Leviathan:Volume 5 Chapter 3
Chapter 3 - New York, New York
Dragons had flown in from the moon's surface and satellite orbits to ravage the world.
Air defense systems capable of swiftly detecting them were basically humanity's life line and more important than witches and leviathans, in fact. Consequently, the sky was filled with spy satellites, radar networks, and reconnaissance jets from various countries at every altitude.
Detected aerial threats were shared globally through an information network. An attack warning would be immediately issued locally while forces were dispatched to intercept.
"It's such a great help that Raptors fly so slowly. They apparently need time to get used to the Earth's atmosphere," explained Christine Hulk to her protege in front of her.
Cheerful in tone. Native to New York State, she was eighteen years old this year. A witch. Although she talked like a boy, she was undoubtedly a girl.
Her long blonde hair was tied in a refreshing ponytail.
The captain of the cheerleading team in a high school, she also had an excellent figure.
As a side note, her protege was sitting in the pilot seat of a flight simulator while Christine stood behind her.
"They fly sluggishly like migratory birds for about an hour or two, then their attack impulse erupts all at once and they make a move on the nearest city."
The junior witch—Marie Thesz—raised a question.
Eleven years old, hailing from Wisconsin, she was still studying in elementary school. Marie was a novice witch who had just formed a covenant with her partner a month earlier.
Compared to the talkative Christine, she said few words without much facial expression.
"Although it's not exclusive to cities, the tendency to target areas with high population and building density is quite high."
"While the Raptors are flying in leisure, they can be taken care of in the majority of cases as long as nearby military airbases can dispatch emergency squadrons to intercept them. Although this base is only equipped with older F-16s, they're more than enough to shoot down Raptors."
"...So this is an old model after all."
In the modern era where LCD touch panels were ubiquitous, the old-style control panel in front of her was composed of thirty-something instruments with "numbers, needles and dials."
This flight simulator reproduced the cockpit of the F-16, an older manned fighter jet.
"Don't worry. Even though it's an old model, it's still in service all over the world. In terms of production, the manufacturing cost of an old model that's like an antique is far cheaper than for new models."
"Yeah. Instead of making the latest models which cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars to fly a single sortie, it's better to mass produce low-cost older models. In recent years, the military has apparently valued cost-effectiveness more because of the great number of sorties."
The Air National Guard's base at East Farm was where Christine and Marie were right now.
It was located roughly fifteen kilometers southwest of the New York state capital of Albany.
The National Guard was America's military reserve force. Its members normally lived as ordinary civilians. During emergencies, they joined in disaster relief and security operations under the direction of state governors and might even carry out combat missions.
The two girls were currently at a training center inside the base.
"Although dragons can breathe fire, their attack range is practically zero in comparison to air-to-air missiles. It's as simple as hitting targets at a shooting range as long as you aim and fire from ten-odd kilometers away."
It was midnight, an hour quite incongruent with Marie's lifestyle as an elementary schooler.
However, this was official training for a new recruit. Hence, Christine continued unperturbed.
The surround screen inside the simulator displayed the air battle situation. Although Marie was sitting in the cockpit, she was not operating the controls. The screen was only replaying the simulated battle against twenty Raptors from just now.
Short-range homing missiles, Sidewinders, took down the lesser dragons one after another.
Christine shrugged. By the time they noticed, the Raptors on the screen had closed in to engage within visual range—in other words, close-range combat.
Swarming the fighter jet, there were roughly ten Raptors attacking.
At first, it was still possible to evade the Raptors attacking from unexpected angles by repeated usage of advanced maneuvers such as quick turns, mid-air stops and rapid acceleration. But soon enough, the fuselage was knocked away by a Raptor then torn apart instantly by its swarming companions—
Christine spoke quietly, "The difficulty increases dramatically if they get into dogfighting range. These guys are fierce beasts, after all. Humans cannot surpass them in agility or reaction speed. Forget about remote controlled attack drones, even manned fighter jets are unable to surmount that tall barrier."
"Next—Raptors all target the land, right? Hence, the air squadron's mission is essentially over once the Raptors reach settlements. After all, fighter jets are not suited to low-altitude combat. Well, that being said, it is possible to fire air-to-surface missiles at Raptors that are rampaging in town."
"Then we become the ones to destroy the town..."
"Yes, with that, the cart is placed before the horse. By this point, it's hard to take down Raptors even if tanks or grenade launchers are mobilized. So that's when it's time for our 'serpents' enter the stage."
"In other words, to help the air force clean up dragons that get past..."
"Exactly. Oh my, frankly speaking, it's almost impossible to lose against Raptors whether in the air or on land. Except if you're unlucky enough to meet an elite."
"Oh, I remember that from training..."
"In addition, elites are able to use summoning magic to gather a flock of Raptors. Protected by magic on these occasions, they don't suffer from the 'hazy state prior to getting used to the atmosphere' mentioned earlier. These Raptors will attack our 'serpents' with lightning speed!"
"...No Summoning Sickness despite being Creatures. So unfair."
Confronted with Marie's gamer-like response, Christine smiled wryly.
"If an elite shows up, they have only two choices. Either grovel and beg for support from a master-class witch or form a united team like ours to mobilize. Precisely because of that, we really look forward to the performance of new members~"
Suitable witch candidates were selected from the National Guard of the various East Coast states to form a team.
This was the concept behind the unit named the WotC. Including the newest addition of Marie, they currently had four witches. Christine was their team leader.
"There was apparently a plan to gather up master-class witches, but it never went anywhere because they're all a bit abnormal in the head. In the end, the current model resulted by prioritizing team efficiency."
"...Aren't you a Master Jedi, Christine?"
"Nope. I am the type with common sense and teamwork. Oh, but I heard earlier during the evening meeting. Recently, a team of witches was formed over in Japan. Reportedly, they have two master magi who are Shootdown Ace class."
Christine took out her smartphone and opened up the information she had received during the day.
A team that had North America's strongest vile witch—Luna Francois Gregory—as well as Europe's "Big Eater" Anastasya Rubashvili.
In addition, there was the Japanese boy who commanded these two top-class witches by virtue of his strength.
Christine clicked up Haruga Haruomi's profile on her phone. Apparently while traveling across the world as a treasure hunter, he had chanced upon Dragonslayer magic.
It was rumored that he had defeated a number of elites and even had combat experience against dragon king-class opponents.
In the photo, this legendary figure—Haruga Haruomi—was staring at the camera with sleepy eyes.
"This guy is the mastermind behind the Japan team."
