Chapter 3 - The Pleading Immortal Girl / "Our birth (new)"
Burning heat. Intense pain as though bitten by countless winged ants. Cold sweat. Discomfort. Kirika looked down at her lower body—currently regenerated to the right knee. She had no idea where the bondage suit kept its memories, but whether judging from the shape of the knee or the thickness of the flesh, this was undoubtedly her leg. Contemptible to an absolutely ridiculous degree.
Kirika was currently located in what appeared to be some forest. Her hands were tied tightly behind her back, unable to move. Naturally, the «Tragic Black River» had been taken away. The same went for her lower body without saying, her severed legs were still growing. She could not even move.
Sleif was standing in front of her, holding the spear that Kirika had failed to steal, looking down at her without saying a word. Due to the visor-like helmet, her expression was not visible either. It was impossible to judge her intent.
"Let me state for the record, I only targeted that spear because I made a deal with Yamimagari Pakuaki, so even if you ask for their goal, I can't answer you. But I owe no allegiance to the Lab Chief's Nation, so apart from that one point, I could tell you anything you want."
The enemy had taken her away to obtain information, right? Speculating that, Kirika offered her cooperation. She could not think of any other possibility, but—
"I know. You are Ueno Kirika. The owner of «Gimestorante's Love»."
After speaking like delivering a monologue, Sleif extended the spear tip towards Kirika's body. The blade's cold touch made Kirika tremble instinctively—but the spear tip merely pressed on her skin instead of piercing her flesh. After cutting open her clothing, Sleif lifted the fabric using the spear tip and stared intently at the black leather bondage suit beneath—
"What an ugly and displeasing Wathe. So repulsive that I want to puke. Immortality should not exist in this world in the first place."
Kirika bit her lip. She knew. This sort of thing. She knew it best herself. Instead of accepting Pakuaki's temptation of the devil, thinking he could solve the problem, she should have accepted this fact like in the past then move forward by overcoming trials—Right? However, nevertheless, Yachi—
Just as her thoughts were about to go on a tangent, Sleif's words brought her violently back to reality.
"Indeed, you are contemptible to a hopeless degree. But this turns out to be perfect."
Kirika looked up in puzzlement then felt heat.
From inside. From her chest. A cold object melded into the temperature inside, which then exploded. A hard foreign object was violating her, touching the depths of her sensitive flesh, deeper, deeper, deeper, ever deeper, producing intense heart-piercing and bone-wrenching pain.
"! ...Ahhh, ahhhhhhhhh!"
The tip of the spear held in Sleif's hand had penetrated her chest.
Even if she tried to endure, she could not endure. Her body kept rolling. Tears fell from her eyes on their own. Oxygen, oxygen, oxygen. So painful. Calm down. She had grown accustomed to this long ago. But the enemy knew about her, knew about this suit. Crap. A small wound would not matter, but if the enemy intended to rip this garment apart thoroughly—the curse would probably activate upon the instant of this garment's destruction.
In other words, she really was going to—
"Gah! Ah, ha...!"
She must move. She must escape. She must fight.
However, all Kirika could see in her view was the blood gushing out from her chest, dripping down to dye the ground red. For some reason, Sleif also seemed to be quietly looking down from her helmet to observe this scene.
A sense of anxiety with her life on the line.
But in the next instant—as though mocking Kirika's feelings, Sleif very simply—
Pulled out the spear, liberating Kirika's flesh from the spear tip.
The emptiness of the wound. The massive open hole. Simply contact with air was unbearably painful. After the spear was pulled out, a greater volume of bleeding came from the wound. Drip drip drip. The puddle of blood by her feet. Sleif continued to watch this scene.
"An immortal is fine too, this fact is now established... Then I shall make use of you..."
What was going on? Kirika was totally lost.
Due to the severe bleeding, her view went dark all at once. The thought circuits of her brain were extinguished segment by segment. At the very least, she knew that the enemy had no intention of destroying «Gimestorante's Love» at the moment. Although she had no idea what the other side wanted, at least she was not going to die for now.
(Ha... So what on earth is she trying to do...? Absolutely... ridiculous...)
Harboring slight feelings of self-abandonment, Kirika thought to herself.
...While at the same time, she died as usual.
"—That's all. I report this kind of report. Any questions?"
Silence was hanging over the living room. Haruaki, Fear, Konoha and Kuroe were all looked at the table, narrowing their eyes solemnly. Only Kotetsu's expression remained neutral, but likewise, he was silent.
Un Izoey swept her gaze across everyone's face in a circle. After confirming there were no questions—
"Then about future developments, I need to discuss with the Lab Chief."
She got up to walk away. At this moment, Fear looked up as though she could no longer suppress herself.
"Hold it! I still have things to say! Clearly... Clearly with an amazing master fighter like you there, why would Kirika still get—!"
"Fear! Don't say more!"
Haruaki spoke curtly, using his gaze to urge her to look at Un Izoey. After seeing her appearance, Fear went "muuguu" and fell silent. Haruaki spoke in a tone of voice trying to act unperturbed:
"Sorry, that's it for now."
"...Then excuse me, I express this wish to be excused."
Having paused, Un Izoey began walking again without looking back and left the living room—walking with a limp as though protecting one leg.
She was not unharmed. This meant that Sleif was more powerful than predicted, so it would not be right to blame Un Izoey. However, in spite of that—
"Why... Class Rep..."
"It was said that she made a deal with Yamimagari Pakuaki—information regarding Ueno-san's cursed outfit. It meant that she really wanted to know, doesn't it?"
"Hmm, although Kiririn usually acts like she doesn't care, this is probably the most important thing to her after all. I think it's been occupying her mind all along."
Scowling, Fear crossed her arms and muttered:
"That being said, Kirika clearly gave off the impression that she won't ever trust that guy again... I can't believe she agreed to a deal. What changed in her mindset?"
"Sigh, who knows? We're not Ueno-san, so it's impossible to find out."
Konoha was correct. However, Haruaki still could not help but think, was he responsible? Did his own actions act as some sort of trigger that had shaken Kirika from her principles?
Speaking of ideas—Yes. Hence, although the truth was not known, Haruaki was overcome with sorrow.
(Class Rep... I...)
Haruaki clenched his fist hard under the table. Although he could feel gazes from Konoha and the others, he pretended not to notice.
"Do you people believe the words of the dark-skinned girl? If my memory serves me correctly, she is Yamimagari Pakuaki's trusted subordinate, right?"
Kotetsu threw a glance at the living room doorway while speaking. Hearing that, Haruaki looked up and said:
"That girl is also our classmate. I don't think she's lying."
"Mmm-hmm. Then what are we going to do?"
Haruaki involuntarily replied with greater force in his voice. Too natural an answer.
"Of course we're going to rescue Class Rep, this goes without saying!"
"That's right, we must find her!"
Fear declared with an expression full of spirit, standing up with fists clenched. But in stark contrast to her, Konoha's very calm voice spoke out.
"Please wait. I have some ideas to share."
"What ideas? Tell us, Cow Tits."
"First of all, I believe we shouldn't forget that we have absolutely no idea regarding the enemy's goal. What is that member of the Knights Dominion, the one named Sleif, actually intending? For what purpose is she taking action? Unless we elucidate these issues, we must take extra caution in our actions."
"You're... not wrong."
"Also, this time, Yamimagari Pakuaki is involved in addition to the Knights Dominion. His motives are also unknown."
"Truth be told, that man's movements are difficult to predict. Although it's very regrettable."
Kotetsu closed his eyes and bowed his head, agreeing with Konoha, his voice filled with intensity.
"Also—the Draconians' fleet is still on the sea. Even if they are currently staying still, no one can tell if they will make a move in the future."
"...Very regrettably, I must agree on this point too."
While listening to Kotetsu concur, Konoha watched Haruaki intently. Haruaki could only ask in response:
"So...? Konoha, what are you trying to say...?"
"Just as I mentioned, we must be very cautious. Additional caution is absolutely not a bad thing. Listen carefully, as long as we have no idea what the Knights Dominion is plotting—for example, it's possible that all this was done for the purpose of luring out Haruaki-kun."
Konoha interrupted Haruaki harshly then said with sincere eyes:
"Haruaki-kun, you are not allowed to leave the house. I shall go search for Ueno-san."
"H-Hold on! Why? I also—"
"The reason is just as I've said. With the Knights Dominion, the Lab Chief's Nation and the Draconians around, I can't let you go to places where these three sources of chaos are mixed together. Absolutely!"
Saying that, Konoha stood up at the same time.
Her eyes were still fixated on Haruaki with a sincere gaze—No, it was more than sincerity. This was not the warm gaze of protection which he had always seen in the past, like that of an older sister guarding him. Inside her eyes resided an even stronger, dazzling light of resolute willpower, as though situated in a faraway place beyond arm's reach. Despite getting intimidated by her gaze, Haruaki still said:
"H-Hold on, this is too heavy-handed—"
"I know. Even if you cannot accept it, I don't care. However, I will do everything I can to make you obey, Haruaki-kun, because it is for your own good."
"Hmph, although it's a bit heavy-handed, she definitely has a point. Indeed, it's very disconcerting that we have three factions with unknown motives present at the same time. Caution and more caution would be a good thing."
"Is that so? I forget to mention, Fear-san, but please don't leave the house either. Stay here and protect Haruaki-kun. This is yours and Kuroe-san's mission."
"W-What did you say!? I really want to rescue Kirika right now!"
"Oh my, hmm, well, I don't really mind."
"Konoha, I know it's very dangerous, but I want to save Class Rep too. Besides, the more help the better..."
Just as Haruaki straightened his back and said that, another person apart from Konoha stood up. As if it was the most natural thing in the world.
"I shall go."
"Yes, Kotetsu alone will be enough. He has a keen nose for blood and has spent long years on the battlefield like me, so he ought to be quite skilled in sensing presences as well."
Kotetsu nodded as though going "leave it to me!" Seeing that, Konoha continued:
"The risk will increase as soon as Haruaki-kun leaves this house. Under the current circumstances filled with uncertainty, even if Fear-san and the others stay by your side as bodyguards, it's still impossible to find the perfect balance between tradeoffs. Consequently, it's best to leave you at home with safety first as the top priority."
Konoha refused all objections. Was the situation really like that? Perhaps. Haruaki understood the logic. But even so, he still could not accept on an emotional level.
"Yeah, hold on!"
"I will stay in touch regularly, is that okay? Please do not leave the house without permission. If you go out, I won't forgive any of you and will sever all ties."
Konoha ended the conversation on her own. Turning her back to their protests, she walked out of the living with perfect composure. Kotetsu followed behind her. Haruaki did not argue. Neither did he have the power to stop the two of them from leaving.
In this manner, Haruaki was left in the living room with Fear and Kuroe. With arms crossed, Fear sat down hard with displeasure.
"Jeez... I can't believe she decided all on her own! Accursed Cow Tits, what is she trying to do!?"
"Fear, what do we do...?"
Haruaki asked as though seeking help. Fear closed her eyes and thought for a while. Then opening one eye, she looked at Haruaki. Scratching her head with pouting lips, she finally sighed.
