Leviathan:Volume 4 Chapter 3
Chapter 3 - Sea, Swimsuits and the Mysterious Stone Fragment
"Look quickly, Nee-sama! There's a kind of coconut tree!"
"You're right. This feels more like a resort than I expected."
On the Sagaminada shore of Atami City in the Shizuoka prefecture—
Inside a minivan that was racing along a coastal national highway...
Shirasaka Hazumi smiled cheerfully while looking at the expansive urban scenery outside the window as well as the Sagaminada sea. As for Juujouji Orihime, she was watching her cousin with a smile.
They had set off on the first day of the summer vacation. Fortunately, it was an excellent sunny day.
Orihime was dressed in a tank top of white lace and shorts whereas Hazumi was in casual wear with a patterned one-piece dress and a cardigan. The two of them were sitting behind the driver in the second row of seats.
Likewise sitting in the same row was Asya, namely, Anastasya Rubashvili.
This minivan had a maximum capacity of seven passengers. Three people were supposed to be able to fit in the second row.
Besides, Asya and Hazumi were petite while Orihime's figure was quite svelte too. Even with the three of them sitting side by side, it was not cramped at all.
That being said, Asya, sitting on the right, looked displeased.
She kept glaring at Hal, who was in the driver's seat, gripping the steering wheel—as well as Luna Francois in the front passenger seat.
Incidentally, Asya was wearing a short-sleeved parka and three-quarter-length cargo pants. As habitually, Luna was dressed in a classy black dress, standing in stark contrast to Asya.
"Harry, would you like to have some chilled mandarin orange?"
"They're still being sold? I didn't even see any at the shops in the station. I thought they had been relegated to legendary fantasy food already."
"Don't worry. They are actually still produced in small quantities and can be ordered online and purchased at certain stations."
"I've heard that it's a seasonal tradition as part of nostalgic Japanese travel, so I ordered some. A rare trip... Today will commemorate our first time traveling together."
"Please be patient. I shall peel it for you presently."
"You don't have to go to so much trouble. I can peel it on my own."
"No, it would be too dangerous. Aren't you driving at the moment, Harry...? This really is cold, it is hurting my fingertips a little."
"Oh... I'm serious, just hand me a whole mandarin. I'd feel bad otherwise."
"Fufufu, don't worry, I have already finished peeling. By the way, this is how it feels."
"—So cold! D-Don't suddenly touch my ear, okay? I'm driving after all."
"My apologies, did I startle you? Well then, Harry, please open your mouth."
"Making you extend your hand while you're driving would definitely be a bit dangerous, Harry. Hence, I shall feed you instead. Could you say 'ah~' for a sec? It would be safer this way—"
"Of course not! Luna and Haruomi, cut it out!"
Asya suddenly roared, causing Hazumi and Orihime to jump in fright.
The two Japanese girls had apparently been watching the scenery outside the window, chatting happily, getting along with perfect harmony, which was why they had not noticed the interactions between the two in the front seats. Orihime then asked, "What's the matter, Asya-san?"
"Did they do something?"
"Nothing at all. It's just Luna making inappropriate jokes and Haruomi grinning idiotically on the side..."
When Hazumi inquired as well, Asya replied with irritation.
Listening to the conversation in the back seats, Hal glanced at the rear-view mirror while driving to check his own expression. Phew, no idiotic grin.
"Stop talking nonsense. I've been driving very seriously the whole time, okay?"
"Indeed. I only played a little prank because Harry wasn't speaking much to me. Please do not mind us, everyone."
From the front passenger seat, Luna Francois looked back and explained innocently.
It was on occasions like these that Hal could not help but praise her worth as a vixen and actress. As a side note, Hal decided to keep secret the wavering thought of "I might as well open my mouth and see given this rare chance, right?" crossing his mind.
"Asya, you're a bit neurotic today, aren't you? What's with you?"
"N-Nothing. I just felt a pissed off to see you strangely flustered by a girl, no longer acting like an innocent boy... That reminds me."
While glaring intently at her fellow master-class witch Luna and Hal, Asya continued, "Although you are definitely two of a kind, were you ever this close? And Luna, you've changed subtly. How should I put it? It's like you're more feminine or something."
"Fufufufu. My dear hopeless Asya, do you finally feel my overflowing feminine charm?"
"W-What kind of unfunny joke are you making!?"
While playing dumb in response to Asya's inexplicably foul mood, Luna Francois calmed down the atmosphere in the car, meanwhile not forgetting to throw sultry winks at Hal from time to time.
It was probably a small skit designed to enhance a sense of camaraderie and intimacy as accomplices.
While concluding that, Hal noticed that he was surprisingly not repulsed by it.
No matter what, Luna Francois Gregory was undoubtedly an intelligent beauty. Simply conversing with her was very enjoyable already.
(Girls are truly scary...)
This was a threat he had never felt from his childhood friend.
With wariness and trepidation, Hal stole a glance at the front passenger seat. Keenly noticing his gaze, Luna Francois smiled back in response.
—The fact that he felt slightly attracted must remain secret too.
"Hey, is the 'Dragon Palace' you mentioned nearby?"
Asya, Orihime, Hazumi and Luna Francois—Hal did not direct his question to any of these four. The dragon ghost, whom he was posing the question to, appeared in the last row's auxiliary seat in the minivan.
Manifested as a young girl in a scarlet kimono, Hinokagutsuchi replied haughtily, "One could certainly consider it nearby—Perhaps. Possibly wandering the sea in this vicinity, possibly slumbering somewhere like a rock, one of the two."
After listening to this ambiguous answer, Hal grumbled, "Why thank you for such a precise tip."
"No need to get so hung up, Harry. There is nothing wrong with failure. Since this outing simultaneously serves as a company recreation trip to soothe our bodies that were exhausted from the intense battles earlier, why not take it easy?"
"I agree. In my case, I will take your advice. Let's relax in a sightseeing mood, shall we?"
It was Orihime supporting Luna Francois from the back seat.
She turned out to be quite good at reading the mood.
She must have used this joking tone to offer such a frivolous opinion in an attempt to alleviate Hal's anxiety.
After that, the junior student who had never gone on any trip for the past few years, let alone a beach, spoke up too.
"A bit embarrassing as it is to say, I am plenty satisfied to be able to come here already. Thank you very much, everyone, for taking me along!"
Always smiling like an angel—Shirasaka Hazumi. At this moment, the smile dominating her visage was even more dazzling than usual, looking like she really was in bliss.
After confirming this through the rear-view mirror, Hal felt extremely satisfied too.
Just to be able to see this smile, the expedition to Izu was already worth it.
Temporarily casting aside his thoughts on Luna Francois, he stepped on the gas pedal with a relaxed mood.
Gathering information first was necessary at the initial destination. The current time was a bit past 9am. Their group had set off from Tokyo New Town early in the morning to come here.
As a side note, breakfast had been eaten inside the minivan. Rice balls courtesy of Orihime.
"Haruomi, let's stop at the next station to have a second breakfast."
"Can't we just look for a burger joint or a convenience store?"
"Since we are traveling, we ought try out local ingredients and cooking, but restaurants aren't open at this hour... This kind of situation dictates going to a station's shopping area. It's quite usual for those kinds of places to open at 8am!"
"Considering you're foreigners, Luna and Asya, that level of familiarity with Japan is way too much..."
They had already made two rest stops this morning. Although Asya had bought food like hot dogs or instant noodles each time, it looked like her stomach was empty again.
In response, a third person said with a smile, "Senpai, I have the same request. I would like us to make a stop too!"
"Sure, got it."
Following his policy of indulging Hazumi as much as possible, Hal instantly nodded.
Hence, three hours later—
Hal parked the minivan at Shimoda City in the Izu Peninsula.
The location was a certain mountainside shrine quite close to Sagaminada's shore. Since there was no parking lot nearby, Hal stopped the car on the side of the road near the red torii entrance.
Local visitors to the shrine seemed to be doing the same thing, so Hal followed suit.
This was a small shrine for which titles like "divine temple" or "grand shrine" would not apply.
Despite the shrine's diminutive size, it still had a very solemn ambiance surrounding various facilities such as the entrance approach and the worship hall. Surely, such an atmosphere could only have arisen from the dignity exhibited by a wooden structure baptized by the passage of time.
Walking along the front approach, Hal and Asya conversed.
"This place's history can be traced back to the early Kamakura period... In other words, eight centuries ago."
"But the building itself probably went through demolition and reconstruction multiple times from disasters like fire, right?"
"Even so, this shrine is still an old building with more than three hundred years of history."
As a side note, their other three witch companions were also present. However, the former dragon's ghost had disappeared despite the fact that that the deity venerated at this shrine was "Fire Goddess Hinokagutsuchi."
...Five types of divine treasures related to the fire goddess were kept in the Witch Mansion at Shin-Kiba.
Last month, Hal had located the dragon king's heartmetal from among them.
Those artifacts originated from a certain ancient shrine in the Tokai region—in other words, here.
