Chapter 2 - The Steel Wishing to be Powerless / "Case x Collision x Coetaneous"
The trio of Un Izoey, Taizou and Kana were walking in the corridor with their postures slightly bent forward.
The corridor was very quiet while lessons were in progress, filled with a unique atmosphere of tension, but it was not silent. Faint lesson sounds could be heard from the adjacent classroom as well as a stammering voice reciting English. However, the mood was so tense that it felt like making a sound would be a terrible crime.
Naturally, due to other reasons, they could not make too much noise either.
"Hmm~ This really feels like Mission Impossible: Skipping Class. I'm getting addicted to this tension."
"So this class is repeating last period too? Eh, Un-chan?"
"Shhhh—Quiet. I will explain later, ordering with this kind of order. Follow me quietly for now... Please."
After she spoke in a serious voice, Taizou and Kana looked at each other then obediently closed their mouths. What a great help—A safe place to hide must be found next.
In the process of escaping the classroom, Un Izoey had swiftly reported the situation to her boss. Everything had gone smoothly so far, but the bell then rang immediately after that, prompting class to begin again. In other words, after the hypnosis, the students and teachers were having the exact same lesson as an hour ago's. As for details like records in notebooks, their cognition was probably tampered to fit the situation.
Even though lessons were taking place in this extraordinary manner, lessons were lessons. Needless to say, students walking outside of classrooms would be conspicuous beyond measure.
Un Izoey lifted her head slightly to check out the surrounding situation. Looking out the window next to her, she could see the connecting corridor leading to the opposite school building as well as the two knights walking nonchalantly along that corridor. They were wrapped in gray coats, talking to each other while keeping watch on the surroundings vigilantly.
The hypnotized students did not see them. These outsiders were strutting around the place openly yet Un Izoey's trio had to sneak around despite being students. It felt very ironic.
"...This way. Keep yourselves low."
Un Izoey changed their route to get away from the knights' direction. Only after their presences were out of range did she quietly take her cellphone out from her pocket. No signal. During the call to Pakuaki, the line had cut off suddenly after she explained the basic situation. Ever since, the phone had been showing no signal.
(Just as the Lab Chief said, they found a way to jam the signal?)
Un Izoey thought it was very likely. The Knights Dominion intended to establish a second Knights Dominion here even at the cost of reducing their main stronghold's functionality. Their serious commitment was absolutely genuine, hence meticulous measures would not be surprising. Unlike irreplaceable knights whose numbers were limited, the effort required would be far less, if all it took was setting up a signal jamming device.
(It means they already took into consideration the risk factor of people unaffected by the hypnosis still in school...)
In other words, the trio's current situation was also within enemy expectations.
—Un Izoey could not help but think, had this school turned into a hunting ground? A place fenced up with meticulous preparations. Then releasing drugs safely to put to sleep the animals inside, making it easy to take away their fangs and fur any time. Cruel hunters were currently on the prowl, searching for dangerous prey that had not succumbed to the drugs—
Un Izoey narrowed her eyes, thinking of her pride and determination. Hunters? Compared to them, she was far more qualified. A hunter could not be hunted in reverse.
Cautiously, she moved along the corridor, turned a corner and went down the staircase to reach the ground floor. Then looking out from the stairwell, she observed—
Two knights, different from the pair she saw earlier, were walking along the corridor, heading towards her in a straight line. She hastily pulled her head back. Fortunately, they did not notice her. After making a gesture to the two behind her to be quiet, she decided to go back the way they came, but—
There were footsteps directly above. In other words—Someone was descending the staircase. Not students. Those footsteps did not come from indoor shoes. Instead, it was the crisp sound of metal-reinforced outdoor shoes.
They were surrounded!
She instantly pondered. What to do? Fight? If possible, she did not want to cause a commotion, but there was no choice by this point. Launch a surprise attack to swiftly render one side incapable of combat. So long as none of the knights were squad leader level, it should be possible. Could she do it before the other pair noticed? Or should she eliminate them in sequence? However, oh right, there were ordinary people present—
Just at this moment, Un Izoey's gaze ferociously went harsh.
Apart from the footsteps approaching from above and the ground floor corridor—A third presence appeared.
It was directly behind them.
The instant someone grabbed her shoulder, Un Izoey's body moved on its own. But halfway in her motion, she realized various things—
"Hi, anything out of place?"
"Nope. How about your side?"
"The same. But high school lessons really bring back memories."
"Nostalgia is fine, but don't be careless. With so many people here after all, it won't come as a surprise if a few students escaped Lady Taciturn's hypnosis."
"Ordinary brats unaware of anything can be easily handled."
"But some of them aren't ordinary brats. Like the 'Hunter' of the Lab Chief's Nation is also a student here, but it's confirmed that she is missing from her usual classroom—It's best to assume that she evaded hypnosis."
"Hmm, then make sure she doesn't rip out your throat with her teeth."
"Good heavens, now this job is getting more meaningful, I'm so glad..."
After ending their conversation along the staircase, the two teams departed.
Un Izoey was listening to this dialogue taking place overhead. Although her heart skipped a beat when they mentioned her, her appearance was very conspicuous in school to begin with. She already knew that it was just a matter of time before her absence from the classroom was noticed. Now that they had discovered that she was moving outside freely, the knights must have raised their alert level slightly. She must proceed with greater caution—
"Isn't it time for you to move this knife away, Dark-skin? Most regrettably, I have neither the generosity nor the luxury of time to practice beard-shaving with you at the moment."
"Oh... Sorry, I apologize with this kind of apology."
Still maintaining her posture of sitting on the floor, Un Izoey retracted her leg that was raised as though performing an overhead kick in soccer, with knife pointed at the girl behind her. She had attacked with her foot instinctively due to someone suddenly grabbing her shoulder from behind. Although she had stopped just before the knife stabbed into the throat, compared to withdrawing the knife, she could only prioritize hiding just now.
The current location was behind the stairwell, a space where things like buckets and cleaning equipment was kept. Un Izoey's group was hiding in this cramped space that could only be entered by stooping. And the person who had led them here was—
"So... Although I've no idea why these two are with you, what is going on right now?"
Showing no signs of fear despite the knife held against her throat, simply scowling as usual with arms crossed in nonchalance—the classmate, Sakuramairi Shiraho.
Hearing this comment of hers and feeling muffled breaths blowing against her hands, Un Izoey was reminded of those two's presence. She moved away her hands, which she had used to cover their mouths while dragging them here.
"Puha! I-I'm almost about to suffocate... Eh, Sakuramairi-san?"
"And you call yourself a member of the swimming team? By the way, Un Izoey-san's hand has a kind of earthy smell, it's so comforting... Wow, you're skipping class too, Sakuramairi-san?"
The two of them were staring at Shiraho in surprise. Regardless how little they knew about the truth, for someone like Shiraho to be found in such a dirty space under the stairs—That alone was already quite a rare spectacle.
"These two—My hand was forced. Sakuramairi Shiraho, how much do you know about the current situation?"
"Nothing at all, Dark-skin. I've been sleeping in the infirmary. After hearing the bell, I was planning to go back to the classroom when I noticed the strange situation in the sports ground with a group of weirdos walking around in the school building. Thinking something must have happened, I decided to hide first... A bizarre situation outside, a group of abnormal-looking people, and there's me. Wouldn't walking outside as normal under such circumstances be tantamount to declaring 'Please rape me'?"
Although Un Izoey had no idea whether they were going to rape anyone—neither could she promise for certain they were not going to rape anyone—In any case, she concluded that Shiraho had made a very wise decision. Still, there was one concerning detail.
"You were sleeping in the infirmary, this means..."
"Are you feeling unwell somewhere~?"
Kana proceeded to ask but Shiraho puffed out her chest and replied with inexplicable pride:
"No, because I pulled an all-nighter last night, I was very sleepy."
"Wow, such freedom..."
"Your reason for being in the infirmary is not important. Since you were sleeping, it means you did not hear the announcement, right?"
Un Izoey was already 99% sure of the answer. This was just confirmation. Shiraho was currently behaving no different from Kana and Taizou, but definitely unlike the hypnotized students.
"What announcement? I am a very sound sleeper. Every time I sleep, I do it with the determination of 'never waking up until I am absolutely satisfied.'"
Anyway, the hypnotic suggestion evidently failed to take effect during her sleep. The cursed words had not reached her consciousness—That was theoretically the case.
However, since she was not hypnotized, it meant Un Izoey had to explain the story to her somewhat. Unlike Kana and Taizou, she could omit certain explanations, so it was very easy.
"My explanation: simply stated, the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion is here. They captured this school. Students are hypnotized to not see them, to lose their memory, to keep repeating the same hour of time."
"I will go find Sovereignty."
