Chapter 4 - He Comes and Goes Elusively / "When The Liars Go Marchin' In"
In contrast to her arrogant and unrefined attitude, the girl was both petite and adorable.
Her blonde hair was sleek and smooth while her facial features were exquisite and elegant. If one were to pose her in a formal dress with a violin in her hand, she would be the very image of a flawless aristocratic lady. Nevertheless, her current attire was not a formal dress.
"Tsk... A girl in red just as rumored. As I thought, you're nothing but a fake Santa."
The girl was wearing a long red scarf. Similarly, she was clad in red clothing from top to bottom. Of course, they were not all the same shade of red but her attire was virtually all red in theme. The skirt and her top gave off an inexplicable impression like a school uniform, serving as a foil to her own adorable appearance, the overall effect seemed a bit like cosplay.
Furthermore, all the things carried on her back were also red. Just as Un Izoey explained in the beginning, she was carrying a sack. Strictly speaking, it was not a sack but more of a makeshift bag created by wrapping a cloth around the contents. But certainly, this bundle truly made her look even more like Santa Claus.
"Anyway, please wait a sec. I went into the effort of stealing them after all. There."
Saying that, she turned her arm behind her and stuffed the Santa costumes she had taken from Zenon and Ganon into the sack.
Although it was incomprehensible why she was stealing Santa outfits, now was not the time to bother with that. The biggest issue concerned the victims who had lost their costumes—lying eyes-closed by her feet, half-naked, Zenon and Ganon.
"Y-You, what did you do to them!? What did you do!?"
"Kaha, ragazzo, there's no need to be impatient. I simply punched them a couple times and they fainted."
"Impatient my ass! Prepare yourself!"
Konoha readied her knife hand while Kirika began to extend the black belt from the sleeve of her Santa outfit.
"We have many questions for you... What is your goal? To defeat Un Izoey? Or Fear? Why did you attack these two? No wait, why are you stealing Santa outfits? Are you also involved with the incident where people wearing red went missing?"
"I have my pressing circumstances too. These matters are all just preparations beforehand, although I've no idea if they might be needed next or not... In any case, it's fine if you don't worry about such things."
As she laughed boldly, Fear stepped towards her warily, gripping the Rubik's cube tight.
"I don't get what you're talking about... But whatever, I'll listen to your circumstances later. 'Santa Hunter,' what you're supposed to do now is not explain but shut up and get ready to be floored!"
"I already said I'm Kokoro, not the 'Santa Hunter.' Oh, maybe it's because of the way I look, people often get it wrong, but I'm not Rococo. I'm half Japanese and Italiano. 'Kokoro' is Japanese for 'heart' which is also cuore in Italian... Kaha, your faces seem to be saying who cares? Very well, I'd like to to start sooner too."
Next, Kokoro reached out towards a strange object that was worn at her waist.
Judging from the object's position and what appeared to be a hilt, it was a scabbard for holding a long sword. However, the scabbard itself was quite unusual. It was quite thick unlike usual sword sheaths. Rather, this had already transcended the issue of thickness, it was virtually a rectangular prism. Looking like a rectangular box, it did not seem like a scabbard suited to carrying by the waist no matter how one looked at it.
This metallic-looking scabbard and the gladiator boots on her feet were the only objects that were excluded from her red theme. Lifting her foot, clad in the boot that looked cold but easy to move about in, she also stepped forward.
Then she drew her sword.
As soon as Konoha saw the sword Kokoro was wielding, she frowned with displeasure.
"Speaking from the standpoint of a sword, I would point out the total lack of aesthetic sense in that thing... Naturally, I don't feel any sense of victory either. Instead, I pity it."
The sword was very unlike a sword.
There were too many decorations on it. Not only the grip and the guard but also halfway up the sword's blade, there were all sorts of inexplicable objects stuck on haphazardly. Screws, metal plates, electronic circuits, swaying tubes. These mechanical accessories created an impression like a messy laboratory. On the other hand, there were also milky-white objects—Are they actually bones? Embedded in the guard was also something resembling a miniature skull. The skull of a monkey, a baby or some other living organism? Haruaki did not dare imagine any further. Decorations exuding an aura of death mixed with ornaments resembling mechanical components in one unified package, giving the sword an extremely bizarre outer appearance. Given its state, this sword definitely could not be contained in anything apart from the cuboid scabbard.
"It's obvious from the appearance already... But there's an ominous aura. A cursed sword?"
"As a sword, I would only classify it as third rate. To think so many redundant trinkets would be affixed onto the blade."
"In any case, my skills will make up for it, so what does it matter? Well then, let's start. First of all—Let me confirm once more."
Confirm? Confirm what? Before Haruaki could ask these questions, Kokoro had already charged forward, wielding the strange sword in one hand. Her target was—
"Kaha, that outfit really suits you!"
Un Izoey's Santa hat fluttered lightly as it fell through the air. Bending down, she extended her dark-skinned leg and performed a move resembling a hooked punch—Kokoro swiftly turned to the side to dodge the attack and aimed her sword at Un Izoey's head.
Supporting herself with one hand on the ground, Un Izoey swung her other leg and kicked towards Kokoro's sword arm. Blocking Kokoro's slash with this attack, she seized the opening to kick again using the leg she first attacked with—But at this moment, her body shook violently and lost balance, falling in an upside-down posture. Her supporting arm suddenly went bent and she fell awkwardly. Frowning, Kokoro made a thrust with her strange sword. Un Izoey kept dodging desperately by rolling on the ground continually.
Haruaki found it quite odd. Since Un Izoey's knife was currently being kept by Konoha, she was fighting unarmed of course. Even so, her movements were far too lacking in agility.
"Tsk... That's all you've really got? I'm so disappointed. What happened to the combat strength capable of rivaling one of the «High Singles» by yourself? In that case, I must complain to those guys in the combat analysis team once I return—"
"Mechanism No.19 gouging type, spiral form: «Human-Perforator», Curse Calling!"
Kokoro turned her body, causing the long scarf to flutter as she blocked the thrust of Fear's giant drill with her strange sword. Kaha, her lips twisted happily.
"Yeah! Excellent vigor! Then let me confirm your power, Fear-in-Cube!"
"You battle maniac! I'm going to make you suffer defeat just like Satsuko!"
"Did you actually hear what I mentioned just now? I am even stronger than Satsuko and Fourteen. O-Oh! Right right, do note that it's fine for you all to rush me all at once. Isn't that how you defeated them with much difficulty?"
Kokoro handled Fear with amusement while chopping with her bizarre-looking sword, severing the «Tragic Black River» and Kuroe's long hair that were extending from dead angles.
"She cut them? If she dodged instead, I was planning to rescue Zenon-san and Ganon-san... Looks like it won't be that easy to get our way."
Hearing Kuroe and Kirika's exchange, Haruaki turned to look at Konoha.
"Let's go, Konoha, although I feel sorry for you."
"I understand... Although her movements are on a master's level, she is an enemy with a straightforward fighting style, one we haven't encountered for quite a while—with a clear and definite weapon. No matter how strong she is, everything comes to an end once I deliver a blow of the Sword-Kill Counter to that weapon."
"I'm relying on you."
Konoha's Santa outfit popped open with a poof. In the next instant, held in Haruaki's hand was a Japanese sword in a black scabbard—Konoha's original form. Her Santa hat happened to be still hanging on the tip of the sword. To think we were still busy with Christmas Eve mere moments ago—Haruaki thought as he took off the hat.
"We're up. Please be careful."