"Well then, Harry, the three of us shall go off for a bit on our own."
After seeing Luna Francois, Orihime and Hazumi off, Hal and Asya walked alone by themselves.
They were headed towards an isolated house within the shrine's premises.
It was the residence inhabited by the family of the head priest running the shrine. SAURU's Tokai branch had informed them in advance about Hal's visiting group of dragon specialists from Tokyo New Town.
After they rung the bell normally at the door, the owner of the house invited them inside.
Only two of them were making the visit because an excessive number of guests would impose unnecessarily on their host.
After greeting the middle-aged head priest who received them and engaging in ten minutes of pleasantries, Hal and Asya asked to be taken to the storehouse where the family heirloom was kept—
In front of the storehouse, Hal summoned the magic gun.
"If that signpost to the Dragon Palace is here, could you simply tell us more directly?"
"Unfortunately, it is not clear to me either."
From the magic gun in his right hand came Hinokagutsuchi's whisper.
The head priest in charge of showing the way had gone back, leaving the storehouse's door wide open. Only Asya remained by Hal's side. This storehouse was reportedly a building from the early Showa period. Filled with dust, the old storehouse did not offer any illumination while having a seemingly vast collection.\
Then the guardian of the magic gun said, "In the past during my reign as the Crimson Queen, the castle of my residence was located in the sea."
"A castle in the sea—You mean something like the Dragon Palace of folklore?"
As soon as Hal chimed in, Hinokagutsuchi's voice responded.
"Mm-hmm. Nevertheless, the priestesses and shrine maidens in my service were mostly born on land. When it came time for their return to their homeland, I allowed them to take something back... It seems."
Completely unapologetic, Hinokagutsuchi's voice sounded like she was bragging triumphantly.
Hal proceeded to ask her to identify possible locations in "the sea within the vicinity" for the Dragon Palace. This caused the former queen of dragons to point along the coastlines of the Japanese islands from Kantou to the Tokai region, continuing to the waters around the Ogasawara Islands, finally extending to the Northern Mariana Islands.
For a carpet search operation, it would be quite a large area.
"With the passage of time, I lost my dragon king body and drifted to this land in spirit form... Then at a certain point in time, I heard a shrine maiden from this shrine inquire 'Goddess Hinokagutsuchi, where are you from?'—"
"Then you answered 'the Dragon Palace' as a joke?"
"I suppose. However, that group of people serving me was truly impressive. After I told them the location of the Dragon Palace's signpost, they finally found it after an arduous adventure."
"Sounds like some kind of puzzle quest."
At that moment, Asya interrupted.
"Specifically, what shape is the object?"
"Please. Why would I pay any attention to something of no use to me?"
"This kind of useless hint function would definitely elicit crappy reviews from players if it appeared in low-difficulty RPGs in recent times."
After grumbling, Hal motioned to his childhood friend with his eyes.
Boasting rare top-class power in the world, the witch instantly chanted a song of summoning.
"I pray to the ancient divine seal of purity. Send the blue wyvern to the ground."
A mysterious creature suddenly manifested over Asya's head, a wyvern.
A dragon with wings sprouting out of the shoulders in the place of forelimbs. A gigantic homunculus crafted in imitation of dragons. However, her wingspan was only three meters now—
Naturally, this was Blue Rushalka.
Originally a super-size creature whose body length reached ten-odd meters, she was miniaturized as much as possible by Asya before being summoned.
"Rushalka, find the artifact that gives off the scent of dragons as well as that of Hinokagutsuchi—The Crimson Queen. If necessary, use pseudo-divinity."
During the decisive battle last month, Hal and Orihime had located Hinokagutsuchi's heartmetal by relying on Akuro-Ou's sense of smell.
They were currently intending to reuse that method. In the next second, the miniaturized Rushalka obeyed Asya's request and swept her sharp gaze across the interior of the storehouse.
The blue wyvern vocalized "kyuahh..." softly.
Naturally, the interior of the storehouse was quite dim with only a small window opened near the ceiling. However, a blue glow appeared in this darkness, presumably due to Rushalka's magical power.
Guided by the light, Hal stepped into the storehouse.
"So this is the 'signpost' Senpai and Asya-san found..."
Sitting on Hazumi's right palm was the object that the two of them had found in the storehouse during the day—
Dressed in a yukata, Hazumi was tilting her dainty head with an incredulous expression.
"What kind of object is it exactly?"
Hazumi's right hand was holding a black stone.
Almost the same size as her palm, it looked like a shard of obsidian with an irregular surface. Glowing faintly under fluorescent lighting, it had a greenish tint.
"Currently unknown. However, it's thanks to Rushalka's perception that we found this... So there shouldn't be any question that it has the scent of dragons."
"Shirasaka, you can try checking it with magical sight too."
As expected, Hazumi nodded obediently after listening to the joint suggestion from the yukata-wearing Asya and Hal.
As a witch, currently Level 2, she was a fourteen-year-old girl. Hal watched as her expression tensed as she stared intently at the black stone.
"In that case, let me try too."
Orihime was the speaker. Likewise dressed in a yukata, she was sitting next to her cousin.
Hal and his friends were gathered in a spacious Japanese-style room inside a hotspring inn at Shimoda City near the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula. Gathered around a dining table they were currently having dinner.
Hence, Hazumi and Orihime looked at the black stone.
With a flash, their pupils turned blue. It was apparent that they had activated magical sight.
Using vision to confirm the presence or absence of magical power, its strength, its flow and various other changes. Among humans, witches and Haruga Haruomi were the only ones capable of doing this with the naked eye.
Hazumi and Orihime looked at the stone using enhanced vision. Then the two of them showed surprise simultaneously.
"Listen, Haruga-kun. Indeed, I can sense the power of magic from this stone... But it feels extremely faint to me."
"You too, Nee-sama? In fact, it is the same for me."
"Speaking of agreement, it's the same for Haruomi and me too. Naturally, Luna as well..."
"Yes, my appraisal had the same outcome. The magical energy hidden inside this stone can't be considered high."
The last member, Luna Francois offered her opinion.
As a side note, the girls' yukatas were designed with patterns on white backgrounds.
What differed were the patterns and the colors of their sashes. Orihime's was pale blue, Asya's was yellow, Hazumi's was pink while Luna's was navy blue. Providing colors to choose from was part of the inn's service.
"Perhaps this is an enchanted artifact that can only be activated by the right person using the right method," said Hal with a shrug.
On the large dining table before their was a sumptuous diner.
Sashimi of several types of local fish. Abalone, conch and other shellfish in season. There was also Japanese spiny lobster served as both sashimi and roasted forms. Prepared in a small pot was sukiyaki featuring Izu beef.
Also featuring steamed red snapper and pot-cooked rice with conger eel, the menu had no blind spots to speak of.
Roughly two hours prior, after enjoying a view of the setting sun over the sea horizon, Hal and company had separated by gender for a soak in the hot springs before meeting up for dinner.
"By the way, as a matter of fact, Hinokagutsuchi doesn't know how exactly this thing is used either."
"Perhaps sending it to SAURU headquarters or the Hawaii lab for testing might be a solution."
"Since it might become essential for our investigation here, let's wait and see before sending it away for testing. Anyway, send the observed data to Waikiki first and ask them to analyze it."
Hal's report, Asya's musing, Luna's suggestion.
After listening to the three seniors who were experienced in research, Orihime and Hazumi could not help but feel impressed.
After visiting the shrine in the afternoon, Hal's group had visited the southern Izu office of SAURU's Tokai branch to borrow several sensor devices (as a small branch in a rural area, it did not have very high-end equipment).
"Let's examine the stone tomorrow while we continue our local investigation," Hal muttered while picking up a piece of spiny lobster sashimi with his chopsticks.
"Then there's playing in the sea or water activities, beach volleyball, sunbathing, watermelon splitting, long-distance swimming, floating on a swim ring, surfing, scuba diving, barbecue—What else?"
"Haruga-kun, you seem unexpectedly excited for recreation."
"It'd be bad if you got the wrong idea about me," Hal grinned and explained to Orihime.
"Despite how I look, my goal is actually to become an adult who always uses up all my annual vacation days. No matter how tight the schedule, I must take a summer vacation. That's my conviction."
"Speaking of which, I think you fooled around in Corsica for half a month last year..."
"Simply doing as the Romans do. As an island in Europe and French territory to boot, isn't it common sense to take a vacation there?"
After answering Asya's murmurs, Hal could not help but jump in surprise.
The five of them were sitting around the dinning table with Luna Francois on his right hand side. The blonde beauty in a yukata was an abundant display of exotic charm.
With such an appearance, she suddenly leaned her body over.
Luna Francois picked up the teapot and poured green tea into Hal's cup.
"Well said. It should be quite enjoyable to recuperate here for two or three days, Harry."
"With Asya and I here, we will do everything we can to assist you. Relax and take a break."
Still to recover from his surprise, Hal could only repeat the same answer in a loop.