However, Shiraho's response went as far as to omit a great deal all at once. This was too abrupt. Standing up, without any hesitation, Shiraho prepared to exit this space under the stairs.
"I don't know the details, but in any case, the 'enemy' did something to create this situation, right? In that case, there is only one thing I have to do. I must stay by her side."
Simple and clear. It was almost like solving an equation without any unknowns, like proudly declaring "one plus one equals two." Her gaze was candid, genuine and without hesitation. Her willpower was crystalline.
From Un Izoey's view, she looked absolutely dazzling.
"Cellphone... Still no signal? Good grief, how useless of the telephone company for calls to be impossible in such an important time. Can't they provide a plan with a hotline to Sovereignty any time?"
Shiraho complained while looking at her cellphone. Un Izoey crawled out from the hiding spot and asked at the same time:
"Please accompany us, I request this kind of request. Our goals are aligned, cooperating should be a good choice, right?"
"What is your goal?"
"To find a hiding place that will not be found. This place is just temporary after all. But you should know better than us—more familiar with places in this school where other people will not find, I judge this kind of judgment."
For the purposes of what one would call a tryst.
Although Un Izoey did not say it out, this small detail was already known.
Shiraho's lips turned into a frown for an instant as she glared viciously at her—But soon after, she shrugged greatly and sighed.
"Very well... As long as we meet up with Sovereignty, we have to find a place to hide anyway. Since no one knows what will happen, I suppose it's better to have a bodyguard."
Despite her tendency to follow her own dazzling impulses, Shiraho was quite practical. This was probably part of her personal traits as well.
Un Izoey reached out to help Kana and Taizou exit the space under the stairs while she asked:
"Then the next course of action is?"
"Do you really need to ask? Start with the most likely place where Sovereignty will be found, if she's not there, go to the next likely spot. If enemies appear, you handle them. That's all."
So simple that Un Izoey could not help but shudder in awe.
The group tiptoed their way through the school building.
As soon as they noticed signs of knights, they would try their hardest to find a hiding place in an empty classroom or under the stairs like before, to wait until the enemy passed by. Thus, it took them several times longer than usual to reach the first destination. Un Izoey had prepared herself to resort to violence if they encountered the enemy, but fortunately, there was no need.
Before them was another building's top floor which differed from normal classrooms. No one would come here without business. In other words, it was totally deserted.
Unlike corridors outside classrooms where lessons were in progress, the silence hanging over this corridor was even more intense than that of a vacuum.
Un Izoey stopped in front of the door and cautiously touched the handle—It did not turn.
"Is that so? Then I shall open it."
Shiraho decisively took out a key from her pocket.
"How did you get this place's key?"
"If that masked deviant were to do obscene things to Sovereignty in a locked room, what could be done? Holding onto a spare key is the minimum precaution, of course? Given this natural right, I decided on my own to duplicate her key."
Immediately, Shiraho inserted the key into the keyhole without any hesitation at all, unlocking the door. Then without a moment's pause, she turned the handle directly and barged inside.
Shiraho's excessive lack of caution took Un Izoey by surprise. Just as she frantically chased after her into the room—
A figure hiding next to the entrance swung something down at them. Stepping between Shiraho and the figure, Un Izoey used the knife in her foot to block the attack. Instantly, a metallic collision was heard while she felt a minor impact. The attacker's weapon was made of a handle and a main body. A metal unlike iron. Round rather than sharp, its shape included a depression with depth—
In other words—
A frying pan.
"Hwah!? Oh dear, oh dear, Un-chan!? Aw aw wawa, sorry, I was thinking the bad guys' evil claws had finally reached over here! Oh, it's Shiraho~! Awawa, come to think of it, if it weren't for Un-chan, I would have smacked your head hard, Shiraho, now that would've been terribleeeeeeeeee!?"
Her last sentence ended in a weird scream because Shiraho had hugged her, maid outfit and all, as hard as she could, even burying and rubbing her face forcefully against her chest.
"Ahhh... Sovereignty, I wouldn't care about that. Even if being hit will hurt, it's completely insignificant compared to this blissful joy of seeing you. No, if I were hit during this blissful joy, that sense of pain would surely become one of today's precious memories. I will make this a day of commemoration and christen it the Sacred Sovereignty Day of Pain to be passed down the generations."
"D-Don't make it sound like a religious activity! You're acting a bit weird, Shiraho~!"
"She seemed quite calm but was actually worried sick about you, I speculation this kind of speculation. So it is just an overreaction."
Un Izoey remarked and returned the knife she used to block the frying pan back under her skirt. Taking another look, she found that Sovereignty was not only holding a frying pan but also wearing a pot tilted on her head. Using it as a helmet...? In any case, judging from her behavior, Un Izoey concluded that they were hiding here due to a clear sense of crisis.
Indeed, they. Sovereignty was not the only person staying in the superintendent's office—
"Ara ara~ Please allow me to remark in fear and trepidation, you two are still so close and intimate~ Ufufufu."
"Shiraho-san... Thank goodness you're okay. By the way, Isuzu, why were you speaking with such arrogance just now? I'm gonna hurt you, got that?"
"Ahya, you're already hurting me~ Also, you're pinching even harder than usual~"
Shiraho suddenly separated from Sovereignty the instant she heard the two girls and coughed "ahem" to clear her throat. As though nothing had happened at all, she coldly tossed her hair.
"Oh, you girls are here too?"
"Y-Yeah... Umm... Sorry..."
"N-No need to apologize."
The people before them included the black-haired shrine maiden—the cursed set of kagura bells, Isuzu—and her owner, Hayakawa Chihaya.
Kana and Taizou were already staring in surprise at the various things happening in the room, but now, they both tilted their heads in further puzzlement.
"After entering the locked room, a maid attacked us, then the janitor shrine maiden appeared inside along with an underclassman who sometimes talks to Akki and friends... Mumumu, this feels like even more complicated foreshadowing!"
"And for some reason, the underclassman is still wearing gym clothes, looks like PE class is the key!"
Just as Taizou pointed out, Chihaya was dressed in gym clothes from head to toe for some reason. As though realizing only now, Chihaya awkwardly pulled her shirt hem lower and shrank away. If anything, rather than Taizou, she seemed more concerned about Shiraho's gaze, although Un Izoey did not think she needed to feel embarrassed about this getup.
Compared to this, there was something else that needed to be confirmed first.
"None of you—heard it, right?"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation: precisely~"
Isuzu answered. With an unfathomable smile as usual, she said:
"As kagura bells for playing music to the gods, we are more sensitive to sound than others... Consequently, even it was an unknown language, the instant I heard the strange voice speak over the public announcement system, my mind instinctively warned this voice must not be listened to~"
It probably happened at the same time as when Un Izoey had felt that decisive chill, just as the announcer yelled "hört" with all that speaker noise. Since Isuzu had felt danger as a result, it meant the word could carry the meaning of activating the cursed ability, namely, "this word is for releasing the curse next."
"Then in that instant, I used 'wordless wall' to shield myself from the voice. As it so happened, Sovereignty-san was next to me so I covered her ears with my palms~ ...Oh, sorry for not mentioning it until now, but I was sweeping behind the gym together with Sovereignty-san~"
"That's right, with the superintendent and Zenon-san absent, I had nothing to do at all. Although I heard they were going to come later in the day..."
"I can't believe you started sweeping on your own initiative, how amazing, Sovereignty. I must lavish you with praise."
So—Un Izoey looked at Chihaya.
"I... Umm, there was PE class in the gym but I was just watching from the side. The rule forcing students to change into gym clothes even if they're just watching is so unnecessary, but whatever."
Then Chihaya exhaled lightly and took out from a pocket in her shorts something resembling a wire to show them.
"Because the teacher wasn't in the mood to teach, it was pretty much free time and I secretly listened to music on earphones. But it looks like I was lucky I did that. By the time I realized, everyone was acting really weird. Isuzu also ran in from outside to get me."
Hence, the three of them hid in the superintendent's office after meeting up—That was what happened.
"I see now... Thank goodness everyone is fine. Anyway, we should continue our discussion and share information to decide what to do next."
"That's right~ Discussion is very important. I've been pretending to be a detective all this time, but I can't keep the charade going any longer."
"Yeah, Kana and I will be really grateful if you can give an official explanation~ Oh, but please make things as simple to understand as possible!"
Un Izoey glanced at Kana and Taizou then said:
"Of course, I did not forget this too... Is this place safe?"
"Uh~ Well, Shiraho and the rest of you were the first people we ran into after hiding here..."
"Even so, no one knows if this place is safe or not. The superintendent's office seems to be a very important place, so even though those people's goal is unknown, it might be just by chance that they haven't come by yet—"
Just as Chihaya was saying that, Un Izoey frowned and turned around to look at the entrance of the superintendent's office—In other words, outside. Of course, she could not possibly see through the door, but she could make deductions, like sensing the movements of invisible prey from the sounds and shaking in the bushes.
