if you turn immortal and find you can’t cut your eternally-growing hair and nails.”
The President’s comment shut Karuta up. It sounded like they would have to figure something out on their own. Weren’t there any gods that would provide help but not too much help, like the Kasa Jizou? But in that case…
“We can’t go to the other domes for help and we can’t go fishing even with the ocean all around us.”
He sat down in front of his igloo and brought a hand to his forehead. He was in no mood to join Yamane Deiri and Nekoumi Hirosuke in their snowball fight. He wanted to get some rest. And what did he most want to eat in his freezing and exhausted state?
“I guess our only option is to sneak back into the C World dome and nab some food there.”
“Isn’t the Threat there?”
Marika was exactly right.
“We can’t send all 1000 of us in. We’ll need to focus on stealth instead of power. Omotesandou-san, can I select some people to go with me?”
“If you can look after them.”
That was the natural thing for a Student Council President to ask, but it was also the most difficult task. His twintailed childhood friend only shrugged. She must have known that was not the job for her. Karuta only knew he would be bringing Aine with him. Also, they needed to go a step further to solidify their position here.
He called out to someone, making them jump, but it was not a middle school or high school student.
It was one of the ordinary people he had brought here – probably a waitress.
“Wh-what do you want? Are you kicking us out to have fewer mouths to feed?”
Her tone had changed so much from earlier. How much did she fear him?
(Well, she did turn on the world’s strongest, so that isn’t too surprising.)
He only had to think back on Elicia, Yukino, and how many people had been lost in the First Out Incident. Plus, this woman was ignorant of magic.
She was dressed in extra layers since she did not have magic to protect her and Karuta let out a white sigh.
“Don’t give up hope that quickly. We’re risking our lives out here too, so if you won’t work to help us, we won’t help you.”
“But we treated you so badly, we had to get you to build our igloos, and we can’t do anything for you.”
“Then how about you pay us back to make up for that?” He made a casual suggestion. “Give me some information I don’t already have. If that can help everyone, then we’re even.”
He had her explain the structure of the artificial island and they walked the perimeter of the igloo area to check it out.
“Natalena, if you’re free, then help me out some. We need to get some food.”
“You too, Firenze-sensei. I want your help too. You use Vayu, right? Then let’s take a quick trip out to the front line that’s crawling with the Threat.”
“What!? But why? I only do theory! I never even considered the idea of fighting myself!!”
The nervous teacher’s shouts ridded Natalena of her complaints. She still pouted her lips, but she followed his instructions. Yes, seeing someone panicking more than you had a calming effect on people. It made them want to correct their own behavior.
Muscular Kiyosawa Hadome put his hands on his hips.
“What about me?”
“What god do you use again?”
“Horus. But a modified version that intentionally conflates Horus the Elder with Horus the Younger.”
“So Egyptian mythology’s sun god? And we also have that nuisance of a Kagutsuchi user named Yamane Deiri, so you two work together to provide heat for everyone. The high insulation of the igloos should be enough from a theoretical perspective, but it should still put everyone at ease to see some actual fire.”
The man quietly clicked his tongue, but he did not seem to mean anything by it and must have accepted that as a practical use of his abilities.
He could not drag his classmates into this – not Yamane Deiri, not Nekoumi Hirosuke, not Matsuda Imi, and not Hashizaki Tayori. They had been fighting as a group before, but things would be very different one-on-one. Just like listening as part of the student body was much less nerve-wracking than speaking to them alone. They might panic once they were face-to-face with the true Threat.
Kyouka held a hand to her mouth and laughed.
“Are you sure this is good enough?”
“I doubt I could look after any more than this.”
“We’re talking about food for 1000. Even a chocolate bar each will mean 10 attaché cases.”
“We’ll figure something out. Okay, members of the Student Council, I hate to ask this of you, but please take care of Omotesandou-san while we’re gone.”
“This is where she belongs in the first place.”
“This is where she belongs in the first place.”
The black bob cut girl and redheaded girl with buns frowned at him and refused to let go of the wheelchair’s handles. It looked like they would start fighting over her between themselves before long.
Karuta’s group left their secret base with the beautiful Student Council President seeing them off.
Instead of taking a straight shot toward the C World dome, they took an intentional detour. They had no idea what might give away their presence and they definitely could not use Crystal Magic to fly.
The female teacher grew tearful as she trudged through the snow.
“Ugh, are we really stuck with a 4-person party?” she asked. “Modern RPGs let you swap out party members at will, you know?”
“Eh? You look into that kind of thing for your theoretical work? Um, uh, is that because of the influence from Greek and Norse mythology?”
“Not really. I just like the feeling of gradual growth in those games. I prefer the slow and steady method.”
Natalena seemed surprised by that and the teacher bent over a bit. She may have been shrinking down out of embarrassment. Also, the girl had her Crystal Magic armor open. As long as she did not open up those scales of hers, she could apparently use them to silently slide along the ground.
(So she has to switch between modes for mobility and attacking? It’s a convenient power, but it has its flaws.)
Mentioning that would probably have started an argument and the Threat could notice that, so Karuta held his tongue.
Even from a distance, they could tell the C World dome had collapsed.
(I don’t see any of those flying ones in the air. Do they use more energy flying than staying on the ground?)
Of course, it was unclear if the concepts of exhaustion and waste even existed for the Threat.
The translucent dome had protected the interior from the elements, but it had almost entirely crumbled away, leaving the artificial beach and tourist town seemingly frozen in time by ice. There were still so many questions about what the Threat was doing. They were attached to the frozen asphalt and building walls, but they did not seem to be destroying anything or resupplying. They left a fair amount of space between themselves, but they were still gathered together. When patrolling their territory and scouting outside their territory, did they only use those slipper-sized bugs? They were not piled on top of each other or pushing past each other. They apparently did not step over their own kind when not in a hurry.
Natalena must have really not wanted to be spotted by the Threat because she crouched down despite already being hidden by a large boulder.
“What are they doing?”
“I dunno. They don’t seem to be searching out heat or consuming oil or electricity like you would expect of a machine.”
That said, snails could tear away the surface of a rock to eat that. The Threat’s biology was a mystery, so he doubted they would find an answer right away.
There were a lot of them, but they were all gathered around the main street. It looked like the dome had collapsed because they had wanted more ways in and did not care about defense. Karuta’s group sought out a position where the tall buildings alongside the main road blocked them from view and then they crossed the border formed by the broken dome.
It was the same inside as outside. Their feet still crunched through snow and large icicles hung from the frozen palm trees. The decorative fountains had frozen solid. The fountains’ underground water pipes may have ruptured.
“Sacri-sama. You said we are here for food, but where exactly are we supposed to find that?”
“The shopping center.”
They had to go for some place with enough stock for 1000 people.
With the various sizes of the Threat gathered on the main road, Karuta’s group used a smaller road running parallel to that. However, they could not let their guard down since they knew those slipper-sized scout and reconnaissance units also existed. Even if those could not fight, a single alarm sent out using firefly-like phosphorescence or pheromones would begin an all-out war.
The flying ones appeared to be stopped on the ground, but that did not mean all of them were. They made sure to stay below roofs as much as possible.
They made their way past a collapsed parking garage (presumably destroyed by the Threat) and approached a shopping facility larger than a school building. The Threat had destroyed the town at breakfast time, so it had been abandoned before opening for the day. The security shutter was still down over the entrance, but Aine’s sword sliced it away like a hot knife through butter.
The lights were off inside, so it would be dark at any time of day or night. The row of registers had signs written in multiple languages. This must have functioned as a duty-free shop for foreign tourists, not a neighborhood supermarket for locals.
“Bingo. We should find industrial cases full of food in here.”
“Sacri-sama, what exactly should we get?”
And just to make him feel better, something not from Susannia’s farms.
“Keep in mind that we can get as much water as we want by melting snow. A thousand people’s worth is a lot, so we want as much nutritional value for the weight as we can get. That rules out canned, bagged, and frozen foods. They already have their moisture, which adds a lot of weight.”
“C-can you really survive just eating freeze-dried stuff? But, um, uh, I guess our houses really are just a roof and walls to keep out the cold, so they don’t have kitchens. But still.”
“Then you take a look at the shelves yourself, Natalena.”
Karuta pointed at the perishable food section and she was dumbfounded by what she saw.
The drinks bottles had all burst from within and then frozen solid. The vegetables and fish were either covered in white frost or their surface had grown toxically discolored.
“You may have forgotten with your magic protecting you, but this is a frozen hell of -15 degrees. Have you never been told not to store drink bottles in the freezer?”
“With boxed, bagged, or canned foods, either the container will burst or the contents will go bad. The only edible things here would be the freeze-dried foods, the chocolate, and anything else that doesn’t need moisture.”
“Wh-what about the frozen foods? They’re already frozen.”
Sophia Firenze had a point.
But they ran into a different problem there.
“Sensei, chocolate bars are the gold standard for emergency food, but a bar each for 1000 people still comes out to 10 attaché cases. With freeze-dried blocks of miso soup, a meal is less than 10 grams, but you have to multiply that by 1000. We’re talking about 10 kg.”
She could get greedy if she liked, but they might not be able to escape safely if they were lugging a giant container with them. They would be helpless if the Threat spotted them mid-transit. Those flying ones could be going on irregular patrols for all they knew. If they were spotted, they would have to abandon the food they had worked so hard to gather.
And the danger did not end there.
Their residential district of igloos was hard to see from a distance since it blended into the white scenery. The layered snow had an insulating effect, so their body heat might be difficult to detect as well. But that was not a guarantee. If they were found, they would have to abandon all that and retreat. Having a bunch of food they had to lug around with them would not be ideal. And the more they would have to abandon, the more reluctant they would be to leave. If that made them slow to make a decision, they were much more likely to die.
They continued further into the dark shopping center while on the lookout for those small scout and reconnaissance Threats and they filled shopping carts with cardboard boxes of soup and risotto. A surprising amount was imported from Japan. The packaging had been remade in English, but a lot was the exact same products seen in Japanese convenience stores and supermarkets. It did not look like Susannia’s products either.
The 12-year-old blonde girl noticed the things they were taking from the shelves.
“Hm? Risotto? And curry rice too. I’m surprised how many vegetables you can get with this.”
“Well, rice is the standard grain to be rehydrated for eating. I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Natalena. Does that mean you actually cook for yourself a lot? As young as you are, I’m impressed.”
“Th-that is not impressive and what does age have to do with it!? That just means you’re lazy!!”
Karuta took offense at that since he would make his own lunches from time to time. He would prefer that label be applied to Marika, the combat-obsessed girl who would swipe things from his lunch when he let his guard down.
“Heh heh. I risked my life coming out here, so I deserve a special treat☆”
The flaxen-hair teacher grabbed an item not on their list. It too was a Japanese product, but this was a cup of instant noodles with a fairly high price tag due to a famous restaurant’s brand name on the package. If that was a treat she considered worth her life, he had to wonder about her usual diet.
Also, milk was too heavy as a liquid, but cereal like corn flakes had a good weight to nutrition ratio. They would have to eat them dry like cookies or crackers, but it was better than nothing. He could guess it would be spiritually taxing if freeze-dried foods were all they had.
“In that sense, instant coffee or tea might not be a bad choice.”
“But those have no nutritional value. If you need caffeine, there are plenty of more convenient products like gum and tablets.”
“It’s not about the caffeine.”
It was to maintain their mental health. And these only required adding hot water, just like the freeze-dried foods. Meanwhile, Aine tilted her head and asked a question while pushing a shopping cart with both hands.
“How are we going to return? If we are to safely escape the C World dome while it is crawling with the Threat, we should probably split into a transport team and a defense team.”
Natalena’s shoulders jumped. Yes, the more they brought back with them, the more it would restrict their movement. Greed would only increase their odds of death.
But Karuta smiled as he responded.
“No, there’s an easier way.”
He led them all to the back of the shopping center. That area normally held the processing space for meat and fish as well as the staff breakroom, but he could guess they would find something else here too.
After locating what he was looking for, he placed a hand on the floor and pulled up on the handle there.
That revealed a cylindrical pipe about as thick as a washing machine drum.
“Wh-what is that?”
“A water pipe, Sensei. The C World dome is an icy wasteland now, but it was an artificial tropical beach before. The flowers and trees couldn’t last unless they were constantly running sprinklers of desalinated seawater. The dome covered everything above, so they couldn’t hope for any rain.”
The non-Grimnoah people had informed him that each dome desalinated its own water and large water pipes were laid out between the domes so they could share that water if another dome’s water facility malfunctioned. It worked much like the central heating in that sense. That meant this pipe led outside of the broken C World dome. Their igloo zone was located between domes, so it was perfect for them.
Natalena frowned, perhaps because she had imagined the water pipe as something like an aquarium’s underwater tunnel.
“Are you, um, saying we are going to return through here?”
“It’s an interesting idea, but that thing is kilometers long. I’m pretty sure Sensei and I would hurt our backs trying that.”
“I-it’s too small for me too! How small do you think I am!?”
He called out to Aine and the emotionless girl brought a hot water dispenser out of an office. It was unclear if the place still had power, but the dispenser was built like a thermos and it still retained some heat. The fact that the container had not burst from within meant it still had liquid water inside.
Karuta opened the lid to check. There was no actual steam, but it had been a while since he saw actual water like that.
“Sensei, your Crystal Blossom contains the name of Vayu, right?”
“Western magic cabals use that name to refer to the element of wind or air and they symbolize it with a blue circle. But follow that back to its source, and it refers to a god of nature among the Hindu Devas – a wind god to be exact. He is said to be the guardian deity of the northwest direction and the father of Hanuman.”
While confirming all that with her, he poured the precious water into the pipe.
Then he let her take over.
“Okay, send some wind into the pipe, if you don’t mind. Make the strength about…yes, about 30m/s. At this temperature, that should be enough to freeze over the entire inside of the kilometers-long pipe.”
“Oh.” Natalena placed a hand over her mouth in slight surprise. “Senpai, is that what you’re doing?”
“Yes, an air conveyor. They’re normally meant to send light objects like letters or documents, though.”
In her tight skirt suit, Sophia Firenze held her hands out in front.
Karuta wondered when the translucent armor was going to appear, but then she started muttering something like a monotone prayer.
“An approximate intersection of 15 and 75. By the solar calendar, it is 05021630, but convert that into Samvatsara. I summon thee from the south and exorcise thee to the north-northwest. The word of power is ddefz. The string of letters has no meaning and is only a one-time pillar to support this contract.”
Karuta’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Um? What are you doing???”
“Constructing the proper syntax given our current coordinates, the current time and date, and from which direction the power will be coming. The sharing of secrets strengthens the contract and, um… the planetary arrangement most likely to have an effect? That’s going to be tricky. We’re in the Arctic, so the apparent rotation might not be what we expect.”
“D-don’t give me that look!! This is how Crystal Magic was originally performed. You just aren’t aware of it because you skip past it all by using those small circuit boards!!”
If they had wasted their time on such a lengthy ceremony in front of the Problem Solvers, they would have been dealt with in some cruel way while still alive. Or maybe those five would have held their sides and erupted in laughter while letting them complete their transformation sequence.
“Umm, Sensei? If you don’t hurry it up, all the water is going to freeze.”
“I know that!! List out the locations of the wandering stars based on the location of the sun and the moon. Use human wisdom to visualize the unseen lines of power created from the conflict between the energy raining down from space and the energy rising from the Original Crystal Embryo at the earth’s core! We are the managers of the arcane who borrow the power of the gods and predict every last cataclysm!!”
She waved her hands around as translucent armor decorated her. It had a different look when paired with that tight skirt suit instead of the blazer uniforms Karuta was used to seeing. And what was that weapon supposed to be? She carried a large circle on her back with small circular saws arranged at even intervals like it was a clockface. It looked something like the drums of the Japanese Raijin. Did she use it while on her back, or did she grab it and swing it around? At any rate, this was Vayu – a wind god in the East and a blue circle in the West.
“You look like an overgrown magical girl,” said Aine with a tilt of her head.
“Utagai-kun, what kind of cruel deep learning have you been giving that girl?”
“I’m sorry, but I honestly have no idea where that came from. Aine! There’s such a thing as being too honest.”
He found an unexpected landmine here. The topic of her age was apparently off limits.
Anyway, the nervous teacher removed the circle from her back, held it out in both hands, and activated some cutting-edge magic.
“All that precise and traditional setup and you end it like that!?”
Natalena trembled for some reason, but the gust of wind was sent racing down the pipe. The limited amount of drinking water froze evenly across every bit of the kilometers-long pipe, creating a layer of ice a few millimeters thick.
With their preparations complete, Karuta flicked the Crystal Blossom at his chest.