A floral fragrance was coming from Luna Francois at point blank range. She had apparently applied perfume after her bath. In addition, she had put on light makeup for a natural look. What feminine allure.
Hal's heart rate sped up slightly.
Luna Francois' airs, beautiful face and floral fragrance were amplifying each other in a multiplying effect.
The five of them were divided into three rooms for accommodations.
The girls had two rooms with Orihime paired with Hazumi and Asya paired with Luna Francois while Hal had a single as the only boy.
There was an electric massage chair in Hal's Japanese-style room.
The chair was currently in operation, relieving the stress from Hal's back.
"That girl Luna isn't trying to seduce me for real, is she...?"
Although the mechanical message was monotonous, it still managed to stimulate the pressure points accurately.
In fact, Hal had received Luna Francois' invitation immediately after dinner, asking if he wanted to visit the inn's relaxation corner for a massage.
After declining her, he went back to his room alone and started up the massage chair.
Instead of chasing after her escaped prey, Luna simply smiled and said, "Then I shall go alone. Accompany me next time♪"
Then she left Hal.
"It feels like a super focused flurry of jabs... Is she planning to weaken me continuously with light punches, biding her time for a chance to deliver a full-powered hit...?"
His entire body sunk in the massage chair, Hal contemplated Luna Francois' tactics.
Seemingly a bit convoluted, it might actually be quite a solid approach. Judging from the current situation, rashly going on the offensive in extreme ways—like "barging into Hal's home to propose marriage"—would be pushing things too forcefully. Even if she did that for real, he would only run away.
However, Luna Francois was not coercing him against his will.
Her offense consisted only of insignificant jabs, yet the effects were quite substantial.
No matter what, expressing care at such clean moments (although with ulterior motives) and proactively showing affection (although simply feigned) was making Hal feel somewhat tempted, more or less.
Despite clearly knowing it was a lie, perhaps going along with it might be a kind of happiness.
"Well, there's actually no reason why I can't accept her invitation... Although I do't know whether that could establish a vassal covenant."
Hal entertained lustful thoughts while soothing himself with the humming vibrations.
Knock knock. There was a light knocking at the door. Hal stood up and walked to the door but could not be bothered to switch off the massage chair.
"Haruga-kun, you're inside, aren't you? May I have a word with you?"
Orihime was standing outside the door in a yukata.
Hal immediately invited her into the room. The super popular girl, secretly called the "Princess" by other students, settled her gaze on the still-operating massage chair by the window.
"Does this feel good to sit in?"
"So-so, I guess. There's no harm giving it a try if you find yourself waking up every morning tired and lacking energy in your entire body."
"In that case, I am fine with sitting in this one."
Next to the massage chair was a completely nondescript wooden chair.
Orihime smiled cheerfully and took her seat on the chair that was not electrically powered. Hal returned to his place on the massage chair and switched it off.
"I don't mind if you continue, you know?"
"It's okay. I'm going to enjoy it for another three hours or so afterwards," answered Hal half-jokingly to Orihime being considerate.
Although a slightly unusual conversation, it was more relaxing for the body and mind than a monotonous mechanical massage. Perhaps this was because—of the fact that Orihime was by his side.
Hal's heart fluttered slightly, making him a bit uncomfortable.
Finding this change unbelievable, Orihime showed a somewhat worried expression.
"By the way, it only occurred to me when listening to you just now... Haruga-kun, are you referring to the fact that you feel tired when you get up every morning? It is not a good sign when even sleep fails to alleviate fatigue."
"Because... think about it, a lot has happened lately, right?"
"Haruga-kun, neglecting sleep and quality of meals as soon as anything comes up is your weakness. In the same situation, Asya-san would never take either of them lightly."
"That's definitely true. You make a good point."
No matter when, humans needed to eat and sleep properly.
Otherwise, the body would not be able to function as desired when caught in a perilous predicament, lacking strength where it was needed. Blessed with a strong and resilient nature of wildness, Asya had been adhering to this principle subconsciously the whole time.
While the conversation was striking a deep chord within Hal, Orihime said to him, "By the way, for a while now, I have been a bit curious about the matter of rising from bed... Isn't Hazumi frequently going over to wake you up, Haruga-kun?"
"Yeah. She comes with unexpected frequency."
"To be honest... I was considering this from the start whether I should be going along with her."
Hal was stunned by Orihime's shy reveal.
He could not help but start imagining: in addition to the adorable underclassman, even her older cousin was by his pillow, waking him up from bed—Surely, that would bring about an even greater sense of bliss, resulting in more brain matter secretions than from just Hazumi alone.
"However, after that battle against Princess Yukikaze, the time we have been spending together... have become quite lengthy, after all."
"Now that you mention it, that seems to be true."
In June, an intense battle had taken place against Princess Yukikaze and her minion—Genbu-Ou.
As frontline combatants during the whole conflict, Hal and Orihime had to frequently rush all over New Town to handle aftermath matters. Not only that, whenever the two of them were together in the same space—
Hal would subconsciously approach Orihime.
Conversely, Orihime would frequently walk over to his side as soon as she saw him.
As for the reason why, neither of the two of them could articulate it clearly, but if anything—it was probably because it felt delightful spending time together.
"Hence... When I was considering whether or not to accompany Hazumi to your house in the morning, Haruga-kun, I suddenly felt afraid. I did not know if you might find... me annoying or similar by your side—That worried me somewhat. After all, we have really spent so much time together lately..."
"Of course not. I'll definitely be very happy if you came too, Juujouji."
"But it would also be weird to be together too frequently..."
"Nothing of that sort, I think. I suppose it'd be better if you came with her. Yeah."
"Yup. I can swear to heaven if you want."
"Starting with the second term, if the opportunity presents itself... May I come together with Hazumi?"
Interacting with a blushing and slightly flustered Orihime was quite rare.
For some reason, it felt very comfortable yet bittersweet. Hal found it unbelievable. Clearly whenever he was together with girls, encountering heart-racing moments for him was equivalent to being subjected to Luna's "attacks."
However, he felt very contented right now.
Neither unsettled nor was there any inexplicable unease. Could it be that in Orihime's case, there was a sense of trust that did not require him to interpret and analyze every word and action?
"Or perhaps, if it is permissible—"
There was no need for formalities with Orihime, so Hal said, "Tomorrow morning is perfectly fine too."
"W-What are you talking about? Weird rumors would start if I were to visit a boy's room to play during a trip. And not to mention with Hazumi too!"
"Now that you mention it, Juujouji—"
Confronted with his slightly flustered female classmate, Hal could not help but offer his view.
"Aren't you here in my room on your own right now?"
"Good... point... I can't believe I did not notice that..."
"Besides, this isn't a school trip or anything like that. There's no reason for people in school to know, right?"
"Now that you mention it, that is true indeed..."
Their gazes meeting from up close, the two of them fell silent at the same time.
The shy Orihime was slightly fidgeting uncomfortably while Hal also displayed some embarrassment. Accidentally going with the flow of the mood just now, he had said something without thinking.
That being said, before his eyes right now, Orihime was currently so shy that she kept her head bowed.
This posture was quite rare given how fearlessly she usually conducted herself. If he had to find an example, this would be similar to during Akuro-Ou's birth ritual, when Hal had used his right hand to pour magical power into her heart—engaging in an awful act of contact...
Recalling that ended up causing the pounding in Hal's heart to intensify.
Not only that, he was currently on a trip in the same room, as well as being alone with Orihime to boot—The beating in his chest kept accelerating like an alarm.
At this moment, Orihime suddenly looked up, gazing at Hal with eyes of uncertainty.
"E-Excuse me, Haruga-kun—"
"Uh, about the earlier suggestion, I guess never mind. Think about it, if Asya and Luna finds out you and Shirasaka are running over to my room, they might complain that we're behaving inappropriately on a business trip."
Hal retracted his earlier statement out of cowardice, but elicited an unexpected reaction. Parting her lips slightly, Orihime spoke timidly, "In that case, I-I could come alone, you know...?"
"Compared to two people, it's less likely for one person to be discovered. I will secretly get up earlier and come to your room directly, Haruga-kun, then going back immediately. That should be fine, right...?"
"A-Are you serious?"
"That is what I am thinking..."
"Then for tomorrow morning, I'll be counting on you..."
"R-Really? Understood. Tomorrow... I will disturb you a little while evading detection as much as possible..."
" "......" "
After reaching a consensus, the two of them made eye contact again.
Orihime's face was red beyond compare. Hal suspected his own face to have the same expression. With an unbelievable and bittersweet atmosphere hanging in the room with the two of them alone, Hal felt that the beating in his chest was not going to subside any time in the near future.
"Th-Then even if you feel sleep-deprived because I came to rouse you, no complaining, okay?"
"Th-That goes without saying."
"Definitely keep the room unlocked, okay...?"
"I'll make sure everything is in place."
The conversation sounded almost like they were arranging for a tryst.
This was a first experience for Hal, so feeling embarrassed could not be avoided. Orihime was probably feeling the same.