"...Kind of cute looking. Like a goblin or a golem."
"Aren't those monsters? By the way, I'm not too familiar with RPGs."
"...Slightly different. Probably in between elves and monsters."
"I see. Oh, whatever. Anyway, he looks poorly motivated and lacking in communication skills. However, I think I'm a bit curious about him...?"
For Christine, this was a type she had never met in high school or the National Guard. Curious about something new, she felt a vague sense of affection towards this Japanese boy she had never met before. Currently, his group should be on their way to the East Coast. It would be nice if there was a chance to speak with him. Just as Christine was thinking that to herself—
An alarm blared from the speakers installed all over the base.
"...It's our turn to sortie?"
"Dunno yet. But we must get ready straight away. Follow me!"
While issuing orders to Marie, Christine started moving too.
Then she took out her cellphone to call her direct superior, the military consultant assigned by the US Air Force to the Governor of New York.
An air defense system had been built to detect the arrival of dragons as early as possible.
Unfortunately, it was still possible for it to fail in its purpose.
And one actual case occurred this very night in New York. The dragon king ruling over the Old Manhattan Concession suddenly started flying at high speed.
Red Hannibal's destination was the sky over the capital of New York State—Albany.
It was merely a distance of two hundred kilometers or so from Old Manhattan to here.
Traveling time was less than twenty minutes. Decelerating after reaching Albany's airspace, he started a slow descent.
Despite being a state capital, Albany was just a small city.
It was surrounded mostly by natural scenery such as mountains and forests, excellent for enjoying the pleasures of hiking or canoeing. The local population was less than a hundred thousand. Moreover, it was currently late at night.
Hence, very few people witnessed the dragon king's arrival.
However, every one of these people shook to their bones in fear without exception.
At the same time, the military airbases across the East Coast finally issued a "Red Hannibal alert" one after another.
Furthermore, the Governor of New York was heading to the capitol building after receiving an emergency crisis report.
Naturally, Hannibal did not care about the late night hour or the humans of the lower realm. Landing leisurely in front of the New York State Capitol, he roared loudly.
A roar matching the red dragon king's bestial nature.
The majestic roar resounded across every corner in the city of Albany.
People who had gone to bed were roused by this noise. Those who had yet to sleep were frozen with horror and terror occupying their minds and bodies. Unable to withstand such a shock, those afflicted with heart disease clutched their chests, panting. Some people even fainted directly out of fear.
What followed immediately after the roar ended was a fully rational voice.
Using his astounding baritone voice, Hannibal spoke sonorously, "Now then, residents of this city, as well as those of this state, I would like to make a proposal here."
All residents in the city heard the dragon king's voice, just like the roar earlier.
Infused with the dragon king's magical power, the speech was definitely reaching the ears of the people.
"Everyone of the media, I grant you special permission to come closer. But in return, I confer a mission upon you. Every word I say next must be recorded accurately and completely to be disseminated across the people."
Hannibal had even taken into account the reporters who happened to be present. To report on the story, news agencies and television station staff had already driven several vans to rush to the scene from nearby.
They were a group motivated by a mercantile interest in obtaining an exclusive scoop about the great event of the dragon king's arrival.
Facing the cameras and microphones extended from these people, Hannibal spoke, "It has been twenty years since I made my residence in the land known as Manhattan. From what I have heard, this number of years is enough for humans like you to reach the legal age of majority. Furthermore, after reaching adulthood and acquiring the requisite wisdom, they are bestowed the right to stand as a candidate for election—This principle stands as the essence of the 'democracy' you humans invented."
An awe-inspiring speech delivered with clear enunciation.
Compared to the average human, he was more talkative. His English was also very fluent.
The ruler of Old Manhattan—Hannibal. He was not only the dragon king closest to humans but also the spokesman worthy of representing dragonkind.
"And the election for deciding this state's ruler through democratic means will be coming up soon. Thus, I present my request to you all—Allow me to participate in that battle."
Out from Hannibal's mouth came several terms that did not match the image of dragons.
Immediately, the contents of this speech pushed the audience's emotions from astonishment up to greater heights.
"I wish to become this country's... no, the most powerful statesman on earth. I would like to demonstrate to all residents of this state how fortunate they are to live under my protection. I repeat once again, please acknowledge me as a candidate for the election."
Fortunately, those listening to the dragon king's decree included people involved with the military.
The Air National Guard had mobilized fighter jets from the East Farm base fifteen kilometers from Albany and sent three rescue helicopters. One of them was transporting two witches.
Christine Hulk and Marie Thesz.
However, the two of them were coming face to face with the dragon king's majestic visage before they could contact the WotC's other two members.
The ultimate adversary towering over all elites—Red Hannibal.
The dragon king's body was exuding overwhelming magical power and presence, immobilizing Christine and Marie. In fact, these two's 'serpents' could not even accomplish the meager act of stalling for time.
"Let this be all for tonight. I shall reappear before you all in the near future. Save your answer until then. Humans, I look forward to your democratic choice!"
This was the last message left behind by the dragon king.
Having finished speaking, Hannibal spread his wide wings and flew.
Towards the sky—Towards his base of operations, the Old Manhattan Concession. No one dared to get in the way of his flying route.
The story above was the incident of "Hannibal Comes!" that had transpired during midnight on August 7th.
Prior to the return of dragons, New York City was divided into five boroughs.
Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island, and Manhattan.
But twenty years ago, the borough of Manhattan was chosen by dragonkind as a concession territory.
As the "face" symbolizing New York City, the area included Wall Street, Central Park, the Rockefeller Center, Times Square... Manhattan and its numerous landmarks fell under the rule of dragonkind, becoming the castle town of the dragon king Hannibal.
But apart from Old Manhattan, the other four boroughs still remained intact in the present day as "New York City."
2pm on August 7th. Hal and his friends were currently at the Bedford neighborhood in Brooklyn. More precisely, it was the parking lot of SAURU's New York branch.
"This year happens to be midterm election year in America."
"What are 'midterm elections'?"
Driving a rented minivan, Hal was just about to enter a perpendicular parking space when Hazumi posed a question to him from the back seat. Sitting next to her, Orihime quietly answered, "I recall that the results of such elections... can be taken as something like an approval rating for the US president?"
"Yes, that's the idea."
Presidents of the United States served terms of four years.
General elections held two years after a presidential election were named midterms.
Offices up for election were spread across all kinds of civil servants, including the entire House of Representatives, a portion of the senators, as well as governors and mayors whose terms were up. These cases were all classified as midterm elections.
