Leviathan:Volume 1 Chapter 1
Chapter 1 - To the Homeland Where There Are Dragons
It all started two months earlier.
Back then, the calendar read February.
That would be midwinter—Well, only inhabitants of the northern hemisphere would jump to that conclusion. At the time, Hal was actually in Australia on the southern hemisphere, and at a little coastal town to boot.
With summer in full swing, the sky overhead was blue and distant while the clouds were so white that they were dazzling.
Although the sunlight was quite intense, it added further to the liberating feeling of summer.
There was also the sea. A beautiful sea, navy blue and crystal clear, together with a white beach.
This was a town where one could take a quick walk to the shore and fully enjoy summer. Even if meant as flattery, calling this area metropolitan would be quite a stretch. However, it was not sparsely populated to the point that one would begin to miss urban life.
Tranquility in moderation. Comfort in moderation.
Hal's purpose here was work.
—Flying in from the moon and satellite orbits, the frequency of recent dragon attacks on urban areas had almost reached the level of sudden natural disasters.
As a safety precaution, local administrations in developed nations had written up tremendously detailed emergency evacuation manuals.
Furthermore, rigorous simulation drills were held at regular intervals to ensure flawless execution of evacuation procedures. This had already become the norm.
Apart from that, further self-defense measures would be desirable.
However, there were no military installations near this little town. In addition, despite being a coastal area, there were limitations in relying on the patrolling fleets of the TPDO—the Trans-Pacific Defense Organization.
Hence, it was commonplace for people to desire "assurance" unhindered by these conditions.
Hal worked for an organization whose main business was selling "knowledge" to these people.
Back when he first arrived here at the organization's referral, the southern hemisphere was still in winter.
During this period before the arrival of summer, Hal rushed all over Australia like the world-famous archaeologist and grave robber, Indiana Jones, and finally completed his mission. Having handed the obtained Grave Goods to local big shots, he was freed from his task.
He did not know if the ladies selected as eligible candidates would succeed in becoming witches known as "magi."
However, that did not fall under Hal's jurisdiction.
In the short term, all he needed to do was recuperate and enjoy this leisurely vacation without restraint.
Hence, he first went to a cafe by the sea. In the middle of slurping his mixed fruit juice, Hal received an incoming phone call that would disrupt all his plans.
The touchscreen-operated portable terminal displayed the caller's name.
Born in Georgia. Nicknamed Asya. Childhood friend. An unfortunate but inseparable relationship. For Hal, who did not have many friends, she was a rare case of a long-term friendship he maintained.
Touching the LCD, Hal picked up the call.
'It's been a while, Haruomi. How have you been, lately?'
The childhood friend's voice was both lovely and gentle.
In fact, she was also blessed with natural beauty that offered a perfect match for her voice.
But for some unknown reason, Hal found it extremely challenging to treat her as a member of the opposite gender. Maybe it was because he had often witnessed the way she wolfed down two-kilogram steaks while claiming "I'm lacking in appetite today" before finishing off another three plates of Korean-barbecued beef ribs.
In any case, to the childhood friend whose dreamy appearance only ran skin deep, Hal replied: "Good enough, I suppose. After all, I just finished a job."
'That's really good news. Well then, I happen to have a request fo—'
Beep. Hal disconnected the call.
Rather than a carefully thought-out action, this was a reflexive impulse.
'Could you please explain why you suddenly hung up?'
Calling again, Asya's voice still sounded adorable but now there was also something terrifying about it.
"Sorry. I couldn't help myself because you're like the monster that's trampling my paradise."
'That does not constitute a valid reason. And please avoid describing a young maiden as some kind of monster.'
"Then let me break this to you... As I've already mentioned before, my dream is to save up enough money to retire in seclusion at a quiet little town somewhere."
A light sigh was emitted on the other side in response to Hal.
'...Oh that one. If my memory serves me right, your target is to achieve your dream before the age of thirty-five, isn't it?'
"Yes. Then I'll spend the rest of my life freely indulging myself in my interests without doing any work at all."
'For a teenage boy's ambitions, that's severely lacking in the dream department.'
"Is it? On the other hand, I believe that as far as life's planning goes, there's nothing more dream-like than this. If you ask some pedestrians on the street, I'm sure many people will support the notion."
'Many people may agree, but I'm quite sure not many teenagers will be among them.'
Rather than caustic, Asya's tone of voice was indifferent.
She seemed to have had enough. However, Hal remained unfazed and continued, "In any case, that's my dream. My current location is quite ideal. This town offers just the right level of tranquility, it's comfortable to live in and has good proximity to the sea."
'By ideal, you really mean...'
"Yes. As a secluded residence, I think this place is completely flawless. Asya, I just finished a job and am now in a place where I can fulfill my dream. Wouldn't you agree that it'd be a most natural development if I want to take a vacation and have a trial run of my future while I'm here?"
'Speaking of which, it happens to be summer over on your side right now...'
"And yet you call at a time like this to discuss a 'request.' In any case, I'm sure it must be work related? That's why I hung up. In order to stop a certain insensitive monster from invading the sanctity of my paradise..."
'Please do not use a word like 'sanctity' to describe an excuse for slacking off.'
"I want to spend my time here lazing about like some sort of slovenly creature. Please find someone else."
The two sides had no common ground.
In order to overcome the impasse, Asya began to explain tirelessly.
'There's some personal research I'd like to conduct, so I plan to go to Tokyo New Town soon and use that place as a temporary base of operations.'
"Research, you say? And you deliberately go all the way to New Town?"
'Yes. However, I'm not too familiar with that city. I've also heard that SAURU does not have much staff there who could provide assistance.'
Hal and Asya both belonged to the research organization SAURU.
Undertaking the revival and research of the Metaphysical Body of Knowledge for resisting dragons, their mission was to promote this to the entire world—A secret association.
"The current Tokyo is nothing more than a regional city. I believe it has fallen into a deep recession, so having large numbers of staff stationed there is pointless," said Hal indifferently.
After the "Dragons' Return" and First Strike event over twenty years ago, the humans were forced into an unequal treaty, resulting in the establishment of over two hundred "concession" territories ceded to dragonkind.
The Tokyo Concession was one of them.
Currently, all the capital functions had been moved to central Japan.
'However, it would make a huge difference just by having one trustworthy companion by my side... Haruomi, you were born there, am I right? I also seem to remember you mentioning that you have a home there. So I wanted to discuss—'
"I haven't gone back for three years already. Neither do I have any intention to do so now," Hal swiftly rejected Asya before she could finish.
'Could you compromise a little on that point? Think of it as helping your childhood friend.'
"Friends are best kept out of sight, in one's heart."
"I don't mind if you call me a fiend."
'Then I won't hold back. Fiend, demon! You are totally human scum, the worst lowlife!'
"Hearing that from a young girl gets me a little excited."
'You're a total pervert as well!?'
'P-Please at least pretend to deny that last allegation!'
After grumbling at Hal's chuckling, Asya coughed and cleared her throat.
'In that case, Haruomi, let us have a chat about old memories. Do you still remember the time when we went to town by ourselves and ended up getting lost?'
"I seem to remember you were leading the way and took a wrong turn?"
'If anything, it was your fault for losing the map, Haruomi. Anyway, we were wandering about town back then, our stomachs rumbling with hunger.'
"Right, that's why I suggested: 'Given how cute a girl you are, Asya, all you need to do is plead tearfully and some benevolent adult or dirty pedophile will surely treat us to a meal, why not give it a shot?'"
'That's right, you said that... When clearly that kind of beggar-like behavior is totally unacceptable.'
"Rather than beggar-like, it's truly authentic begging."
'That's even worse! Putting that aside, back to the subject... Back then, by spending the little money I had to buy a hamburger, I was rendered penniless. Yet I divided my precious food and shared half with you to alleviate your hunger.'
"Hold it right there. From what I remember, your share was a lot more than half, you know?"
'W-Whatever. Anyway, roughly a half, okay!'
"Judging from your arguing, you're really doing this on purpose."
'...Please cast away those suspicions that are tainting our wonderful reminiscence. In any case, you understand now? After that, the bond we've built up has become our shared treasure. In order to respect that bond, shouldn't we support each other through good times and bad?'
"I think that reason's really stretching it."
