Chapter 3 - Time of Continual Vermilion / "the shrine where there are fortune-telling stones"
I really hate growing old—He thought to himself.
I can't believe I have no choice but to leave behind these boys and girls who are young enough to be my children—but among them are a few who look young despite having existed for several times the years I've lived—while running away on my own in such an unsightly manner.
Not only that, but even worse—
I can't believe I ran into someone who's lying in ambush while I was escaping, and now I've no choice but to stand still without any options.
I didn't even try to resist. I did nothing. As a supplier and an information broker, danger was a daily part of the job. I always prepare a number of plans, tools and information that I could use to escape this sort of crisis. I've relied on such means to survive many challenging situations in the past.
Nevertheless, in spite of that—
Simply facing off, I understood that those things are completely meaningless as well as the fact that the person before my eyes is not someone who can be deceived so easily. I even found it impossible to muster the notion of resistance.
This character before my eyes was shrugging as though in a reluctant situation while taking a step forward.
"...How roundabout, because I must not make an appearance before everyone."
Inescapable. My view was blocked. What has this person done? Or have I simply closed my eyes? I can't even be sure of this fact.
"But precisely because of this, I must properly do what I can do. There are no limits to familiarity and training—You shall serve as my foundation!"
As I heard these words, a feeling akin to dizziness attacked me.
Then my consciousness turned into complete darkness.
I woke up.
Lying on the roadside, I sat up suddenly, checking out my surroundings in puzzlement.
"How odd, where is this? I'm supposed to be in Venice."
At the very least, this is no longer within Italy's boundaries. The climate is completely different. China? No, it's Japan. I can tell from the scraps of newspaper hanging on the utility pole.
How terrible, it looks like I'm really starting to get senile. Or was it because I was drinking? It's probably the latter. Unless I was drunk, I can't imagine any other reason how I could take a flight all the way to the far end of Asia without noticing. Besides, I totally have no need of making a trip to Japan.
Placing a hand on my forehead, I sighed deeply.
Man, I promise I'll definitely quit drinking.
"Hey Haruaki, what's wrong? You've heard this name before?"
"Yeah, I should say it's actually quite famous."
After answering Fear, Haruaki glanced at Konoha, She seemed a bit uncomfortable but was still staring at the Wa Lolita girl with complicated emotions in her eyes.
"Fear-san, perhaps you may not know, but that is a Japanese sword. Just like me."
"I am... not the same as you! Don't compare me with you, Muramasa!"
The girl—Kotetsu—glared even more viciously at Konoha. Just as Konoha frowned—
"They should be the same. Although inferior to Konoha-kun, it is quite a renowned sword in history... After all, with quite a number of legends passed down, it comes as no surprise that the sword is cursed. Take Endou Isami for example—I see now, that's why you're wearing a Shinsengumi haori...?"
"C-Class Rep, are you alright? Don't push yourself!"
"In any case, the arm is already connected for the most part. I'll be able to move it as normal after a few more minutes. But the torn tracksuit jacket can't return to its former state, how absolutely ridiculous..."
Kirika was still pressing her other hand on the severed arm, but had already stood up.
Kotetsu frowned slightly and spoke. Putting her manner of speaking aside, her voice itself was extremely adorable.
"Do not carelessly address Isami-sama by his direct name, girl."
"To us, he's just a character in history. Do you still bear loyalty towards a former owner?"
"Rather than loyalty, what I insist upon is merely the minimum level of manners and respect."
"Including that haori?"
"Th-This is just because I think it looks very dignified when... I wear it. Truth be told, that is all."
Kotetsu whispered gruffly then shifted her vigorous gaze. First towards Konoha—the fellow sword whom she regarded with hostility for some reason—then reluctantly, she forcibly pulled her gaze away and towards the man as though saying "compared to Konoha right now, this side is more important."
"Kotetsu, Nagasone Kotestu, isn't that right...? I see. The unknown is now known. Thank you."
"I have already reported my name. Hand it over now!"
"Unfortunately, there is no logical connection between these two sentences. By the way, may I ask why you want this object so much?"
"I cannot say. Hurry and hand it over."
"I thought so too. But at the very least, I know that you desire this greatly... So, what should I do—?"
Pakuaki waved the Indulgence Disk in front of him as though watching a good show. Kotetsu's eyes narrowed with impatience.
Just at this moment—
"—Yamimagari Pakuaki, that belongs to us originally."
"Hi, Alice Bivorio Basskreigh. It's been a while."
"Relations between us are probably nowhere amicable enough for cheerful pleasantries... Please return it to us."
In contrast to the serious Bivorio, Pakuaki snickered:
"Of course, my answer is no. I believe you already understood ages ago."
At this moment, Kururi glanced at Haruaki's group before saying to Bivorio:
"Now that things have reached this point... We might as well use that thing directly as a bargaining chip for negotiations, right?'
"Hey, hold on! That's not what we agreed on! Even though we haven't done anything for you yet!"
Fear began to yell and holler, but Pakuaki heard what Kururi said and answered in carefree manner:
"Negotiations? I see... I understand, I understand. Your goal is that Hinai Elsie, isn't it? Indeed, she is currently in our hands. Hence, you originally intended to hand this over to Fear-in-Cube's faction then request that they serve as a go-between for negotiations. Truly a rational and correct decision. Indeed, having lost innumerable important facilities and researchers to your suicide bombing attacks, the Lab Chief's Nation absolutely cannot negotiate with your side directly. Your understanding regarding this fact is absolutely correct in judgment. Among the researchers, there are still many who bear resentment towards your side. There are even people who strongly advocate for Hinai Elsie to be violated and killed, then used as experimental materials. As the leader of the Lab Chief's Nation, I really cannot ignore their demands."
Pakuaki then said: "Furthermore, by this juncture, we have already researched this object quite thoroughly and have no particular desire for it." In other words, trying to use this Indulgence Disk to exchange for the release of Hinai Elsie was completely out of the question.
"Since you don't want it, why did you take it!? Stop doing unnecessary things and hand it over now, then leave immediately!"
"Oh? Fear-in-Cube, I never expected you to be so serious. This object shouldn't be that rare in your eyes. You must have a quite a number of them in your possession already. Even you, why do you want it so much as well?"
"None of your business. However, now that things have come to this, giving half-assed responses probably won't help so I will tell you clearly. Yes, you are right. I want that thing and hope to obtain it. Do you know why I'm specifically admitting to this? Naturally, that's in order to tell you that I won't compromise on this at all. No matter what means I must resort to!"
Fear glared at Pakuaki and exuded inexorably serious vigor, her eyes filled with uncompromising determination.
Gripping the transformed drill in her hand tightly, she prepared a battle stance.
Her words and attitude exhibited only one thing, her resolute will.
Indeed, Fear had already obtained several others of the Indulgence Disk that Pakuaki was currently holding between his fingertips. Whether in size, weight, material or effects, it was surely identical to the other Indulgence Disks from the past.
But from the perspective of the current Fear—
For the current Fear who desired Indulgence Disks in a concrete sense, based on her own determination and newly discovered goal—
That Indulgence Disk was undoubtedly an irreplaceable treasure.
A most crucial target that absolutely must not slip out of her grasp.
Hence, Haruaki could only support her determination and act accordingly. Despite knowing clearly he did not have any power, he still put up an offensive stance so as to be ready to take action in case Pakuaki showed an opening that allowed the Indulgence Disk to be taken. Given the current mood, a battle could break out any moment. Anything could happen next.
"Hmm. Indeed, in your case, no matter how potent the curse-reducing effect, it would still be considered insufficient... Hence it's not like I can't understand why you desire this type of object. Nevertheless, even if you make clear your intentions, my position still will not change. Regarding the question you just posed—in other words, why am I taking it despite having no desire for it, I must answer: Because I am currently pondering how to deal with it. So, what should be done? Truly an unknown. Due to the grudge against the Family, I can't simply hand it over obediently. As for you guys who wish to help the Family, it pretty much goes the same... But that said, it would not be too appropriate for me as a human to hand it over to Kotetsu who made a sudden appearance here. What a dilemma."
"As a human? Absolutely ridiculous—You stopped being human a long time ago. Since ages back, you have already fallen to become a type of creature that is even more ugly and disgusting."
"Kirika, don't say such heart breaking words. But... Oh right. When there is uncertainty over how a human ought to behave correctly, perhaps being a little mechanical might turn out to be better instead. Yes, so long as a fair chance is offered to both sides, it'll be fine. Uh, I remember placing that thing here—"
Pakuaki began to recollect on his own and started searching the pocket in his black lab coat. This was precisely the fourth dimensional pocket with the bizarre internal space that they had witnessed in the Studio Park earlier. One could also describe it as a wearable storeroom.
"Hmm—Not this one... Nor this either... Found it. To be honest, even I've almost forgotten its existence. Luckily, I've kept it in there all along because I thought it'd come in handy at some unknown point in time."
Hence, Pakuaki took out a box.
A small iron box roughly the size of a lunch box.
Immediately, with extremely natural motions, he placed the Indulgence Disk inside the box and closed the lid.
Seeing that, Fear yelled fiercely of course:
"W-What are you doing!?"
"Your side wants this, Kotetsu also wants this, but I have no reason to hand it over to either side. Seeing as I cannot make a decision here, I was thinking I'd let you guys decide on your own. In other words, this is another long-awaited invitation to a game after last time's cultural festival. As for me, I'll be the witness providing the rules and the prize."
"A game, you say? Stop screwing around!"
"Truth be told, stop speaking nonsense! I have no time for games with you lot!"
Fear's and Kotetsu's roars overlapped. Their dangerous gazes also met for merely an instant.
"I hope all of you won't misunderstand. I am not doing this to make things difficult. This method is actually beneficial to everyone instead. Not only will I get a chance to be entertained as a spectator, but all of you will also get a fair and equitable chance. Three birds with one stone. In fact, I could simply take this thing away with me, even though I don't want it, but that would not benefit anyone, right?"
Pakuaki still held dominion over the situation. Haruaki and company could only glare at him while listening to him speak.
"A game...? In any case, I doubt it'll be a respectable game."
"Unlike last time, I won't say anything like there's a bomb that will explode. This time, the game is simple and without danger. So, allow me to explain the basic rules. First of all, this box—«Ganletti's Door»—is absolutely impossible to open under the current circumstances. Even if you try to use a sword or a torture instrument to break it, you won't succeed."
How will I know unless I try? —Fear's mutters could be heard, sounding like a beast's growls.
"There is only one method to open the box, namely by using the four special keys I have prepared. However, these keys cannot be used straight away. This is the most important rule: 'only the one who has activated the key's power is able to open this box.' Naturally, the fastest person wins. So, let me first distribute these keys to you."
Pakuaki proceeded to fish out small, rust-colored keys from his pocket to toss out to them one by one. First was Kotetsu. Despite frowning, she still caught the key reflexively. Next, Pakuaki threw two other keys towards Fear and Konoha. Fear cast an obvious glance of anger towards Pakuaki.
"I can't believe you placed it in that weird box... And the box can't be opened except using these keys? What the heck are you trying to scheme? Damn it, this is so maddening. But mad as I am—"
Gnashing her teeth, Fear moved her hand in displeasure as though trying to dash something towards the ground, but still she caught the key.
"If this is the only way to get the Indulgence Disk, then I have no choice but to do it! ...You don't need to participate!"
"Let's suppose I didn't catch it. But if that were the case, a certain excessively nice guy who wishes to help you will then proceed to catch this key of unknown origins. He absolutely will. Consequently, I have no choice."
Konoha whispered then lightly caught the key. Haruaki had no choice but to silently withdraw his half-extended arm.
Next, Pakuaki tossed the final key towards Kirika, who reached out using her newly reattached arm.
But at this moment, Kirika frowned slightly with a twisted expression. Was her arm still hurting? Or was there some other reason? In any case, Kirika did not manage to catch the key thrown towards her. After striking Kirika's body, the key fell down.
Then Kururi stepped up from the side and picked it up.
Sighing, she scratched her head forcefully and said:
"For crying out loud, how freaking incompetent. Just like what the old guy said earlier, everything should follow proper procedure. We were clearly the ones who purchased the Indulgence Disk so it's not like we can hope to take it back without doing anything."
"So let me have this key. I won't return it either."
Probably because she witnessed Kururi declaring resolutely and holding the key firmly in her hand, Kirika stopped saying what she originally intended to say and looked down. Seeing this scene, Pakuaki grinned wryly for some reason and shrugged:
"Very well. The participants' identities do not matter. Back to the topic at hand, those of you who received the keys should probably start feeling a sense of numbness by now. This is because the keys will automatically register you as the owner after you hold the keys and sustain a certain level of persistent contact."
"Registered...? Fear, are you feeling something?"
"Muu. There's a numb feeling. Also—"
"Same here. Also, the key was clearly covered in rust when I caught it, but now it's become clean simultaneously with the numb sensation."