"I said so just now, although I can't accept it, she does make a good point. Running around outside with you is very dangerous. That's definitely the truth. Anyway, we can only listen to her for now."
"Is that... so...?"
"Yeah, this can't be helped. Just think positive. Maybe just by relying on those two's super investigative abilities, Kiririn will be found immediately."
"Hmph! I'll be very mad if that doesn't happen. Also, once the place is found, I don't plan on holding back. If Sleif really must be defeated in order to save Kirika, I will be going all out to relieve my stress!"
Listening to Fear and Kuroe's voices, Haruaki stared blankly at the living room doorway that Konoha had exited through, recalling her gaze.
There was a sense of being left behind by her, something he had never felt before.
He could feel that she was no longer the Konoha in the past who would always indulge him unconditionally. She was no longer the Konoha who approached him like an older sister.
She had changed.
Right, she said she wanted to change. So that was why she was doing this? This change stemmed from what had happened back then—when he gained knowledge of her lips' warmth—and her feelings?
Incomprehensible. It somehow felt contradictory and not contradictory at the same time.
(W-What is this...? Class Rep is clearly in a crisis right now, but I'm stuck here...)
Haruaki lowered his face and clenched his fist tightly.
As usual—Even more than usual...
An extremely cold sense of powerlessness made his back tremble nonstop.
Two people were walking along the streets at night.
"—Very well. Then please let me know if any new information comes up."
Ending a phone call, Konoha exhaled. The person on the other end was the superintendent. With his assistance, she would be notified once the police received reports of a suspicion person appearing on the streets. This was just in case Sleif continued her random attacks on people even after abducting Kirika.
"...It's truly a pain when the enemy's objective is completely unknown..."
"What is it?"
She looked back to see Kotetsu following one step behind, looking at her seriously.
"Is this really alright? Well—forcing that brat to..."
"There is no other way and right now, I still believe myself to be correct. Having the two of us search with full effort is the right course of action at the moment. If everyone went searching while trying to protect Haruaki-kun at the same time, there are limits to balancing both sides."
"Yes. Truth be told, I do agree on this point."
"So what you mean to say is that my attitude wasn't too heavy-handed?"
She saw Kotetsu nod once. Without needing to think, Konoha also knew what he was worrying about. Several days earlier, what they had discussed in the room. The reason why she had invaded Haruaki's bed. Simply smiling wryly in her heart, Konoha did not know whether or not she should praise him for being gentle.
"...Because I've been thinking, if I keep making contact with him while taking a position akin to an older sister, this isn't going to work."
She had self-awareness. She was not that narcissistic. Although she had confessed and forced a kiss on him, however—From his perspective, she was probably still the Muramasa Konoha from before: Simply living under the same roof, akin to an older sister in identity, finally settling on being the same age as him officially after entering high school.
In that case—It was impossible to advance. Definitely.
"I won't tend to him with one-sided overprotectiveness like between siblings again. We must stand as equals from now on. Hence, even if he is unwilling, I still have to be overprotective as his equal, to do what I believe to be right. It doesn't matter even if I incur Haruaki-kun's anger or displeasure as a result, because this is what would be called equality."
"Yes... Although I don't quite understand..."
The pedestrian crossing light turned red. Konoha halted and sighed.
"Hoo~ Ooooh, however..."
"Saddening things are still saddening after all—!"
Her true feelings slipped out, she lowered her head forcefully.
"...I also want to be with Haruaki-kun all the time and take action together. It's just that circumstances do not permit me to do so. Hoo~ Ahhhh, uwah—"
"M-Muramasa-sama... Please be careful. Umm, you might end up pulling off that frog's head..."
Konoha suddenly came to her senses to find herself smacking the head of the frog doll beside her. It was apparently this pharmacy's decoration. Fortunately, she had not leaked any sword aura. She did not want to have to pay for breaking it.
She must pull herself together! She renewed her spirits. Seeing the signal turn green, she started walking after leaving a final touch of the frog doll.
"...So, let's muster dedication to search. Depending on the situation, it might be necessary for us to split up and act separately. You must memorize the layout of these streets and not get lost at least."
Konoha slowly sharpened her concentration. Using a Japanese sword's sensitivity, she searched the presences in the surroundings. Was there any abnormal change? Did anyone exude killing intent?
Kirika must absolutely be found. This was the most important, first and foremost. This was also unmistakably her true feelings.
Having only herself and Kotetsu search was the best method—Having made such a judgment, she must do everything she could to prove that her judgment was correct. Otherwise, it would turn into her using Kirika just for the sake of her own relationship with Haruaki. That would be an insult, it would be humiliation. She would never forgive herself.
Then it suddenly occurred to her.
(Back when coming to rescue me from Nirushaaki's side... What was Ueno-san feeling...)
In the end, Konoha concluded that Kirika must have felt similarly. Both of them had resolved themselves to move forward in a straight line, never running away.
This must be the warrior's path belonging to maidens who were caught in the net of love.
"This must be what's called... absolutely ridiculous... right?"
Murmuring in mimicry of Kirika's catchphrase, Konoha exerted force on her eyes in order to pull herself together. Turning her entire body into a sensory organ, she started to spin at full speed for the one and only objective.
"Please... continue to endure a little while longer... Ueno-san..."
Spontaneously, she let slip words almost akin to a prayer.
"Huff... Guh, ha, ah...!"
Kirika was twisting her body on the soil, feeling the texture of pebbles against her cheeks while trying to get a sense of her surroundings. It was currently nighttime and the location seem to be a forest. Still within town, probably, since the brightness of streetlights could be seen in the distance. Was it a forest in the depths of a park? No idea which park it was, however.
She felt some kind of object pulled out of her chest. Without needing to look, she knew what it was. That spear.
"Guh, haah... Ha, haha... Totally... like a corpse, being stuffed into a trunk then this happens as soon as I'm dumped out huh...? Three times already by now?"
Like a corpse. What absolutely ridiculous words. While thinking that to herself, Kirika tried her hardest to be sarcastic, grinning at Sleif in front of her. Her arms and legs were still bound, unable to move.
The expression under the helmet did not change. Kirika clicked her tongue mentally while saying at the same time:
"How I really wish for some change. Although I won't die, it still hurts. Although it's absolutely ridiculous, I am starting to get bored. Oh, if all you want is to observe the wounds healing, this it's time you stop using that spear to..."
"My only entertainment is talking. Actually, you're very curious about my Wathe, aren't you? You could be more honest."
"Insult, humiliation, desecration! Like hell anyone is curious!"
"Eeee... Gi, heeha, ahhh!?"
Sleif suddenly stuck her finger into the wound in Kirika's chest. The bloody flesh squirmed with a foreign object inserted into the opening that was in the process of healing. She stirred violently and repeatedly stuck her finger in and out. The invading finger curled and scratched the interior. Liquids splashed all around. The blinking stimulation was making Kirika's body shake forward and backward. Drool dripped on its own. She kept rolling.
"Eeee... Ha, ah, ah, ah, ah!?"
"What a contemptible Wathe...! Like this, like this, like this!? Even like this, it'll still heal!?"
"Nnnggh! Ah—hee, gii, kahah!"
"Worn on your body is ugly and unsightly evil that I don't even want to steal a glance at! Don't overestimate yourself!"
"Ha, haa... But..."
Kirika twisted her body as though trying to escape the pain. As though gnawing at the ground, she parted her trembling lips and said:
"I... finally know. Because of this... of mine—that's why you captured me... to harm me. You did that, because I am of use to you. Compared to harming the ordinary populace... like a phantom slasher, this is better... Haha, ha."
Kirika spoke with feelings of self-abuse.
She could hear Sleif groaning "muu" while hearing her own quickened breathing. Probably tired of playing with the wound, Sleif finally pulled her finger out. The feeling of squirming flesh returned. Kirika collapsed on the ground, spacing out at the sight of her own blood pooled in a depression.
"Indeed—I've discovered... certain things."
"...What things? Try me."
Slightly moistening her throat, Kirika swallowed a bloody-tasting liquid and said:
"Basically your goal. So far... from the first random slashing, then putting me... into the trunk and running all over the place, and pulling me outside to stab thrice with the spear. If you had attacked random victims elsewhere, then those places must have been the same, right? Because it's necessary. In other words, it's a required condition."
Sleif gave no reaction, just as Kirika predicted. How could an immortal girl on the verge of death cause a dramatic reversal of the situation just by saying a few words? Hence, Kirika was saying this purely to taunt and mock her, to convey to her: I know the secret you won't disclose, serves you right!
"—In other words, you need to have blood flow onto surface soil, right? Whenever you stabbed me, you always stared closely at the blood flowing out from the wound. And every time you committed the act, you always picked a place where the fresh blood would seep into the soil. Coincidence? Absolutely ridiculous. Even if it happened by chance just because you picked deserted areas, this town isn't that rural. There are more than enough parking lots with no people or dark alleys. But since it happened on soil each time, that means it is necessary—"
"I see. Impressive that you figured it out. Here is your reward."
This time, Sleif turned the spear tip and stabbed Kirika's thigh. Not only that, she skewered her completely as though pinning Kirika to the ground.
"Bleeding twice... at the same location... what special treatment..."
"What... is your goal? Although I don't know what kind of ritual, or what kind of curse... your actions are part of, but I pray, your efforts will be in vain. Because the blood that flows from me, it either returns to the body or vanishes..."
"No cause for worry."
Sleif shifted her weight towards the spear. Intense pain erupted from Kirika's thigh as a starting point, almost ripping her entire body to shreds. Kirika silently arched her body.
"I only need to use the spear's blade to stain the soil with fresh blood, hence there's no issue even if the blood is cleaned off afterwards—Whether the blood returns to the body or vanishes due to supernatural reasons, the result is the same. This is already proven."
Excessive pain was making Kirika's vision start to flicker. She could only repeat Sleif's words as a question:
"Do you really think there has never been other immortals—alleged immortals—like yourself?"
Sleif's expression could not be read due to the helmet but her voice was calm and monotonous. Conversely, she was pushing on the spear. Using the ground where the spear was stabbed to serve as a fulcrum, she pushed back and forth, left and right, and swiveled in a mixing manner. Turned into a bloody pulp, the muscle fibers were swept into the mixer, causing Kirika to scream.
"Ahhh, ahhh, ahhhhhhhhhh!"
"No matter what you do or what deductions you make, it is meaningless. Instead of finding a random unlucky soul out on the streets every time then disposing of them secretly, it's simply easier to drag around a vessel that remains intact no matter the amount of bleeding. That's all. Shut up and bleed. That is your only function."
"Ahhh, ha! Eeeeee—!"
After giving an extra forceful turn of the spear, Sleif kicked Kirika's bloody thigh and drew out the spear tip violently. Like a malfunctioning musical instrument, Kirika's throat convulsed rhythmically, giving off panting noises. Sleif swung the spear to shake off viscous blood before looking down again at the writhing flesh of Kirika's wound.
