Leviathan:Volume 2 Chapter 5
Chapter 5 - Time for Another Covenant
"Anyway, my life is extended by half a day for now..."
After Pavel Galad departed, Hal collapsed to sit on the ground.
The magic gun of steel and gold had vanished from his right hand, presumably because the battle had ended. However, it would reappear again when needed. Hal was deeply convinced of this.
"Haruga-san! Are you hurt!?"
Hazumi rushed over to him in worry. Although the unfamiliar combat had exhausted Hal, he smiled weakly to help reassure Hazumi.
"Yeah... I'm unexpectedly fine. That white light of protection is pretty sturdy. Although I get rocked hard as though in a fishing boat sailing through a typhoon..."
"Then Haruga-kun... Is it possible that you have become able to fight a dragon one on one?" Orihime asked.
The complexion on her face looked quite poor, possibly because she had spent a great deal of stamina on sustaining Akuro-Ou.
Gazing at Hal, her eyes could not hide her worry.
"Like members of a Space Garrison from a certain Land of Light... With a shout of 'DWUAH!' or something, I transform into a red and silver superhero, even becoming giant-sized—"
"I don't think you can wrestle with giant monsters and finally win with a beam attack."
Despite cracking a joke, Orihime's expression remained very serious.
She was probably remembering what Sophocles had said. Hal decided to confess honestly.
"Although I'm quite sturdy, I still have a fragile human's body after all. Fighting that guy one on one is too much of a stretch. And right now, there are no signs that I can transform."
Hal looked up at Orihime's face and smiled weakly.
"I'm not lying, honest. I do feel sorry since you like heroes so much."
"Well... It is a shame that I won't be seeing a transformation, but..."
Perhaps feeling a load lifted off her heart for the moment, Orihime finally smiled.
"I believe you are fine the way you are, Haruga-kun. Doing a pose to transform doesn't suit you at all."
"Well, I can agree with that. But with that, the key to victory still lies with Akuro-Ou and Rushalka after all, doesn't it? They'll have to wrestle with a giant monster in my stead..."
Victory. The word coming out of his own mouth was making Hal feel exhausted.
In terms of games, Hal preferred RPGs and SLGs. He had no interest in fighting games. Then he recalled Sophocles. That man had called the Road to Kingship, which led to the ascension of dragon kings, a "game"...
"Isn't it time we got some rest? I am dead tired and it must be the same for you, Haruga-kun, right?" Orihime suddenly asked.
Hence, Hal nodded immediately.
She should be the one with greater depletion of stamina. She needed rest as soon as possible.
"Since I already promised to let you sleep until you wake up naturally, Juujouji, let's rest here for now. If you're up for it, we also have food."
"Of course I want to eat. I haven't had anything since yesterday!"
The group could finally rest as much as they wanted at the ruins of Shinjuku Fukutoshin.
From the supplies on the car, Orihime picked out chocolate, biscuits and a sports drink for instant consumption to begin simple renourishment.
A long-awaited meal after almost twenty-four hours. If it was Asya instead, she would probably wolf everything down ravenously.
However, Orihime broke the chocolate bar into small pieces, also splitting the biscuits into halves before savoring her food patiently and thoroughly. Hal wondered if this explained how Orihime was unbelievably giving off an image of politeness despite eating quite quickly.
Was this the gap in feminine charm? Hal felt deeply impressed.
Despite hiding many tomboyish hobbies, the impression Juujouji Orihime gave was a girl to the very letter. Perhaps this was the difference between Orihime and Asya.
After eating, Orihime lay down on a seat in the wagon and wrapped a blanket around herself.
Her breathing instantly indicated slumber, a display of fortitude so strong that she did not seem like someone who had narrowly missed death. Seeing that, her cousin, Hazumi, suddenly slumped her shoulders.
"Oh nothing. I just feel completely inadequate when I compare myself to Nee-sama."
Hazumi gazed in mesmerization at her cousin who had rapidly fallen into deep sleep.
"I clearly became a witch first, but I couldn't protect her. Neither can I teach her anything..."
"That's because of unfavorable timing. After all, Minadzuki is currently in that state."
"But Asya-san still shone in last time's battle despite Rushalka's poor condition. And this time, she helped you a lot too. After this experience, I am feeling a desire to get stronger for the first time..."
Hal originally wanted to tell the depressed Hazumi the following:
No no no, the fault lies in humans who cultivated gentle girls into witches—people like Haruga Haruomi—You are completely blameless.
However, he did not think the self-blaming "angel" would find salvation in these words.
Hal came over to Hazumi and patted her shoulder as gently as possible.
Spontaneously relying on body language when he had no idea what to say, this was probably a bad habit he had picked up from living abroad for so long. However, there was no choice apart from staying silent in times like these.
In any case, Hal summarized a thousand thoughts into a few words.
"How should I put it? You really are a good girl. Like an angel indeed."
"N-No way!? Nothing of that sort. Although I do not see myself as a bad child, I am nowhere good enough to be described as such..."
"No no. For some reason, this is the first time in my life I want to adopt a girl from another family as my little sister."
"L-Little sister? For me to become your sister, Haruga-san!?"
"Yeah. I never thought I'd be into that sort of thing. In fact, I have a friend in Taiwan called Phillip who's an authority on this genre of game."
"By game... Are you referring to 'little sister games'? I cannot imagine what they are about at all."
Reserved yet more inquisitive than average, Hazumi made an expression approaching a smile, seemingly forgetting her earlier melancholy within the blink of an eye.
"I would like to try playing one."
"Really? Then next time a chance comes up—"
Just as the conversation livened up, Hal and Hazumi looked up at the same time.
This was due to feeling a chill along their spine. By the time they noticed, concentrated magical power had filled this corner in western Shinjuku. The density was high enough to adhere to skin, producing a feeling as though one could reach out and touch it.
