Leviathan:Volume 1 Chapter 4
Chapter 4 - Soth's Counterattack
A triangular prism of pure black, standing over a kilometer tall—the Monolith.
A giant structure that dragons always built in concession territories without exception.
It was said that the construction of a Monolith required high-level magic of the elite dragons. From any wide open space, the Monolith's imposing appearance could even be seen easily from Tokyo New Town.
But nighttime was different.
The pure-black pillar had no lighting.
Hence, once night fell, it would always disappear from the sight of New Town's inhabitants. That being said, a mysterious pillar of blazing flame had illuminated the black landmark's majestic appearance...
"That flame... must be related to dragons after all."
After reading the text message she had received on her cellphone, Shirasaka Hazumi sighed.
Last night at 11pm or so, a pillar of fire had appeared in the sky in Old Tokyo's direction, adding crimson illumination to the dark sky that only had the moon and the stars as light sources.
Like the majority of residents, Hazumi was also witnessing the scene from her window at home.
In the end, the pillar of fire burned for roughly ten minutes or so before vanishing as abruptly as it had appeared.
Almost like a leviathan, the supernatural "serpent" summoned by Hazumi—
"Oh, I have to text back... 'Understood, I'll head over immediately.'"
Dressed in Kogetsu Academy's uniform while operating her cellphone, Hazumi was the very image of a middle school girl about to make her way to school. In fact, she was currently at the platform of Ryougoku Station, the rail station closest to the school.
However, instead of exiting the station, she boarded the train sliding into the platform.
Her destination was Shin-Kiba where the Mansion was located.
Whenever dragons flew to Tokyo New Town or various neighboring cities, if authorities concluded that sending her to fight would be "more effective and economical" than mobilizing the police, the Self-Defense Force or the TPDO, they would order her to summon her "serpent."
That was Shirasaka Hazumi's mission and responsibility.
If she wanted, she could probably request for a luxury courtesy car to take her to and from school or the Mansion.
No, it would be more accurate to say that all the adults around her wanted to do so. Not only to protect her, a little-known but important figure of New Town, but also as a matter of convenience.
Nevertheless, Hazumi liked to travel by train.
It never sat well with her to trouble others for matters she could clearly handle on her own.
After a bumpy train ride, she alighted at Shin-Kiba Station on the New Town Loop Line.
Then she started walking on foot. Arriving at the Mansion ten minutes later, Hazumi greeted the man at the reception then entered the building to reach the lobby.
"Good morning, Yukari-san."
"G'mornin', Hazumi-san. Then I'll skip the pleasantries. I've heard that things have gotten very strange."
The woman, whom Hazumi was acquainted with, spoke while sitting on the sofa in the lobby.
Hiiragi Yukari was the technical consultant belonging to the research organization of SAURU.
As part of her job, she was in charge of managing all witches active in the region. At the same time, she would "mobilize" witches in response to requests from civilian organizations and government agencies, support and protect witches, and even coordinate matters of training and cultivation.
Naturally, these duties were extremely important. However, Yukari was still young.
Although she was wearing a white blouse and a cardigan with a long skirt on the bottom, a high school uniform would probably not look too out of place on her either.
"Just as written in that text, last night's 'covenant ritual'... was interrupted due to an attack from an elite dragon. Fortunately, thanks to the active efforts of the bodyguards, the witch candidate seems to be fine."
"Yes. Orihime-neesama informed me last night that she was safe."
"Right, you two are cousins after all."
Nodding elegantly and generously, Yukari smiled.
Her long black hair and red-framed glasses reinforced her image as an intellectual beauty. Be that as it may, those eyes behind the glasses were slightly lethargic while deeply memorable.
"The problem is that the whereabouts of both the elite dragon and the Grave Good prepared for Orihime-san are currently unknown. The boy who went along to administer the ritual... Although he is quite clever, I'm a bit worried because he tends to run into misfortune at inopportune occasions."
"Is he someone you know, Yukari-san!?"
Hazumi stared wide-eyed after hearing the unexpected news.
"U-Umm, if you don't mind, perhaps I could head over to search the ruins...? If I rely on Minadzuki, perhaps I could cast search magic—"
Hazumi was a Level 2 witch.
She had yet to achieve full mastery of "serpent" control.
But even as a fledgling witch, as long as she listened intently to her partner's voice and offered her prayers sincerely, the leviathan would still exhibit substantial "power."
"Thank you, but you don't have to worry. He still seems to be alive. Apparently, the girl who was administering the ritual with him received a text saying 'I made it after all. It's fine if you retreated first.'"
"He's an eccentric with a peculiar personality after all. A bit abnormal in sociability. But he is very capable for his age and accustomed to traveling around the world. A very interesting boy."
Unsure how to respond to this candid character commentary, Hazumi could only nod ambiguously.
However, her curiosity was slightly piqued. Due to her frail health and the need to be stationed at Tokyo constantly, she had not gone on distant journeys for a number of years now.
Hence, the word "traveling" held great attraction to her.
"...If there's a chance, I would really like to have a brief chat with him."
"To think you'd ignore the detail about him being an eccentric with a peculiar personality. Nothing less expected of you, Hazumi-san."
Hazumi paused for a moment then smiled faintly. In the end, Yukari was impressed by her for some reason.
"True. It might be quite amusing to see your angelic ways breach the barrier the eccentric puts up against others."
"P-Please don't say strange things. I'm nothing like that."
"Relax, you're definitely qualified. In your case, even if one were to ignore your personality, you'd definitely get certified as a first-rate angel by a comfortable margin based purely on appearance alone."
Hazumi could not help but feel shy under Yukari's narrowed and direct gaze.
Since people would occasionally tell her how greatly she resembled her elder cousin, Hazumi surmised that her own appearance should not be too bad. But even if that was the case, such praises would be too exaggerated...
Just as Hazumi shrank away, Yukari changed the subject.
"Until we confirm where the elite dragon that had surfaced in Old Tokyo disappeared to, Hazumi-san, I hope you can remain here on standby for now, just in case of a reappearance—"
It need not be spelt out. When the time came, Yukari would request for her to head to the scene and fight alongside her "serpent."
Hazumi had no experience in fighting elites.
However, no one else in the Kantou region currently had the ability to do.
"I-I will try my best," declared Hazumi, feeling a surging sense of responsibility.
But it was quite unbearable to behold her frailty that was the antithesis of a forceful display.
"Apart from you, Hazumi-san, a master-class witch also happens to be staying in New Town at the moment. I will talk to her and see."
"Y-Yes. Thank you."
Yukari left the lobby after speaking briskly.
Hazumi hastily bowed to her while she was leaving. Despite being born with aptitude to be a witch, Hazumi was absolutely not someone who enjoyed fighting and conflict. Even now, she still did not understand the body of knowledge called "magic."
That was what Hazumi was like. It would be wonderful if she could receive support from a more accomplished witch by her side.
After Yukari departed, Hazumi went to put down her schoolbag in the room set aside exclusively for her use.
Then she made her way to the courtyard. Given her position as what one could call the mistress of this Mansion, there was one fact that she had difficulty voicing openly. Namely, to Hazumi, the building was absolutely not a comfortable place.