'I don't care. Back then, you took away half of my food, Haruomi, so it's not fair unless you repay me accordingly!'
"...If I remember correctly, we were in Luxembourg back then?"
Hal attempted to recall the price level and local currency value from that time.
"A hamburger, right? Probably less than two Euros..."
'What's important is the benevolence of sharing roughly half of one's possessions with another. It's not very manly of you to calculate the value of a favor in terms of money.'
The above conversation led Hal to return to his homeland of Tokyo.
Despite going on a massive tangent filled with nonsense, Anastasya Rubashvili, aka Asya, was indeed Haruga Haruomi's old friend.
To be honest, Hal's true thoughts were "By this point, why bother going to a place like Tokyo..."
He had not returned all this time. Furthermore, despite being his homeland, there was no one waiting for him back there. There was no need to confirm this fact deliberately—That was what Hal believed.
However, his long and deep friendship with Asya prevented him from rejecting with that kind of reason.
Hal could only shrug and go "good grief" in resignation.
Hence, his vacation was cut short after lasting a mere three days. Hal started preparing for his return to Tokyo New Town.
On the verge of returning to his homeland, Hal had no choice but to finish handling a mountain of paperwork.
First of all, he contacted the Japanese headquarters of SAURU, the organization he belonged to.
"So that's how it happened. Although it's not my original intention, I have finally decided to visit my hometown."
'Oh dear, your long phase of living away from home is finally drawing to an end, eh?'
Making an international call from Australia, Hal explained the situation and reported his plans to return.
On the other end of the line was a woman called Hiiragi-san. Her voice sounded gentle and elegant over the phone. Hal could not help but describe her voice as noble.
She was the leader in charge of SAURU's Japanese branch in the Kantou region.
'Considering it's you, Haruomi, who refused to return no matter how much I tried to persuade you... This somehow makes me deeply moved.'
"I didn't run away from home. I'm simply making a living overseas."
'At your age, there are definitely plenty of alternatives to your pelagic fisherman-kind of lifestyle, aren't there? There's plenty of work in Tokyo too. You must have heard about the shortage of talent around here.'
"Yes, primarily from you, Hiiragi-san."
The speaker on the other side was Hiiragi-san, a member of the organization's core leadership.
Part of her duties involved referring jobs to SAURU members such as Haru and Asya. After receiving "requests" from civilian or state agencies in her area of jurisdiction, she would assign them to suitable members according to what the jobs entailed.
"'The lack of manpower is such a pain, so I hope you can help out in handling all the odd jobs and menial tasks. I'll order you around and make full use of you, so hurry back, will you?' —That's what you actually mean, right?"
'...Hold on, I should've expressed it far more tactfully than that, right?'
"You even resorted to tears once."
'My acting skills were clearly perfect that time... But you still remained unmoved, Haruomi.'
"Because the timing in the transition from your original subject of conversation to the outpour of tears was a teeny bit unnatural."
'Getting duped willingly is a show of manliness in times like those, you know♪ Oh right, before I forget it,' the crafty organization leader suddenly changed the subject.
'I've already introduced you to a high school that's on good terms with our organization, so you must attend school normally.'
'Of course. After all, you're an age where you normally go to high school to begin with.'
"I've totally forgotten about that."
'Forgotten on purpose, you mean? Don't just focus exclusively on being a treasure hunter. At least earn the high school credits you're supposed to have.'
"I'm not good at that kind of stuff. After all, I won't be making friends."
Hal's talent was in searching for the antiques known as Grave Goods.
Technically speaking, they should be called "magical apparatus for enshrined object emulation."
Due to being too long and unwieldy, the official term naturally fell into disuse. Instead, the colloquial name, slightly lacking in dignity, found widespread use. These were the objects that Hal would obtain by excavating, stealing and extracting from ancient ruins and historical sanctuaries, or by acquiring them from black markets where artwork and antiques circulated.
This was why Hiiragi-san called him a "treasure hunter."
Hal was not the only one talented in this line of work. It had been his father's specialty as well.
For the sake of securing whatever caught their eyes, the father and son would go as far as to run all over the world. Hal had been transferring between schools constantly on a global range.
Hence, his sense of belonging in the institution called school was rather weak.
'Don't give up before you start... But it's true that you're definitely a child who completely fails at reading cues, Haruomi. Even when there are hungry bears prowling nearby, I get the feeling that you'd still lightheartedly start a barbecue.'
"Rather than failing to read cues, I notice but deliberately ignore them."
'In other words, the problem lies not in sensitivity but sociability? Perfect. Then take this opportunity in the closed environment of a school to learn properly how to live in society.'
With this troublesome mission imposed on him, Hal finally returned to his home country.
The Tokyo New Town Special Economic Zone was formed by redeveloping the former administrative regions including the Tokyo wards of Kōtō and Edogawa, stretching all the way to the wards of Adachi and Katsushika as well as the southeastern part of Saitama Prefecture.
The Haruga home was situated in the Sumida Ward inside this zone.
It had originally been a grand residence designed in the image of a European mansion.
But perhaps due to being uninhabited for long periods of time, the house was no different from a derelict building. The garden was completely neglected as well. As much as the house remained intact, it had become something like a ghost mansion.
Hal cleaned up the house to a level livable for a single male, at least.
First, he made a rough sweep of the dust accumulated over the long years, doing some vacuum cleaning, cutting corners to a degree that would cause any neat freak to frown. Then he ventilated the interior and took out a simple bed to set up in the study—That was all.
Honestly speaking, it really was a sloppy clean up job...
"I've never returned to this home since Pops passed away," muttered Hal softly while looking at the study that had become his castle.
The sort-of magnificent bookshelves were fully occupied by the book collection of the Haruga family, a lineage said to have produced many a collector over the generations, although only few of them were from his father. Despite having read tens of thousands of volumes, he tended to digitize the majority of books after reading.
This naturally arose from a lifestyle of frequent relocations.
"Oh, so that's where Pops kept it."
Inside the study was a heavy desk. Opening a drawer, Hal discovered it.
A silver pocket watch. Hal had some recollections of it. During the last years of his life, his father often kept it by his side, staring at it with deep emotion. As a side note, this was no ordinary watch.
It was one of his father's tools of the trade, a "clockwork mage."
Having inherited the family business, Hal also treasured the same type of tool.
"This thing is really good, just as I thought. And you clearly said you'd give it to me once you're done with it..."
The silver watch was circular with a diameter of 10cm.
It was slightly too large as a pocket watch, but Hal still stuffed it into a pocket in his pants.
Even higher in quality than the one Hal was currently using, this thing was definitely going to come in handy in the future. However, Hal could not deny the fact that he was partially motivated by a desire to carry a memento...
Then Hal spread out some documents on the desk.
These documents were required by the school introduced by Hiiragi-san and had to be filled in properly. After doing that, he would also need to visit SAURU's one and only branch office in New Town to greet his contact there...
With a whole ton of necessary tasks to complete, Hal was quite occupied for days on end.
During this time, Asya finally arrived in Japan as well.
By the time that Hal had finished most of preparations for his new life, it was already April.
April meant the start of the Japanese school year--Having forgotten this kind of basic fact, Hal hastily changed into his uniform, grabbed his schoolbag and rushed out of the house on the morning of the opening ceremony.
Opening ceremony. New student orientation. Introduction to clubs. Official start to lessons. Etc.
After experiencing a first week packed with events, Hal's high school life entered its second week.
Kogetsu Private Academy. Year 1 Class F in the high school division.
Hal's seat was in the last row, next to the window. Sitting there motionlessly like a Japanese house spirit, he silently surveyed the classroom without conversing with anyone.
Lessons were over and it was currently after school.
Friendships within the class seemed to be establishing themselves smoothly.
Several cliques had already formed among the boys and girls. Staying in the classroom, they would either chat together or horse around, looking like they were developing amicable relations.
However, Hal was alone by himself.
This resulted from how passive he had been in approaching classmates ever since the start of the school term.
"Isn't this within expectations too?" Hal whispered to himself.
Ordinary people might feel uncomfortable in his situation, but Hal was completely unfazed. After all, his personality was not endearing at all, to the point that he would not be deterred by concerns regarding public image.
Today, he had agreed to help Asya out after school was over.
But just now, he received a text message from her saying that something had come up and she would be late.