"This feeling is the same as inside Tokyo Station last time...?"
"Precisely. Thanks to the silvery brat opening the secret records of Ruruk Soun and your forging of a wand too. I never expected to obtain the essence required for a ritual this quickly."
Having taken corporeal form at some point, Hinokagutsuchi spoke patronizingly.
"Energy from the ocean of stars you summoned back then has gathered. Well done."
"By ritual, don't tell me you mean—"
"Yes. O little lady, make haste and prepare yourself if you have yet to do so."
Hinokagutsuchi stared squarely at Hazumi with her golden eyes.
"Fulfill the earlier deal. Do as I demand. In exchange, I shall grant you power—or rather, kindling leading to power. Whether you can turn it into a blaze depends entirely on you."
"Kindling leading to fire...?"
"I shall have your 'serpent,' that Minadzuki something or other, undergo a transformational rebirth."
The self-styled devil smiled mysteriously and extended her hand. This situation prompted Hazumi to gasp in surprise, her entire expression frozen.
"By ritual, you're talking about what you made Juujouji go through, right? By the way, what do you mean by rebirth?"
Hal questioned Hinokagutsuchi in a somewhat displeased tone of voice.
The self-styled devil looked at Hal in amusement and replied readily.
"Pouring the abundant essence here into that 'serpent' so as to bring about the rebirth of its decrepit body and heartmetal. This little lady's body shall serve as the seedbed. Although it is impossible to predict how far she can go, at the very least, she will find the 'serpent' easier to handle than before."
Hinokagutsuchi stared sharply at Hal.
"Extracting the reborn 'serpent' will be your job."
"But will Shirasaka suffer the same pain as Juujouji last time?"
"That cannot be avoided. After all, one cannot gain mastery over power without paying a price."
"It seems that Shirasaka's health isn't too good and I really can't condone this kind of coercion using a deal as an excuse. If she says on her own that she wants to do it, then fine..."
In a rare display, Hal prioritized his true feelings over calculated pros and cons, choosing pessimistic opposition.
However, Hal realized that at times like these, Shirasaka Hazumi would probably insist:
"I-I wish to do it. It is a promise after all. If Minadzuki's health could be recovered, then I want to make an attempt whatever it takes."
Hazumi gave the predicted response. Despite some slight stiffness, her expression was filled with determination.
Hal sighed. Hazumi's decision was correct. Since it could bolster their combat potential to some extent, they should do everything they could to this end. Under the current circumstances, there was no choice more correct than that.
Even so, Hal still said something in bad grace, uncharacteristically.
"I really want to stop you as an overprotective older brother..."
"Please save that for a future opportunity."
Although a little stiff, that smile of absolute pureness returned.
"Rather than getting looked after, Haruga-san, I would like you to order me around more."
"Order around? You want me to order you around?"
"To be honest, this idea had occurred to me. I think it would be very interesting if I could become your assistant, Haruga-san."
Hal exclaimed "eh?" in surprise, because the girl most removed from malice in the entire world had smiled mischievously. Lowering her voice, Hazumi said:
"...In truth, I am different from Nee-sama. My childhood favorites were the likes of gentlemen thieves rather than righteous detectives. I also liked archaeologists who wiped out precious ruins under the pretext of exploration and adventure..."
"You mean those guys? The Fiend with Twenty Faces or the Jones family, for example."
"Fufufu, yes. That is why, if you don't mind, Haruga-san, I hope you could tell me stories about the world—"
Although Shirasaka Hazumi was undoubtedly an angel, those wings that were meant to be pure white seemed to have a few brown feathers mixed in them.
Finding out the surprising truth, Hal stared at her intently.
"I am no good with physical activity and have my duties as a witch, so I cannot become an adventurer like them. But if I could work as an assistant, perhaps I could help out in some small way... So—"
Hazumi looked up to examine Hal's demeanor.
"I know I am asking to be hired as an assistant when you are in dire straits in many ways at the moment, Haruga-san... But if I gain a stronger and livelier Minadzuki... Will it help my case?"
"Is that the angle you're going for? Well, that'll surely add a lot of points."
After giving that reply, Hal glanced at Hinokagutsuchi.
The self-styled devil had her arms crossed with a textbook look of smugness on her face.
"Didn't I say so? This girl has spine and a good head on her shoulders. Placed by your side, she ought to be useful to a commensurate extent at least, yes?"
"Cut the 'commensurate extent' stuff, it's too presumptuous. By the way..."
Hal glared sternly at Hinokagutsuchi and said, "It was the same with Juujouji too. You like to leave me to my own devices, yet you're very diligent in trying to increase my number of comrades—like witches?"
"Fool. At times like these, you ought to feel grateful for my benevolence and express your thanks while kneeling."
"Like anyone would believe benevolence coming from the mouth of a self-styled devil. But I get the feeling that Juujouji will get mad if she finds out... Still, it would be nice to have an assistant's help once in a while."
Hal muttered quietly. Hazumi's unintentional humor and prank had brought salvation to his soul.
If this girl were to fall into danger, ultimately, he would try his hardest to handle things appropriately, so as to rescue her. Hal thought to himself then said, "Okay—Let's start that whatever ritual."
By the time they noticed, it was already dusk. The setting sun was dyeing former Shinjuku Fukutoshin a vivid orange. It was now the same time of the day as Akuro-Ou's birth.
An ambiguous time neither night nor day, what was known as the twilight hour.
The time when monsters and demons were on the prowl. The hours when all sorts of specters materialized to wander the human realm—
After explaining to Hazumi the steps of the birthing ritual, Hinokagutsuchi arrogantly ordered "Hurry and prepare" so Hazumi entered a building in front of them. Then some time passed.