However, the courtyard was a separate matter.
The lawn was neatly trimmed. A carefully maintained flowerbed. More importantly, it had ample sunlight.
Lighting inside the Mansion was quite dim and it felt like being shrouded in heavy air.
In the past, Hazumi had discreetly discussed this with Yukari alone but she ended up smiling in a troubled manner and replying "You really are an angel, Hazumi-san"—
Arriving at the courtyard, Hazumi took a seat in her usual chair.
Enjoying the comfort of spring's gentle breeze, she recalled the school where the new term had just started.
Due to a witch's basic duties, it was unavoidable that she often missed school.
Attendance and various other issues were "adjusted" by those in the school administration who were in the know.
But compared to receiving special treatment secretly, what would please Hazumi more was being able to attend school normally, to spend time in school normally—
"What's the matter, Minadzuki?"
Even without being summoned, leviathans still protected their witches.
Hazumi inquired of her "serpent" because a Protection spell for repelling evil magic had suddenly deployed. Immediately, she could sense the magical presence interleaved in the wind.
This was most likely a coercive force bringing Death. Hazumi shuddered.
"You seem to have caught my eye, imitation's covenantee."
A staid but ominous voice was heard in the courtyard.
Spontaneously, a figure dressed in a black hooded robe appeared.
"Pray forgive my breach of etiquette. Naturally, I know that I ought to descend magnificently from the sky to purify these lands in a fiery blaze. A dragon's style as it should be. However, I must currently store up power no matter what, in preparation for the next adventure."
The robe was very similar to those worn by sorcerers in fantasy illustrations.
With very long sleeves and a hem reaching the ankles, it did not resemble modern Japanese clothing at all. In fact, let alone Japanese, this garment's wearer was not even human.
Beneath the hood was a reptilian face as ferocious as a dinosaur's.
The arm exposed from the long sleeve was covered with scales. A dragon's hand featuring five fingers with sharp claws.
Rather than a human, it was an elite dragon that had taken on humanoid form using magic.
The half-man half-dragon monster spoke to Hazumi who could not help but scream.
"My name is Raak Al Soth, the wanderer who seeks the Road to Kingship."
The dragon opened his jaws wide.
Dense rows of sharp teeth could be seen inside.
"I wish to rob you of your imitation. To slay the false king and drag him off his throne, I, too, need the power of dragonbane—A dragonslaying weapon!"
"So it's already morning..."
Sparrows were chirping away somewhere. The morning sunlight was hurting Hal's eyes too.
Waking up in a refreshed mood, Hal flipped over the blanket covering his body.
Luckily, his body did not hurt much thanks to having five cushions to use as a mattress. As a side note, what Hal used as a bedroom was the front entrance of a mixed tenant building whose name he did not even know. The building's automatic door, which was no longer operational, was just before his eyes.
After a great yawn, Hal stood up.
It was not long after daybreak. He was on the shore of the Sumida River, in the area that was called Higashi-Nihonbashi in the past.
A mountain bike was parked near his temporary shelter.
After Soth disappeared last night, Hal had "searched" all over the place among the buildings in the area. In the end, he discovered this bike that was probably used for commuting in the past.
Fortunately, Hal had skillful hands and the problem of needing a key could be "resolved" using his tools at hand.
Having secured a new "pair of legs" to replace the car he had lost, Hal went to the Sumida River shore and decided to camp there.
After all, it was late at night and he was exhausted. More importantly, he was sleepy.
Having located bedding through the same methods as the bike, Hal spent the night peacefully like that until morning arrived—
"That was no dream last night..."
Hal muttered to himself. His memories of the "night of destiny" were far too vivid and real.
Hal opened his right hand and discovered that the Secret Rune of the Bow, carved there vividly like a tattoo, had vanished without him knowing when. He frowned.
Then suddenly coming up with an idea, he took out his knife and tried to stab the back of his left hand.
Ouch. Droplets of blood seeped out.
"But I was clearly unharmed by Soth's attacks... The rune of Ruruk Soun has also disappeared. What the heck is going on?"
"Fool. That would be because you lack that intent."
Someone responded to Hal's mutterings. Rather than a hallucination, it was a real voice.
Hal looked behind him to see the girl standing there. Dressed in a scarlet kimono, looking only eleven or twelve years old yet excessively arrogant, that girl—
The self-styled devil, an unidentified dragon's ghost.
"That's so convenient how you can suddenly appear and disappear."
"Not exactly. After all, the time limit for materializing is not long."
Confronted with the reappeared girl, Hal said calmly and quietly, "I'm the one who decided to step in the trap on my own, to accept your bizarre invitation, so there's basically nothing to complain about... But wasn't that ridiculous physical resilience going way too far? It felt like I'd be fine even if I got trampled by an elephant."
"Of course you will be fine. In order to kill you when you have that intent, even a dragon must call forth skills beyond breathing fire with full force."
"Oh my, to think I've exceeded the realm of ordinary humans that much..."
Hearing the girl explain with confidence and composure, Hal could not help but stare out into the distance.
"By the way, what specifically do you mean by that intent? Is it 'I don't wanna die!' or something like that?"
"Indeed. Nevertheless, brat, that level of effect is nothing more than a bonus for the power you have obtained. You haven't forgotten the potency of the Bow that sent the dragon retreating, have you?"
Hal nodded glumly. Of course he could not have forgotten.
"That was precisely the dragonslaying bow, a weapon of heaven capable of killing dragonkind. By obtaining a top-ranked seal from among the Secret Runes of Ruruk Soun, you have acquired what is tantamount to God's hammer."
The girl smiled lightly. It was a very diabolical smile.
However, Hal deliberately pretended not to notice.
No matter how he interpreted them, these were what one would call the devil's honeyed words, with an additional helping of excessive sugar and flattery. It was highly likely that she wanted to entice him.
Indeed, it was thanks to that whatever secret rune that he had succeeded in repelling the elite dragon.
But since this tool had dropped into his lap out of the blue, it was highly probable that he could lose it just as suddenly. Neither optimistic nor enterprising in personality, Haruga Haruomi was not one to value such things. And more importantly—
"I remember 'shooting' it last night for sure, but the body you used as materials for the Bow at the time... It's gone now, right? It already crumbled and collapsed, even burning up until nothing was left."
If the power of the Secret Rune of the Bow was to create the dragonslaying bow—
Was "a dragon's body" the required material? Hal could not be certain since he only used it once, but he had a faint feeling that this was so.
Perhaps as the secret rune's master, he had subconsciously understood the usage method.
"Fufu, sufficient cleverness might be considered your strength. But too superficial, your thoughts and considerations are far too superficial."
The girl jeered while finding fault in Hal's opinion.
"How now? If you are willing to kneel down and beg me, I might very well take you by the hand and instruct you personally on a whim of generosity, perhaps?"
"No thanks. Your instructions aren't very trustworthy, to be honest."
Hal cautiously evaded the germinating seed of danger. As long as contact with spirits was avoided, one would naturally avoid getting haunted.
If he fell headlong into this secret rune business, it felt like there was a high chance of getting involved with "an unusual future."
This came from the instincts of a treasure hunter who understood magic somewhat.