"Got it... Fear, we're coming over! Don't push yourself too much!"
With Konoha's assistance, Haruaki found his body much lighter and agile as he rushed towards Kokoro. Within his field of vision, Un Izoey was getting up unsteadily. No problem, just leave everything to me and Konoha and it'll be over instantly—Haruaki said to her in his mind.
In order to perform the «Sword-Kill Counter» to destroy the enemy's weapon in one strike, Konoha's highest-level concentration was needed to see through the opponent's movements and find the perfect "opportunity." In other words, a certain amount of close quarters combat was necessary to discover the enemy's attacking habits. During this time, Konoha's body-controlling powers would decrease, thereby increasing Haruaki's risk—But since Fear was present, she should be able to cover them.
Just as her drill clashed with the sword, Fear glanced towards Haruaki and Konoha.
"Be careful, this girl is very strong!"
"We won't overextend ourselves!"
Saying that, Haruaki rushed into the fray. Just as he was about to swing the Japanese sword towards Kokoro—
"Oh, that thing is..."
Unexpectedly, Kokoro stopped engaging Fear and retreated backwards greatly instead. Seeing her pull back, Konoha displayed alarm and intrigue while Haruaki halted in his steps. Tapping the weirdly designed sword on her shoulder, Kokoro narrowed one eye as though she were winking.
"The boy and katana combo huh... It's that thing, the special move called the «Sword-Kill Counter», right? As much as I'm curious about what kind of move it is, I'd be in real trouble if this sword were to be broken."
She already knew? Haruaki stared wide-eyed. Rather than surprise, Konoha's voice expressed suspicion more.
"I don't believe I exhibited this move in front of Satsuko and Fourteen..."
"Kaha, this is information obtained through other channels. Indeed, those two are my favorite juniors but the Draconians do have many other members."
"Really? Fine, if you don't want that sword to break, you can also re-sheathe it. That simply changes my slicing target from that sword to your bones. Even if you're unarmed, I shall not show any mercy."
"I can't believe you didn't say you'll kill me, how naive... So be it, I have no intention of fighting unarmed. Neither will I show any mercy."
While saying that, Kokoro turned her face and directed her gaze towards an apparently seldom used vending machine as though thinking: This should do? Nodding slightly, she approached it—
Accompanied by sharp ear-splitting noise, she swung her weird sword and destroyed the vending machine. Instantly, electronic sparks flew while juice cans and coins rolled over to Haruaki's feet.
"W-What are you doing...?"
Kokoro stabbed her sword into the vending machine's remains. It felt like the mechanical ornaments on the sword were making an operating sound while the organic accessories were making groans of pain like the dead. Then—
"...«Ceremony Dedicated to Mary, Inorganic Trial No.4235»!"
While she murmured lightly, the vending machine's remains began to move noisily on their own. The vending machine's original parts and structure were raised by an invisible hand and forcibly reassembled together. This scene of the parts' strange and complex reassembly somehow felt reminiscent of what was seen during the transformations of Fear's cube.
The inorganic and mechanical parts were gathered to form a giant sword—slender with an acute tip and sharp components lined up in a row; its lower half consisted of a thick grip for easy wielding and a guard to prevent the hand from sliding from the grip to the blade.
No less bizarre than her original sword, this giant sword exhibited a sense of chaos and deformity and seemed large enough to chop a horse in half with a single swing. Simply judging from the saw-toothed blade formed from the forced assembly of components, it was not particularly sharp but the mass exhibited by this steel-colored weapon seemed fully sufficient to overcome this shortcoming.
Kokoro returned her original sword to the rectangular scabbard and used both hands to grip the giant sword made from the vending machine remains.
"Basically like this. Okay, let's try it out. We still haven't fought enough for me to judge you guys' strength."
"Is that a curse's power? I don't quite get it but you'll surely regret later that you didn't run away sooner!"
"Fear-san, you're underestimating the enemy too much... Seriously enough, it can't be helped. We're up too!"
Haruaki and Fear rushed towards the enemy together, closing in on Kokoro who was wielding the giant wreckage sword. Seizing the opportunity when the drill clashed violently with the wreckage sword, the Japanese sword made a forward thrust. However, Kokoro withdrew the wreckage sword with high speed incommensurate with its large appearance and blocked the attack. To be able to swing this thing effortlessly, how much arm strength did she actually possess? Slicing through Kirika's extending belt and severing Kuroe's spears of long black hair, Kokoro proceeded to unleash a series of attacks towards Haruaki like a hurricane. This interplay of offense and defense persisted for quite a while—
"Oh dear... Another one... This kind of sword, completely lacking in aesthetic sense! Haruaki-kun, are you okay?"
"I-I don't think now is the time for holding back... Yeah...!"
"Rightly said. Well then—"
Kokoro made a thrust, but Konoha had already seen the warning signs. Having discerned the weapon's "heart," Konoha's true blade was instantly drawn from the black scabbard held in Haruaki's hand, unleashed with the intent of eschewing murder—
Although it was unknown what principles were used to assemble the wreckage sword, so long as it possessed a weapon's shape, a "critical point" must be present. Konoha's blade destroyed that point with unerring precision. This destructive force was transmitted throughout the wreckage sword. The makeshift greatsword, created from a vending machine's parts, scattered into hundreds of parts once more, collapsing in utter disarray.
Fear did not lose this opportunity and swiftly advanced from Haruaki's side, closing in on the enemy.
"Cow Tits, tell me beforehand if you're doing that...! Can't be helped, here I go! I'll be nice and not aim for your vitals, but don't move recklessly unless you want to get heavily injured!"
Without time to transform into a more merciful torture tool, Fear simply thrust the drill forward directly.
Then just as expected—No, completely beyond expectation.
The drill pierced Kokoro's body, skewering her thigh.
"Wow... It really breaks with a single hit. I see, what an amazing move. How truly impressive... In order to praise you, I'll be nice and move recklessly just for your sake."
"M-Moron. W-What are you doing...?"
Fear's groan was only reasonable, because Kokoro actually took a step forward towards the drill. In other words, the drill pierced far deeper than Fear originally planned—
Despite the furrow on Kokoro's brow, she was still smiling. Trembling all over, Fear pulled the drill out. There must a huge hole in the pierced thigh now, right? A natural shade of crimson was newly produced from beneath the hem of Kokoro's skirt, escaping towards the ground as it flowed along her leg.
"Hmm...? What, you're not going to press the advantage? Tsk, I'm getting a very boring sense of deja vu here..."
Now was not the time to be saying that, right? Haruaki thought. What on earth was she thinking? If the bleeding was not stopped soon, it would be dangerous, right? Or had she given up already—
But the time Haruaki suddenly noticed, a dramatic change had already occurred in Kokoro's appearance. A completely incomprehensible and bizarre phenomenon that mainly caused all the girls present to frown.
Kokoro's skirt had disappeared.
"W-When did you take it off? Are you an exhibitionist!? Ugh, that blood is in full view, I really don't want to look at it...!"
"Hey, shameless brat, stop staring so intently! Hurry and close your eyes!"
"As much as I'd like to do that, no can do, right!? Because..."
Something was not right. Kokoro definitely had not performed any action to remove her skirt. It had simply disappeared into thin air.
She only used her hand to press the skirt's fabric against the wound on her thigh.
A twisted grin on her face, Kokoro even used her palm to stroke her exposed thigh, in other words, the spot where the torture tool had pierced. The gushing blood was wiped away as the red surface spread out, then smooth skin appeared underneath. The wound Fear had created was no longer visible on her leg.