Indeed, sound was the issue.
"Those are footsteps~..."
Perhaps even more sensitive towards sounds than her, Isuzu whispered.
Truly faint footsteps. The echoing of shoes on the corridor. Multiple. They seemed to be slowly getting clearer. In other words, they seemed to be approaching.
"My guess: judgment that it might be Knights Dominion."
"W-W-W-W-What to do...? Should we run away?"
"If we rush out into the corridor now, we'll just crash straight into them, right? Wouldn't it be better to hide?"
Chihaya nodded to agree with Shiraho.
"I agree too. Hey, maid, what about the next room?"
"The secretary's room? It's possible to hide there, but you won't be able to reach the corridor from there... It's a dead end. If the enemy goes in to find us, it's over—!"
Un Izoey bit her lip.
A frontal assault was also very risky and would require incapacitating multiple opponents in an instant. Otherwise, the noncombatants here were going to be in danger. No, she already knew that Isuzu's curse granted her power to control wind and nature, so as long as they went all-out—Perhaps they might manage barely to force their way through this crisis. However, it would surely expand the scale of the commotion. If such a large group had to run away again, it was hard to predict an optimistic outcome.
(! ...What should be done...?)
During her indecision, the footsteps continued to approach.
The room was already in total silence. Sovereignty was holding tears back, unsure what to do. Shiraho was glaring at the door with hostility on her face. Chihaya was holding her breath while Isuzu silently stepped in front of her.
The footsteps would pass straight by—This finally ended up as dashed hopes.
Ultimately, the footsteps suddenly stopped in front of the door to the superintendent's office.
The last knight's head merged with the Yachi house's white boundary wall, in other words, he was smashed into the wall. A radial pattern of cracks were added to the scarred wall that was about to collapse. As for whether the knight remained alive, it would depend on the toughness of his neck bones.
Pendragon withdrew his hand from the wall, releasing his grip on the back of the knight's head. Fragments of the wall came off and fell in a clatter. He swept his gaze across his surroundings.
The Yachi home's garden was a tragic mess without anything moving. There were knights collapsed in pools of blood. There were knights with all their limbs twisted in strange directions. There were knights buried into crater-like depressions in the garden. As for the knights who were no longer recognizable, they were probably extolling their various postures around the place. Like planted into the tatami floor inside the house. But Pendragon was not too interested.
All the knights were no longer moving.
But things did not count as finished yet—This one point was the most important.
"So... Come out now. You were waiting for me to finish things with the knights, right?"
After he called out—From under the tragic-looking veranda, in other words, under the eaves, a woman crawled out. No, categorizing her as a woman was still an ambiguous issue.
"Hmm~ I wasn't actually waiting for you guys per se, it's just that as the master of the house, in charge of protecting this home, I have to stay behind to make sure no one burns the house down when no one's home~"
"How rude. We're not going to do something like that!"
"A worry that truly arouses indignance/agreement in the accused."
Listening to the female voices complaining in anger, Pendragon turned his head lightly. He was thinking of the people earlier, filled with zeal, madness and intensity of emotion, now motionless.
"Hmm, me aside, it's really impossible to say for sure whether these knights might commit arson."
"I know right?"
The woman—Yachi Honatsu—waved the cellphone in his hand while nodding repeatedly like he was saying "that's what I thought." A few questions surfaced in Pendragon's mind.
"If what you said just now really was your reason for not running away... You sure look pretty calm despite the obvious damage to your home. Aren't the Japanese known for placing great importance on their homes?"
"I'm not calm at all, I'll have you know that I'm very angry~ Smoke is rising from my head, see! Who should I demand compensation from? If a certain pretty boy has some self-awareness, he should take a bit of responsibility. I really hope he'll discreetly put a strack of anonymous cash into the mailbox later. I believe the strongest man should demonstrate he is strongest in being considerate too. Oh, roughly 300 million yen will do."
Pendragon shrugged at the composed Honatsu then asked the second question. The most important question.
Seeing the situation growing more and more interesting, his lips naturally curled in a grin.
"—What are you doing with that cellphone?"
Honatsu giggled while answering:
"I called someone. You should thank me properly."
"Oh? Who did you call?"
"Someone you might be happy to see. Although you should be very familiar already."
At this point, a presence appeared from behind—as well as voices.
"Indeed, extremely familiar already. In fact, it could end up feeling nostalgic instead."
"...Haha~ Even though we clearly met just this morning?"
Pendragon grinned and turned around.
Three figures had surmounted the wall and appeared in the garden. The one in the center was of course—an old friend, also a former rival, as well as being the man who had betrayed everything belonging to the past. Dressed in a suit, wearing a gas mask, he looked very restrained. Perhaps this appearance did suit his reserved lifestyle quite well.
"I was thinking you would've gone to school for sure."
"Had I reached the school half an hour earlier, I definitely would be locked inside right now. I noticed the unusual situation as soon as I reached the gates, so I hastily turned around 180 degrees. Thanks to an unexpected swim in the ocean, I had to take a shower first. Well, I originally intended to get to school early for once to handle all the work that's been piled up, so I guess I should say it's all thanks to my old friend calling me out."
"I'm glad I was able to help. By the way—There's also someone I didn't see this morning. Oh right, now this is someone whom I can say really brings back the memories..."
Pendragon gazed at her.
In front of Pendragon, apart from Sekaibashi Gabriel, there were his long-time followers, the two women whom Pendragon was acquainted with too.
One was Houjyou Zenon. Calm and composed, like wearing an iron mask, the younger sister adept at knife throwing. Probably injured during the battle this morning on the duel ship Leviathan, she had signs of bandaging on various parts of her body. To have survived even after a fight against Pendragon, this meant she definitely possessed a certain level of talent. What a shame.
The other person was—
"Ahhh... Seriously, so tired..."
The glasses-wearing elder sister, Houjyou Ganon. The incarnation of laziness and sloppiness.
As indicated by her tone of voice, it felt like her entire body might jump into bed to take a nap any moment.
However, her eyes beneath her glasses were staring straight in Pendragon's direction.
Standing casually, her body was clearly conveying the will to face off against him.
She was also holding a sword in her right hand.
"Are you preparing for a big fight? You couldn't have failed to understand the meaning of standing before me with a sword in hand, right?"
"On the other hand, do you understand what you're doing?"
She yawned lazily, her shoulders heaving up and down dramatically. However, this did not present any openings. That was the nature of this woman. Because her lifestyle itself was full of openings, there were no openings. Being the opening herself, no openings would appear as a result.
With an ambiguous facial expression that resembled a smile yet not a smile, she then said:
"Sigh... Max-kun, what on earth are you doing? Isn't this really unseemly?"
"That name sure brings memories. But Houjyou, isn't it too late to talk about unseemliness by this point? Haven't you seen me in unseemly situations many times in the past already? There was even one time when I pissed my pants while strangled by Long."
"Yes, but that's a separate discussion. I can't believe you've turned into a lolicon, chasing after a tiny girl's ass all over town. You've reached maximum unseemliness."
"I never knew you had such a strong sense of justice. This is my first time finding out in all the years I've known you."
"Sense of justice? Wrong~ ...This is being a wise consumer. Because that little one always cuts my hair carefully but gives me a friendship discount. An excellent partner for a poor school physician living on a meager salary. It'd be a huge problem for me if she were gone. Also, because engaging in random chitchat while my hair is being cut would be very tiring, she always stays silent, so considerate. She'll even serve canned fizzy barley juice for me as a drink."
"Is that a bit illegal? Though I'm not quite sure myself."
"Why? There's absolutely no problem with drink service of juice for customers during haircuts."
Ganon turned and shook her head at this point as though trying to dispel drowsiness.
"Sigh, I haven't spoken so much in a long while, so tiring. But even if it's for the sake of my life of comfortable haircuts, it's tiring too. However..."
She narrowed her eyes slightly.
She lightly waved the sword that was hanging on her fingertips.
"Doing nothing now then regretting after the fact—That would be even more tiring. So that's that."
This was equivalent to a declaration of war. Her words and attitude served as evidence. She was serious and had no intention of backing down.
"On the contrary, I think doing nothing would be the smart choice."
"Even when you say that, I have even more reason to fight if it is something only I can do."
"Onee-sama is not fighting alone."
Zenon took out her throwing knives and entered a serious stance. Naturally, the younger sister showed no intention of backing down either. Pendragon sighed.
"Jeez—Are we going to fight, Sekaibashi?"
"I'm totally here just to cheer and provide moral support. We won't let you catch up to Kuroe-kun so easily... At least allow us to buy a bit of time, although that's not really enough to compensate them or to repay owed debts."
The old friend in the gas mask shrugged and answered. At this moment, Pendragon also heard a voice from behind.