Those things could be used for more than creating unknown armor and transforming a teacher into a magical girl.
“Omotesandou-san, we’re all ready here. Are things ready on the receiving end?”
“They are. You froze the interior to reduce friction, right? We checked inside just to be sure and there were no slipper-sized Threats inside on this end, so there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. The pipe is clean.”
They packed the freeze-dried emergency food inside plastic containers they found behind the shopping center and dropped those into the pipe.
Sophia was nervous despite being the key to all this.
“A-are you sure this will work? Won’t the containers make a lot of noise sliding through there even with the interior of the pipe frozen?”
“That’s an industrial pipe meant to carry literal tons of water every minute. Water makes a lot of noise in pipes when it has enough air inside, but the place hasn’t received any noise complaints. I bet we could do karaoke in there and no one outside would hear a peep.”
Karuta did not actually have any data to back that up, but his seal of approval was apparently enough to put her at ease. She looked somehow relieved as she held her hands out.
It was like an artillery shell.
Or maybe a model linear motor train.
With a sound of scraping ice, the plastic container vanished into the pipe in the blink of an eye. From there, they repeated the process. Every time Omotesandou Kyouka called them at the other end to say they had retrieved the container, they would send the next one.
“C-couldn’t we have managed some heavier things with this method? Like the frozen foods?”
The teacher apparently still had some regrets.
She may have found a foreign version of some product she loved to eat back in Japan.
But Karuta could only shrug.
“Freeze-dried miso soup is the size of an eraser, but frozen foods are the size of a plate. That size and weight means we would need to send several containers through to secure 1000 servings.”
“And if we didn’t send back enough for everyone, people would feel cheated. It has to be 0 or 1000. Do you want to split Grimnoah in two before we even fight the Threat again?”
They were interested in nutritional value not because they wanted to live a healthy life but because they wanted to be in their top form when fighting the Threat. Tearing their group apart with unnecessary luxuries would defeat the purpose of all of this.
“So hand over those fancy instant noodles, Sensei. I’m confiscating them.”
“Y-you’re mean, Utagai-kun!!”
With her personal interest removed, she ended up sending the plastic containers through entirely mechanically. Once they reached a certain amount, they were done. Now they had to safely escape the C World dome themselves. And safely here meant for themselves and for the secret base. They could not lead the Threat back there.
“Karuta-kun, you scored a perfect 100 there. Good work,” said Kyouka over his Crystal Blossom.
“If you want to treat yourselves to anything, eat it there. Bringing it back here will only make everyone else feel cheated.”
He could not agree more, but he doubted any of them would want to eat hot food (and all the steam and smells that entailed) in this -15-degree hell where the Threat could spot them at any time. Doing so would be like asking the Threat to surround them and kill them at their leisure. Hunger was viewed as the representative biological urge, but it was influenced a surprising amount by one’s mental state.
“Um, Utagai-kun? About those instant noodles. Um.”
Well, one of them was a hopeless incarnation of hunger, but it would probably be best to have her break free of that. Natalena supposedly loathed Karuta, but not even she took the teacher’s side against him.
“Let’s head back.”
“Senpai, I thought you would be more mistrusting than this.”
The 12-year-old blonde girl provided a strange assessment of him.
He looked puzzled, so the self-proclaimed avenger pouted her lips.
“I mean, how long has the Threat occupied this place now? Who knows how intelligent they are, but wouldn’t they have had time to poison the food at random?”
A Metal-Derived Autonomous-Origin Higher Lifeform Combat Weapon.
Now that he had seen them for himself, they did not seem like a lifeform at all. If they ran on electricity, gas, or petroleum, they would not even need a livable environment. They would be able to keep on marching even if they were engulfed in poison gas or napalm. That was only an assumption, but it was true they had not hesitated to tear down the dome and destroy the summer environment when they attacked.
His thoughts turned in a different direction.
“That’s it. Why didn’t I think of that!?”
“(Ehh? Do we really have to mess with this???)”
“(Be quiet, Sensei. In fact, you should be using your Crystal Blossom to speak.)”
“(But we already did our job. I’m sick of all this danger, so let’s get home already!)”
Sophia Firenze made a comment very much like a civil servant, but had she forgotten there was no rest for them until they had eradicated the Threat here? Karuta really wished she would take a lesson from her muscular colleague.
They were peeking out from behind a building to view the main road. That pure white hell was covered in the bizarrely-shaped Threat protected by their inorganic black armor.
Some resembled sea creatures like octopuses and crabs, some resembled insects like ants or mantises, and some resembled carnivorous plants or hunks of mold. There was a lot of variety, but they all seemed to have been based off of existing plants and animals. They also had inorganic elements like a coffin mouth or revolver legs, but none of them appeared to have a base structure modeled after a tank or fighter craft.
Karuta pulled his head back behind cover.
“I was right. They cannibalize their own, but they do have some sense of camaraderie. At the very least, they don’t seem to eat their own until one has been damaged beyond repair.”
“Ugh. Um, uh, well, what does that matter?” asked young Natalena.
“I want to get a look at the broken remains,” he responded. “Specifically, I want to note what parts they make sure to cannibalize. If we know that, we can ‘poison’ those parts. Which could mean a bomb or a computer virus.”
The blonde girl let her voice out without thinking and quickly slapped her hands over her mouth.
He mimicked forming a fist.
“The Threat’s individual power is a problem, but it’s the way they cannibalize their own to customize themselves that makes them truly frightening. The more you defeat, the more they evolve. But what if we used that against them? Calling it ‘negative growth’ might be confusing, but if we feed them ‘poison’, we can stop that infinite customization.”
“We can eradicate the Threat. And the first step is investigating their remains. Did you see any already-eaten ones around?”
“Sacri-sama,” called Aine while pointing with the tip of her see-through sword. There was a lump of snow there. It was hard to tell at a distance, but it was probably taller than they were.
“Wouldn’t a Threat be buried below the snow there?” pointed out the crystal girl.
He thought his heart would stop. He and Natalena ended up in each other’s arms without meaning to and it took her a few seconds before she finally noticed and threw a small slap.
His throbbing cheek hurt, but the heat reminded him he was alive.
They carefully approached the lump of snow, Aine stabbed her sword tip in just a bit on his orders, and a white mass crumbled down to the ground.
Their eyes met a red glassy eyeball.
This must have been one of the scorpions that used pellets and lasers. It had been badly scorched, so it must have been caught in one of Marika’s laser bombings.
They were all rendered speechless.
Utagai Karuta could not guess what would allow him to define this clump of cold, hard armor as “alive”. At the very least, you could not check it for breath or a pulse. If it was only feigning death, they would be wiped out here.
They waited a while, but nothing happened.
But even that did not mean it had not sent out some wireless signal to call in the swarm.
“Sacri-sama.” Aine’s head remained tilted. “Standing here will not improve matters. It appears to have ceased functioning, so shouldn’t you begin your investigation?”
“How can you be so sure it’s ceased functioning?”
“The joints are frozen solid. Whether biological or mechanical, it will be unable to move.”
Sure enough, weapons could freeze too. In the wars of an older age, invading tanks had been stopped by the harsh winter cold and pilots of high-altitude spy planes had apparently feared stalling due to freezing. If this were functioning properly as a machine, it made sense to assume it would have acted to prevent this before it happened.
After brushing away the thick snow, they found it was even more badly damaged than they thought.
Marika’s aerial bombing was not enough to explain this. The thorax? Or abdomen? Whatever you called the scorpion-like collection of curved armor had burst from within like a balloon, its insides had spilled out, and more than half the legs and the hands it had in place of pincers had been torn off at the base. Same for the tail that made it look most scorpion-like. That would be due to the cannibalization. As mechanical as it was, this was still not a pleasant sight.
Natalena looked around nervously.
“Wh-what are we even looking for?”
“Anything that’s missing or incomplete. Like the weapons, the power system, the processor, and maybe the anti-shock system and armor too? We just need to know what they cannibalize first.”
Only after speaking did he realize he was looking at it as a machine rather than a living creature.
Did he simply not want to think of it as anything like him, or did he not like digging through the burst guts of a living creature, even if it was an enemy? That he could not say.
Anyway, the scorpion was larger than a dump truck. Even in its collapsed state, they had to look up at it. They ignored the surviving legs, grabbed at the parts that were jutting out like a burst can, and found they had to gradually climb up it to check inside.
While doing that, Karuta finally peeked into the torn wound.
That sounded simple, but how many humans had ever done it? The Problem Solvers had apparently sporadically fought and repelled the Threat, but had they ever looked inside one? Sophia had created a model based on information they sent her, but had that reproduced the inside as well?
“…………………………………………………………………………………………………What the hell?”
He froze in place, so Aine tilted her head with sword in hand.
However, he did not think he could answer right away.
His breathing was heavy, his heart felt tight, and static was encroaching on the corners of his vision.
What is that doing here?
That was the only thought on his mind. He wanted to deny it, but he had to accept it when it was right there in front of him. The idea that seeing is believing was not a welcome one at the moment.
Finally, the new world’s strongest managed to speak.
“Does the name Smart Arms ring a bell?”
Sophia and Natalena both frowned. Not recognizing it was the normal reaction, but the pale-skinned crystal girl answered without hesitation.
“That is a giant weapons company based in America’s Silicon Valley. They own the weapons plant that manufactured the special-order cyborg parts that created Susannia Evans, one of the Problem Solvers, and that was where Anastasia Blast went into hiding in the end.”
The gasp of course came from Natalena. Susannia was the main topic at hand, but she must have reacted to Anastasia’s name.
“W-wait. Um, why are you bringing up that weapons plant now!?”
“Because of what I see here.” Karuta responded with a look that said he did not want to accept this any more than she did. “The manufacturer’s name isn’t actually printed on the parts, but I saw the parts that Susannia scattered in that Northern European crater. These are identical. These must be unmanned weapons created by that company!!”
“Don’t you think we could make a bath like this?”
“Don’t get greedy. The igloo would collapse on top of you.”
Matsuda Imi and Hashizaki Tayori held a secret discussion while melting the snow with their magic. Girls like them saw a bath as a necessity on the same level as food and shelter, but it was looking like the most they could manage was wiping themselves down with a towel soaked in hot water. At any rate, Karuta’s group had left to find some food, so Amaashi Marika had some work to do while they were gone.
“I will be borrowing a few of them.”
“Of course. But make sure you keep an eye on them,” insisted the Student Council President in a way that hinted at more behind her smile.
Imi and Tayori noticed Marika then.
“Oh? What’s this? Headed out on an errand? Can we help?”
“You two continue researching ways to make a bath. That’s a life-or-death issue.”
“Then could you go find us something sturdier than an igloo made of snow? With a metal container or something, I bet we could make a girl’s bath for ourselves.”
Marika assumed they were mostly joking.
“Wait.” A gym(?) teacher interrupted her with arms crossed. She thought his name Kiyosawa Hadome. “Bring me with you. I can’t have you heading out without a teacher.”
“You let Karuta go.”
“He had Firenze-sensei with him. You never know what will happen, so having an adult with you gives you someone to take responsibility after a mistake.”
Marika sighed so no one would notice.
(Well, this isn’t part of the plan, but more people should help, I guess.)
“Good luck out there.”
The twintail girl left the igloo zone with a makeshift unit. Unlike Karuta, they were using Crystal Magic to fly at an extreme low altitude of less than a meter. If they could avoid crashing into the ground, this would eliminate any footprints.
“Um, Senpai, why are we the only ones with an extra job to do? Did we draw the short straw?”
Marika was accompanied by Sanae and Alice of the Sub Category’s Regulation 1. Karuta had focused a lot on them since that made it easier to manage the entire class.
(Although I bet the kids saw through that right away.)
She could not even sigh about it anymore.
She answered their question while flying to their destination.
“It was a random choice. We just needed some people. And it had to be people who can remain calm.”
They were out here as scouts, but their target was not the Threat that had attacked the Crystal Beach.
“We want to know how much damage was done to the Crystal Beach as a whole. Can you two split up and check the outside of the domes? Obviously, you can’t let the Threat spot you, but you also can’t cause any trouble with the ordinary people evacuated into those domes. We’re only here to gather information, so focus on stealth. Make sure none of the people in those domes can sneak a peek up your skirt while you fly by overhead, okay?”
“Sure thing,” they said lazily before splitting up and flying away.
Kiyosawa Hadome seemed unsure whether to focus on the middle schoolers or Marika, who he was now left alone with, but he ended up doing his own thing. He seemed to be checking the domes and clear tunnels he had been assigned while also searching out points that gave him as wide a view as possible. Marika immediately picked up on what he was doing since she was a skilled sniper.
He could not leave this in the hands of the students since they were angry with the ordinary people who had kicked them out of safety and they might want to destroy the domes to take those people down with them. His was a normal enough way of thinking, but this -15-degree weather tended to keep people from thinking in the normal way.
Marika checked over her assigned area. But as far as she could see, this area was peaceful, unlike the C World dome. There was not a scratch on the translucent domes and the artificial summer environment within remained intact. The rows of palm trees blowing in the wind and the colorful birds and butterflies were all very much alive. The supply of power and gas did not appear to have stopped.
Once the agreed-upon time arrived, Marika regrouped with Sanae, Alice, and the teacher.
“Nothing to report about the G World dome.”
“Same with L World.”
Kiyosawa Hadome started to say something, but Marika held out a hand to stop him.
The twintails girl put her other hand on her hip while floating in midair.
“Nothing caught your attention other than the dome?”
“No, not really.”
“I didn’t find anything either. The Threat wasn’t there and the lucky people inside didn’t seem to be rioting or anything.”
“Hm,” Marika nodded and then added something else too quiet to be heard. “I see.”
From a technical perspective, it may have been possible.
The bodies were made of metal. They were based on known plants and animals but with manmade objects like coffins and revolvers added in. No one could tell Susannia Evans was a cyborg at first glance, so human technology had reached a point where it could mimic biological creatures.
But was this really possible?
“The Threat was manmade?” asked a trembling Natalena Blast.
She had started using Crystal Magic for her revenge, but she must have felt guilty deceiving her classmates while taking her lessons. She clearly looked like she had touched on a horrific taboo.
“Then what was the point of any of this!? Not just me! My sister and the rest of the Problem Solvers worked so hard to protect the world!!”
For a moment, Utagai Karuta’s thoughts turned to the string pullers operating from the shadows of the world. If they could manipulate each successive generation of world’s strongest, wasn’t it possible they had set everything up themselves by inventing a convenient villain?
He thought for a while, but finally reached a conclusion.
“It just doesn’t fit. If all they cared about was starting wars for profit, they could have just made a human villain. They wouldn’t have needed anything on as large a scale as the Threat.”
“For now, let’s assume the Threat is real.”
He took a deep breath and then worked at bringing themselves back on course here.
Yes. He had seen a speculative clay model of the Threat in Grimnoah’s faculty room, so he should have considered this possibility earlier.
“But what we’re fighting here isn’t the real one. Someone other than us has investigated the Threat, so what if they created a decoy version that they could train against to more efficiently combat the Threat?”
In other words, these were not based on existing plants and animals.
They were made as a stand in for the real Threat.
“Smart Arms would have been a likely choice. Susannia and Anastasia trusted that company to the very end. It makes sense they would have sent remains and data back to Smart Arms whenever they defeated a Threat.”
But even if that were the case, it did not solve the immediate problem.
In other words…
A late sunset arrived.
They only had freeze-dried food and chocolate to eat, but having something to eat made all the difference. The students lined up to get some food and breathed a sigh of relief at having that “peace of mind” in hand.
The most popular item was the tea. They must have been more interested in comfort than nutrition.
“E-excuse me, but there is a reason why we use a porcelain pot.”
The waitress became very popular after revealing a trick to making it taste better. She was still awkward, but she gradually managed to smile. Karuta doubted she would talk about owing them anything anymore.
“Good work today, Natalena.”
“Please stop speaking to me, Senpai. Um, I will be heading back after drinking this rooibos tea, so- hot, hot, hot.”
She apparently had trouble with hot drinks. She held the cup between her hands and repeatedly tested it by sticking out her small tongue. But she also wanted to warm herself up, so she could not cool the cup in the snow.
“You do everything in the cutest way possible, don’t you?”
“Do you enjoy stabbing people in the back with a smile on your face? Hot.”
She apparently wanted to drive her point home and leave like a grownup avenger, but the cup’s heat made that impossible. She could not leave yet, so she ended up shrinking down and slowly sipping at the tea next to him.
Meanwhile, the high school girls seemed more interested in the plastic containers than the food those had carried. Imi and Tayori were whispering to each other.
“Will these work?”
“They totally will. You can fit in one if you keep your knees up, right? And I’ve heard of some true madwomen who used metal basins and stainless steel sinks as baths.”
