Chapter 1 - The Withdrawn Cube / "Cage x Collapse x Chivalrous"
Her master was currently sitting in the wheelchair. Sleif—the demonic sword Dainsleif—followed his gaze, staring at «Dieu le veut» standing upright on the ground surface. In order to confirm its state.
As kindred, she could sense the cursed aura released from the spear. It was operational indeed. The prior preparations she had undertaken in this town were not in vain. Likewise for the bloodshed and pain suffered by that lowly allegedly immortal girl.
"Looks like it's definitely operating properly, isn't it~? Standing perfectly straight, it's truly wonderful~"
Taciturn was giggling while she spoke. Sleif was displeased to see her act so frivolously in front of the master, but that was how Taciturn always behaved. The master whispered:
"A foolish question—Anything else would be troublesome."
"Then the only thing left to do is wait. Everything is progressing so smoothly~"
Sleif could not ignore these words. Turning her helmeted face towards Taciturn, she said:
"Do not lower your guard, Taciturn Chatterbox. It is our turn to enter the stage. Until territorialization completes, twenty-four hours remain—We must guard the spear until then."
"Yes yes yes, I got it~ To perform territorialization in such a conspicuous place, it goes without saying that a certain group will interfere."
"Carelessness would be folly. Preparation is essential. Before this place becomes a castle, it must first be made into a stronghold. Dainsleif, instruct the knights to start establishing a stronghold."
Hearing the master, Dainsleif turned around and issued directions to the knights in formation awaiting orders.
Having received their task, the knights returned to the "mobile territory" of the transport helicopter and started to move supplies. These were supplies for setting up camp, including tent equipment, rations, weapons and various sundries.
Needless to say, the place where the master was staring at, with «Dieu le veut» stabbed in the ground, would be the headquarters. With this as the center, the camp was gradually set up outwards.
Of course, this could not compare to the Knights Dominion's headquarters in the homeland, but the camp still followed the style and overall layout back home. Indeed—This was equivalent to a "throne room" despite serving as temporary headquarters. Upon the pride of knights, this place must be presentable.
The knights started to build a raised level above the ground, similar to a throne's platform, so as to house the master's wheelchair. Then from the entrance of the soon-to-be erected tent all the way to the throne, a red carpet was laid to enhance the atmosphere of an audience hall. Then several sets of silver armor were moved out of the mobile territory and carefully lined up on the left and right sides of the carpet. Though they may take up a lot of room, these were indispensable furnishings. As for decorations, there was a practical and high-class work desk, a vase on the desk, candlesticks for illumination, embroidery on the tent fabric—All sorts of things. Apart from this throne room that was to be temporary headquarters, they also planned to set up several tents for the knights to rest, but that could wait until later.
Looking at the knights setting up camp progressively, Taciturn suddenly cocked her head and asked:
"Miss Dainsleif, as important setting up headquarters may be, isn't there something else of higher priority? Doesn't establishing a stronghold mean more than that? If you were to forget, I would be forced to laugh and jeer at you, yes?"
"Please stop talking incomprehensibly. Your worries are redundant. I have already issued orders for «Auschwitz-Birkenau» to be prepared."
"Oh dear, really~? Very well. But on further thought, why do I get the feeling that using that might be making mountains out of molehills?"
The master answered this question.
"Caution above all else. Now that it is decided for this land to become the Second Knights Dominion, failure is absolutely not an option."
"That I do understand."
"If someone were to obstruct the founding of our territory—Fear-in-Cube's group is the most likely. My personality cannot allow their existence and threat to be ignored. Even if others might view this as cowardice, it would be folly not to prepare properly in advance."
Dainsleif subconsciously pressed her hand on her own chest. She could not understand why she did so. The beating of that fake object accompanying her human form, as well as the foreign body inside her. No change came to either of them at all.
"Indeed, the necessary tasks must be finished first. Dainsleif, order Barbarossa Lee to lead a squad to move out. I need not specify the destination, do I?"
"Of course not. Nothing would be better if this squad could accomplish the task of destruction on their own, but otherwise, they could still buy time.. Depriving the enemy of the chance to take action is also a very important mission. I will tell them to do everything in their power."
"Heeheehee, in addition, things will get troublesome if they don't take this opportunity to get out~ Well then, my lord, this can't be all there is to your plan, can it? That's why I am present."
The Dominion Lord turned his head lightly. The tent covering this place was still being set up with only half of the canopy erected. Hence, the view was still very open, allowing one to see—
The school building facing this sports ground, as well as the numerous students still looking at the knights' direction, most likely having no idea what was going on.
Seated in the wheelchair, the Dominion Lord looked up at them expressionlessly and whispered:
"We shall set up two barriers to guard this place. One being the physical barrier formed by «Auschwitz-Birkenau». The other being—"
"A psychological barrier. In other words, hostages whom those people absolutely cannot ignore, right?"
Taciturn rudely finished the Dominion Lord's sentence. Placing a hand on her forehead with a giggling face, she made a motion as though looking out afar. Naturally, what she looked at were also the students in the school building. Then she grinned—
"Wow~ With this, I've discovered extremely suitable things that happen to be over there. And many of them too."
Dainsleif knew in advance that things would come to this, but still, she could not help but proceed in caution. Briefly, she asked the Dominion Lord:
"Pardon my impudence, but may I inquire on the progress of negotiations?"
"Already complete. Even if this school's superintendent—Seikaibashi Gabriel—or anyone else tried recklessly to bring in the police or the media in an attempt to get in our way, there will be no effect whatsoever. Do not worry about interference from outsiders."
Seikaibashi Gabriel was apparently a man of substantial influence in this town. However—so-called connections were absolutely unable to oppose connections of greater power than one's own. The Knights Dominion had been active all over the world since a long time ago for the legitimate aim of eliminating cursed tools. Naturally, they were able to overwhelm one person's meager power as soon as they got serious.
"In other words, there is nothing to worry about? In that case, I will busy myself with a bit of work."
Legitimate aim. There was no doubt that the destruction of loathsome Wathes was a legitimate aim, but the actions taken as a means to achieving this end—namely, that of involving innocent commoners—surely most would frown at that thought, wouldn't they? At least, Dainsleif was self-aware in this regard. However, even so, establishing the Second Knights Dominion on this land, to utterly crush and destroy Fear-in-Cube and her fellow Wathes, to obliterate their refuge as well—
This mission held priority above all else.
It was duty towards guiding the world towards the right path.
Looking left and right, Taciturn grabbed a young knight nearby.
"You'll do. Come and help me. Here, hold this."
"S-Sure. But I've been assigned a task too. Please give me some time to get someone else to take over—"
"There's no time for that~ We need time to move. Okay, walk, hurry and get moving. You won't be scolded because you are following my orders. Also, I'll treat you to a drink at least, okay? Heeheehee, I don't mind either if you would like some other reward."
Taciturn took out a small device from her pocket and handed it to the young knight, then wrapped her arm around his neck intimately and started walking. But then, she looked back slightly and said:
"Oh no, but what if he asks for a sexy reward, what should I do~? What do you think, Dainsleif?"
"Think about it yourself. Before that, stop disrupting discipline at this critical hour."
"You're so cold~ There's a full twenty-four hours ahead of us, so I just want to tell you this: staying tense all the time won't help~"
"Do not be careless. Cut the idle chatter and get to work."
As soon as Dainsleif finished, a change occurred in Taciturn's expression and appearance. Her face still displayed a teasing smile but her eyes and lips were giving off malicious airs of a taunting nature.
"Careless? Do I look careless?"
Dainsleif exhaled. She really did not want to waste time on this kind of dialogue.
"Yes. However... What matters is the actual result. As long as you produce results, I have no complaints."
"You should know, right? Despite being a carefree woman normally, I always do what needs to be done. I always finish my work completely, perfectly, absolutely splendidly, you know?"
She knew. Taciturn was indeed a perfectionist in her work—More precisely, it was not limited to work alone. Rather, it was whenever she was taking direct action for the sake of "a certain person."
"I hope so. Never forget that you are allowed to be so carefree only because you produce results."
"Heeheehee, that body of yours, reeking of a curse, is also allowed to exist only because you produce results, demonic sword."
Needless to say, dialogue of this sort was also the same as usual in a certain sense. Dainsleif was beginning to regret taking her seriously. Exasperated, she said:
"End of conversation. Hurry and be on your way."
Taciturn started walking again while waving to Dainsleif over her shoulder. From the image of her back, one could not feel any remorse or hesitation towards the imminent task of taking all the students hostage.
This was only natural. Rather, this must be the way.
The woman who called herself the "taciturn chatterbox" was frivolous, unrefined and rude. For a human, she was absolutely the type Dainsleif disliked.
For an organization like the Knights Dominion, Taciturn was undoubtedly useful. It could be asserted that she was someone absolutely unshaken by conscience or naivete.
Indeed, she was a true perfectionist. Doing necessary things when they needed to be done, doing them no matter what the situation. Doing everything in her power, working hard to complete assigned missions impeccably. To this date, she had accomplished them all.
Whether infiltrating places reeking of feces and animal stench, conducting investigations that grated on one's willpower, cajoling with joy and humiliation, engaging in frown-inducing torture and interrogation, kidnapping while listening to the screams of young children, inflicting mind-breaking abuse, or performing underhanded and dishonorable assassinations.
The decisive condition of "necessary" was very simple.
Given just the reason that the Dominion Lord truly wished for it, she would carry out all missions without hesitation. Abandoning her usual frivolity to become a truly loyal retainer, she would sacrifice her mind, her body and everything else.
In other words, Taciturn was a perfectionist only within the limited scope of working for the Dominion Lord.
Because she is—The Lead Auxiliary.
Standing at the top of all auxiliaries in the Knights Dominion...
She was the one and only existence who had received the honor of acting as Dominion Lord Trinac Agana's direct auxiliary.
How I really wish to kill, destroy her. It was anyone's guess how many times this thought crossed her mind.
Even now, her arm might take action as soon as she lowered her guard. If her gaze were to carry a blade's sharpness like her arms and legs, that block of metal would have turned into pulverized dust a long time ago, sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Sin. Punishment. Execution. A development most natural. A right most natural. A result most natural.
"Hooooo—" Konoha took a deep breath slowly on purpose. She could feel all the pores on her skin still forced open by tension. As though about to charge forward any moment, her body's impulse to act autonomously still remained at the maximum limit, like water that barely avoided overflowing from a cup only due to surface tension.
And that surface tension was named rationality. That being said, who knew whether it was a necessary existence or not.
(We were definitely backed in a corner at the time. If no one did anything, it really would have developed into an unsalvageable situation...)
She closed her eyes and thought back. Overwhelming battle technique. Armor that rendered even the Counter sword skills ineffective. Herself, caught by the enemy's hand. Him, in a vulnerable state. The enemy, pulling back his bladed fist to accumulate force for a finishing blow. If time had continued to flow from that point—
Surely... Everything would have been over for everyone.
(No, but, even if that might be true...!)
Konoha shook her head, going in circles inside her mind. Agitated. If she were asked whether it was possible to forgive, naturally, the answer was unforgivable. That foolish girl had harmed his body. This was the one fact that must not be forgotten.
Sitting on the tatami floor, Konoha looked up lightly. Her view was obstructed. Sitting heavily on the table, that eyesore of a cube was to blame. Should she slice it up into a million pieces after all?
"Like I said~ You should say something at least. Staying like this forever isn't a solution, right?"
Of course, the one who had forcibly transported her to the living room, despite her current silent state, was Haruaki. Right now, he was smiling wryly and helplessly at the cube on the table, drinking tea from his cup.
Even in this kind of situation, he was still so carefree, a nice guy to a fault. She could not help but wonder how was he still able to make such an expression?
Clearly, his left hand under the table—was injured from that girl going berserk. Clearly, he had lost fingers. Clearly... they were irrecoverable.
If the fingers had simply been chopped off, perhaps swift treatment from Kuroe might have been able to reattach them. However, conditions were extremely terrible at the time. Their original foothold, the ship, had broken into two halves due to the fight between Fear and Pendragon, sending everyone into the ocean. Under those conditions, it was completely impossible to retrieve chopped fingers. As reluctant as she was to admit, simply surviving was very fortunate already. Even now, she still found it a miracle that all of them had made their way back to the superintendent's cabin cruiser.
"I've said so many times already. I'm not angry. If you hadn't done that, everything would've ended there. Everyone understands that."
