Leviathan:Volume 1 Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Towards the Covenant Ritual
The Juujouji home, where Orihime was born and raised, did not impose a curfew.
However, that did not equate unbridled freedom.
Although there was no set curfew, conversely, Orihime was obliged to decide by her own will and judgment the appropriate hours for a fifteen-year-old girl to return home then adhere to that time.
But on this day, she was quite delayed, failing to return home until 11pm. This was due to the dragon encounter at the uncomfortable Witch Mansion that she had sneaked into.
The first thing Orihime did as soon as she got home was to make her way to her grandfather's room.
Orihime walked slowly along the corridor, making her way through this wooden building that had been built a hundred a forty years back.
Only locals with insider knowledge were aware that the Juujouji home was a samurai residence. This naturally included a long corridor overlooking the entire courtyard and needless to say, the grandfather's bedroom, also serving as a study, was also a Japanese-style room.
The paper sliding door was open. Looking from the corridor, Orihime could see her grandfather sitting on a legless chair, the kind used on tatami floors.
"Grandpa, I have returned."
After the dragon encounter, Orihime had already phoned home beforehand to explain the situation.
Consequently, she only used a simple greeting to announce her return while her grandfather also nodded with a brief response. But unexpectedly, the grandfather said with a solemn expression, "Even if there was an emergency, don't you feel that you have returned a little late? Young ladies should take care to get home earlier, shouldn't they?"
Despite having passed the age of seventy, the grandfather's body was still highly robust.
This was apparently the result of his kendo training since youth. Furthermore, he used to work as a senior managing director at a certain automobile manufacturer and was a prominent figure hailing from a prestigious samurai family dating back to the Muromachi period. Old-fashioned in personality, he had a preference for traditional Japanese clothing.
Due to various reasons listed above, he always exerted an extraordinarily calm aura of pressure whenever he was feeling displeased.
However, Orihime answered simply without fear, "Don't be silly. Indeed, Minadzuki... Hazumi's 'serpent' did defeat the dragon, but it's not like I could immediately return."
"Hazumi's body is very frail. I've heard that using her 'serpent' often leaves her confined to bed."
"Feeling very worried, I went to check on her. Oh, she looks fairly energetic despite a bit of a fever, so I guess it's pretty much a relief."
"And if dragons are attacking, the trains also get stopped, right? With that, of course I'll need to spend more time getting home than usual, won't I? After all, it's quite a long walk."
"In that case, you could have taken a taxi."
"During difficult times like these, things like taxis should be left for people who really need them. I'm healthier than most people and have the stamina. Walking a distance of four stations isn't really much. Besides, wouldn't taking a taxi be squandering money?"
"Your grandfather is willing to pay this bit of money no matter what!"
The grandfather had already lost his earlier composure.
Possibly because the household only consisted of the two of them, grandparent and grandchild, the grandfather would exhibit excessive protectiveness in certain areas. Despite the Spartan approach to education, he sometimes doted on Orihime very much.
"No. I can't be too wasteful of money I didn't earn myself."
Probably feeling embarrassed, the grandfather cleared his throat and changed the subject.
"That organization has delivered a notice. The person presiding over the ritual is apparently ready and supposed to make a home visit in two days' time to explain various matters of importance. Make time for it."
"The ritual? Then I can finally become..."
"Yes, we have completed preparations fully on our side, so it's all up to you now."
The preordained occasion had apparently arrived. Orihime nodded vigorously.
"I understand. I will definitely prepare myself mentally—Oh, I already ate along the way because I was really hungry, so let's save tonight's dinner for breakfast tomorrow morning."
Dinner at the Juujouji family was prepared personally by the domestic helper every day.
Orihime seemed to want to finish as much of the food as possible to repay the domestic helper's labors. Come to think of it, how did the classmate she had encountered by chance handle dinner after what happened?
Leaving her grandfather's room, Orihime murmured to herself while walking alone in the corridor.
"I wasn't invited either."
After the battle, the Caucasian girl named Asya had complained "I'm hungry!" Hence, Orihime's classmate, Haruga Haruomi, had nodded and replied "Dinner together? Let's sneak into a place where we can prepare food." Then the two of them left.
Before leaving, all he said to Orihime was "See you at school."
"It felt like he was trying to avoid me... Am I thinking too much? I don't remember doing anything to make myself disliked. Rather, we haven't interacted much at all."
This classmate was quite "an eccentric" at first glance.
His aloof expression and tone of voice were especially memorable. Who on earth was he? Orihime's curiosity was piqued.
"So, Haruga-kun, could you tell me about yourself?"
"What the heck is this...?" muttered Hal in response to suddenly getting questioned by the classmate sitting next to him.
This was happening in the morning before homeroom, as soon as Hal entered the classroom and took his seat.
"Juujouji-san, did you happen to omit too much?"
"We're both in the same year group, so please feel free to address me by name directly. However, it feels impolite to use a boy's name directly, so I'll continue using the '-kun' honorific when addressing you."
"So, Juujouji, what do you want to know about me?"
Juujouji Orihime was evidently fearless in character.
Hal was certain she would make contact with him in some way today.
But to think it would be early in the morning, so suddenly... Curse this seating arrangement of neighbors. Also, Hal noticed something else—He had obediently addressed her by family name without honorifics just now.
Apparently, Orihime was quite adept at pulling others into her pace.
"First of all, I would be quite pleased if you could introduce yourself a bit, Haruga-kun."
"Japanese nationality, male, currently living in the Sumida ward. Title on my ID reads high school student. Is that enough?"
"What interests me are details from your profile that were omitted just now, Haruga-kun."
"Despite how I may look, I'm actually quite cautious in handling personal information. I'm fine with disclosing my height and weight to you, but give me a break if you want my three sizes."
"Relax, I'm not interested in that. Haruga-kun, I want to know about the knowledge you've acquired outside of school, as well as about what happened over there yesterday. However—"
Hal jumped in fright, because Orihime suddenly drew her face near.
Leaning forward swiftly, she turned her dignified and beautiful face towards him, looking him straight in the eye.
Hal was overcome with certainty. His compatibility with this girl was likely to be poor.
Truly a tricky case—To a boy like Haruga Haruomi who willingly chose to step into darkness, a girl like her, whose body and mind were composed wholly from elements of light, was a bit too dazzling to behold.
Rather, wouldn't it be better to say that just by having her beside him, he was unable to calm his mind? Or perhaps, he involuntarily wanted to avoid her?
"Are you trying to avoid me by any chance, Haruga-kun?"
Also, she was definitely not slow on the uptake. Extraordinarily sharp.
"Did I offend you slightly yesterday? If that is the case, I apologize. I am quite impetuous, which is why I unintentionally talked to others in that manner."
This girl was probably capable of being considerate of people around her. Last night, she even attempted to rescue Hal even in the face of danger.
Increasingly dazzling, increasingly troublesome. Hal sighed.
"Suddenly imposing these prying questions nonstop would be quite impolite. Today, I am just informing you of my interest in you. Let's chat again another time."
"Thank you very much for that..."
While giving a sloppy answer, Hal realized something.
A few classmates were staring in their direction with eyes of surprise.
A girl sitting ahead to the right, Mutou-san, and Funaki-san in the seat in front of her.
The two girls had apparently overheard Hal and Orihime's exchange by chance.
Orihime had engaged Hal in conversation with her usual tone of voice and attitude of cheerfulness. Sitting nearby, it was only natural for those girls to overhear.
Unconcerned, Hal did not feel compelled to do anything in particular about it.