"Totally filthy. A woman like a fragile protozoan with nothing but the power of immortality."
Her tone of voice was filled with scorn and derision. This time, Sleif simply kicked Kirika like a ball. Once, twice, thrice.
The repeated onslaught of pain, pain, pain. Inside the body, outside the body, her heart, everything was in immense pain. Her brain's operating speed slowed down while her consciousness was gradually buried by soil.
At this moment, in Kirika's blurry vision, she saw Sleif stop kicking her thigh and turn around. Someone was coming. To save her? Absolutely ridiculous. Impossible.
"—The knight over there, you seem quite strong. I am Kurusonzan Itaku of the Draconians. How lucky I am to discover you while on my way back to headquarters. Please fight me."
"Eyesore of a visitor. You will be forever silenced."
See, just as expected. How could it be someone to save her? Just an intruder. However, if anyone could save her, she did not mind, but it was highly improbable.
The battle scene between those two seemed very distant, very blurry, like a movie shown on the big screen.
Let them do as they wish. What Sleif said earlier was the truth, without anything that could be refuted. She was both powerless and filthy. Hence, she was unable to do anything.
(She's absolutely right. I... am this kind of thing...)
She had forgotten all along. Clearly she knew very well. Clearly back at the Lab Chief's Nation when she was undergoing experimentation repeatedly like a thing, she had admitted it. But she had forgotten.
Despite being immortal, she was more fragile than anyone. Simply a weak monster that would not die. This was herself. The woman named Ueno Kirika. Filthy, unclean, disgusting, a contemptible existence—
Kirika lay on her side, feeling the corners of her eyes get hot.
She was unable to understand what it was.
Because enveloping her heart, these absolutely grayest emotions, at this very moment—did not even permit the active will of "understanding" to surface in her cerebral cortex.
Although they had decided to take naps in turns, it was impossible to sleep soundly. Haruaki woke up far earlier than expected, just as the sky was beginning to glow from the rising sun in the east. Communications from Konoha and Kotetsu had arrived just before the nap, merely a text message saying "Staying in touch regularly. No progress, still searching." Haruaki wanted to receive a call saying that Kirika had been found. Not yet? Hurry.
Haruaki clutched his cellphone tightly and decided to go to the living room first. Passing through the corridor, just as he was about to reach the living room, he suddenly saw something light up inside the room. Surprised, he looked into the living room.
"What... It's you, Kuroe?"
Kuroe was standing inside spacing out with a blank expression. After blinking, she said:
"Woah, Haru, you really scared me there."
"It's because you were spacing out, right? What are you doing?"
As soon as he asked, Kuroe suddenly looked down at her body then said as if something abruptly occurred to her:
"Oh right! I knew I'd leveled up... Thanks to the special training, I've finally finished my new move! Oh my, I never thought I'd succeed! This is really amazing!"
"Oh~ Sure sure, amazing amazing."
What, just the same as usual? Haruaki responded half-heartedly. Now that she mentioned it, the brightness just now did resemble the momentary glow produced when injecting healing powers into hair. Kuroe had apparently focused on doing special training recently to develop new moves and today's was just another session of special training... Taking a closer look, Haruaki found her collar a bit crumpled and crooked. He really wondered how seriously she was doing her training.
"Muu~ You won't believe me~" Leaving behind the slightly dissatisfied Kuroe, Haruaki walked to the kitchen to boil water. During this time, he thought over many things. About Kirika, about Konoha, about Honatsu, about Kuroe just now. Kuroe was doing weird things as usual for this was her special way of acting considerate, to prevent the mood from getting too heavy, right? Thinking that, Haruaki decided he really needed to prepare her a good cup of tea.
Returning to the living room, Haruaki placed his cellphone on the table as though enshrining a divine statue so that it was within arm's reach anytime. While drinking tea, all he could do was wait. In order not to disturb Fear during her nap, he turned down the volume after switching on the television. Regional news. Any phantom slasher incidents? No.
While he was dallying in this manner, the sun rose. It was almost time for Fear to rise from bed.
Any time was fine. Preparations were already in place. Konoha, Kotetsu, still not yet? No news yet—
The instant the cellphone ringtone's first note was heard, Haruaki picked up the call.
Haruaki felt his vision suddenly go black. Due to his panic, he did not have time to check the screen—The caller was not Konoha but someone whose importance was less than a billionth, someone who only added to his impatience.
The father who had gone missing since last night, claiming he had things to do.
'I already heard from Gab-chan, it seems like quite a crisis.'
"If you know that... Please don't call. I'm very busy."
Due to call waiting, Haruaki did not have to worry about missing Konoha's calls even while he was talking to Honatsu like this. However, he was in no mood to be chatting with his father.
'Yes yes, I will go look for Kirika-chan next, but I just wanted to talk to you first. I know many people in this town so I plan on asking my acquaintances for leads first.'
This was—probably a good thing. Given the current circumstances, of course it would be better to have an additional person helping. Kirika must absolutely be rescued. However, Haruaki could not bring himself to say thanks honestly.
At this moment, Honatsu suddenly changed the subject.
'Oh right—How's the present? Did you use it?'
For an instant, Haruaki did not understand what he was talking about. After a moment's delay did he realize suddenly with instant rage that Honatsu was referring to yesterday's birthday present. What the heck was he talking about at this kind of time!?
"Where would I find the time for that!? I haven't even opened it!"
'...Oh, I see...'
Honatsu's response sounded neither disappointed, nor angry, nor confused. For some reason—His voice become very calm and solemn, to an unbelievable degree.
'I would best advise you to open it. Or rather... Now might be the best time to open the present. Perhaps you ought to look inside then contemplate.'
'—Open the present and look at what's inside, Haruaki. I left a note, didn't I? How to use that present is entirely up to you.'
Honatsu's tone of voice was not forceful, even giving a gentle impression. However, there was a certain commanding sense of realness to it, like when a sage declared the truth, absolute certainty.
As though waiting for his words to permeate Haruaki's heart, Honatsu remained silent for a while.
Then his breath suddenly became gentle and he said:
'I will find a suitable time to return. Goodbye now.'
Before Haruaki could say anything, the call came to an end unilaterally. Unilaterally. Always like that. Haruaki disliked this too.
"...What the heck..."
"Nothing, it was Pops calling."
Haruaki briefly replied to Kuroe who had her head cocked in puzzlement, then closed up his cellphone.
However, he still felt unpleasant in his heart and he knew the reason.
(Damn it... Always saying incomprehensible things with hidden meanings...)
Haruaki only hesitated for a few seconds.
Then he left Kuroe behind and walked out of the living room to return to his own room. Where did he put it? Right, he remembered it had stayed on his desk.
Walking over to his desk, he saw that the box was definitely there. Still pushed to a corner with the feelings from Haruaki's refusal to accept it.
"Seriously... What the heck is it?"
Biting his lip again, Haruaki untied the ribbon roughly before tearing open the wrapping paper. Then he picked up the box's lid—and gasped.
"No way... right...?"
At this moment, he heard a thud behind him.
Haruaki looked back to see Fear standing there, apparently just woken up.
"Haruaki, over... there..."
With a face of shock, she was staring near his hands.
In other words, contained inside the birthday present's box—
Indulgence Disks, more than ten of them.
Absolutely baffling, why did Honatsu have these in his possession? However, they were authentic, no doubt about it.
Inside Haruaki's room, Fear was staring intently at the Indulgence Disks laid out in a row on the tatami floor.
"Damn it... He's not picking up, that bastard Pops..."
Haruaki frowned with the cellphone pressed to his ear but it was ringing in vain. Fear glanced at him before facing the Indulgence Disks again.
What she had always wanted. What she sought. What she wanted to gather. What she needed in order to keep her darkness under control.
That kind of thing was currently placed before her eyes—But inexplicably...
What surfaced in her heart was a feeling that even she found unbelievable.
It was confusion. It could also be considered a struggle.
"Fear... What do we do...?"
"Of course I'll wait because I know that is what you always wanted. Don't worry, just do what you want to do. I'll help you."
"Yeah, this is what I've always wanted. After counting them, I think there are enough here to seal away almost all of my remaining mechanisms, probably leaving only one or two. But—"
Fear tightly gripped her fist that was resting on the tatami floor.
Looking up at Haruaki, she said:
"But! If I install these Indulgence Disks right now—I'll be left almost powerless when I really want to take part in battle to rescue Kirika. In other words, I'll become almost unable to fight! If I fail to rescue Kirika because of that...!"
Haruaki's gaze wavered but he instantly relaxed his expression.
"Then let's wait until after Class Rep is rescued, okay?"
She was thinking Haruaki would say that. However, that was wrong. It did not solve the fundamental problem.
Fear shook her head. The silver color shook in the corner of the eye.
"There is no conclusive... evidence..."
"There is no conclusive evidence able to prove... that this kind of incident won't happen again."
Fear slowly inhaled then said:
"I can't help but think, suppose I rescued Kirika then installed the Indulgence Disks. Then suppose further that almost all of my mechanisms were sealed away. What if something similar happened in the future? Next time, you might ended up abducted or it could be Kuroe! Once installed, Indulgence Disks cannot be taken out again. I have no way of recovering my power! If that really caused something irrevocable to happen—I'll surely be unable to forgive myself!"
Simply imagining it made her heart beat fast. Her tone of voice suddenly became forceful.
"Hey Haruaki, I—I really...!"
But in spite of that...
She still could only whisper the question.
Because she felt that these were very important words that were as fragile as soap bubbles.
"Is it really okay... to lose the power to fight...?"
To this date, she had thought over this countless times. Each and every time, the conclusion she reached was definitely this.
However—Right now, the solution was placed so concretely in front of her in tangible form. Carrying a totally different sense of weight, carrying cruelty that threatened to swallow her into oblivion, it had turned into an extremely pressing problem, weighing on her unprecedentedly.
How odd, she thought in honesty to herself.
This was clearly something she had desired all this time. All along, she thought that just by acquiring them would bring her happiness. Why—
"Anyway, let's keep them temporarily in reserve... Can't we do that...?"
Feeling a thud on her head, Fear knew without looking.
It was the sensation of Haruaki's hand.
She was crouching in front of the Indulgence Disks with her face lowered. Haruaki had walked over to her side. Placing his hand on her head, he had sat down lightly on the spot. Facing the opposite direction, he was positioning himself so that their right shoulders were touching.
"...I don't even know if it's possible to keep them temporarily in reserve."
"You have a point. Not everything can be kept in reserve temporarily... It's the same for me..."
Haruaki spoke as though recalling something.
Because a feeling resembling shyness, reluctance and pain would surge up if she were to look at his face—
Fear remained sitting, moving her body restlessly, allowing her back to bump into Haruaki. Haruaki also turned himself—naturally, it now became the two of them leaning against each other's back.
Currently, she believed this was fine. From their mutually touching backs, from their mutually supporting backs, she felt his body warmth.
"There are too many things to think about... Totally... impossible to clear my thoughts."
Fear looked up at the ceiling and exhaled lazily. She felt Haruaki's hair against the side of her ears. Surely, Haruaki must be feeling the same way as her, she thought.