"Yeah, that's right—"
Kirika and Kuroe were also present. They nodded with exhausted expressions and ambiguous gazes.
They probably still had yet to sort out their emotions, Konoha thought. Had Fear not gone berserk at the time, Kirika really would have died. Pendragon was also going to use his astounding power to force Kuroe into being his. Even so—
Konoha believed that Kirika could be more angry. She believed that Kirika was entitled to this right. Her position was the same as Konoha's. Seeing his body harmed, how could she possibly stay silent—
(...No, I suppose... There is this. Speaking of rights—Perhaps I... I am the one who has no right instead...)
She felt an extremely cold pillar of ice stab into her heart.
Seeing his body harmed?
Had she forgotten? Not too long ago, had she not trampled his body as well? Had she not pierced his shoulder with her hand, feeling his flesh and blood, rubbing her thighs together in lust—?
She narrowed her eyes. In order to endure that pain, or perhaps to record that pain.
Then Konoha sighed deliberately again. Why had things turned out this way? What should they do next? She was unable to organize her thoughts.
Staring blankly at the cube on the table, she started drinking tea as well to relieve boredom. After she put down her empty teacup—
"Muramasa-sama, would you like a refill—Is what I would like to ask, but the hot water is finished. I shall go boil more."
"Oh~ Thank you~ ...Kotecchan, there are some sweet snacks at the bottom of the left cupboard, could you please bring some while you're at it~?"
Sitting uncomfortably all this time, Kotetsu swiftly got up. Seeing that, Honatsu made a request as though he suddenly remembered. All this time, Honatsu was simply sitting on the floor, leaning his back against a column in the veranda, spacing out while gazing upwards at the ceiling. He was probably pondering something.
Sweet snacks. Sitting on a corner of the table was a dish of snacks that had been pushed aside to make way for the eyesore of a steel cube. However, the number of rice crackers on the dish remained constant the whole time as though it were the most natural thing in the world—
(Turning into a square like this, covering your ears to escape, what else could you hope to accomplish...?)
Konoha inquired of the cube using her gaze instead of turning her thoughts into words. Although she could not confirm if her question was received, she did not care either. She did not expect an answer in the first place.
The crime of harming him. She had committed the same crime before. Mistake. Penance. Karma. True nature.
As cursed tools, their destiny—
She had devoted much thought to this subject. She had no choice but to think.
However, she could not remain trapped forever in these abstract thoughts. Reality stood before them too. Pendragon wanted to obtain Kuroe, Haruaki was injured, Fear had withdrawn herself from reality.
Their next move and countermeasures must be decided first. In that case—
Just as Konoha was about to speak—
A cellphone ringtone was heard.
An inauspicious sense of deja vu. The nightmarish events this morning had also started with a phonecall.
Haruaki subconsciously tried to open his cellphone with his left hand but then his face twisted and he switched to holding with his right. His numbed sense of pain was probably starting to reawaken. Seeing him suffering—Konoha felt a complicated sense of pain surge in her heart too.
'Hi, it's me.'
Just from hearing this one sentence, one could tell who the caller was. Haruaki frowned. A tense atmosphere hung in the living room. Sitting on the table like an object, the cube also seemed to tense its surface of steel.
In the end, this deja vu was right on target. Identical to last time on two points: the phonecall conveyed unfortunate news and that it was an unexpected caller.
Then the caller—Yamimagari Pakuaki—started to explain.
The terrifying situation currently taking place somewhere else outside this house—
"Eh, what's that?"
"Who knows... They're starting to walk back and forth busily."
"And setting up tents too. What's going on?"
"Hey, students, hurry back to your seats—! Class is starting again... That should be fine, right? They didn't say anything in the staff meeting today either..."
Once disrupted, order in the classroom was hard to recover. Even the teacher standing at the lectern was tilting his head with a troubled look.
In this kind of situation, Un Izoey continued to observe intently from beside the window—the Knights Dominion's movements. Her mind was devoting all thoughts to deciding on the next course of action. Meanwhile, it was best to keep her eyes wide open to gather information, of course.
"Hmm, have a look at that tent, my dear Kana-Watson. The way I see it, this must be an unexpected surprise event that the superintendent made to look like a circus! This is his painstaking plan to reward and inject vitality into us after the exhausting exams!"
"Isn't unexpected and surprise kind of redundant in meaning? But really? Tai-Holmes! But it really looks plausible! Ah~ So that's why people are carrying things resembling swords? They're gonna perform those martial arts dances? Hmm, all mysteries are over in the name of my grandpa!"
While Taizou pretended to smoke on an invisible pipe, Kana was nodding with exaggerated motions. The two of them were standing at the adjacent window, chatting noisily, but Un Izoey was in no mood to correct them.
She was staring at the movements in the sports ground. Knights setting up tents. Knights moving supplies out. As well as—
A group of knights were walking to the edge of the sports ground. Staying vigilant, they checked out their surroundings without lowering their guard. Then they stopped before the fence. Next, holding a reel-like device taken from the helicopter, they started pulling a certain something out from it—
Un Izoey focused her gaze but reached the same conclusion. It was barbed wire, or one could call it wire fencing. The knights were swiftly and cautiously laying a small wire on the inner side of the fence, weaving it through gaps or tying other wires to secure it. The barbed wire seemed to be much longer than a few meters and the knights apparently intended to keep extending it. Splitting up, the knights continued to extend that flimsy-looking barbed wire along the fence.
Incomprehensible. Normally, wasn't barbed wire or wire fencing used as walls? This school already had fences and walls. Even if one were to encircle the school with that kind of narrow wire—
(No... In other words, there is a need to do this intentionally?)
Then that thing must be more than what its appearance suggested. In other words, that wire was useful enough that the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion went as far as to suspend its destruction—
It was cursed.
Assuming it was cursed barbed wire, what kind of curse would it carry? What kind of taboo power could be drawn out? Truly a new unknown.
Un Izoey had a foreboding feeling. Perhaps it was time to start taking action—Just as she was about to leave the window side quietly—
The faint crackling of static was heard in the classroom. It was the school's public announcement system.
'Eh—Ah~ Ah~ Testing, testing, one two three.'
Un Izoey could not ignore this voice. Whether students or teachers, everyone was looking up at the speaker where this stranger's voice was coming from. The expressions on their faces were not all the same. Some were staring in surprise, others were deeply intrigued, all of them wondering if an explanation for what was happening outside was finally coming.
The voice continued to speak. Listening to the woman's voice coming from the speaker, Un Izoey felt that something was not right. It felt very distant—like transmitted through a thin curtain—Was it her imagination? Anyway, the content of this woman's speech was more important at the moment.
'Ah~ My name is Taciturn Chatterbox. Members of the Knights Dominion should know what precautions to take next, right? Trash who don't know will have to be punished, a separate discussion. Okay? Then hurry and let's—'
This was a different kind of foreboding feeling, as though something was rushing up one's heel after stepping on something. A sensory type of fear, without any logical basis at all. It felt as though she had stepped on something. Like a ferocious beast's tail, a poisonous insect's stinger, a highly toxic wild plant.
That type of terror instantly invaded her entire body. Calves, the back of her knees, thighs, waist, then—
The quality of the woman's voice coming from the speaker suddenly underwent a dramatic change.
It became a twisted sound enough to blow away all prior sense of dissonance. It turned into an extremely hoarse voice—Indeed, as though it had gone through an amplifier of exceedingly poor quality—
The instant she heard the twisted voice spoken in some unknown language, Un Izoey felt her instinctive chill turn into a clearer sensation, rising up along her spine. It was like a poisonous snake reaching her neck, its fangs approaching her throat while dripping with venom. This voice—This voice was very dangerous!
Every hair of hers stood on end suddenly. Instead of using her mind to think of countermeasures, her body moved automatically on its own. With her back to the speaker, her hands reached for her head—No, just as she was about to reach over—
"What's going on? Haha~ My deductions will be proven, right?"
"Hohoh~ Is it time for the murderer to confess? I was just thinking of walking on a cliff."
Right beside her, Taizou and Kana, still looking up at the speaker casually, entered her view.
Completely uninvolved with curses or the Knights Dominion—
To Yachi Haruaki's group and herself, they were simply precious classmates—
The two of them.
For an instant, their existence, and the fact that the two of them were right before her eyes, occupied her entire mind.
Without thinking, her body acted on its own again.
If one were looking for a reason, it was purely because they were within arm's reach—That was probably all there was to it.
Un Izoey wrapped her arms around their heads and sat down on the floor, pressed their faces against her chest then clamped her upper arms on their ears. At the same time, she managed to cover her own ears with her palms. Instantly—
Within the world where sound had become very distant...
Several minutes later.
Un Izoey watched that scene in surprise, still covering her ears.
Originally gathered near the windows, those students who had been watching the sports ground with interest...
Those students who had looked up at the speaker with puzzled expressions after hearing the sudden announcement...
All of them started looking around with faces that read "Eh? What was I doing just now?" In the next second—
Everyone took out their cellphone from their pocket or schoolbag, then started making calls at the same time.
This was the keyword required to activate the forbidden power of the cursed megaphone «Demon's Mouth», the conical device hanging at her waist. The curse of command and hypnosis had arisen from an internment camp's warden, whom everyone called a demon, who had coerced captives to listen to and obey brainwashed orders. The keyword was the first step to making use of its power.
Taking the «Demon's Mouth» out of its holder at her waist, Taciturn gripped its handle with both hands to raise it up. Keeping her lips to the microphone, she pondered.
Her mission was to take the students hostage in order to keep Fear-in-Cube's faction at bay. If an emergency arose, the students' lives could be threatened to prevent their group from invading the school. Hence—first of all, before that "emergency" arrived, the students must continue to remain in school. Furthermore, it must be as though nothing had happened, with neither resistance, opposition, rebellion nor suspicion.
During the twenty-fours before "territorialization" completed, it was not possible to subjugate all students by force and keep them subdued persistently. Even having brought the ultimate legion to this country, they did not have excess personnel to assign knights for this kind of task that would be a waste of labor and manpower.
(Well then, the actual announcement will be—)
This «Demon's Mouth» was capable of producing a simple brainwashing and hypnosis effect on those who listened to it. Similarly, its weakness was also very simple. Its effects were not 100% guaranteed. Despite being very simple to use and having powerful effects, depending on the situation, it could also be completely ineffective. Such was the paradoxical two-sided effect of this Wathe.
Specifically, a stronger the listener's vigor and willpower, the more likely they could resist even after listening to the commands issued through this megaphone. In addition, the more unnatural the hypnotic suggestion and command, the harder it was to take effect. But in this particular instant, completely oblivious students could not possibly react to her words with special vigor or resistance. Even if people involved with Wathes were present, so long as they were unaware of the «Demon's Mouth»'s details, it was impossible to be mentally prepared.
In any case, back to the hypnotic suggestion.
Simply considering the goal of "keeping the students inside the school to use as hostages when necessary," there were plenty of hypnotic suggestions to choose from. However, each of these options had their own flaws and was not the most suitable solution. For example, suggestions leading to life-threatening risk would have a high rate of resistance. Maintaining that kind of state would lead to even greater trouble. Also, she was unable to control the human body's physiological phenomena completely—Such as ordering students to remain asleep the whole time, for example. Hypnotic suggestions were not omnipotent. Depending on the content of commands, the situation could turn into chaos.
She must fulfill the Dominion Lord's orders perfectly without absolutely any compromise whatsoever.
Hence, the suggestion must be natural with the following traits—posing no direct threat to human lives, low rate of resistance, no strain imposed on the students, no provocation of opposition from the students, ideally lasting twenty-four hours, meanwhile keeping them confined in school definitely.
If possible, the suggestion would ideally conform to reality.
For example, a suggestion that would make the students act obediently as hostages for twenty-four hours without realizing they were hostages.
In fact, Taciturn had already decided what to say, but she was just going through final confirmations in her mind. Was this okay? It should be fine. She could only go ahead with this speech. It was the best answer after balancing all respects.
Taciturn took a deep breath and said:
'—Everyone listening shall forget all memories starting one hour prior to now. In addition, for the next twenty-four hours, you will likewise forget the previous hour's memories whenever an hour elapses, thus repeating in a cycle. Naturally, none of you will notice the changes in the sky from the time of the day.'
In other words, this was ordering all students and teachers, the targets of the hypnotic suggestion, to repeat the previous period and break endlessly. Suggestions took effect on the cortex, which meant that it was relatively easier to cause deviations in cognition and mixups in memory.
