Leviathan:Volume 2 Chapter 1
Chapter 1 - Spending Time After School with Witches
Entering the latter part of April, spring was hanging in the air everywhere in Tokyo New Town.
On this spring day, the Kantou region's warm climate was providing comfortable sunny weather for days on end. However, a certain young beauty was scowling in the classroom of Year 1 Class F.
Anastasya Rubashvili. Nicknamed Asya.
The foreign student who had transferred in recently—That was her cover story. However, she had disassociated herself from "ordinary" schooling for many years already, because she was a witch constantly engaged in research all over Europe and also an expert on magic in the Metaphysical Body of Knowledge.
She even went through training in the army for a period of time. She was quite adept in close quarters combat and the use of firearms.
Regarding survival skills in all sorts of environments, her talent was highly acclaimed, even to the point that she was invited to participate in special forces training.
Indeed, adaptability in every kind of environment was Asya's special skill.
Only a few days had passed she started her life as a high school girl, enrolled in the same class as her childhood friend, Haruga Haruomi. Nevertheless, Asya was already making full use of her handy adaptability.
Despite feeling lost on occasion, she spent her days happily for the most part.
Hence, feeling unaccustomed to the pressures of school life was not the reason for her unhappiness.
"Did you know!? I heard that Juujouji-san and Haruga-kun are planning to go on a trip this Golden Week! Of course, it'll be just the two of them!"
This. This was precisely the reason for Asya's agitation.
The gossip-loving Funaki-san was the female classmate who was striking up conversation with Asya.
"Th-There's this kind of rumor going around?"
Asya smiled artificially while trying hard not to let the displeasure in her heart leak into her voice.
"B-But even as Haruomi's childhood friend, I haven't heard anything about it. Isn't this kind of rumor too unreliable?"
"Oh my oh my, but this is a trip with a new girlfriend, you know?"
The gossip-loving Funaki-san offered her opinion while grinning from ear to ear. She was a petite girl with her hair tied up as twintails on the sides of her head. Furthermore...
"What kind of boy would actually report back to his childhood friend? I think Haruga-kun will definitely hide this sort of thing."
Despite her frivolous appearance, Funaki-san was unexpectedly perceptive.
Indeed, it was highly unlikely that Haruomi would publicize things of such nature. Asya agreed on this point.
"Since you know that, stop believing rumors that those two are an item..."
Asya could not help but start grumbling.
After transferring into Kogetsu Private Academy where her childhood friend and Juujouji Orihime were studying...
This rumor was the reason why Asya felt shocked and displeased.
It was also quite infuriating that those two, the subjects of the rumor, did not do anything about it. Haruomi and Orihime's explanation was "although we denied it outright, it was completely futile." Seeing as that was the case, the newly transferred Asya simply insisted "I don't know of anything like this. It's just a rumor!" However—
"The two of them are very shy, so they won't admit it publicly no matter what (according to Funaki-san)."
All Asya got were responses of this sort.
Today, while Asya was engaging in the Japanese custom of "eating one's lunchbox early" during break time, Funaki-san had approached her happily to bring the latest news.
Asya quietly closed her emptied lunchbox and came to a new understanding of one fact.
This was a type of information warfare. Compared to the truth, people were more inclined to accept rumors matching what they wanted to believe as true. Even lies, once dressed up seriously, could be taken as the truth.
No amount of denial would work on people who wanted to believe that Haruomi and Orihime were "going out."
In that case, Asya decided to disclose even more sensational news, to drown out the rumor that had already spread!
"—Actually, there's something I've kept a secret so far."
Asya feigned a serious expression and lowered her voice.
"Haruomi isn't just going out with Orihime-san. In fact, Haruomi also sends flirting glances my way secretly, to his childhood friend. He's double-timing scum, a terrible good-for-nothing!"
"You're so humorous~ Haruga-kun and Asya-san is the one pairing that's absolutely impossible."
However, Funaki-san dismissed it simply with a smile. Asya was rendered dumbstruck.
She thought Funaki-san would be drawn to this news and start spreading rumors without verification!
"This isn't a joke. It's not virtual reality either or something that happened in an online game. It's honestly the genuine truth, okay? It's what kids these days would call 'for reals yo'!"
"Ahaha, you speak excellent Japanese, Asya-san. But your comedy skills aren't up to par."
Funaki-san smiled cheerfully, still unconvinced by what Asya said.
"W-Why do you refuse to believe me!?"
"This is called a woman's intuition. A girl's sixth sense. I totally don't sense that kind of mood between Haruga-kun and Asya-san, that's why!"
"And what kind of mood is that!?"
"Hmm—the mood of a possible/imminent/current romantic relationship in progress."
"Good grief. Here I thought that my trailblazing and innovative tactic would correct people's erroneous ideas... I'm so disappointed.
Asya was wolfing down her jumbo-sized S lunch set while remarking poignantly.
She had gone to the student cafeteria during lunch together with Hal and Orihime. In addition, the "S" designation of the lunch set meant "special," featuring extra large mince cutlets, five pieces of fried chicken, boiled potatoes with butter, Neapolitan pasta whose serving size could hardly be called a side, as well as a massive bowl of rice topped with a huge amount of shredded cabbage.
"If that so-called innovative tactic were to succeed..."
Slurping a mouthful of kelp ramen noodles, Hal said:
"How much do you reckon my reputation would suffer? Asya, can I beg you to choose your battle plans a little more carefully?"
"But isn't taking responsibility the manly thing to do in a situation like this one?"
"However, it seems that Haruga-san is partly to blame for the plan's failure. After all, Haruga-san never takes initiative to talk to girls because he couldn't be bothered to take the effort," said Orihime in candor, criticizing Hal nonchalantly.