Sanae was again drinking her special drink made by adding a pinch of salt to plain water. Karuta doubted it had any real flavor, but she seemed satisfied.
Meanwhile, he asked the Student Council President about something.
“If that is true, this is not going to be easy.”
Omotesandou Kyouka readily raised the white flag.
He had hoped for some help here, so that was a problem.
“Then we’re supposed to just sit around and wait!?”
“Grimnoah alone has 1000 possible targets. And Domes A and B have many times that many so-called civilians. Actually, is the person commanding the weapons even here at the Crystal Beach? Couldn’t they be safe and sound typing on a keyboard on the other side of the planet?”
“I won’t suggest anything as silly as the weapons gaining a mind of their own and deciding to wipe out the human race, but what if they were infected with a virus that altered their priority settings? Self-driving cars can be converted into deadly weapons by changing the gas and brake values linked to someone’s facial recognition data. Think of it like a land-based guided missile on tires.”
If they were only talking about possibilities, the wings of imagination could take them anywhere.
But they needed to figure out who was behind this and fast.
“Any ideas, Marika?”
“No. There’s no way of narrowing it down at this point.”
She responded as if to say that was not her job.
But something she said caught his attention.
“At this point?”
“I’m just saying the answer should become clear after a few more casualties. But you don’t want that, right?”
It was out of the question. But the President apparently had something to say about that.
“If someone is operating them, why didn’t they immediately attack this secret base? Did they simply lose sight of us? Or is it an inside job and they’re afraid of being caught in the Threat’s surprise attack?”
Either way, discussing this further did not sound like it would lead to any productive ideas.
Karuta sighed and started to leave, but…
“No warning everyone, okay?” said Kyouka from behind him. “Since you haven’t suggested it yet, I assume you already know the risk, but if you even hint we might have a spy among us, what little order we’ve managed here will collapse. Either Grimnoah will split apart or they’ll start to discuss attacking one of the surviving domes. Simply put, it will trigger a witch hunt.”
“I know that.”
This time, he did leave.
He heard footsteps crunching through the snow and turned to find Aine.
“What should I do?” she asked.
“I would like you to stand guard. At least for tonight.”
Grimnoah was a school, but its students were being trained to fight. They naturally had a rotation of guards set up already, but they were only looking for the large Threats that might attack from the outside. They were not considering a danger that might approach as a smiling and waving human. Karuta watched the students laughing together while eating their meager dinners. He hated being unable to warn them of the danger they were in.
What if the villain came from one of the other domes disguised as an evacuee?
What if the villain was secretly holding the controller among the Grimnoah students and teachers?
“I suggest you get some sleep to recover, Sacri-sama.”
“We all need to do that. And it isn’t all bad news. I think I’m right about being able to defeat the Threat – or whatever they are – by ‘poisoning’ them to stop their endless evolution. We are making progress. And someone other than me should be able to set up that ‘poisoning’.”
He was simply sick of it all.
The first Grimnoah had sunk, he had lost so many friends and acquaintances like Kazamuki Gekiha, and his life had been thrown off the rails. He never would have become the world’s strongest without that, but he would have been able to live an ordinary school life.
It had taken building a second ship, but he had regained that lost school life.
It was distorted some by his position as the world’s strongest and he had ended up in a position above even the adult teachers, but he had regained something he had thought was forever lost.
He could not abandon that so easily.
That included Yamane Deiri, Nekoumi Hirosuke, Matsuda Imi, Hashizaki Tayori, the underclassman like Sanae and Alice, and the Student Council Treasurer and Secretary. All the boys and girls gathered at Grimnoah were the people who Karuta’s shattered dream had resonated with. They had brought back his school life from the bottom of the ocean. They may not have been aware of it, but the boring classes and laughter of the Second Grimnoah had undoubtedly healed his damaged soul. Each one of them had grabbed one of the shattered pieces and brought it back together.
One of the igloos in the middle school section had no owner. Sanae and Alice had created it to contain Toudou Riho’s crystal statue. Those friends had held that statue tight and never let go during that fierce fighting. They had never given up to the end.
He could not let anything take that from them.
“I want to repay them. I’m not going to let anything take our world from us again.”
He did not return to his igloo even after he had finished eating.
Vision was poor with the darkness and the blowing snow.
“Miss Marika has received a visitor at her igloo. It appears to be Miss Kyouka.”
“Are they spending the night together? That’s what my yuri-loving heart likes to hear. But is she going to sleep in the nude like usual?”
The camp was pitch black at night since any lights would have given its position away.
But the boy still walked around the igloos.
All throughout the night.
He was fueled by the completely ordinary desire to not see anyone else die.
But the following morning, a corpse was discovered in one of the igloos.
An unseen attack had occurred in the night and they were left with a new casualty.
It was such a contrast.
The white igloo looked so adorable from outside. After Marika’s snow rabbit started a trend, the middle school students had decorated theirs as well. This one had two plastic buckets embedded above the entrance to make it look like a face with a gaping mouth.
Utagai Karuta was frozen in place.
It took a long while before he could move again.
The middle and high school students were watching from a short distance. Word must have already spread that something happened.
For once, the track suit teacher did not seem to know what to say.
He was having trouble looking Karuta in the eye.
“This is, um, not your fault. It was probably unavoidable.”
A metallic straining reached his ears.
A girl sat with her back pressed against the wall inside the adorable igloo. She looked like she was desperately trying to stay as far away from the entrance as possible. And she was frozen in place there. But not due to ice. She had received a mortal wound and crystallized.
The sound came from there.
Even though she was already dead and could not move a finger.
It technically came from her stomach. That was the worst part to look at. Since she was crystallized and thus translucent, he could see through that glittering armor. Three skinny bivalves as thick as two fingers were clearly visible embedded in her there. Unlike the actual creatures, these had jagged edges much like a beartrap and those continued to bite into the crystal. They were gnawing and gnawing.
The cause of death had been caught in the crystallization process and remained trapped in her body.
“Sacri-sama.” Aine was as blunt as always. “Mr. Kiyosawa Hadome is correct. I obeyed your orders last night, but I doubt my patrols meant much. We had no light in order to avoid detection and there was a blizzard, so the visibility was 10m at best. Meanwhile, there are more than 1000 igloos. And if Threats of this size were crawling through the snow, it would have been extremely difficult to detect them with the naked eye.”
“I know that,” he said weakly.
They had been unable to find a solution yesterday, so this had happened. He had known this could happen, but they were clearly a step behind their unseen opponent.
He slowly breathed in and out.
He had to accept this death, so he whispered a name as if part of a ritual.
It was the shy glasses girl with her hair tied back in two tails.
She may not have been the best when it came to Crystal Magic combat.
But had that really been a flaw deserving of this sort of death?
“We can’t leave her like this. We have to at provide the bare minimum of care before sending her to the Second Grimnoah. Will you help me?”
“If you order it.”
Kiyosawa Hadome was listening in and he started to say something but could not get out the words. He pulled back his half-outstretched arm, clenched his teeth, and looked away.
Karuta was not talking about placing a blanket over the crystallized girl or placing her in a special case.
He had asked for help from Aine, his greatest weapon.
“Wait, what are you going to do?”
Blonde Alice had been slumped down on the ground with her head in her hands, but she seemed to realize something here.
Her ponytail swayed as her tearstained face looked up at him.
He did not look back at her. He forced himself not to.
“She was your friend, so I recommend not watching this.”
“Sacri-sama. She is already fairly cracked there, so I expect it would be most efficient to send my blade in through her right side. Then I should be able to break Miss Sanae’s torso in two.”
Alice’s throat tensed.
Her friend was dead and she would never see her again, but that was not the end of it.
“Wait!! Please wait!!”
“The Threat is still trapped inside her.”
A bitter feeling filled the boy’s chest.
The girl tearfully grabbed at him, but he could not bear to look her in the eye now.
“We have to remove them before sending her to our ship. I’m sorry, but there is no other option here.”
“But…but Sanae-chan is still alive.”
She was not being delusional.
She was using the rules of Crystal Magic.
“It might take decades, but she’s still regenerating! But it isn’t perfect, so the bigger the wound, the longer it will take!! So…so if you break her in two, I don’t even want to think how long it will take!!!”
She never would see her friend again.
She could never laugh and speak with her again in her own lifetime.
And the finishing blow would come from a fellow human, not the Threat. In military terms, it would be a human-caused casualty. And it would be mercilessly carried out by the world’s strongest they were all relying on.
Utagai Karuta felt like the back of his mind was numbing over.
He felt like he had finally come to understand the meaning and the weight of the phrase “world’s strongest”.
(That’s what it means when the strongest gives up. If I throw in the towel, it means no one else can do it either. Or so they assume. Because that’s what the world has decided.)
Karuta weakly turned around and looked to the track suit teacher who had been listening to all this.
“Please keep Alice away from here. So she can’t interfere until the work is done.”
“What!? No, let go of me! Don’t you dare touch Sanae-chan! Stop!!!!!”
Was she half in a frenzy?
Karuta could not bear to watch, so he started to enter the igloo. Someone tossed him a hammer. He caught it in his dominant hand and looked over to see Marika sighing with a hand on her hip.
“You can leave this dirty work to me, you know?”
“No, I’ll do it.”
The Student Council’s bob cut girl normally hated him, but she drove all the other students away now. Had she decided now was not the time for jealousy, or had she felt pity after seeing the look on his face?
He shook his head while looking half a cadaver himself.
“This was my fault. There must have been more I could have done last night.”
He held out his other hand and the girl silently handed him a large flathead screwdriver. It was apparently meant as a chisel.
He faced the crystal statue once more.
That was Moriyama Sanae.
She was not a part of him like Aine. She was not a childhood friend like Marika. She had not fought alongside him in their quest for revenge like Kyouka.
Those words sounded so inadequate to him.
He was shocked by how little weight they seemed to hold.
“I really am sorry, Sanae. There’s nothing more I can do for you.”
One trembling hand placed the end of the flathead screwdriver against the crack running through the crystal statue’s hip and his other hand squeezed the hammer’s grip.
He bit his lip, yet did not move for a while.
He had killed the Problem Solvers who had been known as the world’s strongest.
But this girl was different.
She was not a target of revenge. She had done nothing deserving this violence.
But someone had to do it.
“Sacri-sama, please give me a command.”
He gulped and faced his own weakness. If he did not overcome this, he could never catch up to the enemy. He would remain in the palm of that unseen slaughterer and he would lose the kind world he had finally found.
It would happen again and again.
He had to stop that chain of events with his own hand.
He raised the hammer.
A splitting sound soon followed. No matter how much he hurt the crystallized girl, she would not shed a single drop of blood. Yet, he still tasted iron.
It came from his own lip.
Still biting his lip hard, he swung down the hammer. Since he was not using a proper chisel, the first blow bounced off. But he tried again and slammed the hammer against the back of the screwdriver. The second blow dug in, but he missed with the third and hit his own hand with the hammer. That actually relieved him. But he could not stop. He had to keep going. He hammered again and again, spreading the cracks further and further.
His vision blurred and he belatedly realized it was due to tears.
He was killing her.
It was the Threat that had actually ended Moriyama Sanae’s life, but he was killing her in a different way.
Then the damage passed a certain point.
With a horribly inorganic cracking sound, her top half and lower half finally broke apart. With nothing to support it, the upper half toppled over like the mascot at an abandoned amusement park.
He hit his own limit there.
He turned the other way, curled up, and vomited. He had just destroyed someone’s body.
The metallic noise finally ended. The predators may have been rejoicing at regaining their freedom. Were they actually thanking the foolish boy?
“Kill them,” he groaned. That hatred he thought he would never again feel came rushing back. “Kill every last one of those bastards, Aineeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!”
“Already on it.”
The piercing sounds were like music to his ears.
She used the tip of her sword to skewer all three Threats with bivalve-like armor and she did not remove them. The three remained there on the blade, unable to move, while she rested the sword on her shoulder again.
“What shall we do now, Sacri-sama?”
“What do you mean?”
“You have your answer, do you not?”
He felt like he was speaking with his own hesitant heart. He wiped his mouth off with the back of his hand as she asked that second question.
With that girl’s death, they had their answer.
“I will now explain the details of the mission.”
Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka had sent a Crystal Blossom transmission to them all.
They would have to abandon their settlement the instant the Threat noticed it, but they also wanted to avoid having to move if possible. So instead of gathering the 1000 students in one place and holding a strategy meeting with a megaphone in hand, they more safely spoke into their Crystal Blossoms inside their individual igloos.
“Based on the material evidence Karuta-kun discovered and the theory he developed based on it, we will be ‘poisoning’ the Threat. Since the Threat tears off the usable parts of their own fallen to cannibalize them, they will only customize themselves more the more we defeat them. Instead, we will hide bombs or viruses in the wreckage to do damage from within once those parts are cannibalized.”
Someone would have to be entirely oblivious to the spreading rumors to have not heard that someone else had died. They had another casualty.
Nevertheless, Yamane Deiri, Nekoumi Hirosuke, Matsuda Imi, Hashizaki Tayori, and the Student Council’s black bob cut girl were fully focused on fighting the Threat, so they may have wanted to forget about that fear. Just like a giant meteor descending toward your city would make even a brutal robbery pale in comparison. They may have been standing up to the Threat as a way of averting their gaze.
It was important to remember these were all middle and high school students, even if they had been given Crystal Magic, the world’s strongest power.
“To act on this plan, we need the remains left by the Threat, so we will be splitting into three teams. The first is the Firepower Team that will work to destroy as many Threats as they can. Then the Delaying Team will hit the surviving Threats with a powerful bombardment to buy us even a few minutes. Lastly, we have the Engineering Team that will use that time to insert the poison in the defeated Threats. It does not actually matter if the Threat notices what we are doing. We only care about ending the negative spiral where they grow stronger the more we defeat them, so making them hesitant to cannibalize counts as a success even if the poison does no direct damage.”
They were heading to the deadly battlefield to fight.
Once in that special mental state, all their everyday troubles seemed to vanish.
Even though there was still violence on warships and theft and murder on the battlefield.
“In addition to those three primary teams, there will also be smaller sub-teams for transmission, transportation, healing, and backup circling the battlefield like satellites, so keep that in mind. The team divisions will prioritize teamwork, so it will be done by class. No hard feelings no matter what team you end up on, okay? We are all Grimnoah. We are all on the same side.”
Things were finally underway.
Rushing footsteps sounded all around them.
“Buck up, Karuta.”
“W-we just need to look at it as a chance to show off to the middle schoolers!!”
Karuta’s two classmates slapped him on shoulders or back as they passed by.
With Crystal Magic, they did not have to prepare their weapons and ammo before entering battle. They generally only had to shatter their Crystal Blossoms to activate their armor, but it was not that easy this time. After all, they were moving as a group of 1000. Simply splitting into teams and performing a roll call was on a larger scale than the average school’s athletics festival.
“I’ll be borrowing the entire Firepower Team. I wouldn’t dare send them to the front line otherwise.”
“You’re sounding more like a god of war all the time.”
“Isn’t that what it means to be the world’s strongest? I’ve gotta be waving the flag out front.”
“Then you handle that,” he said with a smile. “Anyway, about yesterday.”
“I already told you everything I know about that. I wasn’t hiding anything. See you.”
She waved and flew up into the air. The class of a few dozen that formed the Firepower Team followed after her.
Karuta let out a visible sigh and spoke to someone else.
“Is this really when you want to borrow my wisdom?” she began with a laugh. “To be blunt, I doubt any investigating we do will turn up anything about the circumstances of Sanae-san’s death. Visibility was so poor with the late-night blizzard that no one would have noticed if someone was sneaking around and the igloos don’t even have doors, meaning anyone could walk right in. If that was all we had to work with, it would have been the perfect crime.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“Correct. That death instead gave us the answer we needed, so it’s time to do your job. This entire poisoning mission is a bluff.”
Karuta was a Grimnoah student too.
He was one of the Four Living Gods, but that did not mean he could just sit idly by and watch things play out.
“Um,” someone hesitantly called out.
He looked back to find a 12-year-old girl standing there nervously. It was Natalena Blast.
“What are you going to do now? Um, because you don’t seem able to fly with Crystal Magic.”
“Worried about me?”
“Just kidding. I’m part of the Transmission Team providing logistical support. Crystal Blossom transmissions have a limited range, but they can cover much longer ranges if we leave someone in between to relay the signal.”
“You’re part of the Work Team, right? That detailed work on the front line is critical, so don’t screw it up.”
“It’s, um, weird having you worried about me.”
“But that’s how I really feel.”
An ominous atmosphere emanated from a short distance away. That girl was in turmoil as well. Her middle school classmates must have been hesitant to speak to her after what happened. And that let her lose control more and more.