"I-I am ready..."
Hazumi returned. She was speaking in a feeble voice while shrinking in embarrassment.
"I-I have already followed your instructions of 'undressing as much as possible'..."
"Hmm. Well, not bad at all."
Hinokagutsuchi appraised Hazumi's attire with an air of importance.
Hazumi had been wearing her school uniform but now she was only wrapped in a flimsy shawl. The knitted shawl was draped over her shoulders, hanging down to the vicinity of her hips.
Due to the shawl's large size and Hazumi's petite figure, virtually all of her upper torso above the hip was covered up.
But that was all that was covered up.
Every other part was exposed. Her delicate and slim arms and legs, her pale and slender thighs, and that extraordinarily seductive neck were all clear to see. Possibly due to the unbearable embarrassment, Hazumi was squirming, causing the shawl to sway, exposing pink fabric at her hip.
On her body was only a large shawl and underwear. This was Hazumi's current attire.
"However, little lady, where did you find this piece of cloth?"
"I brought it, thinking just in case it might be cold..."
"Hmph. To think I was hoping to view a maiden's unseemly appearance as much as I pleased."
Despite grumbling verbally, Hinokagutsuchi still nodded at the terrified Hazumi and motioned for her to sit down.
This was in front of a high-rise building. There were stairs leading up to the building's entrance. Hazumi sat down on the third step from the bottom.
"First, I shall touch Minadzuki's soul through your body—then extract her heartmetal."
Speaking very absurd words matter-of-factly, Hinokagutsuchi extended her left hand and touched Hazumi's chest with only the shawl between them!
Then the self-styled devil's face tensed up with a "Hmm?"
"Little lady... You are topless. Did you remove it?"
"Ah, yes. Because you said to 'undress as much as possible'..."
Hal did not know if it was because she could not comprehend why Hinokagutsuchi was surprised, but Hazumi was looking lost.
Meanwhile, Hal began to get flustered. Topless. Removed. So it meant that she had removed her upper torso's underwear—commonly known as a bra?
Hazumi must have been so thorough for the sake of following orders.
"S-Sorry. Is this no good?"
"Nay, the opposite. You have done very well. Yes. A developing bust with a sense of indescribable innocence and modesty, truly marvelous."
"Fufufu. The thing I want is inside here. Are you ready?"
"Ehhh!? H-Hinokagutsuchi-san, why are you touching—that kind of place!? A-Ahhh!? T-That place is..."
Reaching her left hand through the shawl's gap, Hinokagutsuchi played with the young girl's breast.
Just as the panicking Hazumi twisted her body, the shawl slid from her shoulders. Since her bare chest was about to be exposed, Hal intended to look away.
But before he could do that, he saw.
A part of the body that Hazumi did not emphasize. Rather than twin peaks, they would be better described as hills. Hinokagutsuchi's hand had reached deep into that pale mound. Even her wrist was sinking in.
As though performing superpowered surgery, her hand was inserted into Hazumi's body!
"It will tickle, so bear with it briefly. Look, it is done."
Hinokagutsuchi swiftly drew out her left hand. Held in that hand was a metal sphere, emerald in color.
It was very similar to Akuro-Ou's heartmetal that Hal had seen in last time's ritual. Hal asked, "Hey, don't tell me that's..."
"Mm-hmm. It is Minadzuki's heartmetal."
In other words, a priestess' heart was connected directly to the heartmetal of her 'serpent'?
While Hal was stunned at the revelation, Hazumi hastily repositioned the shawl to cover herself. Meanwhile, Hinokagutsuchi handed the heartmetal over.
Finally? Hal received the emerald heartmetal.
"The steps are just as he explained... Begin."
Sitting on the steps, Hazumi was originally arching her back in embarrassment, leaning forward slightly.
But now, she was lying down with her back against the step, her slender legs extended straight. Probably in consideration for Hal, she wanted him to perform his task conveniently.
Due to that, Hazumi's waist, previously covered by the shawl, was now in full view.
Her skin was astoundingly pale with very smooth texture. And due to her current posture, even her pink underwear was clear to see. However, the biggest problem was the chest area.
Although it was covered by the shawl over her shoulders, only the top half of her mildly bulging bosom was covered.
Even though it was just the bottom half of Hazumi's breasts, Hal could still see them after all. This was making him lose composure greatly. Be that as it may, faced with the girl who was aspiring to become his assistant, Hal had no choice but to maintain a solemn expression in desperation.
A superb acting performance of the one in a lifetime sort. However—
"Sure enough, size is not everything..."
He murmured to himself at a volume that no one could hear.
In addition, when he made eye contact by chance with Hinokagutsuchi, who was observing from the sidelines, the two of them nodded as though they were allies and fellow connoisseurs.
But no matter what, the ritual was the most important right now. Hal focused his attention on the girl before his eyes.
Holding the emerald heartmetal he had just received, he gazed straight into Hazumi's eyes.
"Then I'll start?"
In fact, Hal was nervous too, but to reassure her, he pretended to be very experienced. That being said, it was his second time conducting the ritual. This time, he was calmer.
Thanks to that, Hal could even sense what sort of magic had been cast on the heartmetal in his right hand. No, not just his hand. This place—there was magic cast on the entire "venue." Hal noticed this for the first time. It was the magic that Hinokagutsuchi had cast before the ritual began.
Following an altered version of the ancient covenant ritual.
To complete this aforementioned ritual, Hal slowly reached out.
Then he thrust Minadzuki's heartmetal into Hazumi's abdomen. But rather than all at once, he did it bit by bit. Slowly, he pushed bit by bit.
Probably starting to feel pain, Hazumi showed suffering on her face.
When the heartmetal was one-third of the way in, her angelic face became even more distorted.
She finally made a sound, but it was a moan of pain without words.