Nevertheless, he would come to deeply regret his oversight at the time...
On this day, Hal found lessons to feel longer than usual.
This was probably due to his neighbor, Orihime, staring at him from time to time. After noticing her gaze, Hal could not calm his mind no matter what, leaving him no choice but to pretend not to notice.
Hal never expected such a day to arrive when he would become the target of attention from a member of the opposite sex...
Despite the strangely emotional response, Hal still waited single-mindedly for all lessons to end.
After school, Hal took care to avoid eye contact with his neighbor while hurrying to leave the classroom.
Quickly rushing off to the station, he then took the New Town Loop Line to Togashikomagata.
After a ten minute walk from the station and entering the Mirokudou located on the fourth floor of a multi-tenant building, Hal began to grumble:
"What rotten luck. Playing a student's role seriously, my foot. Humans are really not cut out to do things they're not used to doing."
The only ones present in the used bookstore, rarely frequented by customers, were Hal's acquaintances.
Namely, the store manager and SAURU staff, young Mr. Kenjou, as well as Hal's childhood friend, Asya.
"What's the matter, Haruomi? You don't look like you feel well."
"Of course I don't feel well. I originally intended to keep playing my part as the ordinary boy who doesn't make an impression for a while longer before withdrawing from school at an opportune moment, but now I've attracted weird curiosity from others..." replied Hal, who then scratched his head rudely.
"Despite your dignified, elegant and dreamy appearance, Asya, you're like a ravenous wild beast at your core and ultimately, I get along best with you after all. Things are so easy when I don't need to respond with full effort."
"Putting aside the issue of getting along, I am personally quite appalled by your malicious slandering!"
"Anyway, let's move on. Kenjou-san, I must have contracted a mental disorder, right? Look, there were inexplicable symptoms of a panic attack earlier. A performance of Dr. Freud's nonsensical drama must surely be playing in the depths of my mind."
During the dragon encounter, Hal had experienced full-body paralysis and hallucinations.
Although Asya had accompanied him to the hospital afterwards for a medical check, all tests came back with "normal" as the result, including psychiatric ones.
Even so, Hal still insisted strongly he had developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
This was partly due to wishful thinking. Otherwise, it would be difficult for him to accept that sudden and unnatural ataxia.
"As a result, I want to leave Tokyo temporarily and take this opportunity to undergo therapy. Could you help me explain to Hiiragi-san?"
"Well, that's certainly sudden. Don't you need to help Miss Asya?"
"That's a very good point. Come on, you should have sought my opinion too, at least."
Following up on what Kenjou mentioned, Asya pouted, looking very displeased.
She had presumably seen through Hal's intentions of "using this as an excuse to escape Tokyo."
"Oh dear, think about this. It'd be a pain if these symptoms interfered with work, not to mention massive trouble at school. That's why I think it'd be a good idea if I could go somewhere far away to relax for a while."
"Please act a little more Japanese. You should be exhibiting the spirit of hard work even more at times like these."
"Well, personally, I believe that an escapist solution like spending four years or so at a tropical island is quite suitable for young people."
Just as the two youngsters were starting to argue, Kenjou interrupted in a nonchalant tone of voice, "Excuse me, but a job is already arranged. Please give up on your plans to escape Tokyo for now."
"A job, you say... Now that's quite sudden," murmured Asya in response to the sudden notification.
"Actually, we were hired quite some time ago to help conduct a ritual. However, the matter was delayed repeatedly because our side was unable to locate a Grave Good for the covenant ritual. The client seems to be both rich and well-connected. During the call yesterday, they said they have secured the artifact already. Hence, it should be smooth sailing from this point onwards."
The two new members never expected this type of job to fall upon them in the first place.
One of the two, Hal, slumped his shoulders. On the other hand, Asya immediately smiled radiantly.
"Fufu, surely you can't waste a rare chance to make money? Let's shelve the matter of relocation until this job is over. Does that work, Haruomi?"
"It'll be a pain if cancelling a job at the last moment tarnished my reputation. Naturally, moving house will have to wait."
Next to the elated Asya, Hal muttered, "The ritual candidate... I don't suppose her family name is something fabulous like Juujouji, is it?"
"Bingo. I never knew you were that knowledgeable about matters on our end."
Hearing Kenjou's impressed response, Hal shrugged.
Rather than knowledgeable, he had merely predicted a probable development.
Recalling the profile of Juujouji's dazzling face, Hal could not help but feel an urge to sigh towards the heavens.
"So this is the situation. I am Haruga from SAURU."
"This time, it seems like it's my turn to go 'what the heck'..."
It was 6pm the following day after Hal was informed of the urgent job.
This conversation took place between Hal and Orihime after they met in the Juujouji residence's Japanese-style room.
Asya and the client, apparently Orihime's grandfather, were also present on the side.
Orihime was slightly displeased. The reason could easily be surmised. Most likely, it was due to Hal trying his utmost to avoid her in school today, then suddenly making a home visit afterwards.
But whatever. Because explaining would be a pain...
"Orihime, is this someone you are acquainted with?"
"I am classmates with your granddaughter at school."
Hal answered swiftly. He had entered his business mode that was 30% more friendly than his usual self.
"So you are a high school student too?"
"Yes, but please rest assured. I believe my profile has already been delivered to your hands. There is not a single erroneous fact. To date, I have succeeded in nine cases of Grave Goods acquisition while there were four occasions when I served as staff during successfully completed rituals. These are my total accomplishments over the past three years."
Orihime eyed Hal suspiciously while he was talking nonstop with a fake smile.
This was probably because she knew how different he was acting compared to usual, but Hal pretended not to notice. Gaining trust from the client—more accurately, the representative—was the most important.
"Furthermore, I am merely playing an assistive role on this occasion. Anastasya here will be responsible for carrying out the ritual and providing security. Information on her has already been sent to you, yes?"
"Indeed. Master-class... Is that so?"
Witches—magi—were precious talents. There were probably fewer than a hundred and fifty of them in the entire world.
Among them, the majority belonged in the range of Level 1 to Level 3, but witches reaching Level 4 or above, designated "master-class" by SAURU, were extremely rare.
In particular, Asya was one of only eight Level 5 witches in the entire world. One could definitely call her a person of exceptionally rare talent.
"How astounding for someone in possession of such power to come expressly to Tokyo..."
Asya smiled back modestly in response to the gaze of Orihime's grandfather.
In order to impress her dream-like beauty deeply upon others, she nodded lightly and bowed.
"Although I sometimes receive exaggerated praise, I have simply had more opportunities to take part in battle than other witches."
Her choice of words were very polite but conveyed unwavering confidence.
Excellent, wonderful acting. Well done. Hal secretly praised her.
Asya was undoubtedly playing the part of an incomparably calm and mysterious version of herself. Part of the act was not sitting cross-legged in a Japanese-style room despite being a foreigner.
Instead, she was sitting very straight and formally in seiza.
Although such behavior did not resemble a foreigner's, it served as a foil to Asya's fairy-like beauty, hence it was absolutely the superior choice.
Back when his childhood friend first came to New Town, Hal had discussed with her over a meal of grilled meat.
Henceforth in Japan, Hal was going to be in charge of the talking during "business" while Asya's job was to play the role of the reticent and mysterious character, thereby leaving a good impression on sponsors. If the client could be persuaded to relax standards of scrutiny and remunerate more generously, life would be much easier during work.
Still, it felt truly ludicrous to be discussing the topic of mysteriousness in a grilled meat restaurant amidst smoke and odors...