Taciturn continued as a followup. This part was crucial too.
'The next bell about to ring is the end-of-lesson bell from an hour ago. All intervals will be based on this. Also, for the next twenty-four hours, you will all ignore any strangers appearing inside the school as well as movements related to them, as though you had not seen anything.'
She could feel her words turning into a curse, flying off somewhere else. Presumably due to using a cursed ability, she felt a sense of exhaustion and chill attack her back, goosebumps developing and an instant rise in heart rate.
There was more to the «Demon's Mouth»'s curse—Currently, it was purely akin to caloric consumption. Even so, she still accepted it as something that could not be changed. How loathsome. Naturally, all Wathes were loathsome.
Shutting off the megaphone for now, she moved her lips away and panted hard. The old device's weight was making her wrists ache. In the first place, this was not a portable megaphone like those commonly sold on the market. It was merely a loudspeaker originally installed in the internment camp's building, forcibly modified into a megaphone that could be held in one's hand while avoiding its curse as much as possible.
In any case, in addition to the school building's interior, her earlier speech should have reached all students via the public announcement system throughout the school, including the sports ground and the gym. With that, they were going to behave according to orders the whole time. Without noticing the endless repetition, they were going to keep repeating their usual school lives and the previous period.
Although the situation was very strange, the actions themselves were no different from daily school life. Ignoring what was contradictory, forcing cognition to match memory—This was the extent of the confusion caused by the curse. In terms of suggestion difficulty, this was medium level. In other words, level of resistance was also medium. Without proper mental preparations beforehand, the students had no way of resisting.
Fortunately, suggestions issued from this «Demon's Mouth» were effective for as long as thirty hours. There was probably no need to apply additional hypnosis—As long as the "emergency moment" caused by Fear-in-Cube's faction did not arrive.
Naturally, when the time came, she intended to issue forceful commands such as "all students break nearby windows and jump out." Since this kind of order would involve survival instincts directly, it might not affect everyone, but so long as half the people actually jumped down, there would be no problem. In fact, if half the people remained, they could be used as a bargaining chip for a second time, perfect.
Using her hand to wipe drool and sweat that had dripped without her noticing, she felt dizzy. It was as though she was suddenly about to forget what she had been doing just now. To dispel that feeling forcefully, she deliberately puffed out her chest hard.
(Well~ Well well... I hope there were no idiots among our knights who were hit by the hypnosis just now. Apart from that, I wonder if anyone among the students and teachers successfully resisted the suggestion...?)
That being said, Taciturn had no way of confirming and could only wait for reports. In order to confirm the effects of just now's suggestion and to take care of unaffected people, a few knights who had been standing by on the sports ground had probably entered the school building and the gym by now. Even if their numbers were not enough to subjugate all students by force, only a few people were needed if it was just taking precautions against the risk factor of people unaffected by the hypnosis.
"Well, let me continue with my task."
There were more steps to complete. Although the students and teachers inside the school could follow the suggestion just now and repeat lessons as though nothing had happened, other trouble could arise as a result next.
Pressing the switch to turn on the megaphone's mic, she said the keyword to activate the taboo power again. In other words, the opening line that demon of an internment camp warden broadcasted to the captives, forcing them to listen.
Her heart palpitations were getting worse. Sure enough, the strain two usages in succession was too great.
'Starting now, call home. The message is as follows—You just found out that the school is suddenly holding disaster training today, so you can't go home. To safeguard against sudden emergency situations during disasters, everyone will be staying in the gym, practicing how to use sleeping bags and open canned food. If no one picks up at home, leave a message.'
They were going to be hostages for the next twenty-four hours. If children (or husbands or wives) failed to return home and one or two family members ran to school to check things out, it would still be fine, but if a huge crowd rushed to school because parents were worrying "did something happen to the entire school?", it would be bothersome. Even if the police and the media could be suppressed.
Putting aside whether this lie was convincing or not, so long as it was a plausible explanation overall, Taciturn believed it ought to hold for twenty-four hours. Even if some parents got suspicious, as long as it was not the entire parent body taking action, it would be fine.
Taciturn exhaled deeply. It was finally over.
"What remains... is broadcasting in the staff room or at a few key locations, to order teachers to phone various student families so as to reinforce credibility. I also need to devise responses beforehand for cases when people call the school to complain 'this is so incomprehensible'~"
If some parents still remained unconvinced, would they really rush over to scream and yell? Then there was no helping it, while pitying their lack of good fortune, they would have to be eliminated by force... However, were there really any family who would take so much initiative? This was quite doubtful. In any case, all explanations will place the blame on Sekaibashi Gabriel, hence Taciturn believed that the families might accept unexpectedly readily, even replying: "Oh, it's that whimsical superintendent doing something weird again... Can't be helped."
"Then again, this additional hypnosis can wait until I recover my energy first. I need to take a break now..."
While confirming her subsequent plans, Taciturn slowly sat down on the spot.
She kept breathing deeply, patiently waiting for her utterly exhausted stamina and mental energy to return.
Despite feeling a powerful urge to call home, she managed to suppress the impulse.
Cautiously and even more cautiously, Un Izoey checked out the surrounding situation—Finally, she made her decision and moved her hands from covering her ears. In the next instant, the students' overlapping conversations shook her eardrums.
"Ah, hello? It's me~ I'm telling you, today—"
"Umm, there's apparently disaster training today at school—"
"We will be staying overnight in the gym. Huh? Dinner? It's also part of the simulation. I think there'll be canned food."
"Feels just like camp. Anyway, I'll be staying in school today and won't come home, yeah."
"Uh, even if you say that, after all, this is a school event..."
After taking out their cellphones all at once, everyone talked on their respective phone. Whether boys or girls, even the teacher, everyone was doing the same thing. They were totally unaware how bizarre this scene looked, their faces nonchalant as though this was perfectly natural, speaking into their phones.
Disaster training? What were they talking about?
Just as Un Izoey frowned—
"Weird~? Why is everybody suddenly making phonecalls? Say, what's this about a disaster simulation?"
Only then did Un Izoey notice the classmate held in her embrace, Miyama Kana. Staring in surprise, Kana was looking up at the noise in the classroom.
Un Izoey gazed into her eyes intently.
"My question: is this activity of disaster training known to you? I confirm by making this kind of confirmation."
"Eh? You're asking if I knew about this? No no no, it's my first time hearing about it~ Oh, but I think there was an announcement just now, so they might have mentioned it. By the way, Un-chan, why did you suddenly hug me?"
Un Izoey ignored the question.
"Even so, to think everyone would make phone calls together with such perfect timing, I can only say: very weird. To engage in a strange activity previously unheard of at such a timing, with everyone accepting readily too and calling home—Is this even possible?"
"Hmm... I do find it a bit weird."
"Also... They're no longer concerned about the people in the sports ground at all. Not even one person is showing curiosity. Really, this must be—"
At this moment, Un Izoey felt warm sweat dripping down her back.
Apparently, the poisonous snake quietly approaching her neck earlier had left without sinking its fangs into her—Conversely, it had already injected its venom into the other students.
She recalled the terrifying and despairing chill from back then, causing her body to spring into action as a result. Just by hearing the announcer's voice, her entire body was filled with a sense of crisis. Instinct had saved her. Even she could not help but feel impressed that she was still able to take action.
(Curses come in myriad forms. Naturally, there also exist curses that use sound as a medium... I think I recall the Lab Chief mentioning this before. Did my brain memorize this sentence?)
She could not recall if he had said it while researching and lecturing, or during one of those usual chats. But since this knowledge came in handy now, it meant that it was absolutely not meaningless chatter.
Nothing less expected of the Lab Chief. She immediately corrected her opinion of him which had been trending downwards recently on the respect front. At this moment, someone tugged her uniform hem lightly.
"Uh, umm, Un-chan, it's a little embarrassing with you hugging me nonstop, can I stand up now~? On the other hand, compared to me, the other side has an even more serious problem."
Speaking of which—Un Izoey recalled another person's existence.
Opposite to Kana who was hugged by her left arm—In other words, the other classmate pinned to her right chest. After she relaxed her arm, he awkwardly lifted his nose up from her chest.
"Ehhh? Oh~ So soft—What? Oh right, phone call... Yeah, phone call...? Disaster training... Phone call... Uh, what phone call...?"
Taizou's eyes were glazed over and unfocused while he rummaged his pockets in search of his cellphone. Unlike the surrounding students, he was particularly sluggish and felt quite unsteady. Like swaying or perhaps tilting slowly like a set of scales.
Effectiveness aside, it was worth testing out at least, right? Thinking that, Un Izoey proceeded to—
Without saying a word, she slapped him. Furthermore, it was at full strength and maximum speed.
Smack! The crisp sound reverberated throughout the classroom.
"Wow~! Hmm, now that I think about it, getting slapped is only natural after burying your face in a girl's chest! I fully support Un-chan! Good job!"
Kana seemed to be approving of her actions out of entirely different assumptions, clenching her fist with excitement on her face.
So, what about the result? Un Izoey looked at Taizou.
"Gwah, ouch! What the heck, what happened?"
"...Who are you trying to phone?"
"Huh? What phone call? What's with this pain, did a bee sting me? Will I die?"
"Do you have any recollection of the words: disaster training?"
"Maybe... I heard it... No, probably not...? Gimme a hint, a hint!"
"Hey, Taichi! Before that, apologize to Un-chan first! I am now the defender of maidens! Hurry and mumble your apologies, do it quick!"
"Ehhh! My cheek really hurts. I thought you were worried about me but you're actually angry? Why!?"
Un Izoey exhaled "phew." This was his usual self. Probably because his ears were not covered fully, the curse had affected him halfway just now.
(Curse... Cursed words. A Wathe whose forbidden power brainwashes or hypnotizes? Quite powerful too.)
If all it took was for targets to hear the voice, its ease of use would be hard to quantify. It was even more astounding that its effects took hold even when heard indirectly, like through the announcement earlier. Its range could be extended arbitrarily. However—
(Like for us, it doesn't work on people who failed to hear it. Even if someone listened to it partially, a shock can force a recovery—While powerful, this cursed ability also has many weaknesses.)
That being said—Un Izoey surveyed her surroundings in the classroom while getting on her feet. Kana and Taizou also stood up with puzzled faces.
The bell happened to ring right at this moment. This was originally the bell to announce the end of the fifth period, but the surrounding students did not seem quite concerned. Some of them continued talking on the phone while others finished their calls. Those who had finished making calls began to behave normally as they should after class. This could definitely be called a change.
"Like I said~ Yeah, that's it."
"No no, lemme explain again, 'kay? Oh~ Sure. Uh, disaster training is..."
"Great! So, what's next period? Math?"
"Excuse me~ Can I borrow a mirror for a bit~?"
The people who had finished their calls were mixed among the people still phoning home. The normal atmosphere after a lesson was spreading further. However, everyone was the same, no longer concerned with the Knights Dominion people on the sports ground—
Apart from these two classmates by her side, whom she had involuntarily reached out to save.
"Eh? Next period should be Classical Japanese, right? We just had Math."
"By the way, has the mystery of what's going on outside been cleared up~? Oh, looks like the tents are about to be done."
Un Izoey rapidly spun her mind. Taizou had recovered his sense of self most likely because the curse had only hit him partially. She did not believe that a slap would bring the other students back to their senses, given how naturally they were following the hypnotic suggestion. Although slapping was still worth a try, given the situation at hand, it was not a priority.
(Making the suggestion as close to reality as possible, is it to minimize labor? Hypnotized to ignore the sight of the Knights Dominion. Intent to maintain this state for a long period of time. Reason being—)
She immediately reached the answer.
The activated «Dieu le veut», the people who would most likely end up as the most threatening interlopers, this place near them, and the twenty-four hours of buffer time.
—Naturally, it was for turning them into hostages.
Un Izoey secretly clenched her fist and tensed the muscles in her thighs.
Right now, the hypnotic suggestion applied to the students was still passive in content, but it was anyone's guess how things would develop next. Perhaps they might be ordered to jump off the roof later. A most terrible situation. The fates of all the students in the school were under the Knights Dominion's control.
(There should be limits to unscrupulousness...!)
She felt an unpleasant feeling surge from the depths of her heart. What this feeling should be called was still unknown. Anger? Sense of justice? Perhaps, or it could be some other emotion different from these two. Turning it into something properly known would take time, hence she decided to shelve it for now. Currently, she had to turn some other unknown into a known.