On closer examination, the key in Konoha's hand was no longer the rust color seen earlier but pure white. The keys in Fear, Kururi and Kotetsu's hands had also turned pure white.
"This is proof that registration is complete. The keys are known as «Ganletti's Keys of Emotion». When the box and the keys are combined, its structure becomes very similar to a Wathe. Simply stated, the keys will react to the emotions of their respective registered owners and gradually turn red in color. Because the change is caused by the person in possession of the key, it serves as a measuring gauge. That should be easy to understand. Then once the continually rising emotional volume exceeds a certain required threshold, in other words, when a key turns bright red—Only then will the box accept that key and allow itself to be opened. Yes, very much in the style of a cursed tool, the keys will start to drip blood slowly once the limit is reached. You can also use that phenomenon as an indicator to judge."
"Emotional... volume? Absolutely nonsensical! What the heck are you talking about!?"
"Yamimagari Pakuaki, answer me now! What do you mean by emotional volume!?"
Fear's and Kotetsu's voices overlapped once again.
"There is no need for you two to question me so loudly as though you're about to fight. I will answer of course. Don't overthink things, it's exactly what the words mean literally. The volume of emotions. Any type of emotion will do. It doesn't have to be the typical emotions of joy, anger, pathos, and humor. Apart from that, hatred, wrath or displeasure will work as well, for example."
At the same time, Kotetsu cast her gaze towards her fellow sword, the same gaze she had repeatedly thrown at Konoha earlier. Presumably having decided to pay it no heed, Konoha nonchalantly ignored her.
Agitated, Fear said:
"Ha, that's truly a weird cursed tool. A key that cannot perform its duty unless emotions are stored up? Utterly nonsensical. I totally don't understand what's the point of the curse."
"This wasn't a box originally, but the keys and keyhole for a womanizer's residence."
Pakuaki proceeded to explain the keys' origins in a lively manner.
There was once a philanderer who gave out copied keys to a number of lovers, then told them: "Only the woman whose love for me is the strongest will be able to open the door to my home." The woman kept turning the keys while standing outside the house, declaring one after another how much they loved him. Hence, the man indulged himself in this sense of superiority. An ugly man of the worst, unfaithful type, taking pleasure in toying with women's hearts. In actual fact, he was simply holding down the door's lock from inside then deciding on his own whether or not to open the door, and only letting the woman who begged the most pitifully and subserviently to open the door. This god-like sense of superiority became an addiction for him.
But this behavior resulted in a tragedy at some point. The man's depravity had reached an unfortunate level while at the same time, his skills in making women fall in love with him had also reached a contemptible level.
The man gradually grew tired of this game. He found it tedious and found a new batch of lovers. In the end, even when the old lovers came to visit, none of them could open the door. Nevertheless, the old lovers still clung onto the notion that "it must be lacking in lubrication, how could my love be not enough? There's a way that not only lubricates but also exhibits my love. This will surely open the door."—They pierced their own bodies with the keys, then twisted and turned nonstop to dye the keys red with fresh blood.
"But by that time, perhaps that group of women had already been poisoned by their relationship with that man." Pakuaki added in a carefree manner.
"In the end, the women all became stalkers and kept trying to use those keys, smeared and covered with love, to open the door. Then destroying the door in an act irrelevant to love—naturally, in their minds, they had opened the door using the power of love—they broke in and the man finally died from excessive love. That's how the story goes."
"All I can say is: what an unsettling story. This man really was a public enemy of women."
"But as a result, this interesting Wathe was created. The cursed keyhole obtained this trait where it can only be opened by inserting and turning a key filled with emotions. After transplanting the keyhole portion and making modifications, this box was produced."
Pakuaki finished proudly with a "So..." and swept his gaze across everyone again.
"Starting from this moment, the keys will automatically sense your emotions. The trick to activating the keys faster is to recall your emotions honestly, act in ways loyal to your emotions and release your emotions without any pretense. Who will their key to an activated state the fastest and open this box? —That's the game this time. By the way, let me add to the explanation. The keys of emotion will absolutely not reset unless the registered owner dies or a special reset switch in the box is operated. Neither can the registrations be altered. Even if you wait patiently, the box will eventually be possible to open. But since there are competitors now, this will still turn into a race where the fastest person wins. Any questions?"
"Honestly, this game is totally nonsensical. I don't find it amusing at all. The simplest and fastest method is to beat you up right now and think of another solution. What do you think?"
Displaying half-serious eyes, Fear waved the drill in her hand. However, Un Izoey stepped forward in front of Pakuaki while her face seemed to be struggling to erase her emotions.
"I do have a reliable bodyguard. Also, it won't help even if you torment me, because I have no way of opening this box either. Only the keys in your hands can open it. In order to avoid getting the box lost—or rather, you will surely be distracted if I keep following on the side, I am considerate in this regard of course—I shall hand this box to Un Izoey. Once your key activates, just go find her."
"My question: Lab Chief, you said this was for entertainment as a spectator."
"But that doesn't mean I need to observe throughout the entire process in order to satisfy myself. The greatest unknown is still the final result. As for the process along the way, I just need to know roughly what happens. So that's that. Once you confirm that someone's key is activated, no need to resist, just let them open the box."
After tossing the box over to Un Izoey, Pakauki turned around lightly to walk away.
"Starting tomorrow, I will look forward to your spirited efforts. Since it's very late tonight already, it's about time to head back—Oh..."
Originally about to leave in leisure, his pace suddenly changed.
A conclusion was announced to the stagnant situation. A figure dashed rapidly towards Pakuaki.
"I understand your motives now. But I have received orders to obtain the Indulgence Disk and have no intention of being toyed with in the palm of your hand. Truth be told, I shall only adhere to mine own will! I have decided to take the box then catch you and make you open it!"
"Like I said already, even I can't open the box. Looks like someone isn't listening to others. Un Izoey, I will count on you as my bodyguard on my way back."
Pakuaki started running into the darkness. Un Izoey guarded his back while intercepting the pursuing Kotetsu to engage in battle. The sounds of impact between tiger claws and the foot-wielded knife gradually grew distant within the blink of an eye.
"Oh—Wait up! Our conversation isn't over yet...!"
Pakuaki's reply could be heard faintly from afar: "Don't worry, I'll make sure she gets back to the hotel before lights out—"
"That's not what I'm talking about! This guy is still utterly infuriating as always! Should we give chase too?"
"It would be a bit difficult now, given their head start so we might not be able to catch up to him. Besides, Ueno-san's physical condition doesn't seem to have recovered yet... Ueno-san?"
Head down in a dze, Kirika suddenly looked up.
"Huh—What? Uh... Sorry, I..."
"Konoha is right. Even if the arm is already reattached, there was a large amount of bleeding within a short time span. Feeling unwell is only normal. Class Rep, don't put on a brave face. Just get some proper rest."
After Haruaki finished, Kirika lowered her head with a slightly apologetic expression.
Pakuaki had escaped and there was no way to pursue now. Chasing after him, Kotetsu seemed to possess combat ability rivaling Un Izoey's, but as long as Un Izoey focused on defense and interception, their fight was not going to reach a decisive result so easily. The box carrying the Indulgence Disk was in Un Izoey's possession. Left at the scene were only the keys for opening the box.
A long sigh could be heard.
"In the end, there's nothing we can do for the rest of today. Starting tomorrow, there's only one thing we can do... Basically, at the current stage, we have no choice but to play that bastard's game obediently. Freaking incompetent."
Kururi scratched her head hard and whispered as though voicing thoughts on behalf of everyone present.
In the darkness, Kotetsu was running as fast as possible. At the same time, she was engaged in an intense battle against the dark-skinned girl blocking her way.
The source of the driving force empowering her limbs was her loyalty towards the trusted master.
To Kotetsu, the master was an existence more than simply a master. In other words, it was the arm itself that swung the sword known as herself. Without that arm to hold and support Kotetsu, a sword had no meaning of existence. A sword held by puppies and kittens was no different from scrap metal.
Arms for wielding swords could be classified into many types. There were the arms of young children, powered by hot-blooded fervor, hoping to avenge murdered parents; there were the arms of young warriors, wishing to achieve success and renown on the battlefield; there were the arms of elderly generals who firmly refused to let go of past glory; there were the arms of prostitutes about to commit suicide together with their lovers.
However, the arm of the master in possession of Kotetsu was none of the above.
The arm of one who possessed true strength.
The arm of a true warrior.
Hence, Kotetsu was filled with self-pride. She was the best master Kotetsu could hope for. To be discovered by someone like that and permitted to serve her, hanging at her waist as a weapon. As a sword, was there any joy more noble and greater than this? Was there any other meaning in existence Kotetsu ought to believe in?
Hence, Kotetsu remained resolute. Powered by unadulterated and sincere loyalty, she acted single-mindedly and selflessly to execute the master's orders. This was how Nagasone Kotetsu lived as a sword.
(Since master ordered me to obtain the Indulgence Disk... I must... definitely get my hands on it...!)
Such was the way she lived, such was the way she existed.
If one had to use an even simpler word to describe it, then one must use a particular word that was very familiar to Kotetsu in the past.
It was proof of unwavering loyalty, the flag of conviction.
Indeed, Nagasone Kotetsu—
...Lived precisely for «Integrity».
She lived in loyalty and integrity devoted towards the master she trusted.
"Isn't it time for you to give up? I suggest this suggestion!"
Hence, listening in the midst of combat as Un Izoey threw this suggestion at her, Kotetsu remained firmly resolute, simply shouting forcefully the words that represented her way of living.
"Truth be told—This is a foolish question!"
...He was walking alone at night. Always extremely loyal to him, she loyally fulfilled her duties this time as well. Hence, he was able to chew his CalorieMate without worry and could also make a phone call without worry.
"Hi, although it's quite sudden, would you like to have a wager?"
'Fufu, it really is quite sudden, Lab Chief. But this forcefulness is quite beast-like, I don't dislike that at all. What are the terms?'
He explained through the cellphone. Laughing in her usual, distinctive manner, she said:
'I see now. Regarding the "unknown" that you are pursuing this time, Lab Chief, what is the goal?'
"Hey hey, don't talk as though I had planned this from the very beginning. It is merely coincidental. If Un Izoey hadn't forgotten to pack something and coincidentally, I happened to visit you, I wouldn't have come to Kyoto in the first place. I only volunteered myself to run the errand because I thought it'd be nice to drop by and see how they're doing after such a long period of separation. There was only one part where intent played a role—when Un Izoey reported to me that they ran off during nighttime. As a protector, following them was the only responsible thing to do. Of course, the fact that «Ganletti's Door» happened to be in my pocket was just a coincidence among coincidences."
'Lab Chief, this is probably like deliberate negligence? Despite not planning for this particular moment, you still carried it beforehand in case this kind of situation arises in the future. This is the same kind of deliberate as deliberately not cleaning up.'
"Fufu, I shall invoke my right to silence regarding this point."
'Besides, nothing was forcing you to use that thing. Since you chose to do so, Lab Chief, it meant that you needed that thing for the sake of the unknown you seek. At the very least, it's pretty much the same as the requirement that my destined significant other must possess bristles. Kususu?'
Pakuaki grinned next to the cellphone.
"I guess so. Watching them during the daytime, certain suspicions occurred to me."
"Do I need to elaborate!? Despite the rare opportunity of being on a school excursion, they're behaving themselves too much! That's why I'm trying to give them a slight push from behind. I was thinking, including her, those girls simply haven't found an opportunity to seize. Once they're given a clear and simple pretext, developments should come about. Fufufu!"
'Kususu... But Lab Chief, after listening to your explanation just now, the person possessing the unknown you're the most interested in ended up not getting a key, right?'
"This did exceed my calculations, yes, but the effects are not fatal... Because she will be watching up close the girls who stand as rivals in love, taking action after gaining a pretext. Hence, it doesn't matter after all."
'You sound very happy.' The voice sounded a little exasperated.
"Of course. Because an interesting situation has developed unexpectedly. You noticed too, right?"
'Kususu, that goes without saying—in other words, Lab Chief, you are seeking more than one unknown, aren't you?'
"That matter truly piques my curiosity. How will things develop? What are they going to do? ...Oh my, I'm really looking forward to it all."
Pakuaki looked up at the night sky, pondering future plans. At this moment, the woman on the other end suddenly asked:
'I already understand the situation, so let's return to the subject at the start. What is my prize if I win this wager?'
"Hmm, let me hear your demands first. Is there anything you want?"
'Please give me a deputy branch chief who has more dense body hair, more pungent body odor, more developed muscles and more like a beast that howls towards the sky at length!'
A forceful and instant answer.
Hold on, what kind of dangerous conversation is this!? Aren't I the first and only deputy chief who matches the branch chief's expectations!? —This anxious voice could be heard coming from the other side of the receiver.
On the second night of the school excursion, the girls were lying in bed in the same room, deep in thought.
Konoha was looking up at the dark ceiling, agonizing on her own.