Although they knew clearly in their hearts that the present could not persist forever like this...
However—if only time could flow a little slower.
Stemming from multiple reasons, Fear thought that to herself.
She had always been a thing, so it was only natural.
Right now, she was also a thing. Henceforth, it would probably remain the same.
Painful. However, that pain now felt a bit distant. Feeling detached, Kirika stared at the meatbag known as herself rupture while red liquid gushed out.
The enemy kicked her then used the motion to pull out the spear at the same time. Kirika felt neither relief nor anger at this, simply thinking: pulled out, I see. After all, it was going to enter her body again after some time. Reluctance towards parting ways would be pointless.
"...How boring and killing the mood. It is only appropriate that something cursed by an ugly Wathe should beg for mercy in an ugly manner."
Kirika looked up at the expressionless helmet and spoke again after truly a long time since that the last. That said, not speaking would be fine too.
"Sorry... for not meeting your expectations..."
"Is sarcasm all you're capable of? No lowly screams? No mockable unsightliness?"
No. If the great knight before her wished for it, then it was definitely not going to happen. Since this answer was truly unnecessary to speak aloud, Kirika remained silent. Sleif clicked her tongue lightly.
"—Fully cursed existences should meeting their end in a fitting manner. Dying with unfettered despair and enlightenment is not a fate that a cursed sinner can choose."
Muttering that, Sleif oriented her helmet towards the ground as though thinking. But soon after—
"...Just a bit more. No matter, then I shall tell you."
Hearing that, Kirika could not help but ask. Amidst her vision that was dimmed by anemia, Kirika looked up desperately, staring back at Sleif's helmet.
"Tell me... what...?"
"Namely, why I am doing this and for what purpose your blood is being used."
Then Sleif brought her lips to Kirika's ear.
Quietly—She released the answer—
"Ahhh, ahhh, ahhhhhhhh...!"
Starting from the instant when Kirika understood the meaning of her words...
Kirika kept trembling nonstop. Her entire body's temperature seemed to drop all at once. So cold. So dark. So frightening. Indeed, frightening—too frightening!
Staring wide-eyed, with breathing quickened, she looked at Sleif, who seemed slightly satisfied.
"Yes, this is the right gaze."
"You, you... You guys...!"
"Despair, for that is what suits the contemptible likes of your kind. Cry in ugliness, for that is what suits the contemptible likes of your kind. Beg for mercy, for that is what suits the contemptible likes of your kind—
"Oooh, ahhhhh, ahhhhhhhhhhh!"
With complete disregard for everything, Kirika struggled with her bound arms and legs, trying to smash her body towards Sleif and rip her throat apart with her teeth. However, the instant she straightened her back—
The spear stabbed into her heart once more. Earlier than expected, the cold blade returned.
"However—Anger is an exception. It only suits those whose happiness has been lost to curses."
Fresh blood gushed out of her mouth again. That did not matter. Too frightening. What Sleif planned to do was hopelessly and incomparably terrifying, even to the point that "absolutely ridiculous" could not be uttered aloud—
With pain and terror interwoven together, her consciousness was almost ripped to shreds. However, Kirika still cried out hoarsely as hard as she could.
"Uwa, ahhh! Kill me now! Kill... me now—!"
"I beg you...! Rather than forced... to partake in that, I'd rather die...! I-I absolutely don't want that... to happen because of me...!"
"Even if you died, it will simply continue as before, using other people as substitutes. Asking me to increase the number of victims, as expected of a depraved woman even lower than animals."
Sleif remarked as though watching a good show:
"An ugly struggle on the verge of death, truly contemptible. Go ahead. Curse yourself and scream in despair while I use you until the last moment. Now that would be your proper end."
More than ever before, Kirika loathed this body of hers that could not die even if she wanted to.
If it were possible for her to end everything by biting her own tongue in an act of suicide...
Surely that would be such an attractive solution.
By the time Haruaki realized, steady breathing noises could be heard coming from behind him. For Fear, the earlier napping time must have been merely for appearances' sake.
Hearing her breathing, feeling the presence of the Indulgence Disks on the tatami floor, cursing the silent cellphone—Haruaki pondered many things, letting time slip by. Kuroe visited to check on their situation at one point, but seeing Fear sleeping soundly with her back against Haruaki's back, she left straight away with a smile.
The sun was already up. It was very bright outside the window. Normally, I'd already left for school by this time—Haruaki thought.
School. The usual scene. The scene with everyone present. Fear, Konoha, Taizou, Kana... and Kirika.
He turned his head and looked at the desk. On there was the brand-new apron Kirika had given him as a birthday present. What were her feelings when bringing the present over? Having made the deal with Pakuaki already, she had already decided to take action? What exactly was it that spurred her to go so far as to obtain it—
(I already know what it is... I am so despicable...)
Staring at that apron, he felt something similar to pain surging from the depths of his chest. Something in the center of his body seemed to be vibrating. The magnitude of the shaking became larger and larger, larger and larger.
He thought of Fear. Indulgence Disks. Powerlessness. Becoming powerless. The pros and cons of keeping in reserve temporarily.
He thought of Konoha. The feeling of being left behind. A change unlike others in the past. Gradually changing aspects as well as the relationship between him and her. Her inquiring gaze after accepting this fact.
Oscillating forwards and backwards, left and right, shaking the depths of his body, it said to him:
Haruaki turned his body lightly, moving his back away to let the sleeping Fear lied down on the tatami floor. After looking at her sleeping face for a few seconds, he stood up but just as he was about to start walking—
"Where... are you going?"
Originally sleeping, Fear reached out and grabbed his arm.
She had gotten up on her knees, hugging his arm, she embraced it tightly against her bosom.
"In the end... I can't bear this."
"Cow Tits will be mad."
"Yeah... But even if Konoha were to cut ties with me, it's possible there's nothing I can do about that. Even so—Right now, I must take action. Otherwise..."
He swallowed and continued:
"Just like what you just said, I... won't be able to forgive myself...!"
However, Fear did not loosen her hold of his arm. Looking down, her silver-haired head seemed to be trembling slightly.
"Despite what I said yesterday... To be honest, I really agree with what Cow Tits said about not letting you out of the house. It wasn't because I had no choice but to accept her opinion—It was because I agree wholeheartedly, to the point that even if she hadn't said it, I'd have been the one to propose it."
The silver hair suddenly fluttered and Fear looked up at him.
"I have no proof! But... there's an ominous feeling. This time, somehow it's different from usual. Like something huge is gonna happen. It feels like a single misstep would lead to irrevocable things..."
"But I want to find a solution before irrevocable things happened. And even if I left the house, it doesn't mean something will happen for certain."
"The issue isn't whether something will happen or not! It's that it would be too late once it happened!"
"But Class Rep has already been captured!"
He stared into Fear's serious eyes. He knew this was a parallel discussion with no consensus. She was worried about him from the bottom of her heart whereas he wanted to leave the house, driven by his own feelings and impulse. Taking precautions against unsubstantiated risk versus self-satisfaction without assured benefit, which side was correct? No idea. But even if the two of them kept staring intently into each other's eyes, they still would not know the answer.
"So... what should be done...?"
The reply to this whisper came from a completely unexpected location.
Haruaki and Fear suddenly sensed a presence, so they looked at the door—
"Just act according to your feelings, doesn't that work~?"
Smiling, it was "her"—Yachi Honatsu.
Neither sarcastic nor confused, he offered this suggestion with calm composure.
Honatsu had returned without them knowing. Looking around as though in wonderment, he entered Haruaki's room. Back when he placed the birthday present, he probably entered without asking as well.
"That's right, just act according to your feelings. It's not a bad thing to be ruled by your emotions."
Honatsu was speaking with perfect confidence and composure in expression and attitude while sitting down nimbly on Haruaki's desk instead of a chair. What an ill-mannered father.
At this moment, Fear regained her senses and stood up. Pointing at the Indulgence Disks on the tatami floor, she said:
"Honatsu! You finally came back. I demand an explanation from you about these!"
"These are Indulgence Disks. You know that, right?"
"Of course I do. How did you get so many?"
"You're asking how did I get so many? ...I can only answer this way: I worked very hard to collect them. I really spent tons and tons of effort~"
Seeing his father speak in such a carefree manner, Haruaki reached the end of his patience and cried out, almost in a roar:
Fear jumped in fright but Honatsu simply showed a faint smile.
"What's the matter~?"
"Enough, okay? Just tell us... the whole truth. You didn't keep your promise earlier to explain everything at the superintendent's place, so now it's time for you to tell us!"
"...That was my intention in returning home. My, how distrusted I am~"
Honatsu pouted and sighed. Duh, he had no credibility remaining to speak of.
"My answer just now was not meant to gloss over things. Regarding how I obtained the Indulgence Disks... Really, all I can say is that I worked hard to gather them, expending monumental effort. Like sniffing for leads and sneaking into the Knights Dominion's vault to obtain them. Or secretly borrowing a tool installed with an Indulgence Disk while a knight was napping. It was essentially like that for most cases although there were times when I jumped through hoops and hurdles, only to find out that the Disk was actually held by someone else in a different organization. There were also instances when I bought them through black market information brokers and underground auctions."
Suddenly, Haruaki recalled what the supplier he met at Kyoto had said. 'Especially when these things have become even harder to come by in recent times'—Why was that?
Was it because someone else was gathering Indulgence Disks from all over the world?
"Could it be that... after sending me here, you haven't been back because..."
"Yes, because I've been all over the world to gather Indulgence Disks, although that's not the only reason. After all, I was the one who found you and sent you to this home, so I definitely need to do well on the after-sales service."
Haruaki had always been thinking, where on earth was he all this time and doing what. After sending Fear here, his father had spent even longer periods away from home. So during this stretch of time—He had been searching continually? From day one, his goal was gathering Indulgence Disks?
"B-But... I really find it unbelievable. You were targeting the Knights Dominion and even if there were others, that would include the Lab Chief's Nation, the Draconians, the Bivorio Family... and many others."
"Recently, new organizations have risen up, such as the Friedrich Commercial Alliance or the Reminders, etc. Although they're still small in scale, who knows how much they'll develop in the future."
"I haven't heard of them, but anyway, no matter which organization, so long as they're involved with cursed tools, they should all be quite dangerous. All of them are impossible to deal with using ordinary logic, right? And you managed to stay safe every time?"
"Ah~ Hmm, because I'm totally bad at fighting, I've always taken action secretly and sneakily. Using a game analogy, my job type would be something like a thief, explorer or tomb raider. If the enemy was a total musclehead and I couldn't find an opening for stealing, I'd give up from the start and wait before trying again. For example... Oh right, like Neto the Avenger."
That guy? Fear frowned with revulsion, although the Indulgence Disk installed in Neto's «The Paingrapher» ultimately ended up inside her.
"Hmm, so basically, you've been running all over the place to plunder Indulgence Disks like a thief... No, even if it was like that, I'm really surprised that you survived in one piece. Wouldn't it be natural if you were discovered on occasion and it turned into a fight?"