“They are so dead.”
She was filled with resentment.
But not quite like Karuta’s group had been.
Blonde Alice would have been crushed by the sorrow if she did not have someone to hate, so she was adding fuel to the fire within her. Although her hatred of the Threat probably was real.
Her frenzy when he had broken the crystal statue had not seemed like an act.
“They are deader than dead. I’ll show them what a real threat is. I’ll make a pile of their corpses to prove who’s the strongest once and for all!!”
She had been placed on the Delaying Team that would keep the surviving Threats away to buy time for the sabotage of the defeated ones. It was a fruitless job but Karuta thought she might be perfect for it.
Flaxen-haired Sophia Firenze was holding a first-aid kit.
Crystal Magic could heal any non-fatal wounds in 30 seconds, but that did not mean they had no need for medical equipment. Sometimes stopping the bleeding would turn an otherwise fatal wound into a non-fatal one. So using both methods was more effective than one or the other. He guessed she was part of the Healing Team providing logistical support.
“Your focus was on theory, right?”
“Yes, entirely so. What am I even doing on the front line like this? I was supposed to create theories, try to reproduce them in the lab, and correct the theories based on the results.”
“I won’t go so far as to say reality is an awful place, but there are people who will accept something more readily when they can hold it in their hands. Especially among the elderly. So in addition to simulations, I would make models and pet robots. It was really a waste of time, but they wouldn’t fund us without those things.”
Karuta heard someone click their tongue.
Not even the imminent battle changed that muscular teacher named Kiyosawa Hadome.
But an unwavering spirit could be a reassuring thing.
“I really don’t like you,” he said to Karuta.
“Is that so?”
“But I’ll admit this isn’t a job for us. So go do what we theory-based teachers can’t.”
Karuta smiled a little. How much strength had it taken for that man to leave things in his hands here? He knew just how much that teacher cared for the students, after all.
Their preparations were nearly complete.
After leaving the teachers, he gave a quiet order.
The crystal girl poked her had out from within his uniform.
“It’s time. We need to get moving.”
Unlike the other teams, the Communication Team would not be gathered in a single spot. They had to spread out over as wide an area as possible to relay transmissions.
That was the perfect job if you wanted to hide and work on something else in secret.
He glanced over at the destroyed C World dome and saw the Threat must have noticed something was afoot. Snow blasted up into the air and countless red eyes glowed from beyond it. The visible range on the surface was less than 5km, so they had to be within striking range for some of their weapons. Karuta’s job was to relay transmissions, so he could easily tell where the Grimnoah students were located on the battlefield.
He slowly took a deep breath.
President Omotesandou Kyouka had called this poisoning mission a bluff.
That was exactly right. He flicked the Crystal Blossom on his chest.
“I’m ready when you are.”
“Get ready, Aine.”
That settled it.
The giant Threats stepped over their brethren to continue past the ones blocking the way. And while those surface-based ones struggled to move out ahead, countless flying ones filled the air like a sandstorm. Meanwhile, the Grimnoah students were putting a fair amount of distance between themselves to have enough room to fly freely.
After confirming everyone’s positions, Utagai Karuta pulled the final trigger.
Of his own free will.
“Okay, you two, shoot down Alice Majority.”
It must have been too sudden for her to react in time.
Laser sniping was hard enough to dodge at the best of times and she was simultaneously targeted from two different points, one on the ground and one in the air.
The lasers struck a flying angel with feather decorations adorning her armor and miniskirt made of translucent crystal.
The blonde ponytail girl had just enough time to notice something was wrong and twist around, but her barrier was still shattered and her translucent armor hit. She lost balance in midair and entered a tailspin.
She fell straight down.
Toward the ground.
Where the Threat had created a realm of death.
“Let’s go, Aine. We need to end this here.”
Karuta was on the Transmission Team.
He could sense the amount of Crystal Blossom transmissions spike all of a sudden. The other students were sending angry and frightened complaints to ask what had just happened, but the boy did not let it get to him. He simply walked to the crash site, accompanied by Crystal Girl Aine who obeyed his orders.
There, he found a new sight.
He saw black armor. He saw scorpions that had human-like hands and airbrush-like tails they used to cause massive midair explosions to bring down all flying objects. He saw giant squids with plenty of cheap denture-like mouths. He saw carnivorous plants with coffin jaws clacking shut. He saw abnormally large ants with handgun legs. All those bizarre creatures were gathered together and tearing at each other’s armor. These were all the Threat that killed humans and destroyed their civilization.
They had come to a stop.
It was like time had frozen so the crashed girl would not be caught in the middle of it all. The countless flying Threats – the giant octopuses that rotated their sucker-covered legs in alternate directions like coaxial rotors and the flying fish that were as pointy as a blade – had fallen to the ground when they stopped moving.
Just like a bizarre weather phenomenon where frogs or small fish fell from the sky. That was increasing the height of the black masses. There was no gap in the swarm of Threats, so approaching meant Karuta had to climb across the many legs like it was a jungle gym.
“Is that phone the controller, Alice?”
It was also possible she was using special sensors to monitor the Threat while using Crystal Magic for the actual interference with them, but even if the details were unclear, one thing here clearly stood out.
“That isn’t just a phone.”
The object in Alice’s hand was not her phone.
When he thought back to their swimsuits, he recalled that being the model used by Toudou Riho who had carried two phones with her.
“You’ve swapped out the circuit board within, making that one unique. Tell me. What is it for?”
Karuta had needed help for this one, so he had discussed it with the others before getting started.
He had spoken with Amaashi Marika and Omotesandou Kyouka.
That was the last of that trio of girls. The blonde ponytail one.
“Yes.” Karuta nodded. “There’s no point in investigating Casualty B, Moriyama Sanae. Any one of our 1000 people could have pulled that one off. I’d be the top suspect since I was out patrolling throughout the night and Aine’s testimony won’t help me since she agrees with anything I say. But this still gives us the answer when combined with Casualty A, Toudou Riho.”
The President smiled in apparent enjoyment.
He could not say if that smile was from the heart or not, though.
“Riho’s throat was slit from head on. A slipper-sized pill bug of a Threat was found on the floor, but that doesn’t add up. How did that thing slit her throat? There was more than a meter from the floor to her throat, so are we supposed to believe it hopped straight up like some kind of spring-loaded contraption? It’s nonsense.”
“Sacri-sama, couldn’t it have fallen from the duct in the ceiling?”
“There were no wounds on her arms. However it happened, anyone would try to protect their face from an attack they could see. Even rookies and people without any combat training whatsoever would do that.”
“Then did it sneak up behind her?”
“You already know the answer to that, don’t you? That pill bug only had its jaws. It had no arms. To circle around from behind and slit her throat, it would have to have used its many legs to crawl along her back or shoulder. There’s no way Riho wouldn’t notice that. So,” he said while pretending he was holding and pushing forward an electric shaver or something. “Someone must have held that pill bug and pressed it against Riho’s throat. That’s the only possible answer. There never was any other answer. And the lack of wounds to her hands means it was someone she trusted. She never imagined for a second she was going to be attacked.”
“Hm,” said Kyouka. “But what proof is there that person was Alice Majority? She was the one who came to us. If she did that, wouldn’t she have wanted to delay discovery of the body? And we could easily have asked the kids seated near the bathroom who had been in there.”
“She used the window,” replied Karuta. Normal people would never even consider that, but they were different. “That was only the 6th floor. Any Crystal Magician can fly, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for her to climb out through the hallway window, circle around the entire hotel, and arrive at the window to the girl’s bathroom. I’m the only exception there, what with Aine and all.”
“But if they chose a course that doesn’t show up on the cameras, couldn’t anyone have done that? It didn’t have to be Sanae-san or Alice-san.”
“Of course.” He shrugged. “But it couldn’t have been anyone else and I know you already know why. Riho was caught by surprise in an attack from dead ahead. Someone has to trust you an awful lot for you to slit their throat from dead ahead without giving them any time to try to stop you with their hands.”
“That was the girl’s bathroom, she would have immediately put her guard up around a boy or one of the adult teachers who are practically all-powerful in her school life. I was hesitant to go in there even when I knew it was an emergency. And Riho would have been suspicious of pretty much anyone – even another girl – if they climbed in through the 6th-floor window. There’s only one or two people she would let her guard down around in that situation.”
Utagai Karuta had seen it before. Back on the Grimnoah ship, he had seen Alice take a shortcut to the shower room window. That meant climbing in through windows was a habitual thing for that trio. It would not inspire any surprise. Yet if Karuta, Aine, Marika, or Kyouka had done it, it would have led to a flurry of screams. None of the other students – or teachers for that matter – could have done it.
It was not about the actual actions taken.
Only the other members of that trio had been close enough to Riho.
At the time, that logic had left them with two options, but then Alice had killed Sanae. Most likely, she had used a similar tactic: grabbing those small Threats in her hand and shoving them into the girl’s gut.
That death had left just one option.
The sole survivor was their answer. Marika sighed in a disinterested way.
“I had deduced that either Sanae or Alice must have killed Toudou Riho, so I put them through a little test. I have to admit, I didn’t expect to find they were both guilty.”
A little test.
Needless to say, she was referring to having those two investigate the damage to the other domes the day before.
“Oh, had you already checked over all the domes yourself?”
“Yes, and then I had them check over them again. There were plenty of oddities to report, but those girls both said they found nothing. A nice way to dodge the issue, really. If I had pointed out the oddities later on, they could always claim they had simply not noticed. A nice way, but still plenty suspicious.”
Marika had mentioned a teacher joining that inspection at the last second – Kiyosawa Hadome. She had suspected he had gone along to keep an eye on the other two and make sure they did not say anything foolish, but it turned out he had no ulterior motive at all.
He had honestly reported what he saw and even tried to help the other girls with their report.
If Marika had not held out a hand to stop him, he would likely have mentioned what they had “overlooked”. That would have allowed the girls to realize how unnatural their report sounded, giving them a chance to course correct.
“So what exactly did they fail to report?”
“There were Threat-like footprints and claw marks visible around the surviving domes and there was a lot of fruit hidden in the snow. The former is unnatural because it means the Threat was picking and choosing who and what to attack despite supposedly being indiscriminate. The latter was evidence of a secret supply base. They had plenty of food for themselves prepared in advance in case we made a mistake and ended up stuck in the blizzard without food. Fruit stays good when frozen and they could cook it with magic fire to eat it.”
The discoveries themselves had been less important than questioning why those girls would hide it.
They had not wanted the others to know the Threat could be controlled or that a supply base had been prepared in advance.
The day before, Marika had said there was no way of narrowing it down at that point and the answer would become clear after a few more casualties.
“We had two possibilities and one died, so that settles it.”
They could have tried to separate Sanae and Alice, but they had not known how those two were controlling the Threat. If they captured those two and had a large army called in on them, they would have been wiped out.
Marika’s solution was to defeat both of them, but if they both had a controller, then one could summon the Threat while the other was being killed.
Thus, she had been waiting for an opportunity to kill them both at the same time.
Yet that opportunity had never arrived.
“You can’t solve every problem with a sniper shot, Marika-san.” Kyouka laughed. Had she gone to Marika’s igloo last night to drive that point home? Although that did lead them to overlook the late-night murder.
“Marika, when did you first start to suspect them?” asked Karuta.
“The instant we found Toudou Riho’s corpse. I mean, their grief was way too by the book. If your closest friend dies, it would tear your heart to pieces. I would have expected them to grab the corpse and fly off with it never to return, or to start calling everyone a spy and bombing the hell out of them with their Crystal Magic.”
That opinion seemed heavily influenced by Marika’s unique values.
She was also implying that was how she would react if Karuta or Aine died.
She had mostly jumped to a conclusion and gotten lucky, but she had still reached the right answer far sooner than Karuta. He was astonished by this, but anyway.
“Do you agree with Karuta on how she did it?” asked Omotesandou Kyouka.
“It would be technically possible, but it seems unnecessarily complicated. Flying around the outer wall to reach the bathroom window is a lot of effort. Why did Alice Majority want to contact Toudou Riho in secret so badly? And how did the Threat become a part of all this?”
Those questions were side issues.
If they wanted to find out why she had killed her friends, they only had to bring her down and take their time getting it out of her in a dark room somewhere. So there was a bigger issue here.
“Even if the Threat here is only a decoy, we have to take out whatever method she is using to control them. And I would really prefer not to consider the possibility that the method can be spread to others.”
The battlefield had changed.
The frozen Threat swarm surrounded Karuta and Alice. A lot of them were as large as a bus or a small building, so there was plenty of cover. It was like a deep rocky area made of black metal.
Alice Majority could not talk her way out of this now that she had used her safety device. She would have a hard time arguing that someone else had stopped them at that very moment to frame her.
Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld.
Alice used Skuld, who was one of the goddesses of fate and also a Valkyrie who gathered the souls of the dead in preparation for the final battle.
Those three goddesses were said to water the world tree of Yggdrasill on a daily basis so it would not rot, but that meant it was in their power to let the world tree rot and trigger Ragnarok, which would bring destruction to all. So was this mechanical army controlled by a goddess supposed to be the dead soldiers known as the Einherjar?
“So what was that phone, anyway?”
Karuta was the first to speak.
His words set things in motion by placing the initiative in his hands.
“Was it really worth killing to get your hands on?”
“The false Threats don’t use encrypted communications.” Blonde Alice shook the phone in her hand. “I imagine it was to make them more like the real thing, but they’re like honeybees. They signal each other with visible movements of their legs or roots. But that can be interfered with. A powerful crosswind can mess with the movement of their raised leg and a whiteout prevents their red eyes from scanning the scene properly.”
“Meaning you can stop the Threat and guide them where you want?”
It would take Crystal Magic to pull that off as an individual. He knew Natalena and Sophia could manipulate the wind with their power. This power must cover a horrifyingly wide area and they had pulled it off even when enclosed in the C World dome.
But if that was the explanation, they would have no need for the (device disguised as a) phone.
“This is a satellite access communicator. When we built the circuit board based on the plans, it wouldn’t connect properly and we only got it to function after working together to attach and detach different components. So we could never make a second one even if we tried.”
Karuta was reminded of what Aine used for a bed – a prototype civilian spaceship resembling a bamboo leaf.
“Even students can build a small satellite. It isn’t that unusual. And to control the Threat with wind and light, we needed to track the weather, the distribution of the swarm, and the signals they were making with their bodies and legs.”
“So the communication interference wasn’t due to the blizzard, was it?”
“I doubt a commercial service without a specialized observation device could have accomplished much, but better safe than sorry. We had to cut off access to the various weather forecast services available through your phones.”
The many Threats surrounding them remained motionless. And not because something was interfering with the signals they made like a honeybee or fiddler crab. They viewed things with their red eyes and signaled to their own kind with their legs or roots. But when thick fog or a whiteout cut off all visual information, were they programmed to stop and think instead of moving blindly to send out signals?
But Karuta still had a more fundamental question here.
“You could do all that and all you did with it was kill?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“What made you go to all that effort to kill Riho and Sanae?”
“You killed her!!!!!!”
He thought she meant Moriyama Sanae.
Because he had broken her crystal statue beyond recognition to get the small Threats out.
But Alice went on to speak an entirely different name.
“You killed Anastasia Blast!! I don’t care why you did it. Whatever she might have been doing behind the scene, she was our hero. She fought to keep the world safe!!”
That name again? thought Karuta.
Was killing the world’s strongest not enough to be entirely rid of them?
He did not know the exact situation Alice – no, those three – had found themselves in. Maybe they simply had heard of Anastasia’s exploits on TV or over the internet. Maybe they had been rescued from the real Threat in one of those cities on the verge of annihilation.
(Come to think of it.)
His thoughts turned toward that special drink Moriyama Sanae had always been drinking. A pinch of salt in water would not have any real flavor, so maybe it had some connection to her past. Did it help her relax? Or to put it another way, could she not relax without it? She may have found an action that reminded her of some past event. The other two may have had been hiding some unseen scar below their clothing or in their heart in a similar fashion.
Anastasia probably had not remembered them if she had ever known them at all, but her noble lifestyle had inspired some people to change and start working again.
Relatives were not the only ones who would grieve someone’s death.
Anastasia Blast’s death had carried great weight. Enough so to lead these girls to search the underside of the world for a weakness in Karuta’s group and ultimately happen across the decoy Threats there.
“So I don’t care what the strongests were doing in secret!! I only care that I can use this power to exact revenge on Grimnoah! Yes, that’s right. I killed them… We were all in it together!! To give you a taste of the defeat you so deserved after usurping the throne of the world’s strongest!!”
The taste of defeat?
Did this girl really think they had never tasted that before?