There were a number of problems. Among them was Nagasone Kotetsu, one of her own kind.
Why was Kotetsu using those eyes—directed towards Konoha only—glaring at her as though bearing a grudge from a blood feud?
As far as Konoha could remember, she had neither met nor spoken to Kotetsu before. Although she had heard rumors of Kotetsu being a renowned sword, the fact that a fellow sword had gotten cursed like her and even gained human form, Konoha had no way of knowing all this.
No amount of pondering was going to yield answers. Hence, Konoha decided to forget this problem for now. The other remaining problem was clearly a very large problem indeed.
The key of emotion that circumstances compelled her to catch, what should be done with it? Besides, Indulgence Disks had nothing to do with her in the first place. Hence, there was no worthwhile reason for her to rack her brain, trying to open that box.
Nevertheless, he would want to obtain the Disk. If she did not take any action, he would struggle and try hard as though trying to compensate. The reason was the same as when the key was received. If she did not do it, he would surely have to work extra hard. Hence, that was why she had to step up to the task.
The next issue Konoha considered was how to activate the key. The key was useless unless it detected a certain amount of emotions. Then what was the strongest emotion in her heart, enough to activate the key the fastest?
(...That goes without saying.)
Konoha savored the feeling as though there was a tightening in her chest. Him, him, him.
Expressing these feelings honestly would be the fastest. Getting closer to him than usual, talking to him more than usual, being slightly more forthright than usual.
She has now obtained a reason to do so.
Hence, there was no helping it.
The box could not be opened unless she did this. Further dallying could very well allow the enemy to claim the prize first. Hence, it was imperative to make haste. There was no time to hesitate and deliberate.
But of course, Konoha knew these were only token words. She also felt hesitant in her heart about using these token words. She had wanted to take such actions in the first place, but now, someone else had simply added another reason to justify it.
Token words created forcibly by another's hand. The excuse provided to her by someone else's machinations.
Indeed, certain aspects greatly infuriated Konoha. But even so, right now—
The circumstances already did not allow her to leisurely avoid using those token words.
Another type of situation unrelated to the box or the Indulgence Disk.
In a certain sense, this was an even more important problem to her than the Indulgence Disk.
—This concerned her who had resolved herself already and started taking action.
Konoha could not afford to drag her feet any longer.
This thought was the final sticking point that compelled Konoha to decide on her actions for the next day.
Because it must be done—She used these token words to cover the surface.
As much as it displeased her to accept the token words given by someone else, Konoha regarded it as a necessary evil.
(Then I shall... go on the offensive slightly...)
Konoha closed her eyes and admitted.
What was going to take place tomorrow was a war, in a certain sense.
Kururi aside, Fear should ultimately reach the same conclusion as Konoha. Even if hers were feelings without self-awareness.
Trying to strengthen one's feelings on their own was very difficult. These feelings were produced only due to interacting with others, precisely arising from the interactions with the one who stirred up one's emotions the most.
However, because there was only one of him.
This naturally implied competition—Who could stay by his side and who could interact with him the most proactively.
Consequently, this meant war. A competitive war to steal him away as well as a war of conquest to occupy the position by his side.
Since she had already decided to attack, she was not going to hesitate. Since she had already decided to enter the fray, the only thing left to do was steel her determination.
In other words—She absolutely must not lose.
Amidst an atmosphere of drowsiness, Konoha sighed lightly while thinking.
Without exception, each and every day was war.
Konoha resolved herself to not lose.
If one considered what was different from usual, this was actually no different from usual.
Fear was curled up in bed, her brow in a deep frown while she pondered.
(Releasing... emotions... honestly?)
To be honest, that was her only reaction.
Wasn't that what she always did?
She essentially acted according to her thoughts and feelings. Well, on occasion she did read the mood and held back a little or told minor lies, but still, that happened quite infrequently.
Already releasing her emotions very honestly to begin with, she now had to release them with even greater honesty? What the heck? Or did this mean that she still had other emotions that had not been released honestly, so these emotions now needed to be exposed?
(Argh, I don't understand, I really don't understand... But...)
If failing to understand then failing to activate the key to open the box—
Then she was not going to get the Indulgence Disk. That mysterious girl was going to snatch it away.
Fear absolutely could not tolerate that. She must obtain the Indulgence Disk. She desired it greatly. Even one more would be good and as soon as possible.
If one were to ask her why—Indeed, there were a number of reasons.
To oppose the new and violent power of Dual Emulation that she had discovered by chance; to suppress this darkness that she was forced to recognize as still filling her interior.
At the same time, her current self was able to admit. Her next wish was also the greatest reason why she wished to obtain the Indulgence Disks.
In other words, she wished to use them to suppress her curse and allow her body and mind to become cleaner.
She also wished she could openly confront those feelings she sensed that "might possibly exist" in her heart, those feelings that had arisen for the first time in her life. In order to confront those feelings directly, without the slightest trepidation, unease, worry or regret...
Indeed... They did exist? Emotions that ought to be released honestly. Emotions she had not usually released. Given the current circumstances, emotions that could not be released. However, the final goal was clearly that, hence for that purpose, it must be done, this felt totally contradictory and paradoxical—
(Urghhh... I'm even more confused!)
Fear struggled and rolled silently under the blanket.
At this moment, she suddenly thought of Konoha who was sleeping in the futon next to her, in possession of the same kind of key. She wondered if Konoha had already found what she needed to do.
For some unknown reason, the image of a certain boy's face surfaced in her mind at this time.
...As though related to what she ought to do and also related to what Konoha might possbily do.
Fear felt that these two matters were in opposition. Konoha's course of action was apparently going to pose a hindrance to her in various ways. It seemed like a competition to eliminate others was going to start.
At least, Fear felt that compared to herself, Konoha had already gathered a clearer idea of what she needed to do. Fear also felt that Konoha had already decided the direction for her course of action starting tomorrow.
(What... should I do...?)
Fear took out the key in her tracksuit's pocket. Curled under the blanket, she kept examining it intently.
It could not be seen clearly. However, Fear recalled seeing the base of the key turning slightly pink before she went to bed. She had not done anything to it, so this meant that the key had detected the emotions she naturally released starting from when she received the key till now.
Simply the thought of Konoha taking action tomorrow was making a vague and inexplicable sense of worry surface in her heart. If this type of feeling counted as well, roughly how much emotional volume did it have? Fear wondered vacantly.
Kirika was staring intently at her own palm on top of her blanket.
Accompanied by regret in her heart.
Nothing more than that.
The next morning, it was the third day of the school excursion.
In a certain sense, this day was the main event of the trip, the day when each group of students was given a whole day of free time. Each group had to make their own arrangements and visit the shrines and temples of their choosing. Naturally, this was not purely for having fun since the students had to hand in reports after the school excursion.
That said, for Haruaki and company who were stuck in a difficult conundrum, as well as some of the students who intended to fully experience this once-in-a-lifetime school excursion, now was not the time to be law-abiding and dutifully following the basic rule of staying in their groups.
At the starting point on the third day, namely, the bus station in front of the hotel, the students dispersed to head towards their respective destinations. At this time, the members of three groups were exchanging glances, each harboring respective hidden agendas.
Girls of Group One: Fear, Konoha, Kirika and Kana. Fear and the girls did not want to get Kana involved.
Boys of Group Six: Haruaki, Taizou and Animori. Since anything could happen next, Haruaki wanted to go along with Fear and the girls without getting the two other boys involved. On the other hand, Murasawa, who was supposed in be in the group, was absent.
Girls of Group Five: Un Izoey, Shiraho, Hinata... Another girl who was supposed to be in their group was also absent.
In other words, the two students who had gone missing had formed a couple over the past few days, thus they intended to enjoy the whole day as a private date in Kyoto, readily deserting the frontlines early on. "I can't believe another traitor apart from Haruaki has appeared!" "So he wasn't planning a perfect crime at all!" Taizou and Animori seemed to have taken quite a blow.
"My will: I ask permission for my decision to stay with the Group One girls for today."
"Huh? All because of that lustful couple's fault, our group is already down to three people remaining. Now it's going to be just the two of us, Hinata and me?"
Hence, a chaotic grouping conference arose from Un Izoey and Shiraho's dispute—
In the end, they split themselves into two groups with Haruaki, Fear, Konoha, Kirika and Un Izoey in one group while Shiraho, Hinata, Kana, Taizou and Animori were in the other.
For some reason, Kana was snickering to herself and readily agreed to exchange with Un Izoey and join Shiraho's group (but actually, it was Fear, Konoha and Kirika who negotiated with her and Haruaki had no idea how they convinced her, perhaps by using cafeteria coupons as bribery). The biggest problem was Taizou, who kept yelling relentlessly after Haruaki's group dwindled down to two boys remaining: "I absolutely won't tolerate the appearance of a second traitor! I absolutely forbid Haruaki from heading towards paradise alone!" Kana sighed deeply and said:
"Oh come on, Taichi, read the mood a little, willya? Sigh... Hey Shirahocchi, can we take in these two poor losers?"
"To be frank, I have no wish to be trailed by two mongrels on the side... Nevertheless, they can help carry things at least. Weighing merits against drawbacks, I suppose their utility barely wins out if one were too too lazy to carry the burden of souvenirs while walking around in Kyoto. But apart from that, I shall regard them as mere air."
By agreeing to take them in, Shiraho's answer proved to be the decisive factor. "Air! In other words... Ah, I can walk together with Sakuramairi-san and even smell her, ignored by her... I-I'll come along, please let me join!" Apparently a hidden fan of Shiraho, Animori proceeded to convince Taizou.
"Hate! I hate harems!"
"Hold on, Taizou. Think carefully. If things continue to develop at this rate, we'll end up with just two guys' lonely Kyoto trip... But if you cast away your hatred slightly, we're still sort of having a kyah-kyah-ufufu rosy school excursion together with three girls... Decades later, when we're all old men, which kind of school excursion do you want to reminisce over...?"
"No good will come out of hatred. That's what I've always believed."
That was the kind of dialogue which took place.
Hence, new groups were formed. Haruaki's new group decided to follow the itinerary originally planned by Fear's group beforehand. Finally setting off was good and all, but—
Currently, Haruaki was feeling at quite a loss.
The group was just about to head towards Tou-ji, the "Eastern Temple"—also known as Kyouougokoku-ji.
In his mouth, he was eating a soft, chewy food. Although it was slightly unsightly to eat while walking, their group had bought some mochi rice cakes from a nearby shop that was fairly well-known. But honestly, Haruaki was unable to focus his attention on the sweet confectionery that was supposed to be quite delicious.
Because all this time, a soft sensation was pressed against his elbow.
"Uh... Say... Konoha..."
"What's the matter? By the way, this mochi is really delicious, it's very soft and elastic!"
Something even softer and more elastic than mochi struck Haruaki's elbow again. Konoha was walking by Haruaki's side. The distance between them was clearly much closer than usual. Was it because the path was too narrow? No, even if that were true, Haruaki still felt it was too close. Hence, the slightest carelessness always resulted in his arm touching her. However, Konoha did not seem to mind and was smiling more cheerfully and radiantly towards him than usual.
Totally at a loss, Haruaki glanced backwards and discovered that Fear and Kirika were simply staring at him with half-narrowed eyes. It would be safe to say that they were not exactly in a good mood, hence Haruaki turned to face forward without saying a word. As a side note, walking at the back, Un Izoey simply displayed a face of sleepiness while tilting her head in puzzlement. Naturally, she was also stuffing round rice cakes into her mouth.
As though trying to escape reality, Haruaki called up his recollections of the "box" being kept in Un Izoey's backpack. Just as Pakuaki had said, it could not be opened even if they used Fear's torture tools or Konoha's knife hand strikes. This was the conclusion reached last night after Fear forcibly challenged Un Izoey with fighting words before going to bed: "Since you believe that guy's claims, it wouldn't hurt to try, right?"
As a side note, according to Un Izoey, after confirming Pakuaki had escaped successfully, she had shaken Kotetsu off her trail, fleeing the scene without particular intent to defeat or injure Kotetsu.
There were many issues to think about.
In order to open the box containing the Indulgence Disk, what should they do? The keys of emotion. What did Fear and the other girls intend to do? What could he do to assist them? Was Kotetsu going to reappear? Why did she want the Indulgence Disk? Furthermore—
"Oh! Haruaki-kun, we've arrived! This is the Tou-ji's Great South Gate... It's truly massive, how majestic in splendor. Oh Haruaki-kun, given this rare chance, let's take a commemorative photo together! Say cheese—!"
Haruaki's thoughts were once again dispersed in an instant by that highly elastic sensation. Konoha was standing beside him, pressed tightly against him. Since she had extended one arm to hold her digital camera, intending to take a photo of them both, the two of them were intimately pressed together, arm in arm. A gentle and elegant fragrance was drifting from her braids. Any closer and perhaps their cheeks might end up pressed together.
"Uh... W-We could ask someone else to take the photo for us..."