Hearing Haruaki's soft muttering, Kokoro made no effort to hide her exposed panties and straightened her back.
"Kaha, you must be shocked by this eye candy service, regazzo! Well, don't mind something so trivial! Because that's exactly what this «Bloodstained Reginetta» is about."
Kokoro was pulling her own sleeve while speaking. In response, Kirika frowned:
"Is that a Wathe as well...? Cursed clothing. Also... a wound-healing curse...?"
"Risposta esatto. I know that you are wearing something similar as well? Although its immortality function is inferior to yours, this is still quite a good item. It was originally a dress but was re-sewn into this form—Hmm, something more like a 'cursed cloth' now. Once upon a time, a woman began to wear that dress all the time after being praised 'red clothes suit you very well.' But she was actually deceived by the man who had praised her. However, the woman refused to accept the possibility, firmly believing that the two of them loved each other, treating his praise for the red dress as evidence... Hence, the dress was cursed as a result of her obsession. Then worried about her, parents or friends of the woman tried to take off her red dress. The instant the dress was ripped in the attempt, the woman died from shock."
Understood? Kokoro cocked her head.
"In other words, from that woman's perspective, the red dress had already become her own existence itself. This is the curse possessed by this cloth: The owner and the clothing become one organism. Since the senses are shared, I'll die if this clothing disappears completely. If ripped, I'll feel pain. For a normal person, simply ripping the clothing would probably lead to instant death? But since I've been training regularly, it's not a problem. Well then, since we have already melded together to become one organism—This clothing is also able to take on all injuries on behalf of the owner."
Haruaki looked at her legs and recalled the scene just now. Her wound had stopped bleeding and instead, her skirt vanished. Was that phenomenon the "curse" she was talking about?
"I believed someone once said that red is the symbol of blood and life. Hence, this red cloth has become the manifestation of 'life itself' for me. Simply by pressing it against injuries, it heals me. However, according to the amount of life required... In other words, the size of the wound, the red cloth's area is reduced in turn."
"I get it now. Just now, in order to treat your leg wound, you converted the skirt portion into life force, resulting in the skirt's disappearance... Something like that? So whenever you're locked in an intense battle, you expose more and more of your body as time goes on. This must be a rare item of boys' dreams~"
"How absolutely ridiculous. Although I'm totally not feeling proud at all, let me say this straight... Despite the similarities in properties and form, yours is a lower level Wathe compared to mine. Ultimately, so long as we keep injuring you, that red cloth you're using for healing will eventually be consumed. An ability with such limitations is nothing to worry about at all."
Kuroe and Kirika offered their comments. Kokoro laughed "kaha."
"Limited huh... Then let me ask you, doesn't a limit that can be replenished repeatedly count as infinite?"
Reaching towards the sack behind her, Kokoro pulled out a Santa outfit that used to be either Zenon's or Ganon's and casually pressed it against her lower body. Then for some reason—
This time, the Santa outfit disappeared without trace while the earlier skirt reappeared anew.
"An organism born from the union of two. In that case, it's not surprising that this clothing can eat like a human, right? Nourishment is very simple. Any red cloth will do. With that, this thing will automatically regenerate any lost area."
"Red cloth is its food... huh? I get it now."
"So do I~ The 'Santa Hunter' started appearing not long before that dark-skinned girl was attacked... Simply stated, red cloth is akin to herbs or potions for her, right? In other words, red cloth basically serves as the healing items she prepares before a fight. That red scarf is probably one of them."
"I... see... But—In that case! Before becoming the 'Santa Hunter,' you abducted people along with their red clothing? Couldn't you have just stolen the clothes? Why did you do that? Where are they now!?"
"Well, that serves as something like insurance. Because I had some free time before making contact with that hunter from the Lab Chief's Nation, it was a way to kill time as well. Basically I made preparations beforehand. Although the target could be anyone, I was thinking I might as well replenish my stock of red cloth as well, so I picked them based on the color of their clothes... Hmm, but it turns out I have no need for insurance or a restock of red cloth."
In response to Haruaki's question, Kokoro sighed, blinked and made an exasperated expression.
"Do I really need to spell it out? Although you mustered some energy as a result of anger... It's no good. I'm so disappointed that I'm ashamed of making all sorts of preparations beforehand. I deliberately extended my explanation with useless, rambling details, but why haven't you used this opportunity to launch a surprise attack? I was really looking forward to when you'd attack. Say, that katana looks like it's gonna puke, even you—Back when you pierced my thigh, what were you afraid of?"
Fear's shoulders shook. Then she raised her voice as though trying to cover up something:
"I-I'm not afraid of anything!"
"Really? Then take a better look at this blood. This is your handiwork after all, so you should be gazing at it more joyfully with greater pride, watching with greed and intoxication. Next, you'll make me bleed even more, right? I am your enemy, so that's only natural. After all, my wounds will heal so don't hold back. Don't sweat the small stuff and do whatever you wanna do. Pierce me as much as you want, stir as much as you want, let your emotions rise as high as you want!"
"S-Shut up, shut up...! Stop saying those... strange things...!"
Fear's hands were trembling, her face distorted. Rather than watching Kokoro, her eyes were focused on the color smeared over the tip of her drill, the color sticking tightly to Kokoro's white thigh.
She did not want to stare at or be aware of that red color.
Fear was being forced to look at them. She had no choice but to be aware of them, forced to stare at them.
Seeing Fear's response, Kokoro frowned and scratched her head gruffly in an unladylike manner while she looked up at the night sky in the alley.
"Ah~ Just as I thought... SO. TOTALLY. BORING~!"
She spat her words out one by one, roaring as though she were agitated from the bottom of her heart. Then she stared with displeasure at the group:
"Seriously, this is such a killjoy. Whether the hunter from the Lab Chief's Nation or the cube for torture and execution... I already went out of my way to visit, so let me play to my heart's content... Ah~ Damn it, this really can't be helped. As much as I hate letting things drag on, I guess there's no other way."
Next, she turned around decisively and headed towards—
Zenon and Ganon, still unconscious on the ground.
"Hold it right there!" "Yeah, what she said!"
Gasping, Kirika and Kuroe both extended their weapons. However, Kokoro drew her strange sword from the cuboid scabbard again and severed the belt and the hair. Haruaki also dashed forward but could only count on limited assistance from Konoha who was enduring the smell of blood. I'm not going to make it!
Who knew where Kokoro harbored such brute strength in her body, but she loaded up Zenon and Ganon onto her shoulder together.
"W-Wait up...! What are you planning to do with them!?"
"Huh? Simply stated, they are hostages. Nothing more than hostages. I've heard a bit about you guys from Satsuko and Fourteen. You seem to be very considerate of your friends? In that case, this should motivate you to bring out your full power and become a bit stronger? Otherwise, I'd feel really troubled. The time will be tomorrow night... What a pain, let's just make it midnight. The place will be—There's a place out in the countryside that's like an abandoned factory, right? Go there or else I'll kill these two. For the next day or so, go ahead and imagine bad outcomes and accumulate as much resentment, hate and anger as possible to make you serious. Who knows what I'm gonna do... Perhaps I'm a lesbian? Or maybe I'll enjoy these two sisters simultaneously? Stuff like that~"
Ending with extreme melancholy, Kokoro finished speaking and broke into a run. As a final struggle, Kuroe and Kirika attacked once more but the hair and the belt were sliced just as before. With unsteady footsteps, Fear threw out the wheel of torture but it was deflected back. Haruaki's speed could not catch up with her. Damn it, was there no other way to stop the enemy—Just as Haruaki thought that, a certain dark-skinned being stirred in the corner of his vision.