Hal could not help but pause and started to pull the heartmetal out.
"P-Please don't stop. I beg you, please... go all the way."
"Yes, I know. However, we'll slow it down for you to get used to it."
Faced with Hazumi's tearful request, Hal consoled her.
The younger witch was panting heavily with her eyes filled with tears. The pain was most likely that intense. Speaking of which, after Akuro-Ou's birth, Orihime had commented that her "abdomen felt like it was burning, it was so hot and painful"...
Hazumi seemed to be suffering more than Orihime last time, was it because of her younger age?
Although it did not take a long time, it was a ritual to give birth to life after all. Something like this happening would not be strange.
Hal cautiously inserted his hand into Hazumi's body.
Hazumi panted painfully. Even so, Hal still slowly pushed the heartmetal inwards.
In the process of this action repeating between pauses, Hazumi gradually grew accustomed to it. Finally, the emerald heartmetal was buried inside Hazumi's abdomen together with Hal's wrist.
"Are you okay?"
"Y-Yes, I am still okay..."
Although Hazumi still seemed to be suffering, at least her condition was stable for now.
Then the moment arrived at last. The heartmetal held in Hal's hand began to pulsate.
Throb, throb. Beating like a heart. Clearly it was just a small sphere, small enough to hold in one's hand, yet the beating was astoundingly strong.
"Haruga-san... Minadzuki is—"
Hazumi probably felt the beating too. She spoke with tears in her eyes.
Despite her crying, she looked overjoyed. The sense of fulfillment and accomplishment seemed to make her forget the pain within the blink of an eye. When Hal motioned with his eyes, she nodded.
Having obtained permission, Hal swiftly drew out his right hand from Hazumi's body.
In the end, the pain made Hazumi cry out. However, she stared at Hal's right hand with happiness on her face.
Minadzuki's heartmetal was glowing there. The emerald sphere had turned translucent. Inside was a tiny ring of fire—
Indeed. Burning inside the interior of the reborn heartmetal was a small red flame.
Hazumi was sweating all over while she gazed at the sphere with a face of happiness. She had probably tried her best, depleting all her energy. Hal spoke up, "No time to lose. Call out Minadzuki now."
Hazumi looked up in the air. A red spray of blood instantly appeared in the dusk sky.
However, the gigantic serpentine dragon leviathan was not there. Only an amorphous black shadow was occupying that spot. Due to the extraction of her heartmetal, Minadzuki had presumably lost her physical body.
The spray of blood in the air became bigger and bigger, gradually increasing in density as well.
It would turn into a mist of blood at this rate, perishing tragically. However, the new heartmetal floated up from Hal's hand and rose in the sky, drawn to the blood spray and amorphous shadow.
The "serpent" in its pitiful form immediately vanished, replaced by—
"Although it was a difficult delivery, the birth is finished at last."
Hinokagutsuchi spoke softly. In front of her gaze, the serpentine dragon leviathan was coiled up in the air, adding emerald color to the evening glow in the sky.
Roughly an hour after the sun had set completely, Orihime woke up.
"Nee-sama, you're already able to get up!?"
"Yes. It somehow feels so incredible. I was clearly so exhausted earlier, yet now I've fully recovered my energy."
Getting off the car, Orihime replied to Hazumi nonchalantly.
Then she immediately started stretching exercises. Her movements were quite lively. Hal looked around. There was still a portion of magical power remaining from what Hinokagutsuchi had gathered for the ritual.
The night sky was also very clear. The beautiful waning moon was gradually climbing the sky.
"Is this why I recovered...?"
A land with a high concentration of magical power. Moonrise. Night. These were all crucial factors conferring power upon witches.
The moon and the night were particularly important. The magical power consumed by a leviathan's invocation of pseudo-divinity was fully replenished with every arrival of night, thus resetting the usage limit.
"So your body wasn't low in energy due to injury or illness but just overuse of your 'serpent.'"
Hal nodded then called to the girls in his company.
"Since Juujouji seems fine, let's find a more suitable campsite and prepare to spend the night."
"Campsite? I've never stayed overnight in a wasteland before."
"Are you sure we shouldn't return to New Town? That way, we could get some proper rest, right?"
Confronted with the bold plan for the night, Hazumi brightened up whereas Orihime offered a sensible opinion.
However, Hal had reasons for not wanting to return to New Town.
"We could, but I think explaining things to Hiiragi-san and the others will waste a lot of time if we go back after finding Juujouji so easily despite the slim prospects of her survival. They're already starting to get very suspicious."
"And we have to be back before dawn, so I'd like to put the troublesome stuff aside for now."
"Understood. I was hoping to go back to New Town for a refreshing bath with hot water—But I guess I should give up on the notion. It is an emergency after all..."
Hal only realized upon seeing Orihime's shoulder slump in dejection. So she wanted to take a bath?
Deciding it was probably quite a pressing need for girls, Hal offered in a gesture of goodwill:
"Although a fully automatic hot water supply is out of the question, I guess it's still possible to prepare a bath."
Instantly, the two girls' eyes lit up.
Then roughly two hours passed—
The trio began to "camp" on the sports ground of a middle school in the former Chiyoda ward.
The girls were in charge of cooking dinner. They used a portable gas burner to boil water, heat up bread and thick slices of ham, fry eggs and even prepare instant coffee.
Simple camping-style food was prepared in succession.
"Fufufu. It feels like such a long time since I last cooked together with Nee-sama."
"Because you've been busy with your work as a witch, Hazumi."
Hazumi and Orihime both seemed unaccustomed to cooking outdoors, but they worked very happily.
Meanwhile, Hal was proceeding smoothly with preparations for a "bath."
Picking up a number of concrete blocks from rubble in the ruins, he arranged them into two rows with stuff like twigs and scraps paper for kindling in between, thus creating a hearth.