As a result, she changed the subject somewhat abruptly.
"B-By the way, Haruga-kun, our current task is to locate the castle in the sea that used to serve as Kagutsuchi-san's residence, isn't it? Just like the Dragon Palace."
"Yeah, that's right. It's where she lived when she was still a dragon king."
Hal hastily switched his mind back to business mode.
This was information told to them personally by Hinokagutsuchi at the poolside reception a few days ago.
'One of my dragonslaying runes, the Rune of the Bow, is currently in your hand, brat... As for the other one, it might still be lying dormant in my castle of old.'
'That rune was put away as a reserve weapon?'
'It would not be be incorrect to say that. Well, it would be amusing if you went on a search for it, though I know not whether you will succeed.'
After listening to Hal's question, Hinokagutsuchi had smiled malevolently.
After that, Hal had spent a little time organizing the various clues randomly given out by the former dragon's ghost. The conclusion he reached through careful deductions was to go on an actual search.
Hal cleared his throat, put on as serious a face as he could and started to recount.
"Although it is currently still unclear how many centuries the Crimson Queen lived as a dragon king, what is certain is that she was alive roughly eight hundred years ago, in other words, the early Kamakura period. The Queen apparently considered her territory to be what modern Japan calls the East China Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the west end of the Pacific Ocean—the waters where the Kuroshio Current passes through."
"Territory... as in sphere of influence?"
"Speaking of which, Princess Yukikaze also mentioned that she had 'never held territory on earth before.'"
A term used for the domain under a dragon king's or a Tyrannos' rule—Territory.
Hal could still recall vividly how Tokyo New Town had become Princess Yukikaze's "territory" last month. Far away in North America's New York State, the island of Manhattan was the castle of the dragon king Red Hannibal, his "territory" in other words.
"Although the Crimson Queen seldom appeared before humans, those fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of her and her minions treated them as 'deities' to revere and worship. Having enjoyed treatment as a deity, the Queen continued pretending to be a goddess even after turning into a ghost, arbitrarily issuing orders and playing mischief on the people frequenting the shrine during the daytime."
"The Dragon Palace of a great queen of dragonkind... It seems quite interesting. Moreover—"
"Didn't Kagutsuchi-san mention it before? That Dragon Palace is still wandering in the ocean, practically like a mobile castle. I would really love to see it for myself."
"It also raises the question of what serves as a power source to drive something as gigantic as a castle."
After chiming in with his comment, Hal began to think deeply.
On the low table in front of the massage chair was Hal's cellphone and the black stone.
An uneven surface, a color similar to obsidian with a slight tint of green.
Hal suddenly recalled something. What he had witnessed once recently—the sight of "a gigantic entity resembling a castle" moving arbitrarily over the sea. Indeed, it was quite similar to this black stone...
"Call Asya and Luna over. I've thought of something."
It was the second day of the trip for Hal and company. Fortunately, the weather was quite since morning.
The sky was very blue, the clouds were very white, and the sun was very dazzling.
A sunny day in summer was a matter-of-fact symbol of intense heat, but Hal and company were planning to go to the beach in the first place, so hotter weather would make for greater enjoyment. Ignoring the blinding sunlight, the group boarded a minivan early in the morning to arrive at a small bay after a full hour of driving.
A deliberate choice to avoid spacious seaside swimming destinations, they had picked a remote beach instead.
Combined with the two additional factors of it being a weekday as well as the very beginning of summer holidays, the ensuing result was—
"It's much less crowded than imagined! The sea is so pretty too!"
Pointing at the sea, Hazumi could not help but get excited.
Compared to the familiar Tokyo Bay, this navy-blue sea stretched vastly before their eyes.
The beach's sand was also very white. Bathed under the morning sunlight, things heated up all at once. As a beach with only ten-odd visitors who looked like locals, the location was quite perfect. After getting changed at the only beach house, they immediately went to play in the water.
"I suppose I shall go rent one of those."
What had caught Luna Francois' eye was a personal watercraft.
Two of them were available at the beach house for rent. In addition, swim rings, banana boats, parasols and other equipment could be rented.
"If you like, Harry, how about sitting behind me?"
"Fufu. Just give me a shout any time if that's what you want♪"
Sitting in tandem on a jet ski in close skin contact with Luna Francois...
Moreover, she was wearing a very revealing swimsuit—Hal was rendered speechless by his imagination of the scene. Luna smiled impishly at him then returned to the beach house, presumably to complete rental procedures.
Hal could not help but sigh in relief. While he was looking at the swim rings, Orihime walked over.
"Haruga-kun, are you a good swimmer?"
"If not drowning counts as being good, I guess. How about you?"
"In truth, I can't win against the girls in the swimming team."
"Meaning you can win against everyone else, right...? As expected of a perfect superhuman blessed with athletic ability and a fulfilling life."
"I don't quite understand but are you complimenting me? Fufu, thank you."
The girl, who had visited his room this morning as promised, smiled and replied.
Orihime had gently shaken Hal by the shoulder while whispering "Haruga-kun, it's morning" into his ear. After that, she had waited patiently by his bedside for as long as ten minutes until Hal woke up thoroughly.
Then using tea leaves and a teapot prepared ahead of time, she brewed a pot of green tea for Hal before leaving discreetly.
Despite this happening earlier, the two of them were now conversing normally as though nothing had happened.
But with a rising feeling of mischief as accomplices, Hal and Orihime could not help but burst out laughing at the same time.
Left in the dark on the side, Hazumi jumped in surprise. Hal hastily spoke to his junior, "Shirasaka, how's your swimming?"
"For around twenty meters, probably the same as you, Senpai, I can avoid drowning, but I'm not confident if the distance is greater than that..."
The younger student, as pure as an angel, confessed the truth shyly. She was definitely not strong in health and always had to sit out PE class in an observing role.
In spite of that, Hazumi clenched her fist and expressed her determination.
"But this summer, I hope to improve further."
"I guess this'll be indispensable as a tool to aid your training, Shirasaka."
Hence, Hal rented two swim rings, giving one to Hazumi and one for himself respectively.
Also, everyone had finished changing and were all in swimsuits.
Luna Francois' was black while Orihime had a white bikini with a pareo. Both looks had been revealed at the swimming pool reception last time.
The blonde American girl's bikini was decorated with lace.
Combined with Luna Francois' original airs like an antique doll's, her seductive charm was fully on display at the beach here.
Meanwhile, Orihime was wearing a bikini with a simple and casual design.
Perhaps because she not only gave off a well-bred young lady's airs but also bore an expression of upstanding moral character and approachability, the swimsuit was an especially good match for this Japanese girl.
Truly two young beauties standing in stark contrast.
Not only that, but their figures were also outstanding. Described as closeted by his own admission, Hal naturally felt an indescribable sense of fulfillment after seeing Orihime and Luna's gorgeous appearances from close range.
But today, apart from Orihime and Luna, Hazumi was dressed in swimwear too.
Using a UV-cut parka as a wrap, she was wearing a simple lime-colored bikini with frills sewn on the edges. Exceptionally cute.
Noticing Hal's gaze, Hazumi squirmed in embarrassment.
"Umm... I look weird after all, right?"
"No, it's not weird at all. Why do you ask?"
"Because this is my first time wearing this type of swimsuit... I accidentally bought it after the salesperson recommended it, but afterwards, it felt more and more embarrassing..."
This type of swimsuit—She was probably referring to the bikini.
Hal tilted his head, thinking it was good precisely because it was "this type of swimsuit."
Last time when they were face to face in the female bathroom at school, Hazumi had wrapped herself in a towel. Compared to that time, today's swimsuit had even less fabric. In terms of bare skin, it was a dramatic power up.
Furthermore, although Hal had sensed it vaguely, he was finally able to confirm beyond a doubt.
Second year of middle school. Fourteen years old. Nevertheless, the bulge of her chest and the roundness of her posterior were definitely not flat even if they were a bit subdued. Rather, it would be better to describe their presence as aptly expressed.
It was unknown whether she would reach the same level as her older cousin Orihime in two years' time, but her potential had undoubtedly begun to bloom.
Faced with Hazumi whose figure was excellent for an eighth grader, Hal said, "Despite how I may look, I'm actually very closeted, which is why I make this assertion: simply seeing you in a swimsuit, Shirasaka, has made this trip to the beach totally worth it. So please don't call your appearance 'weird'—"
"Excuse me, Haruga-kun, please do not make bizarre comments in front of Hazumi!"
"Sh-Should I be saying thanks in this kind of situation, Nee-sama...?"
"Hazumi too, stop accepting Haruga-kun's closeted perversion so obediently!"
While Orihime was lecturing Hal on his tactlessness and her cousin for being swayed, their last companion finally exited the beach house. Namely, Asya.
"Thanks for waiting, everyone... Because preparations took some time and effort."
The beautiful fairy-like girl was speaking with a rare tone of eloquence.
Her expression was sharp with a stern gaze. Such were the vibes exuded from her entire body that it would not be surprising even if she were to fight a dragon immediately. Extremely gallant.