Raising her chopsticks to eat grilled pork with ginger sauce lunch set, she offered her opinion.
Furthermore, it was not coincidence that they were classmates. The school was founded with funding from SAURU and the organization evidently wanted to put all witch-related personnel together in one place.
"Let's make this clear first, Juujouji. People do believe that you're going out with this me you're describing."
"Is that so? ...Do we really look like such a great match?"
Orihime tilted her head in curiosity.
"On the contrary, I find that you get along with Asya-san much better."
"R-Really? Ahem. Orihime-san, please don't read anything special from this, but if you don't mind, have a piece of my fried chicken. My treat."
"Eh, is that really okay? Fufu, thank you. Then I'll enjoy the treat."
"But our situation is more like fate has bound us together for so long that the relationship has gone moldy. It's only natural for us to get along in one or two areas, so I don't think there's anything special here."
"H-Haruomi, please hand over that piece of braised pork, immediately!
Thus, lunch at the student cafeteria was spent in this noisy manner. By the time the three of them were almost done eating, Asya showed a complicated expression on her face and suddenly whispered:
"Sigh, although it's a shame that people are getting the wrong idea about Haruomi's relationship with Orihime-san, apart from that, something else displeases me."
"Oh? How rare."
Hearing his childhood friend's grumbling, Hal felt surprised.
Asya's special skill was the ability to eat, sleep and live in any country under any environment as comfortably as her homeland, except Islamic regions during Ramadan.
"When transferring over here, I did prior research on student life in this country. Based on the data I gathered, I learned that Japanese educational institutes would customarily treat beautiful and refined female students as a kind of idol to be praised and worshiped."
"Did that data come from manga, anime or novels?"
"All of them. In fact, Orihime-san holds that particular position too."
"Me? Nothing of that sort. It's not like I am some sort of popular person."
"H-How can she make such an oblivious statement so readily again... Fine, forget that for now. Even so, I've yet to receive a single love letter in my shoe locker so far. Isn't that really bizarre?"
"Asya-san actually has a lovely personality..."
"Well, I think the problem lies in you, Asya. Like how you finish off two home-packed lunchboxes during the morning, then clean out a full-sized lunch set during lunch, you know? There's also cooking class last time when you tried to take the gardening club's rabbit as an ingredient for a stew."
"I-I thought they were kept at school as emergency rations! And I intended to pay properly for them!"
"The Gardening Club's Endou-san was crying that time..."
Just as Hal ridiculed her, Asya justified herself indignantly and Orihime provided her own innocent comment...
A very lively looking classmate, the short-haired girl named Mutou-san, was approaching the trio. She was precisely the culprit who had urged Hal and Orihime to join that "UFO Research Club" something or other.
"Oh, the two of you are here. The transfer student's with you too."
Relaxed as ever, Mutou-san spoke to them.
"Juujouji-san, you said you'd attend the UFO Research Club's regular meetings, right? There happens to be one today, wanna come? Haruga-kun, please come too if you're free."
"Today? Wonderful. I have no other arrangements for today. It's not a problem at all."
"Uh, let me see..."
Just as Hal was trying to find an excuse, Orihime kept staring intently at him and even added a tender smile. Hence, he recalled his earlier promise of "visiting together within the few days."
"...I happen to be free today too."
Orihime nodded with satisfaction. Feeling embarrassed, Hal scratched his head as a distraction.
Seeing that, Asya stood up forcefully for some reason.
"H-Haruomi, you guys are talking about joining club activities right? Can I come along!?"
"Wow, the transfer student wants to come too? Of course, I welcome you with open arms."
"I want to join the club while I'm at it! The numbers aren't full, right!?"
"No, of course not. Even if it were full, I'd ignore that fact. I'm so happy. Clearly we were still worrying about a lack of members earlier, but now the sixth member has come knocking on our door automatically."
Mutou-san grinned from ear to ear after listening to Asya's request.
Despite feeling puzzled by his childhood friend's overly sudden request to join the club, Hal still changed the subject.
"By the way, are there any boys in the UFO Research Club apart from me? There are three girls already with Mutou-san, Juujouji and Asya, right? It really feels a bit embarrassing if I'm the only boy..."
"Basically... The boy to girl ratio is a half, I guess."
After hearing this subtle answer, Hal frowned and repeated "basically?" Hence, Mutou-san added "There are five club members right now. The girls are me and Juujouji-san. The boys are Haruga-kun and someone else. So it happens to be a 2.5 to 2.5 ratio."
"...Umm, what is that '.5' supposed to mean?"
"To be frank, there's someone of unknown gender in the club."
" " "Unknown gender!?" " "
Hal, Orihime and Asya shouted in surprise simultaneously.
Kogetsu Academy was situated at Ryougoku in the Sumida Ward. The campus was established roughly ten years ago.
Before the school's founding, the Tokyo region's population was in continual decline due to influences from the Tokyo Concession's establishment. Furthermore, multiple counts of dragon attacks had laid waste to various places.
At this rate, depopulation seemed inevitable.
However, the region was later designated for "redevelopment" as the new capital. During the same period, a new school was established.
Thanks to that, land was easy to obtain, resulting in a campus much bigger than for most schools.
Although the academy included middle and high school divisions, both school buildings were located in the same premises. With a mixed forest scattered throughout, the experience was akin to "having a picnic in a vast park" when taking a stroll inside the campus.
"The sports ground is very large, so the students in athletic clubs are very happy."
"However, the cultural clubs seem to disagree. The ten-minute-plus walk from the school building to the clubrooms seems like such a pain," replied Hal to Orihime while recalling their journey here.
One was confronted by a mixed forest immediately after stepping out of the high school division's building. Only after traversing one of the paths and moving along the baseball field's edge would one finally arrive at a pair of adjacent school buildings built from steel-reinforced concrete...