"Rejected, rejected. There's no need to ask someone else specifically to photograph us, because this is just a little keepsake, you're overthinking things. Come, smile a big one~ ...Seriously, isn't it pointless to ask someone to help photograph us when this is a rare chance to squeeze together legitimately...?"
Konoha murmured softly, so quiet that her voice was covered up by the faint sound of the digital camera's shutter.
"D-Damn Cow Tits... Your shamelessness is a sight I cannot endure any further!"
"I don't quite understand but can't you just get your photo taken as well? I suggest this kind of suggestion."
"Muu... W-What a great suggestion. This has absolutely nothing to do with that whatever honest emotions, it's just a memento for this trip, that's right, I consider it material to text back to Kuroe. Like those evidence photos, this is for telling her that the shameless brat is basically living well. In other words—Hey Haruaki, I'm up next for the same kind of photo, got that!?"
"Uh—Yachi, may I have a photo with you too? Just a memento. Indeed, Fear-kun makes a good point, this is just a memento."
"I suddenly realize a realization. This is an unknown for me too. My wish: I should take this opportunity to experiment with this unknown experience of the self-photo..."
"Hey, hold on a sec, why can't we all just stand together in a row to take a keepsake photo normally?"
For some reason, Haruaki's screams were ignored. After each girl had their turn to take a photo with him, they finally had an group photo as though out of obligation. Speaking of school excursion photos, normally they should be group photos, right...? Why was everyone prioritizing boring selfies? Haruaki was utterly baffled.
Next, the group passed through the Great Southern Gate to enter Tou-ji. Konoha's reaction turned out to be quite different from usual.
"Haruaki-kun, it's a five-story pagoda! A pagoda! It's so tall!"
"Yeah, that's right. It's supposed to be the tallest ancient pagoda in Japan. Wanna have a look at the guide booklet?"
What Haruaki meant was actually "I'll lend you mine" but Konoha brought her face up close to look down towards the booklet in Haruaki's hands. As though supporting herself, she lightly gripped Haruaki's arm that was holding the booklet. Roughly half the weight of a certain heavy object was transferred over to Haruaki's arm. He felt his heart skip another beat.
"Ehehe, thank you. Hmm... The height is roughly 55m... The pagoda burned down a number of times due to being struck by lightning. The current pagoda is the fifth time it was rebuilt, commissioned by—"
Konoha paused for an instant. After seeing the words written there, Haruaki shuddered in terror.
"Tokugawa... Iemitsu... The Third Shogun..."
Konoha whispered softly and suddenly straightened up. Smiling, she pointed at the pagoda while using her hand to make a chopping motion with a flick of her wrist, she said:
"Uh—May I go over there briefly?"
"Hold on hold on! What are you intending to do to a symbol of World Heritage!?"
Haruaki frantically grabbed Konoha's shoulder as she walked forward. Giggling, she halted in her steps.
"Haha, just kidding. Even if it's me, I won't harbor a notion such as 'how exhilarating it would be to treat the Tokugawa-built pagoda as lego, taking it apart block by block like a toy'."
"I totally can't tell if you're joking or being serious..."
"Like I said, I'm just kidding! Let's get going then visit other places!"
The group continued to walk within the temple's confines. However, an area starting from the Great Southern Gate was fenced off, making it impossible to reach the pagoda's base. It was not just the pagoda. In order to enter the fenced off area which included the temple's lecture hall and main hall, they would need to make their way to the entrance on the north side and buy tickets.
"Apparently, there are many Buddha statues in the lecture hall and main hall. I'd like to have a look, Haruaki-kun, can we?"
"That's fine with me. Plus I like looking at Buddha statues too."
Essentially scowling the whole time, Fear broke her silence at this moment:
"I don't quite like them. Besides, it's gonna cost money to go inside."
"In that case, you may stay here and wait for us. After all, seeing as I am the one inviting him, I shall pay for Haruaki-kun's share."
"Eh? No, I'd feel really bad about that—"
"Don't worry, it is fine. Come, let us go."
"Gununu... I-I'm going after all! This is also material I can text back to Kuroe and Sovereignty. In a certain way, Buddha statues can be considered their fellow kindred, they might actually be interested!"
"I-I was interested to begin with, so I shall come along very ordinarily. Nothing more than that. There isn't the slightest reason of the absolutely ridiculous kind."
"The Lab Chief has already given me provisional research funds. Also, no matter which tribe they come from, excellent statues all contain excellent souls. I am very interested with great interest."
In the end, the whole group filed into the lecture hall. Greeting Haruaki and the girls was a group of fierce and intimidating Buddha statues. According to the explanation in the guide booklet, these twenty-one Buddha statues were known as a three-dimensional mandala. Among them, five of the Buddha statues were especially grand and majestic. With Acala in the center, they were the Five Great Wisdom Kings. Their fierce and intimidating faces exuded a merciless aura of zero tolerance towards evildoers.
"Truly powerful. If this kind of thing started moving in the middle of the night, I'll definitely flee in utter terror."
"Even when there's clearly a Japanese doll at home already, running around all day long?"
Naturally occupying the position by Haruaki's side, Konoha chuckled. Haruaki glanced at the side of her face and finally asked a question that had been bothering him.
"You... seem quite happy?"
"I'm not allowed to be happy?"
"No, of course you're allowed. I just wanted to confirm the situation... Basically, to help Fear gather Indulgence Disks, Konoha, you intend to assist in opening that box, right? So I was wondering, how do you intend to use the 'key' that guy gave us and how are you going to increase the emotional volume..."
"That is precisely the reason."
Konoha relaxed her cheeks, placed her hands together behind her back and lifted her upper body slightly. Her braids swayed in a lively manner.
"Most reluctantly, I have decided to assist Fear-san. Then since the box must be opened, for this purpose, a large volume of emotions need to be released, apparently... Hence, I have decided to open my heart and have as much fun as possible today! To be slightly more honest than usual, to be slightly less reserved than usual. That is the situation."
An unexpectedly simple answer.
"Perhaps you may find this troublesome, Haruaki-kun, but please bear with me. However, if I go too far, please go ahead and give me a severe scolding! Oh right... It's really been a very long time since you last scolded me, Haruaki-kun... Ehehe..."
Somehow, Haruaki felt like he heard incomprehensible whispers at the very end, but decided to ignore it. The blissful expression on her face, standing on the opposite spectrum in stark contrast to the statues of the Wisdom Kings before his eyes, was also baffling.
In any case, Haruaki now knew the direction that Konoha had decided for her course of action henceforth.
Then what should he do as well?
What should he do to help them?
Staring at the Acala statue's solemn face, Haruaki zoned out into deep thought.
Naturally, Haruaki and company were not the only ones involved.
Speaking of Kyoto's shrines, one of the popular attractions tourists always made sure to visit was Kiyomizu-dera. At Kiyomizu-dera's main entrance, the Deva Gate painted brightly in vermilion, those two were standing there waiting. After telling them last night of today's itinerary, they had agreed to meet up here.
"Yes, you have arrived. What have you been doing so far?"
"Tsk... What a nag. Being a member of the workforce sure is tough. How could two employees go absent without prior notice... Sneaking out half-way like this is already a miracle. Freaking incompetent. I don't even know what I want. Stirring up emotions my foot, what the heck am I supposed to do..."
While Kururi was muttering and grumbling nonstop, Bivorio responded with a smile.
"I believe that having contact with others is the best method for stirring up emotions. You must have realized that too, which is why you decided to come here first and bring me along as well, isn't that right? Oh, speaking of which, Kouichirou is apparently going to do our work for us today. If the same situation arises tomorrow, rather than having me around, you should take Kouichirou out with you to serve as a thank you gift. Tomorrow happens to be his birthday, so that will surely stir up your feelings more potently than being with me—"
"W-Wooooooooah! W-What are you talking about? This has nothing to do with that guy at all, freaking incompetent! Hey, okay, let's go, standing at the main entrance and chatting isn't going to get anything done!"
Kururi rapidly raced ahead. Hence, Haruaki's group also followed her through the main gate. Bivorio slowed her pace down to accommodate them. Glancing at Un Izoey who was trailing at the back, she asked:
"I was thinking you might feel concerned, but don't worry. She won't do anything out of line for no reason... For the most part, she usually stays quiet in the classroom too."
While speaking, Haruaki also observed her a little. Whether in the past or the present, Bivorio had only witnessed Un Izoey acting as a member of the Lab Chief's Nation. One could hardly blame her for feeling concerned.
"I declare: giving explanation that I am accompanying you as the one in possession of the box. I hope all of you can treat me as air." Just as she said when they first set off, Un Izoey simply walked while her eyes displayed no emotional fluctuation as usual. Nevertheless, despite the abundance of foreign tourists here, given the striking presence exuded by the dark-skinned and navel-baring girl, it was quite difficult to treat her as air.
Whether or not Bivorio accepted Haruaki's explanation, she looked like she had decided not to feel bothered about Un Izoey.
"So—how is the progress so far?"
"According to what they've shown me just now, Konoha has accumulated a fair amount of emotional volume. Although I don't really get how it works, it's roughly thirty-something percent. However, Fear's is only twenty percent. How about you?"
"Kururi is also at approximately twenty percent."
"In other words, that's the normal speed of accumulation under ordinary conditions? Anyway, I've asked Konoha just now and she said her method was to be less reserved than usual and have as much fun as possible."
Bivorio kept blinking as though trying to confirm something.
"I guess... that's all there is to it."
"Fufu. Is that so? I understand."
She smiled as if she had figured out something on her own. Haruaki remained puzzled but did not dwell on the issue. He continued:
"Konoha probably intends to continue that here as well... So the two of you—or rather, Kururi—should come with us and do the same. Judging from Kururi's tone of voice just now, it's rare for you two to take time off and have fun, right? Though it's like accompanying us to go sightseeing today... Oh, but since you live here, Kiyomizu-dera probably isn't much of an attraction for local residents like you, right?"
"We came here once but haven't visited again. So it has been quite a long time, you have no need to worry too much."
"Really? That's good to hear."
Bivorio shifted her gaze away indifferently and murmured emphatically: "That aside, the problem is... I suppose I should have brought Kouichirou along...? Seriously, if only he could act a little more forthright too..."
The expression on her face resembled that of a mother worrying over a stubborn child.
After paying the entry fare, Haruaki and company entered the main hall—namely, the famous Kiyomizu Stage. There were many people for the most part. The place was packed with lively crowds, not just on the stage itself but also over on the side where two specimens of «Benkei's Khakkhara», one long and one short, which people could reputedly obtain good fortune simply by lifting them.
Haruaki and company weaved through the crowds and advanced on their way, holding onto the railing on the stage's edge. The scenery was extremely beautiful.
"Imagine what it'd feel like to jump down from Kiyomizu Stage... Hmm, if you had the courage to jump down from here, you probably possess the determination to get almost anything done."
"But Class Rep, according to this guide booklet, people have actually jumped down. However, the survival rate is 85%."
"That's unexpectedly high. After knowing that, the required determination suddenly seems much less impressive."
Finding Fear rather quiet, Haruaki glanced towards the side, only to see her spacing out while staring at the beautiful scenery below. Haruaki was expecting her to imitate Konoha and yell noisily: "I will face my feelings honestly and have fun without restraint! Run around without restraint! Give me rice crackers now!" But instead, Fear was even more quiet and well-behaved than usual. What was going on?
As a side note, Haruaki also noticed that Kirika was actually behaving differently from usual, despite conversing with him normally just now. He kept feeling that she was more nervous than on the first day of the trip, or rather, her mood seemed a little depressed as a result of something bothering her. Since she did not have a key in her possession, that should not be the direct reason. However, Haruaki concluded that her condition was still related to her brother who had handed out the keys.
In contrast to the depressed two, Konoha's spirits were quite excited. "I have something to say!" She announced clearly and raised her hand straight up.
"It's true that this scenery is very beautiful and attractive! However, I'd like to have a look at the local deity's shrine north of this main hall! Having paid the entry fare already, we should visit every place that is open to us!"
"Ah, yeah, of course that's fine... But is there anything there that's making you so emotional?"
Konoha answered immediately, prompting Fear to go "hmph."
"A place where someone like Cow Tits wants to go... and the main point being a weird place like a Shinto shrine inside a Buddhist temple's precinct. That means it must be the stronghold of an evil cult where weird rituals with fully nude festivals are held! Haruaki, lend me your guide booklet! I have to confirm, lemme look lemme look..."
Fear proceeded to moan and stand still. Peering at the same page from the side, Kirika suddenly said with a grave expression: "Th-This is...!"
Presumably realizing what place they were reacting towards, Kururi sighed with impatience. On the other hand, Bivorio whispered softly with a gentle smile: "Girls will be girls after all."
A large crowd had gathered there already, a spot that apparently anyone slightly informed would know about. There were Taishyuu High students from other groups; high school students in unfamiliar uniforms, probably in the middle of their own school excursion; completely unrelated adults and foreign tourists—Since everyone was lining up in an orderly manner, there was no choice but to endure the long wait. However, it was worth the wait.