"Yesterday too, I was almost burnt to death by the ritual you arranged for me."
"What words are you speaking? I should have refused you from the start. As said previously, you have met the devil."
The girl immediately responded to Hal's accusation with nonchalance.
"Rather, it would be better to say that a deal with the devil is guaranteed to be a trap."
"Then let me ask you, self-styled devil. Why did you give this precious treasure to someone like me instead of your fellow dragons?"
"A noble and beautiful heart founded upon philanthropy and benevolence."
"Thank you. You've given me evidence that your words cannot be trusted."
Hal began to pack up.
Either way, he managed to survive, so he should hurry and return to New Town! He was hungry and wanted a shower too. A nap after getting home would be nice as well.
Pushing the mountain bike, Hal strode ahead.
At this time, the girl followed and walked beside him with a matter-of-fact expression.
"Entry is refused to stalkers. House rules."
"You evidently need a lesson on how to express gratitude to your savior."
"Aren't you an extraterrestrial lifeform that only saved me out of ulterior motives? You even made me shoulder a whole load of different risks. Calling yourself my 'savior" is way too unconvincing. However, I don't care if you follow me."
This was a dragon's ghost calling herself the devil. Driving her away was probably impossible.
In that case, accepting her presence was probably the better choice instead.
"But you have to hide when others are around. Talking is not my thing and there's no way I can explain clearly to everyone why I'm being haunted by something like a guardian angel."
"This wish of yours should probably come to pass."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Not much remains of my energy for interfering with terrestrial phenomena. I am dead after all and even lost my remains in the battle last night, so materializing frivolously is not possible."
Not much remains. In other words, she meant "there was still some"?
Reading between the lines, Hal nodded secretly to himself.
"Oh right. It's a bit late to ask now, but what's your name? How should I address you?"
"In that case... Hinokagutsuchi will suffice."
The non-human girl answered solemnly in response to this question that could not be more basic.
It was the name of the fire god in Japanese mythology. Back in the extremely distant age of myths, Hinokagutsuchi's mother, Izanami, had died after childbirth due to getting burnt by his flames. The father, Izanagi, slew the matricidal child in a fit of rage using his divine sword.
During that event, Hinokagutsuchi's blood and corpse gave birth to countless deities—
"What a meaningful name, even as a choice of alias."
If Hal's memory served him correctly, Soth seemed to have called her true form the "Queen"...
In any case, Hal made his way to the gate leading to New Town, accompanied by the girl who called herself Hinokagutsuchi.
Hal had no idea that from this point onwards, his life was going to change nonstop like a tumbling rock.
During the dawn of fantasy RPGs, players were apparently encouraged to enter and ransack people's homes without permission, engaging in theft of items.
Hal's mountain bike was obtained through similar means.
Having been abandoned for upwards of a decade or more, it was clearly in poor condition.
However, Hal had taken the previous night as a chance to lubricate the bike and use tape to reinforce damaged parts, applying makeshift maintenance and repairs.
Thanks to that, the bike was still relatively smooth to ride.
Furthermore, Hinokagutsuchi disappeared on her own after Hal started riding the bike.
Abandoning the bike near the Ryougoku Bridge's gate, Hal then presented his access pass and went through the gate alone.
Taking the New Town Loop Line, he reached Narihirabashi Station in the Sumida ward by train, finally returning to the station closest to his home.
Then he continued home on foot.
(By the way, brat, you had brought companions, yes?)
Along the way home, Hinokagutsuchi's whispered lightly in his ear.
Something so convenient was apparently possible even when in immaterial form—when her tangible body had disappeared.
(Is it fine for you to ignore them?)
(Before sleeping last night, I already texted them I was safe, so let's talk about this later. Anyway, I just want to get home first and relax.)
Hal replied quietly.
He had spent the night outdoors in the outskirts of Old Tokyo along the Sumida River. Cellphones were usable there due to reception from New Town signal towers.
Asya had sent three texts to inquire if Hal was safe.
In addition, there were roughly ten missed calls from Asya.
Hal had responded with a brief text before going to sleep. Having learnt that Asya and Orihime had returned to New Town safe and sound, he felt a great load lifted from his heart.
The two girls had probably contacted Kenjou at Mirokudou via satellite phone to have him pick them up, right?
And now, Hal himself was finally home, however—
In front of the residence resembling a haunted house, two girls were standing outside the heavy door like imposing temple guardians.
Asya and Orihime. Casting sharp gazes filled with anger, the two of them eyed Hal from head to foot as though performing an examination.
(It's almost like they're mad at me, scolding me for being insensitive.)
("Almost" is redundant, imbecile. As a person, righteous fury is the only proper response to a fool who escaped a dragon's jaws yet failed to get in touch.)
Hal could not help but mutter, thus earning a response of exasperation.
Hearing a non-human spirit discuss behavior "as a person," Hal felt rather indignant.
Looking at Asya and Orihime's expressions of serious anger, Hal hunched his neck.
In the worst case, this self-styled Hinokagutsuchi could very well be right...
"That should be enough practice by now, shouldn't it? Haruga-kun, please read out your reflection statement for us."
"Uh, 'I am truly sorry for worrying everyone. I will refrain from this type of neglect henceforth, always remembering to report back, make contact and discuss with you at all times, to act with self-awareness as a teammate'..."
"Totally unacceptable. Lacking in both sincerity and ardor."
"This proves that you still don't understand your position. Oh, Haruomi, please don't relax your sitting posture without permission. You've been sitting formally in seiza for merely half an hour. How undisciplined."
Although he finally made it back home, Hal still did not have permission to enter the house.
He was forced into kneeling outside his own home—in seiza posture in front of the entrance—enduring scolding from both Orihime and Asya, then having to write a reflection statement and recite it.
According to the girls:
'If you were safe and sound, why didn't you inform us swiftly in detail!?'
After sending out the brief text to report his survival, Hal had switched off his cellphone and gone to sleep. He was in no mood to talk to anyone because too many things had happened.
This careless act had apparently offended the girls greatly.
Hal kept his head down while listening respectfully to the double serving of lecturing. He had no other recourse. In any case, he was constantly urged to reflect on his own behavior.
Soon after, seeing Hal acting obediently, Orihime sighed deeply.
"No matter what, I am very glad you're safe and sound, Haruga-kun. Also, I really must thank you."
"Thank you for yesterday. The fact that I am standing here alive right now is partially thanks to Asya-san while the other half is thanks to you, Haruga-kun."
Orihime suddenly stopped lecturing and switched to expressing her gratitude. This unexpected attack instantly rendered Hal speechless. To be thanked so directly by someone—It felt very awkward.
Unable to come up with a good response, Hal could only scratch his head while pretending not to hear.
"I'll only say this here, but actually, I cried a bit once I found out you were safe and sound, Haruga-kun. I really was very worried, so please don't do something like this again, okay?"
Orihime's honest attitude surprised Hal.
It felt like she was giving him both the carrot and the stick with great finesse. At this moment, even Asya started talking frantically:
"I-I'll only say this here as well, okay? Actually, once I found out you were safe and sound, Haruomi, I also cried on the bed until my pillow was completely drenched!"
"Who are you kidding, Asya? That's totally impossible for you."