"First of all, I wish to dedicate my humble efforts towards making Orihime-san our new comrade. Please count on me."
Asya promised while pretending to be a precocious prodigy.
This type of image manipulation usually worked when securing the support of layman sponsors.
It went without a hitch this time as well. Orihime's seemingly very strict and old-fashioned grandfather looked impressed with Asya's behavior of calm confidence, closing his eyes slightly and nodding.
"I see. Then I place my granddaughter in your hands."
Orihime tilted her head in puzzlement, probably because she had witnessed Asya yelling "I'm hungry!" without pretense the day before yesterday.
After all, she must find it suspicious how different Asya was from her earlier impression.
"Then allow me to explain the details of the ritual."
Before Orihime could say anything, Hal changed the subject.
"As you already know, humanity was forced to coexist with dragonkind in this century. Thus, the existence of 'serpents' became gospel to those who worry about the security of neighboring areas. Namely, those created through the ancient knowledge known as magic... the giant creatures named leviathans."
Artificial monsters created by magic to oppose the dragons.
Witnessing their existence, the media called them "leviathans" in reports, even making up the nickname "serpents" for these super lifeforms.
"Using an alchemical process only privy to SAURU, the ritual creates the physical body of the 'serpent' then links it to the candidate girl through covenant magic. If successful, she will become the leviathan's partner, in other words, a mage."
The word "mage" originally referred to a "user of magic."
But in modern times, the most outstanding magic practitioners were leviathan covenantees. Hence, referring to them as "magi" became spontaneously entrenched.
"Making use of their power for public benefit, magi became the protectors of human settlements. This you should already know. As for terms of service and remuneration, please negotiate with local authorities and sponsors—"
"Hold on, Haruga-kun. May I have a moment of your time before we start the long discussion?"
"We are talking already. I don't think there's any need for an additional moment or anything like that..."
Orihime had angrily interrupted Hal's explanation, prompting him to respond with the above.
He tried to avoid eye contact with her as much as possible, but the slightly agitated young lady counterattacked swiftly, going straight to the point.
"I want to talk alone in private. Cut the irrelevant nonsense and come with me!"
Orihime's soft palms forcefully grabbed the collar of Hal's school uniform. Due to coming here straight after school without changing, Hal was still in uniform.
On the other hand, Orihime had already changed into casual clothing. Forcibly pulling Hal up to his feet, she dragged him to the corridor.
Her formidable strength did not quite match her attire, a white cardigan with a flared skirt.
Consequently, before Asya and Orihime's grandfather could even react in surprise, Hal was already taken captive.
Hal was taken to a place serving as an interrogation room. By all guesses, a girl's bedroom.
A Japanese-style room. In the corner was a desk where a number of textbooks were placed, the same ones Hal was using.
Hanging on the wall was a uniform from Kogetsu Academy's high school division. Naturally, it was a girl's.
In addition, there were a number of small articles and furniture fitting for a girl's room...
"Sit down anywhere you like. This is my room, so make yourself at home."
Orihime's words verified Hal's suspicions.
The room was very pretty with very sufficient sunlight, but somehow made Hal feel uncomfortable. He sat down cross-legged whereas Orihime took her seat in front of him using formal seiza posture.
Her back was very straight, an indication of her excellent upbringing.
"Okay, now that it's just the two of us, put away all those formalities, reservations, weird courtesies and business jargon so that we can talk openly and upfront."
"On the other hand, I think the things you just deemed unnecessary are essential for smoother communications between people, no matter what."
"Perhaps that may be true, but right now, we don't need them. After all—"
Orihime placed her hand on her chest.
Although Hal only realized now, she was really quite an attractive girl.
"Haruga-kun, we are classmates and friends. Furthermore, we know each other's secret."
"Hold it right there. Disregarding the other two claims for now, what do you mean by 'friends'?"
Ignoring the charms of the girl before him, Hal made a displeased look.
"I don't think we have built up that deep an interpersonal relationship yet."
"Well, we've already spent a week in the same class. Two days ago, we even experienced a life threatening crisis together. After that, we've also chatted a bit about various things."
On the other hand, Orihime had made an astounding declaration in her usual cheerfulness.
"If not friends, what would you call our relationship?"
I can't believe you consider us friends just because of something on this level. Hal almost wanted to grumble aloud.
Also, he noticed something. Just now, Orihime had most likely omitted on purpose—About how she had selflessly exposed herself to danger in the face of a dragon in order to rescue Hal back then.
...Despite knowing she would gain a psychological advantage had she brought it up.
Hal had no evidence. He was simply guessing blindly.
However, Orihime really seemed like a girl who would unobtrusively act considerately for other people's feelings.
Even though she clearly said "put away the formalities" herself...
"Fine, putting words like 'friends' aside for now, I accept your point about being open and upfront."
Truly a tricky customer. Why was she so dazzling? Hal continued with vexation in his heart, "Then what? Why do you want to talk to me?"
"Didn't I mention before? Because I am very interested in you."
"It might sound a bit trite coming from myself, but I'm not that special a person. On the other hand, Asya who came along is quite amazing. I'm simply someone who accepts jobs from the SAURU organization, running errands to provide various kinds of assistance to covenant rituals."
Hearing Hal speak truthfully from the heart for the first time, Orihime made a skeptical look.
"Simply the fact that you're in this line of work as a high school student is already weird enough. Doesn't it require special knowledge or ample experience? I get the feeling you're very familiar with things related to dragons and magic, Haruga-kun."
"This job has no age restrictions. Just as you described, because it's a profession requiring special skills, age isn't much of an issue."
"Then from where did you learn those skills?"
"The answer is very simple. It's my family business."
Family business? As Orihime murmured softly in curiosity, Hal continued, "My father was a member of SAURU too. He was part of the research group that confirmed the theory of 'serpents'—the synthesis of leviathans and the process of covenanting. Pops taught me a lot while I also read the materials at home, so that's how I gradually gained expertise in this field."
"Besides, regarding the point of age restrictions, magi enjoy even greater freedom. In short, all you need is to be a girl. Asya became a witch back when she was ten and you're a girl too."
Orihime could only be described as a young beauty in terms of age. Hal said to her:
"Furthermore, at such a young age, you have been recognized as an eligible mage candidate, receiving massive support from local society and about to establish a covenant with a 'serpent.' The fees paid to SAURU on this occasion also come from industrialists, capitalists, religious organizations and others that are based in Tokyo."
Orihime's grandfather was the client this time.
However, he was nothing more than the representative for the project of cultivating Orihime as a mage.
There should be many others who have dedicated money and effort for her sake.
"You visited the library at the Mansion last time. That was for the purpose of acclimatizing your body to magic, right?"
"Yes. The 'serpent' will not grow in strength unless I do that."
"The power of a 'serpent' depends on 'how acclimatized to magic' is the mage with whom the covenant is established. Even if it's just for getting used to that kind of space, which is filled with mysterious energies, it's still excellent training for a novice mage."
"I think I've heard that before. But I've been there a number of times and still haven't grown accustomed to it yet..."
"If you wish to respond to the expectations and investments of the sponsors, then endure it. But to be frank, I don't think you're cut out to be a witch."
"How so? Am I actually not talented enough?"
Although Hal had said something that could be construed as an insult, Orihime's response turned out to be very respectful.
Presumably, her true nature must be very upstanding and not twisted in any way.
"Rather than talent, it's a question of temperament."