Very simply—What should she do next?
Right now, there were still other students using cellphones. But no one knew what might happen next. This was probably the only chance to do it while mixed among the others.
Un Izoey took out from her pocket the cellphone that she had finally gotten used to operating recently, then dialed hastily. Naturally, she was calling the person whom she needed to report her current unusual situation with top priority, to rely on his instructions as well.
The power of knowledge. The person who desired knowledge more than anyone else. In other words, the one most suitable to handling the current situation that was filled with unknowns.
'Hello, how are you~? I am the Yamimagari Pakuaki you wanted to find.'
"Lab Chief, emergency situation."
'This is already known.'
It felt like he was grinning on the other side of the line.
'However, what is known to me is merely superficial news from the outside. A report from you on the inside is what's truly valuable. Tell me... Oh, since it's not guaranteed how long they'll allow you guys to contact the outside world freely, best make it as quick as possible.'
Just as she was about to continue speaking to the cellphone—
Out of the corner of her eye, she accidentally saw. She accidentally remembered. The existence of those two people.
"By the way, everyone really seems to be getting ready for Math class... Seriously? Are we seriously having Math twice in a row? What happened?"
"No way! I was planning to catch up on sleep during Ancient Japanese class—!"
"Ahaha~ Taizou and Kana, no matter how much you hate Math, you can't just skip it, right?"
"I see now, you two are planning to infect the whole class with this kind of thought, then everybody will prepare their Ancient Japanese books and wait for the teacher to arrive! Then the Math teacher will get caught up, say: 'Did I remember wrong?' and leave—You wish! Even if he leaves, he'll come back soon!"
"Eh? Uh, but I wasn't joking. I never do this kind of comedy routine where people first play along and then pop out the punchline... Right...?"
"Sigh, Taichi... Don't you find everyone acting a bit weird...? What's everybody talking about...? Eh? Or are we the weird ones instead...?"
By this point, Kana and Taziou finally seemed to notice that something was not right.
The strange behavior of the surrounding students.
The strange atmosphere shrouding the entire school.
The strange people who appeared on the sports ground, strutting around school as though they owned the place—
Un Izoey hesitated for only an instant. She was probably responsible. Although it was her body that had moved on its own, she was responsible for saving these two.
Pressing her cellphone against her ear, Un Izoey glanced out the window. It was just the students who had stopped paying attention, but the scene in the sports ground had not changed at all. Instead, things were progressing as the enemy hoped. The erected tents, the drawn-out barbed wire, as well as the knights walking towards the school building with tense expressions while staying vigilant of their surroundings—
Suppose the Knights Dominion were to find students who were not hypnotized and still remained sane, what would happen? No need to think, surely that scene would not be anything happy.
In that case—No helping it, she had no choice.
"My judgment: guessing that we will be trapped here unless action is taken before class starts..."
"I will explain later, anyway, come with me first."
Keeping her cellphone against her ear, Un Izoey pushed Kana and Taizou's backs with her arms, forcing them walk.
They must leave the classroom first to find a hiding place. Once it was safe, then she would explain to them.
Explain what? Naturally, a certain unknown that the two of them wanted to find out.
Un Izoey only understood vaguely that this was no easy task and sighed in front of her. Then she spoke to the cellphone that must have transmitted her sigh to the other side:
"—Sorry. I am busy on this side too, so I will talk while moving around."
'Oh my~ Looks like things are getting really interesting.'
Even in this kind of situation, his voice still sounded a bit flippant from the receiver.
She could no longer suppress a tone of sarcasm in her reply:
"Yes. I am very sorry for enjoying all this on my own. I confess this kind of confession. So... If you say you want to switch places with me, Lab Chief, I will gladly switch any time. Please tell me how to pass you the baton."
'In any case, this what the school has become. By the way, after explaining the basic situation to me, Un Izoey's call was cut off. I tried calling back many times but could not connect. Neither could I reach the cellphones of other people inside the school, so I'm afraid the Knights Dominion must have set up a signal jamming device in that vicinity. Of course, calls to the school's land line aren't going through either. Oh my oh my, they've really got things totally airtight—'
Coming from the cellphone, which had been switched to speaker phone, was Yamimagari Pakuaki's voice.
Haruaki was rendered speechless.
How unbelievable—How could anyone believe this? Impossible. It could not have happened.
However, in spite of that—
Because the situation was too serious, he could not help but understand that Yamimagari Pakuaki was not lying.
Organize them. Organize the thoughts in your mind again. Although it was not clear whether it was possible.
Simply stated, what happened?
—The Knights Dominion had occupied the school and even taken all the students hostage.
Haruaki clenched his fists tightly, then immediately, his face became distorted. This was not only due to the unbelievable and despairing news but also due to the intense pain coming from empty part of his left hand that felt like high-voltage electric shock after he exerted forcefully. However, he desperately controlled himself and avoided moaning pathetically at least. He must not make the others worry about him again.
While Haruaki was clenching his fists, he also heard a tiny, strange noise in the living room. It sounded like metallic friction or some hard objects pushing against one another.
He turned to see Fear—still in cube form on the table—with a number of parts popping out from her body. Small components had popped out like trays with slanted corners. The opened gaps looked like cracks.
"Fear... It's time you turned back, right?"
Wanting to see her face and hear her voice, he tried asking her.
However, the cube remained silent. Several seconds later, she retracted her mechanisms back into her body with a series of clicks. That was all.
Haruaki exhaled, unable to muster more strength easily to continue persuading her.
"In other words, all the students at school today are hypnotized... Well, Taizou-kun and Miyama-san are okay, on the other hand..."
"I really don't know if we ought to thank Un-chan. To be honest, I don't even know what to feel."
'It is my hope that you won't hold her too responsible in this regard. Apparently, her body sprang into action on its own and rescued them only because they were incidentally within arm's reach.'
Indeed, Taizou and Kana.
Haruaki recalled the situation of these long-time, best friends. Completely in the dark, these two were now moving around in Un Izoey's company.
Ahhh—Clearly when the two of them had nothing to do with curses at all, why did things turn out this way? No wait, this also applied to all the students. Why were they plunged into this crisis—
The instant Konoha mentioned Taizou and Kana, Fear twisted the cube's corners with a series of mechanical sounds again. To her, these two were both classmates and best friends. She probably wanted to scream and yell loudly. And her yelling was probably the sounds of metallic impact from her body's involuntary squirming.
Next to speak up with deathly pallor—but looking straight ahead with a firm and resolute expression—was Kirika.
"...Yamimagari Pakuaki, if you manage to contact Un Izoey again, tell her this. Although it's absolutely ridiculous, under these conditions, we can only rely on her. Tell her that for the sake of protecting Taizou and Kana... For the sake of convincing those two to follow her directions and to win their trust, she is free to say whatever she wants. Regardless what she explains to them, it is fine—Is that okay?"
Her final question was directed at Haruaki together with her gaze.
Naturally, Haruaki knew what she was implying.
What she was asking him was whether it was fine to tell Taizou and Kana everything. Curses, cursed tools, this house, them—Everything. The cursed, the uncursed, the non-humans, those who want to become human, the matter of the cursed garment that could not be taken of.
As well as deceiving them all along—This fact.
Haruaki resolved himself and inhaled at the same time.
"...Yeah, it's okay."
To be honest, this was a very scary choice. He had always thought that it would be best if this day never arrived.
However, if those two were to be lost because they failed to realize how serious the situation was... This would be even more unforgivable.
Konoha and the girls also nodded. After a moment's delay, the sound of a metallic tray opening and closing was also heard as though in agreement.
'Hmm, it is totally unknown whether it's possible to contact her again. Besides, Un Izoey seems to have prepared herself to explain the truth to them to a certain extent. In any case, I will bear this in mind.'
After Pakuaki said that, more time passed—
"Also—Damn it! That's why I said the spear must be destroyed... In the end, their conspiracy worked! This wouldn't have happened if we had retrieved and destroyed it at the time...!"
Kirika was clenching her teeth hard, unable to hide her groans of anxiety.
"We searched the sea so thoroughly already but still failed to find it. Does that mean we fell into a certain person's trap from the very start? That said, who knows if the Commander really is the culprit."
"Yeah. Now that it's in the past, it is too late for regrets now."
Sitting in a corner of the living room, Kotetsu and Honatsu offered their comments. Then immediately, Honatsu glanced at Haruaki's cellphone.
"By the way, Pakuaki-kun, I'd like you to explain in detail one more time."
"The Knights Dominion's objective in taking over the school. I already know about «Dieu le veut», the Nation Founding Flag Spear of the Crusaders, which acts as the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion's backbone and was used to create their headquarters in England. Then just now, you mentioned that their current objective is bringing one of the spears to create 'a new and additional Knights Dominion' in this town. What I want to know is what happens after that. If this town were to become a 'second Knights Dominion,' what would occur specifically?"
'I didn't explain it? Hahaha, very well, since it's the answer to an unknown sought by the infamous Yachi Honatsu, after all. It is truly a hedonistic joy for me to elucidate the unknown for you as the Lab Chief—'
"Make it quick."
Honatsu half-narrowed his eyes and interrupted. Even through the cellphone, one could tell that Pakuaki was shrugging on the other side.
Then—Pakuaki continued to explain. In other words, he explained the changes that would occur after the town completely "Knight Dominionized," the same as what he reportedly told Un Izoey a few days earlier.
Effects could be divided into two categories.
One was a holy war effect on those belonging to the Knights Dominion. After all, having acquired the meaning of "the land existing for their sake," the land naturally confers even more advantages to them. Simply stated, those belonging to the organization would have their abilities augmented. Simple to an annoying degree.
The other type was—
'Standing in contrast to the first type of change, but of course, this is only natural too. You can also call it a secondary outcome... By the way, Kirika should already know about this from that Knight Dominion girl, right? That's why you tried so desperately to destroy that spear, didn't you?"
Kirika suddenly gasped, frowned hard and looked down. As though trying to calm her heartbeat, as though scolding her quickened breathing, she clenched the front of her shirt forcefully, to the point of creasing it.
Haruaki recalled the way she looked back when they first rescued her from Sleif.
Back then, she was consumed by total despair, even to the point of wanting to give up her own life. She was single-mindedly praying for a certain task, undertaken using her fresh blood, to stop as soon as possible. After being rescued from Sleif's hands—She had kept silent as though speaking of that matter would be akin to a curse. All she was willing to say was that the spear must absolutely be destroyed.
A certain incident had forced her to do that, leaving her with no choice but to do that.
A certain incident induced such total despair that she did not even want to tell them of its existence.
Kirika made painful breathing noises. Her gaze wandered. Her lips trembled.
It was unknown whether her brother knew of her suffering, but—
He announced very simply:
'Hmm, fine, I'll explain it. After this town acquires the meaning of "the land existing for their sake," naturally, the secondary outcome produced is that the town's original meaning will be overwritten.'
"What does... that mean?"
Haruaki could not figure it out. In response to his question, a jeering kind of giggling came from Pakuaki's throat.
'They intend to turn this town into 'land most suited to destroying Wathes.' On this kind of land—Do you really think a site of sacred ground, capable of lifting curses, can still continue to exist?'
Hearing that, Haruaki felt that everyone understood.
Konoha looked into the garden. As though comprehending something, Kuroe closed her eyes. Kirika forcefully took a deep breath. A number of outer frames on Fear's cube, no, dozens of outer frames popped out all at once—
Then as though losing their senses, they remained silent and unmoving.
Haruaki stared blankly up at the ceiling. This ceiling had always existed, from the very day he was born.
This fact—Perhaps it too might change.
He called out quietly. His lips moved on their own. Even he himself did not know why.
But no answer. Perhaps the father, who was a woman in appearance, did not hear him. Simply staring into the distance as though his gaze could penetrate, his head was bowed towards the tatami floor where he was sitting with calves folded against the sides of his thighs.
"Hmm... Yeah, I've noticed it too. Very faint, it's really very faint... But it's changing. A certain massive underground flow is currently changing—At this rate, this ground's property of gathering purification energy will be overwritten. That's what's going on..."
Now, Honatsu finally looked at him and smiled faintly with relaxed cheeks.
"Why are you making that kind of face?"
What kind of face was he making? Haruaki had no way of knowing. Conversely, what kind of face should he be making? He did not know either.
Where he had lived all his life so far. Where he had lived together with Fear, Konoha and Kuroe so far.
Where Kirika, Taizou and Kana, as well as other friends had visited many times.