"Oh dear, is that what you're thinking? Speakng of which, I heard that the few of you deceived them last year... But I'm sure Haruaki and his friends don't mind anymore, so Gab-chan, neither side owes each other anything~"
"Haha, on the matter of debts, it also includes what I owe you, Honatsu-san. Since it's impossible for me to ever repay in full, whether you guys mind would be irrelevant. I'm just deciding on my own to do it—I believe that protecting this home is necessary."
This time, Pendragon sensed Honatsu shrugging from behind him.
Granaury spoke again. It was quite rare... But seeing as Sekaibashi Gabriel was the opponent, Pendragon could understand. Sekaibashi could be considered her old friend as well, the owner of a fellow spear and dear friend of hers. Pendragon also knew there was further significance beyond that—
"Sekaibashi, since you are present here, regardless whether you are merely here to cheer or the fact that your body was wrecked, you cannot remain uninvolved. Even so, you persist?"
"I'm very grateful for your worries, but as these two's employer, I'm obliged to stay here. I've already resolved myself."
Granaury said no more.
In the end, what needed to be done was already decided. Pendragon slowly stepped forward.
Before him, Ganon's body looked as though her body's foundation was suddenly pulled out. Not mentally, but the foundation of the physical body standing before him. Her body was starting to sway left and right slightly, as weak and powerless as willows blowing in the wind. Despite having a center of gravity, it was as though she had none. Such was the contradictory impression.
"What a weirdo! Hurry and defeat her, Maximilian!"
"Yeah—Exactly what I'm thinking!"
Pendragon instantly closed in and swung his fist, covered by Riko's armor and armed with Granaury's blade, then immediately launched a flying kick.
Swaying left, tilting right, she waved to and fro.
"Ahh... So tiring..."
But she was merely saying the words without meaning them. Narrowing her eyes sharply behind those glasses, she focused her gaze on his every move. Then her body reacted according to his movements.
She blocked his fist and parried Granaury's blade with her sword. The flying kick was dodged. During the exchange, Zenon's throwing knife also flew at his eyeball. So accurate—But he tilted his head to dodge it then stepped forward to force her move. As though devoting herself to the role of support, Zenon pulled back by an extreme distance.
Pendragon lightly shook his fist that had been blocked.
With her body swaying slightly, Ganon was holding her sword so lightly that it seemed as though her grip would come loose any moment. She was not standing in one spot—At a rate imperceptible to the naked eye, she was slowly closing in at a crawling insect's pace.
Covering his body, Riko yelled:
"HEY! What are you doing, Maximilian!? Fight more seriously!"
"I am, but there are many reasons."
"Are you for real~? But it's true, that woman's movements are really weird!~ It's so creepy!"
Those movements were part of the Void Night Sword, a sword style that kept the opponent deceived through feints and obfuscation, the epitome of "gentle" swordsmanship. In stark contrast to the concept of distinct moves, this sword style particularly emphasized reaction and adaptability on the fly. If usual sword styles aimed to inflict wounds on the enemy's body, then this type of sword technique would be about how to make the opponent hit you. A concept of minus in opposition to plus. Rather than seeking to win, a theory to prevent the opponent from winning—No, more precisely, this was neither skill nor swordsmanship. It was a "way of life" incorporating strength of will and how to analyze battle situations.
"The strongest eh... Yes, you might be the strongest indeed, Max-kun. Just from the few moves earlier, I can understand fully. I'm probably the only one who can barely engage you in combat—Although that's in another sense completely different from being strong."
"I know, that's why fighting you is meaningless. Move aside."
"No can do."
Ganon walked slowly but would swing her sword as soon as she entered attack range. Neither fierce nor fast, but there was a depressing atmosphere exuded by a unique rhythm of opportunity as though she would seize gaps between thoughts, swinging her sharp sword just as the enemy was deciding whether to dodge or to block.
Pendragon deliberately avoiding thinking. Thinking would become a liability. Allowing his body to act on instinct, he used his elbow to deflect the sword's tip while he knocked down Zenon's thrown knife at the same time. Just as he was about to counterattack Ganon's second strike that was seizing this opportunity—This turned out to be a feint baiting him to counterattack so that she could counterattack him in turn. A trap laid through multiple layers of feints. Pendragon retracted his fist.
"NWAH! This feels so annoying!"
"That's the kind of opponent she is. Getting agitated won't help things, Riko."
"Okay... Let's continue, Max-kun. Let's continue this match that doesn't decide who is stronger or weaker, let's continue this match that isn't really a fight, let's continue this match where nothing is clear. Ahhh, this isn't a situation that can be explained clearly in words to begin with... So tiring..."
Ganon's tone of voice was very lazy, but only her eyes glared seriously at him.
She was not having an easy time either. Pulling out all the techniques at her disposal, she tried her hardest to confront Pendragon. He could feel this level of resolve and determination.
What she produced—
Unsteadily, she blocked all attacks.
Equally unsteadily, she undermined all defenses.
A unique sword that went as far as to blur the meaning of battle.
The previous Commander, the creator of this sword style, had named it the Void Night Sword—He passed this secret technique to no one else except Ganon who had the potential to surpass him. A meaningless technique devised by the former strongest man, a miraculous product created through synergy with her own disposition.
"Indeed, this is no contest of strength... Good grief, this is such a pain."
He could not help but grumble quietly. Invisibly, Riko seemed to tilt her head in puzzlement.
"You're so unmotivated, Maximilian. How rare. It's been such a long time since we last met this kind of opponent who can survive this long even though we've attacked so many times, right~? Normally, you'd look really happy."
"This situation is different."
"What delightful/regrettable analytical ability. Your eyesight is so poor that one can't help but worry whether the sockets were subjected to rigid, forced entry."
Probably failing to understand even after listening to Pendragon and Granaury, Riko could only ask in puzzlement. Hence, Pendragon searched his mind for an even simpler explanation and said:
"This has nothing to do with strength. Against her, it's purely a question of compatibility."
He could assert with certainty, the Void Night Sword was not strong.
One could even call it meaningless. But because it involved movements of high difficulty, training the body to familiarity required special talent and potential. Conversely, all it could achieve was stalling for time and showing mercy to others.
But since this technique could be used on anyone—As soon as it was compared with other techniques, it would acquire special meaning. Looking at it the other way, one had to focus solely on this sword style if one wanted to find special significance within it.
A technique for subtracting enemy action rather than producing things in the enemy's direction, in terms of results, it was a technique for creating zero. In other words, the Void Night Sword was itself the rule that "subtracting the same value gives zero." Regardless whether the enemy's value was one or a hundred, all values were the same when facing this rule.
Indeed—The same for every and anyone. Whether against the weakest man who would die from a single touch or Maximilian Pendragon, the strongest man, she would still be able to render the fight's meaning void using the same unsteady swaying.
This one property ended up becoming the technique's meaning of existence. This was its true nature.
In other words—
"Her ability is the only sword style in the world that can deny victory to the strongest being. Only when confronting me, the strongest man, does its existence carry value and meaning. Despite being laid back and lazy normally, she becomes extremely sharp only when facing a dragon, just like a dragonslayer sword in fantasy stories... See, isn't this a pain?"
Voices could be heard.
"Just break it directly."
Then soon after, destructive noise was heard definitely.
Reduced by one layer of separation, the footsteps sounded even nearer than previously. Un Izoey held her breath and relaxed her toes that were holding the knife. Too much tension now would mean immobility when enemy attacks arrived.
"So, this is Sekaibashi Gabriel's castle huh...? Tsk, hey, look at this."
"Looks like the tasteless collection of this room's master. Do you think there are Wathes among them?"
"God knows. Although it feels like just a whole bunch of unguarded decorations, I can't say for sure. Anyway, let's just break everything first. Even if it's just a possibility, loathsome Wathes cannot be allowed to continue their wretched existence."
After the voices conversed in annoyance, intermittent sounds destruction started the next second. Like fallen objects breaking, things crushed underfoot after falling to the ground, or swords slicing at the wall.
Un Izoey gulped. She had expected that they were not going to leave the superintendent's collection alone—In other words, the numerous pieces of junk and scrap metal that resembled Wathes, hanging on the wall.
Choosing this place was the biggest gamble. How was it going to turn out? Or perhaps in the next instant—
She glanced around. Shiraho, Sovereignty, Chihaya, Isuzu, Taizou, Kana, everyone was here but unable to move. Things would be over as soon as they were found. Judging from the voices, there were two enemies... Not to the point of being unbeatable, but Un Izoey had heard that the knights had been strengthened in power, which meant she could not guarantee finishing a fight unscathed.
"...I forgot to check. What about that door?"
"I'll take a look. You continue with the toys."
"Got it, be careful."
The door to the secretary's room could be heard—But there was no problem.