"Of course I'd run away as quickly as I could in those cases! Fleeing nonstop, nonstop, nonstop. After all, my goal is not in defeating enemies. Oh, however, if you were to ask if I survived in one piece to the very end... I can only tilt my head and say: 'Not necessarily~'"
Honatsu laughed "ahaha." In contrast, Haruaki felt inexplicable chills along his spine.
Somewhere in his mind, he was starting to realize a certain matter.
However, Honatsu simply continued:
"After I trespassed the Knights Dominion's facilities to steal things again and again, they started to get serious. Oh dear~ I felt like I had really become a world-class wanted criminal with a handsome bounty! Then I started getting pursuers following closely no matter whether I was awake or asleep. Finally, I was surrounded and backed into a corner, what a total crisis! It was so bad at the time that even leaving Europe was a challenge so I couldn't help but worry: 'Ahhh, I might never have a chance to return to this home again~' Sometimes I felt depressed while other times were better—"
"Th-Then what? How did you escape the encirclement—"
Halfway through, Fear stopped talking.
Her eyes stared wide in shock.
At the same time, Haruaki realized as well.
He guessed that answer.
Before his eyes—using a face that was not his father's—his father was smiling.
The father, who had returned to this home with a woman's appearance, was currently smiling.
Partially closed, his eyes showed a gentle expression. Recounting facts, his voice was calm.
"From head to foot, holding nothing back at all, mindset and physical appearance included, everything was fundamentally altered... Unless the change was this completely, it would have been truly impossible to escape the encirclement, impossible to return to this home."
A groan leaked out from Haruaki's mouth. His body lost balance and he stumbled.
He felt dizzy as though the world had turned upside down. Black and white. Inside and outside. He was starting to see things that had remained out of sight until now. What had he been looking at until now?
Breathing became difficult. His heart raced.
However, his father waved his hand nonchalantly and said:
"Take sex change and other plastic surgery techniques for example, advances have been rapid in recent years~ Is this what people call contemporary trends? It really saved my life~ I also took great pains to make sure my thoughts and behavior were like a woman's—Now that I think about it carefully it's quite similar to Konoha's image change in the past. Since it's become a habit by now, I actually feel uncomfortable not using a woman's tone of voice to speak. You guys may find it repugnant, but I'm really sorry~"
Out of the corner of his eye, Haruaki saw Fear clench her fist tightly. Head lowered, biting her lip, she muttered:
"...Honestly speaking, I've always found it strange."
Taking on Honatsu and Haruaki's gazes with her silver hair, Fear continued:
"About the enemies starting from day one—ever since that Peavey woman from the Knights Dominion came. For an organization that greatly wants to destroy me, their actions after that... seem way too scattered, right? Although after that, there was the knight who was Aiko's owner while Neto and Lilyhowell also made appearances, the numbers are still far too small. Plus the fact that Neto and Lilyhowell's target wasn't me, so one could say that there was only Aiko's owner alone. That's why I've always been worrying. Why is the Knights Dominion leaving me alone? Since they want to destroy me so much, why haven't they sent more knights again and again?"
"Hmmhmm, but it's nice that things have been fairly peaceful the whole time."
"Now I finally understand the reason. It must be because the Knights Dominion didn't even have the leisure to think of me. Because they were out in full force, trying to hunt down an even trickier target that they must punish with their pride at stake...!"
Fear slowly looked up and stared at Honatsu's face head on.
With a quiet voice under gritted teeth, Fear then said:
"You too—have been fighting. Constantly till now, you were alone."
"It's not as cool as you make it out to be, I'm just doing what I ought to do."
Of course, these words reached Haruaki's ears as well.
Yes, indeed. His father had been absent from home. So, where was he? All over the world. Due to certain reasons, due to certain extenuating circumstances, he was rushing about, all over the world—And here, Haruaki's thoughts halted.
All this time, he had believed that no amount of thinking would allow him to comprehend.
He had also believed that it was enough to know that his father had been touring the world, after all, it did not make much of a difference.
He was totally mistaken. His father had been searching for Indulgence Disks nonstop, risking his life to gather them, constantly evading pursuers from vengeful organizations. This—Wasn't this the fighting that Fear mentioned?
Did this not count as risking one's life in a persistent and solitary battle?
"Why!? Why did you go so far... Pops...?"
Haruaki took a step forward to question him and Honatsu laughed "hoho."
"Didn't I just say so? This is after-sales service. Back in that castle's secret storeroom, I asked Fear: 'Do you want to lift your curse?' I sent her to this home because she answered YES. Well then, in order to achieve her goal, I have to help her as much as possible. During this period while she's lifting her curse, how could I miss out if there were tools for restraining her power~?"
This seemed to constitute an answer, or maybe it did not. The task was definitely not absolutely mandatory. What was his reason for going so far as to risk his own life? Why did he do this—?
Wasn't it obvious? Haruaki clenched his fist tightly, lowered his face and came to an instant revelation.
It was for them.
For Fear whose curse threatened to devour her and for the idiot son named Yachi Haruaki who was closest to her. For the two of them to live a carefree life, passing each day safely while lifting the curse—
"You're... such an idiot..."
"Why did you go so far... even sacrificing your own body... Pops..."
Haruaki was facing forward as though staring as hard as he could. Unless he did that, he would not be able to look into his father's face directly.
Even so, Honatsu's expression was still very gentle. Sitting on the desk, he was swaying his legs.
"Because I felt... If I did that, things would have better 'developments.'"
"Muu, what do you mean by that?"
Fear lightly tilted her face and asked.
"Oh dear, I haven't mentioned this? I... have a power that's similar to catching faint~ faint glimpses of 'developments.' Like this, a feeling with fuzzy images."
"Wha? I'm hearing this for the first time."
"I don't know either. What does it mean?"
Haruaki and Fear both cast an inquiring gaze. Honatsu scratched his cheek and said:
"This can only be described as 'developments.' Basically, I can predict that doing 'this' seems better or things would be bad if 'this' continued~ Something like that."
"...Does it count as a kind of fortune telling?"
"Feels a bit like it, but not too similar. Because it also allows me to know vaguely that someone probably has a cursed power... Hmm, I guess I should say that I'm particularly sensitive to the concept of 'developments'? Bluntly stated, perhaps it's just a strong sixth sense, or perhaps it's just wrong intuition that happens to develop in a good direction."
After taking a breath, he continued:
"Anyway—that's how I've been living my life, following that intuition. Like sensing the 'developments' of an ancient curse in an abandoned castle's underground section. Then going through a secret door to have a look, I found a strange cube inside."
Honatsu turned to Fear and winked. However, this action was still as repulsive as ever.
"Then... I mentioned 'developments,' didn't I? So I judged that simply sending the cube to this home was not enough. If I could collect the Indulgence Disks, I'd be able to bring happiness to everyone, so I went ahead to gather them. That's all."
Honatsu spoke with a smile as if this was the most natural thing in the world.
Although Haruaki did not know the details, seeing as Honatsu claimed that he had survived till now by following this power to see "developments," it must be true. That was why he could work as a jack-of-all-trades in the field of cursed tools. Despite the superintendent's constant failures, Honatsu was still able to bring home cursed tools every time. Furthermore, he was able to find Konoha, Kuroe and Fear, bringing them back to this home.
(I see... So that's the truth...)
Many many things now made sense. Haruaki had always found his father's behavior incomprehensible and inexplicable, but for the very first time, he was able to catch a glimpse of the underlying logic and reasons.
Haruaki felt a sudden gurgle and twitching in the depths of his throat as though having some kind of fit, but he desperately suppressed it.
Fear was looking at him with worried yet relieved eyes.
Honatsu still continued to show a smiling and gentle expression.
"By the way... I think you two can now sympathize with my situation, so back to the main subject, have you decided on the answer just now? Basically, the question of going or not."
Fear glanced sharply at Haruaki. Without any intention to back down, Haruaki looked back at her.
Seeing that, Honatsu laughed again.
"Just like I said earlier, my suggestion is this: It's not a bad thing to be ruled by your emotions. So, Haruaki, go ahead."
"I thinking that even better developments will likely come out of this, although I don't know in particular what things will have what kind of developments."
"Hey Honatsu! What are you talking about!? Speaking so relaxed! You clearly have no idea what's going to happen!"
Fear took a great stride towards Honatsu. Tilting his head and going "hmm~", Honatsu suddenly reached out with his right hand—
He caught Fear by the face. Approaching him, Fear kept struggling nonstop. Across the silver-haired head, Haruaki and Honatsu looked into each other's eyes. Honatsu's face crumpled with a wry smile. This was an expression Haruaki had never seen before. It was a little similar to the face from before he had become "her."
"Although it feels dissonant, it's not like I'm unable to speak in my original tone of voice. So just this once, I'll turn back to the way I was. Haruaki."
The voice coming from his throat was a woman's, but the tone was a certain person's familiar way of speaking.
"Haruaki... It's fine for you to act more willfully, just like this girl here. Although you need to take on the adult's role in this home... I'm here now. Just say what you want to say and do what you want to do. To me, you and Fear are both children. Just do as you wish."
For a while, the two of them stared at each other.
In the end, Honatsu turned his gaze away in embarrassment, his cheeks going red.
"Ah~ Mmm~ C-Cough, somehow it feels a bit embarrassing~"
"Normally, you should feel embarrassed when talking like a woman! Anyway, release me now, or I'll curse you!"
"Right now, could you please let us have some father-son time alone?"
Haruaki was experiencing an unbelievable feeling.
There was a hot mass in the depths of his heart seeming as though it would melt, disperse and spread out all over his entire body. With that, his body was going to move in an unprecedented manner. That was fuel. He had been injected with driving power.
Yes, truly... It was unbelievable.
He could not believe that this kind of irresponsible father had given him a push using irresponsible advice.
However—He must admit it.
Currently, he definitely felt as though someone had given his back a push. He felt that he could move forward and that he should move forward.
Hence, take action. Far better than staying in this home, take action.
"Muu... Muunnn~ ...Puha! Ah! Damn you, Haruaki, that's the gaze belonging to someone thinking malicious thoughts, right!? My opinion remains the same, no matter what this guy says, danger is danger! We don't know what will happen next. Cow Tits forbids it and I also—"
Escaping from Honatsu's grasp, Fear approached Haruaki and insisted loudly. However, Haruaki simply thought back to Honatsu's words just now.
(...Do as I wish huh?)
Perhaps. Perhaps he could do as he wished. For example, now that Konoha was no longer like an elder sister, he did not need to act like a younger brother either. Whenever she got angry, he no longer needed to back down and act timid. He could start by not following her directions.
Something akin to defiance surged in his chest.
He decided to go. Thus he would go. This was already unchangeable.
Then what after going out—If leaving the house ends up accomplishing nothing but satisfying himself, it could not be helped either.
Since his father had been fighting hard, he shall fight too. Just like his father, everyone had different ways of fighting. Perhaps there existed a way of fighting that belonged to him alone.
Just as Honatsu's battle was staying on the run after going through a sex change, meanwhile collecting Indulgence Disks on his own...