The two major parties in America were the Democrats and the Republicans.
And the number of elected Members of Congress and governors in the incumbent president's party was regarded as a major indicator. If numbers decreased, that meant the president's influence was waning.
This included New York State where an election for the governor was scheduled around November.
"Is it possible that Hannibal regularly reads newspapers?"
In half-joking, half-serious tone of voice, Hal remarked while getting off the car.
—This morning, his group had taken a plane here from Boston.
The flight to the entrance of the international metropolis of New York—John F. Kennedy airport—took roughly an hour. Then the trio had split up from Asya to buy supplies and equipment. Their goal was to get ready to infiltrate Hannibal's abode—Old Manhattan.
Hal opened the trunk and unloaded the stuff they had just bought.
Due to the relatively large quantities, the stuff was contained in three separate cardboard boxes. Seeing Orihime and Hazumi approaching to help out, Hal said, "Actually, Hannibal often leaves his concession territory every now and then."
" "Ehhh!?" "
"It's not just when he's attacking . It's usual for him to fly all over the place randomly, wandering New York State where Old Manhattan is located as well as neighboring states and counties, as though he's checking out his territory."
Facing two wide-eyed girls, Hal continued.
"The surrounding residents call his wandering behavior 'Hannibal Comes!' and treat it as a special event, with many department stores and shopping malls holding sales and promotions to commemorate the day too."
"P-People aren't afraid?"
"Isn't he clearly a king of dragonkind like Princess Yukikaze..."
Moving cardboard boxes together with Hal, Hazumi and Orihime expressed their surprise.
They next went to SAURU's New York branch. This was a five-story building whose entire interior was a facility belonging to the organization. The trio stepped into the building from the back door.
Since it was quite old, built in the 1980s, it was not very clean or tidy.
However, this messy place, all covered n dust, was like a homeland to Hal.
"They're afraid but there's nothing they can do. Since they're helpless, they might as well dilute the fear in this kind of joking manner. Furthermore, people have gotten used to it over time since Hannibal has not attacked human cities for a very long time now. It's inevitable for people to think that next time and the time after that probably won't be attacks either."
Why dragon kings did not attack human society aggressively—
By this point, Hal already knew the reason. Because they were not too interested in mere humans, they did not actively harm humans. But if some sort of cause were to arise, they would most likely slaughter and massacre mankind as though eradicating pests without a thought.
But this time, Hannibal had suddenly brought up the word "democracy"...
"By the way, Juujouji, what's your take on how Asya's been acting?"
"You mean her lack of appetite?"
Hal nodded affirmatively in response to Orihime's question.
After flying from Boston to New York, Hal and his group had eaten lunch at a cafe in JFK airport.
Having only eaten a light breakfast, Asya unbelievably ate only a bagel!
Hazumi tilted her head and said, "She must be feeling unwell or she caught a flu, right?"
"If it's Asya, even in those situations, she'd still say 'let's eat something easy to digest' before gulping down a large pot of porridge. I think there has to be some other reason."
While chatting, the trio went down the stairs to the basement.
They were making their way to the supplies storeroom to put down their cardboard boxes. In addition, Asya had already arrived at this building in advance. Due to a need for a master-class witch's counsel regarding the Hannibal incident, she was currently attending a meeting in the New York branch.
Someone was already in the storeroom before them.
"Yo Hal. It's been a year, hasn't it?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
A middle-aged Caucasian man spoke to him. He was a member of administrative staff who had served at this branch for around three years. Featuring a physique rivaling President M's, he was a thoroughly obese guy.
Since neither Hal nor Asya were visiting this branch for the first time, they were both acquainted with him.
"By the way, there are a few things that I want."
"I heard from Asya. Preparations are already underway."
The man took down a Kevlar rope from a shelf.
Impressive as always, Hal's childhood friend. Knowing clearly what this mission required, she had asked SAURU to obtain supplies as quickly as possible. It looked like Asya had communicated to them in advance.
"Add in the latest map of the Old Manhattan ruins, preferably no older than a month, if possible."
"Leave it to me. It'll be prepared along with everything else that's needed."
Until the end of the twentieth century, SAURU's New York branch had been situated in Manhattan.
Hal's aim was to infiltrate the place and obtain ancient texts related to King Solomon. Both this man here and Asya understood clearly what support the mission required. Despite being of different professions, they were working in the same field after all. This ease of communication was very helpful.
While Hal was filled with gratitude, the Caucasian man laughed and said, "You really have it tough. There are many rumors about you. No need to be shy, just let me know if you need help with small stuff like this."
After glancing at Orihime and Hazumi who were following Hal closely, he made a thumbs-up.
Apparently, news of Haruga Haruomi's acquisition of a dragonslaying rune had already spread within SAURU. Hal smiled wryly in response. Auntie Yulia's reason for making a personal visit to Tokyo was probably the same as his.
"You're helping me out a lot. Thanks."
"Oh? You can pay me back with interest when you make it big. By the way, Asya—"
The man suddenly frowned in puzzlement.
"What happened to her? I was enjoying a whole dozen of donuts when talking to her just now. I can't believe that Asya didn't say 'gimme some'!"
" " "......" " "
Hal frowned. Beside him, Orihime and Hazumi also showed worry on their faces.
The two girls were not very good at listening to English but still could get a rough idea that the man was noting that something was strange about Asya. Putting that aside, Hal wondered what was up with his childhood friend.
"Let's have a look to see how she's doing."
After setting down their belongings, Hal and company took the elevator to the fifth floor.
They entered the meeting room on the far end after knocking lightly at the door. Sitting at an oval desk were three members of the New York branch. Asya was with them but—
"Listen, Asya. Indeed, we issued a harsh protest last year because you consumed all of the branch's on-hand supplies of canned food and instant noodles..."
"But no matter what, we never forbade you from eating the snacks laid out here."
"In any case, we are very worried about the state of your health. Please, pick something you like to eat. If there isn't enough, we'll send someone out to buy more. No need to hold back!"
Three male members of staff at the branch were talking to the silver-haired girl.
In the center of the table were three bags of chips, including the most basic salted flavor, salsa flavor, an American classic as well as a trendy teriyaki flavor. In addition, there were sausages, onion rings and cheddar cheese snacks on the table.
All junk food with excessive oil and salt content.
And these were all Asya's favorites—At least, they were supposed to be.
"Fufufu. Thank you for the kind offer, everyone, but don't worry, I'm not hungry at the moment. Please save it for next time."
Smiling demurely, Asya refused food!