"How was it?"
"No one's hiding inside... That's what it looks like. Nothing unusual. I'll continue to search."
Probably coming from the secretary's room, a faint voice could barely be heard. The sounds of destruction of the superintendent's collection continued without stopping.
"...Hey, say something. Or else I'll assume you died in an ambush."
"You're too wary."
"Don't get careless. There are supposed to be people who were unaffected by Lady Taciturn's hypnosis."
The person apparently checking the secretary's room continued to converse with the knight who continued to break the collection. In any case, all Un Izoey's group could do was stay silent and listen to their dialogue.
"...To be honest, this is really a nuisance. If we could eliminate half of their numbers, the mental and physical effort to patrol like this would be halved as well."
"Hey hey, they're ordinary people after all. Eliminating half of them now would be too much... Although if necessary, there's no choice but to sacrifice them for the mission. Also, for the goal of founding the second Knights Dominion, now is the critical moment. As members of the organization, we must stay unified and not complain about orders from above."
"Either way, Lady Taciturn isn't inside this school. Thanks to «Auschwitz-Birkenau», no one can get in or out now. No need to worry about her hearing us, right?"
"If the squad leaders get wind of it, they might contact her. Like 'a certain misbehaving knight wants to take advantage of the situation, so please give him a makeover using hypnosis' or something like that. Because if something really comes up, they are the ones to report to Lady Taciturn."
"Hmm... But I'm thinking that the three squad leaders who came this time are the type who simply kill misbehaving knights on the spot if they encounter them."
"That's right. So let's do our job properly to prevent that from happening."
Not long after that—
"...Okay, looks like there's no one in this room."
"There! Now all the toys have been taken care off too."
The persistent noise of destruction suddenly stopped.
Un Izoey felt sweat dripping down her forehead and quietly exhaled. By this point, the knights had not shown any signs of discovering a certain something—It meant that the gamble had paid off.
The knights had not discovered the hidden switch under a certain mask on the wall. This mechanism's structure was not exposed directly, instead, part of the wall had been made into a lid to hide the switch beneath. So the knights had overlooked the lid's seams on the wall? Or perhaps they were simply swinging their swords at the masks on the wall, leaving residual fragments hanging, thus leaving the seams cleverly hidden? There were many possibilities, but anyway, the fact that the enemy had not noticed was good enough. How fortunate.
(Right, speaking of fortunate...)
Un Izoey narrowed her eyes and recalled the knights' conversation from just now. It felt like there were a few important points mentioned. She must record them to avoid forgetting. The cellphone still could not make calls at the moment but there might be a chance to transmit information to the outside world later—No, regarding this point, it felt like there was some kind of contradiction between what the knights discussed and their current situation—
Hearing the voices of knights again at this time, she suddenly turned her attention back to reality.
"Let's head to the next location. This place is done."
"Yeah. By the way, back to the earlier subject... If we find the Hunter from the Lab Chief's Nation and the others, dispose of them on the spot. But I forgot to confirm, what if we found other students who happened to be not hypnotized, what do we do with them? What are the orders from above?"
Then what they said—
With a genuine sense of foreboding, Un Izoey's slight sense of surging relief in hopes that "they might be able to keep up the charade longer" was completely buried.
"It's fine to kill them, I think."
The footsteps left the superintendent's office and gradually grew distant.
Listening to the departing footsteps through the wall, Un Izoey returned the knife on her foot to under her skirt. Once the footsteps disappeared completely, she turned around and moved away from the secret door where she had remained until now as a precaution.
This was a small and narrow room—In other words, the secret room next to the superintendent's office. Sovereignty had remembered this place in the nick of time, allowing all of them to hide successfully inside. In terms of timing, it was truly quite a close shave.
"Phew~ We're saved..."
"It's all to your credit, Sovereignty."
"Y-Yeah, but this place is very dear to the superintendent... So it's really forbidden to come in here without permission, and that thing must not be touched at all."
"I'm not going to touch it. Besides, this is a crisis concerning our chastity. I don't think that pervert can complain about providing a hiding place for us. Furthermore, I won't let him complain either. If he is unwilling to provide a hiding place, it will only develop into a lawsuit, meaning that, like a pervert, he wants to indirectly rob us of our chastity, that pervert."
Un Izoey glanced at what Sovereignty said "must not be touched at all"—in other words, the object lying on a stand in the middle of the room, covered by a piece of cloth—and pondered what was underneath.
(Right, I think I have heard this before...)
A fuzzy and half-understood unknown. The object that stood as Superintendent Sekaibashi Gabriel's goal. His former possession, the «Treason Piercer»—Its remains. This was the place for safekeeping those remains.
(Thinking back, there is no better hiding place than here. If the Lab Chief's clear thoughts had come up with this place, it would have saved a lot of effort...)
However, it was already hard enough to report the key points during that phone call earlier. Ultimately, they still managed to reach this place, so there was no point being picky.
Un Izoey swept her gaze across the people present in this secret room again.
Sovereignty, Shiraho, Chihaya in her gym clothes, the smiling Isuzu in her shrine maiden outfit, as well as—
"Kill us... Haha, that's a joke... right...?"
"I-I guess you're right~ By the way, there was so many thuds and crashes outside like a lot of stuff was getting broken, is that really okay? Although I don't find them very tasteful, the stuff there must be expensive, right...? But they broke all that stuff so they really are villains, right? Or they have no idea who they're dealing with..."
Kana and Taizou's faces were showing stiff smiles.
Having reached a safe hiding spot for now, they now had to think about their next move. If things had to be handled before proceeding with that, now was the only opportunity.
Hence—Un Izoey prepared herself.
"My statement: the time has arrived to turn your unknowns into knowns..."
Everyone's gaze gathered on her.
This moment was not meant to arrive originally, perhaps. If it were not necessary, if they had not noticed, it would have been a kind of blessing. Just like herself in the past, simply hunting in the jungle.
However, as soon as one realized the world was full of unknowns, as soon as one understood one's "total ignorance"...
Turning aside in an attempt to avoid it would only end up as a type of suffering—Probably.
"Although I'm not too clear on things... Please tell us. I will listen seriously to you."
"Me too. Anyway, if you've got something to tell us, let's listen first then think about it."
But at the same time, they might feel some pain after gaining knowledge.
Even so, Un Izoey still believed that they ought to know. It was at least better than suffering from leaving unknowns as unknowns. Giving them this kind of pain—This was surely her most irresponsible action, being the one who brought them here.
"So, perhaps you might not believe, but I will start explaining. First of all..."
Un Izoey gazed into those two's eyes.
With a calm voice, she began to speak.
"This is about what definitely exists in the world... So-called curses and cursed tools—"
These words, as well as those to follow...
Shall irrevocably change their world forever.
Perhaps this too might be a kind of curse—She thought to herself.
While looking out for suspicious people in the surroundings, Haruaki's group cautiously made their way to school.
Roughly halfway, Kuroe stopped and whispered:
"Hmm~ I knew I couldn't ignore this option..."
Haruaki looked back. Naturally, the cart he was pulling behind him, carrying Fear, also rumbled to a stop.
As though waiting for everyone's gaze to gather upon her, showing a pensive look the whole time—with a serious expression quite rare to see on her face—Kuroe looked up.
"Haru, everyone, I've decided to part ways here."
Totally unexpected words. Haruaki was quite shocked.
"..Kuroe-san, could you please explain your reasons?"
"Hmm. Uh~ Based on the current situation, I think our movements are quite easy to predict. Under these circumstances, going to check out the school is only natural and in fact, we are doing that. A development that can't be more predictable. This means that my stalker is going to guess it straight away... Although we were lucky enough to escape by leaving the knights for them, they might catch up very soon. Since I'm his only target, I think that splitting ways here is a solution."
"Kuroe-san, even if you're away, I believe they will still chase us to the school."
"But they might retreat if they don't find me here. At least it'll lower the chances of unnecessary fighting."
Then Kuroe suddenly relaxed her cheeks and smiled.
"...I don't want to make trouble for everyone. Now is truly the critical moment. It's the critical moment for whether our home will disappear or not. Even if I went to school with everyone, I'd only be able to help out a little, but if I separate with the group, it'll definitely reduce the chance that the strongest dragon will cause you guys trouble. Which way helps the most, for everyone's interests, this is the conclusion I've drawn after my own thoughts and careful consideration."
Haruaki could only frown. He understood what Kuroe meant. She was most likely right. From the enemy perspective, compared to moving together as a conspicuous group, surely Kuroe would be much harder to find if she went off on her own. However, it was still hard for him to accept emotionally.
"But Kuroe-kun, Pendragon will keep pursuing you relentlessly. If you go off on your own, the risk will rocket sky high to an absolutely ridiculous degree when they find you."