Having put the weird sword away, Kokoro turned her head back and caught a small object that was flying towards her. An oval-shaped machine component. This was probably one of the vending machine parts that Un Izoey had grabbed with her foot and thrown towards the enemy like an arrow.
Kokoro only stopped for an instant to look briefly at the machinery fragment. Laughing nonchalantly:
"Hmm... Oh, I'd have no complaints if you could get serious. After all, you're my initial target, hunter. I have such great hopes for you... Oh crap, I almost forgot because I was so surprised by how weak you guys are. You're carrying something that looks like a cube, right?"
They did. It was the cube that Un Izoey had snatched and was now being kept in Fear's possession. The cube that allegedly granted mankind's greatest wish—the ability to bring the dead back to life.
"Hmm, looks like you still have it. That's great to know. You guys probably have one or two people you'd like to resurrect, right? Although I originally wanted to keep it for my own use—"
"S-Stop talking nonsense! As if... anyone... would use that kind of thing!"
Fear bit her lower lip and roared angrily. Kokoro cocked her head in puzzlement.
"I have no idea how it's used, but it's cursed, right? In any case, nothing good will surely come out of it! Also, Aiko's not dead... Absolutely... She's still alive...!"
"What a weird girl you are. Why do you sound like it's unforgivable to even consider the possibility of that person's death? Although I don't quite understand, is someone currently in a half-dead state? Like a vegetable or something? Hmm~ Anyway, that thing really is an important tool that can make a dead person come back to life."
"Cut the crap and shut up...! Anyway, she's not dead so we don't need it!"
Fear yelled out emotionally while she pressed against her chest that was hurting from Kokoro's words.
Haruaki could understand Fear's feelings, but at the same time, he felt doubtful. Even himself, he was trying as hard as he could not to think about the cube or the unease surrounding Aiko. He was trying his best not to consider the possibility that she might not wake up again.
However, Haruaki felt that Fear was taking things even more extreme than him. All along, she was convincing herself not to consider that possibility, even going so far as to think she would rather die than accept it. It was a minor difference but one that held monumental significance. Haruaki recalled what Fear's attitude towards the cube this morning when she deliberately downplayed its existence. Back then, he had also felt a sense of dissonance.
Of course, he hoped that Aiko was still alive and did not want to use the cube. But could Fear's attitude be explained simply through this obvious reason—?
But Haruaki only had an instant to ponder this question that had no answer as he watched Kokoro shrug with disinterest.
"Don't get so worked up. How incomprehensible. Anyway, I just wanted to say, that object is precious enough that I want to to keep it by my side at all times. Although I could take it back by force right now, it's too troublesome. Don't forget to bring it with you tomorrow. That's all. Ciao."
She spoke casually as though it were an afterthought.
Then carrying those two people, Kokoro disappeared into the darkness of the night.
"Damn... it... A day for... wishes to come true... What a load of rubbish...!"
Fear took the envelope containing the hard-earned wages for her part-time job and smacked it hard against the table. The sound reverberated inside the quiet living room of the Yachi residence and slowly dissipated.
Earlier, they had tried their utmost to chase after Kokoro but still could not locate her. During this time, the cake shopkeeper had been looking for them due to their sudden disappearance and happened to call. To avoid worrying the shopkeeper unnecessarily, they had no choice but to return to the cake shop to formally conclude their job. As for Zenon and Ganon who had disappeared together with their Santa outfits, they could only make up some cliched excuse to gloss over the issue.
"This is the absolute worst... Christmas. With this, Zenon and Ganon..."
"It's all... my fault. I shouldn't have asked them... if they wanted to wear Santa costumes... That's right, I'm such an idiot. Since we were planning to bait the 'Santa Hunter' into making an appearance, wearing Santa outfits naturally resulted in greater risk...! How could I have overlooked this point? Damn it!"
Haruaki clenched his fist. In front of him was a cup of tea that Konoha had brewed to help calm him down—But he currently had no mood for tea at all. Haruaki could not tolerate his own stupidity at all.
"It's not your fault alone, Haruaki-kun. Of course, I would have stopped them if I felt it would be dangerous. I originally thought that since we were working together, it would be impossible for them to be targeted and was carelessly negligent... I am responsible too."
"I just think that it's totally unproductive to point fingers and lay the blame at this point..."
"Kuroe-kun is right. Right now, we have other problems to contemplate."
Haruaki was currently thinking about two people. Zenon, who always acted calm and collected, greeting them with gentleness every time they visited the superintendent's office. Ganon, who always acted like a school physician whenever they were injured, helping them bandage and treat their wounds despite her favorite catchphrase of 'so tiring.'
"...There's nothing to think about. What we need to do is rescue the two of them. If she wants a fight, then so be it, let's go. When the appointed time comes, we must show our true power and defeat that girl...!"
"That's all we can do. For that purpose, what we must do first... is definitely not hammering the table."
"I know... We should get rested and save up our energy first."
Saying that, Fear stood up. Call me if there's anything—Leaving these words behind, she left the living room. A while after the sound of the sliding door was heard, Konoha turned to Haruaki, displaying a gentle smile that might have been made deliberately:
"Haruaki-kun, it's probably best if you go to bed now."
"But... I can't sleep, the way things are currently..."
"You must sleep even if you can't. Go take a bath first if you need to, then please lie down and close your eyes. If you're out of energy, Haruaki-kun, even with my assistance, your movements will be sluggish. Do you really want to go save Zenon-san and Ganon-san in that kind of state?"
Despite her gentle demeanor, there was a certain forcefulness that compelled obedience. Evidently, her words were very correct and strict.
"I get it... I'll go to bed. As for a bath... Never mind... for today..."
Despite feeling Kirika's gaze that seemed as though she wanted to say something, Haruaki had no energy to strike a conversation with her. Walking past Kuroe who was pondering something blankly and Un Izoey who was staring at the ceiling expressionlessly, Haruaki left the living room as well.
While walking along the corridor to his bedroom, Haruaki heard a thud from Fear's room. It sounded like she was throwing her pillow or beating on it. Haruaki halted before her door, hesitated for a moment but did not call out to her in the end.
...Because he was most likely going to do the same thing once he returned to his room.
Lying on the futon, Fear was gazing up at the dark ceiling.
She was unable to sleep. She could not possibly sleep.
However, recovering her energy was necessary. She must sleep even though she could not fall asleep. Feeling unmotivated to retrieve the pillow she had thrown just now out of extreme frustration, she casually tossed and turned. Then a certain object by her pillow side leapt into view.
Right—She remembered and smiled with slight self-mockery.
This was the sock she had prepared several days earlier. However—
(Santa Claus... Definitely won't be coming.)
It was said that he only visited people who were asleep, which meant that he was probably not going to visit her since she could not sleep. Even if he arrived, Fear would surely grab him tightly and not let go, then—No matter how great a present he brought, she would disregard it and complain to him greatly.
Complaining: This isn't what I want right now.
(Ahhh... I'm so... stupid and willful... I'm totally not... a good girl...)
Hence, he definitely was not coming. He was not visiting someone like her who was always harboring troublesome wishes. Rescuing Zenon and Ganon, lifting her curse to become like a human, seeing Aiko again. See, these were all so troublesome. Each and every wish could not be easily realized.
Santa Claus was not coming, neither was anyone going to fulfill her wishes. In that case—
She could only count on herself.