"...Perhaps I look too much like a lady, by any chance? Despite appearances, I'm actually a tomboy at heart. Especially as a modern kid, I'm more skilled in physical than verbal fights, so I'm actually quite strong at fighting. I think there's no problem even if I have to fight dragons."
After hearing this confession that could not be ignored, Hal could not help but stare off into the distance.
"Come on, words like 'tomboy' or 'modern kid' are already outdated in twenty-first-century Japan, right? Using such a retro choice of words is really quite fitting for a sheltered high-class lady like you. Besides, your 'strong at fighting' confession is really urging me to make a snide remark. However—"
Glancing aloofly at Orihime who seemed airheaded in certain ways, Hal said, "That's not where the issue lies. You are too upstanding, too wholesome... It's impossible for you to share your soul with 'serpents,' the close relatives of dragons."
"Yes. Using the analogy of light and darkness, something like magic would be darkness. Using the analogy of the sun and the moon, it would be the moon. Someone like you, Juujouji, who exudes an aura filled with light from the bottom of your heart... probably cannot get acclimatized to magic."
"Won't it work if I devote time towards training? I am very tenacious, you know?"
"Will it? You just said that you didn't get used to it despite visiting a number of times, right? Perhaps you already know instinctively. There's a decisive conflict between the dark knowledge occupying that place and the personality of Juujouji Orihime."
Indeed. It was the same incompatibility as that between Haruga Haruomi and Juujouji Orihime.
That was what Hal thought to himself, but Orihime said nonchalantly, "Then you're probably overthinking things, Haruga-kun... Rather, you're overestimating me. I am not as devoid of darkness as you say. To be honest, I'm quite resentful that you've been avoiding me all the time lately, Haruga-kun."
You call something of that level "darkness"? Hal smiled wryly. Orihime proceeded to ask him:
"Then pray enlighten me as the expert, Haruga-kun, what kind of personality is suitable for becoming a witch?"
"Someone who embraces darkness in their heart. Someone whose very soul harbors a certain type of insanity. Their thought processes are impossible to fathom using a normal person's sensibilities. As far as I know, all master witches—those Level 4 or above—fit the aforementioned description."
"But... Since you say that, what about her? Your friend, Haruga-kun."
Orihime was probably trying to recall that girl's name. With a labored expression of pondering, she said, "Asya-san, if I recall correctly? She looks so delicate and dream-like, giving off such a frail impression. But she's a very powerful witch, isn't she?"
Hal expressed great approval of what had caught Orihime's eye.
"Asya only looks weak superficially. As for her true nature... Well, perhaps it'd be appropriate to describe her as a beast. She's a ferocious beast in human clothing!"
"A ferocious beast—in human clothing!?"
"She seems to have preserved the bestial instincts that many modern humans have lost during the process of evolution. That's why... She is so compatible with the primitive and primordial aspects of magic as a type of knowledge."
So-called magic was a profound field of expertise. However, knowledge and intelligence alone were not enough to master it.
Only those with mental strength and sensibilities transcending conventional boundaries were able to attain greatness.
"Asya's body and mind easily grew accustomed to the path of unorthodoxy. She is more vicious than anyone in combat and definitely barbaric, almost rivaling the dragons. That already makes her an unprecedented monster."
"W-Wait, Haruga-kun, how could you describe a girl in that manner!?"
While Hal was praising his childhood friend nonstop, Orihime stopped him for some reason.
"Did I say something weird just now? I was simply lavishing praise on her talent."
"It sounded nothing like that at all!"
"Totally! O-Of all things, you're comparing me to animals, beasts and monsters! Haruomi, what do you take a young maiden in her prime to be!?"
Hal felt concerned about the yelling coming from outside the room.
Orihime also tilted her neck in puzzlement before reaching for the paper sliding door separating the bedroom from the corridor. The door slid open with a clack to reveal Asya eavesdropping with her ears perked.
"...What are you doing?"
"...I just wanted to find out a little about what Haruomi and Orihime-san are discussing."
Asya explained, trying to play dumb.
At the same time, she turned her face to the side, avoiding eye contact with Hal.
"This isn't trying to find out a little. You're simply a suspicious character engaging in eavesdropping."
"I couldn't help it. It's all because you two are acting so sneaky with such a suspicious atmosphere! Orihime-san's grandfather seems very worried too!"
The childhood friend was yelling loudly, true to her original nature. The feigned temperament of the calm young lady was no more.
In response to her carelessness, Hal frowned and replied "That's why I keep saying you're too careless in business, Asya." Then he noticed Asya's last sentence, one that he could not ignore—Her grandfather is very worried too?
Closer examination revealed that Orihime's grandfather was currently standing behind Asya.
His facial muscles were twitching nonstop, as though suppressing certain intense emotions.
"You are Orihime's classmate at school, aren't you? I have certain things to say to you."
"Oh, sorry about that. I'll immediately resume the explanation about the ritual."
"I don't care about that right now. The most important matter at hand is this: you are the first man to ever step into my granddaughter's room."
"Eh? Is that true, Juujouji?"
"I only realized now that it was mentioned, but it does seem to be the case."
"I can't believe a young man and a young woman are spending time alone in a bedroom, it's truly too immoral. This type of behavior is the breeding ground for impure interactions between genders!"
"Yes, indeed. To stop you from abusing your classmate position to deceive my granddaughter, I must teach you a good lesson. Could you accompany me briefly?"
Asya was yelling loudly whereas the old man spoke calmly with a tense face.
Orihime's face froze in disbelief while Hal was confronted with new troubles.
Orihime's grandfather spent roughly two hours warning Hal about the "Juujouji family's ban on impure interactions between genders."
The process not only dragged on but was also unnecessarily detailed. That being said, Hal never even entertained the thought of making a move on Orihime.
After he voiced his opinion, Orihime's grandfather ended up taking offense again.
"You are saying that... My granddaughter is unattractive as a woman? That is truly an insult!"
Only after placating the old man with much difficulty could the discussion on the ritual finally resume.
Then when leaving the Juujouji residence, Asya inexplicably grumbled "I can't believe you're aiming to please a girl whom you've only met recently without even evaluating your own abilities!"
Handling Asya also took a very long time.
It was currently after 10pm. Utterly exhausted, Hal made his way home on his own. Then roughly five minutes away from his messy house—
Hal felt someone's gaze. On the dim road at night, a girl was staring at him with a sardonic smile.
Roughly aged eleven or twelve in appearance. Her facial features were very delicate. A cute girl.
However, her attire was quite strange. A scarlet kimono. Tied on her lustrous black hair was a large scarlet ribbon. Perhaps this girl already developed the same retro tastes as Orihime's grandfather at this age?
"...Who are you?"
Hal asked with suspicion on his face, because she could not possibly be an ordinary child.
If his eyesight was not mistaken, she had suddenly appeared out from the shadows in the road under the cover of night. It was almost like teleportation...
"For a mere human to possess a star's fragment... You have involved yourself in a troublesome destiny."
The girl in the kimono spoke quietly in an arrogant tone of voice.
Although her voice was as young as her appearance, there was a calmness in tone that did not match her age.
"Star, you say?"
"Are you unaware? It is the fragment of the flint star pouring flames into the conqueror's secret runes. Despite being followers of the unorthodox path, contemporary humans are rather lacking in depth of research. What a sad sight indeed."
The girl had clearly mentioned "followers of the unorthodox path."
In other words, she knew that Haruga Haruomi was involved with SAURU.
Hal then noticed at this moment. The girl's eyes had golden pupils and felt a little reptilian. Unmistakably, this was the same pair of eyes he had encountered last time at the Mansion's library!