"Why are you able to respond so calmly to me!?"
"We go way back. By this point, you're not going to cry over something like this, right..."
Hal answered like this precisely because he knew that his childhood friend possessed incomparable courage. However, Asya seemed inexplicably indignant while Orihime chuckled with a smile.
Hence, the atmosphere relaxed and Hal was finally allowed to enter the house.
After opening the front door to enter the western mansion that resembled a haunted house, Orihime was the first to frown and remark, "What a messy home you have, Haruga-kun."
"Really? I'm quite comfortable living here."
"After all, Haruomi is someone completely foreign to cleaning and tidying..."
"Just for the record, if that describes me, Asya is not much better either."
After entering the entrance hall, many stacks of cardboard boxes could be seen.
This included belongings Hal had sent back when returning home for the first time in three years, his late father's possessions and collections that he still had not organized, as well as various objects and articles that had accumulated from inhabitants of the Haruga household before his father.
All such articles were piled up everywhere in the house without any organization.
Hal made his way to the living room with Orihime and Asya following behind.
"By the way, Haruomi, how did you escape from that elite dragon called Soth?"
"I'd like to know too. Everyone says that survival is normally impossible."
Hal was suddenly confronted with two additional queries pointing straight to the heart of the matter.
Hal stepped past the mess of cardboard boxes that made the living room look like a storeroom while answering fluently. He had already prepared an explanation beforehand.
"Another dragon showed up after that. Those two dragons apparently rubbed each other the wrong way and started fighting among themselves. In the end, Soth got injured and fled while the other dragon... died. The giant pillar of fire happened during the battle."
Hal simply glossed over the details without revealing the entire truth.
He wanted to conduct an investigation and get more information out of Hinokagutsuchi first before telling others. Also, he did not know if anyone was going to believe him even if he came clean with the truth.
Asya was shocked after listening to Hal's convenient explanation.
"I can't believe something like that happened!?"
"I definitely wouldn't have survived if things weren't that fortunate."
Hal commented helplessly on purpose instead of belaboring the point.
"Indeed that's true..."
The childhood friend murmured, perhaps feeling convinced.
"But I'm really happy to hear that Soth is injured. That means he might have run off to other lands to wait for his wounds to heal."
Hal secretly recalled in fear: 'I swear I shall revisit again, to have you drawn and quartered!"
He remembered Soth's ominous declaration.
"Actually, Hiiragi-san just called me to make a request. As a precaution against the elite dragon that appeared yesterday, she hopes that I could stay inside the Mansion on standby."
"I heard that Hazumi is there too."
Orihime nodded. The trio sat down on the sofa for now.
The room was covered in dust and things were in an utter mess. Natural lighting was insufficient due to the tightly drawn curtains. Although it was nowhere near comfortable, at least the living room had a sofa to sit on.
Hearing the name mentioned by Orihime for the first time, Hal could not help but tilt his head in puzzlement.
"She's my younger cousin and the only witch at New Town—or rather, the entire Kantou region. Minadzuki, who saved us last time, is her partner."
"To give rise to two witches from a single clan, your family line must be particularly blessed with this type of natural aptitude."
"I don't really know about that, but Hazumi has been working for the past two years, ever since she was twelve. But she's a very gentle person with frail health as well, so it seems like she's not quite suited for 'battle'..."
"Would she be very similar to you by any chance? I mean in terms of personality."
From Hal's perspective, Juujouji Orihime's temperament was not suitable for a witch.
Was her cousin one of the same mold? However, Orihime refuted Hal's speculation with a shake of her head.
"Completely unalike. Because she's an angel."
Hal could not help but question Orihime's strange description.
"I said angel. She is a girl with a personality as wonderful as an angel's. Kind, gentle and not calculating. Although she's a bit introverted, her smile is very dazzling. A very likable child."
"Any old man, no matter how eccentric or obstinate, would treat her tenderly like a beloved grandchild."
"Juujouji, what you've said is physically impossible. In our filthy realm of humans, the creature of fantasy known as 'an angel' does not exist."
Hal firmly raised his objections against Orihime's murmurings.
"The depths of that girl's heart must be seething with pitch-black and negative emotions like lava, waiting for a chance to explode. Heed my advice. It's not good for a girl to suffer during the prime of her teenage years by projecting her own bias onto others through delusional rose-tinted glasses."
"Let's see if you can still insist on your twisted logic after you actually meet her."
Confidently dismissing Hal's opinion, Orihime took out her cellphone.
"See, this is Hazumi's photo. Isn't she cute?"
"A-A pretty girl huh..."
Taking the cellphone to have a look, Asya murmured.
Displayed on the LCD screen was a young girl smiling demurely with delicate and proper-looking facial features. Her silky hair was shoulder length.
Her uniform was that of Kogetsu Academy's. Indeed, she was very cute.
And that was not all. There was a certain sense of transparency in her facial expression. That vigorous gaze was deeply memorable.
Hal could not help but feel attracted to her eyes. Hence he nodded vigorously and said, "Later, could you tell me what photo retouching software was used and who did the editing?"
"This photo was taken by my cellphone without going through any editing at all. My, you're really on guard, Haruga-kun... Anyway, she is a gentle girl and I don't want her to do too many dangerous things."
Orihime made a melancholic look as though worrying.
"After finding out I had the talent to be a witch, I was thinking I could finally reduce her burden—But the ritual ended up failing."
" "Ugh..." "
Hal and Asya groaned in unison. Seeing as this was a special exception where an elite dragon had shown up, it could not be helped even if the ritual failed.
But even so, it was still an experience that slightly wounded Hal and Asya's pride.
"By the way, Juujouji, let me return this to you."
Hal handed over the intact white copper mirror which Orihime received using a handkerchief before wrapping it up and putting it away in her bag.
"Thank you, Haruga-kun. By the way, can this be used again to perform a covenant ritual—to create my 'serpent' again?"
"It's basically possible... But I think it'll take some time."
Orihime asked with a solemn expression and Asya replied equally seriously.
"Because the ritual was interrupted, the leviathan's 'shadow' born for you, Orihime-san, was unable to materialize. Searching for that shadow which is wandering the present world in spiritual form and summoning it would require quite a troublesome ritual. It needs a lot of time and patience..."
"Then after that, you need to wait for an unknown number of months before the new 'serpent' can be born..."
Like his childhood friend, Hal's tone of voice had also become very gloomy.
The synthesis ritual for creating leviathans required the Grandmother Immortal—namely, the mysterious magic device kept dormant in the underground of Istanbul.
But it could only be used every one or two months, so waiting in a queue was necessary.
"...I understand. I will wait patiently."
Orihime sighed, perhaps feeling disheartened. However, she immediately looked up.
"Then let's shelve that matter for now and decide what we need to do today. Next, I'd like to give this home a thorough cleaning and tidying. May I? Haruga-kun."
"Why do you want to clean my house, Juujouji?"
"Although it might sound a bit much coming from myself, I am someone who loves cleanliness and I like to clean... It'd be a true shame to miss out on a home that needs cleaning as much as this."
Orihime swept her gaze around the Haruga residence's chaotic and messy living room with heartfelt emotion.