Then on top of the hearth, he placed a large steel drum. After using a plastic bucket to pour roughly a hundred liters of water into the steel drum, preparations were complete for the most part.
Hal lit the hearth to begin boiling the water in the steel drum.
"But Haruga-kun, I can't believe you had all this stuff stored here?"
"There's been recurring trouble in the Concession wasteland lately after all, so I thought I'd make various preparations in case of emergencies. I came over here whenever I had time, transporting water and equipment while I was at it."
That was Hal's reply to Orihime when she came over to check thing out.
These were the "sundry chores" that Hal had been handling in Old Tokyo lately. After selecting ten-odd sites easily accessible by car, he had hidden supplies there.
The supplies included water, food, medication, wireless transceivers, all sorts of equipment, daily necessities, etc.
Patrolling these ten-odd sites, he had gathered the necessary supplies.
"I can understand about keeping water and equipment, but the steel drum truly surprises me..."
"It's very handy. You can even light a fire inside and use it as a stove."
Hal was four the first time he used this simple bathing device. His first attempt to create one himself was when he was seven. Having grown completely accustomed to it, Hal was able to enjoy a Japanese bath anywhere in the world, no matter how remote or undeveloped, so long as he could locate water.
However, boiling the water would require a hour. Hence, this waiting time was used for dinner.
The trio moved school desks into the sports ground to serve as a dining table, sitting around it to have dinner. The vicinity was illuminated by LED lighting placed in the center of the dining table formed from an arrangement of four desks.
Hal instantly tried the fried egg appreciatively. Delicious.
While enjoying the outdoor dinner, Hal was jolted by a sudden realization. He became aware that there was something more important, slightly later tonight.
"Hey Haruga-kun, don't tell me that you are really enjoying yourself right now? It feels like you're in quite a good mood."
"Does it seem that way? I think you're imagining it."
"Fufufufu. I love this. I'm so happy."
"Oh my, I'm glad to hear that from you, Shirasaka."
Just as Hazumi smiled like an angel, Hal responded calmly and Orihime cocked her head in puzzlement, dinner finally came to a conclusion.
"I'll clean up."
Taking up Hazumi's offer, Hal gratefully made his way to the makeshift bath.
Sufficiently heated up, the water temperature in the steel drum was perfect. Hal nodded with an expression of mission accomplished. If he looked in the mirror this moment, he would surely be greeted by a steady smile in the reflection. However—
"Excuse me, Haruga-kun. I'm sorry for interrupting you while you're busy preparing the bath water, but may I ask why are you looking so happy?" Orihime asked, arriving next to him.
Hal immediately answered.
"Not at all. It's not like I'm happy or anything like that. Yeah."
"But right now, you're grinning from ear to ear, you know?"
"...If anything, I suppose it's due to my virtues of fraternity and benevolence. I am very happy to help someone out."
Was Hal reusing a line from the self-styled devil because he had a guilty conscience?
"But wait, I remember now. Haruga-kun, I think you once described yourself as being a closeted something or other."
"So, when is the friendly Haruga-kun planning to depart from his position in front of the bath?"
"What are you talking about, Juujouji? If I don't stay, who's going to tend to the fire?"
"Are you simply tending to the fire? Do you dare swear that you won't engage in any perverted antics like peeking?"
"How could I possibly commit crimes like those?"
Seeing that the game was up, Hal decided to come clean with his thoughts.
"About tending to the fire, I was simply hoping it'd be nice if I ended up catching a good view. In other words, testing my luck. I'm wondering if that friendly old man in the sky might grant good luck or something..."
"Well then, Haruga-kun, you may tend to the fire on the side, but you must be blindfolded."
Instantly, the smiling Orihime looked almost like a goddess of misfortune.
Splash, splish, splosh. The sound of water could be heard.
Then there was the cracking of the wood fire under the steel drum. Hal found himself more sensitive to sound due to the blindfold blocking his vision. Right now, he was sitting next to the fire.
Next, he heard Juujouji exclaiming in pleasure—
"Hoo... This hot water is excellent..."
A much desired bath seemed to help Orihime relax her body and mind.
"I'd love to continue soaking here forever... It's almost like paradise~"
"Fufufu, you seem very comfortable, Nee-sama."
"Of course, this is truly the cleansing of life itself."
Hazumi commented while watching from the side and Orihime answered in a very relaxed voice. Right now, she was probably enjoying this Japanese-style bliss.
One should not find this surprising. After all, she was having a bath after experiencing a state of utter exhaustion of that sort.
Surely she must be showing a countenance of extreme bliss. Hal really wanted to have a look, even if it was just her face. Although he tried to forget his desire for the view below the neck, Hal still could not help but imagine Orihime's entire body.
To eliminate his evil thoughts, Hal asked:
"Umm... Juujouji, how's the fire?"
"No problem~ The temperature is perfect. Very comfortable. It's all thanks to you, Haruga-kun."
"That's wonderful. Just so you know, I won't be able to adjust the fire even if you made a request."
"Fufufu, your eyes are totally covered after all. But this isn't bad. Now you can easily prevail over your evil thoughts, right?"
"But I'm now left with nothing to do. Isn't it time for me to do something at your service?"
"Now that you've said that, I suppose it's fine for you to take off the blindfold. But please put it on again when I exit the bath, okay?"
Orihime finally smiled with generosity and open-mindedness as per her usual style.
Hal gratefully untied the knot behind his head and took off the blindfold. In front of him was the makeshift hearth and steel drum bath. Soaking in the hot water, Orihime was showing a blissful looking face.
Right now, she was sitting in the drum with her knees drawn up to her chest. The hot water reached up to her shoulders.
Hazumi was sitting next to the makeshift bath, watching her older cousin.