"Discovering you in this city was truly fortunate from my standpoint... But I am as yet unsure of your capacity. Let us chat again should an opportunity arise in the future."
The girl smiled with conceit then said quietly:
"However, let me offer you a word of advice. At the current rate, you will surely die in the near term. If you wish to live, then go search deep into the ground where even the wings of dragons cannot reach. Then again, who knows if such a place actually exists in this world!"
Finishing with these words, the girl vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.
Hal had evidently crossed paths with a supernatural being. Furthermore, the encounter was accompanied by an ominous prediction of death. Perhaps all this implied—
"What happened to me was not a mental disorder... but some kind of curse or haunting?"
Uncharacteristically, Hal mumbled to himself in a daze.
"I'm so sorry for yesterday. My grandfather was acting very strangely."
It was the next day after the visit to the Juujouji residence, before homeroom started, inside the classroom at morning.
After Hal took his seat, Orihime, who had arrived first, suddenly apologized.
"You don't need to apologize. I wasn't offended. It just gave me a fright, that's all."
"Grandfather is usually quite strict but becomes over-protective in weird areas. In any case, I am very sorry for causing you additional trouble, Haruga-kun, even though it was a rare occasion for you to visit my home."
Chatting with a neighboring classmate in the morning was probably a very common scene in school.
But why? The surrounding students were suddenly clamoring.
The two girls sitting diagonally ahead, Mutou-san and Funaki-san, exchanged glances. Sitting up front, a boy—Takayama—stiffened his back with a crack.
Am I overthinking things? Despite a feeling of doubt, Hal still answered, "Every family has their own problems. I really don't mind what happened yesterday."
To be honest, the PTSD-like symptoms last time were more serious of a problem.
That really was a "curse," right? A single thought prompted thousands more thoughts to fill Hal's mind... Unaware of the troubles Hal was confronting, Orihime cheerfully said, "So here is my gesture of apology. Don't be shy, feel free to accept it."
What Orihime presented was a convenience store bag. Hal leaned forward to peer inside.
"Your apology for yesterday is only worth two Chinese-style steamed buns? Your sincerity is truly impressive, Juujouji."
"Not both of them. The caramel macchiato strawberry custard bun is mine, Haruga-kun, while yours is the ginger sauce grilled meat kimchi green tea bun. Oh, please do share your thoughts after trying it. Although I'm very curious, I really couldn't actually bring myself to try that one."
"Your fully sincere response truly fills me with awe..."
Hal reached his hand into the convenience store bag.
He frowned at both the colorful product that seemed as though it was developed in resignation by a Japanese convenience store chain as well as Orihime who was nonchalantly shoving this brightly colored object on him.
Instead of the pink bun, he tried bringing to his lips the orange bun whose hue was so intense that it looked poisonous.
"It's not exactly disgusting... But the flavor is as disharmonious as a symphony orchestra without a conductor."
"As one would think, I can't expect the feeling of security I get from the standard flavors... Actually, I originally thought of buying a meat bun and a bean paste bun, but it'd be bad if you turned out to be the kind of rebellious youth who totally scoffs at safe brands, Haruga-kun, so I decided to take a gamble."
"On the topic of food, I am just a boring guy, so plain and ordinary is good enough."
"Understood. If another chance for me to treat you comes up again, I'll try to apply what I learned from this experience."
Using her hands to break off a piece of the bun that looked like it was sickeningly sweet, Orihime gracefully delivered it to her mouth.
Meanwhile, Hal finished his bun in merely four bites. Seeing that, Orihime said, "Haruga-kun, would you like to try some of this? The excessively sweet caramel is slightly addictive. But this sweetness isn't quite normal. Rather than people with a sweet tooth, it feels more like they're targeting those with a sugar dependency."
Orihime extended a small piece of her bun.
Although this image greatly resembled an "Open up and say ah~~" kind of scene, Hal replied indifferently, "Each person should take responsibility for finishing off their own portion."
Classmates chatting casually should be a commonplace occurrence in any school.
However, Hal noticed presently that his earlier feeling was not his imagination. The surrounding classmates were all staring at him in surprise. Why was that?
"Say, Haruga... You seem to be getting along quite well with Juujouji-san..."
The boy sitting in front, Takayama, remarked resentfully, prompting Hal to retort with indifference, "You're mistaken. Juujouji is a straightforward girl who treats everyone the same. I just happen to be in her company as a matter of circumstance. However, I'm timid in personality and can't keep up with her friendly ways, so I wouldn't really call it getting along quite well."
"You, timid in personality, Haruga-kun? You must be kidding!?"
Orihime exclaimed in surprise. Hal took the opportunity to assert strongly:
"Not lying here. Can't you tell just by looking?"
"Who can tell? On the other hand, I feel like you're an exceptionally thick-skinned person, Haruga-kun."
"And you seem to be excessively upstanding."
"You are right. However, I'm not a straightforward person who treats everyone the same. I hate people who are rude or pretentious the most."
"But those kinds of people get hated by others, not just you, right?"
"H-Hold on! Haruga-kun and Juujouji-san, can I confirm something with you two first!?"
Interrupting the conversation was the girl who sat diagonally in front, Funaki-san.
She had stood up from her seat and jogged her way over to just before Hal and Orihime.
"A couple days ago, Juujouji-san said she was interested in Haruga-kun, didn't she!?"
"Yes, I did say that. Then this person started avoiding me, but after many things happened, Haruga-kun finally revealed his true colors."
"Didn't I already say so? I am shy and timid in personality."
"Liar, you simply find interpersonal relationships to be a hassle. That's just laziness."
Hal was secretly impressed. Orihime was sharp as expected, cutting straight to the point.
On the other hand, Funaki-san's eyes glowed energetically as she proceeded to ask again:
"In the past few days, you two have rapidly grown close. Next comes the second matter. Haruga-kun, you visited Juujouji-san's home yesterday, right? Did you meet her family at the time?"
"Yeah. But due to certain reasons, Juujouji later dragged me into her room."
The instant Hal gave an immediate response, the atmosphere in the classroom suddenly changed.
Why was that? Anger, resentment and jealousy were appearing in the eyes of the boys who were listening intently in the surroundings. Meanwhile, the girls were all looking this way with heightened excitement as though they were about to scream "kyah!"
As for Funaki-san, she was nodding with satisfaction.
"Now for the third matter! What were you doing, Haruga-kun, visiting Juujouji-san!?"
"Sorry, I don't want to answer. Please allow me to remain silent."
"Then Juujouji-san, if possible, could you tell me!?"
"Hmm... No, I can't tell you. Let it be a secret between the two of us. Also, I don't think it's something that can be disclosed to unrelated people."
"Understood! Then I won't pursue this matter any further!" promised Funaki-san, still with a happy look on her face.
A few days later, not only Hal but also Orihime regretted this scene.
Within a mere span of a week, rumors started spreading.
Completely unfounded and strange news was circulating in the high school division of Kogetsu Academy.
'Exposed: romantic relationship of Juujouji Orihime, the most popular beauty in the school.'
'Surprising! The one who took initiative to confess was the Princess (school slang referring to Orihime)!?'
'Her alleged boyfriend is likewise a first-year. Why would the Princess like such a gloomy-looking guy!? If hatred could kill, that guy must surely be ranked first on a "want to kill the most" poll! ※surveyed population: all male students.'
'The only man who ever stepped foot into the Princess' bedroom. We will never forgive him. Never.'
'Verification 1: since family was involved, nothing should have happened, right?'