Fear gripped the Rubik's cube in her hand even harder as she glared viciously at the ceiling.
Glaring at the ceiling where Santa Claus was not going to descend.
Returning to the guest room with the Japanese sword's incarnation, Un Izoey found the room in the same state as when last night's intruder was repelled—with a large hole still in the ceiling. This is also because of me—Un Izoey thought.
She could hear the Japanese sword sigh lightly behind her. Clearly now was not the time for this—That sort of sentiment was being expressed by that sigh. Thinking from her standpoint, indeed, compared to monitoring Un Izoey, she would rather rest properly in preparation for the battle tomorrow.
However—This was all meaningless.
Un Izoey remained in one spot. Without getting into the futon that was laid out on the tatami floor, she simply stood.
"...What's the matter?"
"My question: I ask if that boy has already slept?"
"He should be sleeping in his room... What about Haruaki-kun?"
Perhaps because the conversation was related to him, the Japanese sword behind her answered in a stiff tone of voice.
"Then I judge that I need not worry about him anymore. My wish: please allow me to do an action. Please permit me to do pamakupeya."
"Pama... what did you say?"
"...I have no knowledge how to express correctly in Japanese. I don't know if this concept exists or not. However, if I had to say it—indeed—"
What was the right word that could describe the act she should be doing next? Un Izoey searched for a similar term. She knew the word for doing the same thing under sunlight, so substituting the idea—
"Should be moonbathing."
"What... In terms of Japanese, I'm not sure if it really exists or not... Whatever, I get it. If it's just briefly, I'll let you do it."
Un Izoey nodded lightly and left the room. Naturally, the Japanese sword followed behind her. Opening the glass door leading to the veranda, Un Izoey walked barefooted into the garden without putting sandals on.
"Ahhh, seriously... Please remember to wipe your feet before entering the house. By the way, why do you need to be concerned about Haruaki-kun's whereabouts when you're moonbathing—"
What strange words she's uttering—Un Izoey thought to herself. I do have some sense of shame at least.
Next, Un Izoey stood in the center of the garden, in that space illuminated by the cold moonlight—
Then she began to strip.
"Wha... Hold on...!?"
She could feel the Japanese sword's incarnation watching her uncomfortably while paying attention to the direction of the boy's room from time to time. Meanwhile, Un Izoey took off all her clothing, rendering herself completely nude. The wind, colder than anything she had ever felt in her birthplace, brushed against her naked skin.
She gazed up at the night sky above. Just like in her homeland, the moon was giving off radiance. Spreading her legs slightly, she stood on the ground. The land remained firmly composed just like in her homeland. Closing her eyes, she experienced everything.
The cold wind caused her hair to sway lightly. The atmosphere embraced her chest. She focused all these sensations into her navel. Similarly, she felt the ground's texture beneath the soles of her feet. The grass' breath and the earth's presence rose up along her feet. Covering her ankles, moving along her thighs, gently caressing her lower abdomen, the world's energies were reaching her navel.
Circulation followed by acceptance. She believed this was necessary.
She believed that having become weak, she could only rely on these things.
For the girl who was watching this scene, from those girls' perspectives, this was probably impossible to understand. They probably considered it a primitive ritual without actual effect. That was fine. It simply implied that to them, this was a type of unknown.
The man, who had told her about the struggle between the known and the unknown, surfaced in her mind.
He had not rejected the tribe's rules and rituals. He had said: Just as my knowns are your unknowns, your knowns may also be my unknowns. How very interesting. Perhaps there really is a power there. So long as there's an unverifiable unknown, I will never reject your perspective—
Precisely because she had heard him say that, she was doing this now. Even if only just a bit, she hoped to obtain power.
Facing the pure moonlight, Un Izoey spread her arms wide.
I am cursed.
Although she did not wish to remember that particular instant which had been carved into her mind, she still recalled it. She had entered the battle as a warrior while the Lab Chief's younger sister had mustered everything she had to fight back, doing that for the sake of victory. This was the curse she had bestowed. Nevertheless, Un Izoey did not hate her for that. It was only natural for a warrior to make use of everything to secure victory. She could only blame her own carelessness.
Everything stemmed from the fact of her being cursed. Her entire pace had been ruined because of that. In her current state, she probably could not even catch an elderly rabbit. So weak. Her cursed self was so weak.
If she were strong, there would be no problem. In order to shoulder her responsibilities, she had only one course of action. Namely, to retrieve her mighty strength. Even if she started now, could she still make it in time?
No, she had to make it in time. There was no choice but to make it in time.
(Ahhh seriously, hurry and put on some clothes. If Haruaki-kun were to wake up, then what...!?)
Konoha monitored Un Izoey for quite a while, her heart racing in trepidation. After a while, Un Izoey slowly turned to face her once again. Standing in a natural posture over there, her dark-skinned body was laid completely bare and exposed in full view under the moonlight, unconcerned with Konoha's gaze. At least cover up with a hand or something—Just as Konoha thought that, she suddenly came to a realization. Un Izoey's eyes were originally devoid of emotional fluctuation but looking at them now, they seemed to be seriously trying to convey a certain message.
"I understand your wariness. However, I judge the current situation is not a situation to be concerned with that. My danger: the fact enemy is targeting opportunity. Therefore—"
Maintaining eye contact, she continued in a calm tone of voice:
"My demand: please return weapons."
"I know what you're trying to say. The Draconians' targets include you. In order to engage the enemy, you need weapons. Nevertheless—I'm sorry but I still cannot trust you completely."
"I vow: even after getting weapons, I will not attack your side, this kind of vow."
"I already said no, even if you say that..."
Un Izoey exhaled. Then Konoha heard it.
A sincere voice, filled with determination.
"Then—if no matter what, you won't believe me, use your sharp blade to kill me now is fine. As you can see, completely unguarded state right now. I gladly accept."
"My judgment: that Draconian is very strong. The next time attacked, unarmed will lose without a doubt. Since turning into corpse happens eventually—Turning into a corpse here right now is the same."
"...Are you serious?"
The gray hair shook up and down. Konoha shrugged and sighed in shock.
"I really hope you're just spouting Japanese that you don't understand completely. It's not like you're Ueno-san, to think you'd utter such stupid words, truly incomprehensible. Putting that aside, your complete nudity is starting to make me feel embarrassed instead, so hurry up and put your clothes on—"
While speaking, Konoha made a thrust with her knife hand without any warning at all.
She aimed straight for the vital among vitals, namely, the heart.
Un Izoey still did not dodge. Completely motionless.
At the very last moment, Konoha bent her fingers and did not allow her barehanded thrust to complete its mission of gouging the heart out. A red line appeared on top of that dark-skinned bulge. Because she did not wish to see it, Konoha did not look. Rather, she returned Un Izoey's gaze that was focused intently on her—Then she sighed.
"...I understand now. After all, these are exceptional times."
"Very thankful for your understanding."
"However, I must still warn you not to try anything reckless. Even with your weapons returned, we won't be defeated so easily by you. Also, although it shouldn't be necessary to state explicitly—Should you dare think of doing anything to Haruaki-kun..."
Konoha slowly opened her tightly clenched fist then traced her fingertip lightly across the shallow incision she had just made. The dark-skinned curve shook slightly and a groan was heard.
"I shall murder thee. Thou shouldst know very well the sight of an disemboweled beast, uncivilized hunter?"