Of course, Asya was also in a swimsuit. The blue bikini top had vertical stripes while the bottom piece was designed like a pair of shorts.
Speaking of the lines of her figure, Asya's were essentially quite gentle in undulation.
Even so, it was not a completely flat line. The curves illustrated by her breathtakingly slender body were quite well-suited to a teenage girl's low-key body, instead adding a tempting sense of allure.
That being said, Asya's swimsuit look embodied a warrior's vigor instead of cuteness.
Devoured by overwhelming tension, Orihime and Hazumi fell silent. Immediately, Hal was certain that this atmosphere stemmed from the harpoon held in his childhood friend's hand.
"Cooking is best when local ingredients are used after all. And you guys are in lock today, because apart from magic and combat, I've been praised for my free-diving and harpoon skills too. I've already prepared traditional Japanese cooking implements—a portable clay stove and charcoal flames. Let's have a seafood party for lunch today!"
"Asya, free-dive fishing is prohibited by law in these waters."
"What did you say!?"
In the majority of Japanese prefectures, it was forbidden for ordinary people without fishing rights to catch marine life using harpoons or fishing nets. Simply walking on the shore with such equipment in your hands would be enough to get scolded by fishermen, so please be careful.
Although marine hunting was stopped, there were still plenty of recreation activities by the sea.
Hal and Hazumi floated on swim rings amid marine-blue waves while Orihime and Asya swam leisurely on the side.
Especially Hal's childhood friend with her boundless energy that had nowhere to vent.
With speed and fluidity rivaling sea nymphs or mermaids, she was able to move effortlessly and nimbly whether on the surface or underwater. Apart from free-diving, she was also very skilled in ordinary swimming.
In addition, Luna Francois was currently riding a jet ski, racing across the sea.
Wearing a pair of sunglasses, she was handling the watercraft magnificently with experienced hand and body motions. Let alone automobiles, the Trans-Pacific Shootdown Ace was apparently skilled in operating all kinds of transportation.
Luna was riding her jet ski in dashing manner.
Hazumi and Orihime also took turns riding the back seat, enjoying the thrill of speeding across the sea.
Meanwhile, Asya and Hal went ashore and strolled along the beach.
"It's almost noon. Let's acquire ingredients for a seafood party without catching fish ourselves."
Walking along the shore side by side, Asya asked, "Any suggestions?"
"Go check out local markets nearby and see if you can purchase leftover seafood on a retail basis. Then go find a fisherman, who operates a small boat on his own, or his wife and ask them to sell us what they've caught this morning."
"Understood. What are your plans next, Haruomi?"
"As much as I'd like to avoid it, I do have work to do. By the way, where's the stone?"
"I've been carrying it with me properly. After all, it's still being tested."
Asya took out a transparent plastic pouch containing the unidentified black stone as well as her purse and cellphone.
After parting ways with his childhood friend, Hal walked to the beach house.
He took out a laptop from his belongings in the locker then walked over to a parasol he had just rented and sat down cross-legged on a beach chair.
"Looks like you have discerned that stone's true identity."
"Rather than discern, it's more like a hunch building on Asya and Luna's ideas after I asked for their opinion. Don't tell me that this thing isn't part of a dragon's body?"
Hinokagutsuchi's figure manifested in the unoccupied beach chair beside him.
In addition, the former dragon queen was wearing a red bikini. This was the same swimsuit she had worn at the pool reception last time. While Hinokagutsuchi was reclining on the chair, Hal said to her, "It should be a related species if it's not a dragon. A 'serpent' for example—a leviathan. Apart from that, among your minions, there are some that fit the criteria."
"Like Princess Yukikaze's minion, Genbu-Ou. Speaking of which, if you chipped a piece off that crazy big shell and scattered the fragments... They'll probably take this kind of form."
This stone fragment, resembling obsidian, had been found inside a shrine's storeroom.
Its uneven surface glowed green very faintly. This color was quite similar to the turtle shell of that super organism, Genbu-Ou, the hundred-meter-long giant chelonian creature and Princess Yukikaze's minion.
"Earlier, I made this association after recalling that giant turtle," said Hal while sneaking a glance at Hinokagutsuchi beside him.
Despite the appearance of a young girl, she was reclining arrogantly with her legs crossed.
"Genbu-Ou too is a humongous creature like an island, capable of swimming freely in the ocean, right? Furthermore, back in ancient China, there were legends of holy beasts such as sacred chelonians, including a gigantic turtle that carried a mountain on top of its carapace."
The gigantic turtle carrying Mount Penglai—Legends of sacred turtles were not unique to China.
The Korean peninsula and Japan had similar stories, intricately connecting to one another across the ocean that the Crimson Queen had made her territory eight hundred years ago.
This applied to the story of Urashima Tarou too. Ever since antiquity, turtles had served as guides to the Dragon Palace (a castle in the sea hidden from the world). This excessively famous fairy tale protagonist was called "Urashima no Ko" in ancient times and actually had quite antiquated literary records in the Chronicles of Japan and the Collection of Myriad Leaves.
The Chronicles of Japan contained the following description: "Mizue no Urashima no Ko went to Mount Penglai together with a woman who had transformed from a giant turtle"...
Hal calmly put his academic prowess on display and concluded, "Consequently, the following is purely my own speculation: The Dragon Palace mentioned in these legends is actually the same kind of turtle monster as Genbu-Ou. Perhaps there might even be a castle on top of an insanely large carapace. This turtle used to be your minion whereas the black stone and so-called signpost is a part of the turtle shell—"
"Kukuku. Not a bad idea, that is all I can say."
"Asya said this too. In the past, you and Princess Yukikaze... It makes her want to investigate what effect the dragon kings a thousand years ago had on legends of this type, that was what she mentioned before."
Hal recounted to Hinokagutsuchi who was smiling malevolently.
Just earlier, he had heard from Asya that the research theme of "a study on the effects imparted upon dragon and serpent legends around the world by the existence of dragonkind" had already been started a while ago.
That being said, she had also spent a substantial amount of time obsessively on strange training—
"Based on this hunch, I decided to look for relevant clues. Can I ask you not to disturb me in the meantime?"
"Understood. Do your best. Hmph."
Thus, Hinokagutsuchi vanished with a sneer. Sitting on the beach chair, Hal opened his laptop. All the ancient texts and reference materials about the shrine where Goddess Hinokagutsuchi was worshiped had already been digitized and saved into the hard drive.
After reading these materials for an hour, Hal suddenly noticed.
At some point in time, someone had sat down on the adjacent beach chair. Someone familiar.
Showing off her extravagant proportions in a black bikini, the blonde beauty was Luna Francois, of course.
"You finally noticed me, Harry."
Smiling sweetly, Luna Francois greeted Hal, making him feel slightly intimidated.
"W-When did you arrive?"
"Seven minutes and thirty-two seconds ago. I deliberately kept quiet because you looked like you were concentrating. However, Harry, it was not boring because I had a good long look at your serious countenance, fufu," said Luna Francois with effortless readiness.
Hal felt his heart flutter again. Indeed, she was very attractive, but it was also true that this pounding of his heart was mixed with a certain subtle unease.
Her affections could very well be a display made on strategic considerations at most.
While the image of his black-haired classmate inexplicably surfaced, Hal shrugged and said, "I think there's actually no point in this kind of skit. You have ulterior motives and I am well aware of it, so it feels like more of a turn-off."
"I never thought you'd be this impatient, Harry. The game is still in the opening stage, you know?"
Luna Francois' reply was slightly taunting.
"Our battle is just about to begin. Besides, the serialization has not been scheduled to end yet. Spectacular events and developments will be unfolding one after another next, so please look forward to them."
"No, you're just playing coquette with me."
Without intending to denounce her, Hal simply refuted her calmly.
"In truth, you don't plan on giving me a taste of anything real. You're just trying to use me and string me along with hopes of good things that might happen. As soon as I demand a reward you'll surely finesse your way out of it to escape."
Hers was akin to a certain Japanese beauty's signature talent in deceiving a third-generation gentleman thief named after his grandfather of French nationality. However, Luna Francois frowned with displeasure at Hal's accusation (this was probably an act).
"Well, what an awful thing to say. On what basis are you asserting this?"
"A conclusion drawn from the statistical results of a verbal survey. I've heard from Asya about you. She's already witnessed scenes of you rejecting guys on no less than dozens of occasions. You never date anyone, not even with a mindset of playing around. When I posed the same question to acquaintances at SAURU, everyone gave the exact same answer."
"I'm impressed, Harry. In terms of the thoroughness of our methods, we are definitely quite alike."
Luna Francois stood up suddenly from her chair.
She walked over to Hal, bringing the two of them extremely close. The American maiden's beautiful face and wondrous body was right before his eyes.
Then she stood there while Hal sat cross-legged on his beach chair.
This relative positioning established a certain situation. Two massive round bulges were in front of Hal's face, announcing their presence, emphasizing their alluring volume that rivaled cantaloupes, not to mention suppleness and elasticity that could not possibly be found in any type of fruit.