Thus Hal was leisurely hanging around in the classroom.
While Asya was handling whatever she needed to do, he needed to kill time—
"Hi, you're... Haruga-kun, right?"
Someone suddenly spoke to Hal. The girl sat in front to his right.
Sporting short hair amenable to an active lifestyle, she looked rather cute.
"Are you free today? If it's okay with you, could you accompany me for a bit?"
"Sorry, I'm not free so I must decline."
The chance to get to know a cute girl—Failing to manifest such ulterior motives his heart, Hal refused her firmly.
As a result, the girl grinned with a look that seemed to say "Oh."
"Come on, don't be like that. All you need to do is visit our club room for a bit and leisurely fill out your name and class on our club membership form! After that you can be a ghost member if that's what you want, but if you're interested, you can come over after school for some fun or join in our regular weekend gatherings. Wouldn't it be nice to spend the days of your youth in a fulfilling way?"
An invitation to club activities? Hal nodded.
Were it not for this reason, this girl probably would not have tried to make conversation with Hal specifically, right?
It was only the second week, but this girl was already going around, trying to recruit members for the club which she belonged to. She seemed to be lively as her appearance suggested. Hal recalled that her name should be Mutou.
"And your club is?"
"The UFO Research Club. If we don't find two more members, we'll lose the room our club is using."
"Well, I'm not interested in chasing after flying saucers," replied Hal after hearing the girl bring up a club whose name sounded so suspicious.
"Everyone keeps saying the same thing. Looks like bringing boys over to the club room is already taxing the limits of my charm stat. But you won't even make a visit, Haruga-kun."
"I think it's not a bad approach towards recruiting members."
Mutou's sighing tone of voice instilled Hal with a sense of camaraderie.
Given appropriate suggestions, solving the problem should not be difficult with her level of energy. Hal tried the following:
"How about you don't take people to the club room and instead invite them straight to a three-day camp. After pushing them to their limits using hunger, sleep deprivation and psychological pressure, you can gently console your targets and make them dependent on you. To finish up, you can have them sign their names on the club entry form."
"No way, you're actually an unscrupulous person, Haruga-kun!?"
Hal had recommended a typical brainwashing technique, causing Mutou to jump in fright.
"Well, the method I recommended is actually the mildest one I could think of... I guess it's a bit too intense for Japanese schools?"
"I'm pretty sure that goes for schools in any country!"
"Anyway, a club that studies UFOs, eh? I thought such hobbies had already gone extinct by the end of the twentieth century."
"Eh, why's that?"
"Because we're currently in an era when dragons come flying from the moon, suddenly appearing in the sky..."
Hal pointed to the sky's vast expanse outside the window.
"I don't think the sky has any remaining space for unknown lifeforms from the universe to hover in flying saucers, whether Adamski-style or cigar-shaped."
"Ahhh, so that's what you're thinking of? Wrong, wrong."
Smiling, Mutou-san waved her hands to refute.
"The UFOs we chase are not flying saucers but the dragons you just mentioned."
Hal only needed to think slightly before understanding immediately.
The acronym UFO officially stood for "Unidentified Flying Object." It did not originally mean flying saucer but was a codename for unknown flying entities. In that sense, just as Mutou-san pointed out, the dragons were currently the biggest and most numerous UFOs.
"Then your club activities involve--"
"Yes, the study of dragons as lifeforms. See, although the government and the JSDF deny hiding and censoring information about the dragons, in actual fact, they are doing it. So in order to collect as much correct information as possible, we have to take action as civilian volunteers."
"Also, we basically have no concrete understanding of the 'serpents' humans use to repel dragons. Since it's not like they're shiny silver aliens from Nebula M78, there must be something kept under wraps, but they won't disclose anything to ordinary people."
To think the conversation would even bring up "serpents."
Hal was quite surprised. This happened to fall under his field of work, namely the Metaphysical Body of Knowledge that the research organization SAURU devoted its efforts to disseminate.
"Anyway, we only know that they're lifeforms similar to dragons... Also, they're guardian deities or biological weapons of war that are protecting humans for some kind of reason. Oh, by the way..."
Never expecting this type of topic to come up in conversation at a Japanese high school, Hal found it perplexing. While he was thinking that, Mutou-san continued.
"When dragons fly nearby, we also head out to high places to take images."
"You go that far!?"
"Yeah, then we release them on the internet. So, seeing as you've misunderstood our club activities, I'll ask you once more: Haruga-kun, would you like to join our research club? It's quite interesting."
Just as Hal was pondering how to respond, someone suddenly joined the conversation from the side.
"I know it's very impolite for me to interrupt your conversation, but please allow me to interject a few words."
The girl sitting in the seat to Hal's right had turned towards them.
Hal was quite surprised because ever since Year 1 Class F came into being, the noisily chatting boys and girls had rarely approached this female student.
Nevertheless, she was not one of those "unsociable nobodies" like Hal. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Precisely because her presence stood out too much, she became a "solitary person."
"Regarding your club, Mutou-san, I've been having the same misunderstanding as Haruga-kun. I never expected you to be a community that tries to contribute to society so seriously... I suppose this serves as an example of why we shouldn't make judgments based on preconceived notions," murmured Juujouji Orihime emphatically, the girl with excessive presence.
Due to the rarity of both her family and given names, Hal had retained a strong impression of her as well.
"Oh, it's nowhere as amazing as what you make it out to be... We club members only do it because we like it."
"Even so, your noble deeds are still admirable."
Although Mutou-san acted very modest, Orihime offered her praise generously.
Elegant, refined, graceful, magnanimous—
Various virtues typically lacking in high school girls could be found in Orihime's comportment.
Like Hal, she was seated in the last row at the back of the classroom. But unlike Hal who sat all lonesome by himself like a Japanese house spirit, Orihime's sitting posture was very upright as though she were a noble princess presiding over this classroom.
Paying serious attention to all lessons, performing gallantly during PE class to showcase her excellent athleticism and outstanding figure to the surrounding people, she was extremely capable and talented.
(So she resembles a princess not only in appearance but internally as well?)
Speaking of people whose personalities failed to live up to their appearances, Hal had his childhood friend Asya as an example.
Possibly, Juujouji Orihime was also—Hal secretly speculated. But imagining such things seemed too impolite. Hal silently apologized in his heart.
Unaware of Hal's thoughts, Orihime took out a B5-sized sheet of paper from her desk.
It was a club entry form. With beautiful handwriting, she wrote down "Juujouji Orihime, Year 1 Class F" then handed the form to Mutou-san.
"You need club members, don't you? I am willing to help."
"Eh, are you sure!?"
"Yes. I might have needed more time to think over the matter if you hadn't mentioned the option of being ghost members. But since ghost members are accepted, I see no reason to hesitate any further," said Orihime as she took her schoolbag and stood up.
"Oh, if it's okay with you, please feel free to visit our club classroom for some fun next time."
"Of course, if I feel so inclined and happen to be free. But I am quite busy, so I'm sorry I cannot readily promise anything. Please don't be too expectant," replied Orihime cheerfully after hearing Mutou-san's invitation from behind.
With these honest words without any nuance of sarcasm, Orihime quickly walked over to the classroom entrance. Her every movement was truly dashing and gallant.
"...Almost like a person from a painting," muttered Hal subconsciously to himself as he watched Orihime depart.
Curry shop, cafe, massage parlor, used bookstore, DVD shop, etc.
Anastasya Rubashvili aka Asya was currently on the fourth floor of a multi-tenant building. To be precise, she was inside a used bookstore called Mirokudou.
Even more precisely, she was at the cash register.
Nevertheless, she was not in the middle of a part-time job. Originally, she had simply come here as a customer.
Sighing lightly, sitting on the round stool, Asya turned her gaze to a book on her thighs. Two hours had passed since the shop manager, the only member of the sales staff, had asked her to help watch the store.
During this time, not even a single customer arrived. In other words, the shop was in a state of being open but halted in business.
As commonly seen in shops of this type where nary a comic book was put on display, this hard-line used bookstore had never undergone thorough organization at all. Books that could not fit on the occupied shelves were piled up haphazardly like towers of waste paper all over the store's interior.
Asya's appearance was very out of place in this old and filthy store.
She was a beautiful young maiden.