"Oh Haruga-kun, you'll have to keep crouching and not stand up. This is a promise, okay?"
"Got it. I will stoop low, keep my head down and focus on the fire."
This steel drum, used as a bath tub, was almost 90cm in height.
If he were to stand up, Hal would be able to see Orihime's naked body sitting in the hot water just by gazing downwards. Hal obediently submitted to the orders she had given to prevent such a situation from happening. Then Hazumi said with a slightly wry smile, "But Nee-sama, I feel that Haruga-san probably won't do things like peeking..."
"Did you hear that, Haruga-kun? Can you assert in front of Hazumi that she is right?"
"Fufufu, of course."
"Listen carefully, Shirasaka. In this world, all men can be divided into the two categories of 'perverts' and 'closet perverts.' By the way, I belong to the closeted type."
"Is that true!?"
"To think you could confess without hesitation in such a situation, I'm begging to feel that you are some kind of big shot, Haruga-kun..."
"So this is what's known as a man... I-I'm learning so much here..."
"H-Hazumi, stop feeling emotional over weird things!"
"Sorry, Nee-sama... But in that case, Haruga-san, was it the same during that time too...?"
"Uh... I'd be lying if I claimed that no evil thoughts crossed my mind."
"!? U-Umm, but I felt that... Haruga-san, you were quite gentlemanly?"
"Thank you for saying that..."
"Uh, excuse me. What time was 'that time'?"
Orihime's extremely relaxed voice changed back to her usual tone.
Hal secretly jumped in surprise. Speaking of which, he had yet to report to Orihime about Minadzuki's rebirth. This was because they had been busy preparing the camp ever since Orihime woke up.
And the honest Hazumi instantly answered.
"U-Umm, I haven't brought it up yet, Nee-sama, but actually, we conducted a ritual while you were sleeping. In other words, the ritual for bestowing a 'serpent' with new life, in the same manner as your Akuro-Ou's case."
"A ritual in the same manner as my case? You did that too—Ehhh!?"
Orihime seemed quite taken aback. She was so surprised that she stood up in the bath.
Hot water splashed out while her pale and naked body became exposed.
Indeed. Naked body. Just to repeat, the steel drum's height was roughly 90cm.
Furthermore, to avoid burns, a thick piece of wood had been placed at the bottom of the drum for insulation like in a Goemon bath where an iron cauldron was heated directly.
With a height little more than 160cm, if Orihime stood up in such a situation, naturally, her entire upper body would come into view—
Not wearing a blindfold, Hal looked up and saw at close range.
A supreme figure with a very tight waist and voluptuous in all the right places.
Shaped like small cantaloupes, two bulges visually estimated to be F-cups—Hal not only watched the two round shapes quiver and bounce, but caught a thorough glimpse of the pink parts in the front as well.
Furthermore, he also witnessed the instant when Orihime's entire body turned bright red due to shame rather than heat.
Fortunately, everything below the seductive navel was hidden inside the steel drum...
The one who had brought unexpected good fortune was not the unfriendly goddess.
Instead, it was the girl who had been careless to the point of airheadedness. Hal came to a clear realization of that.
"Ooooooooh! I can't believe I made such a major blunder..."
"Not really, I think it's exactly the kind of blunder you'd make."
"S-Stop twisting the knife in the wound! You're supposed to console others gently in times like these!"
The depressed Orihime was sitting on the lawn in a corner of the sports ground, hugging her knees to her chest.
She sounded energetic enough when she replied to Hal who was sitting next to her. However, getting seen naked seemed to have dealt quite a severe blow to her. Orihime kept her head down the whole time.
The time was approaching 10pm. Everyone had taken a bath and gotten changed.
All that remained was getting some rest, but Orihime was still sitting in depression on the school grounds.
As the prime culprit, Hal could not go to sleep first, so he came over to check out her condition. As a side note, he had already asked Hazumi to go to bed since they had to rise early the next morning.
"B-But I couldn't help it. I jumped in surprise when I heard that Hazumi had gone through that ritual."
"She really worked hard for Minadzuki's revival."
"Y-Yes, I would think so. She is a very good girl after all. However, that painful ritual was quite an ordeal even for me, combined with the fact that you're such a pervert, Haruga-kun, it must have been rough for her..."
"Umm, I do count as a gentleman of sorts, you know?"
"Gentleman, I'll give you that, but an impostor gentleman who openly confessed to being a closet..."
"Oh my, that's indeed true."
"You were also staring at me continuously in the bath without averting your gaze the slightest."
"Sorry, because it was too sudden, I totally didn't know what to do."
"Ooooooooh. Haruga-kun, you pervert and king of lust. You should smash your head against tofu and simply die—Wait, that sounds too pitiful, so just get a head bump!"
"Sure, I can do something of that level any time. After all, I saw something really awesome."
"Q-Quit saying it was awesome or something!"
Orihime would apparently speak childishly when overwhelmed by embarrassment.
Hugging her legs with her face pressed against her lap, she refused to look in his direction. Hal felt his heart skip a beat. The flustered Orihime was so adorable—He could not help but think that even though it was rude.
Meanwhile, Orihime finally lifted her head in front of the disconcerted Hal.
"Ooh, f-forget it. This is part of the price for Minadzuki's revival... I've decided to think of it that way. Getting my entire body ogled by Haruga-kun's lecherous gaze was a necessary sacrifice!"
"Ahhh, yes. Back there, I was really treated to an extremely wonderful—"
"I told you to stop saying that! R-Right, listen here."
Finally recovering, Orihime asked him:
"Do you think... there's any chance for victory tomorrow?"
"Hold on, Haruga-kun."
"No, it's just that the more I think about it calmly, the less I feel that there's a chance of victory. I even considered simply running away from the battle, but if we did that, he'll definitely become furious."