"Don't worry~ I'm probably better at running away than anyone here. Back when the Family was chasing me during my travels, I didn't end up getting captured either. Muu, now that I think carefully, those were my first stalkers. What a crime it is for Kuroe-chan to be too cute for her own good, oh dear~"
Kuroe scratched her head as though going "how troublesome" in a perfect state of calm composure.
But Haruaki could not help but realize that Kuroe had no intention of changing her mind no matter what others said. Well thought-out determination was apparently hidden in those blank eyes of hers.
Then Kuroe walked forward lightly and knelt down in front of the cart Haruaki had been pulling. In other words, in front of Fear.
"Ficchi... You should've calmed a bit by now, right?"
No words replied. However, Haruaki could hear an exhalation as though she was hesitating over whether to speak. This counted as a type of answer. Kuroe smiled tenderly.
"Best not to think too much. If you spend your days acting silly like me, you might naturally cross the proverbial bridge when you come to it."
Just as earlier, a faint and ambiguous breath was heard from Fear again. Kuroe touched Fear's body then stood up again.
"Even if I tried to stop you, you'll still leave, right...? Will you really be okay?"
"Of course~ I plan on finding people in the shopping street to lend me a hiding spot. No matter what, I don't think the enemy has esper powers capable of finding me anywhere, right? I'll also do my best to avoid involving people from the shopping street, so don't worry about this."
"Please contact us if anything happens. No, even if nothing happened, please do call us regularly. Because we will worry."
Kuroe responded cheerfully to Konoha and started walking. Towards a different direction from theirs.
Her pattering footsteps were quite light and carried no hesitation at all, as though she were simply going to work as usual.
The back of her petite figure gradually receded into the distance—
Finally, a voice was heard.
"Kuroe... Take care."
Still feeble, but at least these words from Fear carried much clearer willpower than before.
Probably glad to hear Fear talking to her, Kuroe turned around nimbly and smiled.
"You too, bye bye~"
Then waving her hand in an excessively lively manner, she started walking again.
Looking at her back, Haruaki felt a strange agitation rising in his heart. It felt like something he had naturally taken for granted until now was being lost, bit by bit.
Not only now. The tragic destruction at the house also counted. The same for the fingers of his left hand. Like Kuroe's petite figure slowly becoming far away—He could not help but feel this way.
An extremely lonely, melancholic and empty sense of loss.
(But... This is just the start. Because we haven't taken action yet.)
Haruaki convinced himself and pursed his lips.
While seeing Kuroe off, all he could do was believe that one day, he would surely take everything back.
Advancing cautiously, Haruaki's group finally reached the school. Thinking they absolutely had to avoid getting attacked by the Knights Dominion in town, they spent several times longer than usual to get to school. However, for Fear who had not walked on her own two feet—It was actually quite difficult to get a grasp on the passage of time.
After the school gates came into view, Fear squinted her invisible eyes.
The school gates were illuminated by the slanting rays of sunset.
The Knights Dominion was very dangerous right now. It was possible they might eliminate eyewitnesses without warning, even if they were ordinary uninvolved people. Hence, Haruaki's group did not dare make a reckless move even after reaching a place where they could see the school gates. Cautiously, they waited for an opportunity without any people around—But there was no need to do so. From the start, there was not a pedestrian in sight. Perhaps coincidence or the Knights Dominion had used some kind of cursed tool—Such as a tool for making people avoid the school unless they had particular business, a tool with the kind of power to drive humans away.
Regardless of this speculation's correctness, the truth was that there was no one in front of the school gates to begin with.
Normally, it would not be strange for students to be leaving school at this time. However, let alone pedestrians, there was not a single student before the school gates. Silently spreading was a space with a bizarre sense of bleakness and rejection hanging in the air.
Haruaki's group walked forward with apparent resolve on their faces. The school's iron-barred gates were shut tightly. Having been destroyed by Lilyhowell several months earlier, they were recently repaired and brand new.
"I somehow get the feeling that the school gates will end up destroyed again..."
Konoha searched for nearby presences while continuing to approach the school gates. Then she frowned—At the same time, Fear noticed too. Something was entangled on the inner side of the iron bars. Haruaki also tilted his head and said:
"Konoha, what's that?"
"Looks like... barbed wire, but why is it set up on the inside...?"
Just as Konoha described, the inside could be seen through the gaps between the iron bars—in other words, the side facing the school—where a single barbed wire was hanging. The wire was thin and old. If used to fortify the school gates, it was not going to have much of an effect.
Without lowering her guard towards the surroundings, Konoha carefully reached towards the iron bars.
"Just as expected, the gates can't be opened... So, let me break the area near the lock."
"Hold on, Konoha, all the people have been taken hostage... I don't want to cause a commotion. If the lock breaks, anyone patrolling would see it immediately. Is there no way to enter more discreetly?"
"Indeed, there is no need for Muramasa-sama to trouble herself. Why walk through the front gates lawfully when all you need is to traverse this wall? First, allow me to—"
Kotetsu took a decisive leap at the school wall while speaking. Although the wall was several meters high, it posed little hindrance for a superhuman body. However—
"Huh? W-What happened?"
Kotetsu's body halted suddenly in the air just as he was about to fly over the wall, then he fell to the ground in an unnatural posture. For some reason, he was covering his nose a little tearfully.
"Kotetsu, could it be that—"
"Yes. It seems... There is an invisible wall there."
Kotetsu was replying in a slightly mumbling voice. Konoha suddenly narrowed her eyes.
"Perhaps... The current situation has developed beyond the point where we can afford to care about causing a commotion. I shall test out a spot as inconspicuous as possible..."
Konoha extended her index finger at an iron bar and stroked lightly. Then her gaze turned even harsher when she moved her finger away.
"Impossible to cut. Unbelievably, my blade did not even produce the slightest scratch."
"Then that means the lock over there can't be broken either."
Kirika concluded with a frown and Konoha nodded gravely.
"Indeed it is impossible. The same as for Kotetsu just now. This can only be some sort of power at work."
"The possible candidate at hand being... that barbed wire."
Konoha slowly reached her hand towards the gap between iron bars and tried to touch the barbed wire hanging on the other side. However, her hand was blocked from entering the gap by something, halting her.
"It's like some sort of invisible wall... The same obstruction that Kotetsu met just now? Of course, it feels impossible to cut too."
"Absolutely ridiculous... A Wathe that prevents physical intrusion? If that Wathe really is this barbed wire... and suppose this wire has encircled the entire school..."
Just as Kirika whispered, the barbed wire was not hanging only on the inner side of the school gates. It apparently followed the surrounding walls and continued to extend.
"This is a wall yet not a wall. Truth be told, it feels the same as the invisible wall just now. My blade cannot pierce through either... If one intends to break the wall in an attempt to invade, this method will likely run into trouble."
This time, Kotetsu did not jump. Instead, he touched the surrounding walls with his hands and spoke with a scowl.
"H-Hold on, now that you mention it..."
Haruaki remarked with a face filled with surprise.
Fear was the same. She felt shocked and terrified.
Unable to break the lock. Unable to open the gates. Unable to go over the wall. Unable to break the wall either.
This, these things meant—
"Forget about saving everyone... We can't even enter the school...?"
Kirika, Konoha and Kotetsu.
All of them could only stare at the school gates in silence.
They really wanted to deny but could not find any words to deny. That was what their gazes were saying.
Fear could not help but direct her invisible gaze towards the same direction.
Even with an invisible wall, the view was not blocked. Hence, they could see the school building, where they attended classes every day, on the other side of the school gates' iron bars. Fear felt a certain emotion surge in her heart the instant she saw the school building.
—It truly dawned upon her that the students were right there.
The students, same as usual, inside the school, same as usual.
Yet in an extraordinary state.
(Clearly... They must be rescued...!)
A sense of powerlessness rose in her heart. Pathetically. Massively. Despairingly.
No—It had been like this for a while now. It was the same as during Pendragon's battle against Haruaki's group.
She must stay like this.
Power... Perhaps it might hurt Haruaki again. Clearly she wanted to protect him, but power had forgetten this fact. Hence, all she could do was tremble—
Since things would end up this way in any case, she would have done this from the beginning had she known earlier.
That was what she thought.
Because—Everything happening before her eyes currently was all her fault.
Had she powerlessly and obediently allowed Peavey to destroy her in the very beginning, perhaps the Knights Dominion would not have pushed further. Honatsu would not need to risk his life for Indulgence Disks or even go through a sex change to evade pursuers. There were many more. Aiko would not have been sent to hunt her down. Nor would she end up in a coma. There were Yume, Lilyhowell and many more—
Just at this moment—
"So... What to do...?"
She heard a calm voice and the touch of a palm. She looked in surprise to see that Haruaki had crouched down and placed his hand on her corner to pat gently. He seemed like he was no longer in shock and was starting to ponder what to do next.