The delicate features of her well-proportioned face seemed somewhat dreamy while her blue-tinted silver hair also gave off an intense air of mysteriousness.
Her slender body looked fragile enough to break from a single hug. Naturally blessed in appearance, this Eastern European girl possessed a body that could be described as like a fairy's.
"Good work. You really helped me out by looking after the shop."
Kagetsudou's glass door suddenly slid open sideways as a young man entered.
The man had an elegant face that one could describe as handsome without feeling like a liar at all. However, his unkempt beard and wrinkled shirt made for a big minus on favorable first impressions.
Kenjou Genya. This bookstore's owner. A young man roughly twenty-five or six in age.
"This is a local specialty, curry bread. Consider it a gesture of thanks."
"Compared to local specialties, I'd prefer if you could have returned at least thirty minutes earlier," grumbled Asya while accepting the paper bag that was handed to her.
It was past noon when Asya had visited the bookstore to check out the latest shipment of used books. Then the young Mr. Kenjou had asked her to watch over the store. Thinking he would return quickly, Asya had casually agreed without thinking.
"Why did you spend two hours when all you did was have lunch at a curry shop in the same building?"
"Well, that's because I was chatting with the shopkeeper about 'How's business going?' and 'So-so I suppose' and stuff like that. Then after the meal, I read four sports newspapers while drinking coffee, which ended up taking quite a bit of time."
"Please find a better excuse than slacking off, no matter how true it may be. By the way..."
Asya peered into the bag of the gift:
"This appears to be baked curry bread... But compared to the baked version, I like deep-fried curry bread even more. If it's not too much trouble, please buy the deep-fried one next time. I enjoy the crispy texture of deep-fried bread."
One of Asya's talents was the ability to adjust to any country's culinary culture without any difficulty.
Having started living in Tokyo New Town less than a month ago, she had already reached the level where she was able to critique pedestrian bread varieties innovated by the Japanese.
"You're a girl after all. Try to eat a little healthier."
"Don't worry. Just as you can see, I've got the type of constitution that never gets fat no matter how much I eat," declared Asya as she placed her hand on her flat chest.
Despite ingesting vast amounts of food every day that would astonish any onlooker, her fairy-like body of fantasy never accumulated any weight in fat at all.
Nevertheless, Kenjou refuted her while making a fool's expression on purpose:
"Rather than constitution, it's thanks to the metabolism of your youth, isn't it? After a certain age, abnormal eating habits will reflect on your body all at once, you know? Especially Caucasian females, their body mass tends to expand sideways after they grow up, causing their overall figure to go out of shape."
"Th-That'll never happen to me! Absolutely never!"
Asya could not help but yell after hearing his offensive comments.
As a side note, her retort was completely baseless, no different from a spinal reflex.
"Putting that aside, Kenjou-san, I'd like this one and that one."
"Thank you for your patronage. It's wonderful that something managed to catch your eye, Asya-san," thanked Kenjou after seeing the secondhand books that Asya had picked out.
The titles were Nicolas Flamel and the Magic of Kings and Anthology of Secret Love Poetry from Past and Present. This unique combination comprised an ancient foreign text with a Japanese book dating from the early Shouwa period, but Asya was capable of reading both without any trouble at all.
Awakening as a witch conferred a number of special powers.
One of them was an exceptional capacity for linguistic learning. Even foreign languages with absolutely no prior exposure could be used as fluently as a mother tongue after merely two months of training.
"Can I pay the usual way?"
"Sure. Just transfer the funds into this branch's account before the end of the month."
Kenjou nodded in response to Asya's question for confirmation.
The Mirokudou was not just an ordinary used bookstore where business was slow.
At the same time, it was also a branch of the research organization SAURU. That said, this branch was so small that it could not accommodate more than eight assigned members...
"Although I've traveled all over the world, this is my first time seeing such a small branch."
"That's the way it is. This store was originally just a place for selling strange books about supernatural phenomena or purchasing them in return. It only became the branch office after the organization withdrew from New Town," muttered Kenjou after hearing Asya's comment.
The two books Asya had just bought were both part of the Metaphysical Body of Knowledge—in other words, books about magic written by "researchers" in olden times.
"Although my title is shop manager, I was originally just a direct subordinate under our boss—Hiiragi-neesan."
"Speaking of which, I noticed that this store only opens for business two days a week."
In order to access the store when the manager was out, Asya and Haruomi both held a spare key each in their possession.
Seeing Kenjou smiling lightly, Asya shrugged and asked, "Come on, SAURU is a global organization after all, isn't it?"
"Yes. But if a city doesn't have many of their members, the organization will only provide relatively lukewarm support for that branch. You see, isn't this what's known as a rational business model?"
"I can't believe that a secret association is devoting its efforts towards streamlined management, that's so mundane..."
"Despite having members distributed globally, the organization has nothing to do with the various urban legends about secretly controlling the governments of various nations. In fact as of right now, there are perhaps only three people officially registered with headquarters who are actually living in New Town. Me, Asya-san and—"
"Haruomi, I guess."
"Indeed, Haruga-sensei's son. You'll be meeting him shortly, right?"
"...What are you talking about?"
Asya immediately played dumb in response to having her plan exposed.
She was not committing a crime. There was no problem even if she told her plans to Kenjou.
Nevertheless, she tried to conceal the fact because she found it embarrassing.
Asya turned her body away unobtrusively in an attempt to block Kenjou's view with her slender body, preventing him from seeing the basket at the checkout counter.
However, the young man said tactlessly with great curiosity, "That basket is giving off the aroma of sauce. Is it a packed lunch? Did you bring it along in hopes of eating it together with that boy?"
"O-O-O-On what grounds are you making such a claim!?"
"Nothing much, Asya-san, I was just thinking you'd have finished the food during the time you were waiting for my return if the packed lunch were only meant for yourself. It happened to be noontime too."
Young Mr. Kenjou had gone out during 12:30pm to 2pm.
Asya's stomach had subtly growled dozens of times already to express her hunger. Ever time her stomach rumbled, she kept staring intently at the basket she had brought.
But each time, she was able to dispel the temptation by thinking of the childhood friend she was about to meet.
"P-Please don't get any strange ideas. My plan today is gathering research materials, not going to see Haruomi... Then I'll be off."
"Oh sure. Say hi to the boy for me," said Kenjou cheerfully to Asya while she was hurrying towards the exit.
Although the young man looked dense and idle on the surface, he definitely must not be underestimated.
After leaving school, Hal received a text from Asya on his cellphone.
The text told him that her task was done and also where they were going to meet. Hal originally expected a fast food shop or in front of the train station.
"Why are we meeting in a park?"
It was true that the weather was nice today and staying outside would not be unpleasant...
Walking, Hal made his way to the large park, located closest to Ryougoku Station.
Then only after he waited casually on a park bench for ten-odd minutes, Asya made her overdue arrival.
For some reason, Asya blushed red to her ears as soon as she saw Hal's face.
"I-I didn't come here to see Haruomi, okay."
"What nonsense are you speaking? Asya."
Hal made a jab at his childhood friend's weird murmurings.
Although the reason was unknown, Asya was acting awkward, looking very shy.
"You're the one who called me here, right?"
"Y-Yes, that's true indeed! But it's not like I mean anything special. Today, I simply wanted to ask for your help in research. The thought of going out with you, Haruomi, never crossed my mind at all!"
"I know that even if you don't explain explicitly."
Hearing Hal's calm answer, Asya inexplicably glared at him in anger.
Then she set her basket down hard on the bench.
"Anyway, wars cannot be fought on empty stomachs. Have some lunch first."
"Go ahead and eat if you want. I've already had lunch."
"—Haruomi, what did you just say?"
"Like I said, I already had lunch."
"I-I can't believe I endured so desperately, yet you already went ahead to have lunch on your own!?" said Asya while her eyes accused him of betrayal. Again, the reason for this was a mystery to Hal.
"Of course. I've been attending school obediently all this time, after all. Naturally, I'd take care of lunch at the cafeteria during the lunch break."
"No way... I was thinking you'd skip school for a whole week straight, Haruomi."
"Don't underestimate how serious I can be. However, I do intend to find a random excuse to transfer to a distance learning high school after going to school dutifully for a month or so."
"This type of scheming and lack of seriousness is certainly very much in your style, Haruomi... Oh, however."