Undoubtedly the place of shelter where he belonged, the most calming place in the world, the location where he matter-of-factly believed he would keep staying forever, this home—
This home might end up different from the way it was. After hearing something like this—
What sort... of face should he be making?
"...There is no way I can say 'don't worry' to you all."
As though noticing something from Haruaki's expression, Honatsu spoke calmly.
Hearing these words, which pushed him into the abyss, Haruaki felt his entire body lose balance.
Ahhh, sure enough. It's true. That kind of thing... really could happen.
After hearing such frightening news, he was finally hit by a sense of reality that had not accompanied his initial comprehension. Now that he finally understood that this was reality, his back could not help but tremble in terror. Subconsciously, a hoarse voice leaked out of his throat.
"If those guys achieves 'Knights Dominionization'... It means that what this house possesses, its meaning as sacred ground capable of lifting curses, will disappear...? This sort of thing... How can it be allowed? It must not be allowed—!"
Filled with anxiety, his blood rushed throughout his entire body. His heart rate sped up while unpleasant cold sweat broke out. He felt waves of sharp pain coming from his left hand's injury.
Then gritting his teeth hard, when Haruaki looked up—
He noticed his father smiling unfazed with a raised finger.
"Yes, of course it can't be allowed. So—in order to make everyone 'don't worry,' we have to take action next, right?"
Take action. Right. Well said.
He could not help but admit, the current situation was absolutely terrible. The Knights Dominion had occupied the school. Their objective was to establish a new Knights Dominion on this land. This also meant that this home would stop being what it used to be.
However—That was the future, not the present.
His mind had halted due to the excessively shocking nature of Pakuaki's news. Thanks to his father making a matter-of-fact suggestion in a matter-of-fact manner, Haruaki's thoughts finally caught up.
"Yeah, Haru and Honatsuan are right. Of course, this can't be allowed to happen. So, let's think about why it can't happen. If this home is no longer sacred ground for lifting curses... Specifically, what will it turn into?"
She was probably trying to organize her thoughts and calm down. Nodding lightly, Kuroe murmured to herself:
"Positive thoughts can neutralize the negative thoughts such as curses. Currently, even without doing anything, positive thoughts will gather naturally in this home due to the landscape, right? This place is like a power spot. But if this place 'is no longer what it was'—"
Kuroe glanced at the accessory dwelling's storeroom and continued in a calm tone of voice:
"Consider those lightly cursed tools Honatsuan had gathered, currently kept in the storeroom, for example. The current solution of leaving them alone won't work ever again—In other words, if they're left unattended, their curses won't ever be lifted."
"...The same applies to us. Although we also have the option of actively receiving positive thoughts, such as by doing helpful favors for humans, we can't spend all our time helping others day in and day out. The natural effect in this home—for our curses, is extremely precious energy that we must rely on."
Konoha lifted her glasses lightly and chimed in.
'Fufu, so this is like the proverb, dripping water penetrates rock? Even metal that cannot be dissolved by chemical reagents, if you drip water on it for years and months, a hole can be opened up. No matter how weak, as long as there is a definite effect—'
Ignoring the voice from the telephone matter-of-factly, Konoha looked at Haruaki and said:
"The reason I brought up just now was coming from myself as Muramasa, the cursed Japanese sword."
"Next—speaking as Muramasa Konoha."
She slowly got up from the tatami floor and walked to the veranda. Gazing at the pillar on the veranda, she caressed it gently with her fingertips.
"Even if the ground's meaning disappears, this home won't vanish immediately, will it? However—I believe that, indeed, everything can't remain the same as before. Whether the situation, standpoint, or reason, everything will change beyond our ability to stop it. It is also possible that we won't be able to live here again..."
Of course that won't happen—As much as Haruaki wanted to, he could not muster a rebuttal. Having lost is purpose, lost its meaning, a house remaining inside the enemy camp. No one knew if they would still be able to keep living here.
"In other words—A certain connection would be decisively severed when the moment arrives. Despite the fact that clearly so many many memories... have been branded deeply in this home."
She suddenly stopped the movement of her fingers. Her shoulder shook slightly.
"Aha, got it. I remember this dates back to the middle school entrance ceremony, right? Although you insisted you were too old to have your height recorded on a pillar, I measured your height through coercion. Haruaki-kun, you were in a rebellious phase back then and kept grumbling so much..."
With her back to the group, she seemed to be looking out into the garden. Her shortened hair was fluttering lightly at her neck. Like whispering, like singing, she said:
"That tree, I climbed it, Haruaki-kun also climbed it, then we fell down together gently. We also gathered fallen leaves together to roast sweet potatoes. I also went through a phase of hating that accessory dwelling, but I don't mind it anymore. After all, just the sight of Haruaki-kun through the window made me very happy already. Whether the sink or the wall that was used as a target board. Indeed, everything is so clear when seen from here, really, including every blade of grass."
Then Konoha looked back.
"This place—is filled with the history of my falling in love with Haruaki-kun."
Seeing her smile, Haruaki felt very embarrassed. The depths of his chest immediately became hot.
However, he did not look away. She did not avert her gaze either.
Smiling, her eyes started conveying fierce determination at some point.
"Hence—I, Muramasa Konoha who loves Haruaki-kun very much, does not wish for this home to be changed by others. I absolutely forbid others from wanting to change this home."
Finishing in one breath, she asked in return:
"Then... what about you, Haruaki-kun?"
Haruaki decided to follow her lead. In other words, he smiled—
"—I feel the same way. This is no joking matter."
He committed his resolve.
...To carve upon the depths of his soul that which must not be forgotten.
The home where he was born and raised—This land definitely belonged to more than just himself. Hence, he must not allow it to be taken away so easily. He must not give up easily.
"I said before... You girls can stay here forever. I won't let these words became a lie."
Konoha partially closed her eyes and nodded happily.
"I absolutely cannot accept the utterly terrible kind of future where I cannot live here ever again. I won't let things go their way... We must find a way to stop them."
Haruaki clenched his fist that was not holding the cellphone. In other words, the left fist with the missing fingers.
Indeed, they must be stopped. There was no choice but to stop them. At all costs.
He already understood the enemy's objective, as well as the worst outcome.
Precisely because he understood, it was true that his heart was starting to be constricted by the invisible chain called foreboding. A heavy sense of unease and suffocation. As soon as he lowered his guard, a chill would rise up his spine.
But forget it. He clenched his fist hard. Forget it. Clearly action must start now. Unless he forgot these things, nothing could begin.
However, that incomplete fist was still inhabited by a numbing sense of pain and dissonance.
No matter how much force he exerted, it still felt as though something would flow out from there into space.
Naturally—This was something else he ought to try hard to forget.
Kirika sighed and shrugged greatly.
"Sorry... You're right. They haven't achieved their objective completely yet... Dwelling on the worst possible scenario won't help at all."
"Yeah, Class Rep. It's not too late yet."
Kirika glanced at Haruaki's cellphone.
"Yamimagari Pakuaki, I will confirm the explanation you just gave... Although «Dieu le veut» has activated, its forbidden power of 'territorialization' has not taken complete effect. Time is required for that, so we still have a buffer period of twenty-four hours. Is that correct?"
'Looks like I should feel really proud of my little sister's memory. Well, to be precise, I'm thinking less than a thousand four hundred and forty minutes, but pretty much.'
Haruaki looked up at the living room clock. According to Un Izoey's report, the Knights Dominion had shown up at school during fifth period. A rough estimate—
"Until roughly 2pm tomorrow huh...?"
"Hmm, there might be a bit of additional stoppage time, but at least we're certain it's safe until then. In other words, the deadline is 2pm~"
"But of course, we can't stand around doing nothing until then. As long as we find a way to destroy the spear inside the school, the territorialization will be broken, right? Anyway, let's head over there for a look first—"
"Hold on, Yachi, don't forget about the hostages. Although there's a time limit, we must act with prudence..."
Just as everybody started giving their opinions—
Sitting on the table, spacing out, the cube finally became active again. As though regaining her senses but still filled with anxiety inside, frantically moving her mechanisms in a clatter, trying to retract the components that had popped out earlier, but halfway in the retraction process, metallic collisions were hard. It made Haruaki picture Fear originally wanting to say something but could not find words, leaving her no choice but to open and close her mouth.
Someone could be heard sighing. It was Konoha.
"Oh right, Haruaki-kun. Before we decide on our next move, I remembered there is something that needs to be taken care of first."
Konoha had just returned to the living room and taken a seat at her original spot, but then she stood up again as though she recalled something. Was she going to brew another pot of tea? She was smiling tenderly.
Then her skirt suddenly fluttered up—
Raising her foot, she kicked the steel cube on the table as hard as she could, sending it flying.
A completely merciless roundhouse kick. A loud noise of two metallic objects colliding. The cube rolled all the way to the veranda.
Jaws dropped for everyone present.
By the time Haruaki came back to his senses, Konoha had already strode over and stepped on the cube that had rolled to the veranda, pressing her entire weight on it. Unburdened by conscience at all, she trampled the cube with disdain.
"Mine original intention was to ignore—But verily, 'tis too much of an eyesore."
Cold words. Narrowed eyes beneath those glasses. She was completely in her merciless battle mode. Kotetsu instantly looked at Konoha in rapturous idolization, but she did not respond. Instead, she stepped on the cube consecutively for a number of times with her heel.
"Excuse me, Haruaki-kun, but could you remain quiet for a moment? This is a matter between girls."
Konoha turned her head back and smiled sweetly again, but continued to shift her center of gravity to her leg. Haruaki's back kept trembling.
"Ha—Uselessly large and solid, producing noises nonstop like extremely clumsy lovemaking, who on earth do you think you are? You are an affront to both eyes and ears, truly a sight none could bear any longer, box... Hey, say something, okay? You ought to be capable of speaking even in this form, right? Speak, speak, speak!"
Merciless, Konoha even went as far as to kick fiercely like playing soccer. Wasn't this going overboard? Haruaki straightened his back but instantly, Konoha looked back at him. For some reason, he found his body unable to move.
Fear's voice was finally heard. Although still in cube form. Like the way Konoha spoke when transformed into a Japanese sword, Fear's voice was produced somewhere.
Hearing that, Konoha suddenly went back to her usual tone of voice and demeanor. However, her executioner's aura and torturer's posture still remained unchanged.
"Oh my... You finally spoke? This little girl who only knows how to sulk. So... You should have something you would like to say, right? That was why you moved your body, didn't you?"
"Can't spit it out? Then allow me to speak on your behalf... You want to say that you would like to come along to school and help everyone out, right?"
Saying that, Konoha raised her foot and kicked Fear's body again. The cube spun one revolution on the floor.
Then she bent over, bringing her cold face near the block of steel.
"Aren't you being too paradoxical? You want to come along? Don't be stupid. Clearly, the way you are now—your mind is completely occupied with escapism, thinking as long as you stay a box, you won't be hurting anyone, am I wrong?"
Fear could be heard gasping. Haruaki could also feel his own pulse throbbing intensely. He had not failed to notice. No—in fact, he already knew. He knew why she was doing this and what it meant.
"Under such circumstances, you still want to come along, how truly paradoxical. Naturally, I had no intention of letting you in the first place. Your thick-skinned shamelessness truly puts me a loss for words... I shall ask again. After doing that sort of thing, do you still want to come along? Oh right, yes, by the way, let me tell you in extremely~ direct terms—"
Konoha leaned forward even more, maintaining a posture like a demon about to devour its prey, legs apart and stepping on Fear's steel cube.
"If Haruaki-kun were not standing here alive right now, I would have killed you a long time ago."
Without any fervor, Konoha was speaking in her usual tone of voice. But precisely because of that, these words conveyed a sense of reality impossible to ignore, most likely reaching into Fear's ears. Konoha was serious, she could only be serious, this point should have reached Fear without a doubt.
Fear did not retort with a single word.
Konoha scoffed and said as though murmuring to herself:
"I remember the situation from the first time when someone from the Knights Dominion came to this house. Her name was Peavey Barowoi, right? In the end, you haven't made any progress since then till now, have you? Had I known things would turn out like this, I should have destroyed you earlier. Before you caused an irrevocable situation... before you harmed Haruaki-kun's body."
"Konoha! You're going way too far! It's not like Fear wanted to...!"
Unexpectedly, Fear's voice was heard. Hoarse and feeble.
"How... is it okay...?"
"Cow Tits is... right, so... It's my fault. Everything, it's all my fault. So... I must, I should be destroyed..."