This was it—The love divination rocks.
(Although it's just absolutely ridiculous superstition...)
Kirika muttered in her thoughts and looked again at the two rocks placed in front of the worship hall. Carefully encircled with shimenawa rope, there was even a sign erected which read "The Love Divination Rocks." It was said that love would bear fruit if one were to successfully walk from one rock to the other while keeping their eyes closed.
Fear and Konoha were leaning forward not far away ahead, watching other people attempt the love divination challenge. Presumably thinking to himself: "Yeah, after all, girls all enjoy stuff like love divination," Haruaki was standing slightly further away, leisurely waiting for the girls. His obliviousness was both gratifying and infuriating.
Sighing lightly, Kirika noticed Kururi standing by her side. Taking out the key from her pocket, Kururi scowled at the key that had only turned roughly 20-30% red.
"Sheesh... Freaking incompetent. Had I known..."
"Then you wouldn't have picked it up?"
Kirika had not spoken to her directly until now—their relationship was nowhere near good enough to have a chat—but without realizing, she had already struck up conversation with Kururi. Kururi glanced sideways at Kirika.
"...No, I still would have. Like I said back then, this all started with my side so we can't owe you guys a favor. At least, shoving everything onto you guys would be unreasonable."
I never thought she'd be so honest—Kirika thought. Was her personality like that to begin with? Or was something different in her heart compared to before?
"So consider it killing time, lemme try asking... What do you think I should do?"
"What a vague question, but I understand what you're trying to say."
Kirika smiled wryly. Also treating this as killing time, she tried to ponder seriously what suggestions she could offer.
"I think what Bivorio said earlier should be about right. The most effective way to stir up emotions is to interact with others. Even more effective if it's with someone special. In other words—He's called Kouichirou, right? You really should have brought the boyfriend who works with you at the restaurant—"
"S-S-S-S-Shut up! Freaking incompetent! What are you talking about!? That totally isn't the case with that guy! I have no idea exactly what's going on exactly, but that's that! Don't get the wrong idea!"
"Is that so? I was just trying to think of the most effective solution. If I misunderstood, then I'm truly sorry."
Kirika spoke calmly. When watching others acting flustered in front of her, she found herself feeling very calm instead. Furthermore, it was true that certain people were fatally clumsy and awkward at hiding their inner feelings. Kirika reminded herself to be more cautious as well.
"Sheesh, what's with you people...? Did everyone plan together to make fun of me?"
"That's not our intention."
"On the other hand, what's up with you lot?"
"What do you mean, what's up with us?"
Presumably intending to counterattack, Kururi scoffed.
"Let's not kid ourselves. I do have a woman's intuition after all. Of course I mean that carefree-looking guy."
Kirika wanted to remain silent, but that evidently failed to work.
"Although I've been on one before, you guys are currently on a school excursion, right? At the very least, I know that it's an excellent opportunity in that certain area. Hmph... How enviable. Because I've never experienced that kind of school life."
"—Do you really find it enviable?"
These words slipped out naturally. At the same time, they did not carry any emotion.
Kirika turned her gaze away from the rocks in front of the worship hall where a hurricane of love was blowing, then looked up towards the sky that was faintly decorated by a scant few drifting clouds.
There was no displeasure in her heart, which was as clear as the sky above. At the same time, something as vague and intangible as clouds was drifting from side to side within her, searching for a place to settle.
Those words, spoken vacantly, surely were her—
"We... Things are actually quite tough for us."
Kirika found Kururi examining the side of her face intently. Suddenly feeling embarrassed about staring up into the sky and saying such things, Kirika had no choice but to smile slightly in a wry manner and endure Kururi's gaze. Then she added:
"—But perhaps these are just absolutely ridiculous worries. In the end, it's the same for everyone. Other people's worries seem absolutely ridiculous to us while our own worries seem absolutely ridiculous to others. Consequently... There's no need to envy others too much."
Perhaps seeing something in Kirika's expression, Kururi exhaled. Then the corners of her lips curled in a grin.
"...Maybe. A-Ahhh, freaking incompetent."
For some reason, very unbelievably, Kirika felt the distance separating her and Kururi had shrunk ever so slightly. She also felt an unbelievable sense of complicit awareness.
Hence, Kirika asked in return:
"So consider it killing time, lemme try asking... What do you think I should do?"
"What a vague question, but I understand what you're trying to say."
Kururi smiled slightly wryly, then entered deep thought for the next few seconds with a serious look on her face.
"I guess there's no other way." Kururi whispered then looked towards Kirika solemnly and said:
"Knock him down and have your way with him."
"Sometimes I do wonder very seriously, how much easier things would be if I really could do that."
Narrowing his eyes, Haruaki stared at the scene.
God, please split heaven and earth apart for miracles to manifest—Concentrating hard as though saying these words, Konoha breathed deeply. Keeping her eyes closed and leaning forward, she pressed her hands on the rock in front of her. Squeezed between her arms, a certain bulging presence quivered as though being restrained. "Okay!" Nodding to serve as a start signal, Konoha lifted her hands from the rock, then keeping her eyes closed, she spun around once to have her back facing the rock—
"N-No good, Cow Tits! Go right a bit! No, left! There's a cat by your foot! Watch out!"
"Ahhh, jeez, stop it with all the noise! ...Reaching the other side with guidance would mean that love cannot succeed without assistance from others... So conversely, so long as I can surmount these adverse conditions, it would imply that my love can bear fruit without being led astray by interlopers...!"
Step by step, Konoha was making definite progress towards the other rock that stood as part of a pair. Meanwhile, Fear was yelling from the side to help out. Kururi and Kirika, a rare combination, were chatting together while watching this scene unfold.
They all looked like they were quite enjoying themselves currently. So they really intended to activate their keys as quickly as possible by having the most fun?
(Hmm... As much as I'd like to help out, what could I do?)
While Haruaki was pondering this question, he suddenly sensed someone standing beside him. Turning his head to have a look, he found Bivorio. With a gentle expression, she looked at Kururi and said:
"Fufu, she hasn't been this happy for a long time now. Even ignoring the matter of the keys, coming to this place is definitely wonderful. I hope it'll help energize her from the fatigue of daily work."
Hearing her speak softly, Haruaki decided that this presented a good opportunity to chat about Kururi's current life.
"Work huh... To be honest, I was quite surprised to see her working earnestly. That's because it's not the kind of impression she gives off. Does she work seriously every day?"
"Yes. However, there were many situations when she first started working... Failure, anxiety, absence from work, or running home in the middle of the day, for example."
"I'm sorry to say this but that does fit my mental image of her a lot better."
"Fufu, I shall pretend I didn't hear that. Even so, she is trying to understand things in her own way, working hard to get used to the situation. For the sake of creating 'a place to belong to.' However, more time is still needed."
"A place to belong to..."
"Yes. Because we... have never had such a place. We only had a temporary and fake home. Long before the Family was established as an organization, this was already the case. I came from a human trafficking organization that disguised itself as a orphanage while Kururi had lost her parents and lived under a relative's long-term abuse. What we had at the time were not places where we belonged but only cold reality."
Bivorio sighed slightly at this time and said lightly: "Sorry." Then she shook her head as though trying to drive away those dark memories.
She proceeded to look at Kururi again.
"Whenever I recall these things, I would think that she must be a very resilient girl. No matter how many times she failed, no matter how unused to the work she was, she always persevered and never gave up easily. Even when she ran away, she would always return, meanwhile grumbling while she worked, putting her full effort into creating a place for herself to belong to. Indeed, she has worked very hard to become who she is now. I am very proud of her."
"The situation for you is the same, right? You're amazing too."
Haruaki could not help but let slip this remark. Bivorio widened her eyes for an instant then smiled demurely:
"As the saying goes, the older the wiser, after all, so things are easier for me than for that child. Furthermore, the people in this country are so friendly. Simply because I'm a foreigner, they turn a blind eye even when I make mistakes."
"Hmm, I guess that is really a bit unfair."
"However, she does have a reliable companion. Someone the same age whom she can engage in arguments together. Grumbling then forcing him to help her out sometimes, grumbling then helping him out in return sometimes, of course grumbling nonstop the whole time... Fufu. Interacting with him is simply for the sake of relieving stress, making contact with him is for the sake of getting used to the workplace environment, accepting his instruction is also for improving her skills at work."
"Uh... Are you referring to Kouichirou-san?"
"In consideration of privacy, I shall not make any comments regarding names."
Bivorio answered humorously and closed one eye lightly. Then she spoke as though murmuring to herself:
"Perhaps she managed to work so hard all this time only because he's around. No amount of thanks for him would be enough... I suppose she probably feels gratitude from the bottom of her heart. Seriously, if only she could express such emotions a little more honestly, things could be settled very quickly..."
Bivorio's gaze remained on Kururi. Haruaki looked at Kururi again. Unlike in the past, Kururi was currently bearing a calm and peaceful expression. How much hard work had she put in before such an expression became possible for her? Haruaki could only imagine. Nevertheless, he found the current Kururi standing there a very dazzling sight to behold.
The conversation reached an end here. A peaceful silence.
I must work hard too—Haruaki thought. He must do what he ought to do.
Right now, what he ought to do was help Fear and the girls.
Then how should he go about it?
Emotions, Helping them strengthen their emotions. Speaking of emotions, the typical ones were joy, anger, pathos, and humor. The middle two were definitely ruled out. So that left joy and humor remaining? In other words, all he needed to do was make everyone happy and joyful—Right? But how?
"If we were at home right now, I could cook..."
For example, putting in more effort than usual to cook up a sumptuous feast or putting in abundant amounts of everyone's favorite foods. There were many other ways too.
However, saying this now did not help matters. While Haruaki was sighing, presumably having overheard his mutterings to himself—
"As much as you'd like to help them, you are worrying endlessly because you have no idea how—That seems to be what you are thinking at the moment."
"Woah! Uh yeah, that's true... You hit it right on the nail."
Bivorio smiled mischievously:
"My side has always been watching over existences like those girls. Watching over them tirelessly, my companions and I regarded them as our pride as well as our own standpoint and meaning of existence. In other words, we can be the considered the first to watch over them intently. Naturally, it is but an easy task for me to guess what a boy is currently thinking when watching them with a worried expression."
Since Bivorio was able to smile in this manner while recalling her former way of life, it meant that she had truly turned over a new leaf—Haruaki thought.
"You wish to help them?"
"I don't think you need to force yourself to do anything. Just by being yourself, you will most likely help them already."
"Uh, I totally don't get what you're saying."
"Fufu, that's why I said it that way."
"You're still leaving me confused..."
Can't you give me a suggestion that's easier to understand? —While Haruaki smiled wryly on his own, Bivorio suddenly bent forward to examine his face. For some reason, her expression was many times more serious than before.
"Please allow me to take this opportunity to say a few more words. Having seen with twisted eyes, thought with a foolish mind and spoken with wrong words in the past, I have come to understand certain things. Precisely due to having gone through the filter of madness and ignorance, a certain something was left behind in my heart."
"This is a request from me, the one who used to advocate the love of curses. It is also a wish akin to brazen, shameless contrition."
Bivorio blinked very slowly.
Then in a voice as light as a whisper:
"Please do not forget—Like ordinary people, they can be loved."
What she had said was both logical yet too logical, a fact that easily stood to reason.
What she had said was something extremely important that he had never thought about before.
Haruaki savored this type of contradictory feeling.
There was an inexplicably bitter feeling in the depths of his heart. Itching, scorching. His blood flow was about to start racing. Where to?
Seeing Haruaki's expression, Bivorio suddenly relaxed her tense expression, as though she had accomplished her mission by reaching this result.
Standing up straight, she cast a gentle gaze over Fear and the girls again.
Konoha was currently giggling "fufufu" while making fists repeatedly in a terrifying manner to put up a victory pose. Fear was grumbling: "Oh well... This also counts as a chance to confirm my spatial intelligence, nothing more, yes!" Then she placed her hands on the rock. "No one else is next, right? Okay... In that case, just as a memento, I'll have a go too..." Acting nonchalantly, Kirika took up her position behind Fear. On the other hand, Kururi shrugged.
"Oh dear, she looks so lonely, being the only one remaining at the original spot. Then I shall go tease her a little—rather, give her some advice on how to stir up her feelings. In any case, I need to give her a push first, tell her not to hold back and start by participating in the love divination."
Bivorio started walking towards Kururi but paused halfway and looked back at Haruaki.
"I forgot to say the most important thing. To supplement what I just said... This is purely what my intuition tells me as a person who advocates love."
Chuckling, she said:
"There is not the slightest inauthenticity in their personalities. Consequently, having obtained lives identical to humans, they will obtain love identical to humans as well. Then surely, they must be capable of having babies, right?"
Bivorio shrugged lightly, turned to face forward again and continued on her way.