Furthermore, Luna Francois was slowly crossing her arms in front of her chest.
As though using her arms to raise her bust, it seemed especially intentional during times like these.
"Indeed, I, Luna Francois Gregory, might be a cold-hearted woman without any interest in boys. Perhaps I am a cruel woman who derives pleasure from mercilessly rejecting boys who fall in love with me. However—"
Luna lifted her arms lightly and lowered them again. As a result, Hal witnessed it.
That instant when those two round and heavy objects shook with a wobble—
"Doesn't there exist a possibility where even someone like me could be swooned by your manliness and seriously fall in love when interrogated by you, Harry, with your meticulous intelligence gathering? What do you think?"
"No, I don't think so. After all, I'm not manly at all."
"A game of love is merely a cover story for hiding embarrassment. As a tsundere girl unable to express her affection honestly, my only choice is to make advances on you by using that type of excuse... How about this interpretation?"
"Unrealistic and unconvincing."
"I... really like you. Do you think I'm lying?"
"Yes, totally a lie."
Repeatedly, he refuted her cleanly and decisively.
Luna Francois stared at Hal with a smile then said, "Then here is my final question. Is your heart pounding right now?"
"N-No. Absolutely none of that. Japanese people don't lie."
"Fufu. Although we are birds of a feather, Harry, there are aspects where we're unlike. For example, I am evidently the better liar."
Hal had been able to refute Luna resolutely until now.
However, his defenses were crushed at the very end. Involuntarily, his gaze kept chasing after those wobbling female weapons in front of him. Gradually, he became unable to ignore that devastating power.
"By the way, personally, I intend to enjoy this game patiently," said Luna with a smile while maintaining her posture with her arms framing her bosom.
"The difficulty level seems higher than I'd imagined, so I shall get serious. Sure enough, the motivation becomes completely different when there is a distinct rival."
"Yes. Speaking of which, Asya is merely your childhood friend and can be dismissed completely. However, Hazumi-san's potential cannot be underestimated and more importantly, there is Orihime-san."
"You're saying Juujouji is your rival?"
"This is the reason. Although I only caught a slight glimpse, wasn't the mood between you two quite excellent last night? Seriously, Harry, I can't believe you said something like that to Orihime-san."
"D-Don't get the wrong idea. Juujouji and I are only... only..."
How to express the sense of comfort from that time?
Hal shook his head in a dilemma, but was immediately confronted with a different question—Why would Luna Francois know about his conversation with Orihime last night?
Perhaps reading the doubt in his mind, the blonde witch smiled.
"Allow me to reveal the answer. I was actually just baiting you for confirmation, because the mood between you two felt a bit suspicious last night."
"So there we have it. I still haven't revealed my entire hand to you yet, Harry. Hence, this game will begin in earnest next. Let us enjoy ourselves together thoroughly, okay?"
"Of course, I do have some delectable treats lined up for you."
Say whatever you want, but talk is cheap.
Despite thinking that, Hal could not tear his eyes away from the two round and full objects before his eyes.
"Girls are definitely scary."
"Despite saying that, your foolish susceptibility to her charms is written on your face..."
While Hal was muttering poignantly to himself, Hinokagutsuchi manifested and mocked him.
The location was the lobby on the ground floor of a hot spring inn. In this spacious public area, the two of them were sitting on a bench in the corner. Incidentally, the inn's reception desk was also here.
The inn's basic concept was "Japanese" but the interior decor was not executed in pure classical Japanese style.
The building was constructed using steel-reinforced concrete. Half of the rooms were western while the other half were Japanese. All washrooms had western toilet seats with electronic bidets installed. Everywhere had modern interior decoration with comfort as a priority.
The current location would be analogous to a western hotel's entrance hall.
"Can't be helped. I'm a guy after all."
While staring at his laptop, scanning through materials, Hal retorted.
"It's only normal for men to conceal a lustful nature worth a dozen lechers or two, right?"
"In that case, you should put it into action more boldly. However, if you were to attack openly, that little girl will simply feign compliance, create a diversion and escape."
"Figures, a queen like you thinks so too?"
"Mm-hmm. By the way, I would handle girls of that sort by pinning them down by force directly. Through slightly forceful measures, I would impress upon them a queen's dignity and tender affection, causing them to submit from the bottom of their hearts, thereby joining the ranks of my priestesses—"
"Good grief, how much sexual harassment did you commit in the past!?"
Always dressed in a scarlet kimono in the past, Hinokagutsuchi was currently wearing the inn's yukata. The fabric's pattern and the color of the sash were both in brilliant scarlet.
Facing the former dragon that used to be known as the Crimson Queen, Hal asked, "By the way, were all your targets girls?"
"That goes without saying. As if anyone would make a move on squalid men."
"Were they all humans in race?"
"Fufufu. And what if they were?"
"Nothing much. You promised to cooperate with my information gathering as much as possible, right?"
"I am willing to answer truthfully if your questions are motivated by the spirit of research without a shred of lustful intentions. If your intention is to simply listen to salacious gossip, then I am not obliged to respond. Is that clear?"
"Despite the shrewd airs you normally put on, to think that you failed to negotiate or strike a bargain when encountering such a situation. You are too pathetic, brat."
After making a fool out of Hal, Hinokagutsuchi suddenly changed the subject.
"By the way, aren't you searching for clues for the remainder of the investigation? Why did you select this location? Wouldn't shutting yourself away in a quiet location be better?"
"As for that, think about it this way."
Taking his gaze off the laptop screen, Hal looked into the depths of the corridor.
"It's not every day that all of us are at a hot spring, but regrettably, I cannot enter the female bath. However, perhaps a major incident might happen in the female bath, such as a fire or a guest suddenly taking ill. I am waiting here for unexpected situations of that sort."
Hal answered solemnly with a serious face.
"It would be excusable for me to enter the female bath completely naturally as a guy if it's because an emergency demands that I arrive to the rescue immediately. If Juujouji, Shirasaka or Luna happened to be in the bath at the time—Ah, undoubtedly the creation of precious memories. And currently, the girls are all taking a bath."
"Wishful thinking, fool."
"But without action, nothing would begin at all. I'm gambling on that 1% probability."
No matter how closeted in his desires, Hal still carried a gentleman's pride.
Criminal intentions such as voyeurism were nonexistent. The current approach was an idea he had racked his brain to come up with while allowing his own desires and social morals to coexist, but—
"So that is how it is, I understand now."
Hinokagutsuchi put on a solemn expression and whispered, "Simply stated, you are the type of man who turns into an idiot whenever women are involved."
"Then this is from the body of a creature that's the same type as Minadzuki and the others!?"
"More precisely, it should be a body sample from a leviathan's close relative—a creature belonging to the same lineage as Genbu-Ou, Princess Yukikaze's minion," explained Asya to the wide-eyed Hazumi.
They were currently bathing in the open-air bath.
Asya lifted her right hand in the water, holding the black stone.
"Indeed, it is quite similar in color as that giant monster last month."
Orihime nodded. Naturally, she was in the open-air bath as well.
"By the way, is it really fine to bring that stone into the bath? Isn't it quite important? I feel that it might be better to keep it in a safe or something..."
"Don't worry, this is part of the experiment," Asya explained to the visibly worried Orihime.
"It's said that a priestess or shrine maiden who had been serving Hinokagutsuchi returned to her hometown on land with this stone in her possession, so I wanted to try doing the same thing."
"Doing the same thing?"
"That's right. Since it's an item used by an ancient shrine maiden, chances are high that I'll be able to use it as a fellow practitioner of magic. That's why I've been keeping it on me everywhere I go for the time being, observing to see what properties it has. Apart from that, I've also poured magical power into it from time to time."
"Then Asya, have you learned anything from it?" Sitting on the edge of the bath, Luna Francois asked.
Apart from Hinokagutsuchi, all the girls participating in the expedition were present.
The location was the large public open-air bath belonging to a seaside hot spring inn. Built by taking full advantage of the shore's geography, it was a hot spring with excellent scenery offering a view of Sagaminada while bathers soaked themselves in the hot water.
The current time was only slightly after 3pm because they had entered the bath immediately after returning from the beach.
Since the inn's check-in time for today had only just started, there were no guests at the hot spring and open-air bath. It was as though Asya and the girls had the entire place reserved for themselves.
Naturally, all four of them were naked.
Facing Luna Francois, who was showing off her extravagantly outstanding body in the nude, Asya replied, "No major discoveries yet. If nothing else, at least it's very hard."
"Have you tested it in some way?"
"Yes, I've smashed this stone fragment against concrete as a test. Supposing it really is a body sample from a species closely related to dragonkind, this level of impact should leave it completely unharmed."
As predicted, the result of the experiment was that the concrete shattered instead.
The black stone showed no damage at all. Luna Francois smiled wryly in exasperation after listening to Asya's report.