With surprise showing on her face, Asya suddenly came back to her senses and said, "On further thought, Haruomi, you are a boy after all. You shouldn't have any trouble eating a second lunch. Come, let's have lunch together."
"Please allow me to refuse your kind offer. You made it yourself, right? In that case, surely as one would expect—"
Hal unceremoniously opened the basket.
Arranged neatly inside were sandwiches as the main course along with cooked vegetable side dishes and fruit.
Asya was not only a voracious eater but an excellent cook as well. However...
"Just as I guessed. What are you thinking, making all the sandwiches with pork chop cutlets as fillings? I just had a pork chop cutlet rice bowl for lunch, so this is a bit hard to stomach..."
"You are mistaken. Please look more carefully."
"Whether the golden color of the outside layer of batter, deep-fried to perfection, or the whiteness of the pork's cross-sections, there's no room for misunderstanding at all. A total of twelve pork chop cutlet sandwiches, am I wrong?"
Asya began to snicker in response to Hal's accusation.
"Although they're all deep-fried cutlets, there are a total of three variants: steak, pork chop and chicken. This is your chance to enjoy their respective flavors and textures."
Taking a closer look, Hal found the red meat of four deep-fried steak sandwiches mixed among them.
Hence, the two of them opened the handmade packed lunch on the park bench and began to enjoy a lavish meal—Asya's first lunch for today but the second lunch for Hal.
The weather was bright and clear with a gentle breeze. The spring sky was blue and refreshing.
Despite the excellent picnic weather, Hal's appetite was naturally quite subdued.
Trying to minimize damage to his digestive system, Hal went for the ratatouille and pickles.
"Don't just keep eating vegetables. You need your meat and carbs too. Compared to biased vegetarianism, a balanced diet is the shortcut towards good health."
"That's totally unconvincing coming from you," responded Hal to Asya's advice.
Then Hal finally picked up a cutlet sandwich and took a bite.
The noteworthy(?) first sandwich tasted of pork.
The outer layer was still moist despite the passage of time since the deep-frying. The pork chop was thick and chewy in texture, while the sauce was especially delicious. Only a mixture of store-bought sauce with ketchup and mustard could produce this type of complicated flavor.
The ratatouille serving as a side dish was also rich in flavor while the pickles were personally made by Asya herself.
To be honest, Asya was an excellent chef no matter how unflattering Hal's view of her.
"...So long as the choice of food isn't on the heavy side and the volume isn't so excessive that there are leftovers..."
"What did you say, Haruomi?"
"No, nothing. By the way, let me give you a bit of honest advice."
After she had consumed four deep-fried cutlet sandwiches, Hal said to Asya with a serious look, "I know that you're proud of your constitution that prevents you from getting fat easily, but that's only because you're young, right? We'll be in our twenties and thirties eventually. I think it's best if you start now to slowly get used to applying restraint, so that you won't have to worry about dieting in the future."
"E-Et tu, Brute!?"
"Why are you quoting Julius Caesar's last words...?"
Seeing Asya sulking dramatically, Hal cocked his head in puzzlement.
The contents of the basket were definitely in the process of decreasing. As a side note, out of the twelve cutlet sandwiches, Hal's share was three while Asya's was nine.
"By the way, how's Rushalka's condition?"
"Not too good... No, it's terrible. I fear that her days are numbered."
Asya answered Hal's question while she was eating.
Rather than consoling Hal, she probably hesitated for a moment because she wanted to say something optimistic to comfort herself.
But in the end, she did not do that. She had already prepared herself to accept the depressing ending.
Due to their deep friendship, Hal was unable to offer Asya comforting words irresponsibly at such a time.
Sighing, he changed this tone and said, "I see. She was such a good 'serpent.'"
"Yes, she was a reliable partner."
Hal was using past tense prematurely while Asya was presumably misusing it on purpose.
As childhood friends, the two of them had shared many joys and happy memories. The same went for unfortunate, sorrowful, unreasonable or irrevocable experiences.
Hal did not have the sentimental sense to offer appropriate remarks for times like these.
Hence, he silently chewed on the bread and chicken cutlet of his sandwich while sitting side by side with Asya.
It was the same back when they had met up shortly after the passing away of Asya's grandmother. Meeting up three months after Hal's father passed away from illness, she had also leaned herself against him on her own accord without saying a word.
Perhaps this might be what Asya called their "bond."
"Now that our stomachs are filled, it's time to go," announced Asya cheerfully, having finished lunch.
Hal could not sense from her body any trace effects of either the hearty consumption of nine cutlet sandwiches or the depressing subject of conversation.
Her tone of voice was the same as usual. On the other hand, Hal chose to nod silently in response and could not be bothered to speak due to his overloaded stomach. But ignoring the weight in his gut, Hal quickly stood up.
Although Hal and Asya were absolutely dissimilar, they did share one common feature.
Namely, neither of them was prone to the wasteful behavior of letting sorrow hinder their ability to take action. This was perhaps due to courage distilled from a life filled with danger and final farewells combined with their rugged personalities.
After the late lunch at the park, Hal and Asya made their way to the station.
Including the Yamanote Line or the Chūō Main Line, the majority of the rail lines formerly managed by business conglomerates had stopped running a long time ago. Nowadays, local residents were left with only the loop line encircling Tokyo New Town as well as what was left of the subway system as options for mass transit.
Hal and Asya’s destination was Shin-Kiba in the Kōtō ward.
While the train carried them along the New Town Loop Line, they were instantly presented with the striking scenery. This was because the Sumida River was visible from the elevated railway where the train was traveling.
"Oh right, it’s possible to see that side from these parts," mumbled Hal softly while holding onto the train’s ring-shaped handgrip.
Stretched out on the opposite shore of the Sumida River was the scenery formerly known as the Asakusa district.
Furthermore, there was the black pillar of stone, standing upright on the other end—
It was shaped as an equilateral triangular prism. The color was completely pitch-black without any impurity, giving off a lustrous gleam like obsidian.
This pure-black triangular prism was standing upright in a corner of what used to be the Chiyoda ward.
Despite its location, the stone pillar was still clearly visible even from the window of a train running along the Sumida River. Standing at over a kilometer in height, the stone pillar was a landmark dwarfing all tall buildings in Japan.
"As expected of a Monolith. These things stand out so much no matter what country they're in."
"That being said, it's not a pleasant scene by any stretch."
Hal and Asya sighed together after remarking quietly.
Concession territories ceded to dragonkind were scattered all over the world, numbering more than two hundred. Erected at each of these locations was the same type of ominous black pillar—the Monolith.
"Old Tokyo" consisted of what used to be Tokyo's hub area back when the city was still Japan's capital.
The special wards of Shinjuku, Chiyoda, Chūō, Bunkyō, Taitō, Shibuya, Minato, etc...
No longer inhabitable, this area was currently just an expanse of deserted wasteland as far as the eye could see, a "dead city."
Currently displayed before Hal and Asya on the opposite shore of the Sumida River was also Old Tokyo.
A cityscape was visible from the train window.
There was not even a single pedestrian outside. Every building was derelict.
All glass had been shattered. The streets were quite messy overall because there was no one to clean up. There was a lack of vitality but the sight of this unusual scenery gradually grew distant...
Because the train was leaving Sumida River and approaching Shin-Kiba.
Hal and Asya alighted at the Shin-Kiba Station.
Ever since the destruction caused by the dragons suddenly flying in ten years ago, this area had turned into land marked for redevelopment. This maritime territory essentially consisted of empty land as far as the eye could see.
Hal and Asya walked in silence.
Their destination was roughly ten minutes away from the station on foot.
Specially planted cedar and cypress trees formed a small patch of forest where a building, their destination, had been built. Its appearance resembled a small library.
However, there were no signs or direction boards to explain what kind of facility this was.
"Here is my identification."
At the reception, Asya presented a card that was the size of a business card.
There was nothing written on the card. Whether front or back, both sides were completely black. However, any person possessing magical sight would be able to see the blue and white pattern that was drawn on the black card.
An emblem consisting of two staves crossed with each other, surrounded by a circle formed from a serpent devouring its own tail—
This was precisely SAURU's symbol.
This mark belonged to the secret association and research organization that dedicated itself towards the research and proliferation of magic.