Haruaki felt his consciousness suddenly fading. The sudden rush of intense emotions was making dark spots appear in his vision. Pain was harshly branded on his consciousness. This girl was saying stuff like this again. Like a certain time in the past, like when he first met her—Saying this stupid stuff.
Was it really how Konoha described it? Had she not made any progress at all?
No. Not true, right, Fear? Impossible... This kind of thing, right—?
Hearing the cube use a contradictory conjunction, Konoha raised an eyebrow.
"I was just about to praise you for your decisiveness, but what do you want to say now?"
"Cow Tits... Please. Currently... Forget about me for now. I don't know what should be done, or what I should do. But—Right now... all the students in school must be saved. Save Taizou, Kana and all the rest. This home no longer being home, this must be prevented. I hope you'll... prioritize these first..."
In a helpless and vacant voice, she continued:
"If you want to destroy me, I don't care... Because, it can't be helped. But... Just everyone, just this home..."
These words were making Haruaki angry, suffer, sad, and even speechless.
Fear should know that too. But he still had to stop her, he thought.
Konoha too—With vibes of "an eye for an eye," she had narrowed her eyes in displeasure under her glasses.
"Yes, that is what I intend to do. This is simply because you look absolutely pathetic—and also because it is time for actual action—I was thinking I should inform you of my thoughts before that. I did mention just now that I have no intention of taking you anywhere, of course. Before leaving the house, should I throw you into the storeroom's basement? If doing that would be treating you too well, perhaps I should simply dig a hole in the yard right now and bury you..."
With perfect timing, just as Konoha swung her arm lightly to gesture towards the garden—
The ground in front of her arm suddenly blew up in a cloud of dust and dirt.
Haruaki blinked. Konoha pursed her lips in surprise and turned to face the garden. Just as indicated by her wary expression and action, the phenomenon was not her doing.
However, there was a part of what she said which could explain why this phenomenon had occurred.
"And also because it is time for actual action."
Indeed, these words applied to others apart from themselves—
'Oh~ Actually, I've been left out of the loop for a while now, so it felt kind of boring, like you guys had forgotten me. I was just wondering what to do... But judging from the sound, did something interesting just happen? If possible, please provide live commentary.'
"Sorry, it's impossible to talk on the phone right now. I'm hanging up."
Using the tip of his finger to press the button, Haruaki hung up the phone that he had been forced to hold in his hand the whole time. Speaking of which, why had Pakuaki provided them with all this information? Although this concern was surfacing in his thoughts, he could only shove it into a back corner of his mind. He had no choice.
Because more pressing than this concern—There was a problem that had to be handled with top priority. It had appeared right before their eyes.
Truly, an extremely simple and clear problem, one which did not contain the slightest unknown element that Pakuaki loved so much.
At the spot where Konoha had gestured with her arm, in other words, the center of the garden—
Six people were currently standing there in a line, fully armed. No matter how you looked at it, they could only be members of the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion.
It was midsummer but these people were dressed in plain-looking long coats of gray. Faint glimpses of their equipment underneath showed thicker armor than what Sleif was wearing. It looked quite heavy and solid—Indeed, hence—
When they jumped over the wall surrounding this house all at once and landed at the same time, no wonder dust and dirt flew into the air as though there was an explosion.
Most likely in consideration of ease of movement, their heads were not covered up in any way. Ethnicity, age and gender all varied among these six people. There were men and women, young and old, Caucasians and blacks.
Needless to say, what they all shared was—
Burning in their eyes, hatred and hostility for Wathes.
"Fear-in-Cube, demon sword Muramasa, Nagasone Kotetsu Nyuudou Okisato—wretched blades knowing of nothing except human harm."
"Ningyouhara Kuroe, «Gimestorante's Love»—Harmful evidence of natural order's disruption."
"Yachi Honatsu, Yachi Haruaki... Sinners who affirmed and accepted these Wathes."
"You are all top enemies of the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion! Prepare to die now!"
"First commando unit of the 90th Knight Squad—All members, draw your swords!"
Under the command of the Caucasian man who appeared to be their leader, the knights took out their weapons from beneath their long coats at the same time. All of them were using swords but unlike their equipment, these swords all differed in appearance. Claymores, one-handed swords, curved blades that were so twisted in shape that they did not resemble swords, as well as short swords resembling fruit knives. Among them—there were probably cursed tools. Especially during the instant of drawing their blades, someone glared at their weapon in contempt, others had twitching faces while enduring the urge to vomit, still others pierced their palm to let their sword suck blood, it was all too certain.
Just as Haruaki's body froze, two gusts of wind blew past him, left and right.
"Kotetsu, assist me!"
Literally with vigor like unsheathing swords, Konoha and Kotetsu rushed into the garden from the veranda, engaging the charging knights in combat—With knife hand and tiger claw stances, their blades clashed with the knights' swords with metallic noise.
The enemies did not falter in courage. Shouting vigorously, they kept advancing, swinging their wielded swords. They were definitely no small fry, judging from their movements. None of them showed any openings. Their fighting style did not follow any fixed formation, giving off an impression that they were advancing independently towards a common goal. Naturally—This was the only goal of destroying cursed tools.
Most likely, they were not ordinary pawns. Each of them was a proud and powerful knight. Like Peavey Barowoi. Like Neto the Avenger. Like Lilyhowell Kilmister.
"Kuh... Ha, quite amazing! My blood is beginning to boil!'
"Boiling is fine but do not get careless! Also, they are...!"
Despite Konoha and Kotetsu's efforts to go all out from the start, they were still unable to thwart the enemy's zeal so easily. Konoha frowned and could not help but groan.
"So strong...! Naturally, their swordsmanship is strong, but it feels that overall, their bodily strength as well—"
Probably recalling something, Konoha closed her mouth in a sudden realization. At the same time, Haruaki also realized.
What Pakuaki mentioned. A holy war effect. A power augmentation effect.
Indeed, this town had started to "Knight Dominionize." The process still had yet to finish, that was all.
"Knights Dominionization" probably brought more than bodily changes that could be seen clearly with the naked eye. Invisible mental strength and willpower, as well as physiological values inside the body that were impossible to measure in the first place, all sorts of factors had been strengthened—That was the feeling Haruaki got. Thinking calmly, he concluded that the extraordinary feat of jumping over the wall while wearing heavy armor was probably thanks to the holy war effect's benefits as well.
Also—There was also disparity in numbers.
Konoha was handling three while Kotetsu faced another three as well, but at this moment, one knight broke off from each of the fights and approached the veranda. Probably due to some kind of cursed power, they were shimmering like mirages in front of Konoha and Kotetsu, allowing their wavering bodies to pass through the blockade. It was impossible to defend no matter how hard they concentrated.
Konoha bit her lip and tried to turn around, but the two remaining knights prevented her from doing as she wanted. Kotetsu was in a similar situation. Things were starting to get chaotic.
"Haru, stand back!"
"«Black River»... Is not here! Damn it, how absolutely ridiculous!"
Kirika groaned. Putting her full effort in controlling her hair, Kuroe prevented the two knights from advancing.
Haruaki looked at the steel cube that had rolled to the veranda. Making noises, the cube shook its surface, looking like she was closing her eyes, covering her ears, shuddering with knees drawn up to her chest.
Even if Fear was currently like this, the knights were probably not going to let her go. Haruaki used his body to push Fear back into the living room. They must get farther away—
Hearing Kuroe's acute scream, Haruaki turned his head, only to see a certain object closing in before his eyes. He fell backwards on his bottom. The instant he ducked down, a knight's extended sword swept over his head like a whip. Making an earsplitting impact, this strike sliced off a large piece of the veranda pillar. The whole house seemed to make a creaking sound.
Kuroe's hardened hair caught up to that knight and stopped the second attack in the nick of time. Kirika threw hot tea to pin down the other guy's movements.
Haruaki bit his lip and switched to using his back to push Fear. He looked up at the damaged house. The pillar with a large chunk sliced off. What Konoha had gazed upon with a gentle gaze just earlier, one of this home's precious memories—Had been destroyed.
Ah, but that was only because he had not noticed until now. This type of destruction had started all over the place a while ago.
On the veranda, Kuroe's hair and the knights' swords kept clashing and bouncing repeatedly. As a result, the warm floorboards were damaged, cut open, trampled by the shoes they were wearing.
From her vantage point in the garden, Konoha narrowed her eyes as though unable to bear the sight. The great tree ahead, filled with memories, had its branches violently chopped off, the remains scattered all over the ground. It was probably the aftermath from clashes between the knights' swords and Konoha's knifehand or simply because they had used the branches as footholds and shields.
Kotetsu was sent flying high, smashing into the second floor window of the accessory dwelling. This was Konoha's room in the past. Shattering all over the place, the glass gave off an earsplitting sound. However, Kotetsu immediately looked out from the window with a frown. Slicing up the dangling and distorted window frame as though it was a nuisance, he jumped outside the house again. To intercept him, a knight threw a rock from below. After Kotetsu deflected it with a tiger claw, this time, the adjacent window was smashed into smithereens. Kuroe sighed in resignation.
That was not all. The ground in the garden was getting dug up together with the grass. The laundry rack was slanted, tragically broken. The boundary wall was heavily scarred. The accessory dwelling's wall showed radial cracks. The sound of roof tiles breaking could even be heard overhead accompanied by a clattering as they fell.
This house, this land, this place itself—Was getting damaged.
On an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented tragedy.
It did not feel real at all. Because up until this morning—It had been the usual home.
Simply the Yachi home, the one where Haruaki had always lived and where he thought he would always continue to live.
"Haruaki-kun! You, take this and get out of my way!"
Konoha forcibly changed her movement's vector. In exchange, the knight's attack severed the tips of her shortened hair by a few centimeters. Tiny cuts also surfaced on her face. Immediately, she passed through the gaps between Kuroe's hair and returned to their side.
"Huff... Haruaki-kun, are you okay?"
"I should be the one asking if you're okay, Konoha?"
"Yes, I am fine enough. These people are showing speed and strength more powerful than what their appearances suggest, it's terrifying. Is that the so-called energy coming from within? Thanks to that, they are truly tough to handle... By the way, that tree! I can't believe they made such a mess of that tree, so full of memories! I'm so angry, I absolutely forbid them from further damaging this home—"
Just at this moment, Kotetsu happened to be blown away by the leader he was fighting, flying towards house. Judging by his speed, unless a solution was found, let alone the living room, Kotetsu was probably going to smash all the way into the kitchen. Consequently, Kotetsu deliberately kicked at the storm shutter on the veranda without holding back at all to absorb the impact. After getting kicked, the shutter's wooden fragments even flew into the living room, leaving marks on the sliding door and the tatami floor, stabbing into the cupboard, causing the television to fall off its stand and turn into a silent heap of scrap metal.
The landing impact sent Kotetsu through the floorboards of the veranda. Using a tiger claw, he grabbed a pillar on the side tightly. Only then did he finally seem to realize something. Suddenly frozen in motion. Konoha cast her stiff voice at his back:
"Unforgivable though it may be... Ultimately, it does depend on the situation after all. Right now... Forget about it first."
"...Umm, truth be told, if you could forget what you just declared... I will... be very grateful too."
Kotetsu groaned, apparently breaking out in cold sweat. He looked like he did not have the spare energy to look behind him.
After Konoha and Kotetsu returned to the veranda, Haruaki's team regrouped. Kuroe wiped sweat off her brow with a "phew~" and allowed her hair to rest whereas Kirika gazed at her bare arm in chagrin.
Konoha and Kotetsu prepared for battle with tense nerves. The knights ahead exchanged glances while adjusting their positions, confirming one another's condition. They did not spend too much time on catching their breath—Besides, none of them were panting in the first place. Was this part of the effects of "Knights Dominionization"?
Neither hesitation nor retreat was going to happen. As though silently sharing this determination, they began to approach once again.
"The second round is about to start..."
"Individually, they are definitely inferior in strength to that woman from before—Lilyhowell Kilmister—but..."
"Hmph, I don't know if we should count our blessings that these guys are not Knight Squad Leader level... Who knows what things would be like if that woman were to become even stronger than before. That said, it's an absolutely ridiculous thought."
"—She is a traitor who abandoned her mission, driven by personal emotions. Even if she were standing here, still alive, she won't be receiving any blessing from the Dominion."
"Who would have thought you guys to be so small-minded."