This was the location of the library and the cultural clubs building.
The former was exactly what its name implied. The latter was a building entirely occupied by rooms for cultural clubs.
The clubs building had a total of four floors. The UFO Research Club was located on the third floor. Hal, Orihime and Asya had gone out of their way to pay a visit.
"We're finally here. The place with the crossdresser of legend..."
"What are you talking about, Asya? Crossdresser?"
Hearing his childhood friend's murmurs, Hal could not help but ask.
"Didn't Mutou-san mention it? The UFO Research Club's president is of unknown gender. I'm thinking that's a reference to those crossdressers you find in every Japanese school."
Asya made a knowing look to show off her vast(?) knowledge.
"Born male but prettier than a girl, surely a creature of such cheating proportions. Perhaps dressed in a maid uniform too."
"I don't know whether that should be called cheating or simply belonging to the 2D world..."
"Mutou-san also mentioned that this person serves as president for five clubs, didn't she?"
Orihime also interjected with interest.
"The UFO Research Club, the Drama Club, the Mass Media Research Club, the Literature Club, the Science Insider Club... A total of five cultural clubs, and a person of unknown gender to boot... It feels quite interesting."
"Anyway, it's definitely not someone who lacks individuality," muttered Hal. He recalled Mutou-san's explanation.
'That person—Rather than listen to my half-baked description, it's better if you saw with your own eyes. The president's family name is Maeda, but because she's too amazing, everyone calls her President M.'
'Why an initial?'
'Because no one dares address her by name directly. That's what you call proof of respect, right?'
Mutou-san was already waiting at the clubroom. Hal and the others entered the clubs building.
They climbed up the stairs, advanced along the hallway then knocked on the door labeled "UFO Research"...
"Oh, you've arrived. Come in, come in."
Just as Hal and the others entered the clubroom, welcomed by Mutou-san, over there was—
"Great that you have all come, I am M," said the eccentric who referred to herself with an initial.
President M was dressed in a black female outfit resembling maternity wear. Her figure was quite plump and she looked roughly 140kg.
Hal was reminded of doguu—earthen figurines dating back to prehistoric Japan's Jōmon Period. Some have speculated that the doguu were "maternal" symbols.
President M had pale skin and round eyes, but was absolutely not someone you would describe as beautiful.
"You are the newest club members, aren't you? Please visit me in the future whenever you have time. Even if I am not in this clubroom, I will surely be somewhere within the clubs building."
A husky and rich voice. It was reminiscent of both a male's falsetto and a noblewoman's voice.
In other words, what was commonly called an effeminate man... Maybe? Besides, was this person actually female? Just as Hal pondered the complexities of gender differences, Orihime inquired:
"You mentioned you might not be here... Is that due to going to other clubs?"
Even when confronted with an eccentric, she could still carry a conversation very naturally. This impressive adaptability was truly befitting of Juujouji Orihime.
"Indeed. As the president, I am obliged to look after everyone belonging to my clubs like a mother. That is why I have to rush all over the place."
"Mother!? Did you just say mother!?"
"Yes. The chosen ones in possession of power must take on responsibility commensurate with their abilities. That is why I must protect and guide everyone."
President M's statements had too many problems but Hal could not be bothered to nitpick. Orihime nodded in apparent awe and surprise. The president's sense of presence probably convinced her thoroughly.
Of the various points of doubt, the greatest was whether President M was an effeminate man or a girl. Since she had described herself as a "mother," Hal decided he might as well treat mother as the gender. After rapidly reaching this realm of enlightenment, Hal greeted:
"Although I won't really need you to look after me, I look forward to getting along with you."
"Oh... Really? So you are that kind of child."
"It seems that you've got a troublesome personality and you won't open your heart to others immediately."
"But no matter. One day, you too shall realize my love and feel grateful to me. Offering silent yet powerful support is a mother's role, after all."
President M spoke in an aloof tone of voice. To think that this kind of eccentric also existed in a Japanese high school—
Just as Hal was feeling deeply impressed, Asya broke her silence.
"By the way, excuse me. I'd like to join the club too. Is this alright with procedures?"
She spoke very calmly, completely unfazed by President M's unusual qualities.
There were many eccentrics among certified master-class witches, hence Asya was probably accustomed to them.
"Once I join the club, that will put me in the same position as Haruomi and Orihime-san, which means we can stay together openly and I won't get excluded just because you two are attending a club. Fufu."
"Oh, please give me a second."
President M stopped Asya who was smiling calmly.
"The UFO Research Club huh... The required five members are already filled. Right now, the Literature Club needs help with the member count. Why don't you join the Literature Club?"
"W-What are you talking about? I'm not interested in that kind of club, okay?"
"It will be more convenient for you too. Well... I shall explain about that side in greater detail. Follow me!
Like a gigantic whale breaking the surface of the ocean to emerge, President M moved with a whoosh.
Despite her massive build, her movements were quite fast. Like a flash flood in the mountains after heavy rain, President M charged towards the clubroom's door with a rumble. And by the time she realized, Asya found herself towed by the hand.
"Eh? W-Wait up, President!? I don't need to hear that kind of explanation—!"
It was futile even if she objected. Thus, Asya was forcibly dragged out of the clubroom.
Too great a difference in bodyweight. Unless she invoked Muscle Enhancement magic, the childhood friend whose figure was as delicate as a fairy's had no hope of winning against the president.
"The rest of you, just kill time as you wish!"
Leaving this command, President M departed.
"W-What exactly is this place?'
"The Literature Club's room. However, I am the sole member as president."
Asya had been taken to a room on the far end of the clubs building's third floor.
A steel bookcase was against the wall with a great number of novels and manga arranged on it.
"I have reasons why I must join the UFO Research Club no matter what."