Hal could not help but feel shocked. His childhood friend had definitely said the words "I'm not hungry at the moment." It was reality, not a hallucination—How could this be possible!?
Hal stared at Asya without thinking.
This might be the first time in his life for him to stare at her so seriously.
To think that there was a side to Anastasya Rubashvili unknown to Hal when he believed that he had already understood her thoroughly inside out—?
Next, Asya noticed Hal's gaze and slowly turned her head to show a faint smile towards him.
In that instant, Hal unbelievably found that smile incredibly gorgeous. His heart skipped a beat. This was no joke. What was with Asya?
"That Asya is worrying us when we're clearly about to sneak into Manhattan tomorrow..."
"But Haruga-kun, I definitely don't think there's anything wrong with her health. Perhaps we are the ones who are worrying too much? Rather, it seems that Asya-san is even livelier than usual."
That night after reaching New York, Hal did something he normally would never do. He called a girl to his hotel room to begin a discussion.
The one he was confiding in was Orihime, smiling optimistically.
"Think about it. Always whining about being hungry and quickly complaining about running out of energy, she's like a male lion lazing around on a savanna. But today, it's like she became a different person."
"Although everyone has been saying how weird it is, the amount of food Asya-san ate today would actually be just right for such a slender girl."
"Hmm—But I totally don't get why she'd suddenly become like this."
"Haruga-kun, do you truly not understand?"
"Yeah, no clue at all."
The instant he replied, Orihime sighed deeply then stared sharply at him.
"Jeez... It's very obvious that she's on a diet!"
"Di—Don't be ridiculous. It's Asya we're talking about here, you know!?"
"You are the one being ridiculous, Haruga-kun! For a girl's weight, even a kilogram... no, even a 500g or 50g difference would be huge. If you need an analogy, there exist girls who might agree to a contract with the devil just to become five kilograms lighter."
"E-Even you, Juujouji?"
Orihime glared intently at Hal.
Hal deeply regretted asking that. For the first time, he felt fear and pressure because of Orihime.
"Ahem. This isn't about me but my friend. She's the type... whose various sizes are relatively big, so it's only natural for her weight to be proportionally higher. That's why, if the devil came knocking at her door with that kind of deal, perhaps she might really waver a little..."
"For sure, your various parts are amazing, Juujouji."
"Don't get the wrong idea! This is about my friend, not me!"
Scolded harshly, Hal immediately straightened his back.
Apparently satisfied with his reaction, Orihime stared at Hal and suddenly changed the subject.
"Putting that aside, Haruga-kun, I believe there are more pressing matters to worry about tonight than dieting."
"Of course. For tomorrow's infiltration operation into the Manhattan Concession, I expect you and Asya-san will be carrying it out alone, right? Aren't you being slightly too cautious about this? Wasn't it much more relaxed when we went to the Old Tokyo Concession?"
Setting off to Old Tokyo in the afternoon after having just made the decision in the morning. This was a set pattern when operating in Tokyo New Town previously.
However, a lot of time and energy had been spent on equipment and information gathering in preparation for this operation.
"This time's target is a place that's several times more troublesome than Old Tokyo, after all. The one in Tokyo is just a wasteland where getting around is inconvenient but Old Manhattan is inhabited by all kinds of dangerous monsters."
"That being said, there shouldn't be a huge problem. As I am now, I own a magic wand—that gun—while Asya's Rushalka is also in peak form. It'll actually be easier if it's just us two."
"...I guess you are right."
Orihime sighed and smiled—That smile was probably made on purpose.
"Originally, I really wanted to come along because I was worried about you two. But now that I feel like I might get in the way instead, never mind. If you and Asya-san truly needed assistance from me and Hazumi, you would have counted us in when deciding teams from the start."
"It's fine. I can understand your considerations."
Usage of leviathan powers had to be minimized as much as possible during this infiltration operation.
In that case, a two-man team consisting of only Hal and Asya would be the best choice. As expected of Juujouji Orihime, who was great at reading between the lines, she understood on her own without needing Hal to explain explicitly.
Ever since he met her this spring, Hal had found her observant personality to be very helpful at all times.
Realizing this fact again, Hal was suddenly struck by a thought.
"Speaking of which, it's been quite a while since we last chatted alone together."
"After all, Haruga-kun, you went to Papua New Guinea earlier and after coming to America, we've been going around as a group most of the time...... Oh."
Seeing Orihime suddenly fall silent, Hal asked, "What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing... It's nothing. I simply remembered something because you mentioned about being alone together. Pay it no heed. I also feel it's also a bit too impolite for me to suddenly ask such a personal question..."
"Anyway, let me hear it first. I'll answer as long as it's within my knowledge."
"R-Really? Well... Do you and Luna-san frequently spend time alone together?"
"B-Because, didn't Luna-san confess to you last time? Also, the two of you traveled abroad and e-even did that..."
Hal shook. By that, she was presumably referring to kissing Luna.
It happened once during the Izu expedition. Prior to coming to America, there was another one, kept secret from the others. Although it was not Hal's intention, the second time had even taken place under the public eye.
Seeing Hal's panicked look, Orihime silently bowed her head.
"So you do intend to go out with Luna-san...?"
"O-Of course not. Although I'm very grateful for her suggestion, we haven't progressed to that stage yet. Besides, won't having a romantic relationship within the team be a hindrance to work? Personally, I find that social relationships become troublesome when they become too close, so it's best to avoid that like the plague after all!"
For example, suppose Chief A and Subordinate B became a couple.
This could cause Chief A to favor B excessively, causing other subordinates to feel disgruntled. Conversely, B might actively demand special treatment. Things might be fine if Chief A and B were on good terms, but if the two of them were to fight, the group dynamic would fall to rock bottom...
"To prevent that kind of predicament, the first priority is to forbid romance within the team!"
"But in America school dramas, don't couples quickly form within the group?"
"Ah, yes. Those are quite outrageous. Breaking up within a couple months then immediately hooking up with another friend—But those are merely fictional plots!"
"But if it's you and Luna-san, I get the feeling you'd say 'just keep it underground' and date secretly without telling the rest of us—"
"Yes, because Luna and I are both devious, that's very possible—"
Hal raised the volume of his voice, trying hard to dispel Orihime's doubt.
"But this kind of thing definitely won't happen. I swear to God!"
"You sound like a liar when you swear to God or heaven and earth so easily..."
"Oh, otherwise, let me lay my conscience on the line. A Christian in the same situation would say 'I swear by the Bible that the testimony I give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth' just like in front of a judge!"