SAURU was the world's one and only think tank capable of establishing covenants between witches and serpents. This card served as proof of identification for SAURU's members.
The middle-aged man at the reception desk was dressed in an exceedingly ordinary suit.
Furthermore, he was wearing silver-rimmed glasses whose lenses were supposed to be enchanted. Hal also possessed something similar.
Witches were able to activate magical sight by using their naked eyes alone.
On the other hand, commoners must rely on enchanted tools in order to obtain magical sight temporarily. As expected, the middle-aged man simply glanced at Asya's card once before nodding to authorize her entry into the building.
"It'd be so much easier if facial recognition could be used almost all the time. But it's possible that people might not want to associate with suspicious characters like us," remarked Hal not long after entering the building, prompting Asya to respond immediately.
"Please don't include me so nonchalantly. Speaking of first impressions, mine are definitely much better than yours, Haruomi."
"Yeah. After all, you're an extremely cute girl."
"Eh... Jeez—Haruomi... Fufu."
Asya suddenly made an expression of delight as the corners of her lips curled adorably in a smile.
She had this weird habit of getting unusually elated whenever Hal complimented her appearance.
"Oh dear, but in your case, one begins to understand increasingly that the first impression is nothing more than an illusion as time goes by. Maybe you'd better work on addressing that a little."
"No, Haruomi, you're the one who should work on fixing your bad habit of elevating others with compliments before cruelly dropping them from great heights!"
Asya always flew into an instant rage whenever this subject was broached.
But today, she immediately calmed her fury and changed the subject.
"Ease of entry into this place would be good and all, but I think it's better to adhere more to procedure. After all, this is a precious Witch Mansion."
"But aren't Mansions in regional cities or villages mostly like this?"
At the moment, there was only one mage-serpent team defending Tokyo New Town.
Asya was present too, but since her partner was currently facing certain difficulties, she probably should not be included in the count.
"A region fortunate enough to have three or four witch-serpent teams would probably show more vitality. But looking at the current state of affairs around the world, the vast majority of cities don't even have a single team, right? In fact, this city's serpent apparently needs to venture all over the Kantou region when dragons attack."
"The shortage of manpower is severe everywhere..."
"Thanks to that, there is no shortage of work for us. But Asya—"
Hal and Asya made their way into the depths of the facility.
Walking to the corridor from the reception desk, they then took the elevator down to the second floor underground.
After keying in the code to open the automatic door at the far end, they made their way down the staircase behind the door, finally arriving at the deepest level, the fifth floor underground—
This was a library where all sorts of books recording taboo knowledge were kept.
Just by stepping in there, one would feel their back and the soles of their feet stiffen from the cold.
The cold air-conditioning and especially the spiritual energies residing in the large number of "tomes with power" went as far as to mercilessly steal warmth from Hal and Asya's bodies.
"Those people in Europe will likely get mad if they heard 'shortage of manpower' coming from your lips. All things considered, your Rushalka was still a summoned "serpent"—a leviathan—of the strongest class over there until three months ago."
Despite Hal's hobby and lifelong goal of saving money...
His childhood friend had actually outstripped him in terms of progress in this area.
Asya was one of Europe's top magi. For the past few years, she had fought dragons persistently by drawing out the maximum potential of her partner, Blue Rushalka.
Her bank account should have accumulated the remunerations and contract payments from the many battles she had experienced.
"Didn't they approach you repeatedly with courtesy, asking you to return as soon as possible?"
"Indeed... But Rushalka's problem is still unresolved and I also have research I'd like to conduct here in Tokyo."
This was reportedly Asya's second visit to this library.
As eastern Japan's largest vault of grimoires, this place was built so that the "tomes with power" gathered by civilian volunteers could be used with effectiveness by people knowledgeable in magic like Hal or outstanding witches like Asya.
This was a source of knowledge, both mysterious and dangerous.
Being that kind of place, this library was nowhere near comfortable. The arrangement of the excessively abundant bookshelves was difficult to navigate, being as complicated as a labyrinth. Furthermore, in consideration of the fact that old books were susceptible to degradation from light, illumination was limited to the brightness level of candlelight at exceedingly sparse numbers.
Thanks to that, the library was virtually pitch black.
For the sake of finding their targeted books more efficiently, Hal and Asya decided to split up to search separately.
Carrying their own flashlights, they wandered the labyrinth of books on their own.
Asya searched for the wanted books in the catalog while Hal worked from the ground up and confirmed the names of the books kept on the shelves.
Foreign books included The Secret Manuscript of the Terrifying Ogdoad, Commentaries on the Dark Goddess of Magdala, The Mutual Action between Earth and Water in the Universe, The Various Aspects of Hermes' Alchemy and others. Japanese books included The Handy Guide to Curse Magic, Secret Collections of the Mystical, etc. In addition, there were Buddhist treatises such as Discourses on the Golden Light Sutra and Presentation of Ākāśagarbha's Esoteric Doctrine Method. There was also a full assortment of Chinese classics including Forbidden Truths of Divine Talismans, The Compendium of Roots, Herbs and Longevity Practices, Divine Technique of the Sky, Secret Records of the Grand Supreme Lord, Secret Guide to the Normal Course for Rulers and Kings...
But none of these were what Hal and Asya sought.
Reading grimoires of this level without prior preparation would result in terrifying results.
One would likely hallucinate immediately after reading them? Monsters would definitely appear in dreams if one were to fall asleep. Then growing more haggard and emaciated with each passing day, one would walk along a path of mental chaos, eventually reaching insanity...
This time, what Asya wanted was information on unorthodox magic research.
The field included archaeology, folkloristics and comparative mythology, etc.
Books in this area were quite plentiful and many rare and precious volumes, normally impossible to obtain, were casually placed around here.
For quite a while, Hal worked steadily and persistently, alone at his task—
But just at this moment, a gust of cold air suddenly blew across the back of his neck.
Due to the nature of his line of work, Hal could be described as what one would call a person with sharp senses. Furthermore, this place was filled with large amounts of ghostly and spiritual energies.
There were many cases when people would be affected by them and end up possessed by "unclean things" with endless occurrences of paranormal phenomena as well. In fact, Hal had also experienced it a number of times in the past.
"Please just be an ordinary spirit, without any additional prefix of 'evil' or 'vengeful,' I beg you..."
Grumbling like an expert, Hal turned his head to look back at the same time.
—There. Hal saw a pair of gleaming eyes in the depths of the darkness.
Just eyes, nothing more. The pupils were golden. Despite looking like human eyeballs for the most part, they carried a reptilian air about them.
Intimidated and stunned by the air of mystery exuded by the golden eyes, Hal could not help but gasp.
(Hoh... To possess something so interesting despite being just an ordinary human—)
It was not very clear, but Hal seemed to hear a girl's quiet whispers.
He waited cautiously in an attempt to catch the continuation clearly, but—
"...It already left?"
Failing to hear more of the voice after waiting for roughly two minutes, Hal sighed.
The mysterious spiritual being had apparently left, but it was probably still lurking somewhere in the library...
Hal shrugged and resumed his task.
Surviving in his line of business would be impossible if one were to become neurotic over occurrences of this level.
Dozens of minutes after the spirit(?) encounter, Hal met up with Asya in a corner of the library.
Of the childhood friend's list of books she wanted to have a look, they managed to find three of them today—The History of East Asian Legends of Dragon Gods, Ancient Korea and Collective Rites of Secret Cults and Theory of Equestrian Tribal Dynasty and the Second Coming of Japan's Mythical Age.
In addition, when Hal brought up his spirit encounter just now, the childhood simply remarked: "Oh, these occurrences are commonplace."
Had their roles been reversed, Hal would surely have said the same thing.
"Then let's start."
"Understood. It's really quite convenient that rare ancient books can be digitized."
Hal took out his portable terminal while replying to Asya.
The two of them flipped the books open and took pictures with a cellphones. Turning the pages from cover to cover and repeatedly photographing, they converted the contents into digital data stored using information technology.
This act would be meaningless if these were grimoires imbued with power.
That type of book possessed magical power (one could also call it a curse) that pulled the reader into special mental states. It was only possible to understand those books' true meaning by reading with full attention, under the effects of these abnormal emotions, regardless whether they were happiness, anger, sadness or even madness.
Although the text could be digitized through scanning or photographing, magical properties could not be recreated.