Good grief—Konoha reduced the pressure in her glare and stepped back. "Anyway, put your clothes back on first." After she said that, Un Izoey obediently picked up her clothes and put them on... Although it was completely unimportant, Konoha wondered if those panties felt uncomfortable, buried deeply between her butt cheeks. As soon as Un Izoey was dressed, Konoha took out the knife, elastic bowstring, handcuffs and key that she kept in her pocket at all times and handed them back. Un Izoey returned the knife to the holster beneath her skirt and wrapped the bowstring around her left big toe with great familiarity, then applied the handcuffs to one hand only.
"I really couldn't keep the darts with me so I hid them in my room. Follow me."
"...Entering the house is double waste of effort. I decide to give up."
A double waste of effort? Konoha pondered the meaning of those words. If entering the house was a waste of effort, it meant that Un Izoey still had other things to do outside. That would be—?
As Konoha finally realized the meaning, Un Izoey sprang into action at the same time. Click, she snapped the other side of the handcuffs to the second hand. In other words, she was back in the combat stance she last displayed at the cultural festival—
"Very unfortunate, I judge this is a very naive judgment."
A dark-skinned thigh lifted up as she drew something out from beneath her skirt.
Despite being of one color, the flash of solid silver flying forward did not meld with the moonlight.
A certain metallic clang caused Haruaki to wake up and open his eyes. This was a familiar sound that he had heard many times to this date. It was the noise made when two metallic objects collided.
Frantically, he flipped the blanket over and rushed out of his room. The noise originated from the garden.
Incomprehensible, without any prior warning signs. Neither could Haruaki deduce the intentions behind her current behavior. But right now, he was confronted with the sight of Un Izoey wielding a knife in her foot as she engaged Konoha in battle.
"I'm not sure what the situation is exactly but you've finally showed your true colors! Cow Tits, how did you let her steal back her weapon!?"
Perhaps having heard the same noise, Fear also rushed out of her room. Figuring out the situation instantly, she transformed her Rubik's cube into the hatchet and charged into the garden.
"I did deliberate over it...!"
"I don't want to listen to your excuses, dummy!"
Un Izoey blocked their attacks with the knife in her foot while slowly retreating. At this moment, the window in the accessory dwelling opened and Kuroe jumped down into the yard with a frown. Kirika soon ran outside as well.
"Un Izoey! You're still our enemy after all, aren't you!?"
Kirika's expression instantly turned grim as she extended the «Tragic Black River» with frightening momentum. Brandishing her knife as though she were dancing, Un Izoey performed a back flip, landed on both hands and jumped vertically with great force.
Silently, she landed on top of the boundary wall. Closer to the moonlight, her gray hair and dark-skinned complexion were illuminated dimly. Standing at that height, she looked down at Haruaki's group without saying a word.
Kirika gritted her teeth so hard that it almost produced noise.
"What on earth... are you trying to do!? What are your intentions!?"
"I give an explanation of not planning any scary plan. I just made a judgment—judging I should return to the Lab Chief's Nation. Reason: I give the reason that there is nothing to do here now."
"You're saying... You have nothing you need to do... What about the Draconians!?"
"Unrelated to me. The enemy chose me as target without consent. No duty to play with her. I ignore. If she chase again, then I will fight her. Whether the scheduled battle or the abducted normal people—My opinion: I repeat unrelated to me."
"Stop screwing around...! That girl only came to this town because you're here! That's why Zenon and Ganon were caught up in this! Everything started with you!"
"If I need to look for another explanation, I give 'I don't care.'"
Fear gripped the hatchet's handle hard. Stop screwing around—Haruaki secretly thought the same thing. How could it turn out like this? Although it was only for a few days, they had lived together. Despite how brief it was, they had also worked together. He clearly experienced that feeling as though there was some sort of mutual understanding.
"Then what about the superintendent... You have a letter to give him, right?"
"Current situation: impossible to complete. Since those two are abducted, even knowing his return date not possible. I give the judgment that new plan is needed."
"You mentioned that there's also... something 'you must find out,' right? What about that?"
Only after hearing Kuroe's question did Haruaki realize that Un Izoey did not seem to have that notebook hanging on her neck as she stood on the wall. Was it because she no longer needed it? Un Izoey's next words served to further support Haruaki's speculation.
"From the start, no proof to prove conclusion correct that research theme is 'finding information about Sekaibashi Gabriel.' Also, even if correct, since those two are abducted, getting more information is difficult. Rather than waste time, I should return and ask for Lab Chief's directions. Very simple, just ask him again what I need to know, problem solved."
Hearing that, Kirika frowned for some reason. However, Un Izoey took no notice. Bobbing her gray hair up and down, she continued:
"My thanks: protection and treatment. But I don't plan to involve in more troublesome things."
"Honestly speaking, you're free to escape as you please—As much as I'd like to say that, we currently need manpower urgently. Since the Draconians' target is you, at the very least, you could act as bait to attract their attention. We can't let you go so easily."
Konoha took a step forward. Fear also transformed the hatchet into the execution stake and raised it above her head. Kuroe's hair began to writhe restlessly while Kirika's belt stayed on high alert. However, Un Izoey simply watched this scene calmly. Bending over slightly, she reached her arm towards her left foot.
"! ...I don't recall returning the darts to you...!"
"My hint: this is what I do when darts used up in middle of hunt. This is natural."
Pulling the bowstring that was wrapped around her big toe, she placed on it an extremely ordinary pebble that was most likely picked up in the garden while she was fighting Konoha. These pebbles would turn into terrifying bullets once shot using her arm strength and skill. Then right now, this bow was aiming at—
Konoha chopped with her hand and struck down the stone projectile flying towards Haruaki. But Un Izoey proceeded to shoot even more pebbles.
"Yachi, get down!"
"Tsk—Mechanism No.23 hole type, thorned surface form: «Maranatha», Curse Calling!"
"Mode: «Cushioning Munemori»!"
Using her immortal body, Kirika hugged Haruaki and pushed him onto the ground. Fear held up the bed of nails to act as a shield while Kuroe extended a defensive net of black hair. Thanks to them, none of Un Izoey's bullets could strike Haruaki.
"Yachi, are you okay?"
"S-Sorry. Rather, are you okay, Class Rep?"
"Yeah, but putting that aside—"
"She escaped. To think I clearly threatened her that harshly already... Next time I see her, I'm not going to let her off that easily...!"
Konoha glared at the wall viciously. Just as she pointed out, Un Izoey was gone out of view. Not only Konoha but everyone else focused their gaze where she had disappeared.
"I originally thought... she'd stay with us until the end...!"
Kuroe murmured softly and returned her hair to its original length. Fear turned her gaze away from the wall while putting the Rubik's cube away. Bowing her head slightly, she spoke softly:
"No... way... I knew it all along. She is not an ally."
Kirika nodded in agreement. Expressionless, she seemed to suppressing something deep in her heart.
Sounding as though she were speaking for herself to hear, Fear added quietly:
"After all, she's someone from the Lab Chief's Nation."
"...As well as being a core member."
"And also part of those people who went as far as to lie about putting a bomb in the school in order to learn about my structure."
"It simply happened to be a lie. Those people are the type that I won't be surprised if they did it for real."
"And they even tried to take you back by force."
"Yes, I won't forget. I will never believe them again."
"Those guys really are the worst... So, I'm not shocked by this. Un Izoey is one of them, so she must be that kind of person. That's all there is to it. Indeed, that's all... there is to it—"
"Well said. They are the absolute worst. I definitely cannot approve of them. I can't possibly view them in positive light, neither can I understand them... But..."
For some reason, Kirika suddenly stopped speaking there.
...As though hesitating over a certain matter, as though troubled over a certain matter.