Hal spoke excitedly to the distrustful Orihime.
However, somewhere in a corner of his mind, he found this unbelievable. Why was he trying his hardest to explain? What was the big deal even if suspicions were directed at him?
After all, he and Luna were not lovers and this was the unmistakable truth (although it was also true that they had kissed).
Next, Hal figured it out roughly.
This kind of situation was not completely unrelated to why he had been able to hit the brakes in the nick of time when almost devoured by the American girl's charm on several occasions. In fact, every time when Hal's heart started pounding due to Luna's bold courtship, he would frequently think of Orihime involuntarily.
"B-By the way, Haruga-kun, if the fact that Luna-san k-kissed you is what makes you uneasy, would sharing a kiss with someone else—Make things alright?"
"B-Basically, if another girl were to kiss you, would that allow you to treat her like Luna-san... Something like that......"
"I think—probably, maybe..."
The two of them were alone in a room. Gazing into each other's eyes, in a hotel while on a trip. Hal trembled slightly from the nervous tension his body and mind had never felt before. Orihime felt very nervous too.
For some reason, Hal was quite certain. At this very moment, neither of them needed further words.
Similarly, for some reason, Orihime was also certain of the same thing—That they could reach mutual understanding just by gazing at each other.
After that, all they needed was a trigger no matter how tiny. Indeed, like what Orihime was doing right now—gazing at Hal with moist eyes—slowly drawing up closer to him at the same time.
Hal extended his right hand, intending to take Orihime's hand—At that instant...
The cellphone on the bedside suddenly rang.
The two of them suddenly came to their senses and looked at the cellphone together. Hal swiftly picked up the call.
"What's up, Asya? Is there some kind of emergency?"
"No, but it's about work. I'd like to discuss tomorrow's rundown with you, Haruomi, can I visit your room?"
"Oh...... Sure. Of course you can."
Realizing the situation, Orihime nodded at Hal, so he immediately agreed. However, although there was just a momentary pause, the caller on the other side instantly reacted.
"Is there someone there right now by any chance?"
"Really? Then I'm coming over now. See you later."
After the call ended, Orihime said "then I'll be off first" and stood up from her chair.
Seeing her off at the doorway, Hal heard an unexpected question just as they were parting.
"U-Umm. Next time... May I still come over to visit you? I... would like to have a good chat with you when we're both free, to relax or something—"
Hal originally wanted to ask "just the two of us?" but switched to a more tactful wording in the end.
As a result, Orihime looked shyly at Hal and nodded.
"Y-Yes. As long as it doesn't bother you..."
"Not at all. You're welcome any time."
Hal answered her immediately, eliciting a blushing smile from Orihime.
Ten minutes later, Hal held a brief meeting with Asya who had come to his room. The pounding in his heart from spending time with Orihime still lingered but he carefully concealed it, preventing it from showing on his face.
After Asya left, Hal went to bed at around 11pm. Lying on the bed, he began to ponder.
He expected it would not be until afternoon before departing to infiltrate the concession territory. In that case, he should sleep in till late morning, to conserve his energy fully... However, this easily ended up wishful thinking on his part.
Early next morning, the New York sky was blotted out by a flock of almost a thousand Raptors.
The time the anomaly occurred was 6:22 am on August 8, early in the morning to boot.
The Raptors descended en masse with almost a thousand of them crashing down collectively like a meteor rain—
Normally speaking, there would be a few hours of buffer time between them breaking through the atmosphere and reaching a city's airspace.
But this time, what called them to the ground was dragonkind's summoning magic.
Merely a minute or two elapsed between them penetrating the atmosphere at 6:22 and arriving in the air above Jamaica Bay at New York City. It was a record that laughed in the face of common sense and the laws of physics.
Most specialists in the field of dragons would despair when confronted by such a situation, expecting the utter destruction of Neew York City.
However, the Raptors simply circled in the air over Jamaica Bay without attacking the surface, flying back and forth across the sky.
By 7:45 am, Hal also arrived at a beach on Jamaica Bay.
Naturally, he was accompanied by Asya, Orihime and Hazumi. Accepting the request from SAURU's New York branch, they arrived on the scene to assist in handling the situation.
Overhead in the sky, a terrifying number of Raptors were flying in flocks.
However, there were no elite dragons among them.
"Where the heck is the elite that summoned them...?"
"Speaking of elites in New York City, there's definitely a dragon king living here..."
" "......" "
Asya was evidently thinking of the worst-case scenario. Hal sighed simultaneously. The possibility of an elite running over to "cause trouble" near a dragon king's territory was extremely unlikely.
"B-But thank goodness. Fortunately, they came to somewhere uninhabited."
Surveying the scenery surrounding Jamaica Bay, Hazumi commented.
Located south of New York City, Jamaica Bay was connected to the Atlantic Ocean.
However, the majority of the bay consisted of wetlands. At the same time, it was a protected natural reserve. The bay's vast wetlands were full of flourishing trees with freshwater ponds and marshland scattered within.
This protected zone's area was actually nine thousand acres, roughly three hundred square kilometers.
The area was several times that of the Old Tokyo Concession.
"It's also possible that the Raptors' summoner deliberately chose this location?"
"To avoid harming the residents of New York? In that case, there is a high chance that it's Mr. Hannibal who has announced his candidacy in the governor election..."
Hearing Hal's whisper, Orihime gasped.
The three witches from Japan had already materialized their partners. The three "serpents" were standing by on the beach of Jamaica Bay.
Europe' strongest Shootdown Ace—Blue Rushalka the wyvern.
The white nine-tailed fox-wolf, Akuro-Ou.
The unconventionally colored serpentine dragon leviathan Minadzuki lacking a horn counterpart.
Rushalka was standing upright on her hind legs like a bird on the ground whereas Akuro-Ou was lying down on the ground like a trained dog. On the other hand, Minadzuki had her slender body rolled up in a coil.
However, Hal and his team were not the only dragon specialists on this beach.
Several kilometers from their location, another team was also on standby. They were the four witches of the WotC and their partners.
All of their leviathans were quadrupedal felines dozens of meters in body length.
The lynx "Tom Cat" with dazzling silver fur. The ferocious albino tiger "Tiger Cat." The black panther "Wild Cat" whose entire body was shrouded in lightning and sparks. Then there was the feline that resembled a rotund bear, standing and walking upright on hind legs, "Bear Cat."
These four leviathans stood as the WotC's combat potential.
Ground forces were also deployed along the coastline of Jamaica Bay.