What was the battle method within Yachi Haruaki's ability?
In order to rescue Kirika, to move forward, what could he do—?
...Then Haruaki reached his conclusion.
The sense of defiance surging after hearing his father's words had guided him to the answer. Purely by following the simple direction of "do as you wish," the solution to the equation was unexpectedly found near him. In order to save her, what must be done.
At the same time, that simple sense of defiance also allowed him to find the answer to the problem that had been troubling him until now. After casting off all restraints, keeping a stance of neutrality and re-examining his own heart without being fettered by anything—In the end, he realized that there was only one sentence he needed to tell her.
The way to rescue her, and what needed to be done after saving her...
Having found the answers, all that remained was the execution.
Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps this was not correct. However, this was undoubtedly—
The most like his own style.
Haruaki grinned. Looking at Fear who was glaring at him with a frown, he said:
"Fear, since you said that something might happen, then all we need to do is prevent that something from happening, right?"
Then Haruaki turned his gaze.
For the first time in a long while—really in a very long while—he looked at his father and tried to say something willful.
"Pops, you've got many connections in the business, right? I need a favor from you."
Evening, at a beach.
Haruaki appeared at the same location as the day before yesterday's, accompanied by Fear, Kuroe and Honatsu. After waiting for a while, the members of the first awaited group strode their way to arrive. This was Konoha with a face of displeasure along with Kotetsu.
"Haruaki-kun! I clearly emphasized over and over again, asking you not to leave the house!"
"Sorry, Konoha. But... it's because I can't stay as your younger brother forever."
Due to calling her and one-sidedly telling her to come here, Haruaki expected her to be in a rage. Since he did not want to waste time slowly explaining, he gazed straight into her eyes and spoke his true feelings candidly.
"So, I decided on my own to defy your orders as an equal."
Konoha wanted to say something reflexively, but in order to calm herself, she slowly closed her eyes and took a deep breath—
"As equals... huh...?"
She opened her eyes. Beneath those glasses, her eyes quietly inquired of him.
"From now on, all the time?"
Haruaki nodded and thought to himself: She needs proof, right? He needed to prove he was serious.
"Back when we entered high school together, we promised. Although the promise was sloppily broken later, I've decided to abide by that promise seriously from now on. I swear—I won't call you 'Kono-nee' ever again."
Konoha sighed long and hard. Then—
As though in exasperation, she smiled helplessly.
"Sigh~ ...Is this actually good news? Or bad news? It seems to be exactly what I wanted yet it seems like there's no rush to change things immediately... Hmm, very well. I'll relent this time."
"Thank you, Konoha."
"But you do have a clear plan, I hope? That said, I have no right to say anything given our fruitless efforts."
"Truth be told, it is as she says. Summoning us here with a just a call saying 'I came up with a plan' yet leaving us in the dark. Why did we return to this place?"
Kotetsu glared at Haruaki viciously while he spoke. Fear closed her eyes in exhaustion and answered:
"He'll probably explain on the way, but I don't know whether or not you'll accept it."
"Hmm~ On the other hand, we've already give up resisting."
"...Why am I getting a sense of foreboding about this...?"
At this moment, the sounds of an engine could be heard. The second awaited group had appeared on the sea in a private speed boat.
"Thanks for waiting, everyone."
"Ahhh... Suffering this rocking is so demotivating~"
"My apologies, it took a while of preparation because this boat has not been started for a long time. Come aboard!"
Riding the cabin cruiser was the superintendent in his gas mask, Zenon who was in charge of operating the boat, as well as Ganon who was grabbing onto the boat's edge, collapsed in a heap. Rather than the cabin cruiser's rocking, the true cause was more likely the can of beer in her hand.
Everyone walked into the sea and got on the cabin cruiser, wetting their feet in the process. Soon they departed.
The cabin cruiser's deck was quite spacious and the breeze felt very comfortable. Haruaki faced the cabin cruiser's destination while glancing at Honatsu beside him and asked a question that had been bothering him.
"By the way, why were you keeping a low profile last time?"
"Basically, back when Pendragon's group visited the villa, weren't you particularly quiet?"
"Oh dear~ It was purely due to fear. Because I helped out quite a lot when Gab-chan left the Draconians, so I was worried whether they'd bear a grudge against me."
"Hey... Is that issue really okay?"
"When I called them, they agreed readily without giving an impression like: 'You bastard—! I won't forgive you, I'm gonna kill you!' So I think I was probably overthinking things. What a happy miscalculation."
"What miscalculation... Aren't you capable of predicting developments?"
"Of course there are times when it's impossible to predict. Because it's more like a fuzzy sixth sense."
"What's the matter? Konoha, why did you suddenly yell hurray with an empty smile?"
Surprised by Konoha's strange behavior next to him, Haruaki inquired. Konoha narrowed her eyes and said:
"Two reasons. One of them being the pleasure of seeing you and Honatsu-san talking normally after how you've been keeping your distance, Haruaki-kun, hence, hurray~"
"N-Not at all... It was normal before, right? So what's the other reason?"
Konoha exhaled greatly and grabbed the edge of the boat powerlessly like Ganon just now.
"After hearing the conversation between you, I think I know where we're headed. Seeing my sense of foreboding come true, I can only raise my arms and surrender, hence, hurray~"
Keeping the same posture, Konoha only looked up and stared at the cabin cruiser's destination ahead, waiting for them. Haruaki also lifted his gaze to look. But frankly speaking, even without looking intentionally, that thing had been in view all along.
In other words, the giant fleet still moored on the sea—Dragon Island, the Draconians' stronghold.
Countless ships were facing them, waiting confidently for this cabin cruiser to gradually approach.
That ship was wide and massive.
The deck was almost a flat plain. Very spacious. Spacious to a frightening degree. With no obstacles in view, the floor underfoot was laid with wooden boards that squeaked pleasantly. But upon closer examination, one could see that it was a mixture of brand-new wood and heavily scarred planks. There were also marks resembling water stains—even dark red ones.
A brown deck as well as a pure blue space formed from the sea and the sky.
Standing out conspicuously in the very center was a white, round table with chairs surrounding it. The table was quite large, hence the number of chairs were many. On one of the chairs—
"Welcome to the Dueling Ship Leviathan. Please pick any seat you like. Don't worry, there's no mechanism like the type where the deck would suddenly open up to make people fall down along with their chair. Haha~"
"What's that? But that kind of mechanism sounds fun, let's make one next time. Every time you sexually harass someone, I'll pull a cord to make you fall with a whoosh~!"
"Simply imagining it is punishment bringing such joy/heartbreak that my uterus hurts."
Pendragon had his legs crossed with feet on the table, Riko was sitting on his thigh while Granaury was standing behind Pendragon with her eyes closed as usual.
"Hmm~ What naming sense that resonates deeply with my heart. In this day and age, its totally unostentatious plainness ends up being awesome. By the way, what's a dueling ship?"
Kuroe cocked her tiny head and asked.
"Just as everyone can see, this is a ship serving as a battle arena. Consider a facility that comes with the Dragon Island. Spacious and flat, facilitating movement, it allows participants to fully show their power. That said, there might be stains everywhere, yeah, but don't mind them."
"Hmph, so these stains are blood after all...? What a terrifying place."
"I picked this out of consideration for you guys, you know? I could have took you guys to the super cramped meeting room at the back of the ship, but then you'd worry about traps, right? Or worry about getting imprisoned, then what'll I do? But there's no better visibility than here and no one can do anything, so relax!"
"Allow me to say out of courtesy: thank you for your unnecessary consideration."
"Anyway, sit down first, everyone. Getting all tense and wary now is already too late."
Hearing the superintendent say that, Haruaki sat down on one of the chairs in trepidation. Fear sat herself down hard on the seat next to him whereas Konoha nervously sat on his other side. Kotetsu and Kuroe also found seats casually while Zenon and Ganon stood behind the superintendent without sitting down.
"Oh right, you're Yachi Honatsu, aren't you? I totally didn't notice until now."
"Oh dear, I'm sorry, it's because you didn't ask~"
"Ha! I told you not to worry. I should have mentioned on the phone that I don't bear any grudges about you helping Gabriel to escape. But had you been dealing with Old Man Long, I wouldn't make any promises."
"Then that's truly fortunate~ Please continue to show mercy~"
Honatsu smiled cheerfully and sat down on a chair, tossing her fluffy hair lightly and crossing her long and slender legs—"Mmm~" Pendragon leaned forward slightly.
"By the way... Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I heard you were a man..."
"Yes, because many things happened, I'm totally a girl now."
What girl!? Haruaki groaned in his heart while listening to more unbelievable dialogue.
"I see... You're a woman now eh? Sounds about right. Isn't that great? Since you have a son, then that gives you the MILF attribute, no matter what kind of past you have, it poses no inconvenience to me—"
"Granaury, I want a big hole—! We absolutely need a mechanism for opening up a hole under this guy's feet—!"
With the other side noisy as ever, Haruaki's group were in no mood for joking at all. With tense minds, they could only wait for time to pass.
Then several minutes later—
"Hi hi, thank you for your patience. It took even longer than expected because we don't have a lab on the sea, after all. Perhaps taking this opportunity, should we construct an aquatic lab or not?"
Fear and the others' shoulders shook as they looked at the new arrival—in other words, the last person expected to join the meeting, Yamimagari Pakuaki. His tone of voice was flippant as usual while he walked over without any eagerness, the hem of his black lab coat swaying, and took a seat in an empty chair. Naturally, a dark-skinned girl followed behind him. With her characteristically blank expression, she nodded lightly to greet them.
After sitting down, Pakuaki looked towards one side with a smile.
"Hi, nice to meet you, Maximilian Pendragon. I am Yamimagari Pakuaki, just an insignificant researcher. Pleased to make your acquaintance from now on."
"...Yeah, I'll memorize your face."
Pendragon replied after glancing at Pakuaki. "Feels like such a pretentious fellow!" Sitting on Pendragon's thigh, Riko glared at Pakuaki intently. Pakuaki shrugged.
"What a cold reception. I was thinking I'd get a bigger reaction on the first encounter."
"Although I'm slightly interested, at least I've never heard rumors that you're strong, so I'm not that enthusiastic. Instead, rather than you—"
Pendragon moved his fingers that were clasped together on his belly. Instantly—
A glinting knife stopped in front of Pakuaki. However, the knife was not attacking him but the opposite. From behind Pakuaki, Un Izoey had extended her dark-skinned leg over his shoulder to thrust out the knife held between her toes. She had drawn her knife from under her skirt in order to shield him.
Pakuaki only exclaimed once before settling back in his usually carefree attitude. With his face reflecting off the metal blade of the knife between Un Izoey's toes, he said:
"Hmm, this feels like a wholly innovative way of shaving. The beautiful lines of your leg is totally dominating my view, what a true feast for the eyes."
"Really? My reaction: I already know that I can demand compensation from you when you make this kind of comment, I report this kind of report. Branch Chief Shinohogi told me."