"Since there's a bit of time right now, I hope you'll indulge my cleaning obsession. May I?"
"We were just talking about how the ritual cannot be held immediately. How did things suddenly lead to cleaning?"
Also, in Hal's view, he did not find his home uncomfortable at all.
As a teenage boy who had no desire to live in a house resembling a model home, Hal felt that leaving things the way they were would be fine—But Orihime simply said, "Oh, it has nothing to do with the ritual. I just happen to be free today. Haruga-kun, could you tell me the time right now?"
"It's currently 10:28am."
Hal confirmed the time on his cellphone. Orihime smiled deliberately and nodded.
Only then did Hal realize that Asya was wearing a very short one-piece dress with black leggings. For some reason, she was also wearing a khaki military parka on top, which looked quite out of place.
However, Orihime was dressed in school uniform. It was clearly past the time for lessons to start...
"I wanted to check on your situation before going to school this morning, Haruga-kun, so I picked a time to meet up with Asya-san. But you still had not returned home then, Haruga-kun, and your cellphone was off. Left without any choice, I decided to skip school to confirm your safety."
"Consequently, I am free for the entire day. It would be a bit strange to go to school at this hour, so allow me to occupy myself here. Thanks for having me."
As far as Hal could remember, Orihime seemed to have maintained perfect attendance with zero lates and absences.
In the absence of unexpected events, this perfect attendance would probably have persisted matter-of-factly until the end of the school year. However, the exalted Princess with her exemplary standards of conduct had decided to skip school on account of Haruga Haruomi...
Orihime had not said anything that resembled complaining.
However, Hal definitely felt like something was stuck in his throat—
"Really? Wonderful. This kind of place, which could serve as a gathering venue, really makes me want to clean it up. May I bring stuff over in the future? Like tea or snacks for example."
"Uh, did you say gathering venue!?"
"Yes. Haruga-kun, Asya-san and me. Shouldn't we make effective use of this place to hold the aforementioned gatherings? Also, we don't have to be concerned about others if we meet here. Oh right, I'll be bringing Hazumi, the one I mentioned earlier, to visit in the near future."
Orihime explained her plans with an easygoing rhythm.
It was a blueprint of the future that Hal would stay away from, given his plans to retreat from Tokyo, but—
"Right... I believe that it's better for Haruomi to be assisting us more proactively. Isn't this a great idea?"
Asya nodded on her own. Judging by her tone of voice, she seemed to be emphasizing "assisting me" more than "assisting us." This was probably not Hal's imagination.
"Then please tell me where the cleaning equipment is kept. If there's anything missing—although this house feels like it's definitely missing something—I'll buy it later."
"Orihime-san, why don't you leave matters like purchasing to Haruomi?"
"No, Haruga-kun is probably very tired so we must let him rest. If it's okay with you, Asya-san, please head over to Hazumi's side for me."
Ignoring the master of the house, Orihime and Asya were getting to work harmoniously. The two girls had apparently become good friends after merely one night. This was probably thanks to sharing a battlefield experience together.
Despite being in his own house, Hal experienced an outsider kind of feeling.
"Orihime-san seems to know quite well how to handle you, Haruomi."
Asya spoke up after accompanying Hal to his study that also served as a bedroom.
Orihime had gone to a nearby supermarket to shop. Although she had told him to rest, Hal still asked 'Need any help?'
'It's okay. Judging from this home's tragic state, Haruga-kun, you seem more than likely to be someone who's of no help in cleaning. I can probably handle things on my own, so don't feel obliged, just rest as much as you can.'
Hence, Hal decided to standby in his own room.
That being said, the previous conversation was possibly the manner in which Orihime showed her care for others—Feeling as though someone had persistently shone a dazzling bright light in his eye, Hal replied to Asya with slight displeasure:
"What do you mean by how to handle me?"
"Being too meddlesome doesn't work. Too much laissez-faire doesn't work either. You're really troublesome as an opponent, Haruomi."
Asya giggled with a smile, puffing out her flat chest at the same time.
It was like she was showing off the fact that she had known such a person for the longest time.
"I'm not some kind of troublesome opponent. Essentially, I like it best when people leave me alone... However, Juujouji sure is a strange girl for wanting to clean up this house."
Hal whispered with heartfelt emotion.
"I'm really quite surprised. I never thought I'd get to know someone who seems to have a very high level of femininity."
"...Haruomi? Did you just say something?"
Hal repeated his thought verbatim, resulting in an inexplicable expression of shock on Asya's face.
"A very high level of femininity?"
"Yes, that. What do you mean by saying something like that in front of the girl who is your closest friend!? I-I-I-It's almost like you're saying that I'm very low on femininity..."
"But it's actually true that you're very low on femininity. Isn't that right, Asya?"
Regarding the issue of being close friends, Hal had no trouble admitting it.
But he could hardly agree with the latter half of her argument.
"You never care about accommodation conditions no matter what country you're staying in. You're unfazed by total messes, simply dismissing them as something to get used to with time."
Asya was supposed to be quite wealthy.
However, she never insisted on living in high-class residential areas or luxury apartments. For the most part, she would choose one-room units in housing complexes with simple furnishings.
"W-What does that have to do with anything? Whether awake or asleep, a human should not have any problem coping with just a rug-sized area. Also, it's not like anyone would die if I didn't clean for half a year... Anyway, femininity is the more important issue at hand."
The childhood friend coughed to clear her throat.
"Putting the matter of lifestyle aside for now, I must point out that food is my area of expertise. Surely you must know my cooking skills very well, Haruomi?"
"Yes, that's one thing I've never forgotten."
Asya's cooking was definitely very authentic indeed.
After all, she was even capable of carrying out the task of "slaughtering live poultry and processing it into meat products" to perfection. Not to mention taking up a hunting rifle personally to shoot down wild birds for ingredients...
Consequently, compared to femininity, what Hal experienced was more of an exuberant sense of wild vitality.
If fairies were residents of mountains, forests and other natural habitats, then this childhood friend frequently acted as befitted a child of nature, even appearance included.
"In that case, give me a moment!"
Asya spoke with her face tense.
"It's almost time for lunch. I'll prepare delicious food to treat you, so please correct your assessment that my femininity loses out to Orihime-san."
"Sounds like a very tough challenge..."
"Don't worry, I'll make a show of the dormant abilities I've kept hidden!"
"But don't you need to head over to the Mansion later?"
"It's not like there's an emergency. Going later should be fine. Then I'm going out to shop for ingredients!"
Saying that, Asya trotted over to the study's door.
But just as she was about to step out into the corridor, she looked back at him again.
"Oh by the way, j-just to be clear, I'm not trying to act feminine in front of you, Haruomi, just because I'm feeling competitive against Orihime-san. My hand is simply forced as a matter of female pride..."
"Really? Sure, got it. I almost misunderstood."
Hal nodded generously in response to his childhood friend's intentional and supplementary explanation.
For some reason, this caused Asya's eyes to look like those of an injured puppy's. Glaring at Hal, she said "I-I'm heading out" and left the room.
"...I guess Asya's still quite concerned about appearances as a girl."
Muttering, Hal sat down in front of the computer desk.
After he moved the mouse, the computer was roused from sleep mode and the screen lit up.