Pavel Galad's personality was very easy to grasp.
Hal said with certainty, "Flying into a terrible rage, he'll rampage violently all over Japan... I really don't want to imagine how much destruction he'll cause."
"Indeed... Having caused such a terrible tragedy, Haruga-kun, would you start wandering the burning streets, overwhelmed by a guilty conscience?"
"Although I confess to being thick-skinned enough, I might actually consider suicide."
"In the end, all we can do is fight. Not just you, Haruga-kun, but also us, the witches—including Hazumi and Asya-san."
Hal and Orihime exchanged nods then smiled faintly with wryness in unison.
Pessimism would not help the situation at all, so all they could do was smile. After smiling, they would sigh helplessly and continue to struggle relentlessly with all their strength.
"Compared to fleeing without a fight, attempting a battle but failing is much more acceptable."
"Losing is only natural, while a draw or better outcome would be profit. There's no choice but to confront the enemy with that kind of mindset."
After listening to Orihime's description, Hal could not help but feel intrigued.
Among those involved in resisting dragons, there were many who styled themselves as villains, and Orihime was gradually picking up the same vibes. Perhaps Hal and Asya were guilty as her source of influence.
"After learning about elite dragons recently, I've had this kind of feeling... If a full-scale war were to break out, we humans would probably lose utterly to the dragons, right?"
"Yeah. That's why humanity grudgingly accepted the unequal treaty and even offered tribute under the name of relief supplies."
"In that case, Haruga-kun, having obtained a legendary weapon, you have no choice but to become the hero. Asya-san and I can serve as your comrades, you know?"
"A hero's tiny group is not enough to oppose the demon king's forces. We need an army at least."
After saying that, Hal stared intently at the classmate who was sitting next to him.
Then he scratched his head. He originally wanted to say something but could not. Hesitating, he was unable to muster the resolve.
"What's the matter, Haruga-kun? You're showing a solemn expression all of a sudden."
"Nothing much, I'm just feeling how wonderful it is that you survived, safe and sound... Back when you were missing, I was so depressed that I even surprised myself."
"Y-You, Haruga-kun? Stop lying."
"Do I look like I'm lying? Besides, I failed to keep my promise, the one about trying my hardest to handle things appropriately."
"Didn't you handle it very well? You definitely came running to save me. And today, you worked hard too to resist that silver dragon."
"But had I used that ability sooner, Juujouji, you'd—"
"Stop there and avoid the hypotheticals, okay? Since we're both novices, all we need is to help each other and discuss things together. Just like when we were watching a movie."
"Help each other eh..."
"Then Juujouji, can I ask you for a favor?"
Hal tried to put on a poker face as much as possible, staring straight into Orihime's eyes while he spoke.
"I want you. Will you give everything of yours to me?"
For the next minute or two, Orihime reacted unexpectedly.
Her entire body was completely frozen. Her gaze wandered left and right. Her mouth gaped open, unable to answer. Then staring intently, she gazed at Hal's face, her prim and proper face tense from surprise and loss of composure.
To think Orihime could act this flustered, how unexpected.
"S-So, Haruga-kun, were you serious just now?"
"But you've already got Asya-san. T-This is too sudden. I've never thought about this sort of thing in my entire life!"
Finishing with a torrent of words, Orihime then added hastily:
"However, it's not like I dislike you, Haruga-kun!"
"I think Asya is irrelevant to this. It's this sudden because we're out of time. I'm really sorry about that. Well then, even if you've never thought about it, I hope you can start thinking immediately. Also—"
After responding to every point raised by Orihime, Hal finally nodded.
"I'm really happy to hear that you don't dislike me."
"H-How could I possibly dislike you?"
This time, Orihime blushed and looked down as though evading Hal's gaze.
"Although we haven't been acquainted for long, we have experienced so much together already. And I'd consider our personalities quite compatible, don't you agree? H-However, it's still too fast no matter what!"
"It's definitely fast, but I still hope for an immediate answer. Otherwise, we won't make it in time."
"I-Is it because we might die in the battle tomorrow...?"
"Rather, I should say that we won't make it in time for the battle itself. But if I can't entrust power to your Akuro-Ou, chances of dying will be very high, so I guess you could put it that way."
"Yeah. A vassal covenant."
In that instant, Orihime stared wide-eyed, then hung her head helplessly.
"I-I thought you were confessing for sure..."
"B-B-B-Because you said that sort of thing suddenly, I couldn't help but interpret it in that direction."
"Since I directly plagiarized the invitation method previously suggested by Hinokagutsuchi after all, I thought you'd notice."
"I totally didn't notice your obscure foreshadowing!"
Orihime suddenly felt drained of energy, possibly due to finding liberation from nervousness.
"My goodness... Don't scare me. Since you clearly said that in the past, this really surprised me. I thought my heart would jump out of my chest."
"I said what?"
"You said I'd be 'a girl who is very troublesome to get into a relationship with.'"
"Oh I see, that comment, but I think I'm in the wrong now."
"W-What do you mean by that?"
"Nothing much. Many things did happen after that, so even someone like me has started to feel your charm. Or rather, I've come to realize that I was blind."
"Yeah. Although there are still some troublesome aspects, I think that if you and I were to enter that kind of relationship, many awesome things will probably happen."
"~~~~~~. S-Stop saying such weird things. This is totally unlike you, Haruga-kun!"
A sports ground at night, the ruins of a middle school inside a wasteland.
Sitting side by side on the lawn, the two of them started looking up at the sky at some point in time.
The waning moon was shining with white light while the starry sky stretched infinitely. Since there was no artificial lighting inside this wasteland of a dragon concession territory, the stars were astoundingly beautiful. But having visited places all over the globe, Hal had seen equally beautiful starry skies so many times that he was tired of them.