Un Izoey spoke while keeping her gaze firmly on Pendragon. Her narrowed eyes were very sharp. She had probably sensed something from his tiny movement just now. For example, it was as though she had sensed killing intent that only an elite warrior could detect.
At this moment, Pendragon grinned for the first time and scratched his head deliberately. Un Izoey's tension instantly eased as she slowly withdrew her leg back behind Pakuaki's shoulder.
"Just as rumored, you keep a great dog."
"This is a high-class dog with a strong thirst for knowledge, so I can't possibly let you have her."
Next, Pakuaki turned his gaze to Haruaki's group. More accurately, he was looking at Honatsu.
"Hi, Yachi Honatsu-san, hello again, it's been a while. I think we've met two or three times before—Ehhhh!? When did you become a woman!? What on earth happened!?"
"Pakuaki, don't bother with the crappy acting~ It's very infuriating. After all, you know everything about me already, right?"
"Haha, how harsh."
Haruaki looked at his father in exasperation and muttered:
"You know each other?"
"Not really friends, but basically at some excavation sites in the past, I competed with his research teams several times to steal cursed tools and the like. How nice it'd be if they could stop those inhumane human experiments and do more research to benefit mankind~"
Seeing the topic of conversation go on a tangent, Pendragon clapped his hands.
"Well then, all the expected parties have arrived. And what a bunch that isn't supposed to gather in one place too. Can we start?"
"Yes, continued chatting isn't the answer."
The superintendent nodded as well, thus the tension at the scene instantly heightened.
"We are only gathered here today by the summons of the famous jack-of-all-trades—rumored to appear anywhere there are Wathes, no matter where, meddling in all business, no matter what—namely, Yachi Honatsu. But in fact, we have not received any notice regarding what this meeting will discuss, isn't that right?"
"Truly an unknown."
"So, what is your goal? You can be candid now, right? I hope this isn't anything inane, host of this gathering—Yachi Haruaki."
The two organization leaders, Pendragon and Pakuaki, both looked at Haruaki at the same time.
The pressure was truly extraordinary. However, Haruaki did not falter for he had resolved himself already.
"First of all, Pendragon—I have a question for you."
"Oh? Please ask."
Just as with his conversation with Konoha earlier, Haruaki had already resolved himself and decided what needed to be said. Hence, an there was no need for pointless preamble. Simply pouring sincerity into his eyes, Haruaki voiced his idea directly on the spot.
"You guys are very obsessed with 'strength,' right? But I want to ask you... Does strength increase the deeper the curse? Or will lifting a curse lead to greater strength?"
Haruaki could feel Fear, Konoha, Kuroe and Kotetsu's gazes.
"Pendragon, what do you think? After looking at those of us present, what are your thoughts?"
He—the Commander of the Draconians—parted his lips in a grin.
Then he answered briefly:
Really? Haruaki silently exhaled. Just as he predicted. Just as he hoped.
"So, in other words, you admit the possibility that "lifting one's curse can lead to greater strength.'"
Haruaki knew from a while ago. Sending Hiwatari Yume over with the idea that "it might be possible to get stronger by observing Fear's strength up close," Pendragon was different from the other Draconians who took action based on a simple and foolishly straightforward principle of fighting, fighting and more fighting to become strong. Only after reaching the pinnacle of this path did he realize that there existed things that could not be obtained through such means. Hence, to become stronger, he had the flexibility and willingness to explore other directions—
Still staring straight into Pendragon's eyes, Haruaki then said:
"That means... There should exist common ground for us to join forces, right?"
Konoha was sighing silently, shaking her head repeatedly with a look of resignation. Kotetsu was looking at him with a shocked expression. Having heard the basic explanation, Fear was scowling with arms crossed whereas Kuroe remained blank-faced as usual. The superintendent and Honatsu simply stared at him.
"Oh, oh~? Your proposal is truly fascinating."
Pendragon narrowed one eye while Pakuaki was all smiles.
"The same goes for you, Yamimagari Pakuaki. That's why I called you here."
"I thought so too. And what is your goal?"
Haruaki suddenly narrowed his eyes. Everything was for one purpose. To rescue Kirika safely. Putting that into words according to sequence—
"...Think of it as wanting to share information with you. You instigated Class Rep to go find that girl in order to fulfill some kind of objective, which means you won't stop just like that. Also... Ultimately, I don't think you'll abandon Class Rep to her fate."
Although Haruaki did not know if it was due to her being Pakuaki's precious little sister or because she was an important research subject, he could only take a gamble.
Pakuaki simply raised an eyebrow with interest. Then Haruaki faced Pendragon.
"I believe that the Draconians probably cannot ignore the strength of someone they've fought before. I think at least one of you guys went to attack her, right? It means that guy would know her location, right? Although Sleif has probably left the scene, it's enough to serve as a lead."
"Anyway, it's very simple. I want all of you to cooperate with us in order to rescue Class Rep."
Pendragon stroked his chin and asked with an intrigued expression.
It was short and practical, a question that could not be more natural.
Hearing Haruaki's instant reply, Pendragon's eyebrow twitched. Haruaki had thought of this already. This was the only answer that must be confronted in order to move forward. However, naturally, it did not really mean absolutely nothing at all.
"However, our home... The Yachi house will always remain as the Yachi house. This won't ever change. And this fact might perhaps serve as a reward."
"What do you mean, Yachi Haruaki?"
Haruaki exhaled, straightening his back on the chair. In front of him was the commander of a militant organization, possessing far greater strength than he, a man with the terrifying power to effortlessly take his life away.
However—Hence, so what?
As though to oppose him, Haruaki relaxed his cheeks and smiled.
"In other words, you guys can come over to play."
Pendragon made a dumbfounded look. Konoha was totally hiding her face in her hands, her body shaking. Fear feigned calmness on the surface but was breathing quickly, her fingertips rapidly drumming audibly on her elbows.
"I said, you guys can come over to play. As long as you don't do anything weird, the Yachi house won't refuse you guys. As long as your side don't do anything evil or things that bother or harm others."
"As long as your side doesn't do any of that, I think we can assist you in training certain people to become strong. Rather than going at one another's lives, as long as proper rules are sent, we could hold something like sparring events for those who come to our house to play. Someone like Satsuko might even come over every day."
Then Haruaki immediately looked at Pakuaki who was still listening to him with eyes filled with interest.
"The same goes for the Lab Chief's Nation—whether you, Un Izoey or Amanda. If you visit the Yachi house, we'll at least serve you a cup of tea and if you wanted to know certain things, as long as nothing weird is done, we could chat with you guys and answer questions of your choice. Oh right, if some kind of athletic sparring happened to be going on, Un Izoey could help out if she's free."
While speaking, Haruaki looked at the dark-skinned girl behind Pakuaki. Looking at the back of her own boss' head with troubled eyes, she said:
"Yes. Hmm... if free. Body will become slow if not active for too long."
"You won't go as far as to limit this girl's personal movements, right?"
"Hoho, no. Naturally, if researchers wanted to go to a friend's house to play on a private basis, I can neither reprimand nor restrict them, even though I am the boss."
Haruaki organized his thoughts for a moment first. Towards Pendragon and Pakuaki, the two of them, what he ought to say. When seeking their assistance, what kind of stance his own side ought to clarify.
"In other words—I believe that the Yachi house might be a place for contemplating connections between cursed tools and humans. I want to make this stance even clearer. And what I call connections could refer to the quest for strength or the resolution of the unknown. So, there should be common ground for joining forces, right?"
"Conversely, there also exist differences that prevent us from joining forces, right?"
Pakuaki rested his chin on his hands whose fingers were interlocked, speaking with a malicious smile.
"Indeed, the issue of ominous curses exists between us. Not only do I want to prevent curses from causing trouble to others, but I also believe firmly that curses are better off lifted."
"Yes, we absolutely won't back down from this bottom line."
Fear finally spoke, her arms crossed and eyes closed, delivering heavy words.
Haruaki nodded at Fear then said:
"However—Just as Konoha applied self-suggestion to herself to faint at the sight of blood, just as Kotetsu relies on drinking tomato juice to curb his impulses, just as a doll, whose body's blades will kill its lover, can make do with simply hugging once the blades are destroyed... All kinds of shortcuts can be found even though everyone is different in situation and severity. The Lab Chief's Nation has probably investigated this area too, right?"
"Hmm, I can't say we haven't~"
"In other words, just let differences remain as differences, but we can at least establish an alliance based on the things we agree on, right? My house welcomes you guys any time. But if you guys do anything to harm or inconvenience others, we will do everything in our power to stop you."
"Existing in this manner, your side will stay at that house... Is that what you mean? Haha, taking on a clear stance, becoming a well-defined group of people, your side wishes to stand on equal footing against organizations such as we of the Lab Chief's Nation or the Draconians. In that case—"
Saying that, Pakuaki's shoulders shook with mirth and he really looked like he was laughing happily. After letting everyone hear his laughter, he said:
"In a certain sense, perhaps this counts as establishing a new organization, 'Yachi House'? An organization contemplating the connections between cursed tools and humans. At the same time, also an organization that wants to lift curses. Unconcerned with the stances of other organizations, but under the overriding condition that ordinary people must not be harmed, is that correct? I see, I see."
Is... that really the case? There was no major change from what they had been doing and what they had been thinking all along, simply articulated into words. Haruaki had simply made a clear declaration in front of Pakuaki and Pendragon, that was all. However, if this act carried significance and redefined their group—
Perhaps, it really was the case without a doubt.
"Very sufficient in combat potential, with Fear-in-Cube, Muramasa and Kotetsu... Furthermore, capable of gathering a number of Wathes if the summons are made. And in charge of information gathering, there is the one who is like a certain well-known mouse—"
"You mean the infamous wanted man who is fleeing all over the place? But that's quite a discourteous nickname~ Hmph, don't let this moniker take hold!"
Pakuaki glanced at Honatsu who was pouting in protest before looking at the superintendent.
"Finally, there is the financial backing. The former second-ranked Draconian whose charismatic leadership and social connections cannot underestimated."
"Apart from finances, I can't really agree with the rest. With neither charismatic leadership nor social connections, I'm just a mysterious businessman who wears a gas mask."
"Hahaha! Yes, anyway..."
Pakuaki rubbed his hands together as though worshiping then stared into space with deep thought. However, it only took several seconds of contemplation for him to reach a certain conclusion.
"Hmm, this is really too interesting! I really cannot ignore the fascinating developments of this unknown. Besides, this is currently an emergency. I've decided."
"Don't make me spell it out, okay? Kirika is my lovely little sister and I want to save her too. I shall accept your proposal. On this matter, the Lab Chief's Nation will offer their full cooperation to your Yachi House."
"...If only I could take your words at face value."
Probably feeling exhausted by the developments in the conversation, Konoha groaned extremely feebly.
"I'd be really distraught too if Kirika didn't return. I hope you all can believe me on this point. Until Kirika is rescued, I swear I won't lie or get any funny ideas."
Saying that, Pakuaki spread his hands and moved them upwards as though surrendering. To be honest, trying to trust Pakuaki completely would definitely leave unease in his heart, but Haruaki felt that Pakuaki was worth trusting on this one matter alone.