"You're appalling, Asya, still violent as ever. If Harry or I were at the scene, we probably would've stopped you."
"I think so too, which is why I did it alone."
Asya casually dismissed her fellow witch's opinion with a carefree expression.
Ever since she heard the hypothesis proposed by her childhood friend, Asya had been very certain that it was the correct answer. A master witch's intuition allowed her to sense from this stone a presence similar to that super organism—Genbu-Ou.
That being said, it was ultimately nothing more than intuition. There was no proof.
However, Asya's true strength was precisely the fact that she trusted intuition unquestioningly and took action.
During deadly predicaments in battles against dragons with the odds stacked heavily against her, what else could she trust apart from intuition? Although not to the point of conviction, Asya was definitely aware of this mindset. This sixth sense, which had saved Anastasya Rubashvili on countless battlefields, was demonstrating its power on this occasion too.
However, Luna Francois smiled impishly.
"As expected of your style, Asya. Although a bit unrefined for a girl, it's very dependable. I love it, you know?"
"Yes, unrefined. Or you could call it rough-and-ready too."
"You should use the description 'undertaking bold action while guided by instinct' instead! A-All things considered, please don't pick on small details like this to criticize me like I'm disqualified as a girl!"
Asya could not help but get worked up, standing up forcefully in the open-air bath.
Completely forgetting the fact that she was currently soaking herself in a bath, she exposed her fairy-like body from the knees upwards.
—If anything, one had no choice but to admit that she was far surpassed by Luna and Orihime on the aspects of volume and curves. Regrettably, she might even be inferior to the fourteen-year-old Hazumi. Indeed, she was painfully aware of reality's harshness.
In spite of that, Asya remained deeply confident.
Isn't this... Rather, this should be quite an attractive figure, right?
Unlike the flat and juvenile figures one could find anywhere, she was slim and trim with a suitably bulging chest (applying rather loose standards, of course). The various parts of the body represented by BWH measurements traced out subtle curves, exhibiting dangerous maidenly beauty in the form of nudity.
Look, this could be considered a fine example of sexiness, thought Asya proudly.
As a side note, she had gotten a good amount of sun today at the beach. As a Caucasian, Asya's complexion was pale and clear to begin with, turning bronze instead of a dark tan even with exposure to sunlight.
Not a fiery-red as though scorched or burned, but a color akin to polished metal.
The only exceptions, remaining pale, were the parts that her swimsuit had covered.
"Jeez... I was going to say I've already registered the super popular maiden's trademark of the 'tanned mermaid' for today. Luna, you're totally slandering me with your comments."
"Indeed, Asya-san's tan is very pretty," said Hazumi with a smile while watching Asya complain with arms akimbo.
"So beautiful. I'm jealous of you."
"Why thank you. Hazumi-san, you are a good girl as always~"
Listening to the innocent junior's praises, Asya instantly felt better.
Hazumi's cousin, Orihime, also smiled cheerfully and said, "However, Asya-san's vibes changed after receiving a tan. It's rare to see girls like that nowadays. It's very striking."
"My oh my, Orihime-san, don't you go flattering me too~"
While replying in modesty, Asya happily puffed out her rather thin chest.
"Oh dear, I suppose it's only natural for a girl like me to be striking when walking in the streets... Even though it's not my intention to draw attention, no helping it."
"That could very well be true. Skin-whitening is currently fashionable, so everyone is avoiding suntans."
"Oh, skin-whitening... Bi-ha-ku?" Asya froze after repeating Orihime's words.
Hazumi then said, "Apparently, people involved in athletic clubs at our school have been applying a ton of sunscreen during outdoor club activities. On the other hand, I find girls with tans to be cooler..."
The junior witch, who did not seem very athletic, stared at Asya with admiration in her face.
"That's why I find your current look very cool, Asya-san. Fufufu."
"Th-Thank you... Bihaku—Be hacked?"
"By the way, Asya-san, are you sure it's okay for you to enter the bath directly like this? From what I heard, dipping yourself in hot water shortly after tanning is very painful, isn't it?"
"Oh no, I've never experienced that ever in my life..."
Evidently, due to excellent skin health, she had never been troubled by problems of that type.
Hazumi widened her eyes after hearing Asya's answer.
"Really!? Every time I expose myself under the sun, I get red skin and even a fever sometimes—I'm quite jealous now."
"Hazumi frequently wears long sleeves even in the summer."
Orihime's comment triggered memories to surface in Asya's mind.
Before heading to the beach today, Hazumi and Luna Francois had applied sunscreen all over their bodies. Not only that, they had also reapplied it many times during the day.
Looking back, Asya now realized it was diligent labor for defending their skin's whiteness.
Thanks to that, Hazumi and Luna's skin had remained pale as always despite spending a long time at the beach.
In contrast, Orihime had not taken the issue as seriously as the other two.
Suitably tanned, her body was visible under the highly transparent hot water. Slender with outstanding curves, her nude body exhibited a lovely olive complexion.
Orihime had always given off vibes like some kind of "well-bred princess."
At the same time, there was also an element of sportiness and healthy beauty.
However, Orihime had definitely applied sunscreen once to avoid sunburns. Currently, she was engaging Hazumi in this kind of dialogue...
"Excuse me, Nee-sama, may I borrow some of your shampoo later...?"
"Sure, but why?"
"When traveling, Nee-sama, you always bring a set of your toiletries from home, right?"
"Yes, because the ones provided at hotels and public baths are sometimes business-use brands of lower quality... On that subject, the bathroom here is a bit questionable."
"N-Not to the point of questionable, but my hair is sticking together a bit..."
"Fufu, that's because your hair texture stiffened from swimming in the sea. Of course you may borrow mine."
"Thank you, Nee-sama!"
The conversation between cousins left Asya stunned.
It was as though she had suffered cultural shock within these few minutes. Could this be legendary girl talk revolving around topics such as "skin-whitening, sunburn prevention, UV protection and products for avoiding hair damage"?
This was territory that Asya had never ventured into despite her almost fifteen-year-long life.
Today too, while playing in the water, she had not used the slightest bit of sunscreen.
"Say, Asya, although I described you as very 'rough' earlier..."
By the time she noticed, Luna Francois was already by her side.
"But to be honest, I'm a bit envious. Despite what is clearly dysfunctional maintenance in certain ways, Asya, your beauty level is quite close to mine."
"Perhaps you are actually the strongest in potential, Asya. Well, but even if you mend your ways after the fact, we still have an overwhelming lead."
After speaking to Asya with what seemed like a bit of frustration, Luna Francois left her.
Asya could sense Luna's refusal to admit defeat, but the blow she suffered was quite devastating. There was no feeling of victory at all. Meanwhile, the Trans-Pacific Shootdown Ace walked over to Orihime's side.
"By the way, Orihime-san, may I issue a declaration of war?"
"Huh, by declaration of war, you mean—What is going on?"
Confronted with the confused black-haired witch, the west coast American girl smiled gracefully.
"I have decided to shoot for Harry's heart, to make him the captive belonging to me, Luna Francois Gregory. So let us compete openly, fair and square. That is what I am proposing."
"L-Luna-san will shoot for Senpai's heart!?"
"W-W-W-What the heck are you trying to do? Luna!"
Orihime and Hazumi were stunned by the sudden declaration whereas Asya immediately roared.
However, the one who had made the controversial comment remained carefree.
"I mean exactly what I said. I intend to build a wonderful relationship with Harry, which is why I wanted to settle things with you first, Orihime-san, the greatest rival at hand."
"I! I do not have that kind of relationship with Haruga-kun—!"
Perhaps startled, Orihime instantly denied loudly.
However, stopped before she finished her sentence. Her lips parted and closed, looking like she had something to say. This persisted for a while.
Rather than having trouble deciding what to say, she was hesitating whether to say it or not.
Witnessing this reaction that did not match Orihime's always cheerful personality, Luna Francois smiled malevolently.
"Not that kind of relationship? Fufufu, my apologies. It looks like it was a misconception on my part since the mood seemed quite nice between you and Harry."
"In that case, I shall happily proceed as I please without needing to worry about anyone else's feelings♪"
"L-Luna-san, do you really, umm, like Haruga-kun in that way!?"
"Yes. Besides, I believe that there is no one else in this world more suitable than I am for supporting him in all sorts of challenging situations."
"I-In terms of that—Perhaps you are right, but..."
Orihime was shaken for some unknown reason. Usually cheerful and lively, she was stammering right now. Asya found this very baffling. However, Asya felt that she needed to prioritize Luna Francois as a target for her retorts.
"Hold it right there! What kind of nefarious scheme are you plotting again, Luna!?"
"Oh please, you are making me out to be some sort of evil witch... Now that would be considered slander, you know?"
"Please give up on baseless retorts. You are clearly an evil witch, the genuine article."
Ignoring the enemy's counterattack, Asya continued.
"It's useless for you to keep playing dumb. Given that it's you, I'm certain you're trying to seduce Haruomi again to get your hands on the dragonslaying rune, aren't you!?"