Although President M was quite a bizarre eccentric, Asya was not afraid at all. In the process of interacting with her fellow witches, Asya had become accustomed to dealing with this type of person.
"I appreciate your invitation to join, but unfortunately, it doesn't seem like we were fated to—"
"If you refuse to join no matter what, I won't force you... But are you sure? If you stay in the same club as that girl, more than likely, you are going to lose."
Hearing something so fishy sounding, Asya tilted her head in puzzlement. Going to lose?
"You don't want Haruga to be snatched away by that Juujouji girl, do you?"
Asya was speechless. They had only met President M for less than ten minutes. How did she know all this?
However, Asya could not bring herself to admit it, hence she desperately searched for words.
"Nothing of that sort. Please don't say such nonsense."
"Fufufu... I know all of it, because I possess a special power that ordinary people lack."
President M had whispered something that would fit right in a superhero action film.
On that round and surprisingly charismatic face, Asya could definitely see a seductive smile.
"Indeed. Using my skill, Feeling Love, reading and interpreting a love situation of that level is a piece of cake!"
"Even if you call it a love situation or whatever, I completely fail to understand what you mean."
"To put it bluntly, I am talking about your maidenly feelings that does not want your man, more than a friend but less than a lover, to be snatched away!"
Her internal thoughts and feelings utterly exposed, Asya could not help but scream in the end.
Skill—Was that referring to a discerning eye that could spot openings in human relationships through excellent perception? Asya was gradually swallowed by President M's pressure.
"I can see many other things too... At your very core, you seem to have a loser's personality, basically acting very 'forceful' for the most part but turning into a coward at critical moments..."
"Ouch! This sharp blade of words is stabbing deeply into my heart!"
"Even if this sort of half-baked carnivorous cowardly girl were to participate 'forcefully' in club activities with him, the end result will be no different from before. No, because there is that girl, as bright as the sun, acting as a foil, I fear the result will be even worse."
"In that case, I will take this opportunity to invoke another skill, Wedding Eye, to predict your future... I see it, your future self twenty years from now."
"If you're just going to rub salt into the wound, please keep your words to yourself."
"...Although the occupation is unknown, you look like you'll be a overachieving career woman twenty years from now. As a woman with outstanding achievements in her career, you spend each and every day productively. But when you return to the condo you recently bought, there is not a soul waiting at home... Emptiness and loneliness occupies your heart the whole time. Your only distraction is alcohol..."
"Oh dear, your twenty years older self seems to have a great collection of red wine. With a special wine cellar, you must be making bank... Still, rather than marrying a weird man, perhaps ownership of wealth might turn out to be a happier life..."
"Your realistic descriptions make me feel like it will really happen, so please, have mercy on me!"
Taking a heavy blow, Asya could not help but collapse on the Literary Club's floor, clutching her head.
"I-I can't help it. It's not like I know how to express myself fully..."
With depressed feelings, Asya began to draw circles on the floor tiles with her index finger.
"Haruomi is a dense blockhead while Orihime-san is able to nurture affection through her naturally airheaded personality. That's why I wanted to join in club activities together at least..."
"Your decision is basically sound."
President M placed her head on Asya's shoulder and spoke.
"What you lack is the sensuality, luck, judgment, vitality, acting skills, perceptiveness and self-expression abilities required to bring out your hidden potential..."
"H-Hold on, that's going too far. You're making me sound like I have no merits whatsoever."
"No helping it, both your feminine charm and romance standard score are too low."
"Sob sob sob..."
"However, your arrival here can be considered fate. If you are willing to follow me... I could train you up properly."
"—President! Why are you willing to do so much for me!?"
Asya forcefully looked up and asked, prompting President M to exhale forcefully through her nose with a "hmm-hmm."
"Didn't I say this already? It is my mission to protect and guide all my club members!"
Unaware that this encounter would end up being a turning point in her life, Asya could only stare in astonishment at President M's intrepid face.
Meanwhile, in the UFO Research Club's room after the president and Asya had left...
"It suddenly feels so quiet..." muttered Hal with deep feeling.
"Anyway, I guess the president's gender can be found out with a bit of investigation."
"Indeed. After all, the school has physical examinations too."
Orihime nodded in agreement with Hal, but Mutou-san shook her head.
"This is what's strange about this school. The administration provides maximum accommodation if someone wants to hide this type of personal information, keeping it undisclosed as long as the person in question refuses to release it. Haven't you noticed that there's even a washroom for a 'third sex' in school?"
"Now that you mention it, I remember high schools in Thailand are apparently the same..."
Hal decided not to pursue the matter. Instead, he started to examine the clubroom again.
This was a room that could be found in any high school, not particularly spacious, completely devoid of individuality. In the center, six desks were arranged to form rectangle and serve as a conference table.
However, the room was quite well-equipped.
There were two desktop PCs and two laptops. There was also a computer commonly used in the publishing industry, manufactured by a certain company whose symbol was a red fruit. In addition, there was an inkjet printer and a laser printer that were capable of printing A3-size documents, camera-type devices, what appeared to be reference books, and many files...
"How on earth did a high school club get all this stuff?"
"I heard that they were either donated by generations of club members or obtained through President M's connections."
Mutou-san answered Hal's question.
Since the president had gone off, she was the only club member present who knew what club activities were about. Hence, Orihime asked:
"By the way, there is another boy apart from Haruga-kun, right? Is he not around?"
"Oh, you mean Sakuraba-senpai. I think you won't have much chance of meeting him."
"Is he a ghost member?"
"Exactly the opposite. It's because he immediately leaves school every day to gather information on dragons as soon as lessons are over."
The UFO Research Club's mission was to collect news about UFOs, i.e. dragons, then disseminate widely to the masses.
Sakuraba-senpai was apparently quite zealous in these activities.