“I get why you’re out to get us four, but why did Riho and Sanae have to die?”
“They tried to back out.”
That short response told the whole story in abbreviated form.
“The plan was to ‘accidentally’ shoot you during the chaos of the attack, but Riho-chan didn’t trigger that attack when the time came. I snuck around back and asked her what was up, and she confessed she was scared. She said it was wrong to get so many other people caught in the attack, so she had gone into the bathroom to hide with the satellite access communicator! We needed that detailed data to control the Threat with our magic!”
Riho and Alice could not have allowed anyone else to get a look at that device’s screen. Was that why Alice had felt the need to cover her tracks by flying in through the window for a simple discussion?
“So what choice did I have? Riho-chan could chicken out if she wanted, but if she turned herself in and got us caught too, there goes the whole plan!!”
He could guess from this that those three girls could only access their small satellite with that one device.
It may have seemed like enough for them at the time, but that had caused problems down the road.
“Then what about Casualty B – Sanae?”
“She screwed up.”
Alice kept it short.
Maybe she had gotten used to it by the second time.
Or maybe after taking out Riho, she herself had gone off the rails without noticing it.
“She said she fell for a trick, so she was trembling in fear. I have no clue what she was talking about, but it was all over for both of us if she was caught. So again, I had no other choice.”
Marika had actually been monitoring Sanae and Alice both, but Alice must not have even noticed the trap she fell for.
“Still, I could have seen her in a few decades.”
Finally, she ground her teeth together.
He could see pure regret in her.
“But you shattered that hope along with her statue. What is it now? Centuries? Millennia? I can’t even apologize to her now!!”
Despite all this, they would not have come together for revenge like that unless they had already been bound by friendship.
But once they got started, it ended up like this. None of their hated foes were gone and those good friends had ended up killing each other. Alice had clearly attacked the wrong targets here.
“How could this have happened?”
He could not help but ask.
He felt blessed himself. After all, what if Marika had said she was scared and backed out when they had decided to kill the Problem Solvers? Or what if Kyouka’s identity had been discovered and the investigation would have reached them before long? What if he had ended up in a deadly battle against Aine who was practically one with him???
Weapons, money, and intelligence were not the most important things when seeking vengeance.
You needed trust.
It seemed ironic since those words seemed far removed from the bloody action of revenge, but it was the truth. Karuta had been fairly unsure if he could actually continue with his revenge back then. If Marika and Kyouka had not pulled him back in, he would probably have ended up like this as well.
“You were willing to rely on each other to accomplish something even if the rest of the world was against you, right? Weren’t you good enough friends to reveal those immoral feelings to each other!? Then!! Couldn’t you have figured something out!? Something other than what happened!!!???”
His desperate cry only put a dry smile on Alice Majority’s face.
It was already over.
The rift between the successful and the failure was too great. Kind words from the successful were only salt in the wound to the failure.
He knew that.
He had not wanted to be caught up in those girls’ revenge. If he had learned Marika or Kyouka’s lives were at risk, he would have stopped them no matter what it took. Even if the rest of the world thought him a coward and even if he could not forgive himself for what he had done. That much he knew for certain.
He knew that, but this still seemed like too much.
How could he tell that trio that they had failed in their revenge and lost everything because their friendship wasn’t strong enough? What hope was there? Was there nothing at all they had left!?
“This is revenge too, don’t you think?”
Alice looked like an empty shell of a person, but she still raised that phone. No, that original device made to look like one. That card of ruin received the weather and location data needed to control the Threat with magic. She could use her magic to interrupt the honeybee or fiddler crab style of signal and that would either stop or guide the Threat. For example, she could make them stumble by sending in a powerful crosswind when they lifted a leg.
There were a number of theories where the name Skuld came from. For example, “tax”, “future”, “debt”, or “obligation”.
This girl had hoped for success in the future no matter what it took, that had placed too great an obligation on the friends who had walked that path with her, she had violently taken a bloody debt from them, and here she stood now.
For the future.
But Alice Majority should have looked back to the past.
She should have looked deeper, instead of focusing on shallow vengeance. She should have reminded herself why she was friends with Riho and Sanae. She should have recalled what bonds had brought them so close together in the first place!!
“I failed to kill you. In fact, killing you would accomplish nothing. But you will lose everything again if I unleash the Threat here.”
“I was never looking for meaning in my revenge. Because if you decide it isn’t worth it, that’s when the fear creeps in.”
“You can utterly destroy the Crystal Beach, but I won’t bat an eye and I tell you it all had nothing to do with Grimnoah and I’ve lost nothing!! So don’t waste your time, Alice!! That doesn’t even qualify as revenge!!”
“Yeah, you would have to feign indifference, wouldn’t you? You can’t let me see the target means something to you.”
In that final moment, Alice Majority was definitely smiling.
Her face was a mess and it had to have been easier on her to have cried.
Her enemy had even robbed her of any hope that she could apologize some decades from now.
“But that won’t change what I do. Goodbye, Senpai.”
The instant she placed her finger on the touchscreen and her translucent armor spread out like wings, the magic was dispelled and time began to move once more. The girl had triggered Ragnarok. She had reactivated the Threat while surrounded by them herself. Marika’s laser sniper shot blew her brains out, but it was an instant too slow. A massive maw snapped shut on her crystallizing body, shattering it.
She was killed instantly.
The crystal statue was smashed to tiny pieces that glittered as they scattered around.
Something grazed Karuta’s cheek, leaving a sharp wound there. It must have been a piece of the broken device’s circuit board or LCD screen. He heard a cracking sound as crystal covered the surface of the wound.
All blood and tears vanished within that solid sound.
He clenched his teeth until he thought they would break and Aine moved out front with sword at the ready.
With a flash of that blade, a giant ant’s leg was severed with a diagonal cut before it could crush him and the ant itself toppled over. He had survived that, but the Threat was clearly locked onto him. These were now enemies rather than simple obstacles.
The ground and sky were filled once more by the fake but still loathsome Threat.
“Sacri-sama, please adapt. The situation has already changed.”
He could not afford to die here, so he shouted into his Crystal Blossom.
“I failed to persuade her! Omotesandou-san, let’s go with Plan B. The device was destroyed and we wouldn’t know how to use it anyway!”
“You mean we’re going with the ‘poisoning’ plan that started out as an act? Understood.”
The Threat could continue marching at them forever.
Even though they were fakes, a direct hit from them would still be deadly.
Utagai Karuta had been dragged into that endless battle, but he felt no fear.
He was not afraid of these attacks from emotionless machines.
He refused to let this be as painful as a clash between two people.
Between the Lines 3
Length of Battle: 44 Hours, 28 Minutes, 31 Seconds.
Dead: 34 (including Alice Majority). Injured: 705.
Total Number of Defeated Enemies: All 9989 of them.
We have successfully eliminated the decoy Threats created by Smart Arms.
Sacri-sama’s “poisoning” plan was effective.
As these are merely decoys, it is unknown how well this would work against the real ones, but it should be worth remembering as a possibility.
It is unknown where these practice Threats came from or how their number is replenished, but it seems likely they used the thick Arctic ice.
Crystal Beach built its heating infrastructure using the heat of submarine volcanoes, but they apparently perform periodic checks to ensure the sulfur dissolved in the seawater is not affecting how the ice freezes. We do not actually know what kind of probes they use, but these decoy Threats were almost certainly clinging to the underside of the thick ice here. I can guess they were leased to the Crystal Beach because their use as training tools was not enough to recoup the R&D costs. Alice used wind to mess with the signals they made with their legs or roots, but they may have been sending vibrations down to the other side of the thick ice.
With Alice’s defeat, the communication disruption vanished.
From a strategic perspective, the fight for Crystal Beach was a success.
The differing sizes of different Threat models make it hard to be exact, but the general loss ratio was 1-to-8 and I earned something of a high score myself. I would say this has proven the effectiveness of Crystal Magic. Hooray.
How was that, Sacri-sama?
I even learned my lesson after that time in the gym, so I have a handkerchief you can borrow.
Were any of my calculations incorrect?
It took longer than a day, but they had defeated every last one of the Threat.
They had gone around destroying more and more and more and more of the Threat flooding the ground and sky.
Even though that enemy was not even strictly alive.
This was not the first night they had seen during the fighting. It was the second one.
The fighting had been fierce, but Utagai Karuta was one of the survivors.
And if the category of survivors existed, another category also had to exist.
A dray cracking sound reached Karuta’s ears.
It was the sound the small crystal shards scattering after his arm completed its regeneration.
This Threat had been artificial weapons created by Smart Arms, so the blinding laser emitted by his modified military flashlight could cause a malfunction in their sensors.
He could also use the Preset regeneration.
A human could derail a speeding train if they did not care what happened to their own body. They simply had to lie down and place their arm across the track. By jamming his hand into the joints of the mechanical legs, he could briefly stop them from moving. By having his own arm crushed to cushion the impact, he could prevent a fatal blow to his organs. He had avoided instant death and considered the cost-performance of each action to destroy his own body at maximum efficiency. Meanwhile, he had used Aine to slice through the center of the Threat and overcome the difference in numbers. It actually helped that the Threat was so large and packed together as a swarm. He could slip below one to escape the legs of the others, giving him a momentary shelter. At least until its stomach dropped to squash him.
He had to have destroyed more of them than even Marika who had used her superhuman flying instincts to bomb the Threat with frightening precision. His “poisoning” plan had worked well. The fake Threats could no longer evolve once they could not take in the parts of their fallen.
The weapon he used, his own destruction, and the strategy itself all came back to his own abilities.
Even so, the voices were still ringing in his ears.
“Help me!” “I don’t want to die!” “Aren’t you the world’s strongest!? The Four Living Gods!?”
He was haunted by the cries of the students who had trusted him right up until the very end when reality set it and they felt betrayed.
He could not live up to all their expectations.
The crystal scattered at his feet was not all the result of his own regeneration. Small hands, slender legs, and a cute face were lying there. They were translucent and not recovering.
Hadn’t she been the Student Council Treasurer?
He honestly did not even know her name. He remembered how coldly she treated him whenever he showed up to speak with Kyouka, but he also remembered how she had kept the other students away for him when Sanae died. She was not just some title. She was a human being who could pick up on people’s feelings and show them kindness. The fact that he only knew her by that title was a failing on his part, not hers.
And now she was gone.
“Altogether, that’s an entire class worth of kids dead!! Is this…is this what you wanted, Alice!!!???”
He knew his question would go unanswered.
That girl had been laser sniped by Marika and smashed to pieces by a Threat’s giant jaws. Not to mention the battlefield had moved around a lot during the fighting. Not even he remembered where exactly he had spoken with Alice Majority.
Despite everything, one group remained whole.
Karuta, Aine, Marika, and Kyouka.
The Four Living Gods were the ones that trio had actually wanted to kill, yet not one of them had died. Karuta knew from his own experience that plans had a way of going wrong, but still.
Their attempt had been an utter failure.
With the extreme fighting over, the supply of adrenaline may have stopped.
For whatever reason, he suddenly hit his limit.
He collapsed onto his side and felt like he could never move again. He simply pulled in the object in front of him. It was the crystallized head of the Treasurer with a bob cut.
The killers and the killed were gone, having accomplished nothing. That thought triggered an explosion of negative emotion within him. He had done this. The world he had created had driven them to this.
Even though he had believed defeating the Problem Solvers would change the world so these cruel sacrifices were no longer necessary.
He heard a weak and unreliable voice from beyond the blizzard.
It was Natalena Blast, another person trapped in revenge.
“That’s enough! Please stop fighting like that! You’re scaring everyone! Is that the ultimate form of Crystal Magic!? Destroying your own body to protect a non-regenerating flashlight!? Are we all going to end up like that eventually!? You’re the world’s strongest, so if you don’t pull yourself together, Grimnoah really will fall apart!!”
Now was the time to clean up the mess.
They had to check for any surviving Threats either in hiding or playing dead among the scraps, so everyone was combing the snowy terrain. With nonhuman opponents, they could not demand a surrender and the concept of war crimes did not apply. If they ran across a Threat, they would immediately destroy it.
But Karuta remained motionless on the ground, moving just his eyes to look over at the speaker.
It was indeed Natalena.
Only then did he slowly climb to his feet. Even if he had to force it.
She really was strong. There had been no guarantees out here, but she had found a survival strategy all on her own. Yes. Even when the Threat appeared in such numbers and could endlessly grow by devouring their own fallen, her ability to grab and swing around anything was just about the only thing that could defeat them head on.
Her Crystal Magic borrowed Anubis’s power. Before, she had attacked by using the thin wires and small grab buckets to grab at matter and swing it around as a blunt weapon. She had grabbed both solids and liquids from the area around her. Karuta had shown how to defeat that back on the beach that night. Her strength would probably rise if she grabbed something like explosives, magma, or powerful acid, but she did not use that sort of trickery here.
Instead, she chose a completely different fighting style.
She had grown yet again.
(She wasn’t using just solids and liquids. She was grabbing gasses and even plasma, which is known as the fourth state of matter.)
More than just grabbing containers or boulders, she could swing around water or the air to create her own cataclysms, like a flashflood or a powerful windstorm. She had even grabbed and twisted around explosions and blowtorch blades.
Just like her sister Anastasia, her destruction seemed more like magic than a weapon.
He had somewhat predicted this and even Omotesandou Kyouka had said the girl was powerful.
(She picked it up so fast. Scary fast.)
That young girl could transform a crisis into personal growth. At this rate, she might even surpass Karuta or Marika one day.
He had no proof of it, but he wondered if she would eventually be able to grab the dimension itself.
He could not begin to predict what would happen if she did that. As a Regulation 3, Omotesandou Kyouka had once been able to leap beyond this dimension, so perhaps she would be able to find the answer.
But all of that was Natalena Blast’s personal situation.
He doubted he would ever forget the names of those 34. He had known her name was not on the list, but he did not know who all she was friends with.
He gently placed the Student Council Treasurer’s severed head on the snow and asked a question with haunted eyes.
“Are your friends okay, Natalena?’
The world’s strongest piece of shit had failed to protect everyone coming to him for help.
The extreme exhaustion and cold had taken their toll, but the psychological damage was even greater. He was about ready to mistake the snow for a down blanket and fall asleep right there.
But young Natalena gave him a frightened look. It was the look of someone seeing a horrific wound. Yet that boy had killed her sister and she had vowed to have her revenge, so seeing him in such a haggard state should have delighted her to no end.
“What will you do now?”
That was the fundamental question.
He did not have it in him to keep going right now.
“Are you going to keep at it? Even after seeing that?”
She bit her lip.
“What if I do say I will have my revenge?”
Toudou Riho had her throat slit for suggesting they stop. Moriyama Sanae had her belly devoured while fearing she had made a mistake. Alice Majority had lit the fuse of doom after losing everything.
What kind of answer would an avenger accept?
After thinking, Utagai Karuta opened his mouth again.
He was worn down and injured, but he could not stop here.
“I will stop you.”
“I will stop your revenge no matter what. Before you end up like this too.”
“How can you say that after killing my sister?”
Fair point, he thought.
It was a self-serving argument and it would sound shallow and idealistic no matter who it came from. When someone was boiling in the flames of vengeance, it did not matter how dangerous that vengeance would be. They could not rest until they succeeded.
“Fail in your revenge and you die. But even if you succeed, what you see before you is all it gets you.”
He spat out that truth. It was such a wasteful answer given all the lives cruelly taken. And now that he had learned the truth, he could not turn away from it.
He knew full well he could not recommend this path to anyone else.
“So I will stop you. No matter what it takes and no matter what anyone says! Natalena, I can’t let you face this dilemma!!”
Someone should have said this sooner.
At the very beginning.
Someone should have said it to Karuta’s group too.
And to Alice’s trio.
Someone should have prevented them from glorifying revenge as a noble goal. Someone should have stopped them before they had killed their first person and before it was too late. Someone should have dragged them away from the shadows and back out into the sun.
They had not had someone to stop them like that. Not that they would have listened while in the midst of their revenge. They would have gone mad with rage, decided that person was “one of them”, and added them to the list of targets. But even so, they had lacked someone who would silence those fools with their fists, show them an overwhelming power, and then rub their head, smile, and tell them everything would be okay.
Succeed or fail, revenge led to a dead end.
All who attempted it were doomed to sink into the depths of hell.
So he had to stop this young girl.
She could resent him, she could curse him, and she could spit on him.
But he would save her. He would give her enough of a future to eventually look back on it all and realize he had done the right thing. He knew where revenge led, so he would not back down here!!
“I took a loved one from you and words of apology will never bring them back.”