'Verification 2: do not be overly optimistic. All boys of the school, now is the time for resolve.'
'The alleged boyfriend completely denies rumors of a romantic relationship with the Princess. Is he lying? Or being tsundere? Or is he gay?'
'Further reports: the Princess also denies of a romantic relationship. However, the shadow of doubt continues to hang over the entire affair. Has springtime arrived for the school princess who was an attainable goal for everyone? The entire male student body is crying!'
Hearing that the situation had developed into this state, Hal could not help but think—
Why was everyone spinning themselves in circles over erroneous information whose truth could not be confirmed, getting all worked up for nothing?
Since it was far too unexpected, Hal did not even get a chance to take precautions.
"In other words, that's how massively popular Juujouji is."
Hal muttered with poignant feeling.
"I'll be careful starting next time. I have to avoid carelessly talking to girls whom an indeterminate number of boys treat as virtual romantic partners as though they were worshiping idols."
The current location was the deserted rooftop of the school building. Orihime was standing before him.
They had come here because the gazes of bystanders were too aggravating when they tried to talk in the classroom or the corridors.
"I clearly denied them so many times, but why won't the rumors calm down!?"
Orihime angrily clenched her fist and complained.
"Haruga-kun and me—How impossible!"
"Is it really okay for you to assert 'how impossible' in my presence? My feelings such as male pride are a bit hurt."
"Eh? Is that how you feel about me by any chance, Haruga-kun?"
"Nope. Because I've already experienced for real the kind of risk involved in getting into that type of relationship with you. It's troublesome beyond compare."
"Say, isn't it rude as well to call someone 'a girl who is very troublesome to get into a relationship with' to her face?"
Orihime instantly retorted against Hal's slip of the tongue. Hal shrugged.
"Sigh, let's put that aside. Even if you continue to go around and deny rumors, it'd still be futile. Just wait calmly and quietly for the rumors to settle down. Toleration is the best course of action."
"...Hmph, you're talking like it has nothing to do with you."
Orihime stared intently at Hal after remarking nonchalantly.
Hal secretly felt surprised. Judging from her tone of voice, it sounded like she had already seen through his intentions.
Discreetly withdrawing from this school within a month, leaving Orihime to endure on her own... That was precisely his irresponsible plan. Hal decided to change the subject.
"By the way, the ritual's schedule is already decided. It'll take place at night, three days from now."
"...Got it. Finally, the official start is here."
Ritual. Of course, that referred to the ritual for establishing a covenant with a leviathan.
Confronted with this sudden notification, Orihime's face tensed up.
"But you mentioned last time during the explanation, right? A single misstep during the ritual could lead to a great disaster, so it's necessary to choose a wide open and uninhabited space as the venue. Has the specific location been decided yet?"
"Yeah. Based on the criteria, that place is the most suitable in this area."
Places that happened to meet all criteria required by a covenant ritual...
Such locations were normally not easy to find. However, there was a most suitable plot of land near Tokyo New Town—the Tokyo Concession that had become uninhabited.
Hal and Orihime's destination three days later was going to be a cluster of ruins in Old Tokyo.
I hope that symptoms of that mysterious curse or PTSD won't break out before the ritual concludes successfully—Hal felt compelled to pray to God whom he had never believed in.
Then on the night three days later...
Hal, Orihime and Asya were gathered in front of the Ryougoku Bridge spanning the Sumida River.
Crossing the river would take them to the area of Old Tokyo.
Although the Kuramae, Umaya, Komagata and various bridges crossing the Sumida River were not guarded by security, they were completely sealed off.
Furthermore, this Ryougoku Bridge was sealed off even more securely than the other bridges.
Not only did the bridge have a gate, but there were also security guards stationed twenty-four hours a day.
This entrance was used by police-related vehicles patrolling the area of Old Tokyo.
Gazing into the distance on that side, Orihime suddenly murmured, "Clearly it's dragon territory but humans are responsible for managing it. It's so strange."
"Those guys didn't demand 'concessions' for the purpose of living in them. They just wanted to build that."
Hal pointed into the night sky extending across the opposite shore of the Sumida River.
The wasteland of a city on the far bank was shrouded entirely in darkness without any activated illumination.
But due to the complete absence of artificial lighting, the moon and the stars seemed even brighter, their gentle white light shining on the ground surface.
Against this "illuminated" backdrop of the dark night, a pillar's silhouette was visible.
It was the Monolith standing in the center of Old Tokyo, an imposing pillar of black stone, rising over a kilometer in height.
"The surroundings of that pillar... have changed."
"Yes. Magical, spiritual and mysterious energies, miasma... That place is filled with such energies belonging to the path of unorthodoxy. Whether water, soil or air, everything has become different from that of ordinary land."
This time, it was Asya's turn to speak to Orihime who was staring in wide-eyed amazement.
"Commoners can only stay for a month before the strong magical power becomes unbearable, causing their bodies severe discomfort. Conversely, there are also advantages to land where magical power has increased."
"What you're implying is... land that facilitates rituals like this time's, right?"
Seeing her potential junior, Orihime, comprehending, Asya suddenly smiled.
"A correct answer. For a large-scale ritual like a leviathan's birth, the spiritual and magical energies residing in the soil must not be overlooked. Hence, tonight—"
"That is why we came to Old Tokyo to find a place with strong spiritual energy."
The magical power in the soil waxed and waned depending on weather, seasons and leyline conditions.
To check magical power conditions tonight, Hal took out his oft-used pocket watch.
"What is that?"
"My tool of the trade, it's called the Clockwork Mage."
Answering Orihime's inquiry, Hal lightly lifted up in the silvercrafted pocket watch.
This was the memento he had discovered in his father's study soon after returning to Tokyo New Town. An old-fashioned mechanical watch with hundreds of turning parts such as gears, winders, springs and oscillators.
This was the Clockwork Mage. Also a modern version of a mage's wand.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. The sounds of the second hand counted out intervals of time.
It needed to be synchronized with his heart rate. Hal adjusted his breathing. Right now, the second hand's rate of movement was almost identical to his pulse.
The watch hand and his heart. Hal imagined both of them moving with the same rhythm.
Tick-tock, badump, tick-tock, badump.
Hence, the second hand slowed down slightly to reach the exact same rhythm as Hal's heart. In that very instant, magical power was generated.
A supernatural power that commoners were not supposed to be capable of generating.
"I've heard that in the Chinese art of geomancy, Feng Shui, it is very important to capture circulatory flows in the ground—dragon pulses. Try using this principle to observe the flow and distribution of magical power."
Hal spread out an aerial photo of the Old Tokyo area.
This photo was apparently taken from the air. Holding a red pen in his right hand, Hal drew a number of circles on the map. What guided the pen's movement was not Hal's own will.
Instead, it was the spell of Leyline Exploration performed using the clockwork device's magical power.
Naturally, the circled locations all held strong magical power.
"Is this one okay? I also get the feeling that it's a wide open space."
"The Ochanomizu neighborhood? Got it. Then let's go there."
Hal immediately nodded in agreement with Asya's comment after she examined the map and the circles.
On the other hand, Orihime was staring at the pocket watch with eyes full of curiosity.
"Although I've heard of this type of device, it's actually my first time seeing one. So with this in hand, even commoners can use magic?"
"Naturally, it doesn't work unless the holder understands magic to a certain extent."
Hal put away the pocket watch and said, "This thing allows me to perform magic up to Rank B5, so it's not bad as a portable tool. Anyway, let's hurry and get moving."