"From what I've heard, he's the complete opposite of a shut-in and never goes home obediently. But that's exactly why he's able to get his hands on the scoop for all kinds of astounding stories. For example—"
Mutou-san pulled one of the laptops on the table closer.
Flipping the screen open to activate the system from sleep mode, she presented a certain photo to Hal and Orihime.
"This is a 'serpent' that has never been discovered in the Kantou region before, possibly a 'new type.' That was what Sakuraba-senpai wrote in the activity report."
It was a photo depicting a wild beast. Hal was greatly surprised. Orihime most likely felt the same.
Its fur was white but reflective portions were glowing with crimson light. Its appearance was a hybrid between a wolf and a fox. The most striking characteristic consisted of the nine long thick tails—
It was the mighty visage of the recently born leviathan and Orihime's partner, Akuro-Ou.
"That Research Club turns out to be a gathering of many people even stranger than imagined..."
"Yeah, it's quite surprising..."
Hal and Asya exchanged opinions with heartfelt emotion.
Their visit to the UFO Research Club had taken place a few days earlier. April was finally reaching an end while Golden Week had started. Today was also a holiday, which was why the two of them had been walking in a residential neighborhood within the Kōtō ward since morning.
"Right. In the end, Asya, you still joined the Literature Club, but is that really okay?"
"I have thought over that a lot too. Just watch, I will take this chance to reinvent myself."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Fufufu. Haruomi, you'll understand sooner or later..."
The two of them arrived in front of a certain Shinto shrine then passed through a torii gate to enter its premises. The place was quite vast but they did not see the person they were supposed to meet.
Just as Hal and Asya were looking around next to the worship hall and offering box, someone called out to them:
"Haruga-kun, over here!"
Hal looked in the voice's direction. Some distance away from the worship hall was a wooden building.
It looked like a dojo. Orihime was leaning out a window and waving to them. Instantly, Hal's eyes widened in surprise. This was...!
Today, Orihime was dressed in neither school uniform nor casual clothing.
Instead, it was what one would call a shrine maiden outfit. Traditional Japanese attire with a white top paired with a scarlet hakama. The fabric was flimsy while her voluptuous figure was highly attractive. Furthermore, Orihime was leaning forward greatly through the window, fully emphasizing her body's uncontrolled curves. Hal suddenly smiled.
If Hal were to look into a mirror this moment, perhaps he might find the reflection of a nihilistic smile belonging to a perfect villain.
"Haruomi...? It's rare for you to make such an intense expression, what's the matter?"
"No, it's nothing. Juujouji is waiting for us, let's hurry."
Asya questioned with a puzzled look but Hal swept the issue under the rug nonchalantly and swiftly made his way to the dojo.
It was a wooden building with a venerable air of majesty. Its ancient atmosphere nurtured a sense of staid stability. As they entered, the one who came to greet them was not Orihime but another shrine maiden.
"Nice to see you again. Sorry for causing trouble for you last time..."
Orihime's younger cousin, the leviathan Minadzuki's covenantee, as well as Hal's underclassman in the middle school division.
This petite girl, dressed as a shrine maiden, was named Shirasaka Hazumi.
She hastily lowered her head and bowed. Hazumi had been taken hostage by Soth. After the battle, she had to be hospitalized briefly to be examined. During her stay at the hospital, Hal and Asya had visited her only once, under Orihime's lead. This was their first time meeting again after that.
"Is your health fine now?"
"Yes, I am fine... But Minadzuki is still—"
In a coma after Soth drank her blood, Minadzuki still showed no signs of recovery as yet.
Hazumi bowed her head sadly after answering Asya's question.
A single glance was enough to tell that Hazumi had a very gentle personality. Hal found himself somehow unable to gaze at her directly, so he turned to face Orihime as though to hide his embarrassment.
"By the way, why are you dressed as shrine maidens today?"
"Because I am working here for the morning. Both Hazumi's and my family are parishioners of this shrine, so we are occasionally asked to take on shrine maiden jobs."
Hal nodded after listening to her explanation. Orihime and Hazumi's shrine maiden look definitely did not look like cosplay. He got the feeling that they were very used to wearing such outfits.
"In fact, the mirror we used in the ritual last time was found thanks to the goodwill of people on the shrine side."
"Oh I see, you mean what was used for Akuro-Ou's heartmetal."
"Since we're going to discuss witch matters, it's not like we could sit down and talk over tea in a nearby shop, right? That is why I borrowed this dojo."
"It feels quite weird for a shrine to have a dojo."
Hanging on a wall in the dojo was a scroll reading "Katori Daimyojin," very heavy looking wooden swords, staves of various lengths, paginates made of wood, etc, contributing to a very solemn atmosphere.
"Is this where they hold something like sword training?"
"Yes. During the late Shogunate period, the shrine's chief priest was a master of Ono-ha Ittō-ryū, the Ono school's one-sword style. It was said that he built this dojo after he had attained full mastery of the art. I also learn kendo here."
"Eh, you too?"
"Orihime-neesama has been widely praised for her ability since a long time ago."
Hazumi smiled demurely.
Her smiles were still so strikingly memorable.
Perhaps one could say her smiles were extremely dazzlingly. In particular, the sense of transparency was shocking. Even Hal forgot his earlier embarrassment and could not help but gaze intently.
Still, he felt a bit uncomfortable. To disguise these feelings, Hal asked a question:
"Uh... By widely praised, do you mean she entered a competition or something?"
"Yes, she has also entered those types of competitions. Nee-sama has been training in kendo until she graduated middle school, even emerging victorious in a national competition once."
Probably happy to discuss Orihime's excellence, Hazumi was showing a gentle smile.
It was not a fake smile put on intentionally.