Prior to the arrival of Hal's team, the army had already transported to the scene all kinds of weapons imaginable, including M1 tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, etc.
However, the human side had yet to launch any attacks.
"That's to avoid unnecessary casualties and military spending. No point taking unknown risks."
Next to Hal, Asya explained to Orihime and Hazumi.
"Rushalka and I can clear out 90% of them within five minutes if it's just this quantity of Raptors. Akuro-Ou and Minadzuki could probably wipe out the rest. Any ones missed could be allowed to escape back to the wild. Of course, it'd be a different matter if they intend to attack settlements—"
Glaring sharply at the invading Raptors, Asya issued a bold declaration.
Over a month had gone by since her partner's revival and acquisition of Queen Form. By now, Asya had fully comprehended and mastered the powers of Rushalka who had become far stronger than she ever was.
Hence, Asya had the right to brag. Failure was impossible.
"How will the enemy mastermind make a move... That's what's crucial. Let's watch until there's movement. Please cover me depending on the situation."
Gathered at this battlefield was the army and the WotC. Orders had already been issued to them through SAURU: They were to focus on their role as support and forbidden from engaging in combat recklessly to avoid hindering Rushalka's full mobility.
In other words, Asya and Rushalka were the main stars on the human side.
As for the main role on the dragon side—He finally made a gradual appearance from the south.
South of Jamaica Bay was the Atlantic Ocean. Rising from the other side of the horizon, Red Hannibal was leading his Army of Fire, flying towards them.
Behind the dragon king were roughly three hundred "lizard-shaped flames."
The salamanders had a body length of seven meters, on the order of Raptors in size.
"Is that the Army of Fire—Hannibal's minions!?"
While summoning the magic gun in his right hand, Hal cried out.
For the past twenty years, Red Hannibal had seldom appeared on the battlefields between dragonkind and humanity, rare enough to count on one hand. However, when deemed necessary, he would appear with the Army of Fire under his command.
His minons were neither dragons, leviathans nor dragon subspecies. Instead, they were fire spirits.
Towards the beach where Hal was located, Hannibal and his great army approached at high speed.
Was he planning to converge with the Raptors here to then launch an all-out offensive? Anyone would consider this possibility, but at that moment, Hannibal emitted a thunderous roar.
"Thank you for your patience, humans! You saved me a lot of trouble by gathering here before you were summoned! My election campaign is about to begin this moment!"
"What election...? Is he really sticking to that candidate story from before?" Hal muttered quietly
Hannibal's voice was infused with magical power.
Like last time at Albany, this was to allow all citizens to hear his speech. Compared to Albany, New York City covered a much greater area, but Hannibal's magical power was probably enough to allow a dragon king's decree to reach every corner.
The thousand Raptors circling in the air started to take action again.
The flock of dragons had been flying back and forth in the air without causing trouble so far, but in the next instant, an attack impulse erupted. The thousand Raptors all flew towards their target.
Indeed, the ferocious beasts launched an attack—Their target was Hannibal's army!
"I summoned these winged lizards from the sky. Seeking to become the ruler of you all, I shall display my level of power by using them as my opponents. I wish to demonstrate a king's power through action without wasting any more breath on words!"
"—Suddenly going completely against the principles of democracy!"
The dragon king's statement was truly deserving of ridicule.
However, no sooner had Hal spoken than the battle began. No, rather than battle, it was actually no different from a massacre. One-sided slaughter.
At the forefront, Hannibal charged into the enemy ranks, leading his army of salamanders.
Confronting this conspicuous enemy commander, the Raptors roared loudly and swarmed him.
Most likely due to the effects of mind control magic, the Raptors' attack impulse was amplified greatly. Otherwise, there was no way they could engage in such insubordination against a dragon king standing at the pinnacle of their race.
However, the poor Raptors were unable to touch a single hair of Hannibal's despite the best efforts from their sharp claws and teeth.
Three hundred salamanders—the Army of Fire—deployed a defensive line around the dragon king in three hundred and sixty degrees, forming a shield with their bodies.
As soon as they touched the salamanders, the Raptors immediately caught fire.
Within a brief instant, flames spread all over the Raptors touched by the salamanders, enveloping them in an intense blaze, incinerating them utterly, causing them to crash to the ground.
Everything touched by the salamanders were turned to ash within an instant. This was the magical power of the Army of Fire.
Some of the Raptors were exhaling high-temperature blue-white flames.
However, the salamanders were shrouded in even hotter flames. The Raptor's scorching breaths were completely unable to inflict any damage at all.
Finally, the thousand Raptors were literally turned into fireballs, crashing down slowly into Jamaica Bay. The one-sided massacre ended.
Seeing this tragic sight, Orihime said softly, "I-It's just like the Battle of Nagashino. Nobunaga's three-stage attack delivered a devastating defeat to Takeda's cavalry forces..."
"It's also quite similar to the First World War. Fortified in trenches, defending armies used machine guns to kill approaching infantry, hundreds, thousands at a time."
"This kind of result isn't unusual as long as the defending side holds a minimum level of firepower."
Asya and Hal started to chat about inconsequential things.
Although the trio were consciously trying to lighten the atmosphere, the tone of their voices was quite somber. Had Hannibal the intention, he could aim this immense firepower at the humans below him any time he wanted.
Meanwhile, Hazumi concentrated her gaze below on her own.
"Oh no... The fires need to be put out fast!"
Turned into fireballs, most of the Raptors were burned away during their fall without any bones remaining.
However, some of them managed to crash into ground before they had incinerated completely.
Indeed, the battlefield was in the sky over Jamaica Bay but the bay included over nine thousand acres of wetlands.
Composed mostly from swamps, forests and grassland, it was a paradise for birds and beasts.
If the burning Raptors fell on the wetlands, all the vegetation would burn up from the fire.
Seeing fires lit up all over the wetlands, the wild birds flew into the air successively to escape. Witnessing this scene, Hazumi could not help but cry out, "Please, Minadzuki! Hurry and stop those flames!"
An abstract order lacking in specifics.
"Serpents" could not be controlled skillfully without vivid mental imagery and strong force of will. This was common sense in the world of witches.
Nevertheless, Hazumi's wish was both pure and sincere. Hence, Minadzuki responded to her successfully.
Coiled up on the ground until just now, Minadzuki sang with a wonderful voice and arched her neck.
Immediately, she invoked the pseudo-divinity of Wind. The serpentine dragon leviathan released her entire body's magical power and flew swiftly towards the great wetlands of Jamaica Bay.
In the next instant, the surrounding fires were all extinguished within the blink of an eye.