Although by this point, there was absolutely no sense of novelty, the stars tonight felt surprisingly dazzling.
Was it because Juujouji Orihime was beside him? Hal inadvertently looked to the side and happened to meet Orihime's gaze.
Her face was a bit red, possibly feeling embarrassed about her loss of composure earlier. Classmate. Comrade. She had called the two of them friends and said that all they needed to do was help each other.
A smile was blooming naturally on her face. Whether Hal or her, the two of them laughed together.
In that very instant, Hal felt as though Orihime had opened her heart to him.
The two of them called each other's name and gazed at each other. Right now, she was feeling the same thing.
Certain of this, Hal extended his right hand. Orihime extended her left hand in response. With their hands overlapping, their hearts also came together—
"Although I don't know how far I can go... Are you willing to follow me?"
"Although I don't know how far I can follow you... I intend to fight alongside you to the very end, Haruga-kun. I will devote all effort in my attempt."
After their verbal promise, the Rune of the Bow immediately appeared in the center of Hal's right palm.
The same symbol also surfaced on the back of Orihime's left hand. The vassal covenant was established.
"Only after trying it... did I realize it was this simple."
"Because too much happened, in the end, we didn't figure out what was actually the success factor."
The two of them released their hands. With that, they had accomplished what they needed to do that night.
Hurrying to sleep and saving up energy was probably what they should be doing next. However, neither of them wanted to stand up. Somehow, they felt a little reluctant to part.
"B-By the way, Haruga-kun, going out with me... Is it really okay with you?"
"Sure. There's no point in lying about this sort of thing, Juujouji, but you wouldn't say yes, would you? After all, you described this sort of thing as impossible before."
Saying that, Hal placed his left hand on the grass.
But spontaneously, Orihime also placed her left hand next to his hand. Just by moving one or two centimeters closers, the pair's hands would touch again.
This sense of distance made Hal feel embarrassed yet happy at the same time.
Oddly enough, for some unknown reason, Hal was certain that Orihime was feeling the same way—
In the shadows of the school building, out of Hal and Orihime's sight, Shirasaka Hazumi pressed her hand on her unsettled chest, trying to calm herself. It was because she had accidentally witnessed the scene of her cousin establishing a covenant with Hal.
It was not on purpose. She had come looking for them because she could not sleep.
Sensing that Orihime and Hal seemed to be in a world of their own, Hazumi hastily hid.
The rapid beating in her chest finally calmed down. Committing herself to some kind of decision, Hazumi looked up then nodded firmly.
"In the end, the enemy has been quiet all the way to the fourth day of the deadline period? That's quite rule-abiding for a dragon."
"But then again, it's also weird to call a dragon honest in personality."
Hiiragi Yukari shrugged after her assistant, Kenjou, offered his opinion.
Racing along the Tokyo New Town Expressway—commonly called the New Expressway—was a classy domestic car with Kenjou as the driver and Yukari sitting alone in the back seat.
It was late at night. In one more hour, the date was going to change.
"Or does the dragon have ulterior motives?"
"There's probably no need to be concerned about that. After all, there's nothing we could do apart from slight adjustments in combat forces to support Asya-san's group."
"Your description is definitely over the top, but you're very right."
Listening to Yukari's overly perfunctory comment, Kenjou smiled wryly while driving.
"With that, Miss Shirasaka will be excluded from actual combat forces. Now that's really painful. If I recall correctly, she's still on standby at the MPD, right?"
"No. She went with Haruomi-kun this morning to Old Tokyo. To search for Orihime-san."
"Is her 'serpent' in such poor condition that you permitted her to leave?"
"If Minadzuki is forced to fight at full strength for three minutes, her body will break down even faster... That is what Istanbul headquarters concluded. By the way, Rushalka's time limit for activity is fifteen minutes."
"And Miss Orihime's survival is unlikely... Should we prepare a white flag first?"
"Dragonkind surely won't know what that means. The only remaining hope is to gather helpers from abroad by sundown tomorrow."
"Every domestic group is refusing to heed the summons. It's getting increasingly harder to get by in this world."
Continuing a conversation that was neither grumbling nor chatting, they awaited the arrival of the next day.
Then the night deepened. It was midnight just before the date changed.
Asya was at her assigned hotel room with arms crossed.
Despite being on standby at the MPD, she was a certified master-class witch. Even under such circumstances, she was still guaranteed VIP treatment. Hence, a room was arranged for her at a nearby luxury hotel instead of having her spend the night at MPD headquarters.
However, Asya did not sleep. She only sat in front of the table without moving an inch.
On the table was a cellphone. Asya had been staring at it for a good long while.
"Anyway, I have to score a hit on that dragon first... That's my job—"
She had already received a call from her childhood friend.
For the sake of the decisive battle tomorrow, Asya was currently focusing her mind so as to bring out her inborn aggression completely. Singlemindedly, she wished to make herself more ferocious and greedy.
Time elapsed again. The date changed. Late night passed away, second by second, minute by minute.
Then just as the rosy glow of dawn started to color the eastern sky...
"It's almost time..."
Driving the station wagon, Hal was moving along Koushuu Route in the direction of Sasatsuka.
Sitting in the back seat were Orihime and Hazumi. Both girls were wearing their school uniforms, predominantly white, their expressions tense from nervousness.
Hinokagutsuchi's absence was nothing uncommon, so Hal did not let that worry him.
Soon after, Hal's group arrived at Shinjuku Fukutoshin.
Old Tokyo's city hall could be seen up ahead. Standing 243m tall, the massive U-shaped forty-eight-story building was highly conspicuous even amidst the forest of high-rise buildings in Fukutoshin.
Was it going to be Pavel Galad? Or Hal and his friends?
This historical landmark could very well end up as a tombstone for one of the two sides.
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