"I really hope there's something in Pops' database that could shed light on what happened last night..."
Although Orihime had asked him to rest, Hal had difficult circumstances of his own that prevented him from heeding her.
Searching the computer where his father's book collection and research notes were stored as well as the connected external storage device, Hal started his investigation.
The transformation of his body into something weird had taken place the previous night.
Even if just a little, was there any hint existing somewhere that could unravel the mystery?
Since everything had started with the "stone" in his late father's memento, Hal felt hopeful.
Speaking of which, where had the greatest source of information, Hinokagutsuchi run off to? Just as Hal recalled the self-styled devil whom he had neither heard nor seen for quite a while...
Hearing a scream, Hal instantly stood up.
There should not be anything dangerous inside the house. However, the matter of Raak Al Soth remained unresolved, so there was no guarantee that the dragon would not devote his full effort towards locating Hal to launch an attack...
Worrying about the worst scenario, Hal ran towards the sound—Hal's living room.
Hal asked with intensity. Orihime was standing still in shock with a dazed expression.
Having taken off her uniform jacket, she had her white shirt sleeves rolled up and a duster in hand. In a corner of the living room, a bucket and a cloth were also lying ready.
She did not have any obvious external injuries. Orihime looked unharmed all over.
"Oh, I'm really sorry for screaming so loudly. Did I scare you?"
"...Not too badly. Did you see a mouse?"
Although it was a bit anticlimactic, Hal still asked. This home was not only old but had been left neglected until recently.
It would not be strange for that type of creature to be present but Orihime shook her head. After pondering for a while, she drew herself next to Hal.
"Umm, Haruga-kun, you previously mentioned curses and hauntings, isn't that right? I am only asking in light of that... By any chance—Would your home have that?"
A question without an explicit subject. Orihime seemed to be taking precautions against something.
Seeing his classmate a little nervous, Hal understood the point of her question. At the same time, another possibility occurred to him.
"Could it be that you saw a girl in a red kimono?"
"—Indeed you're correct! Is that a ghost!?"
To think she was able to say the word "ghost" so nonchalantly, Orihime certainly belonged to the same generation as Hal.
After all, they were born and raised during times where dragons were matter-of-fact existences. Even when encountering supernatural phenomena, they were still able to quickly calm themselves.
"Oh... What is that thing? I'm not too sure either. Besides, I've only seen it two or three times, that's all..."
Hal glossed over things in a vague answer. On a basic level, he was not lying.
"I see. But she actually said some strange things to me."
"Yes. Along the lines of 'Do you want a serpent?' There was also a whole bunch of other stuff but I was too surprised and failed to take it all in."
Rather than getting seen by accident, she was approaching Orihime with ulterior motives?
Suspecting Hinokagutsuchi's intentions, Hal could not help but frown in deep thought. At this time, he heard a patter of footsteps along the corridor.
"Haruomi and Orihime-san, Hiiragi-san just sent a notice!"
Asya rushed in, panting.
She was supposed to have gone shopping, but Hal did not see any bag in her hand. Asya had probably turned back before she entered the shop.
With a foreboding feeling in his heart, Hal turned his gaze to the childhood friend. Orihime followed suit.
"The elite dragon that had appeared in Old Tokyo last night is now located. The Mansion at Shin-Kiba. He apparently attacked the Mansion an hour ago and occupied it. I heard that Orihime-san's cousin, who happened to be at the scene, was captured along with her 'serpent.'"
Normally, Asya would probably be in a state of panic and utter confusion.
But in times like these, the childhood friend never lost her cool. In order to prepare for the imminent battle, she had already entered her "emergency" mode.
Awe inspiring, fearless, flawless, calm and composed. And as beautiful as a sharp sword.
On the other hand, Orihime was stunned and at a loss what to do after hearing about her cousin's misfortune.
"Hazumi, no way!?"
She was clearly shocked and had lost her direction.
But one could hardly blame her. Orihime was not a witch yet. Her only battle experience was last night where she was the one being protected.
Meanwhile, Hal put on a stiff expression.
What happened last night could not possibly be unrelated to Soth's actions. Rather, it would be the opposite.
Soth's true target was Hal and Hinokagutsuchi, right? Orihime's cousin was simply caught up in the affair—
An hour later, Hal, Orihime and Asya had arrived at the Shin-Kiba area.
The Mansion's vicinity, located near Tokyo Bay, was sealed off by the police and riot squads belonging to that jurisdiction.
Uniformed police officers could be seen all over the place. Judging from their equipment and special vehicles, one could tell that the Metropolitan Police Department had mobilized urban rescue forces.
Currently, all commoners and vehicles were prohibited from entering the area.
The only ones allowed access were "experts" like Asya, invited to resolve the situation.
As soon as they entered the sealed area, a young man immediately walked over to them.
Amidst the many uniformed police officers, he was the only person dressed in an old business suit, looking like a plainclothes detective.
"Kenjou-san? What brings you here?"
Asya stared with widened eyes. Kenjou Genya, manager of the used bookstore Mirokudou as well as a member of SAURU's staff, smiled wryly in turn.
"Under the orders of my boss... Hiiragi-san. She sent me here to support you for now, Asya-san. Let's walk over there before I explain the situation."
Asya, Hal and Orihime followed Kenjou, in that order.
"Let me make this clear first. Don't delude yourself into thinking you can get closer than one kilometer from the Mansion. Terrifying magical power is spread out there so approaching it is already very dangerous."
Kenjou pressed the edge of his hand against his own neck to make a chopping gesture.
What he meant was—Death would result? Hal and Asya nodded silently whereas Orihime scowled.
Leading them, Kenjou brought the trio to a temporary tent.
Placed on the folding table was a map of the area and several pairs of binoculars.
"Use these to look towards the Mansion."
Since there were enough to go around, everyone took up their own pair of binoculars.
Zoned for redevelopment, the area clearly consisted mostly of empty land.
Extremely sparse in buildings and people, there was excellent visibility. The familiar Mansion could be seen clearly through binoculars.
Furthermore, at the seashore some distance away, there was an object that could not be ignored.
Reportedly, the location was reclaimed land that used to be a landfill site.
Orihime cried out. A transparent triangular prism was standing on the land next to the sea.
The triangular prism was much smaller than the Monolith towering over Old Tokyo. Roughly thirty meters in height, it looked like a miniature Monolith.
A "serpent" that Hal had seen before was coiled around it.
Her body surface was emerald in color. Serving as the horn counterpart, her right hand and claws were especially large.
It was Minadzuki, the leviathan shaped like an oriental serpentine dragon.
Coiled around the transparent equilateral triangular prism, she looked like a snake wrapped around a long rod—In addition, stabbed in her back was a metal needle, even longer than her body length.
Piercing Minadzuki, the needle had her pinned firmly to the mini-Monolith.
"Still alive... Asleep?"
After death, a leviathan's body would disappear from the world.
Seeing Minadzuki's tightly shut eyes, Hal muttered to himself.
"She's been like that all this time, not moving at all. She isn't going into spiritual form either. The elite that took over the Mansion—the bastard called Soth, right? That guy seems to have deployed some kind of magic," reported Kenjou.