Asya was responsible for turning the pages while Hal snapped photo after photo to record the data.
The two of them worked for a full three hours, interspersed with breaks in between. Just as their work was winding down to an end, Hal and Asya suddenly heard footsteps.
Thud, thud, thud, thud. The sound of leather soles striking the floor.
The footsteps were very stable and steady, yet filled with a rhythmic sense of musicality.
It felt as though the person walking must possess an excellent sense of rhythm and athleticism in order to make such spectacular footsteps. Furthermore, the person's murmurings could be heard.
"This place is really quite outrageous... I think it needs to be organized a bit, or rearranged in consideration for ease of use... I guess I'll talk to Hazumi about it next time."
Hal was greatly surprised. He had heard this voice before.
"A witch? But somehow I get the slight feeling that..."
Next to Hal, Asya cocked her head in puzzlement. She probably felt that the visitor seemed greatly out of place, not like a witch who would come to this type of disreputable den. It was only natural for Asya to think that. Hal nodded.
This girl looked glamorous, gallant and radiant with an extremely wholesome air.
However, this was a pitch-black and depressing space filled with ghostly energies.
No matter how one wrapped their mind around it, she did not match this place at all. That being said—
"This is actually my first time meeting other visitors in this place. Please excuse my intrusion. But if it is agreeable with you, I would be most grateful if you could tell me how to use this library effectively. Although I've been here a number of times, I still haven't gotten used to it—Eh, Haruga-kun?"
The third person arrived before Hal and Asya. Just as Hal thought, he had recognized her correctly.
Standing before them was the classmate who had left the deepest impression upon him, the one and only Juujouji Orihime in the flesh.
Orihime's beautiful face was filled with surprise.
In contrast, Hal hid his inner thoughts and simply shrugged with a mutter of "Who would have thought." Life was full of unpredictable futures.
On the other hand, Asya stared at Orihime with suspicion before turning her gaze towards Hal.
"Looks like it's someone you know, Haruomi. Did you arrange to meet up here by any chance? After helping me with my task, then roaming town with this person at night, keeping her up until morning... You wouldn't happen to have made such shameless plans, would you?"
For some reason, the childhood friend's tone of voice and eyes were filled with accusatory reprimand.
Despite the inexplicable sense of discomfort, Hal still answered quietly, "She's my classmate in high school. Running into each other here is pure coincidence... No, I guess it might be inevitable after all. Sigh, Juujouji-san, seeing as you're able to enter this place, are you also a witch?"
Hal's question prompted Orihime to recover her usual demeanor and said, "I shall tell you if you would agree to answer my question, Haruga-kun. To my understanding, this library can only be used by women such as witches or people with magic-related knowledge, isn't that correct? Why are you here with that person over there, Haruga-kun?"
Her stately tone of voice was making Hal force a wry smile. His attempt to obtain information from her without giving up anything in return was apparently not working.
"Excuse me for the late introductions. This is who we are."
After searching around in his pocket, Hal fished out a black card the size of a name card.
This card served as proof of his membership in SAURU, identical to what Asya had presented at the reception except for the fact that the card had become crumpled and creased inside his pocket.
"The surface of this card is totally black without any words... Does this kind of thing hold some kind of meaning in the world of magi? Sorry, I actually don't understand the rules in this domain."
However, Orihime simply tilted her head in puzzlement. She was apparently unable to see the SAURU emblem.
A witch would be able to invoke magical sight just by using the naked eye, but Orihime could not do it. In that case, the most likely reason was—Just as Hal figured out Orihime's background...
Hal, Asya and Orihime's cellphones all vibrated simultaneously. They had all received a text at the same time.
"Emergency evacuation announcement... Four lesser dragons have flown into Tokyo Bay's airspace—"
Asya looked over the text message she had received on her cellphone and read out its contents quietly.
"Haruomi and the lady over there, let's find shelter first and save the talking for later."
Hal and Orihime immediately responded with the same action. They both nodded.
Twenty years prior, dragonkind had "returned" to the planet Earth.
However, these super lifeforms did not choose to make Earth their place of residence.
Instead, they lived far on the other end of the sky—
Crossing the atmosphere, they had colonized satellite orbits and the moon's surface.
The dragons all possessed flight capability and survivability enabling them to break through the atmosphere by their own power. Humans were no longer surprised even after learning of this fact. But after learning of dragonkind's certain habits, people probably prayed to their worshiped gods or cursed their own fates.
Dragons frequently attacked, spurred by impromptu destructive impulses.
They would then descend upon Earth from either the moon's surface or satellite orbits, visiting human settlements.
Then they proceeded to destroy everything mercilessly. The winged attackers demolished cities, trampled towns and incinerated villages, thereby satiating their destructive urges.
Furthermore, these attacks were mostly conducted collectively...
Humanity had protested against these vicious "Dragon Strikes" with extreme anger.
These grievances were aired at the giant red dragon who had called himself the representative of dragonkind and customarily established an "embassy" at New York.
This resulted in that particular "king" appearing in front of CNN's cameras and generously declaring in an astounding tenor voice:
"It is truly regrettable that such problems have arisen. Consequently, as the representative of dragonkind, I promise you all, humans, we shall refrain absolutely from interfering if you were to exercise your right to self-defense against berserk members of our kind. I hereby swear upon my title as king."
Despite the clearly solemn tone of voice, the words coming from his mouth were absolutely irresponsible.
In short, his message was "I don't intend to take up the responsibility of overseeing my kind, so do your best to defend yourselves."
Hence, humans in the twenty-first century had no choice but to coexist with terrifying predators—the dragons that attacked from the air.
However, one saving grace could be considered a blessing mixed in the curse.
Lesser dragons, forming the majority of dragonkind, were relatively easy to defeat.
That being said, that assessment was based on expert perspectives and differed somewhat from common perceptions. In the process of evacuating from the library's fifth floor underground to the ground surface, Orihime murmured with worry, "Dragons... will reach New Town?"
"Judging by common logic, chances should be very low seeing as there are only four of them," answered Hal.
As a side note, they were rapidly ascending the stairs instead of taking the elevator because getting trapped in the event of a power failure would be problematic.
Asya was leading the way with Orihime in the middle and Hal holding the rear.
"If the swarm of dragons number less than twenty, they can still be exterminated by deploying a squadron of fighter jets at a hundred million USD apiece or billion-dollar aircraft carriers and destroyers in a desperate struggle to deliver missiles or artillery shells extravagantly at hundreds of thousands of dollars per barrage. Compared to what you see in monster movies in the past, this method of fighting works much better although it's admittedly quite low in cost effectiveness."
"But Haruga-kun, you said 'by common logic' just now, didn't you?"
Orihime had caught the ambiguous part of Hal's statement.
She still seemed calm despite the current situation. Hal could not help but feel impressed by her excellent courage.
"If we don't go by common logic, how would that change your earlier prediction?"
"Hmm... The dragons were detected in Tokyo Bay's airspace, quite near the shore. Even if only a single dragon slips past and flies to Tokyo, it could easily turn into a serious emergency."
"Something will inevitably slip through..." whispered Asya as well.
Coming from her, an experienced combatant, these words felt even more real.
"In addition, although it's quite rare, if instead of lesser dragons—Raptors—we have the Equites that are capable of human speech... in other words, elite dragons, then the danger level will immediately rise to Code Red."
"Raptors? What are they?"
Hal's intentional use of technical jargon in his explanation left Orihime tilting her head in puzzlement.
As expected, she was a layperson—At least currently still. Hal nodded secretly to himself before supplementing his explanation.
"It's a shortened form of the scientific nomenclature used for dragonkind. You should be learning it in the near future... How's the situation on the surface now?"
The trio had finally finished climbing stairs, arriving at the ground floor.
They quickened their pace and ran, swiftly rushing to the emergency exit. The man at the reception had disappeared somewhere, most likely gone to seek refuge.
The trio instantly left the building then expressed their emotions in their respective ways.
"This has turned troublesome," said Hal, scratching his head.
"Raptor..." whispered Asya, her gaze turning sharp.
"No way. Why here out of all places?" Orihime was wholly stunned.
The three of them looked up into the night sky. The sun had set a long time ago.