Several seconds later, she clenched her fist tight, took a deep breath and—
"But... That's not right! Ahhh, how absolutely ridiculous!"
Kirika punched the wall hard. This sudden action startled Fear, causing her to hunch her shoulders and turn to look at Kirika. Naturally, Haruaki and the others turned towards her as well. Keeping her fist against the wall, Kirika continued to breath out with agitation.
"Cl-Class Rep, what's with you? What's not right...?"
"Not right. Clearly not right. That girl—was lying."
Indeed—Kirika nodded. She frowned as though feeling disgust from the bottom of her heart:
"That Pakuaki loves learning new things and instructing others. The fact that he did not directly tell Un Izoey what she needed to find out... It means that 'the unknown of what she needed to find out' only held meaning if she discovered it herself. In that case, even if she asked him, I don't think that man would tell her. Because if he told her, then the unknown is transmuted into something completely different and worthless to know. Arghh, damn it, absolutely ridiculous... As much as I hate knowing, I still ended up understanding this. How absolutely annoying!"
Kirika bit her lower lip and continued:
"Un Izoey can't possibly fail to understand that Pakuaki is that kind of man. Precisely because she was hanging around him in the same organization, I can tell from her eyes. She sincerely relies on and understands Pakuaki. If someone like her were to go back and ask him what she should be finding out, such an act that runs counter to Pakuaki's intentions would be truly unnatural. At least, I can only ascertain that she's lying about her reasons for leaving."
"But... In actual fact, she did flee. Going back to her faction because of danger is only natural, right?"
"Even so, there's no need to lie, right? Why did she have to say that...?"
Konoha inclined her head slightly. Haruaki also pondered. Why? Reason. Cause. Incomprehensible. Then let's start thinking of possibilities. No way. Indeed. No way. Supposing she fled this home not for the sake of returning to the Lab Chief's Nation—what remaining possibilities were there—?
An ominous premonition began to occupy Haruaki's stomach. No way... How could that be possible...
"Muu... She lied... But in fact, she did leave this house... What exactly is she thinking...?"
Also contemplating the same questions apparently, Fear crossed her arms as she began to pace back and forth in the garden. However, she suddenly halted in her tracks. She seemed to have stepped on something. Bending over, she picked it up.
"What is this... Muu, it's this thing? How did it drop here...?"
Haruaki leaned forward to see what Fear was holding. It was the notebook that had been hanging on Un Izoey's neck all along until now.
"Oh, during the moonbathing... How should I say this? In any case, many things happened. Many things."
Konoha shrugged as though she were recalling a certain matter. Haruaki carelessly took the notebook from Fear's hand. Although he did not expect any message left behind, he still flipped through it to check.
Only the the first few pages had been used. Just as seen previously, her extremely distorted handwriting was used to scribble down various useless facts regarding the superintendent. On the last page where words were written, a line of even more distorted words read: "Secretary. Cashier. Very fast. Older sister. Drunk." During the Santa part-time job, she had also approached them sneakily~ Haruaki recalled.
The next page was blank. There really was nothing? Just as Haruaki was about to close the notebook—He suddenly noticed something...
There were signs that a page had been ripped off. Judging from the sequence, it was written on after the part-time job was over—
At this moment, Haruaki noticed something else and scrutinized even more closely.
On the page that he had originally deemed blank, in other words, the one that came after the page that was ripped off, there were faintly visible words. Haruaki frantically ran into the living room and spread the page out under the fluorescent lighting. Fear and the rest also leaned forward to watch.
In that instant, Haruaki remembered.
Un Izoey held her pencil like a child. Due to writing in that manner, she pressed hard on the paper; and due to pressing hard on the paper, she said that using pencil was better—
Precisely because of that, this resulted.
The words she wrote were imprinted faintly onto the next page.
"Towards the end, that girl... She threw something like an mechanical metal part at Kokoro, right?"
"A component shaped like a dart. If it's just a piece of paper, it's possible to pierce it and launch it towards the enemy like a letter delivered by arrow... An absolutely ridiculous deduction, however."
"Then—That Kokoro took a glance after catching it, right..."
Without a doubt. It was done during then.
Without letting anyone else know, Un Izoey had sent a message to the enemy.
Imprinted on the blank page that followed was her uniquely distorted handwriting that was no different from a blackmail note's.
Request. Push forward 24 hours early. I come alone.
The appointed date was tomorrow, right at midnight when the date was changing. Twenty-four hours early would be—
Haruaki looked up at the clock. The hands were now currently pointing at midnight.
"That... country girl... is really an inconceivably... great big idiot!"
Fear clutched the Rubik's cube tightly and stood up abruptly. Of course, Haruaki and the rest also got up to their feet. If one had to give a reason, surely everyone was the same.
Fear was right, Un Izoey really was an incurable idiot.
Even though she was not an ally—
Even though members of the Lab Chief's Nation could not be trusted at all—
They felt obliged to go give her a good scolding.
There was no time to care about attire or making themselves presentable. After calling for a taxi, they hurried over to the abandoned factory that Kokoro had indicated.
In order not to make the taxi driver suspicious, they got off slightly before their destination, then ran madly at full speed.
Ahead of them was a mechanical factory that had shut down a long time ago. Faint light was cast by a street lamp on the road in the distance. Combined with the fortunate presence of moonlight, it was not too dark to see ahead.
Traversing over a locked gate, Haruaki's group invaded the factory. Within the vast confines, countless pieces of scrap metal were left lying around. Most of these probably did not belong to the original factory but were dumped here illegally later on, resulting in a mountain of junk without any sense of unity. Automobile chassis without tires, rusted refrigerators, structural steel, CRT televisions without outer shells, bathtubs with residues of green water.
As soon as Haruaki's group reached their destination, the first thing they heard was simply a scream.
In other words—
They were too late.
"Good grief—I was thinking you'd get slightly more serious but you're still no good. The same goes for you... What are you afraid of? Hey, show me some spirit here and put in more force."
Un Izoey was lying face up on the ground with Kokoro stepping on her shoulder and the excessively decorated weird sword piercing through her wrist area.
Spurting incessantly and spattering outside was pain and suffering colored like the heart. Flowing across the dark-colored skin, the liquid also contaminated Un Izoey's hand. That hand was convulsing intensely due to pain as well as an even more compelling reason.
"Gu, ah... Gah...!"
"Where are you looking at, are you that concerned about your hand? Hmm? Your hand has merely been dyed bright red by blood, nothing special, right? Or do you have some kind of traumatic memory?"
Hearing that, Haruaki's group finally understood.
They finally understood why Kokoro could injure Un Izoey despite how powerful she was in the past, why Un Izoey's movements had become so restrained, why she lost balance so easily. Thinking back, she had seemed quite strange all along.
Everything—All of this dated back to the cultural festival when Kirika sought victory by forcing her to commit taboo; was that incident still affecting her?
"Huff, huff... Guh...!"
"! —Ohoh, that's right, that's right. Show me your perseverance, hurry...!"
Un Izoey kicked upwards while lying on the ground, controlling the knife that was held on the tip of her foot, stabbing into Kokoro's upper arm as though in retaliation. As Kokoro's arm dangled powerlessly, the knife continued to savor the sensations of flesh and blood by cutting sideways. Opening up the wound then turning back and forth, the wound was further enlarged.
"Kufuoo... Yes, very good, give me more. I want più, più, più! Don't sweat the small stuff, bring it on, bring it on, kahahahahaha! See, you're about to sever it. My arm is about to be cut into two! With that, you could very well win. Hurry up and show your true power!"