Asya also looked intently at the mini-Monolith through binoculars.
Her gaze was cast on a certain surface of the triangular prism. Carved there were fifteen runes of Ruruk Soun.
"Asya, do you know what those runes mean?"
"'Life' and 'spiritual power'... I think that's the rough meaning of this arrangement."
Asya's gaze and expression were very solemn and stern.
Her beautiful face like a fairy's was enhanced by acuity and character. Whenever he witnessed his childhood friend in such a state, Hal would always feel shaken in his heart.
"I-Is Hazumi okay? Given that Minadzuki is already like this—"
"I think she should be unharmed. If anything happened to the witch and covenantee, the 'serpent' would disappear as well," answered Asya with intellect beyond what she usually presented, confronted with the panicking Orihime.
Leviathans were artificial lifeforms without material bodies to begin with. What allowed them to stay in the present world was the covenant between "serpent" and witch. If a witch were to die, nullifying the covenant, the physical body tying the leviathan to the world would naturally collapse—In other words, death would result.
Orihime breathed a sigh of relief. At the same time, Kenjou added extra information:
"Right now, my boss is sending requests to witches and sponsors in various place, asking them to assist in resolving the situation. But since the enemy is elite, everyone seems quite reluctant to step forward."
"The risk of sending out precious 'serpents' is too great, is that it?"
"Oh, Asya-san. Umm..."
Orihime originally wanted to say something to Asya but broke off halfway.
Hal's classmate was considerate of other's feelings despite her upfront personality.
If she were to voice her current thoughts and feelings, perhaps her newfound friend might be forced into hopeless peril. However, Asya never failed to live up to expectations.
She stared at the mini-Monolith and the sleeping "serpent" Minadzuki for quite a while.
Then after turning her gaze to the Mansion and ruminating repeatedly—She slowly began to speak:
"Let this battlefield be Rushalka's final resting place."
Asya's voice was filled with calm determination.
"Having an elite dragon as her final enemy might be quite fitting. We still haven't paid Soth back for what he did in Old Tokyo, so let's show him what Rushalka is like when going all out."
Asya was the battle hardened veteran with her stalwart and beautiful partner.
But now, her partner was on the verge of death.
Releasing her power to the limit would probably speed up the collapse of the body that could not bear the strain. Asya must have understood this fact when she declared her decision to fight.
However, how much of Rushalka's "true power" was still retained?
Five minutes, ten minutes, or even a shorter duration... The childhood friend's chances of victory ought to be extremely low.
Then the next day, Hal and Orihime went to school as usual.
The number of students in the classroom was only half of the usual.
Due to Soth's lurking presence, Tokyo New Town's administration had issued an evacuation order in the area around Shin-Kiba. Many local residents had left New Town temporarily to seek refuge after learning of this news.
Asya was stationed inside the sealed zone, preparing for a duel against the elite dragon.
Soth and the imprisoned witch, Shirasaka Hazumi, stayed in the Mansion the whole time without appearing once.
However, a change was occurring with the mini-Monolith and the leviathan Minadzuki.
—A change in color. The mini-Monolith where the "serpent" was pinned was originally a transparent equilateral triangular prism.
But this morning, the transparent pillar had turned into a shade of red reminiscent of blood. What did the color change imply?
Hal wanted to ask Hinokagutsuchi but—
"I've seen neither hide nor hair of her since yesterday... Even though now is the most critical time."
Not long after the lunch break began, Hal was muttering to himself while sitting in his seat in the classroom.
All they could depend on was Asya's "serpent" and nothing else. Apparently, none of the witches capable of supporting her had appeared so far. If the attacking enemies were groups of Raptors, it would be possible to request support from the SDF or the police's urban rescue force, but the opponent this time was an elite dragon.
Elites were able to use hypnosis incantations to plunge entire armies into deep sleep.
They were also capable of spreading death curses, obtaining victory with frightening speed.
When facing such monsters as opponents, commoners would serve as nothing more than sacrifices, being unable to defend against magic. Asya had no choice but to duel the elite dragon alone with her partner—
"Haruga-kun. Here, take this."
Hal suddenly heard a voice by his ear. Orihime was handing over a small cloth bag from her seat as his neighbor.
She had not spoken the whole time since morning. Given what happened to her cousin, it was probably impossible for her to maintain her usual cheerfulness.
However, Orihime was currently staring at Hal with an intense gaze.
Her expression was full of solemnity, as though she had made some kind of monumental decision.
"A packed lunch?"
"I wanted to give you something with more sincerity than last time's bun."
Inside the bag was a lunchbox. Actually, there were two of them.
Opening one of them, Hal found it filled to the brim with rice.
The other lunchbox contained side dishes. There were what appeared to be frozen food that had been deep-fried, salt roasted mackerel that seemed to have been prepared by hand, burdock stir-fried in kinpira style, Chikuzen style chicken and carrot stew, pickled cucumbers, etc. Quite a wide selection of dishes.
"Although I can't measure the sincerity, the food does look like it's worth a try."
"I made it personally, after all, so I'll have you know that there's six times more sincerity than convenience store buns. I was thinking that boys have bigger appetites, so I prepared a large amount."
As a side note, just at this moment...
The noisy classmates in the room during the lunch break—They seemed to have quieted down instantly.
But Hal had more important things to do. Unperturbed, he turned to face Orihime and said, "So what are you apologizing for this time?"
"Rather than an apology, I have a request for you this time."
Orihime's eyes conveyed seriousness on a completely different level from the time when she treated him to a bun.
"May I visit your home after school today, Haruga-kun? You see, I was interrupted in the middle of the cleaning, while there are many other matters also..."
Orihime's choice of words was rather subdued.
However, Hal understood what she wanted to convey.
"Could this be related to what that girl said yesterday?"
"Indeed. Thinking over it after the fact, I noticed she had said many things that are quite concerning. It's fine if the answer is no given the current circumstances, but if there's anything I could do to assist—"
Orihime wanted to contribute. For the sake of rescuing her cousin as well as to avoid shoving all danger upon Asya alone to bear.
Hal could understand her feelings as though they were his own. He nodded deeply.
"Juujouji, I don't think there's any need to wait until school's over."
"Let's go to my house now. Who knows how the situation has changed on the other side? It's better to act sooner than later."
Saying that, Hal placed the lunchboxes back into the bag.
Orihime immediately nodded in agreement. Her decisiveness in this area was truly breathtaking.
"I understand. Then let's continue our discussion at your house, Haruga-kun!"
Orihime instantly stuffed her belongings into her schoolbag and started preparing to leave.
Hal surveyed the surroundings.
There were roughly ten classmates in the room. Everyone was looking in his direction with shocked expressions on their faces. In particular, some of the boys were glaring at Hal with piercing stares.
Crap, the discussion about skipping school was too loud, right?
Despite feeling regretful, Hal still spoke to the two girls nearby.
"Mutou-san, Juujouji is suddenly feeling unwell, so could you let the teacher know that we're leaving early? I'm sending her home."
"Oh okay, understood. Leave it to me."
Mutou-san, a member of the UFO Research Club, thumped her chest and promised with a snicker.