"Dear me, what an unpleasant way of putting it."
Stunned on the side, Hazumi silently listened to the interactions between the master-class witches.
Meanwhile, Orihime suddenly showed a relieved look after hearing Asya's forceful accusation, but Asya decided to overlook it for now.
Suddenly, Asya closed her mouth. Luna Francois did the same.
After making eye contact and using their gazes to exchange messages including "Did you sense that?" and "Yes, of course"—
From the sea's direction—An unidentified entity crawled out of the sea!
Indeed, this was an open-air bath situated by the sea. Sensing the approach of strong magical power, Asya and Luna Francois simultaneously put their guards up.
Hazumi screamed in surprise, probably due to the ominous aura exuding from the crawling unidentified entity.
Everyone was naked. Let alone a small caliber handgun for self-defense, they did not even have a dagger. Asya could not help but click her tongue while raising her entire body's magical power.
If necessary, she would summon her gigantic partner, Rushalka. She mustered her resolve.
The instant he heard Hazumi's scream, Hal rushed over.
He put down his laptop and sprinted at full speed from the inn lobby to the public bath. The frail underclassman's scream definitely came from this direction.
In contrast, Hinokagutsuchi could not even be bothered to get up.
"I never expected a situation to arise for real. A fool's will can penetrate stone huh..."
She simply sighed rather poignantly.
Hal had no time to bother with her. Without looking back, he ran as fast as he could.
This moment, at the scene of the incident—Right inside that forbidden garden. At an occasion like this, there was no time to waste on anything else!
Hal ran like mad along the corridor and pushed through the curtain labeled "female bath."
First, he stormed into the changing area—No one there. After sliding open the glass door that ought to be called the door to Shangri-La, he stepped into the public bath—However, there was not a single soul.
Neither infant girls, young girls, maidens, women, nor old ladies were present. But voices were coming from outdoors.
"W-What on earth, is this!? Kyahhh!"
"Calm down, Hazumi! I'll save you right away—Nnnnn!"
"Asya! Use my Glinda and your Rushalka to drag it down!"
"Got... it. O-O ancient divine seal of purity!
Familiar girls were yelling outside—The open-air bath!?
Hal left the indoor bath and went to the open-air bath outside. Since it was still three in the afternoon, the sky was still bright and sunny. Even the sound of ocean waves could be heard clearly.
Offering a view of Sagaminada in the distance, this open-air bath was also a hot spring providing beautiful scenery for bathers.
But in the next instant, Hal was greeted by unexpected scenery.
Inside the open-air bath's premises, several white serpents were squirming around—No, wait.
They were not serpents. Indeed, they were extremely similar to snakes and worms in form, crawling all over the floor with slithering trails. However, they were not snakes.
Rather, these were tentacles.
Dozens of tentacles were currently slithering inside the open-air bath.
They were very white in color though translucent. Hazumi, Orihime, Asya and Luna Francois, the four of them had been captured, pulled into that creepy unidentified entity.
Naturally, all the girls were completely naked.
The curves of Hazumi's current figure were already quite attractive. Hal really looked forward to her growth after a few years.
Due to the sun's radiant blessings, Orihime's body was colored with a healthy olive tone. Somewhat different from the last time when he had caught a direct glimpse, her body was radiant with outgoing vitality.
As for Asya—Just skip her.
This would probably be the same awkwardness as when someone accidentally encountered their mother or sister in the nude.
Then there was Luna Francois.
The exploding impression from her bulging chest, a narrow waist that was like a work of art, and the curves traced out from below the waist were seizing Hal's heart with tyranny. Due to Luna's aggressive advances over the past few days, Hal had accumulated a fair amount of frustration inside, thus delivering an excessively shocking impact to him this moment.
However, the four witches were all tied up.
Every girl had six or seven tentacles wrapped around her. The translucent white tentacles were coiled around their necks, shoulders, elbows, arms, chests, under the breasts, waists, thighs, knees, down to the ankles.
Entangled by these tentacles, the various risque parts such as the pink tips of the breasts were starting to flash in and out of view tantalizingly. Amid this crisis, the four girls persisted in struggling their very hardest.
Despite her distraught expression, Hazumi desperately wrested the tentacle off her neck.
Orihime reached out to save her cousin, trying to approach her, but kept getting pulled back by tentacles, preventing her from taking a single step.
Asya and Luna Francois were also immobilized by multiple tentacles.
Even so, the two master-class witches were trying to chant songs of summoning. Two pentagrams, magic circles for materializing 'serpents,' had appeared in the air above the open-air bath.
Under normal circumstances, these pentagrams would immediately turn into leviathans.
But this time was different. The two pentagrams were blinking like a broken light bulb—The tentacles entangling their bodies were suppressing the witches' power!
Hal immediately summoned his magic gun with his right hand.
Using triple burst mode to fire, he pulled the trigger four times.
Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang bang!
Accompanied by deafening gunshots, twelve bullets of red light flew haphazardly in the air. Infused with auto-tracking magic, the bullets of light released by the magic gun penetrated the dozens of tentacles running amok in the open-air bath.
Not only that, the bullets of light did not stop after the first impact.
Each time a bullet pierced a tentacle, it would then make a rapid U-turn to attack the next tentacle. This scene kept repeating in the next ten-odd seconds. The tentacles in the open-air bath were rendered fodder by the magic gun, smashed to pieces and falling to the ground as countless scraps of flesh.
Moreover, despite being exposed to the rain of bullets, the four witches remained completely unharmed.
Filtering out the tentacles precisely, the bullets of red light destroyed them successively. This amazing feat was exclusive to a magical gun and impossible for ordinary firearms.
Hal exhaled with a "phew" and immediately used Enemy Detection magic.
—No response. The tentacles were all wiped out, apparently.
"Senpai! Thank you!"
"You saved us, Haruga-kun!"
Perhaps out of relief, Hazumi and Orihime suddenly ran over to him.
Thank goodness everyone was alright, Hal could not help but narrow his eyes. Next, he focused his eyes intently as though trying to brand upon his retinas the witches' figures that he might not find another chance to witness within this lifetime—
Hal saw it.
Asya raised her arm in a pose reminiscent of someone about to throw an object.
"You're leering so much that you're stretching your face until it's about to tear! Damn Haruomiiiiiii!"
As expected of the childhood friend. Hal was originally trying to put on as dignified an expression as possible, but Asya instantly read his ulterior motives.
What she launched with an overarm throw was the black stone.
That signpost to the Dragon Palace which she kept with her for experimenting.
Flying at high speed, the stone struck Hal's forehead. Logically speaking, since Haruga Haruomi's body had been enhanced by the Rune of the Bow, even without deploying the imperishable protection which was like a shield, it should be fine because a mere stone would not be able to inflict even a scratch on him.
Unexpectedly, the attack made him lose balance. Adding the fact that the floor of the open-air bath was quite wet and slippery—
Hal slipped and fell backwards.
He could hear Hazumi and Orihime's worried voices.
However, what entered his view was not the two girls but the blue sky—No.
At this moment, Hal should be lying face up on the open-air bath's slippery floor, but suddenly, the back of his head was lifted up then cushioned by something soft.
In the next instant, a pair of pale peaks suddenly entered his view that was supposed to be of the blue sky.
F-cups by visual estimate based on their shape, size and elasticity, two breasts tipped with lovely pink. Not only was Hal given a bottom-up perspective, he was also treated to a direct view of this beautiful scenery up close.
"A-Are you alright!? Your head collided with the floor loudly, you know!?"
"Don't worry, this is nothing at all..."
After responding to Orihime's calls, Hal figured it out.
In other words—Orihime had run over to rest his head on her lap. Speaking of which, the sensation supporting the back of his head not only felt soft but also elastic.
Friendly, eager to help others, yet also quite careless, this was Juujouji Orihime.
Forgetting to cover her chest when running over here to care for Hal and even resting his head on her lap.
"H-Hang in there, Senpai!"
After her, Hazumi leaned in too.
Pure as an angel, the junior student was kneeling on the floor, gazing at Hal's face with worry. That being said, she had not neglected to cover her naked chest with her right arm.
The valley of a fourteen-year-old's cleavage was still drawing attention vividly before his eyes.
Crap. Staring at curvature that was plenty for her age, Hal warned himself.
All things considered, it would be quite inappropriate for a gentleman to continue admiring the girls' unseemly state of undress in this manner.
Hal shut his eyes tight.
He intended to cut off the stream of visual data by pretending to faint.
"Haruga-kun, pull yourself together!" "Senpai!"
The bowl-like F-cups and the valley disappeared from sight too.
After that, while struggling in a world of darkness against the thought of "I still wanna open my eyes with a slight gap," Hal thought back.
Right before falling down just now, the last thing he saw was—
Luna Francois had hastily picked up a towel to cover up her outstanding figure and glared viciously at Hal. Presumably, exposing her naked body to him was quite a blow to her.
Luna, always so elegant and crafty.
But at that moment, her entire body had been shaking in anger.
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