Haruaki had no idea if she was simply teasing him or not.
As they departed from Kiyomizu-dera, Fear checked the state of her key again.
Seeing the key she fished out of her pocket, she sighed. Roughly... 40%? Not much progress had been made. Kururi's was pretty much the same but maintaining the previous lead, Konoha's key had already turned roughly 60% red.
"There wasn't much of a real sense prior to this point, but after exceeding the halfway mark... It turns out I can feel it slowly accumulating."
Fear glanced at Konoha's key and pouted slightly. That's just you, hurry and tell me the trick—Fear had no idea what to do and was not making enough progress. What did it mean to release emotions honestly? And how did it happen? Specifically, what needed to be done...
Despite feeling infuriated...
Upon thinking simply, she could actually emulate Konoha.
Fear had noticed how Konoha's behavior was slightly different from usual. She had also discovered hints among them on how to strengthen emotions.
Konoha essentially kept hanging by Haruaki's side. Clearly more frequently than usual, at an obviously closer distance than usual, right next to him. At a position that almost looked like they were touching. Those shameless things wobbling as though being shown off, even touching him for real on occasion. Frequently talking to him, frequently smiling at him.
(If I can do that as well... It'll work?)
Pushing Konoha aside, taking her place and doing the same thing, imitating her. Perhaps this would work.
But Fear was unable to do it.
Her pride prevented her. Other considerations occupied her mind. The differences between her and Konoha. The difference in past experience. The difference in time spent together over the years. The difference in bust size.
In other words, Fear was not Konoha. Hence, Fear did not want to act the same way.
"Why are you sulking, Fear? Next up is a place you really wanted to visit. Go and enjoy yourself."
She was having fun. Enjoying this period of time known as the school excursion, visiting place she had never been to, Fear believed this was her only way to intensify her emotions, hence she was having fun—That was Fear's original plan, but for some reason, the key was not gaining power. This was making her impatient.
The whole group took a bus back to the Kyoto station. Then taking a train, they traveled for roughly five minutes.
Their destination was a tourist attraction that could be reached quickly on foot. So, why would I really want to visit this place...? Fear could not remember. Anyway, let's continue moving forward, I'll probably remember eventually. But what should I do to infuse power into the key?
Just at this moment, someone pulled her collar. Fear turned to see Haruaki grabbing her by the uniform, an astonished look on his face while he pointed to the side using his other hand.
"Oh wow, you're really not acting yourself. What's wrong? This should be the main event for you, right? Uh, of course, it's more normal to get it on the way back, but it's way too weird for you to ignore it completely despite walking past head on."
"...Oh, I remember now!"
"You forgot? How could you forget this, that's truly astounding. Do you have a fever?"
"S-Shut up, I was just thinking about something."
"Okay... It's not like I can't understand, but it's not good to think too much. Relaxing appropriately is very important too. Besides, skipping over this place would be too unlike you. That'll make me feel uncomfortable all over. Let's go have a look first."
Unlike myself. I guess so. Fear agreed too.
"C-Cough." Fear cleared her throat and decided to temporarily forget the restlessness deep in her heart, a feeling of unfulfilled frustration. Haruaki was right. Rest was very important too.
Before her eyes was a shop that she was determined "only this place must be visited for sure" back when they were planning the itinerary for their group. As soon as she recalled this, there was no reason for her to stop walking. Opening her purse, Fear ran straight for the salesperson.
"Here you go, fox rice crackers, thank you for your patience~"
"Wow... They really are fox-shaped...!"
Fear's attention was grabbed by what the salesperson presented.
What a rare type of rice cracker, to think they would use visual impact to please customers from the start. Embodying entertainment and artistic value, the exquisite design made one reluctant to bite and eat the rice cracker. In addition to visual appeal, it even stimulated the sense of smell. The freshly baked rice crackers were giving off a very seductive aroma.
Fear's originally demoralized spirits were instantly revived somewhat. Rice crackers were still the best. Then what she needed to do next was—
"Fear, you're not going to eat it?"
"O-Of course I'll eat it. But it really feels such a shame to eat! A-Anyway, thanks for the food..."
Crunch. A crisp and refreshing texture. "Woohoo—" Fear could not help but exhale slowly.
"This aroma is too amazing! This... Hmm, there must be miso and sesame added! Two powerful forces, melded together perfectly. An elegant sweetness that seems to melt inside the mouth, yet definitely leaving behind a concrete sense of crunchiness... T-Too awesome! I'm so happy!"
As fast as she could, Fear ravenously wolfed down the rice crackers that were made in the image of fox masks. Watching her, Haruaki smiled.
"Haha... How should I put this? I knew it, you act the most honest when you're eating rice crackers. That kind of worried face really doesn't suit you."
For some reason, Fear found herself attracted to his expression. She stopped chewing and ruminated over the word Haruaki had just said—honest.
Perhaps so. She could confidently say that she was currently acting true to her instincts. She could confidently say that she was acting true to her feelings. Then extrapolating from this, what else was there she could do?
For example, what did she currently want to do?
Fear pondered this question again.
She tried to be as objective as possible without missing any thoughts inside her heart.
Among them, she discovered thoughts that occupied the most volume. Accompanying them were all sorts of notions. Feelings dissuading her since Konoha and Kirika were present; feelings saying that doing it was fine; feelings of doubt, asking "why?"; feelings answering "no particular significance."
Ah, if only she could ignore these feelings and simply pick out her greatest desire at the root, perhaps that would be—
With crunch, Fear snapped the rice cracker held on her lips.
Taking that half of a fox mask, the half-eaten fox rice cracker—
She shoved it against Haruaki's mouth.
"—Here you go. Eat it. It's very yummy."
Fear chewed the rice cracker in her mouth to pieces then stared intently at Haruaki. Haruaki opened his mouth as though surrendering so she shoved again and he started chewing. His mouth seemed unexpectedly large, was this the same for all boys? —Fear secretly wondered. "Oh, it's very tasty." Haruaki praised quietly from the bottom of his heart. Munch munch munch. Staring at Haruaki's face intently, Fear started chewing at the same time.
"Mmm... Mmm, very tasty... Isn't it? I know right."
She wanted... to eat together with Haruaki.
...Although she had no idea why except that she wanted to do this.
Splitting a rice cracker into halves then feeding him directly. Looking into each other's eyes while crunchy sounds of chewing happened at the same time. Expressing sincere comments like "so tasty" to each other.
After trying it out for real, Fear felt an unbelievable tightening in her chest, turning into a scorching and unpleasant feeling yet making her want to dance and wave her arms. A smile naturally bloomed on her face and could not be stopped.
The flavor in her mouth gradually disappeared. What a shame. Let's eat a second one—Just as Fear thought that, a certain notion flashed across her mind.
Oh right, if simply eating halves of the same rice cracker together felt like this—
What if they bit opposite sides of the same rice cracker and started eating, like her Valentine's Day delusion last time, that would feel so—
(No way no way no way! That would be too much! Besides, Cow Tits is here!)
Fear shook her head repeatedly to dispel the notion. Although the question "if no one was around, will you do it?" also flashed through her mind, she decided not to dwell any further on the issue.
In any case, eating this one rice cracker should be enough. Although she did not quite understand, her mood felt much better already. What exactly had she been worrying over? There was no need to imitate anyone, just do whatever she wanted without holding back, in her own manner—She could not possibly be unhappy if she did that. Perhaps up until now, she had simply perceived everything as more difficult than necessary.
"...Okay! Now that I've bought tasty, local rice crackers, let's continue onwards! Fushimi Inari Shrine is next? Ohoh, what a huge and magnificent door! It's both white and red, like those Shameless Shrine Maidens. Come to think of it, I'll need to buy them souvenirs! What should I buy?"
"Wow, eating rice crackers does make you a hundred times more lively after all. Hold on, Fear, no need to rush."
Fear was walking at the very front, meanwhile discreetly taking out the key in her pocket, fueled with partial confidence.
The key that had just turned 40% red earlier was now 50%. No, 55%.
The red area was clearly increasing.
Hmm. Very well.
Despite not understanding how it worked.
Continuing at this rate, it should be fine.
...So long as she did not forget whose face to recall while infusing her emotions into the key.
Nagasone Kotetsu closed her eyes and recalled.
How much time had elapsed since the escape and pursuit began?
In the darkness, Kotetsu was facing off against Un Izoey. It was during a moment's pause that descended while she was on a mad dash to chase the fleeing Yamimagari Pakuaki. At that instant, Kotetsu and Un Izoey had stopped in a remote corner that survived from ancient streets.
Kotetsu crushed the knife in the palm of her hand. More accurately, she shredded the knife in her hand, turning it into a pile of fragments. Kotetsu had already shredded a number of knives, but this act still could not pose a threat. The girl, whose skin color almost seemed to meld into the night, backed away swiftly and used her foot to draw out a new knife from under her skirt. No sense of decency. Ladyfolk should attach greater importance to their conduct—That was what Kotetsu currently believed.
In any case, this girl was too much of a hindrance.
Kotetsu's mission, the command issued by the master, was to obtain the Indulgence Disk. In other words, this meant taking the box containing the Indulgence Disk as well as capturing Yamimagari Pakuaki who surely knew how to open it. Although the box was currently in this dark-skinned girl's possession, Kotetsu knew where she must return eventually and could take care of that later. Right now, it was imperative to catch up to Yamimagari Pakuaki.
Upholding «Integrity» even at the cost of laying down one's life, Kotetsu leaned forward and sprinted fiercely again. What needed to be done was still the same as before. No matter what, she had to dispose of this girl who was blocking the way, then prevent Yamimagari Pakuaki from escaping.
But just at this moment, a voice rang out in the darkness. It was not the dark-skinned girl's voice.
"Oh my, aren't you charging around madly? Your simplicity is so pure that it can considered a virtue."
"Lab Chief, please run away as quickly as possible if you have the time to speak. This is the hope I'm hoping."
"On the contrary, I hope you can regard this as evidence of my absolute trust in you, believing that you will surely handle this."
Kotetsu could not pinpoint the source of the voice. In any case, it was somewhere in the surrounding darkness. If even her senses could not locate it... Perhaps some sort of Wathe was being used. Considering his identity, this was very probable.
"Have you finally given up? Then show yourself now. Truth be told, I shall not grant you a swift death."
"Hahaha, it's precisely the opposite... I am simply offering you a bit of advice to commend you for your relentless pursuit. If you think carefully, there are three of them but only one of you. Quite a disadvantage in terms of numbers."
Trying not to waste time, Kotetsu relied on instinct and charged in the direction where she thought the voice was coming from. Naturally, another intense battle began with the dark-skinned girl who came to obstruct her. She was using strange tactics involving both feet. It was tricky to deal with due to unfamiliarity but Kotetsu had no intention of admitting defeat.
"I shall repeat myself again. Even I can't open that box. You can only use that key—This is the premise that I must ask you to believe. Besides, I don't even need that thing, yet you're pursuing me relentlessly. If I really had a way of opening the box, I would have thrown my hands up to surrender and give you the Disk. I'm quite a calculating person, you know?"
Mixed with sighs, that voice sounded very sincere. Kotetsu could not help but think: perhaps he really was speaking the truth.
"So, as for my advice—in other words, I'm letting you know what you should do to activate the key. That's because it looks like it'll be easier for you to understand if I told you the specific method directly."
Kotetsu and the dark-skinned girl deflected each other's attacks and pulled apart slightly. Readjusting her stance, Kotetsu took the opportunity to speak:
"Hmph, what would you have me do?"
"You hate Muramasa, don't you?"
The sudden question caused Kotetsu to glare into the darkness, halting the step she was about to take forward. The response came back with a presence like that of someone enjoying a show.
"No, more accurately, perhaps it might not be hatred—But let's simplify things for now. As a fellow sword, especially a renowned sword, it is only natural that you harbor certain feelings towards her."
"In other words, you can use those feelings. Just earlier, you looked like you really wanted to vent and act out those feelings on her, but due to the mission of retrieving the Indulgence Disk, you had no choice but to force yourself to disregard them. But now, you don't need to hold back anymore, because the two matters are related."
For some reason, her legs did not move. Kotetsu was suddenly struck by the notion that it would not hurt to listen first to what this man had to say.
"Since you hate Muramasa, there must be reasons for the hatred. Didn't I mention earlier? Hatred is a veritable and genuine emotion. Hence, in your case, confirming this matter is absolutely not a waste of effort."
"That's right, after confirming, once you reach the conclusion that she is indeed deserving of hatred, you will hate her once again. But if you reach a contrary conclusion, you—"
"Truth be told, that is absolutely impossible."
"—Yes, this is only speculation. In any case, when the time comes, you will possess a certain honest emotion. In other words, in terms of raw materials, you possess emotions that are very convenient to use, because activating the key requires 'behavior that stirs up emotions.' It is absolutely not a waste of time and considering your single-mindedness, those feelings will prove to be extremely useful."
Kotetsu recalled that woman's face.