"So... What about you, Maximilian Pendragon, Commander of the Draconians?"
Fear glanced sideways at Pendragon and asked. With a fearless smile, he replied:
"Sparring at the Yachi house... huh? Indeed, Squishy-ko and her partner might be overjoyed, but to be honest, it's totally irrelevant to me. I have nothing to gain from it."
Haruaki gasped. No way? No good? Pendragon was not willing to assist them? Fear and the others were also slowly getting more nervous. However—
At this moment, Pendragon suddenly turned his gaze, sweeping across the members of the group seated at the round table.
"...She's not here? That glasses-wearing chick with husky voice."
"Huh? Oh, you mean Chihaya? She doesn't live at our house, so she only comes by to play occasionally."
Haruaki was unsure of Pendragon's intent but he offered this answer for now. Pendragon swept his gaze again for another round.
"Hmm, then it means I might see her again any time. There's also that bunch of smiling girls who look identical, the beauty with a model's figure, the girl with the curly hair... as well as Muramasa, Kotetsu and Fear-in-Cube..."
"Let me make a prediction, how about me?"
Kuroe swiftly raised her hand and asked. Pendragon grinned while rubbing Riko's head as he answered:
"Haha~ Of course, with pretty hair and smooth skin, you are in my strike zone too! The evidence is this girl here! Tiny bodies are fine too. Tiny they may be, but there are all kinds of ways to play with them. Listen carefully, first of all—"
"Hey hey! What are you talking about!? I only kept quiet until now because the subject seemed very serious, but I was careless and underestimated the enemy!"
Her entire tiny face flushed red, Riko hammered her fists madly but Pendragon remained unfazed and looked at Haruaki whose eyes were narrowed.
"—I can't believe you gathered so many awesome girls, how rare. For me, this is quite a critical reason. Okay, I'll help you."
"I'm already feeling quite disturbed by how he made his decision to help out... Is it really okay?"
"Regrettably, he has always been like this."
"Yeah~ Copping a feel while passing by is totally commonplace for him."
"Truth be told, that is indeed the case. He has touched my buttocks who knows how many times."
Zenon, Ganon and even Kotetsu also nodded in agreement. How unsettling in this regard, but at least his personality could be considered upfront and honest.
Haruaki gulped and said:
"Then in other words—"
"The three-way alliance is hereby established? Looking forward to working with you, Mr. Pendragon."
"Anyway, until this incident is resolved, I'll need to tell my subordinates they're forbidden from making a move on the little lady there. Seeing as she's an opponent whom Kokoro Pentangeli ultimately failed to defeat, many of the members are very interested in her. However, it's really been a long time since I last met a dark-skinned woman. In other ways, I'm quite stoked too."
Listening to Pakuaki and Pendragon's conversation, Haruaki breathed a sigh of relief.
He had managed to secure these two's assistance. Although he had taken a gamble, Haruaki believed that chances of success were theoretically very high in the first place. That was precisely why he prioritized speed by asking Honatsu somewhat forcefully to arrange the meeting. But because Haruaki had acted without consultation, he decided he must apologize to Konoha and the rest later.
Anyway, with this accomplished, one could say that things have moved forward.
However—Haruaki clenched his fists. It was too early to relax. Now was what could be considered the real beginning.
The goal that must be reached and accomplished was ahead.
(Class Rep, wait for us a little longer...!)
Then once the goal was accomplished, once she was rescued safe and sound...
He was no longer afraid.
He had already decided: He was not going to run away again. He must convey his thoughts and feelings to her clearly.
And tell her the answer he had delayed all this time.
After that, Fear kept paying close attention to developments for the most part.
"Oh, hello? I want to ask you something. Along the way back to Dragon Island, one of our members ran into someone from the Knights Dominion, right? Yeah, that shameful guy, the one who met the enemy by chance, went up to attack but ended up running home with one arm severed. His name was very weird... Something like Kurusonzan? Yes yes yes, that's him, that's him."
After Pendragon made a call to someone, a small boat was launched from another ship and came over to this dueling ship. A young and heavily injured Draconian appeared on deck to report where he had attacked Sleif but ended up getting defeated utterly.
"Hmph, this area huh? Roughly what time? Hmm, I see. In that case—"
With highly experienced motions, Pakauaki labeled this information on the map that was spread over the table. The pen was spun with exceptional fluidity.
Labeled on the map was not only the obtained location where the Draconian had attacked rashly but also all the places where random slashings had occurred. In addition—
"Actually, we were also able to discover bloodstains through Kotetsu's sense of smell. We have been searching in those areas the whole time earlier—although no further clues were found in the end."
"Oh? And did those bloodstains vanish?"
"Yes, they vanished while I was watching them."
"Then that was surely Kirika's blood. In fact, we too have found several locations with bloodstains. Since bloodstains were still linger at the scenes, it meant that «Gimestorante's Love» was still in the process of healing wounds using its cursed power. In other words, we missed them by a hair's breadth. What a shame."
"...You guys were searching too?"
"I have mentioned that she is my precious little sister, right? Although she might not think so. Anyway, adding the couple places where only bloodstains were found... Yes."
Pakuaki spun the pen while looking down at the map. Haruaki and company also examined the map from their various vantage points around the table.
"Ha~ This feels like quite a common pattern."
"Seriously, it's too easy to understand."
"But... it's impossible to determine without a large amount of data in this case, so it's all thanks to you guys."
Pakuaki shrugged as though saying "you won't gain anything by praising me."
"Well then, let us confirm what is known so far. Judging according to the cases so far, the knight's crimes are always committed according to specific rules. One of them is 'always on soil.' Whether phantom slashings, Kirika's blood or where the Draconian attacked recklessly, there were no exceptions. Another point is very easy and clear to see once visualized like this—One can deduce that she is moving around this town in the shape of a circle."
Precisely. Fear looked down at the map. Starting from the beach where Pakuaki marked the first incident, it looked like someone was tracing a large circle. Of course, there were large gaps in between, but—
"These areas are simply the ones we couldn't confirm, right? Also—Suppose these actions were undertaken with some sort of intent, the enemy probably won't cut through the middle of the circle suddenly or move in the opposite direction."
"In other words, we can conclude that she will be moving along the circumference, right?"
The superintendent exhaled under the gas mask and said that. Pakuaki nodded. While continuing to spin his pen, he spoke with exaggeration like a magician:
"Indeed. So—Considering the time intervals and movement distances between crimes, the next crime scene can be predicted with extremely high certainty to be this area."
Then he stabbed a point on the map.
It was near the sea. If one were to continue further along the shore from that point, they would return to the beach in the beginning. Since the enemy was moving in a circle, returning to the starting point was only natural as well.
Haruaki's demeanor was solemn.
"So we're going to set up an ambush...!?"
"Having said that, her route is not following a perfectly accurate circle. The intervals in movement distance are also not that meticulous, varying quite a bit, so all I can guess is this general area."
"I think that would be good enough already. After all, limiting to places with exposed soil, we should be able to narrow it down to a couple locations."
Konoha offered her comment while staring at the map, prompting Pakuaki to put his pen into motion.
"Yes... This should be the main one, while other ambushes should be set up here and here... And this place is last? Of course, you guys should wait at the most major location with focused combat potential to intercept her, right? As for one of the secondary ambush points here, Un Izoey and I will take care of it."
"Then, Zenon-kun, Ganon-kun and I will be responsible for the other one. As soon as we encounter her, we stall her while contacting the main team... This should barely pull through, right?"
"No helping it, I'll send out a few youngsters from my side, similarly to take on interception and communication roles. But it's possible they might include fellows who act rashly and get hurt."
The superintendent and Pendragon offered their various opinions. It looked like they had just enough manpower.
Staring intently at the map, Haruaki nodded forcefully.
"Then let's move out immediately. There could be variations in the time intervals between crimes. Waiting is fine, but arriving later than her would be bad, so we must hurry... Fear? You look a bit dazed, is anything wrong?"
Fear suddenly regained her senses and shook her head.
"No—The main event is up so I was just cheering for myself."
"Good idea, then let's get going!"
Haruaki was the first to leave the round table and start walking. Konoha and the others followed after him. With eyes narrowed, Fear trailed behind as the last person in the group, following Haruaki.
"Sigh~ For a moment I was worried with no idea how things would turn out, but now it seems like favorable developments are heading our way, so I won't nag... By the way, putting this incident aside, it's quite nice to see Haruaki-kun so manly, putting a plan into motion with such force and vigor. Fufufu."
"Oh, Kono-san, are you falling in love with Haru all over again~?"
"What are you talking about? But yes, it is precisely the case."
"Hmph. Truth be told, that sort of level doesn't totally count as manliness yet... A real man should be like Isami-sama, stronger and more powerful, stern and awe-inspiring..."
Konoha and the others talked while walking with Haruaki. Two powerful swords. One gentle doll. A man in a gas mask and the loyal pair of sisters behind him.
These were not the only people around Haruaki, because others also sprang into action.
"By the way, is your foot okay? You got hurt earlier, right?"
"My response: an instant answer of no problem. This level of small injury will heal in one night just by applying tribe's traditional nuuponhi."
"Wow, what is that? Truly a term of the unknown, what is it like?"
"Yes. Not sure how to say in this country's language? Although unknown, the main ingredient is made by grinding that thing which you frequently find under floorboards or in rubbish dumps—"
"Stop! I have a bad feeling about this! Please discuss this somewhere out of our earshot!"
The dark-skinned girl. The tribal warrior. The person who could extend her long legs in high-speed combat. As well as the leader of the Lab Chief's Nation that sought knowledge above all else.
Next, Haruaki looked to the side.
"So, you're coming with us too?"
"Hey, how could I not stay with the main team? But I won't make a move, that's all."
"Since you won't make a move, it ends up raising the question of why are you following..."
"Because watching the battle seems very fun. Also, pa—Nothing."
"Ah! Hey, this guy definitely wanted to say that 'faint glimpses of panties might be possible'!"
Presumably stronger than anyone, the Commander of the Draconians. As well as the two cursed tools in his possession.
Ahhh—Fear was savoring an unbelievable feeling.
What an unusual sight. What an unusual view.
Before her eyes, Haruaki was surrounded by all kinds of people, human and non-human.
Whether Haruaki or herself, neither of them was alone.
For some reason, Haruaki's back looked even bigger than yesterday's.
Spreading from her chest was a sense of security that also resembled loneliness.
Carrying this unusual and warm feeling, Fear thought to herself.
(Really? Perhaps... my power... is actually already...)
He turned his head to look back with a gentle face, calling to she who was walking too slow.
Fear relaxed her cheeks and returned a smile, quickening her pace.
Catching up, she joined the circle around him like everyone else.
Even so, she did not say a word. Silence was good enough. Walking forward with a coordinated pace was good enough. Naturally, this was so.
Surely, she need not worry.
Just by staying beside him, she would definitely receive a smile from him.
|Back to Chapter 2||Return to Main Page||Forward to Chapter 4|