Having said that, Hal turned his gaze to the light motor vehicle parked on a nearby road. It was a car owned by SAURU that he had asked Kenjou to deliver here.
"Hold on, a car is all fine and good, but who's going to drive it?"
"It's a bit late to be asking this kind of question."
"Don't worry. Neither Haruomi nor I have any trouble driving."
Confronted with the issue Orihime had pointed out, Hal shrugged whereas Asya answered readily.
"...According to Japanese laws, people under the age of eighteen shouldn't be able to obtain a driver's license. Also, you're in my year group, Haruga-kun. Did you ever repeat grades in school?"
"No, Juujouji, I was born in the same year as you. I'm still a young and tender fifteen-year-old."
"Somehow it feels really wrong to hear Haruomi calling himself young and tender... Oh by the way, I'm only fifteen as well, like everyone here. A girl who outblooms even a flower."
"Say, Asya, didn't you ravenously wolf down a large amount of edible chrysanthemums or some other kind of flower earlier?"
"Umm... I'll be blunt then. Do either of you have a license?"
Orihime asked with a very melancholic look on her face.
She looked like she was worrying about what to do, as if she had discovered a reserve army of criminals.
Hence, Asya puffed out her flat chest and took out her driver's license with a giggling smile.
"That's what you're worrying about? Just as you can see, my preparations are impeccable."
"I'm fine too. Despite requiring a bit of money to acquire, it does come in handy for various situations henceforth. I've already obtained a Japanese driver's license."
Hal also took out his license. However, Orihime reacted with an expression of shock.
"Anastasya Kaminsky, nineteen years old. Haruda Harunosuke, eighteen years old. How exactly should I comment on the names and dates of birth that differ from what I previously heard..."
"Oh—Let me explain for your information. There exists a type of profession in this world where people will prepare all sorts of documents for you as long as you're introduced through friends and provide a reward."
"Their help was frequently necessary when I first started this line of work."
"Also, the only forgeries here are the licenses. Our skills are totally legitimate."
"As for driving experience, Haruomi and I once took turns driving through the Taklamakan Desert in a military jeep, following an oasis that went across the desert. Please rest assured."
"I'm not concerned about driving skills. It's the issue of suspicious, forged licenses!"
After getting the surprised Orihime seated in the back of the light motor vehicle, Asya squeezed into the front passenger seat while Hal sat down as the driver. Starting the car, he stepped on the gas pedal.
The car gradually approached the gate on Ryougoku Bridge used by police vehicles.
Although the research organization of SAURU did not secretly control the Japanese government as suggested by urban rumors, they did maintain intimate ties to many state organizations.
The date-stamped access pass was already prepared.
The access gate's appearance resembled a highway's toll station. However, what blocked their path ahead was a very sturdy looking fence. A police officer, in his late thirties approximately, was on standby before the gate, hence Hal stopped the car in front of the gate and extended his pass out of the window.
After glancing over the pass, the police officer returned it to Hal and operated a switch.
...Accompanied by the sound of turning machinery, the fence gradually rose up.
Thus Hal and company entered the former Yasukuni Street, a road from Ryougoku to Shinjuku, traversing the former capital in times past before it became a wasteland.
Driven by Hal, the car advanced smoothly.
Traveling along the former Yasukuni Street, the car passed through Asakusa Bridge and the district of Higashi-Kanda.
However, everywhere was deserted. The hustle and bustle of innumerable cars and pedestrians of the past had all vanished. Naturally, there was no street lighting either. Apart from their car's headlights, the only remaining light sources were the moon and the stars.
Along the way, the trio witnessed a tragic scene in the district of Iwamotochou.
"They sure rampaged to an unbelievable degree."
"Abandoned immediately after the destruction wrought by the dragons, I guess..."
Orihime concurred with Hal's comment.
A flock of hungry dragons had probably flown in back then. Skyscrapers, multi-tenant buildings, ordinary family residences, public facilities, warehouses, factories, shops—The whole city was pulverized, torn apart and incinerated until nothing was left.
Various types of construction materials were scattered all over the place as rubble and debris.
Fortunately, none of the remains were enough to constitute road obstacles. Without needing to take detours, the trio continued to advance.
"If left alone to rampage, Raptors—this goes the same for the lesser dragon flying in last time—are capable of destruction that's no joking matter. Even more so for elite dragons. Speaking of how terrifying they are... I don't even want to give them any thought," remarked Asya lightly, seated next to the driver.
The beauty of her fairy-like face was mixed with a warrior's solemn dignity, like a renowned sword that had been sharpened. She often displayed this type of expression whenever matters of power and battle were brought up.
"You previously mentioned those elite dragons, Asya-san? How are they different?"
Her curiosity piqued by Asya's remark, Orihime proceeded to inquire of her soon-to-be senior.
"Well... Elites are more than double the size of Raptors and very powerful in combat strength. Apart from that, they're also well-versed in many languages."
After a moment of thinking, Asya began to explain.
"This includes Sumerian and Coptic languages, Ancient Greek, Latin, and various languages used by modern humans. There's also their own language, Hyperborean, as well as the runic symbols of Ruruk Soun which are said to have gathered all magical wisdom possessed by dragonkind... In addition, elites have very strong magical power, making super high-level magic as easy to perform as breathing for them."
"You mean magic like the spell Haruga-kun just used?"
"Nowhere close. Magic of ours on this level cannot compare to that of the dragons at all. However, witches and leviathans are able to control magical power on a similar level as them."
"But even if power level is the same, there is still a gap in magical proficiency and experience... To be honest, I wouldn't want to fight them at all unless my side outnumbers them four to one or more."
Asya's combat record was supposed to include several occasions when she had fought elite dragons.
After hearing the sincere opinion of Asya who had survived these deadly encounters, Orihime remarked with heartfelt emotion, "Then if I became a witch as well, is it possible I might have to fight those elite dragons?"
"Chances are not low. If it's just Raptors, even ordinary military can oppose them. But elites can use magic to disable mechanical parts and disorient people on the order of tens of thousands... Hence, no one can handle them except for witches with leviathans."
"Also, elites often wander the earth in search of things like precious metals, rare metals and foci bearing magical power."
Experts like Hal and Asya seldom referred to Raptors as "dragons" because somewhere in their hearts existed a certain mindset—Ultimately, the only true dragons were the elites.
After listening to them, Orihime nodded greatly and said, "Speaking of which, is that red dragon an elite too? The one you can often find on internet videos, making speeches in fluent English—Oh right, Hannibal!"
The giant red dragon had flown to the Rockefeller Center twenty-odd years ago.
Since his self-introduction was simply "I am the king and representative of dragonkind," the people of Earth gave him another nickname. Namely, "Hannibal."
The name of the famous ancient Carthaginian general who had ravaged the Roman Republic in the past...
Hal exchanged a glance with Asya then quickly responded, "Of course. In our world, that guy is the most famous of the elites."
"By the way, Haruomi, any update on that 'mental disorder'?"
"It hasn't recurred again, at least for now. But I've been thinking, perhaps it's actually due to something like haunting or a curse."
"Now that you mention it, I do recall that it's quite possible for us to encounter those beings due to work..."
Then there were those classified as Caesar Draconis, commonly known as "dragon kings."
They were the irregulars reigning supreme at the top of the elite dragons. However, it would be premature to discuss this topic with a newcomer who had yet to become a witch...
Unaware that Hal and Asya were secretly withholding information, Orihime began to show interest in the new subject of conversation.
"H-Hold on, what do you mean by a curse?"