Muramasa, Muramasa, Muramasa—
She was a sword. As a tool, swords were meant for killing people.
The same went for Kotetsu. Due to humans thirsting for this purpose and her outstanding abilities, humans desired her for the simple goal of achieving this clear purpose. Kotetsu's sharpness could be said to be peerless. Hence, swordsmen wished to obtain Kotetsu, completing their missions while feeling satisfied with Kotetsu's sharpness. In other words—
Hence, that was why she was cursed.
No need for shame nor ignorant surprise. This was a perfectly logical and natural development. This ought to be the way of excellent swords, swords passed down since antiquity. Precisely due to excellence, they were used continually for murder. Even with a change of owners, they were still sought by people, then repeatedly receiving the resentment of the murdered, they were cursed. Hence, throughout the entire process all this time, Kotetsu always believed that this was her only path. This was a renowned sword's unavoidable history of development. Cursed only because of excellence, becoming even more excellent because of being cursed. Unconcerned by the rumors of curses, these wielders simply sought practical utility in the aspect of murder.
Ah, precisely because of that—
So long as it was a natural development, so long as they accepted their curses matter-of-factly, Kotetsu believed that for swords like them, in order for them to be cursed, humans actually desired for them to be cursed from the start, did they not? Hence, swords ought to willingly accept curses as the best sharpening stones, should they not?
Kotetsu had always kept this proper way of life in sight. Clear-cut, filled with pride, she had always lived without compromise, believing this was herself.
Muramasa, that blade praised as the sword among swords, possessing peerless sharpness and unparalleled power, the existence bearing the name that Kotetsu had even gone as far as to idolize in the past, was not like that.
The admiration in her heart was instantly rendered into disappointment, turned into resentment for feeling betrayed. These were the feelings currently residing in the bottom of Kotetsu's heart. Occupying her chest, these feelings that were almost about to overflow.
Without realizing it, Kotetsu had clenched her fist tightly.
"So, that's my advice to you. I've also succeeded in buying some time, so there shouldn't be a problem, Un Izoey. You should go back too. Isn't the terrifying shovel waiting for you?"
Kotetsu suddenly regained her senses and thought: "I've been had!" But it was too late.
Only true and silent darkness remained in the surroundings.
This darkness was very similar to the feelings she had recalled, the feelings she harbored towards a certain absolutely unforgivable target.
Definite and concrete emotions. Emotions that must be faced squarely. Emotions that could not be evaded. Emotions that could not be dispelled.
When facing off square, what could she do as a sword?
It was obvious.
Simply chop apart the eyesore and advance towards where she ought to be.
Hence—Kotetsu opened both eyes.
The darkness that needed to be chopped apart was currently right by her feet.
Experiencing serenity and mysteriousness through her skin, Konoha walked by Haruaki's side with neither haste nor languidity.
Before their eyes was the thousand torii gates of Fushime Inari Shrine. Konoha did not care to count but she would not be surprised if there really were that many. Spaced narrowly apart, the countless torii formed something like a tunnel. If one were to stare ahead continuously, one would suddenly lose a sense of distance. This was a dreamlike path of red that made the viewer feel as though this imagery would stretch endlessly ahead, forever and ever. Walking along the stone slabs, their footsteps sounded like some kind of ritual as they weaved through the openings of the torii.
The thousand torii gates were located on side of Inari Mountain, resulting in a gently sloping upward path. Hence, one would begin to sweat slightly simply by walking. Konoha smiled at the person beside her and said:
"This is truly excellent exercise. Also, the atmosphere is so calm and quiet... If this were near our home, I would surely add it to my list of favorite walking trails and take frequent strolls here."
"I also enjoy places with this kind of mysterious atmosphere. But in fact, just passing through the torii near our home already makes me out of breath. Also, I quite like ordinary shrines."
"Hold it right there, Haruaki, that's not the current issue here. We should be smart enough to see that this girl means 'losing weight' when she mentions taking walks. In other words, apart from the udders, Cow Tits has meat growing in other pitiful body parts. Hence, for her own good, we should mock her for her futile efforts with our lukewarm gazes—"
A silver mass, an affront to the eyes, forced its way between them but Konoha ignored it, using the outside of her arm to push it back forcibly. Then as though nothing had happened, she continued the conversation:
"But if you're not careful in your selection, there are some shrines where it's not only impossible to find serenity but may even have fifteen identical shrine maidens running out of the woodwork. And one would often encounter scary incidents or indecent accidents. Hence—umm, if we take strolls together, it would guard against those possibilities."
"But taking a stroll to that shrine would really be quite far."
"That must be because she wants to burn off the most calories by walking as far as possible! That's what my powers of deduction are telling me! Let's shelve this issue and decide what we should buy as souvenirs for them? It's probably best to get something in quantity, right?"
The silver little head had not learned its lesson and tried to force its way in again. Konoha sighed. How blissful it would be if she could walk here with him along this little path, just the two of them. However, there were currently many people in the way. Not only was there Fear who had been hanging around all this time, as much as Konoha wished to forget, but there was also the rest of the group behind them: Kirika, Un Izoey, Kururi and Bivorio. Even—
Konoha reflexively pushed down on Fear's shoulder and shoved her towards Haruaki, forcing her to act as a meat shield. However, this was only just in case.
With an extremely high probability, the enemy's target was Konoha herself.
Konoha pounced on the stone-paved ground and rolled forward. This would probably expose the view under her skirt to him but there was no time to dwell on that. Next, Konoha swiftly turned around to confirm the situation.
The thousand torii gates were not packed densely together. From one of the gaps, above a torii behind Haruaki's group, the one who had jumped down to attack was, of course—
Dressed in Wa Lolita style with a pale-blue Shinsengumi haori on top, Kotetsu glared vigorously at Konoha, the stone slab by her feet gouged and lifted up completely. This was because Kotetsu had used the momentum of her fall to power her tiger claws, swinging her arms down fiercely, imbued with the power of the sword.
Konoha had taken a flip, afraid that Kotetsu might attack Haruaki and the others, but such worries proved to be unnecessary. Kotetsu charged again quickly to attack her. Despite fighting unarmed, one could still describe her swordsmanship as extremely bold and forthright given the way they fought. Despite unrefined, Kotetsu's continuous attacks seemed to rely on being unrefined as a strength. Using power to overwhelm cautious predictions and techniques, it was an attack style filled with vigor.
Kotetsu had seized the initiative. Konoha retreated and blocked the attack, rushing into the trees and vegetation away from Inari Mountain's sightseeing route. This was actually better because being seen would be bad and they definitely should avoid accidentally using too much force chopping down torii gates, thereby damaging precious cultural heritage.
Evading the thrusts of the tiger claws, Konoha either used knife hand strikes to block or kicked to counterattack. But the opponent would then use such openings to attack her destabilized lower body. Konoha gave up on attacking and focused back on defense.
Before they knew it, Konoha was chased to an unmaintained area on the side of the mountain. As a product of nature, there was still a stretch of fairly open ground. Here, Konoha decided to switch from defense to offense. Deliberately spinning her body a greater number of times, she made use of the wider space to handle her enemy.
"Why are you attacking me!?"
"I have no obligation to answer you!"
"Can't you oblige yourself as a fellow Japanese sword?"
"—Truth be told! That would... This point—!"
Although the space was relatively more open, that was all there was to it. Swept into the battle, the surrounding trees were cut down one after another, even tree trunks were blown away while branches and leaves fluttered through the air. Conversely, this greatly increased the amount of usable area.
Branches fell between the two of them, blocking line of sight for an instant. Using this momentary chance, Konoha predicted her opponent's movements, meanwhile moving herself to a position beyond the enemy's expectation, then as the view cleared, she thrust the base of her palm forward. Due to Kotetsu moving to where she predicted, Konoha struck her squarely in the abdomen, sending her flying. Nevertheless, Kotetsu used her arms to protect herself at the last instant, thereby preventing significant damage. It would not be surprising for Konoha's strike to end the match against an ordinary enemy, but apparently, ordinary methods were not enough to defeat Kotetsu.
In order to prevent the enemy from noticing her nervousness, Konoha intentionally spoke in a confident and leisurely tone of voice:
"As one would think, it's tricky to face off against a similar opponent. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Isn't it time for you to tell me why you're targeting me? Have we met somewhere before? Were you present at the Battle of Sekigahara? Or was it during the late shogunate period?"
"I... have never met you... on the battlefield."
Kotetsu answered out of breath.
"But I know you. Muramasa. The demon blade that bears an absolutely irreconcilable grudge against the Tokugawa."
"As much as I find it a little embarrassing, that is quite a well-known fact indeed. If it's just this level of knowledge and recognition, then I know you too. Kotetsu. Unrefined yet incomparably sharp. A trenchant blade capable of effortlessly slicing through three or four bodies at once."
Kotetsu's expression seemed to show wavering. But perhaps that was only Konoha's imagination.
In any case, they were kindred. Whether as curved blades forged from fine steel or in another aspect that could not be ignored at all. Hence, Konoha could not help but ask:
"Why were you cursed?"
Hearing this question, Kotetsu first blinked slowly before exhaling and asking in return:
"Then let me ask you, why were you cursed?"
Konoha was instantly rendered speechless. The answer was exceedingly simple yet so complicated that it was difficult to explain in brief.
"You are unable to answer, right? Because we are weapons, we are blades, we are swords. We, who stand at the pinnacle and have experienced the most—truth be told—to be cursed is only natural to begin with."
Don't be ridiculous. Konoha thought strongly to herself. However, she could feel her own heart cool down rapidly.
"—Wouldn't you agree?"
Konoha answered swiftly. Even she could feel sub-zero temperature spreading from her cold heart to her eyes. Nevertheless, surely her gaze, directed towards the kin before her eyes, carried emotions apart from coldness.
Indeed, for example—Pity.
Konoha slowly drew in a breath then said:
"For a fellow sword like you who knows not your purpose, allow me to offer you a suggestion—Would you like to join me in forgetting the past? Would you like to wipe off the blood from the tempering pattern of your blade and resheathe it? You probably can understand after seeing the contemporary world, right? The era of the sword has already ended."
A sound. A sound coming from a throat. Kotetsu's face was strangely stiffened to produce an expressionless face, In that instant, this reaction was completely baffling.
But a beat later—
"Ha... Hahaha... Hahahahahahahaha! No good, no good, I knew it was no good, it really is no good! Ahhh... Ahhhhhhhh, wrong! Wrong, wrong, this is wrong! This is completely wrong—!"
Starting with a laugh, Kotetsu's words turned into a chaotic mix of emotions within the blink of an eye, turning into despair, anger, disappointment, regret—as well as hatred.
"I knew it... No good, Muramasa... I... towards you!"
Konoha could feel Kotetsu's entire body filled with power, exuding negative emotions that dwarfed what she had previously displayed. A peaceful solution seemed to be out of reach after all. Konoha readied a combat stance and said finally:
"Although I have no reason to worry for you, seeing as you've received that key, now is probably not the time to be doing this. Honestly, I feel that this is just a meaningless fight."
"Meaningless? This is not meaningless, not meaningless! My feelings—My hatred towards you is right here! This is the proof!"
Kotetsu glared viciously at Konoha and took out the key from her pocket. Holding the key up before her narrowed eyes, she targeted the key with her murderous gaze.
Before Konoha's eyes, the key's red area was rapidly increasing.
Only 50% a moment ago, it had now increased to 70% or so.
Konoha whispered in surprise but reached a reveletion at the same time. Negative emotions. Indeed, Pakuaki had mentioned that negative emotions were a type of a feeling too. Kotetsu was intentionally using the hatred she held for Konoha as a source of emotions to activate the key?
Probably satisfied with Konoha's surprised look, Kotetsu placed the key back into her pocket, still with a vicious expression:
"But it's not over yet. This is still not enough. Muramasa, duel with me. Truth be told, your only remaining value is in allow me to generate that type of trash-like emotion. Allow me to absorb that useless disappointment and contempt once again. If you find this insulting, then show me the true light of your blade!"
While speaking, Kotetsu used the tip of her foot to kick up a branch on the ground, reaching out to grab it in her hand, then bringing it to her lips—
She licked. Out from her dainty lips, a pink tongue extended, licking the surface of the branch in an inexplicably salacious manner, back and forth, tracing out a moist trail of saliva.
Next, Kotetsu looked at the branch in her hand and said softly:
"Go forth and pierce, my will—"
Konoha realized instantly. That was a sword. At this moment, the branch was imbued with the characteristics of a sword. The street lamp was able to chop off Kirika's arm last night for the same reason, right? Although Konoha did not know why licking was necessary, it was probably a ritual using saliva as a medium to confer objects with the characteristics of swords.
"I can probably manage that kind of move... But if anything, I would call it a little trick that I'm not well-versed in."
"Whether it is a little trick or not, you may confirm for yourself. This is me. I am not just a simple lump of decrepit iron. As the story goes, a samurai only managed to pierce stone with a arrow because he intended to shoot a tiger—Hence the name, Kotetsu!"