In terms of purity, it was 100% sincere. Just by reading her expression, one could tell that she truly loved her older cousin.
Confronted with her dazzling smiling face, Hal scratched his head and was overwhelmed with the urge to look away.
That being said, there were questionable points to what she had just said.
"Excuse me, Hazumi-san? There's something I don't quite understand," Asya asked, apparently noticing the same issue.
"Apart from 'those types' of official competitions, what other matches can determine ability? Sorry, I'm not too familiar with sports in Japan."
"Ah yes. Actually, I'm not too sure either."
While Hazumi was answering, Hal turned his gaze to the person in question.
Orihime took down a wooden sword that was hanging on the wall and said "wow, this sure brings back memories" as though she had not heard their conversation. It was definitely too unnatural.
Hal's suspicions turned to certainty. Hazumi's next words reinforced his notion.
"But as a child, Nee-sama has always been 'a girl stronger than any boy.' This was well-known in the neighborhood. I heard that there were even skilled boys who deliberately came from neighboring areas to challenge her."
"Coming to challenge her... So picking fights, basically?"
As soon as Hal muttered, Hazumi hastily shook her head.
"F-Fights!? Nothing of that sort. Nee-sama always called them 'an honest match' or 'a fair and square contest,' you know?"
"Those can all be interpreted as 'fights.'"
Nodding at Hazumi, who had jumped in surprise, Hal then looked at Orihime.
The former kendo girl, who had deliberately altered her image, smiled as though she had been caught red-handed.
"Oh dear, everyone was so mischievous back in elementary school. Even then, someone like me already graduated from all such affairs by sixth grade, before advancing to middle school."
"That seems a bit late in terms of graduating."
"I only took on boys who bullied the weak and I never used a bamboo sword just because I was learning kendo. At most, I only employed judo techniques that Grandfather had taught me personally."
"In your own way, you were also bullying the weak."
"In any case, the title of the chivalrous 'Kotengu of Fukakawa' that circulated around was referring to me. As a hero of justice, I guess I could be called Anba-Tengu too."
"You picked that nickname yourself, right? Making references to tengu in this day and age, that's really in your style."
Speaking of which, Orihime had claimed before that contrary to appearances, she was actually quite good at fighting.
Her grounds for making such a claim was apparently based on this childhood phase of hers as well as her victory in a national kendo competition.
"Fine, fine, it's all in the past anyway. I don't practice kendo anymore due to working as a witch," Orihime finished lightheartedly then gazed at everyone's face in turn.
"By the way, I have something to report to all of you. I met Yukari-san yesterday... and she casually asked about how Akuro-Ou was born."
" "Ugh." "
Hiiragi Yukari held an executive position in the research organization SAURU and at the same time, she was also the technical consultant in charge of all witches in the Kantou region.
There was no way to evade her discerning eye after all? Hal and Asya groaned together.
"After all, the way Akuro-Ou suddenly joined the battle last time was too unnatural..."
"In any case, I managed to pull through using the explanation we agreed on: 'By the time I realized, Akuro-Ou's spirit had come to me. We tried to conduct the ritual and it succeeded.'"
"Will Hiiragi-san believe it?"
"Even if we reported the truth, it's hard to say whether she'll trust me."
Hinokagutsuchi, the Rune of the Bow, the special ritual of Akuro-Ou's birth—
Too many mysteries. The power of the rune was too great. There was no way to predict how things would unfold if they were to report everything recklessly. All Hal could see in front of him were tricky matters of this sort.
Before more information was gathered, they should adhere to strict confidentiality for now.
"However, Hiiragi-san should be busy at the moment, trying to find a new location to move the Mansion, so she probably won't pursue the matter seriously for now... I hope," Asya said.
The reclaimed land at Shin-Kiba had turned into a battlefield last time. During the battle, flames discharged by Raak Al Soth had fallen upon the Witch Mansion there.
In the end, the fire had gone on to incinerate the building completely because it was not extinguished in time.
Fortunately, the vault was underground so the large number of grimoires and magical apparatus had remained safe.
Headed by Hiiragi-san, involved personnel were currently busy running all over the place to secure a place to serve as a temporary Mansion and move these items over.
"Speaking of which, that Hinokagutsuchi hasn't shown up lately."
Hal recalled the self-styled devil who had a habit of hiding.
Despite her ways, she was also a valuable source of information. Hal wanted to talk to her occasionally.
"First, let's start by going through Pops' materials to investigate about that stone."
The magical stone hidden in his father's effects. The stone that Hinokagutsuchi had called the flint.
Through what kind of channels had Hal's father, Haruga Takafumi, obtained it? Hal decided to begin his investigation from this point.
"No matter what, meals are the most important. There's a Japanese proverb that says you can't fight wars on empty stomachs, so let's have lunch. I'm famished."
With extra emphasis added at the end, Asya's declaration brought an end to the discussion.
After waiting for Orihime and Hazumi to change into casual clothing, the group went to a nearby park. Taking over a table that happened to be empty in the resting area, they began to have lunch.
"Today I brought a specially prepared Chinese-style lunch. Chinese cooking is one of my specialties, so please enjoy, everyone!"
Probably quite confident in the food's flavor, Asya announced with pride.
Back when he heard Asya say "I made lunch for today!" earlier, Hal wondered if he should run to the pharmacy to pick up some indigestion medication first.
In contrast, a fresh face had eyes shining brightly in anticipation.
"Really? Wow, I'm so excited."
That was Hazumi. Her clear eyes were truly infused with extremely bright light.
"Asya-san is really talented in cooking. I am positive it will be very delicious," Orihime further incited Hazumi's expectations. Despite having eaten Asya's "home cooking" at the Haruga house once before, Orihime smiled cheerfully. She probably thought the menu and portions just happened to be very "substantial" at the time.