"Nothing much, just the symptoms that broke out during the dragon encounter last time. In the beginning, I thought it was something like PTSD but there are many aspects worth pondering over."
Hal recalled the situation when he had encountered the mysterious spirit(?) while explaining, "In my family's case, I've had past experiences because Pops and I often suffered retribution when visiting places like ancient tombs. Speaking of which, Pops died all of a sudden when his health failed without warning."
"I think it's best that you pay the SAURU headquarters a visit to get diagnosed."
"All kinds of things really can happen in your line of work, Haruga-kun..."
By the time they noticed, their car had already reached the vicinity of their destination.
The neighborhood formerly known as Ochanomizu...
Although situated in the heart of the city, this area was unlike commercial and business districts. In the past, there were many universities and hospitals here. The location that caught Hal and Asya's eyes was also a certain university's campus.
Their car stopped in a corner of the parking lot located inside the university's back entrance.
After getting off, Hal and Asya immediately started preparations.
First, Hal clutched his pocket watch tightly to perform Altar Formation magic.
As a result, blue light suddenly appeared from the ground of the vast open space. At the same time, complicated shapes, letters, numbers and symbols were being rapidly traced out one after another on the ground.
This was the magic circle used for carrying out a ritual of Leviathan Birth.
Then Hal pulled a trunk case out from the car and took out the Grave Good inside.
An ancient mirror, polished from white copper. Hal had no idea whether it was found in a shrine or a museum somewhere, but it definitely felt very historical.
Hal placed this white copper mirror in the center of the magic circle.
In technical parlance, an artifact like this mirror would be called the "magical apparatus for enshrined object emulation."
Once the covenant ritual was completed, it would become the leviathan's core—the Heartmetal—and start functioning as the cardiac organ of the super lifeform closely related to dragonkind.
"Okay, with this, the altar's preparations are done."
"I'm ready on my side too. The connection to the New Town branch office is secured. We can start any time."
Asya reported while facing a notebook computer connected through a satellite cellphone.
Orihime jumped in surprise. With an impressed look, she was watching Hal and Asya in action.
"Eh, you're already done? Not even ten minutes have passed since we got off the car."
"Nothing of that sort. Haven't you waited for a very long time before coming here? Also, counting back, more than half a year has elapsed since we came to Tokyo. During this time, Juujouji, Istanbul's SAURU headquarters has been making many preparations for you."
"That's right. Not only does the composition formula for the 'serpent' need to be calculated and the required magic circle designed, but adjustments are also needed to accommodate the Grave Good your side prepared."
Asya spoke while operating the computer.
"Via a direct line at the New Town branch office, this terminal is currently connected to the Wizard's Clock at the Istanbul headquarters... as well as 'Grandmother Immortal.' Although only Haruomi and I are present here, even more people are currently on standby for this ritual."
A look of respect and admiration appeared on Orihime's face after she was told the situation. Hal also chimed in to say, "Juujouji, your task is to just wait a little longer. Look carefully at the shadow of the 'serpent' that will be born for you... Okay, Asya, it's up to you now."
"Very well—O mother of the immortals, I hereby invite on your behalf the priestess who shall inherit your soul!" chanted Asya sonorously while facing the giant magic circle.
Astoundingly strong magical power was erupting from her delicate body.
A task requiring Hal to use a clockwork device to perform was accomplished by a witch with just her heart. Every time the childhood friend's chest pulsated, magical power flowed out endlessly.
Furthermore, a vast amount of magical power and ingenious spells were being transmitted from the Istanbul headquarters.
Bridging both sides was an electronic version of the Clockwork Mage that was installed in the notebook computer together with the satellite cellphone, first connecting to Tokyo New Town's Mirokudou through the cellphone's signals then reaching the Istanbul headquarters through a high-speed direct line.
Evaluated in terms of transmission bandwidth, this communications channel would probably be considered very slow.
However, this was a magical ritual.
No matter what form taken, magic was able to construct a spiritual bond known as the Astral Link as long as the person in the priestly role carrying out the ritual was mutually connected to the Istanbul headquarters.
Even if the medium was wireless or a conventional phone, in the end, the same result could still be obtained.
"O queen who gazes down on all creation with the eyes of the great sorceress, O noble advisor who possesses infinite wisdom."
"You are the one wielding authority. By your pale and noble hands, heaven and earth is nurtured, guided and shaped."
"O queen and sovereign who purifies rivers and makes water flow. We worship your divinity and pledge our allegiance. O mother, I implore you to grant her your protection and confer your guidance!"
In response to Asya's chanting, the "shadow" on the magic circle gradually grew larger.
It was the black silhouette of an enormous beast. Quadrupedal and mammalian in form, its overall physique was slender. What was it shouldering on its back?
This shadow was the materialization of the leviathan about to be born.
Orihime murmured with eyes wide in surprise, "So that's a 'serpent'... The leviathan born for my sake...?"
"Indeed. But it's still unknown whether the birth will succeed since it's currently just a spiritual body that's still unable to manifest in the present world... A shadow 'serpent,' that's all. Juujouji, if the covenant's bond fails to connect your body and mind to that thing, it will remain stranded in the present world—"
Halfway through the explanation, Hal was stunned with surprise. Flames?
Suddenly, Hal's field of view became dominated by fire without warning.
Burning. The altar where the ritual was taking place, Asya chanting sonorously, Orihime looking up at the shadow nervously, the scenery of the wasteland in the distance, everything was set ablaze.
Was this the illusion of flames he had experienced before? Hal was struck with unease.
Last time when he saw these flames, there was a Raptor nearby. Could it be possible that this time as well—However, there was not the slightest dragon's shadow in sight. Neither could the presence of dragons be sensed...
Hal frantically surveyed his surroundings but blocked by the flames, he could not see clearly.
"Damn it, get out of the way!"
Hal roared angrily. The intensely burning flames instantly vanished without trace.
Hal's forceful vigor had dispelled the mysterious hallucination—Was that the conclusion to be drawn? Hal found it strange but kept looking around him. There were no signs of dragons nearby.
"What's the matter, Haruga-kun? Is there a problem?" asked Orihime in worry from her position next to him.
However, Hal was too preoccupied to answer her. Holding the pocket watch, he invoked the magic of Enemy Detection.
Immediately, guided by magic, he turned around exactly 180 degrees.
Amplified to telescopic levels, his vision captured a certain shape. At first glance, it resembled a large bird.
A Stellar's sea eagle or similar bird? Or one of the rare birds of prey inhabiting the mountain forest near the city?
But he was wrong. It was comparable to an eagle only in size but completely different in form.
"How on earth..."
Perched on some school's roof, the lifeform was gazing down at the altar—
A winged dragon. The scales on its body's surface were bronze in color.
It seemed to have noticed Hal's gaze. Flying leisurely through the air, it descended gracefully towards them. Unmistakable.
Realizing the dragon's true identity, Hal managed to make a sound with much difficulty.
"Halt the ritual, Juujouji and Asya. The most terrifying monster has appeared—An elite is flying at us!"
No dragons existing in the world were actually this small in size.
Even the Raptors, known as lesser dragons, were typically over five meters in body length. However—
Hal recalled what had been explained to Orihime just earlier.
—All elite dragons were masters of magic. For them, Miniaturization magic was probably no different from child's play.
Descending gracefully, the bronze dragon was undoubtedly an elite dragon—scientific name: Eques Draconis—that had miniaturized itself!
|Back to Chapter 1||Return to Main Page||Forward to Chapter 3|