“So I don’t want to take anything more from you. Not a single thing. My hands are already stained with blood, so I won’t act like I’m in any position to give you anything, but I will put a stop to this to ensure you don’t lose anything more. I will end the chain of loss and violence here. And I’ll stoop to any level to do that!!!!!!”
Young Natalena pursed her lips.
As if to hold in what threatened to burst from her chest.
Then she whispered two simple words with a hand reaching for the Crystal Blossom on her flat chest.
He had failed to reach her.
Crystal armor appeared out of thin air and translucent units resembling long skis attached to her feet. Those weapons resembled spider legs or cranes, but they were the god of judgment’s scales. The wires and grab buckets allowed her to grab up to 16 things and swing them around as blunt weapons. Anubis, the Egyptian god of judgment, was the exact same god that Anastasia had once worshiped and relied on.
Aine started to raise her sword while standing alongside him, but he held his right arm out horizontally to stop her.
“Don’t, Aine,” he said without turning toward her.
“If you don’t like my orders, then cut me down with that sword. Right this instant.”
The look on Natalena’s face could not quite be described as smiling or weeping.
“If you’re trying to apologize, stop trying to look so cool!! You can start by crawling pitifully on the ground to make me feel better about this! I mean, this isn’t right. You’re a murderer! You have no moral high ground here, so you can’t talk down to me like this! I have the right to feel good about my revenge!! So…so why are you making me suffer like this!? Why are you making me feel like I’m doing something wrong!!!???”
Those words were like an epiphany to him.
He knew now why she had chosen Anubis, even if she may not have realized it herself.
“Wait, what did you just figure out? No, you can’t do this.”
“Anubis is a god of judgment. He assesses human souls and weighs them on his scales.”
Utagai Karuta’s legs gave out below him.
No, he took a knee and bowed his head in the presence of a god.
He looked through the trembling girl to the god of judgment within her.
“Anubis, I’m sorry.”
She had told him not to look cool and to crawl pitifully on the ground.
She was exactly right.
“I killed your partner. But the punishment for that belongs to me. So please don’t have this girl bloody her hands over it.”
She immediately kicked up a leg and had the crane unit grab a large mass of air using the grab bucket at the end of one of its wires, but that was all that happened.
It was not swung around.
She did not produce a weapon of wind.
She gently lowered her small leg.
Had Natalena Blast stopped herself? Nothing else should have been possible. Crystal Magic only sealed the god’s name in a small circuit board and did not call on the actual god the way God Worshiping Magic did.
But even so.
Something about this made Karuta feel like this was the direct result of him beseeching that deity.
Her voice was barely audible. Nothing remained of the intense emotion she had been forcibly maintaining before.
She could no longer keep it up. Even her translucent armor crumbled around her.
She bit her lip.
But the loss was still too much to bear, so tears filled the corners of her eyes and she spoke.
Almost like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“No fair passing the right of judgment onto someone else.”
Revenge was justified by converting your thoughts for the deceased into violence. It would lose its driving force if the deceased said to stop, but the dead could not speak. When seeking revenge for the dead, that absolute brake did not exist.
But Anastasia’s situation was different.
One of the pair remained.
Anubis, Egyptian god of judgment, had fought alongside Anastasia as part of the world’s strongest.
That was why Anastasia’s sister had chosen him.
But did he really see violence as the answer here?
This was the only way to stop her revenge. No blow could have been more powerful than the forgiveness of her sister’s partner.
It had been the same for Karuta’s group.
If Karuta had managed to speak with Kazamuki Gekiha once more and he had told him to stop that foolish quest for revenge, his spirit would have broken. He had been ready to betray the world and take on the strongest, but that attack was one that he could never have avoided.
He had said he would do whatever it took, so he had taken the girl’s right to justified revenge and handed it to Anubis instead.
“If you don’t go berserk here – if you can stop yourself from doing something unjust now that justified revenge has been taken from you, then you aren’t like Alice. It means you can still go back into the light of the sun.”
“You saw it through to the ugly end yourself!! You know revenge can work out in the end if you stick with it. Um, uh, but are you really saying I am worth rejecting everything you did to reach this point!?”
He smiled a little.
He felt like he had finally found a place for himself.
He was fine simply viewing that bright world from the shadows.
As long as he could provide a push back into the light when he found someone who had not crossed the point of no return.
Still, he carried the weight of the world’s strongest.
He would have to wear that crown without letting it crush him.
“Sacri-sama.” Aine seemed to have found something. She was looking in a different direction altogether. “Won’t this conclusion make her an enemy?”
That was enough to tell him who he would find in that direction.
She was the most reliable friend but she could also lose control in the worst possible way. Without her, his revenge would have failed very quickly, but without her, he would not have fallen this far either.
She had already activated her Crystal Magic armor.
Needless to say, she was not concerned about any of the fake Threats having survived. She was viewing a much more obvious target. That was the thing about her. She never considered the formless and unknown enemies.
Her own life was of secondary importance.
But when people she cared about would come to harm, Amaashi Marika would not hesitate to dirty her hands.
“Her revenge is over,” said Karuta in a weary voice.
“What proof of that do you have?”
He made an immediate decision.
Asking the other students or teachers for help here would be the height of folly. Not even Sophia Firenze or Kiyosawa Hadome could stop this fight. This was a clash between strongests. Marika did not care who else showed up. If they got in her way, she would mercilessly remove them from the equation.
That was the way the world worked.
And it worked that way because Karuta’s group had killed the Problem Solvers.
The twintails girl pointed at his face with her rapier-like unit.
“The mind is a fickle thing, so it’s easily swayed. She might not feel like taking revenge now, but the desire for vengeance might come back when she wakes up from her shallow sleep in the middle of the night. You’ve already seen what happens when an avenger goes off the rails, haven’t you? It doesn’t stop them. She’ll keep going and make you suffer in some way or another. Anyone after you for revenge must be eliminated, no matter how insignificant. And they must be eliminated in a way that leaves no room for swaying.”
This was a battle between friends.
It was the same ugly result reached by Riho, Sanae, and Alice.
Karuta was being drawn into the exact thing he had wanted to avoid.
But he could not stop it. And he knew why.
“Natalena is our top priority. Protect her even if it kills me.”
Aine’s mouth formed a small triangle as she kept her sword at the ready.
A clear change came over the look in Marika’s eyes, but he spoke all the same.
“Marika, you said people are easily swayed.”
“Then tell me. How can you trust me so much? You saw how cheap, persistent, and hopeless I am back when we fought the Problem Solvers.”
She did not even have to think about her answer.
“Because I know I can laugh and accept you no matter how much you might deceive me. That’s what it means to truly care about someone.”
Her words were accompanied by a slight smile.
It was true that she at least would not be swayed. She stuck with someone to the end. And it apparently had to be someone she felt that strongly about. He was touched, but it also explained why the list of people she would protect was so very short. She might even sink the new Grimnoah if it would protect Karuta or Kyouka. All while she claimed that was not the place for them.
At the same time, he found nothing to work with there.
He could beg her to trust Natalena because he did, but it would not reach her. She trusted him, not Natalena, so if he trusted Natalena and was betrayed, she would only see it as a “told you so” moment. She would only feel hatred for the deceiver and cut her down. The younger girl’s circumstances were irrelevant to her.
Worse, she was saying she would kill the girl before that could happen.
Because she did not want to even imagine seeing that boy soaked in blood and tears.
(It’s no good. There’s no way to stop this!)
This would not end like it had for Natalena Blast. Amaashi Marika had already successfully completed her revenge. She was tougher and surer of herself, so there was no opening there.
She was too much to handle.
And others might say the same about Utagai Karuta himself.
“Are you quite done?”
She spun her rapier around to shift the tip away from Karuta.
She directed it toward Natalena Blast, the 12-year-old girl who had lost her sister and her chance at revenge.
She did not hesitate.
“Then move out of the way. Be warned, try to protect her here and it will only mean more pain for you.”
“Sacri-sama, you may have forgotten, but my nonlethal mode for Grimnoah people is still in effect. This would be extremely challenging and is not recommended. Shall we continue nonetheless?”
“Of course we will!!”
It was time to steel himself. He stuck a hand in his blazer uniform and pulled out the modified military flashlight before stepping up beside Aine.
That positioned himself in front of the defanged and now harmless young girl.
He had sworn he would not take anything more from her. Not a single thing.
He had to live up to that.
“Aine, we need to work together to defeat Amaashi Marika, one of the world’s strongest! But don’t kill her, no matter what might happen!! I will never let you do that!!!!!!!”
Being known as the world’s strongest was fine and all, but what kind of world’s strongest did you want to be? That had to be where Utagai Karuta and Amaashi Marika’s opinions differed.
When someone was about to face tragedy, one of them wanted to reach out a helping hand before they fell.
When someone near and dear to them was in danger, one of them was willing to destroy everything else in the world to protect them.
They were both strong and just, but they were both selfish and willful.
That was what made them the strongest.
And they had a power great enough to push all else aside and stay true to their personal beliefs.
The two high schoolers roared at almost the same time.
That was enough for Natalena Blast to stare, forgetting that her own life was at risk here.
This was on an entirely different level.
She used her own Crystal Magic correctly since she had absorbed everything the teacher’s told her, even if only as a way of making sure no one suspected her true motives. But correct was all it was. She only had the skills necessary to score well on the tests, which was something else entirely from what was needed to overwhelm an opponent in actual combat.
Karuta and Marika’s battle was from another world altogether.
Their powers had been honed for the sole purpose of killing, so as inappropriate as it might be, their clash was more beautiful than anything. Just as newly-developed weapons were given an aesthetic beauty in addition to simple functionality and durability, since they had to represent the nation that used them.
That was what it meant to be the strongest.
Just like the largest warship and the fastest stealth fighter gave off an aura all their own, people gained various accolades as they rose to those heights.
Or perhaps being the strongest gave you the power to distort the world around you to accept what you were as beautiful. That was the greatest attraction found only in the world’s strongest. It was a devilish charm that could only be obtained by being #1. They both used Crystal Magic, but there was something fundamentally different between Natalena and Karuta.
That crown was once worn by Anastasia Blast, but it had been stolen by Utagai Karuta.
There were two things that Karuta had to stop.
The first was Amaashi Marika’s flight. He could not fly, so he wanted to avoid being unilaterally bombed from above. The second was the powerful laser sniping with her rapier-like unit. It attacked at the speed of light, so it was nearly impossible for Aine’s sword to block it. Marika’s target was Natalena, so she would not be aiming that at Karuta or Aine. If a laser slipped between the two of them and put a hole between Natalena’s eyes, Karuta would lose.
“I rush her!!”
He swallowed his fear and clenched his teeth while forcing himself toward the girl.
He was willing to use his Preset regeneration. He would move in and lock weapons with her even if it meant a severed arm. That was his only way of keeping her from acting freely.
Marika smiled while readying her rapier.
It was a belligerent smile.
They had known each other a long time and had overcome deadly battles together, so they knew each other’s smallest tendencies.
Aine’s voice sounded distorted even though she was right next to him.
Of course it did.
It felt like an explosion, but it was not.
He had attacked with his modified military flashlight and Aine with her sword, but Marika caught those things on her rapier and mercilessly activated the translucent armor that enhanced her strength. That led to a great eruption. Aine flipped sideways in a tailspin to let the vector safely escape her, but Karuta could not do the same and he was launched straight upwards. The pain was so great he thought his arms were going to pull out of his shoulders as he flew 100m up. His ears throbbed painfully from the rapid pressure change.
A voice whispered in his ear. After launching him, Amaashi Marika had used the full strength of her armor to easily leap up higher even than him.
“You’re really weak for a Crystal Magician.”
He shouted her name on reflex yet still adjusted his grip on the flashlight, but he immediately realized that was a mistake. Only he cared about settling things with her. His childhood friend’s top priority target was not him.
In other words, she was going to bomb Natalena Blast who stood in a daze back on the ground.
He immediately revised his plan and shouted into the Crystal Blossom on his chest.
His own safety was of secondary importance.
“Aine!! Watch out for a laser bombing!! Us the snow below your feet!!”
The lag was less than a second, but Aine was faster. She used the jitte-like laser bayonet on the back of her sword to perform a horizontal sweep across the artificial land. The point was to evaporate the thick layer of snow on top.
White steam erupted upwards and that makeshift smokescreen hid Aine and Natalena from view.
Marika’s rapier fired a powerful laser beam down, but…
“The bombing has been diverted. Shall we play dead?”
“Don’t ask that when she’s close enough to overhear, you moron!!”
Yes, a laser was incredibly hard to dodge since it flew at the speed of light, but it did have its weaknesses. It would be weakened by any impurities in the air, like sand or moisture, and it could be bent or diverted by the temperature differences and other factors that caused mirages.
But if Marika continued to fire, she would eventually score a clean hit.
She was in the sky and that was the first thing that had to be changed.
“I’m stronger than you, so did you really think you could win? When you have no wings or engine to use?”
“Kh!! Aine, take care of this!!”
With an explosive sound, Marika began a roundhouse kick motion, but Karuta was hit from below. The ocean of white steam was instantly blown away, revealing countless destroyed Threats on the surface. Aine had stuck her hand in the destroyed armor of a black scorpion one and launched the anti-air explosion created from the combination of a pellet and laser.
She had reduced the power a lot, but the blast still hit him hard, causing him to bounce unnaturally up in defiance of gravity.
The upward movement let him dodge the girl’s roundhouse kick and he also spun his body around like a figure skater. He of course still held the flashlight in his hand.
He had no wings or engine.
But he still accurately targeted that aerial queen’s temple with the blunt weapon in his hand.
“Should I have given you a free hit?”
Her voice was already distorting.
He had no idea what had happened. All of a sudden, defenseless Marika’s body dissolved into flowing lines and a heavy blow stabbed into his spine from an impossible blind spot.
That was probably the rapier’s pommel.
“Even if you had hit, the Barrier’s spatial vibration field would have kept any damage from reaching me.”
Crystal Magic flight was not reliant on lift. How was he supposed to keep up with that? His breath was knocked from his lungs and his mind flashed in and out, preventing him from keeping his balance. He entered a wild tailspin high up in the sky.
He worked his oxygen-deprived lungs to let out a shout like he was coughing up blood.
Another explosion erupted on the surface.
He fell from a height of 100m, but he bounced in midair like an invisible cushion had caught him. That converted the potential energy to the equivalent of falling about 20m.
Still, 20m was the same as falling from the 5th or 6th floor of a building. After his unnatural bounce, he flew along a curving path Marika had not expected before plummeting down toward the ground.
The white ground spread out before his eyes.
But this was ice, not snow. He was above the frozen sea.
(I just have to avoid hitting with my head!!)
He had no control over his flight, but he swung his left arm just before impact to intentionally unbalance himself. Instead of falling on his head, he crashed into the ice with his shoulder.
He broke through the 80cm layer of ice and into the ocean below.
He thought his entire body was going to break apart.
His shoulder was entirely crushed and he could tell the thick bone had ended up deep inside his torso.
The pain was so great he actually could not pass out.
A fall from 20m created enough force to break right through ice thick enough for a 300kg polar bear to walk around on. A normal person would have died if they were submerged with a wound that bad.
But Utagai Karuta was not normal.
No matter how gruesome the wound, Crystal Magic would regenerate it in 30 seconds as long as it was not fatal.
Marika must have realized that.
Several lines of light broke through the ice above to attack.
He held his breath to continue hiding below the thick ice. The laser sniping had poor aim, most likely due to the oceanwater between them. It was the same as experiments run by passing light through a tank of water, and this water had waves.
He was submerged in the frigid ocean with his clothes still on. And even if he was righthanded, nearly his entire left half was covered in distorted crystal. It was much like the lesson he had given the kids back at Grimnoah. He had to focus on balancing himself to avoid spinning in the water.
Also, escaping to the surface would not help with an 80cm roof overhead. Crystal Magic regeneration could heal most any wound, but it could not provide him with oxygen.
He needed to figure something out himself.
Fortunately, this was not enough to interfere with the transmission from his Crystal Blossom.
He heard a cracking sound as the crystal covering half his body broke away, meaning he could move his arm again. That was convenient, but it also meant he had spent 30s in this frigid water. He barely had any air left in his mouth.
(I’ve been stuck relying on Aine this whole time!)
Marika wore her translucent armor, so he did not need to feel bad for making use of his own equipment, but he still clenched his teeth. He needed to open his mouth to speak, so he could not afford to fail here. He took action by releasing his remaining oxygen into the sea.
“Aine! Begin anti-air fire on Marika. Use metal shells this time!! 20-30mm autocannon class ones. You need quantity, not detailed calculations!!”
“That will have no effect on her.”
“I don’t want it to. Your nonlethal mode is still in effect. Now fire!!”
He heard muffled explosions through the water.