The girl exuded the same type of aura as before when employing tiger-clawed strikes. Powerfully direct, boldly forthright, courageously straightforward. However, the volume of vigor had clearly increased. Right now, her presence was akin to fighting spirit that would deflect everything on touch, a sword-like presence.
Lifting the sword she had forged, Kotetus aimed it at Konoha's eyes and said quietly:
"En garde. I am Nagasone Kotetsu Nyuudou Okisato—known as the supreme trenchant blade possessing peerless, unparalleled sharpness!"
Saying that, Kotetsu charged forward with god-like speed. Konoha deflected using her karate chop but felt a stinging pain where she blocked. A minor cut appeared there. Konoha was filled with disbelief at losing in a battle of slicing.
"That I can even rival Muramasa, the rumors are apparently true!"
"Don't get... too full of yourself—!"
Vigor and conviction was necessary. Konoha invoked her power to the maximum and fought with Kotetsu's sword. Another wave of intense pain. But at the same time, the wooden stick in the opponent's hand was also chopped in half.
"Indeed, a single sword cannot finish things. Go forth and pierce, my will!"
Kotetsu picked up another branch within arm's reach. This time, she attacked directly without removing the branching twigs and leaves. Konoha raised her knife hand to engage again. Kotetsu's fighting style was similar to Fourteen the cursed house and Kokoro Pentangeli who created swords of wreckage—They all created weapons during battle before attacking. But unlike them, Kotetsu mainly fought at close range and rather than relying on quantity over quality, the power of her weapons were on an entirely different level.
(I... To think... Take this!)
Konoha had not suffered any critical injuries, but that was all. She was covered all over with countless minor cuts. The color flowing out from her body was also annoying her—or rather, she was feeling excitement. How long ago was it since she last had this feeling?
...Excitement? I'm feeling happy? It shouldn't be happiness. So disgusting. Really? Don't lie. Shut up. Too dangerous. Having accidentally released the restraints several months earlier, the self-hypnosis of fearing blood had yet to be re-established. Training was incomplete. Hence, blood, blood, blood. Even upon blinking, the color lingered beneath the eyelids. I feel excitement. A hot feeling in the lower abdomen was pleading an itching impulse.
Give me more blood.
Give me more battles.
Suppress it quickly. The only thing able to substitute for the released self-hypnosis, to calm my unsettled self down, was willpower. Don't get devoured by my own power. Don't get devoured by the curse occupying my body!
"I am quite suspicious."
Standing before the panting Konoha, Kotetsu whispered in a very disappointed manner:
"Truth be told, you are wavering too much. Whether towards hatred, disappointment or rejecting those emotions. Hence, you turn out to be even more boring than I imagined. Judging from the way things look, more time will be needed to fill up the key's remaining area. Should I consider alternative means...?"
Kotetsu did not show any openings while speaking. Currently held in her hand was a slender branch resembling a needle. Konoha guarded against thrusting strikes but also could not ignore slashing attacks.
To be honest, her stamina was slowly getting depleted. She must find another solution.
No, she already knew. She knew early on the other solution that was available.
She simply refused to admit it.
"Mechanism No.20 slashing type, great blade form: «A Hatchet of Lingchi», Curse Calling!"
The voice entering her ears now was the answer.
Even without asking for help, those girls were going to hurry their way here eventually.
To rely on this type of passive solution, as though willingly accepting assistance from rivals in love, Konoha found it more difficult to accept than anything.
Swinging the hatchet, Fear charged into the fray. The enemy's weapon was a branch. Was this some kind of joke? But for some reason, the branch deflected the hatchet with a sensation like that of an extremely solid Japanese sword. It did not feel like the branch was severed at all.
"Konoha! Are you okay!?"
Haruaki could be seen climbing out of the bushes slightly later, rushing towards Konoha with a frantic expression. Konoha's state was quite tragic to behold. Countless minor blade lacerations on her arms and legs, some of them still bleeding. Her clothes were also shredded, an unsightly state. Fear thought to herself: to think a sword would be beaten by another sword, how ludicrous. But for some reason, Fear did not feel like mocking her openly at all.
Fear simply felt agitated and poured strength into her arms, trying to deal the enemy a painful blow.
Releasing the power of violence without restraint, she attacked Kotetsu. Kotetsu frowned but did not dodge, instead swinging her tree branch sword to engage Fear's hatchet squarely, resulting in a battle of pure strength. Fear did not know if the enemy was simply courageous or only knew this one method of fighting.
With a sound akin to inorganic matter shattering, both sides' weapons bounced back. Kotetsu's branch could be seen striking a nearby tree after bouncing back, chopping down the tree trunk instantaneously and extremely naturally.
So this was the result of using a similar weapon, a slicing tool. In that case, what if she tried a different type of weapon?
"Mechanism No.22 bludgeoning type, spike-ball form: «Morgenstern»!"
Fear turned the emulated cube into the spiked metal club which could overwhelm the enemy more easily using mass. Applying her full bodyweight, Fear swung the metal club down with all her might. While Kotetsu clicked her tongue in annoyance, the tree branch sword in her hand flew away, spinning in circles. Indeed, even though it had acquired the nature and hardness of a sword, it still was not a sword. There was no hilt for the user to grip firmly.
The metal club sank into the ground next to the enemy who had lost her weapon. Too lazy to lift it back up, Fear decided to make use of the rare chance. In that case—Fear transformed her weapon again.
"Mechanism No.10 gripping type, compressing form: «Iron Coffin of Lissa», Curse Calling!"
She intended to lock the enemy away in a compressed space, surrounded by metal on all sides. However, the six walls needed a few seconds' worth of time to envelope Kotetsu completely. During this duration—
"Trying to execute me!? No thank you! Go forth and pierce—My will!"
With lightning speed, Kotetsu picked up the chopped down tree trunk from just now, lifting it high while sticking her tongue out to lick its surface like a light kiss. The massive tree trunk was instantly turned into something akin to a steel support pillar, briefly hindering the iron coffin's compressive action. Seizing this chance, Kotetsu swiftly escaped from the iron coffin's slowly closing space, even retrieving the wooden log that had saved her a second earlier.
Using both hands to lug the log next to her waist, Kotetsu looked like she was wielding a spear as she glared at Fear. Despite the unwieldiness of the weapon, her overall stance showed no openings. She was probably used to fighting in this manner as well.
As an opponent, there was nothing lacking about Kotetsu in any way. Fear concluded that the stronger the enemy, the more she needed to mercilessly bring out the powerful violence she possessed. That was all. Which torture instrument should she show the enemy next? Just as Fear was thinking that—
"«Tragic Black River»!"
Arriving hastily a step later, Kirika extended her cursed belt towards Kotetsu as soon as she discerned the situation. What reliable backup support.
Using one foot as a pivot, Kotetsu spun the log in her hands along with her body like a tornado. The unwieldy but deadly weapon instantly severed the belt. Kirika frowned.
"A log...? Absolutely ridiculous. What kind of log is that? It even severed «Tragic»."
"Despite the unusual shape, it seems to possess a sword's power. Don't be careless, Kirika."
Then arriving next were Kururi and Bivorio. Kururi aside, Bivorio was physically just an ordinary woman, so she could not help being this slow. Finally, Un Izoey sluggishly poked her head out from the bushes—Her sluggishness was probably deliberate. There was probably no one here more used to running along a mountain path overgrown with vegetation. Surely, she must be staying at tail end of the group in order to follow Yamimagari Pakuaki's orders and fulfill her duty as the keeper of the box.
Seeing the new pursuers, Kotetsu then glanced at Konoha who was catching her breath and muttered:
"Truth be told, because Muramasa turned out to be surprisingly boring, my plan is in slight disarray... In the ideal case, the key would have been completed already. Looks like I set my expectations too high."
"What are you talking about?"
Without replying to Fear's question, Kotetsu swung the log horizontally at waist level. No, attacking directly at this distance would be too far away—It was a throw. Possessing a sword's sharpness, the log rotated parallel to the ground while flying through the air. Its simple "length" was now converted into a threat. Fear originally wanted to duck down to dodge but then that would mean leaving Haruaki and others to fend for themselves behind her.
"Tsk—Mechanism No.23 hole type, thorned surface form: «Maranatha»!"
Fear lifted up the steel plate of nails sideways, using it as a shield to block the log. At the same time, a certain person rushed to her side, carrying the wobbling eyesores of massive breasts, using a spinning kick to deflect the log.
"...What now, you're back to being the usual Cow Tits? I was thinking you'd be crying after getting bullied."
"I was simply feeling a little unwell. Please do not belittle me."
As soon as that guy's safety was at risk, this girl would always stand up no matter how serious her injuries. This was the only thing Fear was certain.
Despite her reluctance, Fear decided to assist Konoha in retaliating. Which torture instrument should she pick next? Which tool out of a limited list? If one was not enough, she currently had a second one. As much as she did not want to use it, when push came to shove, there would be no choice. Come, come—
Fear allowed her body and mind to switch over officially to a combat mode then turned her gaze forward again.
Then she saw Kotetsu's back. For an instant, failing to understand what this scene meant, she remained rooted to the spot.
"Nuu? ...Hold on! Are you running away!?"
After launching the log to pin down Fear and the other's movements, Kotetsu had turned around and broke into a run.
The situation would not improve at this rate even if she were allowed to escape. Just as Fear was about to rush forward—
"Go forth and pierce, my will—!"
Kotetsu picked up a flat piece of rock that was rolling by her feet, licked it then swiftly threw it in Fear's direction. Fear used «Maranatha» to block again. Naturally, rather than the sound of a rock's impact, the ear-piercing noise of steel colliding with steel was heard... It was almost like a shuriken. Due to the preparatory motions required, Kotetsu was unable to fire at will without restraint. A single-shot projectile was not scary but sufficient to obstruct opponents from advancing. This was because there was a crowd behind Fear and Konoha that needed protection.
Kotetsu looked back from time to time, firing rock-swords intermittently, meanwhile continuing to sprint forward. Every time, Fear and Konoha had no choice but to halt their steps. Using this opening, Kotetsu easily reached the greenery in the back and jumped into the bushes, disappearing from sight.
Staying on guard for attacks from dead angles, Fear and Konoha ran over to those bushes, but by this time, Kotetsu's presence had vanished completely from the surrounding area.
Turning the torture tool back into the Rubik's cube, Fear stuffed it into her pocket while saying:
"By the way, why does that girl want to attack you? Is it because those cow udders are too much of an eyesore? I don't blame her. Because she's too pitiful, her tragic chest looks even flatter than mine. No, I'm actually average in size, so what I mean is that it must be tough being smaller than average."
"Sigh... Bust sizes don't matter, okay? But I'm not too sure. In any case, I seem to be rubbing her the wrong way... But I have no clue why at all. Oh, but she basically has a goal. It seems like she is planning to use her negative emotions towards me, like hatred for example, to accumulate enough feelings to activate the key. But apparently, she did not accumulate as much volume as planned."
"Using negative... emotions...?"
Without warning, accompanied by an ominous presence, Fear felt something stir restlessly in the depths of her heart.
...As though trying to make her notice a certain type of emotion that she had yet to notice to this date.
From the pocket on the other side of the one where the Rubik's cube was stuffed, Fear secretly took out her key, taking care to avoid anyone noticing.
A key that was supposed to sense heightened emotions. Although Fear could not explain it fully, she had finally just figured out how to strengthen her emotions, agonizing on her own and getting impatient, the key reaching 50% after much difficulty, but now—
Very effortlessly, it had gone 70% red.
Fear was shocked and alarmed. Then immediately she asked herself:
What had happened?
During the duration from eating the fox rice cracker just now till now, what had happened?
She had expressed hostility towards Kotetsu. She wanted to defeat her. She wanted to harm her.
She wanted—to kill her.
She had produce negative emotions.
The warm feelings that took so much effort to accumulate almost seemed like an illusion.
In merely an instant, dark emotions had almost dyed the entire key bright red.
What did this represent?
(...No. No matter who, everyone is like this to some extent. This is only natural. So it's not... It's not anything to be alarmed about—)
Fear gripped the key tightly as though not wanting anyone to discover it while whispering in her own heart.
But once manifested, this suspicion was not going to disappear. Instead, it kept repeating in her mind.
Despairingly, it repeated nonstop.
Compared to loving someone—Am I an object that is more suited to cursing someone?
Translator's Notes and References
- Kotetsu's catchphrase, "truth be told" is rendered as a single kanji makoto(誠) in Japanese. This kanji, whose meanings include truth, devotion, sincerity, integrity, etc, is also used on the Shinsengumi flag.
- Kiyomizu Stage is the main hall's veranda, extended over a precipice and offering a magnificent view of Kyoto's city center.
- Kotetsu(虎徹): the kanji for Kotetsu can be split into 虎, meaning tiger, and 徹, meaning pierce.
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