Then Asya finally unveiled the packed lunch she had brought.
"These sticky rice dumplings were left over from yesterday. You can choose between fillings of braised pork, sweet potato, mountain vegetables, or braised beef... Anyway, all kinds of flavors."
"That's amazing! What a feast!"
"There's also youlinji—Chinese-style deep-fried chicken. The sweet and spicy sauce is a special recipe I came up with after research and experimenting. Make no mistake, you won't be able to taste this flavor anywhere else. Ehe."
"To think you went that far!?"
"Then there's huiguo rou—twice-cooked pork, mapo eggplant, mapo doufu, shrimp and squid stir fry, and pidan—thousand-year-old egg. In addition, there's very simple stuff like fried beansprouts, fried pea sprouts, fried water spinach. Spring rolls, qingjiao rousi—stir fried pork and green peppers, steamed chicken with chop suey..."
Wham, wham, wham, Asya brought out food repeatedly.
The container was a seven-layered stackable box set that had made her so touched that she exclaimed "I can't believe there's a lunch box with so many layers!" and instantly purchased it upon seeing it at the food utensil section of a Japanese department store.
Every vegetable dish was shiny due to her use of the Chinese cooking technique of deep-frying food to partially cook it before subjecting it to further stages of cooking.
Perfect visual and olfactory presentation, intensely rich flavors, so many dishes that they almost overflowed the table, such was precisely Asya's Chinese cooking. Orihime widened her eyes.
Then seemingly with a pensive expression of total comprehension, she nodded.
"Speaking of which, Asya-san seems to say she's hungry quite frequently..."
"Amazing... A-Are we able to finish all of this...?"
On the other hand, although Hazumi had initially gazed at Asya with touched emotions and respect...
Confronted with Asya's portions and variety, even she could not hide her wavering. However, she suddenly looked up with a determined expression and said in strong tone of voice:
"U-Umm, it looks very delicious. I will try my best!"
"Fufufufu. Bon appetit. Don't be shy and start tasting without delay."
Hazumi, nodding firmly, and Asya, who had overestimated other people's appetites.
Although they were both petite girls, they stood in stark contrast to each other.
Still, Hazumi was truly brave. Unlike Hal who had quickly concluded it was impossible to finish, she encouraged herself to eat all the food no matter what.
Surely, she must think that it would be disrespectful to Asya if there were any leftovers.
What a good girl—Thinking that, Hal started lunch too. During times like these, Hal would limit himself to eating an amount that would not strain his digestive system, but today, he might possibly have to stuff his stomach to the limit.
"Oh right. I recently heard a rumor about Haruomi and Orihime-san having plans to go on a private trip during Golden Week."
"Me and Juujouji? When did this kind of rumor start spreading...?"
"Are you alright, Nee-sama!?"
Hazumi handed a bottle of green tea to Orihime who had suddenly choked.
Meanwhile, Asya sharpened her gaze while swallowing a mouthful of deep-fried chicken.
"This reaction... Is the rumor's source actually a grave you dug yourself, Orihime-san?"
"W-What grave? Nothing of that sort. Listen to me, Asya-san—"
"Oh, I see what caused it. There was one time when Juujouji came to me very suddenly to ask if I could find air tickets for 'a three-day-two-night trip to either Korea or Taiwan' for the holiday next week. Now that I think back in detail, there were classmates around at the time."
"I was thinking that I could definitely secure round-trip tickets at least if I relied on Haruga-kun's shady connections..."
"Well, if you don't mind a smuggler's ship, I could arrange one for you, but please be aware that they don't set sail on a date and route at your convenience."
"Y-You know those kinds of people?"
Hazumi stared wide-eyed, prompting Hal to answer "yeah" ambiguously.
If one were to use an analogy of black and white, Hal would be living comfortably in the gray area approaching black. He definitely did not dare display his true nature in front of a "good girl" like her.
On the other hand, Hazumi was impressed for some reason and quietly whispered:
"Smugglers... I read about them on news occasionally. So I see..."
"Oh no, that won't work, Hazumi. I can't let you cross borders using that kind of method. I was thinking of using this rare chance to take her traveling abroad."
"Eh!? Take me traveling!?"
"Yes. Think about it, Minadzuki is currently in convalescence. And you've never gone traveling ever since you became a witch, right? That's why I suddenly got the idea that I might as well make use of this holiday to take you traveling."
"Are you sure you want to take a girl like her on an overseas trip with a densely packed itinerary when she's not used to long journeys?"
"Well, I just wanted to try asking first. If you could book an itinerary that seems nice, I would then recommend it to Hazumi—Oh, a call from Yukari-san."
Orihime took out her suddenly ringing cellphone from her bag.
Then she placed her phone on the center of the table.
Displayed on the LCD screen was Hiiragi Yukari's photo. Wearing red-rimmed glasses, her appearance was that of an intellectual beauty. However, that inexplicably weary gaze of hers was very striking.
"What's the matter, Yukari-san? Asya-san and Hazumi happen to be here too."
After picking up the call using speakerphone, Orihime started the conversation.
Somehow, they had apparently developed a straightforward relationship eschewing the use of polite language.
Hal was told that prior to becoming a witch, Orihime had sought out Hiiragi-san to talk many times. Especially after Akuro-Ou's birth, the two of them probably met every three days.
'That's wonderful. It's quite sudden but I'm afraid it's bad news, okay?'
Hiiragi-san cut straight to the chase and dispensed with pleasantries.
'Nine Raptors seem to be moving west on the Pacific currently, having broken past the defensive line at Ogasawara Islands. Judging from their route of advance, they are expected to reach the Kantou region. Since the situation could escalate into an emergency, I would like to request Orihime-san to make preparations for interception.'
"Nee-sama and Asya-san left."