Konoha retorted after listening to the Caucasian team leader while slowly retreating together with Kotetsu on the frontline—They were no longer in the veranda. Instead, they had been forced completely back into the living room.
"All of them are experts despite not reaching a Knight Squad Leader's level. Also, there is the problem of them being all here in a group... Our earlier actions were too reckless. Haruaki-kun, I shall change back into a sword first. Use me to defend yourself."
"Indeed. If Konoha-kun and the others are fighting on the frontline, it's very hard to protect Yachi. Kuroe-kun can only do so much on her own. I've already lost my means of attack... Also—"
Kirika cast an apologetic gaze in Haruaki's direction. More precisely, it was to what was behind them, the steel cube still trembling as though in a convulsion.
Was she trembling due to terror? Or indecisiveness? Or a quandary? Or fear? So long as she remained silent, no one could know for certain—But, for some reason...
Haruaki felt that he could at least be sure that her appearance was linked to the emotion of wanting to cry.
Indeed, tears. The image of her crying her heart out like a child suddenly surfaced in his mind like a wave of dizziness.
Mouth wide open, rubbing the corners of her eyes, tears falling nonstop, her crying appearance surfaced in his mind—
No, perhaps he really heard it. Perhaps he really saw it.
While a sense of pain and emptiness occupied his left hand, he seemed to hear vaguely from the depths of a dream—
"Haruaki-kun, are you listening!?"
"Uh, yeah, what's up?"
Haruaki suddenly came back to his senses and blinked. Konoha glanced at the cube behind his heels.
"Seriously... There's no time to be concerned with that piece of furniture. Listen carefully, Haruaki-kun, since the enemies are numerous, we can only retreat while fighting. Please do not strain yourself no matter what."
While speaking, she held Haruaki's hand.
At this moment, Kotetsu called out while facing forward. He sounded a bit nervous.
"This will end immediately. Although attacks will burden you somewhat, please endure."
Konoha jumped into the air while responding to Kotetsu. Haruaki felt the Japanese sword's weight in his hand.
"By this point, we have no choice but to use this house as home field advantage. In an emergency, retreat to the corridor to engage in one on one..."
Hearing Kotetsu shout with greater emphasis, Konoha suddenly stopped talking. Then slowly, the blade rose, covered by the black scabbard... The sword's tip turned to the garden, turning to the veranda from where enemies were approaching.
There were definitely enemies in the garden, but none of the knights were in sight.
"Hmm... Numbers? Doesn't seem that many to me. See, now I'm the only one left, right? Well, I suppose there are three if you really want to count three."
Instantly, a number of crashes could be heard coming from over the roof. The acute sounds of roof tiles breaking and the screams of wooden boards cracking. A large amount of dust came pouring down through the gaps between the boards at the top.
Following a clattering sound of sliding, everyone's gaze was drawn from the ceiling to the veranda.
Like a ball that was hanging on the edge of the roof, a knight fell from the eaves with a thud.
Naturally, the one responsible for this scene was—
"Puhoo~! What's with this guy? That movement was super amusing! Make him do it one more time!"
"Thrown away pathetically like a piece of rag, how sympathetic/ludicrous to the point that one has no choice but to rub the tips of one's breasts... Rest in peace."
The Commander of the Draconians.
Maximilian Pendragon, accompanied by his two loyal cursed tools.
A muscular and well-built physique with perfect proportions, a head of flaming red hair, facial features exuding an air of ferocity rivaling that of an Olympic-class athlete—His entire body exuded a sense of presence that was impossible to forget after a single glance.
With a faint smile hanging on his face without any hint of mockery, he lightly shook his raised arms. Most likely, those arms had tossed the Dominion's knights away all at once, or some similar motion. Even though it was a surprise attack, this was not something any ordinary person could have done. The astounding strength and technique residing in his body was truly terrifying.
However—They all knew that already. Long ago, they had been forced to experience it already.
"Haha~ Although it sucks to be them, we're the ones who made an appointment first. I'd feel very troubled if they cut in line first."
"We don't recall... agreeing to an appointment with you."
"But I do. Do you really think I'd give up just because the ship was destroyed? My goal remains unchanged."
Then he cast his completely unwavering gaze at them and continued:
"...Ningyouhara Kuroe, become mine."
He had spoken the same words this morning when he summoned them to his ship.
It was also these words that marked the situation's rapid deterioration.
Indeed—He still had not changed his mind. Truly the worst scenario.
Even if it meant going all-out, he still intended to make Kuroe assist him. He wanted her to stay by his side to serve him. In order to use her power to manipulate life force, so as to overcome what he thought to be a dragon's only weakness—the concept of old age.
"Good grief, absolutely ridiculous... Don't you know that a man who keeps harassing will get hated?"
"Haha~ I hope you can describe me as devoted."
Cold sweat dripped from Kirika's forehead as she spoke. Pendragon simply laughed loudly.
"Anyway, that's that, so let's continue. Oh yeah~ I really didn't expect the fight so get so intense in the second half when that girl pulled out all the stops. Never expecting the duel ship to sink, I only let you guys escape because I was surprised—Hmm?"
He tilted his head slightly, probably because he noticed Fear's appearance at the very back. Then he shrugged in dejection:
"What is this? And I was thinking there won't be any flooding if we fought here, unless the Earth gets split in half or Japan sinks in subsidence... Hmm, whatever. Let's continue."
The Japanese sword in Haruaki's hand gasped. He could feel all her muscles in nervous tension. This was to prepare for action at full strength any moment.
"I really hope you guys have the spirit to enjoy the moment more or less. Like I just said, things should be much easier in terms of numbers now, right?"
"No way. Compared to you, fighting those six people was easier."
"...Truth be told, that is precisely the case."
The Japanese swords answered, exuding an aura as though smiling with fangs bared. Regardless, the enemy's strength was already reflected upon their blades and it was impossible to dismiss with a laugh.
"Haha~ Now that I think more carefully about it, your numbers have thinned out compared to earlier on the ship, so you're in no mood to enjoy the fight? Ah, now I'm reminded. Where's Gabriel and Houjyou?"
"Your worries are unnecessary. Until reaching the shore, we were all together, then we parted ways... Now that the school is in a crisis, they are probably focused completely on that side."
It was possible they might have returned to school immediately, only to end up caught in the Knights Dominion's invasion plans. Or, they might have noticed the situation from outside and were currently devising countermeasures. Although Haruaki's group wanted to get in touch with them as soon as possible, the current situation did not allow them such a luxury, of course.
"Well then, Riko, Granaury."
"It's finally my turn! I'm so bored! You need to be more passionate, showing you need me at all times—! ...But... But whether I'll accommodate you any time, that's a totally different matter! Don't get the wrong idea!"
"Amidst the lethargy after climaxing, I was just about to quietly inquire of the regrettable/awesome truth: 'Perhaps there is no need for us to mobilize at all?'"
Same as what was witnessed on the ship—The two of them transformed.
Originally clinging to Pendragon's arm, Riko turned into full-body armor made from white components. Thick yet displaying graceful lines, the armor covered his muscular body. Although his head was left uncovered, had Riko the intention, she could probably protect his head as well.
Just as Pendragon grabbed Granaury's arm that was stuffed in her sleeve, her body vanished, resulting in some kind of weapon with a double-edged blade held in Pendragon's hand. A spear's tip. Pendragon fitted it onto Riko's armor on the back of his hand.
«Corpse Armor Rikongarowa» and the «Granaury Spear».
These were the cursed tools possessed by Draconian Commander Maximilian Pendragon and more than likely his most trusted partners too.
Faced with the fully armed Pendragan, Haruaki entered a combat stance. Such powerful pressure. Just facing off against him made Haruaki's entire body sweat.
Because—His body knew already. What kind of being he was, what kind of opponent. No, it was impossible to forget. The deadly battle against him on that ship, it had merely been several hours ago...!
But at this moment, the weight of the sword in Haruaki's hand vanished. Instead, something flesh-toned occupied his entire view.
"If this man is the only enemy—I cannot allow Haruaki-kun to stand on frontline. I have no wish of repeating the same mistake from that time. Kotetsu! We shall attack!"
"Yes! But, umm, Muramasa-sama... Your clothing..."
"No time to care about that!"
After turning back to human form, the nude Konoha charged at Pendragon with Kotetsu. Indeed, back when Haruaki was fighting on the ship while wielding the sword, he had ended up as a liability. But after Konoha changed back to a human, would it change anything?
He could only believe in change. He could only pray that she could resist him.
Pendragon began to clash intensely with Konoha and Kotetsu in the garden. Konoha and Kotetsu kept changing positions, difficult for the naked eye to follow, displaying silent coordination with perfection, swinging the swords that were their bodies. But by using Riko's armor on his hands, shoulders and legs, Pendragon easily deflected all their attacks.
Naturally, armor was used to increase defense. However, the more defense provided, the thicker the armor, which meant additional weight and reduced mobility. This was the principle. However—this principle did not apply to Riko and Pendragon. Because the components of Riko's armor could move, although it was unclear whether Riko followed her own judgment, Pendragon directed her through other methods, or the armor read the battle situation autonomously.
Only at the part blocking enemy attacks would the armor thicken instantaneously before scattering to receive the next wave of attacks. Greatly familiar with Pendragon's physical capabilities and movements, the armor predicted future movements and ensured there was sufficient space near the required joints. Hence, Riko's armor neither impeded his movements nor hindered his speed, while at the same time, providing defense and mobility.
That was not all.
Using momentum from a dash, Kotetsu swung a tiger-clawed strike with both hands together at full strength. This was an attack focused on maximum power, executed with firm belief that Konoha would divert the enemy's attention for him.
However, Pendragon chose to take a great stride towards Kotetsu instead, kicking up dirt underfoot as he twisted his waist strenuously. Riko's armor instantly gathered to form a spiked elbow for an intercepting attack—
Kotetsu ended up bouncing back despite his running start. His face was twisted but he immediately recovered his posture and charged Pendragon again—
That armor most likely had offensive uses in addition to defense. Assisting the movements of Pendragon's body, lessening his burden while augmenting muscle strength at the same time, it was functioning like a power suit.
"Damn it! Are there no weaknesses...!?"
Haruaki could not help but groan. This comment was honestly just a slip of the tongue, but unexpectedly—
"Putting aside whether it counts as a weakness or not... Based on my observations so far, I have discovered something about that armor on that topic. That being said, it's just an absolutely ridiculous guess and by this point, probably meaningless too."
"Huh? What is it, Class Rep!?"
The one who answered ended up being Pendragon himself, while continuing to fight Konoha and Kotetsu.
"I know, you're talking about Riko's curse, right? It's nothing worth hiding, so I'll go straight to the point—Come to think of it, perhaps this counts as the same type as yours? In other words, the type that brings death as soon as it is taken off."
"! ...I knew it...!"
Kirika gasped, her eyes flashing. Then she murmured:
"All things considered, it's definitely too unnatural how she sticks to him at all times even when in human form. If there was any reason why there was no choice, a curse is the most likely candidate. If armor, which causes the wearer's death as soon as it is removed, takes on human form, then the curse transforms into 'killing the owner as soon as contact with her body is lost' whenever she is humanoid...!"
"Precisely, that's why we're together all the time, whether taking a bath, going to the toilet, sleeping, or sleeping. We are already joined as one life, so there's nothing inconvenient—"
"Hey, hold on! Why did you mention sleeping twice just now! This kind of thing... Uh, umm, it's too embarrassing, don't go telling others!"
The armor wrapped around his body was yelling from somewhere. Judging from this reaction, he was most likely telling the truth. Once Riko was separated from his body, or if he took off the armor in this state—
Pendragon would die.
But even if that was true, what could they do?
Riko had already shown the armor's true powers, conferring unrivaled defense and augmented offense. Under such conditions, stripping the armor off was completely impossible. Even if this one task was all it took to slay the strongest dragon, it was far too impractical a method.
Furthermore—Riko was not the only one conferring unrivaled assistance upon him, of course.
"To be honest, I really can't bear this sight any longer! Why don't you take this opportunity to regroup and go make a handle at least!?"
"What pleasing/unpleasant words as though someone was biting my ear. However, worry not. I have lost my handle long ago in the distant past."
A spear's tip. This was the only description for Granaury who was now attached to the back of Pendragon's right hand. Were it a weapon of insufficient sharpness, Konoha's knifehand strikes would have sliced clean through the blade, but Granaury kept blocking her attacks with exceptional ease. Then as though Pendragon had extended his fist, Granaury stabbed forward.