"After all, I'm indebted to Juujouji-san and you fascinate me, Haruga-kun. I will cheer for you, so do your best. In return—"
"Put my name on the club entry form. You need a fifth member, right?"
"Fufu, much appreciated!"
"Haruga-kun, I will help too!"
The petite girl next to Mutou-san, Funaki-san, declared.
Staring at Hal and Orihime, her fervent eyes were glimmering brightly.
"Unable to suppress the intense passion in your hearts, the two of you have decided to escape to the ends of the earth, hand in hand! Don't worry, everyone in the class understands!"
"...? Sure, then I'm counting on you two."
After listening to Funaki-san's exaggerated speech, Hal cocked his head then picked up his schoolbag.
Exchanging nods with each other, Hal and Orihime made their way to the classroom's exit together.
Thus, Hal was already home despite the fact that lessons were still in progress.
Arriving at his messy living room together with Orihime, he called out, "You're over here, right? Or have you been sticking to us all along?"
Sweeping his gaze across the living room and the ceiling, Hal raised his voice and yelled at the same time, "I don't care either way, but isn't it time for you to appear? I also brought the girl who caught your eye."
"Fufu. Well done, brat, considering it is you."
Suddenly manifesting, Hinokagutsuchi was smiling.
She was sitting sloppily on an unused table in a corner of the living room.
The hem of her kimono was wide open, exposing a young girl's pale, bare feet.
Hinokagutsuchi slowly reached out and started to play with the black queen piece from the chess set lying on the table.
Witnessing this supernatural entry to the stage, Orihime gasped.
"I knew it, like last time's..."
"O girl who ought to have given birth to a serpent, you have arrived at a good time. Have you resolved yourself to accept my proposal?"
"I can't believe you're making a deal with Juujouji."
Orihime asked in puzzlement after hearing Hal.
"Simply stated, back when Soth was hunting me last time, I was saved thanks to her."
"Then isn't she your savior!?"
"The fact that I cannot assert that is exactly what's subtle about her. Because she cannot be trusted completely, I can hardly recommend her as the counterparty in a deal."
"What are you talking about? At the very least, I used to be an existence known to others as the queen."
Hinokagutsuchi deliberately widened her grin after hearing Hal's comment about her.
"Is it that unreasonable to indulge my naturally mischievous character and toy with the counterparty of a deal every now and then? Perhaps I might suggest flawed ideas to innocent children so as to watch with amusement as they run around all over the place. Nevertheless, I have never gone back on a promise."
"What naturally mischievous character, you're nowhere innocent enough for that description to apply..."
Ignoring the muttering Hal, Orihime faced Hinokagutsuchi squarely and stared at her.
"You... said so yesterday, didn't you? 'If you want your serpent, I shall summon it in exchange for the pain of childbirth' or something to that effect."
"Yes. If you wish, I can lend you my wisdom and power."
In the Old Testament of the Bible, the serpent had tempted Eve to eat the apple—
Hinokagutsuchi's diabolical tone of voice reminded Hal of that scene.
"The spirit of the imitation that was born for your sake that night... Even now, it still lingers here. It will certainly hurry forth if I were to summon it. However, what follows is the challenge. If the power, the brat's and mine, were to become depleted, then it is difficult to say whether this imitation can be born in the present world—"
"A-Are there conditions...?"
"Yes. Come over here and bring your ear up close."
The sitting Hinokagutsuchi whispered with her lips by the side of Orihime's ear, meanwhile displaying charms beyond her apparent age.
Orihime suddenly cried out with her face turned bright red.
"O-Of course Haruga-kun must be asked to leave when the time comes, right!?"
"Do not be silly. If this method is employed to facilitate the new birth, the brat is essential. He must take out the 'child' from your abdomen."
Orihime was holding her breath as though she was about to faint. Let alone her face, even her neck had turned bright red.
For some reason, Hal could understand why.
It was a response of embarrassment and shock. Hinokagutsuchi was most likely imparting onto Orihime mad words that resembled sexual harassment. Just as Hal decided to say a few words to reprimand her—
"Please! L-Let me consider for a while."
Saying that, Orihime rushed out into the corridor.
To think she could lose her usual cool—Hal turned his gaze to glare intensely at Hinokagutsuchi while chastising her, "Don't make excessively weird demands from Juujouji, okay?"
"What are you referring to? To be able to obtain an imitation in exchange for momentary pain, this deal is certainly favorable for the girl. Also, brat—"
Hinokagutsuchi spoke to Hal.
"That dragon called Soth apparently intends to seek revenge against you. Invading that whatever Mansion was also for this purpose, yes? That fellow is currently ingesting the blood of the captured imitation."
"Drinking blood, you say?"
"For dragonkind, the blood of female dragons or similar lifeforms are akin to a wonder drug with a multitude of uses. Used as a drastic measure, it can temporarily augment their powers. It can also be used as an elixir to cure the heavy injuries you inflicted."
"Although I have no idea whether you intend to enter the fray or not, that girl seems to have resolved herself to fight. Isn't it only human nature to want to extend a helping hand?"
Clearly not a human, yet Hinokagutsuchi was talking about "human nature."
A subtle smile surfaced on her lips as though trying to test Hal's mettle.
Damn it. Feeling his sense of oppositional defiance getting provoked, Hal shook his head and decided to forget it.
This kind of thing did not matter. In comparison, what he ought to care about was the girl who was suffering because of him, as well as the childhood friend who was in danger...
"Let me ask a question just for reference. How far can that supernatural resilience endure?"
"What do you mean by how far?"
"For example, being unaffected even if exposed to a death incantation spread by Soth or something like that."
Hinokagutsuchi did not answer the question. Instead, she reached for the dust-covered chessboard.
Picking up the white king, she moved it forward by one square. The square was occupied by the black queen. Putting down the king piece, she picked up the queen instead.
"Achieving something of that level is not a problem. Probably."
"That doesn't count as an answer..."
"Just as you have discerned, although I am full of wisdom, my disposition can hardly be described as that of an instructor. Besides, I have no obligation to guide you with care and diligence. This is enough."
Hinokagutsuchi threw something at him.
Hal caught it reflexively. It was the queen she had just picked up, the most powerful piece in this board game of chess—
"I don't suppose you know how chess is played, do you?"
"All things considered, I consider myself a studious learner at least. I have accumulated a certain level of contemporary knowledge, you know?"
A dragon's ghost with a young girl's appearance but calling herself the devil.
Was she really centuries or millennia in age? Just as Hal doubted, Orihime returned with her face all red. Then approaching Hal's chest, she said:
"Listen carefully, Haruga-kun. What we are going to do next is the same as a medical procedure, got that!?"
"? What do you mean by that, Juujouji?"
"The details can wait until we start. In any case, I trust you, Haruga-kun. If you get any indecent thoughts, I will absolutely become disillusioned with you, so be careful!"
Acting uncharacteristically, Orihime had become very tyrannical.
This was probably for hiding her embarrassment. Intimidated by her vigor, Hal responded with "O-Okay" in agreement.
Watching this scene with a teasing gaze, Hinokagutsuchi then whispered quietly, "Then let us depart. Towards the location where all destinies began—"
Her voice sounded slightly sacred and solemn, unlike the tone of a self-styled devil with a malicious mouth.
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