Hazumi remarked quietly in sadness, because her partner Minadzuki was still in "convalescence."
In contrast, Asya departed together with Orihime, leaving the half-eaten lunch behind.
Like Hazumi's, her partner was also in poor shape. Nevertheless, she was in charge of supporting Orihime who was still inexperienced.
"It feels so strange now when I still had to mobilize not so long ago..."
Left in the park together with Hal, Hazumi's countenance darkened in worry.
In the middle of tidying up the leftovers of the Chinese lunch, Hal stopped what he was doing and said:
"Akuro-Ou is a 'serpent' that's so strong that it doesn't resemble a newborn. Also, Asya went with them too. Even if they're fighting Raptors, I don't think there'll be much risk."
Actually, there was an attached condition of "accidents could happen any time."
Of course, Hal did not say it out loud. Hence, the younger witch suddenly smiled at him. Her smile was a bit stiff with a reduced sense of transparency compared to usual.
"I suppose... you are right. Very well. I've decided to believe in Nee-sama and Asya-san too. Just like you, Haruga-san."
Hazumi's smile seemed a bit forced.
Apparently noticing Hal's consideration for her, she tried to comfort him instead, telling him not to worry about her. Caught directly in Hazumi's candid gaze, Hal really could not get his mind to settle down.
It felt rather uncanny. Due to Hazumi's excessive obedience, Hal felt intimidated instead.
Hal found Hazumi to be someone very difficult to deal with, but in a completely different way compared to Orihime.
"However, what Hiiragi-san said just now was very concerning. I heard that there are dragons flying into other places apart from the Kantou region..."
Hazumi showed a slightly solemn expression again. This news was part of what Hiiragi-san had told them.
'Although we are currently still gathering information, the various islands are apparently under attack from flocks of Raptors. Simultaneously. All personnel involved in Japan's domestic defense are apparently bickering fiercely over the matter. If a solution is found to take care of the Raptors flying towards the Kantou region, Orihime-san might need to be dispatched to regions that are lacking manpower.'
"Dragon Strikes" launched by lesser dragons, Raptors.
Such attacks were supposed to happen sporadically. It was essentially impossible for flocks of dragons to coordinate with one another in advance to attack predetermined locations in an organized manner.
The only exception was when elite dragons were involved—
At this moment, a certain pompous girl suddenly spoke up:
"Hmm... The flavors are not bad, reaching a passing standard, but I would really like an alcoholic beverage to rinse away the grease in my mouth. The humans who offered tribute to me in the past were never negligent in this aspect."
Hal looked in the direction of the voice. Without him noticing, a girl in a kimono had sat down next to him.
The scarlet attire was reminiscent of crimson flames. Her black hair was tied with a red ribbon. Despite her appearance as a cute little girl, her true identity was an elite dragon's ghost—
Hinokagutsuchi nimbly delivered qingjiao rousi into her mouth using chopsticks.
"You... can still eat?"
"I seldom eat or drink because it is not essential. By the way, brat, I smell a powder keg on earth."
Meanwhile, meeting the scarlet-clad ghost for the first time, Hazumi stared wide-eyed.
Even so, she opened her mouth while suppressing her surprise, perhaps intending to greet Hinokagutsuchi. However, Hinokagutsuchi waved her hand with customary arrogance to stop Hazumi.
"Little shrine maiden, I already know your background and you must have heard about me too. In that case, fresh introductions are unnecessary. Too much of a hassle."
"Y-Yes. I have heard from Nee-sama and others about you already."
"Naturally, if you feel compelled to kneel and prostrate yourself in awe of my disposition as a noble queen, I shall not prevent you."
"!? You are—a queen!?"
"Fufufufu. It is a thing of the past."
Hal wondered if Hazumi's innocence had piqued her interest, but Hinokagutsuchi seemed a bit pleased.
Then her lips curled malevolently as she threw Hal a slight glance.
"Brat, an unwelcome guest might be showing up at your doorstep soon. When the time comes, your caliber shall be tested... It is fine for you to chase after mysteries, but do not lower your guard in any event."
Confronted with this sudden warning, Hal frowned.
While Hal and company were in Tokyo New Town, listening to news of the incoming Raptors...
Platinum-colored flames were burning on a small Pacific island.
The location was in the waters near the Ogasawara Islands, at an unpopulated island where seagulls were the only creatures one could call residents. Scorching and mysterious, platinum flames were burning on this rock-covered remote island.
These were supernatural flames produced by the magic of dragons.
And they were identical to the flames that Raak Al Soth had created in the past.
This time, the flames were burning Pavel Galad, an elite dragon with metallic silver scales.
Roughly two weeks prior, he had been defeated by the dragon king known as "Princess Yukikaze."
However, the massive hole in his chest had already healed while his almost destroyed heartmetal was gradually recovering normal functionality.
The reason for his revival was held in the center of Pavel Galad's palm. Engraved upon the dragon's right palm was a runic symbol consisting of three Vs.
This was precisely the power of dragonbane that Galad had inherited—The Rune of the Sword.
"My body's total recovery is imminent. Soon enough, I will complete preparations for battle... Before that comes to pass, my minions, fly over to that land on my behalf to blow the horns of war declaration. Let the citizens of the land, rightfully mine, Pavel Galad's, to conquer, bear witness to my burning spirit."
An elongated series of islands lay further west in the ocean. He was sending his minions there.
While issuing commands to them, Galad's body continued to burn with platinum-colored flames. This was a trial imposed upon him as the price for obtaining the Rune of the Sword.
"To conquer that land and claim it as my territory—That is precisely the trial bestowed upon me!'
The silver dragon, Pavel Galad, had acquired the power of dragonbane.
Unbeknownst to Hal and company, his invasion was going to change the future dramatically—
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