But immediately, he went "ow" feebly, his patting rhythm became irregular and his face twisted momentarily. This was probably subconscious. He was patting her with his left hand—the left hand bearing emptiness and pain, impossible to turn back to the way it was, standing as evidence of her sin.
Pretending nothing had happened and switching to his right hand, Haruaki began to pat in a lively rhythm again.
Then he shifted his gaze slightly away from the gates.
"What's on your mind? It feels like you're thinking about something weird."
When she kept silent, Haruaki deliberately turned his lips into a frown and lightly applied more force in his right hand. Instead of patting, he switched to pressing with a twisting motion. Then with a wry smile, he said:
"At least say something. Weren't you talking to Kuroe just now? Since I can't see your face, at least let me hear your voice, or else I'll worry... Okay?"
She gave up and sighed, responding to his demand.
"Nothing... I'm not thinking of anything."
"Really? That's fine. But if you come up with some kind of solution, please tell us too."
Too difficult. Currently, her head was filled with pessimistic notions such as "if only I didn't exist from the start" or "if only I were powerless to let others destroy me"—How could she possible think of solutions?
Clearly, she was thinking "perhaps it's not too late" constantly. Indeed. Powerless as she was, she should act powerless accordingly, as long as she was handed over to the Knights Dominion, perhaps—No wait, it probably would not work. Their target was no longer her alone but probably included Konoha and Kotetsu too. By this point, her disappearance would not be enough. She had missed her chance. She knew she should have from the beginning...
"Hey~ You're giving off weird vibes again."
Knock knock. This time, Haruaki used his fist to hammer a corner of her cube as though knocking on a door.
Haruaki. Haruaki. Clearly she had said nothing and was not in human form, but to think he could see through her thoughts. Was he an esper? Or did this imply he understood her so much? Always keeping her in his thoughts so single-mindedly?
"Also... Once you're tired of this, you're welcome to change back to your original appearance any time. After all, clothes can be bought anywhere."
Original appearance? Which one did he mean?
So happy. But she could no longer... Ahhh, what should she do—?
"But... to be honest, what should we do?"
"Yes, if we stay here, chances of the Knights Dominion discovering us will just keep increasing. Standing here stupidly is a waste of time and also absolutely ridiculous... Let's retreat first?"
"Wait, Muramasa-sama, I still have not swung my blade at full force. If I try to break through seriously, maybe the outcome might be different, it is worth trying—"
Just at that moment—
Konoha and Kotetsu suddenly stopped talking and rapidly spun around.
Fear also noticed after a moment's delay.
The figures who had appeared behind them.
Seeing that—Fear understood. That time was starting again.
In other words, the time for her to hope for powerlessness yet regret her inability to act.
"Oh my~ What a great crisis~ Although someone weak like Satsuko can't help at all, if only there was a way to rescue these students safely."
"Although to be blunt, this has nothing to do with us..."
It was also what these two arrivals looked forward to as part of the process in their quest for strength.
Time to fight.
Satsuko was dressed in a sailor-style school uniform as usual with pouch at her waist. Fourteen was wrapped in a cape, wearing tall boots.
Haruaki stared at the two of them warily and entered a combat stance. There was no choice. Considering the organization they belonged to, this was only natural—Then he looked around. Were they here? Had they come?
But Satsuko waved her hands hastily.
"Oh no~ Satsuko has nothing to do with the Commander's target~ Satsuko didn't come here to help the Commander, so please don't worry. By the way, Kuroe-san isn't here! Awwww, but you guys won't believe what someone like Satsuko says, right? Satsuko understands..."
"There's no way we can trust you completely. Aren't you two really intimate?"
"That's completely separate~ Rather, although this isn't something that someone like Satsuko can say, Satsuko is very against the idea of using brute force to make a girl yours! The only girls who can be taken by force are the lowest trash, girls with no strength, no willpower and no value, like Satsuko!"
Satsuko pouted slightly, saying incomprehensible things that one could not tell if it counted as self-abuse. But purely judging from her face, she did not seem to be lying.
Haruaki felt slightly relieved. Just as he was about to release his tightly clenched fist...
However, he had forgotten.
Although they had only fought once at the pool and never again—It did not mean that these two had changed their ways.
As a member of the Draconians, their lifestyle of doing anything at all costs to become strong, that could not possibly change.
"So... Why are you two doing here?"
"Eh? Oh my, Konoha-san... Do you really need to ask? Although someone weak like Satsuko might only be a nuisance, Satsuko has finally obtained a weapon of choice, so sorry, please fight Satsuko in a match!"
Satsuko smiled happily.
Then she drew out a sword from the scabbard hanging at her waist, opposite her pouch. It was a very slender sword with a familiar appearance. Konoha's gaze suddenly showed turbulence.
"I remember it... «Karma Speed»! Why is it in your hands!?"
"Satsuko made a deal with Sleif-san, in exchange for that spear. Because that spear seemed very weak as a weapon~"
These words were impossible to ignore. Standing on the side, Kirika instantly flew into a rage and roared:
"You were the one who hid it!? Truly, this is... absolutely ridiculous! It's all because you gave that spear to the Knights Dominion! Have you any idea how serious the situation is...!?"
"Satsuko don't know~ Because Satsuko is very weak, in order to get strong, there's no extra energy to think about unnecessary things. Sorry for Satsuko being so willful~"
"There's no need to apologize, Satsuko. These people should already this is who were are. Bluntly stated, those who forgot are at fault."
Fourteen stood confidently next to Satsuko, her face covered by a veil, a cape on her back, her chest bound in strips of fabric resembling sarashi. Blue ghostlights were already flying around in irregular orbits.
"«Coonsberry's Haunted House of Death on Fourteenth Avenue»—Do we need to fight you again? Truth be told, it is a waste of energy. Have you forgotten how you were floored when sparring against Muramasa-sama and myself?"
"Now... Things have changed. This is not about me, this is us now, Nagasone Kotetsu!"
"Oh? Then allow me to confirm!"
Kotetsu bared his fangs and grinned maliciously, charging forward. Ghostlights blinking and flashing, Fourteen swiftly grabbed the broom that appeared from the bright light. It was a fortified object taken out from her body, the cursed house.
The broom clashed violently with the tiger claw, producing a crisp noise that did not sound like impacts between wood and the human body.
Konoha glanced at Haruaki over her shoulder, sighed then took a step forward.
"—Seeing as it is a match, it means that you have no interest in Haruaki-kun and the others, is that correct? That goes the same for the square paperweight over there. No helping it, I shall answer your challenge."
"Sigh~ It's quite a shame that it's not possible to fight Fear-san, but it'd be a waste to consume all the pleasure in one go~ Anyway, no problem! By the way, this tag team match up really is the same as when we sparred at Nirushaaki-senpai's place before. It would be utter humiliation if you end up getting killed by weak little Satsuko who lost so badly back then, so sorry, please try your best this time—!"
"Sigh... Regrettably, I believe the trick is to not try too hard."
While saying that, Konoha slowly advanced without attacking at high speed—
Indeed, the sword's secret had already been revealed. Konoha was probably trying to emulate Pendragon's fighting style from last time. Although she could not reach the same level as him, Konoha should be able to perform similar martial arts. Perhaps a simple throw would suffice, because Konoha was capable of cutting while in a hold. In any case, all she needed to do was avoid executing attacks whose speed would get absorbed.
Konoha closed in slowly. Satsuko backed away while frowning, trying hard to keep a certain distance.
"Oh~ Satsuko supposes that's true~ The cat's out of the bag... Awwww."
"Rubbish, did you really think you could win with a hand-me-down?"
Konoha said with a cold expression. But in contrast, Satsuko replied with a courteous smile:
"Yes. Because Sleif-san was alone, but we are not... Fourt!"
Fourteen pulled back greatly from her fight against Kotetsu. Brooms could not withstand consecutive tiger-clawed strikes and she had already pulled out new brooms and pieces of timber repeatedly, resisting Kotetsu through a strategy of quantity over quality. As a result, when she retreated far back, Haruaki was expecting her to pull out some kind of new weapon for close quarters combat from the magic circle traced out by ghostlights—But that did not happen.
Out appeared from the air were bricks, ammunition for long range combat instead.
Without hesitation, Fourteen shot the bricks at maximum speed—
"«Geist»! «Geist»! «Geist»!"
Fourteen did not stop, going further to shoot bricks, dishes and small pieces of wood in quick succession.
Using «Karma Speed», Satsuko blocked all the objects flying at her like bullets. The projectiles made contact unnaturally as though sucked by the blade, then fell to her feet with a clatter.
"Huff... Nnnnggga, ahah... F-Feels so good... Ah, hyah!"
Flushed red in the face, Satsuko suddenly made a lewd face and her body shuddered intensely.