An ordinary assault rifle would be stopped by the spatial vibration field, but this had to be more than that. When Marika deflected them with her rapier or something, they would crash down into the thick ice, cracking and breaking it.
Shells poured down on the ocean.
(With just the one hole, she could aim there and fire once I surfaced, but with cracks everywhere, she won’t know where to expect me!!)
His head burst above the water and he took in a lungful of oxygen.
But he did not feel much in the way of relief.
The moment he touched the open air, his hair and eyelashes rapidly froze. It could be easy to forget while underwater, but this was an icy hell of -15 degrees.
Was it Student Council President Kyouka who had said he could lose an ear?
He would not last long.
This needed to be a short battle. He moved his trembling fingers to grab at the jagged edge of the white ice floating in the ocean. It was only 50-60cm up from the ocean surface, but if the different pieces of ice happened to pinch together while they rocked in the waves, he would be crushed.
It was a risky climb.
And once he crawled back up onto the icy land, he found his childhood friend smiling and crouched on the edge.
One of her icy hands grabbed at his throat and she stood up, as if stretching out her folded-up legs. He was dangling from her grip like a bluefin tuna on the fishing rod. He clutched at the hand on his neck and kicked at her thighs to knock her off balance, but she would not budge.
“Like I said: you’re weak.”
He had no way of arguing with that. She did not even need to strangle him or apply just a bit of force to snap his neck. If she kept things like this, he would freeze to death in the icy wind after just a few minutes.
“If you could send Aine-chan in on her own, you would be stronger than anyone. But since your command range is limited and you have to be on the battlefield with her, you have no defense if the enemy focuses on you. Especially when Aine-chan can only do what she’s ordered to do. It scares me to think what she would be like if she had those specs and could act autonomously with a mind like the President’s.”
“You’re unique as a Crystal Magician, but special doesn’t necessarily mean better. Straying from the standard path is an inherently risky choice.”
He heard something like cracking plastic.
His purple blazer uniform was freezing, starting from the outermost edges. At this rate, it would freeze to his skin and he would develop severe frostbite.
He heard another voice.
His vision darkened with despair.
The person standing there should not have been there. Natalena Blast was trembling and had tears in her eyes. Where had Aine gone? What could Natalena do against Marika with just her crystal armor and Anubis’s scales of judgment to work with?
“Please stop this!!”
The air roared as it was torn apart, but this was not Natalena’s doing.
Well before her ski-like scales could split apart into crane arms and thin wires, Marika’s rapier accurately pierced her crystal weapon. The scream of shattering glass may have been the sound of the special vibration field breaking. Cracks also ran through her cold armor and it began to shatter, but Marika did not wait around. She broke and shattered every last one of the translucent weapons resembling spider legs.
She seemed to be doing it as an afterthought.
Natalena could grab solids, liquids, gasses, and plasma, but not even she could reach Marika’s level.
It seemed to demonstrate the divide between a strongest and just another part of the group.
Marika did not even glance in Natalena’s direction. She still held Karuta’s neck in her hand while she spun her rapier around in the other hand and made short work of Natalena’s weapons.
“Don’t worry.” She spoke coldly to this person who was not her childhood friend. “And make no mistake. I held your life in my hands from the beginning. Nothing you do here can influence whether or not you survive this.”
She was desperate now.
Young Natalena was not stopped by her shattered armor. She charged right at Marika. She was struck by the rapier’s guard, pummeled by the bottom of the grip, and knocked to the snow over and over. The point was aimed her way and she was stabbed in the shoulder or side, but she still kept at it. Seeing it was enough to squeeze at Karuta’s heart.
Natalena Blast was battered and beaten, but she would not stop.
She clenched her teeth, suppressed the fear, and kept getting back to her feet. He felt certain she would have done the same even without the Crystal Magic regeneration.
But she was not doing any of it to protect herself.
“Let go!! Let go of Utagai Karuta! If you want to kill me, then just do it! He was already forgiven! My sister’s Anubis forgave him! We clenched our teeth and stopped the chain of violence. So what are you doing!? Call yourself the strongest or whatever else, but there’s no more reason to make anyone suffer! So why!?”
She had forgiven her enemy and given up on revenge.
In fact, she was even risking her life and shedding tears for the person she had so hated.
That was something Karuta’s group had never managed to do.
She held his throat tight enough for him to suffocate or even to snap his neck, but when he got out a groaning voice, his focus was not on himself.
“Are you still going to kill Natalena? She isn’t like us. She has far more humanity left. What right do we have to judge her when we couldn’t stop ourselves from reaching the end!!”
“I will if necessary.”
That was all Marika said.
She did not waver in the slightest.
He could not allow her to veer off course like this. If she killed Natalena based on her own personal rules, it truly was over for her. It might be hypocritical after what they had done, but he had to teach her that no one here had the right to judge someone like that, no matter how much they had suffered.
(I…have to end this.)
Marika had descended from the air and he assumed that was to avoid any more largescale anti-air attacks using the remains of the decoy Threats.
But this was the last chance to fight back against her.
(If she takes flight again and buys time up there, I’m done for. There will be nothing I can do to protect Natalena, so I have to end it here!!)
“I can imagine you want to end this here, but how exactly do you plan to do that?” The girl who knew him better than anyone said something horrifying. “There is no end in a battle between Crystal Magicians. Blow off some limbs or tear into their side and they’ll just regenerate it all in less than 30 seconds. So the only way to end this is to provide a fatal blow. It’s the only way.”
“I win as long as I kill Natalena Blast, but what about you? I won’t stop no matter what you do, so are you willing to deliver a fatal blow to stop me?”
He had been fundamentally mistaken here.
He knew this was psychological warfare meant to break his spirit, but he could not just ignore what she said.
Marika had a concrete win condition, but he did not.
He could not possibly kill his childhood friend, which was why he had ordered Aine to remain in nonlethal mode. He wanted to save Natalena, but he could not offer up someone else’s life instead. And Marika was endlessly coldhearted about this. She was willing to earn his hatred as long as she could protect him. She would even take herself hostage.
He was trapped.
He never had had a path to victory here.
“Let’s end this silly game,” spat out his childhood friend with a look colder than ice. She was no longer even looking at Natalena while the girl cried and grabbed at her. As if she did not even consider the girl a fellow human being. “Karuta, I kind of like how open to change you are, but that’s exactly why someone has to protect you or you could never survive in this world. We didn’t ask for this, but now that we’re at the top, we have to live here.”
He had to think.
He desperately worked his oxygen-deprived mind while she held him up by the neck.
He had to correct things from here. How could he turn this into a win? This battle would never end unless one or the other of them had received a fatal wound. How could he save both Marika and Natalena under those rules?
Revenge was a fruitless act.
For the avenger, for the target, and for everyone else.
What condition did he need to bring an end to that chain of violence!?
“Natalena Blast isn’t the world’s strongest, but anyone who isn’t has the right to challenge and defeat us,” said Marika. “So I will show no mercy here. No matter how powerless the challenger, I will destroy any and all who try to tear apart our world.”
How was that any different from what the Problem Solvers had done when they decided Crystal Magic was unnecessary and decided to nip it in the bud.
No matter what anyone said, Marika was his childhood friend.
He could not allow her to go down that path. And the strongest who was always with him had already told him how he could turn this around and win. His eyes were squarely on Amaashi Marika who sent a cold look back at him.
Why had she started talking at all?
If executing Natalena Blast was her top priority, she should have ignored him as he crawled half-dead from the ocean and she should have used that time to slice the 12-year-old girl to pieces. Even now, Natalena was thoughtlessly clinging to her in an explosion of emotion, so a single jab of her rapier would skewer the girl and give Marika what she wanted. So why?
The answer was obvious.
He just had to think back on what she had said. Something was missing there.
“Why drag this out when you know you won’t kill me? Delay too long out in this cold and you’ll freeze to death.”
That was why Marika was doing this.
Nothing she had said was a lie. But she had avoided mentioning her own Achilles’ heel. Killing Natalena was her win condition, but what was her lose condition? Failing to kill Natalena was not the answer.
To break Karuta’s spirit, she could not allow him to figure this out.
So he only had to shout at the crystal girl who could operate separate from him.
“Aine, cut right through my neck to cut off Marika’s arm!!”
There was a distorted breath, like someone’s throat had convulsed.
Bu it did not come from Karuta, who had given the order, or Aine, who had received it.
It did not even come from astonished Natalena who was desperately trying to stop the twintails girl.
There was only one person left.
Marika had the upper hand while lifting the boy up by his throat, but she had the look of someone who had just been run through with a sharp blade.
“I would, Marika. This was never about you hating Natalena Blast,” he roared with a grin.
Yes, she had used herself as a hostage and he had learned just how effective a tactic that could be.
“You want to eliminate anything that threatens those you care about. That is what drives you! So without me, you lose any reason to kill Natalena. Marika, you’re smart, but trying to hide that lose condition only accentuated the fear behind it!!”
“You can’t do it.”
She was nearly laughing.
No, she had tried to laugh and failed. She could not suppress the emotion she wanted to hide behind the laughter. She had even forgotten about Natalena grabbing at her hips.
Yes, because this issue was far more important than her target.
“You can’t possibly do it!! Is this textbook righteousness? Or do you feel guilty about what you did to Anastasia? You only met Natalena a few days ago! It’s wrong to throw away your life for someone you barely know!!”
That childhood friend valued the length of a relationship above all else, so this had to be truly unbelievable for her.
“If you really believe that, then why did you hide your lose condition?”
“You knew that old softy Utagai Karuta might do it. That subconscious fear led you to hide that worst possibility. So that’s exactly what I’ll do. Listen, Marika. It isn’t just Natalena Blast I’m trying to protect. I want to protect you from this blood on your hands!! We hated the Problem Solvers so much we went around killing every last one of them, so we can’t afford to be led astray!! We have to bring happiness to the world we created. We stand at the top, so we have to get along with Natalena and the others who couldn’t stand at the top!! If we force people to go without happiness or trample on people’s happiness, then we aren’t any better than the Problem Solvers!!!!!!”
For that, he was willing to offer up his life. He did not care what happened to him.
He gathered his last ounce of strength to put on a smile with his neck still in her grasp. Marika’s smile had grown twisted as she tried to hide her fear, but his was a pure and kind smile.
Natalena was trembling and clinging to Marika’s hips for a different reason than before. She seemed to be staring at something that would pay them a silent visit in the near future.
“You can’t do that!! Amaashi-senpai, um, isn’t there anything you can do!?”
Something was indeed approaching from behind Marika.
His weapon approached with a crystal sword in hand.
“I win,” he said.
“Cry and wail all you like, but don’t expect human emotion or standards to reach Aine. You yourself said all she can do is follow my orders and only I can call her off. So, Marika, the only way to cancel Aine’s execution command is to kill me.”
The crystal armor, the Preset regeneration, and the rest of Marika’s magic would generally only protect her. Even the barrier was not perfect. If Aine attacked with all her might, Marika might be able to defeat her. But Karuta would die if the crystal girl got even one attack in before then.
He thought of her as a kind girl.
She could say and do some extreme things, but she generally only ever thought about others. He would protect her no matter what. She only looked so frightening because her blade was directed at him. She provided the greatest sense of comfort when she was using that to protect him.
This parched world could use a hero like that.
But if she was going to stay true to herself, he would not hesitate to do the same.
Just as she was the strongest in her own way, he could be the strongest in his own way.
His idea of the strongest was not to slaughter all else and stand tall in a giant pool of blood.
It was to stop all hopeless conflict no matter what toll it took on him.
Would she do nothing and watch as Aine killed the boy, or would she kill Karuta to remove that execution command? Both options ended the same way. That ultimate sadist brought tears to the eyes of the kind girl who had been by his side as far back as he could remember. And that absolute scum said one last thing with a smile on his face.
“This is goodbye.”
There was nothing she could do.
Aine’s sword swung down at max speed and severed Marika’s arm at the wrist, translucent armor and all.
The deadly blade mercilessly and silently passed right through Utagai Karuta’s neck.
“Hmm, I see.”
Elsewhere, Student Council President Omotesandou Kyouka muttered to herself in a knowing sort of way.
She was toying with a phone.
Needless to say, this was not a commercial device. It was an indiscriminate signal interceptor that connected to multiple mobile routers, gathered the many EM signals flying around, and decrypted them.
(She was given Anastasia Blast’s secrets and sent to the Second Grimnoah with a new identity. I had thought Natalena was fairly ineffectual for how much information and support the string pullers provided.)
If they were powerful enough to rewrite someone’s identity at will, they also could have disguised a military elite or an intelligence agent as a student or teacher and sent them to Grimnoah. There was no need to rely on Crystal Magic if they were only interested in killing. The assassination would be much easier using invisible germs, gas, or radiation.
This was Anastasia’s sister.
Kyouka had thought the string pullers might be using that avenger and her obvious motive as a symbol to inspire more people to fight back. But their communications had been cut off early on and the string pullers had made no attempt to restore them. If that was their goal, they should have been spreading word of it far and wide, but there was no sign of that happening.
“They never expected anything from her.”
Kyouka smiled bitterly at how dry her voice sounded.
She had realized there was no going back for her.
(They were trying to tear us apart over how we would deal with Natalena once we defeated her. Come to think of it, we even considered that possibility early on. I thought that threat had passed once Karuta-kun smoothed things over for us, but I guess that’s still the crux of the issue.)
She tapped her wheelchair’s armrest with the corner of the phone.
(Maybe I dug too deep here. They seem to be rather short-tempered for how thick a veil they used to hide their true face. How childish.)
She had always been considering the human string pullers more than the Threat or the avenger who used Crystal Magic. She had created this signal interceptor out of a phone and mobile routers in order to steal away the digital information of the pursuer who never seemed to leave them alone.
And that had angered them.
She did not know exactly who they were, but…
(If they felt the need to act, I must be getting close.)
She actually saw this situation as an opportunity, but that may have been why she worked so well as the Student Council President at the top of Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Grimnoah.
(If you’re afraid of someone digging deeper, the best thing to do is show no reaction at all and let it pass. They may have thought they won this round, but they’ve only dug their own graves. Now I have a destination, so I only have to follow the path displayed to me.)
Whatever the case, now was the time to act.
She had only just arrived on the correct path, but if she ran out of strength now, she could never hope to reach that destination. She did not know how the battle between Karuta and Marika would turn out, but if they could not overcome this, there was no chance of victory left.
“Will the conflict bring us closer in the end, or will it tear us apart? That alone will change the fate of the world.”
The flump of something hitting the ground was shockingly soft.
White snow had accumulated on the icy land and someone had fallen limply into it.
Aine had mechanically obeyed her instructions. After the follow-through of her sword swing, she kicked at the deep snow to maintain her stance.
Amaashi Marika was not staring at her severed hand.
That did not matter.
But not because it would regenerate. She had never even been placing her own life on the scales.
Small crystal shards were scattered everywhere.
The boy had collapsed into the thick snow. The snow was so deep she could not see the wound, but there was no questioning what happened. She had been holding his neck and Aine had severed that hand from behind him. Slicing off her hand like that would require the sword to pass through his neck.
His head had been severed.
Even if it could be hard tell given the lack of blood caused by the distorted crystal covering everything.
The Preset regeneration would heal any non-mortal wound in 30 seconds.
But that did not apply to the mortal ones.
With his head removed from his body, there was no saving him.
Would it be centuries? Millennia?
At the very least, she could never speak to him again in her lifetime.
The girl screamed and her legs crumpled beneath her.
Natalena was still clinging to her, so she was pulled down too and unintentionally ended up with her arms around Marika’s head. But she was not really that strong in the face of such horror, so once she began to wobble, she lost her balance and they both collapsed fully into the snow.
Her voice was weak.
But Marika did not care about Natalena Blast who had tried to protect Karuta no matter what or Aine who was tilting her head and awaiting further orders. She had to protect that boy at all costs. If violence would not bring him back, then she no longer had any reason to wield it.
But the boy must not have considered whether or not his childhood friend would be able to find a new reason to drive her actions once he took away her old one.
He had broken her.
She was broken.
One of the world’s strongest had their very core bent and mercilessly shattered. She could feel it so clearly inside herself. She screamed and screamed, but it never even occurred to her to turn her rapier toward her own throat. Even suicide required some kind of driving force behind it. With all her hope lost, she could not even seek revenge. She would simply stop moving at all and wait for the end to come.
At first, she thought it was a trick of the wind.
“Do you get it now, Marika?”
But it was not.
She clearly heard that voice. She hesitantly turned toward it with tears covering her face.
“U-um.” Natalena hesitantly spoke up as well.” Amaashi-senpai, um! Something isn’t right. Isn’t that girl his Crystal Magic!?”