After that, there were still dozens of burning Raptors falling to the ground, but the flames disappeared without trace the instant they made contact.
Using pseudo-divinity, Minadzuki had succeeded in creating a barrier to seal flames away.
"I see, eliminating oxygen particles from the air..."
Hal nodded. So-called wind ultimately consisted of air currents. Minadzuki had removed from the air the oxygen particles required for combustion, thereby sealing the flames away.
"Responding to a young maiden's prayer, how unbelievably smart."
"Since Hazumi-san and Minadzuki have taken charge of protecting the environment, looks like there's nothing left for us to do... Well, let's see what he is planning to do next."
Asya stared at Hannibal in the air.
The dragon king was guarded by the salamander army. Unlike Hal, who had summoned his magic gun, Hannibal was not holding a dragonslaying weapon. To him, the previous scene was nothing more than a statement delivered as though one were humming a tune casually.
Currently, only about a hundred Raptors remained.
With 90% of them immolated, the mental state of the survivors seemed to return to normal at last.
One after another, the Raptors started to flee in the face of Hannibal's army. They flew at full speed in separate directions, trying to escape from the dragon king's presence as quickly as possible.
To hunt them down, the three hundred salamanders finally left Hannibal's side.
The fire spirits were flying haphazardly overhead, bringing the Raptor hunt to a climax. At that moment, Orihime spoke in amazement, "Look... Aren't they acting a bit strange?"
Orihime's pale finger was pointed at the leviathans on the ground.
Rather than the partners of Hal's teammates, they were the WotC's four feline leviathans.
Tom Cat, Tiger Cat, Wild Cat and Bear Cat.
The four leviathans were exuding unnatural blood lust, arching their backs like cats, baring their fangs, vocally threatening the salamanders in the air. Fierce growls were coming from their mouths.
To pacify them, their partners, the four witches, were desperately calling out to them from the side.
Slightly surprised, Asya used Magical Power Inspection magic.
"Minadzuki's Anti-Fire is not the only magic cast on the area. There is also the Stampede spell Hannibal used on the Raptors—That's the magic affecting them right now!"
"B-But why are Akuro-Ou and the others clearly fine!?"
"They're probably guarded by Haruomi's rune. However, the 'serpents' over there don't have the same protection...!" Asya answered Orihime's doubt.
Finally, the feline leviathans ignored the four witch partners' restraining orders and flew into the sky together to launch an offensive on the airborne salamanders.
The WotC team of witches were neither master-class nor protected by the power of dragonbane.
Their partners could not possibly be a match for Hannibal's minions. At this rate, they were surely going to be killed tragically.
Hal drew out magical power from his heart and instantly cast Magic Dispel.
Imbuing this spell into his magic gun's bullets, he shot four times in succession with lightning speed. The crimson bullets of light homed in autonomously, catching up to the WotC's cats.
The four bullets all struck the four feline leviathans accurately.
That being said, he only aimed for their hind legs—the paws. To avoid causing severe injuries, he had deliberately chosen targets far away from the hearts, i.e. the heartmetals.
The pain and the impact caused the cats' flying speed to drop suddenly.
"I'm leaving the rest to you all!"
"No problem. Rushalka, approach them and pull them down from the sky!"
"I'm counting on you too, Akuro-Ou. Don't let them go over there."
Responding to Hal's request, Asya and Orihime gave instructions.
Standing by on the ground until just now, Rushalka and Akuro-Ou cried out loudly then ascended immediately. They easily caught up to the WotC's cats that had slowed down.
Then circling repeatedly in the air, they guided the injured cats back to the ground.
The four feline leviathans obediently followed Rushalka and Akuro-Ou. They had regained their sanity.
The bullets infused with Magic Dispel had successfully freed them from the Stampede curse.
Meanwhile, with the disturbance in the witches' ranks quelled, the aerial battle—or perhaps more aptly, a mock battle—had already been settled. The salamanders had annihilated all remaining Raptors.
"Well then, everyone in power..."
The ruler of this sky—Hannibal—announced sonorously.
"That is all. I hope that it fulfilled its role as my first speech. Although I have demonstrated merely the tip of the iceberg in regards to my power, I believe all of you are now able to understand my capacity as a powerful leader. Next, I shall set up a venue to meet and talk with the incumbent governor. I believe there are many details to discuss regarding my participation in the election!"
Having said that, Hannibal immediately withdrew.
Leading his Army of Fire, the red dragon king flew north.
In that direction was the Old Manhattan Concession. It was not only his residence but also the area where Hal and Asya were going to infiltrate next.
In this manner, the Hannibal farce at Jamaica Bay came to a close.
After the dragon king, who served as screenwriter, director and lead actor, as well as the salamanders serving as extras had left, Hal was inexplicably surrounded by a group of girls and received with hospitality.
When they were wandering around to verify the surrounding situation after the battle—
He was suddenly grabbed by the WotC and dragged to their temporary command center. A party tent, commonly seen during outdoor events in Japan, was set up on the beach at Jamaica Bay. They even had long tables of foldable tatami and other simple furnishings.
Dressed in the uniform of the Air National Guard's uniform, four girls were currently gathered around Hal.
"Thank you so much for just now! It's all because of you that we were saved," Christine Hulk spoke with a dazzling smile.
She opened a can of coke with a pop and handed it to Hal.
Her tone of voice was like a boy's but she was blonde with an outstanding figure. More specifically, she had a magnificent bust, highly conspicuous in how it filled out and stretched her Air National Guard uniform.
Christine was the leader of the WotC team.
"When the serpents went out of control, I was already bracing myself for the worst. But you showed up gallantly and rescued us. Yes, it's all thanks to you."
"Not at all. It wasn't anything amazing."
"Is this attitude what they call Japanese modesty? As expected of the man of legend, you're definitely different from the rest!"
"You're too kind. Putting that aside, Miss Christine, don't you think you're being a bit too close?"
"Oh sorry. That's because we're always like this between teammates."
Hal was sitting on a pipe chair. Christine swiftly placed a chair by his side and sat down too.
However, there was almost no separation between her and Hal. The blonde witch from the East Coast was pressing herself tightly against the Japanese boy. Thanks to that, the scent of Christine's perfume was etched firmly into Hal's memory.
Due to his nature as a closet pervert, Hal was conscious of his own involuntary leering.
That being said, he also had a gentleman's pride, of course. Hal coughed deliberately and tensed his face solemnly again.
"Do you find it off-putting? Sorry about that."
"I don't dislike it at all. Indeed. Mo muntai for me."