Illuminated by the crescent moon's especially vivid radiance, the starlight from the spring constellations and the street lighting, a ferocious winged beast was currently circling in the air above—
Seven meters or so in length, its body displayed the color of steel.
Reptilian head, body and limbs. A snake for a tail. The bat-like wings were flapping strenuously. These details matched that of the creature occupying the depths of Hal's memories.
A dragon. Lesser dragons: Raptor Draconis.
Hal, Asya and Orihime's worries had come true.
Penetrating the defensive net formed from the Trans-Pacific Defense Organization (TPDO), the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), this dragon had finally arrived in Tokyo New Town.
Hal also knew why it was flying over the Mansion.
"If I had to imagine a reason, that thing flew here because it was attracted by the magical presence exuded by the Mansion..."
Dragons had a crazed obsession for rare metals, precious metals and things containing magic.
Growing wiser as they aged, Raptors would sometimes gather such objects the way certain birds liked to collect shiny articles.
"How annoying. What a keen nose for a mere Raptor..."
No sooner had Hal grumbled when the dragon immediately roared from the sky.
A ferocious beast's roar. Sadism firing up its eyes, the dragon stared down at the Mansion on the ground.
"Hurry and run, everyone! Now that things have come to this, we can only flee and pray that our luck holds out!"
"I'll summon Rushalka if the situation gets dire, but for now, let's flee first!"
Asya concurred as soon as Orihime finished speaking.
Hal's childhood friend was capable of eliminating lesser dragons in an instant if she had the intention.
However, it looked like she wanted to save her final trump card. Or perhaps, Rushalka's condition was already so poor that Asya wanted to avoid summoning her even in this kind of predicament? Hal was curious but there was no time to explore the matter.
Hal sprinted as fast as he could while Asya and Orihime began to run at the same time as well. However—
Unbelievably, Hal felt perplexed.
His legs refused to obey him and he tripped himself, falling over forwards.
For better or worse, Haruga Haruomi had already experienced close encounters with dragons many times, confronted with the brink of life and death a number of times at that. But what was up with this?
Lying on the ground, Hal looked up into the sky.
The dragon was still circling in the sky above the Mansion. However, it was flapping its wings even harder than before while its face grew even more savage.
Wrinkling its nose severely, baring its sharp teeth, the dragon displayed its wild appearance.
Such vigor was the expression of a predator about to pounce upon its prey.
Nevertheless, Hal's body remained immobile, almost like an automobile that has exhausted its gasoline.
"W-What the heck...?"
Hal desperately squeezed out the last of his strength, trying to stand up, but did not succeed.
He wanted to sit up at least, but even that was beyond him. He could not even lift a finger. Resembling forcibly halted machinery, his body could not move at all. Was his body frozen stiff from fear?
On the other hand, his mind could ponder such useless matters with exceptional lucidity.
What was going on with himself? While feeling stunned, Hal was greatly surprised again.
Circling in the night sky, the dragon occupied his field of vision.
Red firelight suddenly lit up this scene.
Flames. Crimson flames. Blazing flames had turned the scenery before Hal's eyes into an astounding shade of red!
Then overhead, in the center of Hal's flame-filled field of view...
The strenuously flying dragon opened its jaws.
The light of blue-white flames could be seen in the depths of its throat.
The dragon was attempting to spew out Fire Breath that had cruelly incinerated many human cities. In all likelihood, the dragon probably found Hal to be an eyesore and wanted to burn him to oblivion!
"Haruga-kun! Hang in there, I am coming to save you now!"
"Haruomi!? Guh... I hereby dedicate my prayers to the ancient divine seal of purity!"
Girls' voices. During his attempt to run away, Hal had suddenly fallen over on his own and stopped.
Superficially, it looked as if the two girls had fled, leaving Hal behind.
But Orihime came running back. She intended to return to help Hal.
Hal was both shocked and angry. Orihime was truly courageous but had clearly made an error in judgment. She was going to get caught in the blast and die!
Meanwhile, Asya chanted the song of summoning and entered the stance for "calling" Rushalka.
She probably intended to deplete her partner's precious life for the sake of rescuing her foolish childhood friend.
—Damn it. I can't believe I'm embarrassing myself with such unsightliness.
Hal seethed with rage against his ineptitude. I must help Orihime survive at least, right? Just as Hal was thinking for solutions, in that very instant, the dragon in the air expelled blue-white flames forcefully.
Anger, despair and self-contempt surged from Hal's heart like magma.
But virtually at the same time, a radiant pentagram manifested in the air.
As though trying to protect Hal and the others, this pentagram appeared between the dragon's fire and the Mansion, blocking the super high-temperature blue-white flames.
The pentagram was the seal of sacred protectors, exorcising evil, slaying monsters and vanquishing demons.
While blocking the flames, the light forming the pentagram gradually changed in shape.
The star drawn by trails of light turned into a serpent depicted by trails of light.
The serpent swallowed its own tail, forming a "∞" symbol in the air.
The infinity symbol gradually materialized, turning from massless light into a corporeal creature. Then it transformed even further.
While Hal and the others watched, the light from the pentagram finished transforming into a "serpentine dragon."
This was a dragon whose form greatly differed from the dragonkind who stood as mankind's enemies.
Its body was long like a snake and had four extremely short limbs. There was a horn on its head that resembled a deer's antler in shape. Its entire body was covered with emerald scales. Overall, there was a kind of fish-like air to its appearance.
If anything, it was a "serpentine dragon" that was highly oriental in outward appearance.
"Minadzuki... You made it in time."
Trying to pick Hal up in her arms, Orihime whispered in a relieved tone of voice.
Minadzuki. This was apparently the name of this leviathan shaped like a serpentine dragon.
Leviathans were the artificial dragons born from occult and magic. Created for fighting dragonkind, these "serpents" possessed bodies similar to dragons and shared their lives with witches.
SAURU, of which Hal and Asya were members, was the organization overseeing the birth of leviathans and their covenants.
Minadzuki cried out shrilly.
At this moment, the Raptor flapped its wings warily and suddenly flew up.
In contrast, Minadzuki's method of flying could be described as graceful. Twisting her body like that of a slender fish, she advanced through the air as though she were swimming.
Then she called out again. Kyuahhhhhhhhh!
Opening the palm of her right front limb, corresponding to a "right hand," she pushed it forward.
Her right front limb was almost twice as long as the left one and also had a massive palm. There were four fingers in total with thick talons on the fingertips that were as sharp as blades.
This right hand, much more deadly than the left hand, together with those four talons—
Hal made a realization. This was precisely Minadzuki's "horn counterpart" as a leviathan!
Immediately, white lightning erupted from the right hand's talons. Struck by the electrical attack, the Raptor stopped in the air. Presumably, it must have suffered a substantial shock.
At this time, Minadzuki continued to fly gracefully to close the distance to the Raptor.
Then she raised her enormous right hand and swung down forcefully with the four talons. This attack produced four lacerations on the lesser dragon's chest, splattering mercury-colored blood everywhere.
The Raptor wailed, unable to bear the pain. ROOOOOOAAAAAR!
The four giant sharp claws were used in the last attack.
Horn counterparts were commonly used to attack during battle. As organs, they could be considered a leviathan's "horns."
Like Minadzuki's talons, horn counterparts were especially striking in appearance for the most part.
After using its inborn weapon to suppress the Raptor, Minadzuki opened its mouth.
A blue-white heat beam was then released—!
This was a leviathan's second type of inborn weapon.
Wholly shrouded in the heat beam, the Raptor died instantly.
After the lesser dragon perished, its corpse crashed down from the air towards the ground.
Immediately, the remains underwent changes. The reptilian body gradually turned into stone.
The petrification started from the extremities, proceeding along the limbs, then the body, the long neck and the head in sequence.
Instead of rigor mortis, dragons would turn into stone after death.
Furthermore, the remains of dragons also became extremely fragile, making the tough resilience from when they were alive seem fictional. In actual fact, more than half of this Raptor's body shattered from the impact of the fall.
Watching the death state unique to dragonkind, Hal thought to himself.
Amidst the misfortune of a dragon attack, how lucky it was for all of them to survive unharmed.
However, what exactly was going on with his body? His prior embarrassing display looked almost like a panic attack from seeing a dragon...
The way things looked, his new life in Tokyo seemed on course to be filled with trials and tribulations.
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