Blood gushed out like mad. The arm's flesh was ripped open. The whiteness of bone could be seen faintly. Due to the arm's own weight, the incision was pulled even wider. The interior of the organism known as humans was exposed. Kokoro was not only enjoying this abuse of the flesh but also twisting the weird sword that was stabbed into Un Izoey's wrist whenever the wound in her arm was being stirred. She seemed to be trying to use this pain to stimulate more of Un Izoey's battle instincts. Totally nauseating.
Nevertheless, when Kokoro's arm was roughly severed halfway, the movements of the knife wielded in Un Izoey's foot began to grow sluggish while the twitching of her hand further intensified.
Kokoro frowned and clicked her tongue with boredom from the bottom of her heart.
"A~Ah... So it's no good after all? How boring. Hey, why did you come alone if you're gonna act like this? Are you a moron?"
The gushing blood suddenly stopped. First to disappear were the sleeves of her red uniform, followed by the shoulders then even the fabric in front of her chest vanished—At the same time, the nearly severed arm's messy wound gradually healed up. Due to the cursed cloth's surface area being consumed to treat the wound, her upper body ended up almost unclothed except for underwear. Perhaps because she did not think it was necessary to stick to a uniform color scheme to that extent, her underwear was white. But due to the blood from her arm seeping to her underwear, it had acquired a slightly red color. On top of one of her well-developed breasts was a tattoo. Similar to Satsuko's tattoo but different, Kokoro's tattoo was carved using a dragon's «Jaws» as a motif.
Kokoro seemed to have completely lost interest in Un Izoey and did not deliver a final blow, simply withdrawing her sword directly. Then finally—she turned her gaze towards Haruaki's group.
"Hi... Whether this girl or you guys, you're all so impatient. I already picked tomorrow so go ahead and rest properly first. However, this does mean you should be highly motivated now, so it doesn't really matter."
While saying that, she pulled out a Santa costume from the sack on her back and pressed it against her chest. Using this as nourishment, her red uniform silently reappeared.
"Motivation? Of course... If you really want to see it, I'll show it to you! Stand right there and don't move!"
Her clenched fist trembling all this time, Fear kicked the scrap metal by her feet and charged forward.
"—Mechanism No.20 slashing type, great blade form: «A Hatchet of Lingchi»!"
Using the momentum from her rapid dash, Fear swung the giant hatchet. Kokoro evaded by jumping back lightly and landing on a small mountain of scrap metal behind her. Fear did not stop running and continued to chase her up the small mountain, swinging the hatchet—No, the weapon was no longer a hatchet.
"Mechanism No.22 bludgeoning type, spike-ball form: «Morgenstern», Curse Calling!"
"Kaha! So many variations, hey!"
Kokoro twisted her body while raising her sword up high as a shield, swinging it down to parry the spiked metal club's destructive force. Instantly, she frowned, most likely due to the strange sensation she felt through her hand. In the next second, after the spiked club was deflected, the scrap metal flew apart like an explosion where the morningstar had struck—Very likely, Fear's intended target was not Kokoro's body but the scrap metal underfoot.
All sorts of objects flew into the air. Broken CD players, air conditioner filters, bicycle tires. Then Fear acted even faster than those objects could fall—
"Mechanism No.21 hanging type, hook-claw form: «Spanish Spiders»!"
The countless scattered objects partially obscured Kokoro's line of sight. Making use of this instant of distraction, from the shadows of the stream of falling scrap metal, Fear extended several ensnaring hooks that were connected to chains. One of the hooks caught Kokoro's chest. Accompanied by the sound of ripping cloth, Kokoro's body was pulled forward at the same time. Victorious so far, Fear hastily transformed the torture tool again.
Seeing the drill hurtling straight at her, Kokoro swung her sword using pure arm strength alone and deflected the drill's tip by a hair's breadth. Fear clicked her tongue.
"Guh... Fufu, hahaha. Not bad..."
"What's not bad at all? Although only your clothes were damaged, you seem to be in quite some pain, right?"
"I've mentioned before, right? This «Bloodstained Reginetta» is another me. Our senses are shared. If the clothing is damaged, of course I'll feel pain... But more importantly, haha, you're really not bad. Compared to earlier, much better. Que splendida! I knew that angering you was a very effective move!"
"Angering us to make us serious is your goal, right? Then your goal is already accomplished! Until you're defeated, our wrath will not subside—So hurry up and release Zenon and Ganon!"
"Kaha. Yes~ I see... If you'll use that cube in your possession to trade with me, it's doable. Don't worry, I don't lie."
They already understood Kokoro's goal, perhaps understanding all too well. Basically, she wanted to fight strong enemies and make Fear and the others go all out. Zenon and Ganon should not have any further residual value for her.
Seeing Fear's gaze cast towards him, Haruaki nodded lightly. Konoha, Kuroe and Kirika did the same. If they truly believed that Aiko was still alive, there was no need for that "cube" at all. Furthermore, since it was a cursed tool, who knew what horrific tragedies would be caused by its use. Even though Haruaki himself was immune to curses, the more powerful the tool's effects, the greater the chance of the curse being invoked as the price for its power.
Yeah, that "cube" was not needed in the first place. There was even no need to find out how it was used. However, it was true that the desire to know existed somewhere deep in his heart, just like Fear who had involuntarily asked the attacker that night. Why was that? Because he was unable to believe with conviction, he wanted to find out about that cube's details? No, it was the opposite. Precisely because they were holding that cube in their possession, their conviction began to waver—Only because of that, they realized their conviction was not as firm as they believed, right?
Haruaki concluded it was the latter. What they believed was ultimately right. Aiko was simply sleeping. She was still alive. Perhaps this was self-deception, but presently that was the only thought permissible.
"No matter how special its power, I don't want to use a cursed tool at all. Furthermore, she's not dead. That girl... she's definitely... still alive..."
"Hmm? What's that?"
"...I-I'll give it to you... Keep your word!"
Fear took out the other cube from her pocket. This was the metallic "cube" that was slightly filthy. She tossed it towards Kokoro who gleefully caught it.
"I've returned it to you... Where are Zenon and Ganon? Hurry and release them!"
"I said I don't lie. I will release them... However, I've no idea if they will return or not."
Holding the cube in one hand, she turned around.
This space was illuminated only by the moonlight and the faint glow from the street lamp far out in the road outside the factory. The sound of someone stepping on scrap metal was head from there.
Next to appear were Zenon and Ganon. They were not tied up. Unlike their earlier appearance, they were no longer in their underwear but clothed sloppily instead. The two of them were standing there expressionlessly.
Haruaki felt strange. Why didn't they escape? Why did Kokoro say that she had no idea if they will return or not—
Kokoro waved the cube lightly in her hand towards them and said:
"Yo... Hmm, so this is what's known as 'just as planned,' right?"
Zenon answered: "Looks like things are progressing smoothly, how wonderful."
Ganon answered: "After doing something so tiring, some returns at last."
The two of them remained expressionless respectively.
What was going on? What were they talking about? The two of them, what, why, how—Impossible—
Impossible to believe. Haruaki did not want to believe. However, Zenon bowed her head apologetically and spoke as usual:
"My utmost apologies, Yachi-sama. Having deceived you all along..."
Then lightly pulling her collar open—
She spoke each and every word clearly and distinctly:
"We are members of the Draconians."
On her chest was something identical to the emblem carved on Satsuko's body—
A tattoo imitating a dragon's scales.
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