Yes. Crystal Girl Aine was tilting her head like normal while holding the sword that had killed the boy. She was awaiting further orders. She looked so different, but she was still Crystal Magic. Marika had never heard of a Crystal Magician’s armor remaining after their death.
What did that mean?
In a panicked frenzy, she threw aside her rapier-like device and crawled over to dig up the snow.
“Wait!! Are you kidding me!?”
She pulled out Utagai Karuta’s head.
But it was not alone. She did not know how, but it was still connected to the rest of him.
She simply had not noticed before because he had collapsed into the deep snow and then Aine had kicked the snow to cover up his head. The crystal shards scattered by her own severed hand had made it look all the more like he had been decapitated.
The half-frozen boy smiled weakly as he spoke.
“This will always be a card in my deck. Every single time you begin a rampage, I’ll throw that sucker right down on the table. I didn’t go through with it this time, but I really will shatter your hope next time.”
“But…how?” She still found it hard to believe and she looked like she was trapped in a bad dream. “Aine-chan’s sword must have passed through your neck to cut off my hand! There’s no other way she could have done it from that position!”
“I do not have a core or main body. ‘Aine’ refers to everything from my heart to the tip of my sword,” answered Aine with her head still tilted. “I am generally stored within Sacri-sama’s body, only emerging when needed. So everything from my heart to the tip of my sword can be contained within his body.”
A silly-sounding gasp escaped Marika’s mouth.
“I stored the sword in the back of his neck and pulled it back out from the front.” Aine was as emotionless as a machine, making it sound like she had simply passed the blade through the water’s surface. “That allowed me to accurately sever your arm without harming his neck.”
He had not had time for such a complex command.
He had only told her to “cut right through my neck to cut off Marika’s arm”.
But that was with another factor already in place.
“He had left me in nonlethal mode for everyone from Grimnoah.”
“Wait, you mean…?” said Natalena.
That command went back to when he had first met and defeated her.
And that command naturally included Utagai Karuta himself.
So Aine had needed to obey his verbal command without violating that older command. He had used those multiple conditions to accurately control her.
The pale girl moved her eyebrows in a troubled way.
The human concepts of good and evil really did not apply to that crystal girl.
“It would have been much easier without that in place. To be blunt, I really wish someone would convince him that unnecessary restrictions to my combat are a pain to deal with because I have had no luck trying to explain it to him myself.”
That was why he had survived.
He still had his life.
But something had happened here. Even if his childhood friend was not physically harmed, his faked death must have psychologically scarred her.
And he had told her he would play that card whenever she tried something like this.
He said he really would break her next time.
“Do you want to keep going?”
He was half frozen and held in the arms of that sobbing girl, but he did not hold back.
Just like he could never kill her, he had stopped her by completely breaking her spirit.
“Aine, cancel nonlethal mode. You can go for the kill next time.”
Aine replied coldly.
The silly practice round was over, so it would be real next time.
“With that unnecessary burden lifted from my shoulders, nothing can stop me next time.”
That loophole was gone now. If he told Aine to kill him, she would do so. Marika’s actions here could lead to the severing of a bond a decade and a half old. So Karuta was asking her if she was still going to insist on this silly battle between two strongests.
He saw the fresh trauma there and tore into that still-bleeding wound.
He was asking her if she would make that fear real this time.
This was no longer the world’s strongest.
The person holding half-frozen Karuta was no more than a weeping girl who had nearly been forever separated from someone she cared about more than anyone in the world.
“No, no, please noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!”
“Yeah,” groaned Utagai Karuta.
He had won. He had successfully stopped Amaashi Marika.
But when had he become someone who would feel victorious after bringing his childhood friend to tears? That was like slapping a small child on the cheek or kicking an old man in his bent back. It was a taboo one must never commit.
Something had changed in him.
Someone had changed him without him even noticing. He could only reach one conclusion based on everything he had seen while hunting down the Problem Solvers and everything he had glimpsed behind the scenes afterwards.
This was something he doubted any of Anastasia’s group had said out loud but that all of them must have felt deep down.
“Being the world’s strongest is a curse.”
And thus their icy survival field trip came to an end.
But there were a few problems needing solving before they returned.
Once the pressing danger was gone, people apparently became irresponsibly kind. The other Crystal Beach domes opened their gates despite having locked out the Grimnoah students and teachers before.
The middle and high school kids were none too pleased with those people after being locked out and forced to battle the decoy Threats in the frigid outdoors, but they could not resist the pleasure of a space kept at a comfortable temperature and humidity as well as plenty of food to go around. Perhaps the return to normalcy had returned them to being humans instead of weapons.
Two of them were currently inside a rented-out conference room in a large hotel built in that artificial summer.
However, it was rarely if ever used for meetings. It would be more well-known for hosting press conferences.
“What is it?”
The 12-year-old blonde girl named Natalena Blast shrank down nervously.
She could not look the Student Council President in the eye.
“Why haven’t you handcuffed me? I was trying to kill you.”
“Hmm, but what did you actually do? Even ordinary kids will shout ‘die’ or ‘I’ll kill you’, so are you suggesting we arrest them all on charges of attempted murder or criminal conspiracy?”
“M-more than 30 people died and you’re still going to forgive me?”
“Do you…?” Even now, the older girl drew out her words smoothly. “Do you really think I don’t feel anything from this? When I suddenly have an unnatural opening on the Student Council?”
“But I know blaming you will accomplish nothing, so don’t worry about it.” Omotesandou Kyouka laughed and revealed a cruel truth. “The shadowy figures pulling all the strings never expected you to accomplish anything.”
“They knew you would lose and they were hoping the question of how to deal with Anastasia’s sister would tear us apart. So doesn’t it seem wrong to define you as an avenger? The people who sent you here never really saw you that way.”
Why was the girl so reluctant to give in on this point?
If Kyouka reversed her opinion on a whim, Natalena really would end up behind bars.
Given the social effects if it had succeeded, an attempted assassination of the world’s strongest would likely receive a greater punishment than a normal crime. And it would be too late to change her mind once it happened.
If she still could not stand this treatment, then she really had been a bad fit.
She was critically lacking in talent for evil deeds.
Omotesandou Kyouka let a true smile appear on her lips concerning that.
That honest girl could not match the kind of wicked genius found in this girl who had seen it through to the end. Kyouka’s group had just about corrupted this person who would be much more at home in the sunlight.
That was what Utagai Karuta had been trying to prevent.
The world’s strongest could get away with those things.
They might cause the occasional tragedy or trample on people’s happiness, but it all fell within the acceptable bounds.
But if they let the world work that way again, they would have lost.
That would have led straight to the cold crossroads that Anastasia and the other Problem Solvers had found. The only options remaining to them would lead to death, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
“You aren’t going to give up your Crystal Magic, are you?”
“Or is it Anubis you want to hold onto? To remember your sister by.”
Natalena did not seem to have an answer.
None of this would be easy for her to accept, but since she had never been the type for revenge, forcing that engine to keep running would have been even more difficult for her. For better or for worse, she had spent too much time with the target of her revenge. She should have attacked without even thinking about his situation or circumstances, but then she had seen his agony, tears, pride, and anger.
So she could not do it.
She could not load the engine with what little fuel she had left.
“If you are still trapped in revenge – or would like to be – I recommend joining us here. As a Grimnoah student, I mean.” She spoke like she was inviting the girl to join her for tea. “We are the ones who directly killed Anastasia Blast, but it was someone else who gave her the push that placed her on that battlefield. Someone else who wanted to pit those two magics against each other and profit from it while they safely remained elsewhere. So. Do you have any desire to get to the bottom of that with us?”
That had been Kyouka’s stance from the beginning.
She simply had not cared if it was accomplished by building trust or by dragging it out of the girl with torture.
Young Natalena could not have learned so much about Anastasia’s God Worshiping Magic on her own and she could not have faked her identity to sneak into the Second Grimnoah. Someone else was pulling the strings and Kyouka wanted to get as much out of the girl as possible.
Utagai Karuta had evidently kept his promise.
Now she would not have to play that more unpleasant card.
The counterattack could begin.
The key to it all, Natalena Blast, hesitantly began to speak.
“When I learned that Anastasia was dead, um, I was contacted by…”
Karuta was in the B World dome’s medical office.
Altogether, the several domes were about the same as a normal city, so the medical office was the size of a small general hospital. They would heal most wounds in 30 seconds, but his lost blood and body heat would not come back. It had helped a lot to get him in a warm bed with a blood pack.
“Got anything to say for yourself?”
“I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
Amaashi Marika was fully apologetic for once.
That was precisely when the President entered his room.
“Karuta-kun and Marika-chan, are you all packed up? We need to return to Grimnoah ASAP. Is Aine-chan inside you, Karuta-kun?”
“No, I gave her some free time, so she’s probably wandering around somewhere around here. What’s the rush?”
“I have some new info.”
That changed Karuta and Marika’s expressions.
They knew what Omotesandou Kyouka had been investigating. And with Natalena on their side, she might have given them some valuable information on the string pullers working behind the scenes.
Except those expectations were shattered by the true cruelty of the world.
“The Threat has appeared now of all times. And this time, they’re probably real.”
This was entirely different.
And it was not something they could ignore. How deep did the string pullers’ influence go? Did they fear the Threat, or were they manipulating the Threat as well? That was still a mystery, but an attack now suggested the Threat was being used in some way.
Marika spoke up in a cautious way.
“Come to think of it, we never did find out where the real Threat is or what they’ve been doing since we defeated the Problem Solvers.”
“So where are they?” asked Karuta. “Does the real Threat have enough intelligence to locate critical targets in their fight against us humans? Like a petroleum storage base or a nuclear power plant?”
Kyouka shook her head.
Hadn’t she said they needed to return to Grimnoah ASAP?
In other words…
“Osaka Bay. Specifically, on the ocean floor near the Port of Kobe.”
“You don’t mean…?”
Karuta was speechless.
If that was true, this was no time to be pursuing the world’s mysteries. They were being held up as the world’s strongest, but how many steps behind were they!?
“It can’t be!!”
Omotesandou Kyouka did not deny his worst fears here.
They had been there all along.
How could they call that ship a symbol of humanity’s resistance? They were the only ones who had not noticed the truth.
“They have silently gathered directly below Ocean Crystal Magic Academy Second Grimnoah. An army of the true Threat managed to amass so stealthily the bay’s sonobuoys failed to notice.”
This is Kamachi Kazuma.
Hooray, it’s Volume 2!! Thank you for letting this become a series!! To celebrate this second volume, I wanted to do some worldbuilding by first establishing their school life in the new Grimnoah and then doing a major school event. That’s why I had gym clothes, school swimsuits, and such appearing so early on. For the field trip, I wanted a nice place that could be both midsummer and midwinter, so I invented that artificial beach that is something like eating ice cream in a kotatsu.
The opening Grimnoah part might seem unrelated to the rest at first glance, but I made sure to include some important setup there, such as the nonlethal mode and the flying in through windows.
The overall theme of the series is revenge, but I switched things up a bit this time and had Karuta’s group caught up in someone else’s revenge instead. I think that showed things from a different angle than in Volume 1.
I also focused more on showing the twisted side of revenge instead of the glorified version commonly depicted in fiction.
Karuta’s group might have ended up that way too.
In a way, they were lucky in their revenge since they could focus only on killing their targets. Each chapter of Volume 1 started with a comedy part (as part of the repetitive structure I included to mimic samurai stories) and those parts were necessary for them to keep fighting against the Problem Solvers. This volume should have shown you what would have happened without that.
Revenge requires trust, friendship, and unwavering feelings.
As you can see from Karuta’s shock, I think that is a fairly ironic concept. But I think it also shows how characters can head down the path of evil when they might have been heroes had they made the right choice. People cannot always apply their strength toward the correct goal. And the biggest reason those three lost was their inability to trust in the path they had chosen for themselves, even if it took them in the wrong direction. But depending on your way of thinking, I bet some of you will think it is better to stick with it to the end like Karuta’s group and some of you will think it is better to give up partway through like those three.
I pictured Natalena Blast not so much as someone who was not yet ready for revenge, but someone who would never be the vengeful type yet was forced on that path.
And by introducing such a good girl as part of Anastasia’s family, I thought it could hint at a different side of the former world’s strongest. Anastasia was driven to the edge all alone, but she never chose to rely on her family. Why didn’t she? No, why couldn’t she? I hope you could guess at the answer from the way Natalena continued to adore her sister even after being pushed away and not allowed to play a role in what happened.
I think Natalena’s presence shows that Karuta’s group had a few rules they refused to break in their revenge, even though they could be so merciless when they chose to do something.
Yes, they did not track down the family of their revenge targets and take them hostage.
I felt that was a necessity in order to make their revenge feel more righteous. They also rejected an effective plan for their attack on Elicia because it would have affected a helicopter pilot who was not part of their revenge. I thought I could show how oddly clean they wanted to keep things by having them take on extra risk with little detours like that.
I ended Natalena’s revenge by having Karuta confess his sin to Anubis, but how did you like that bit of extra flavoring? That was not strictly speaking a magical ceremony, but I thought it still had some meaning in the sense of borrowing a god’s name to perform magic. You can be the judge of that.
With the Threat, it might help to imagine how the Problem Solvers survived fighting against them. They used a dinosaur, a spear of light, a giant sword, regeneration, and magic, so you might be able to see what kind of battle was expected of those strongests.
If something attacked humanity in some way that rendered our existing militaries powerless, I just know some people would rejoice as they used it as an inspiration to develop new weapons. And since I had already established that cyborg tech on Susannia’s level exists in this world, I knew I had to go for it.
The final boss of the volume was her, but in a battle between Crystal Magicians, you end up with the dilemma you saw: the Preset regeneration prevents it from ever ending until one side or the other receives a fatal wound.
I focused on breaking people’s spirits this time, but it will probably also give you some ideas about how to deal with rule violations within a giant community like Grimnoah.
By the way, which of the Four Living Gods – Karuta, Aine, Marika, and Kyouka – did you think was the most twisted? I think Aine is mostly just cute, including her complaint about Karuta at the end of Chapter 4. I think the truly frightening one is Kyouka who still hasn’t aggressively yelled at her enemies or the clueless people around her despite everything she was involved in during these two volumes. Which is what makes her my favorite.
A lot of you will probably think Marika’s friendship(?) is too overbearing, but she is a childhood friend, which means her powerful bond to Karuta came from nothing more than geographical proximity at a young age. That relationship remained as they left home and moved to Grimnoah, which I think had to be the result of her powerful attachment, not just a natural turn of events. She did not want them to drift apart after they moved away from their childhood homes.
She was willing to make a lot of enemies to protect her small little world.
She was willing to bloody her hands to avoid losing something she cared about.
I think that too is a type of righteousness and a type of strongest. If that sends a chill down your spine, it is because the world of this series allows for more than the pure sort of righteousness. Even the Problem Solvers could be seen as the samurai in a samurai story when viewed from the right angle. Not that that’s any comfort to the people they cut down because “that’s the way of things” without even trying to talk it out first.
Since Utagai Karuta wants to stop all conflict around him even if it means killing himself, his path of the strongest is a little different from normal. His Crystal Magic is abnormal, but special doesn’t necessarily mean better. I hope you will continue to watch over the battles of a boy who carries both fragility and possibility within him.
I give my thanks to my illustrator Mika Pikazo-san and to my editors Miki-san, Anan-san, Nakajima-san, and Hamamura-san. This one must have been a lot of work with all the costume changes. Not to mention the hellish concept of an “army” that only takes a single word in writing. That must have been a lot of trouble with both the humans and the Threat. Thank you very much.
And I give my thanks to the readers. I had the entire student body face a major incident this time to symbolize the theme of “you aren’t fighting alone!”, but how did you like it? Anyone who has seen the crowds at a Shinto shrine on New Years or at a train station during rush hour might be wondering if 1000 people can really move around that quickly, but keep in mind that Grimnoah provides high-level combat training with a focus on group battles. Thank you so much for reading this far!
And I will end this here.
Did they become the strongest because they were unusual, or did they become unusual because they were the strongest?
The blizzard was raging.
At 15 degrees below zero, that white hell would have sapped the life out of any ordinary human standing within it, but this girl did not feel the slightest discomfort.
She was pale-skinned and made of crystal.
Aine was viewing something all on her own. It was a black mass – the remnants of one of the fake Threats that had been so thoroughly destroyed by the wielders of cutting-edge magic.
Aine ran her hand across the armor that felt gritty due to the snow blown onto it by the wind. The heat of her hand could have melted the snow and gotten her skin stuck to the metal when the snow refroze into ice, but the crystal girl did not seem to care.
She kept her hand there and spoke quietly.
“I can’t wait to do this to the real ones.”
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