Konoha crossed her arms and raised them to block the blade's thrust. A heavy and earsplitting metallic noise was heard. This impact caused Konoha to slide back greatly.
"Make no mistake, I was like this to begin with."
"That's right. Once upon a time~ There was an attendant who lost his master due to an enemy's underhanded scheming. Wanting only revenge, the attendant chose the tip of his master's spear, broken by the enemy, as the weapon to sever the enemy's throat. In other words, this thing."
Pendragon swung his right hand in order to show Konoha. While blocking Kotetsu's attack at the same time, he continued explaining with an expression of composure:
"However, he felt that the master's grudge could not be conveyed properly unless the enemy was killed in melee range up close. Even the distance of a shaft felt like an obstacle. Based on this idea, the attendant did not repair the spear. Even ignoring the risk of losing his own fingers to the blade, he gripped the spear tip directly in his hand to duel the enemy. Finally succeeding in vengeance, his obsession turned into a curse... Yes, let me give a quick demonstration. Halfway is fine, Granaury."
Haruaki saw the blade, which originally extended out from the back of Pendragon's hand, retract towards his arm. In other words, the blade originally protruding over the fist was now shortened. Shortened roughly by half.
Konoha frowned in puzzlement. That was only natural. Extending in length was obvious in utility but in close quarters combat, what meaning was there in deliberately shrinking a weapon's range of attack? Besides, it was not a blade long enough in the first place for a slight shortening to make any difference.
Using his left hand to block, Pendragon then kicked Kotetsu away and closed in on Konoha. Then jumping lightly, he swung his fist down at Konoha from midair. Konoha originally wanted to enter a defensive stance, but suddenly showed alarm on her face and chose to evade at the last moment—
In the next second, a cloud of dust flew as though the ground had exploded.
Haruaki could not believe what he saw. It was not a real explosion, just that the ground had suffered an impact strong enough to call an explosion. However, this was—
The garden's soil flew all around. Even countless pebbles were launched into the living room, scattering in a clatter. Haruaki watched with his arm covering his face to find Konoha's earlier position dug up greatly with a deep hole in the ground. It was like a meteor crash.
Slowly lifting that meteor—in other words, his right fist that had punched through the ground—Pendragon said:
"Yes, that's basically it. A practical demonstration most easy to understand. Doesn't this liven up the mood?"
"This power...! Is that a curse...!?"
"I am the spear upholding righteousness and loyalty, the «Granaury Spear». A broken spear capable of close quarters combat for the sake of upholding loyalty. My master, my blade, and whom the blade ought to attack—the shorter the distance between all three, the better."
"In other words, the power of her blade increases the shorter the distance between the owner and the enemy. When attached to Riko's armor, I will adjust her length like this. Even without attaching them together, there is also a huge difference in power between holding her at the base versus holding the blade's very center."
"What about a spear's meaning as a long weapon? Its intended usage has been utterly overturned."
"Yes, that is why it's also called the «Contradictory Spear»."
Pendragon grinned and suddenly raised an eyebrow.
"Oh—But wait, now is not the time for livening up the mood to have fun. I almost forgot because it's been so long since I last used these two together in an all-out fight. However, if this is enough to make you understand my strength and give up, to become my property obediently, then it's not wasted effort—"
"Hmm~ Because it's not a very spectacular performance, I can only say 'No~ thank you~' in return."
His gaze was directed forward to the inside of the house. Kuroe replied vaguely.
Pendragon looked around with apparent exasperation.
"Really? Looks like I'd better end things quickly instead of playing around..."
"You still haven't changed your mind?"
"Of course not. I will make you mine, to become a part of my power. I've already made my decision, which will not change again—No matter what anyone says."
Then Pendragon took a step towards them.
At the same time, his entire body's aura changed. To even more of a cruel carnivorous predator than before. It was like the presence of a dragon that had just woken up to discover the existence of its rumbling stomach and the prey.
Haruaki felt his back tremble in terror. Honestly—He was utterly scared, just from standing in front of the enemy's gaze, just from standing in front of the enemy's advancing direction. So what should they do? He could feel Kuroe nervously tensing every single hair. He could see Kirika clenching her fist tightly. A clattering could be heard overhead. Were those the pebbles that had flown from Pendragon's strike just now, rolling on the roof? It felt inexplicably noisy. Koro koro. Kara kara. Gara gara—Creak.
It felt like something heavier than pebbles was making the roof creak.
Just as Haruaki wondered, this time, he heard the sound of someone clearly stepping on and breaking wood overhead—
"Maximilian Pendragon! You bastard!"
"Hey, you guys are unexpectedly durable. I didn't think I held back at all."
A gray figure leapt into the air to attack Pendragon. Not just one of them—He was immediately followed by a second, then a third. Naturally, they were all knights whom Haruaki thought Pendragon had taken out during the initial surprise attack.
The leader of the knight squad made a thrust with his heavy claymore. Pendragon instantly blocked. One knight waved a sword hazily then disappeared while another knight threw a sword from an incomprehensible angle. The rest of the knights also returned to the battlefield one after another. Even the last knight who had collapsed under the veranda was slowly getting up.
"In the end, everyone revived? Oh... Is this for real? What a nuisance."
"You are the nuisance, Commander!"
It was probably thanks to the blessings of "territorialization" that the knights were reawakening so quickly. Enhanced stamina and recovery. Although it was unclear whether they wounds healed faster as well, it would not come as a surprise either.
Granaury's blade clashed directly with a knight's sword.
"Hmph, looks like you guys have no intention of retreating. In that case... No way around it!"
"Attention, all knights, change of target priority! Eliminate the biggest belligerent threat first! Namely, «Corpse Armor Rikongarowa» and the «Granaury Spear»—Both are contemptible Wathes. There is no reason to let them go!"
The reawakened knights applied their own skills and the power of curses, which they were supposed to forsake, to maximum effect to attack Pendragon. Strengthened by the holy war effect, their bodies did not feel any fatigue or exhaustion at all.
At this time, Haruaki saw Konoha and Kotetsu exchange glances silently. Kuroe and Kirika also nodded at each other. At the same time, he also reached an answer. In other words, what they should do next.
Konoha and Kotetsu turned around simultaneously and returned to the living room. While picking up her clothes, Konoha said:
"Let us take this opportunity to escape!"
"Yeah! But where to...?"
"Yachi, let's escape this place first then decide! Seize this chance when they're currently engaged in battle!"
"I-I got it. Oh, but Fear—"
Konoha put her clothes on roughly and said impatiently:
"Honestly, just forget about her!"
"Here~ Haru, use this for now!"
Probably expecting this conversation ahead of time, Kuroe quickly pulled something out from the depths of the corridor. Haruaki saw the ends of her hair holding a wheeled cart for travel use. Speaking of which, there was apparently something like it in a corner of the unused room.
Most likely due to what people call an adrenalin rush, Haruaki did not feel burdened even when carrying Fear in his arms. Carefully, he placed her on the cart—Currently, Fear's trembling was very slight, but that was not relief. It felt like she had become even more feeble.
"Oh, hey, wait up! It's a bit bad for my pride if you guys succeed in escaping twice in a row—"
Naturally, the group ignored Pendragon's shouting. Haruaki threw a brief glance at him, only to see the number of knights fighting him reduced by two. There was little time left.
Last of all, Haruaki looked at the badly damaged living room, then the ceiling, the veranda, the garden and the accessory dwelling.
In other words, his home that had never been damaged so tragically before.
Then closing his eyes forcefully, he etched this sad sight onto the back of his eyes.
This was nothing—He convinced himself. Something so minor would be restored soon enough. Definitely—Restored back to the original state.
Hence, for this purpose, right now—
Kirika pressed Fear against the cart from behind to prevent her from rolling off. Pulling the heavy cart, Haruaki ran to the corridor from the living room, then all the way to the entrance.
After putting on shoes sloppily, just as they were dashing out of the house, something creaked ominously from behind, but—
Haruaki did not look back.
After running persistently for a while...
Haruaki's group arrived at a deserted corner in the streets. To catch their breath, they finally began to slow down.
Haruaki wiped away sweat using the back of his hand. Drenched with sweat, his hair clung tightly to his forehead, feeling very unpleasant. Due to lack of exercise, his heart and lungs were working at maximum capacity. Probably due to improved blood circulation, he could feel his pulse throbbing intensely from the empty spot of his left hand's missing fingers. A persistent aching with a vague pain that carried heat. Still, it was already much better than the intense pain he felt instantly every time he stepped hard against the pavement.
While catching his breath, Haruaki looked up.
"So... What's the next step?"
"Yachi, putting that aside first, I just discovered something absolutely ridiculous."
"What's wrong, Class Rep?"
Kirika's face was showing unease and slight awkwardness.
"...Honatsu-san isn't here. By any chance... did we leave him behind...?"
Now he realized—Kirika was right. Looking around, there were no signs of the woman whose true identity was his father. Konoha also made an embarrassed look with cold sweat dripping. Only Kotetsu looked nonchalantly uninvolved, as though he was saying: "I see, he probably died. So?"
Haruaki forced himself to speak cheerfully:
"Ha, hahaha. Oh my~ Now that I think back, I think we lost sight of him ever since Pendragon appeared. He must have fled early on, so no need to worry."
Roughly 80% of these words came straight from the heart. He had never been able to predict his father's actions and way of thinking. Besides, his father had actually accomplished the feat of escaping the Knights Dominion's encirclement successfully so far. His speed in running away was not in doubt at all. No need to worry—Probably. He would be contacting them suddenly and meet up later.
"I hope... that's the case..."
"Back to the main subject, what's the next step? The initial target was..."
"We were discussing that it was about time to strike back... Although judging from our current state of fleeing for our lives, it doesn't sound very convincing."
"We only have twenty-four hours of buffer time and they even have hostages on hand. We can't let our town and that home become the Knight Dominion's possessions without doing anything—"
In that case, what needed to be done was already certain. It was like the process of elimination.
"...Let's go directly to school."
"No helping it. After all, time is running out indeed."
"Yeah, but we can't overexert ourselves. Although time is running out, it's still evening, so it's not like every second counts. We can at least make our way there slowly to allow our bodies to rest. After all, you just fought Pendragon... Also—"
Haruaki swallowed the word "Fear" back into his stomach. He could feel the weight of the cart that he was dragging behind him. The weight of her who was secured by a rope. She could not go anywhere. neither did she want to walk on her own. Simply transported by others. Like an object that had lost all will—
They started walking towards the school.
The group was silent. The atmosphere was heavy. Even Kuroe, who would normally make jokes on purpose during times like these, was staring thoughtfully at her feet, simply walking forward.
Naturally, thoughts began to gravitate towards their destination. Haruaki recalled the school. What was the school like now? Originally, a school where lessons were going on as usual before the Knights Dominion arrived. Originally, an ordinary school where the flow of time was no different from usual.
Currently, what kind of unusual situation had that place been swept into?
Although they had already heard about Un Izoey's situation, that was only secondhand information obtained through Pakuaki. They were still unsure of the precise situation. Rather than dispelled, worries were increasing.
Treated as hostages, was everyone still okay? Apart from Un Izoey, seeing as it was a weekday, the other girls involved with cursed tools ought to be attending school as usual. Were they okay?
Haruaki shook his head lightly.
He knew very well. Regardless whether they knew about the secret of cursed tools or not, now that the entire school was captured, making this sort of distinction would be pointless. Rather, he should be worrying more about the ordinary students who were completely in the dark.
Because—Even though hypnosis had been used to cause errors in the students' cognition...
Even though the students had not realized they were hostages...
Even so, this kind of situation—
(It's the same as if... we got them involved. Damn it...!)
The depressing circumstances were thrashing around in his mind.
The students who were dragged into this by them must be rescued.
If the Knights Dominion's attempt could not be stopped, they were going to lose the Yachi home where they belonged.
As the strongest being, Maximilian Pendragon refused to give up on obtaining Kuroe. Empowered by "Knights Dominionization," the knights were trying to destroy them like it was their daily homework. Un Izoey, Taizou and Kana, who were unaffected by the hypnotic suggestion. The pain and sense of loss occupying his left hand's fingers. Crushed by nihilism and regret, Fear had turned back into a genuine square—
Haruaki bit his lip and deliberately quickened his pace.
There was nowhere to go but forward.
Even if the nauseating and ominous weight brought by mixing all of the current circumstances together...
...Kept trying to slow down his footsteps.
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