Everyone present understood what they were doing.
"No way—you did that on purpose to absorb the speed...!"
With drool of pleasure dripping from the corner of her mouth, Satsuko held «Karma Speed» at waist level.
"Huff... Suits us very... well, right? Satsuko has little strength... But with this, whether defense or offense... neither relies on strength. With just Fourt's help... A super finishing move can be instantly executed like this. But this is only because... there is deep trust and silent understanding between Satsuko and Fourt, the most precious partner in the world—This is also the only thing this weak little Satsuko is proud of. So... it suits us very well..."
Then accompanied by the keywords they had heard a long time ago, Satsuko swung the rapier downwards—
"...This is... karma!"
A giant slash was released and given physical form. The asphalt on the ground was ripped up.
Konoha hastily evaded, but suddenly, a dark shadow covered her face. She stared in surprise, only to see Fourteen attacking with two pieces of fortified timber from above while hiding behind the giant slash released by Satsuko. However, Kotetsu chased Fourteen, jumped and rushed over to get between them in the nick of time, deflecting one piece of timber, but could not evade the second piece which struck him in the shoulder. Wincing, Kotetsu rolled over to the side some distance away—
While Konoha and Kotetsu were regaining balance, the slash produced by «Karma Speed» flew past them and violently struck the metal bars of the school gates that happened to be behind them, causing a loud noise like an explosion.
"Kotetsu! Thank goodness you were there, are you okay?"
"Yes, this is nothing—Although the shoulder has dislocated."
With an audible snap, Kotetsu forced the dislocated joint back into the socket. It was quite a painful sight, but not a critical wound... Probably.
"I should count our blessings that it didn't hit us directly..."
"Yes, but it's also thanks to the attack that we learned something totally distasteful as a result, even though it's useful to us."
Kirika was looking at the iron bars that had taken on the super destructive slash head on.
Completely unharmed after all. Not a single bar was cut, nor were any of them distorted. With a sense of eternity like a painting, sealing the school gates tightly. Impossible to break even with that kind of attack... How secure was the power prevent others from invading this school?
"Satsuko mentioned just now about weak little Satsuko and Fourt's greatest advantage... Satsuko think it's the weak coordination between us. The better we coordinate, the greater our battle power... Call it converting coordination itself into battle power. This is an awesome weapon~"
They were already helpless against the overwhelming firepower of that sword back when Sleif was using it. But because there was time between each attack, they could still manage to find time to discuss countermeasures.
But the case was different with Satsuko and Fourteen. The two of them were able to absorb speed in a self-sufficient manner.
If given such a powerful weapon along with the ability to fire in succession—
How horrifying a threat would that be...?
Haruaki gulped. Right now, the Satsuko and Fourteen standing before them were definitely different from that time at the pool. Indeed—They were even stronger than back then.
Insurmountable obstacles appeared one after another.
"Oh my~ An audience has arrived."
Satsuko remarked with her head tilted.
Naturally, Haruaki saw as well. As much as he did not want to see.
—Behind the school gates' iron bars.
A petite maiden knight was standing there, wearing a visor-like helmet.
Within her field of view too, Fear was watching that girl slowly walk up to the iron bars of the school gates.
She stopped before the gates. Naturally, she did not even touch the bars or the barbed wire.
By the time Fear realized, Sleif's figure was no longer alone there.
One after another, similarly dressed knights appeared, standing in a row behind her.
Staring at them from behind her helmet, Sleif reached into her front pocket and fished out something. A new weapon—No, it was apparently just a cellphone.
"...They are just outside the gates. Lead a team back immediately."
She swiftly put away her cellphone after talking briefly. Something did not feel right. Fear's thoughts seemed to be onto something—But her mind was too occupied to think deeply.
Then Sleif finally spoke to Haruaki's group through the bars.
"Let me state for the record, entering is impossible no matter what you try. But even so, there is no reason to let you lot, reeking of curses, damage this place unchecked—Be gone. If any of you dare touch this entrance with your hand, we will kill the students inside here."
"Gah... Judging from how matter-of-factly you speak, that is really this Wathe's power? Absolutely ridiculous..."
"Indeed, this is an absolutely ridiculous and lowly Wathe, «Auschwitz-Birkenau»—A product of human malice. Once encircled by this Wathe, no one may enter or leave anymore. Give up."
"You expect us to simply go 'Okay, understood'...!?"
Konoha glared sharply beyond the bars, but now was not the time to be focused there. Satsuko pouted and said: "Muu~ Satsuko doesn't mind if the audience increases, but it's a bit much if the chatting gets in the way... Hmm?"
Just at this moment—
A faint, rhythmic sound from something getting compressed.
It was gradually approaching.
The knights in formation behind Sleif instantly moved, a bit stiff and tense throughout their bodies. They parted to the sides, leaving a central space.
Sleif turned away from the gates, now showing her side to Haruaki's group—
Then she knelt down on the spot. All the other knights followed suit.
"Oh my, that's... Hmm~ How interesting. Let's take a bit of a break, Fourt."
"Is it okay?"
"Because it's possible to get stronger just by looking at a rare opponent~ That's what the Commander said once. Even without fighting, you should check out their aura and presence first."
Despite hearing the words said between Satsuko and Fourteen, Fear's brain could not process their meaning.
Whatever. She had no spare energy.
More intensely than before, perhaps to the point of violence, her mind was shrouded by a sense of dissonance. It even made her want to vomit. It even felt like something inside her heart was about to be destroyed.
Appearing from between the knights was a wheelchair.
And the person sitting on that wheelchair—
An unbelievable feeling. Shock. Sure enough, a sense of dissonance again.
It started the moment she laid eyes on that man.
Surely she would be breaking out in cold sweat were she in human form. Breathing convulsively like a patient, her heart racing irregularly, her vision flashing with vivid colors like some sort of avant-garde painting.
An old Caucasian man. A face covered with wrinkles. Deepset facial features.
His eyes were extremely deepset, giving off a quietness that seemed to see through all creation.
All this was making her tremble. Mercilessly, unmistakably.
(This feeling... What is it...?)
Fear asked herself. However, she felt that the answer was in her heart already.
Hence, she searched deep in her consciousness. Searching, searching, she finally found it.
Ah, right. This feeling was very similar to back then.
Moving to the Yachi house, right when the first commotion ended.
After defeating Peavey, it was when she first laid eyes on an Indulgence Disk for the first time.
The feeling of recognition—
(No way... How...?)
She could not understand her feeling. How was she feeling this way? Why?
The sound of the wheelchair's rolling stopped.
In front of the iron bars. The man sitting on the wheelchair had stopped where Sleif had just been standing.
Looking at neither Haruaki, nor Konoha, nor Kirika, nor the pair of Satsuko and Fourteen.
Simply staring at her, the cube, he spoke in a calm and low voice:
"Although a foolish act, I shall still speak to you."
"—It has been a long time, Fear-in-Cube. My daughter of sin."
Massive waves and turbulence.
Voice. That voice. She had heard it before. Where?
Appearance. That appearance. She had seen it before. Where?
The sense of dissonance, already at its limit, overflowed even more, covering her completely.
Haruaki's worried voice. Many of her body's components were probably popping out on their own in various places. Like incontinence, like vomiting, impossible to control. Unimportant. What was more important lay on the inside. Inside this thing, herself.
Where—somewhere—in the past. But it was not after encountering Haruaki, nor after discovered by Honatsu—It was much farther back... in the past. Indeed.
Memories of screams. The smell of blood. Him, the user. The castle lord, roaring with laughter. On the side—No, even earlier than that, much, much earlier. Even during the instant when she had come into being—
Instantly, she cried out pathetically. Impossible to understand. Impossible to acknowledge. Impossible to explain.
Even so, she still understood instinctively, indeed it was like that. Neither a dream, nor an illusion, nor a hallucination. Not a mistaken identity nor a disguise nor someone similar.
That man was—
Haruaki's voice was heard once more.
The voice of Haruaki, the one she loved most. The voice of Haruaki, the one whom she wanted to stay by his side forever.
However, that voice was now trembling in fear.
"W-Who are you? What have you done to Fear!?"
"Who am I? Truly a foolish question—"
The man spoke simply but with great weight, introducing his name.
"I am Trinac Agana, Lord of the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion."
She could feel Haruaki and the others gasping. In contrast, the man remained completely unfazed. Still resting the edge of his face on his hand, supported by his arm on the wheelchair's armrest, he continued:
"Next—What have I done to Fear-in-Cube? Another foolish question. The answer is simple."
He did not look shift his gaze away.
Slightly narrowing those eyes, it seemed like he was examining her intently...
And also pitying her.
"—I created her. Originally a foolish alchemist in the past, I created her, that unfortunate and loathsome tool of torture and execution."
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