"Ahaha, why are you suddenly speaking Chinese? Oh, and just Christine please. Can I call you Hal?"
While Hal was nodding, a girl who looked like a grade schooler came over.
This was the youngest in the team, Marie Thesz, twelve years old. Lacking in facial expression. A head of brown hair. The young girl said "here" and presented a pizza takeout box to Hal.
"Here you go. Thanks for just now."
Marie appeared to be what was known as the wordless archetype. Incidentally, the pizza was a margherita all covered with mozarella cheese. Speaking of which, Hal had rushed to the scene without any time to have breakfast.
"A discount promotion after Hannibal's appearance... It's soon becoming something of a New York specialty."
Taking a slice of pizza, Hal began to eat, relishing the treat.
"So pizza deliveries extend to battlefields nowadays?"
"They get used to it over time... I guess the reason's probably something like that."
The one who answered him was the third member of the WotC, Maneesha Kaul.
Sixteen years old. An Indian girl with an olive complexion, dressed in military uniform, her head and shoulders hidden under a pink shawl. Her gorgeous long hair, sleek and black, reached down to her waist.
Maneesha smiled gracefully. Both her poise and manner of speaking were very dignified.
"The pizza delivery service we used on this occasion offers a half price deal if you order within thirty minutes of Hannibal's appearance."
Hal speculated that Maneesha was surely a well-bred young lady from the rich upper-class.
Then there was a sudden "thud!" Hal looked to see a can of beer set down forcefully on the table before him.
Standing 185cm tall, a statuesque African-American witch with a model's figure, Kate Patterson.
She was the one who had put down the beer. Opening another can of beer with her left hand, she leaned her head back for a hearty swig.
"Here's your reward. Drink."
"It's a shame but I'm still a minor."
Nodding with a response of "really?" to Hal's unhesitating answer, Kate continued to drink her beer heartily. Looking to be in her twenties, wearing a pair of mirrored sunglasses, she was undoubtedly the epitome of cool. Awesomeness personified.
"How much do you earn? Annual salary."
Hal was surprised by Kate's sudden question.
Christine, Marie and Maneesha also looked in their direction with interest.
"You are a capable man just as we heard. And today, we confirmed it with our own eyes."
"After knowing this, we would like very much to have someone talented like you, which is why I'm asking to see how much remuneration is required to sign an exclusive contract with you."
Kate and Christine explained alternately.
"Although our magical power is less than the master magi, we get along great together. Our compatibility and teamwork are excellent despite our idiosyncrasies. Basically, my team does not recruit witches who have personality problems or lack adaptability."
"That is so true."
Two years ago in Copenhagen, Hal had shared a table with five master-class witches including Asya.
At the time, he was serving as an escort for witches of widely varying nationalities, ages, personalities, interests and religious faiths. He was assigned the task of taking them out for dinner.
Every time Hal found a candidate restaurant on the internet and asked "How about this one?" Someone other than Asya would inevitably express their discontent and say "You're going to make me eat that kind of food!?" These witches were clearly not kindergarteners, yet none of them were willing to compromise.
Recalling the hardship on that occasion, Hal found the WotC girls to be as endearing as angels in comparison.
That being said, Hal also had his own considerations. He spoke to the leader, Christine, "I currently have no intention of joining any group exclusively, so I must decline your kind offer."
"Got it. I think there will be many more opportunities to work together in the future, so I'll look forward to that. Can you give me your cellphone number?"
"Can I call you for a chat from time to time and invite you for dates outside of work?"
"Of course—What did you just say?"
"Personal dates. Going out, just the two of us."
"Because you've aroused my curiosity. I'd be delighted if you don't decline when I ask you out. Well then, see you in a few days, Hal. I think we will be meeting for a discussion about Hannibal!"
After getting surprised by the smiling Christine, Hal exited the event tent.
Then he was surprised again—Asya was walking over.
"Perfect, I was just looking for you, Haruomi. You came over here as expected."
"Expected? Did the WotC call you?"
"No, it was just an instinctive hunch."
Finding him by instinct alone. How beyond common sense. However, Asya was a witch. Added to that fact was her beast-like sixth sense and intuition.
Deciding that there was nothing strange in that case, Hal listened to his childhood friend's cold voice.
"Your lecher face is showing, Haruomi."
"You must have come across something good to do with girls... Am I wrong?"
"D-Don't be silly. Let's hurry on our way. There's still time today, so let's sneak into Old Manhattan as planned."
It was not yet 10am, so there was no need to change their afternoon plans.
After being questioned by Asya, Hal secretly cocked his head. After reducing her food intake, something seemed to have changed with his childhood friend—This thought surfaced in his mind.
The Old Manhattan Concession.
Located on the mouth of Hudson River, this vast sandbank was Manhattan Island.
This used to be the center of New York City, an urban metropolis filled with towering skyscrapers. A land whose every inch was covered by buildings. High-rise buildings, putting even the Tower of Babel to shame, were too many to count.
However, the skyscrapers in this land were devoid of human residents. It had become a city of forsaken ruins.
"Well, it is home to non-human monsters on the other hand."
"Get ready to activate magical sight any time, Haruomi."
After the unexpected event, they finally arrived at their true destination.
Hal and Asya were riding a large military four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The Old Manhattan Concession was located on a river island at the mouth of the Hudson. Whether via sea or air, trespassing was explicitly forbidden according to the terms of the original treaty establishing this land as a concession territory.
On the north side of Manhattan—starting from the Bronx—all roads had been blockaded securely.
All bridges leading here had been demolished or dismantled, with only one exception—Manhattan Bridge on the southern tip of Manhattan Island.
Only this bridge remained open and unrestricted.
...As for why this bridge had been kept, there was an urban legend circulating.
'A door needs to be open to enable dialogue with the humans as necessary.'
Hannibal had conveyed such a message.
Disregarding whether it was actually true or not, in any case, Hal and Asya made their way to the concession territory from Manhattan Bridge.
Asya was the one gripping the steering wheel whereas Hal was in the front passenger seat with his magic gun in hand on standby. This was a distribution of roles to prevent the local inhabitants from attacking them.
In fact, they immediately discovered as soon as they entered the concession territory.
A white orb of light was floating around, wandering the streets.
Roughly the size of a basketball, this type of supernatural being was named the "fire elemental" by scholars.
Arriving at the Chinatown near Manhattan Bridge, Hal said, "Asya, I want to fire a test shot to see the extent of effects. It's necessary to confirm."
"You're right. Despite being a ridiculous magical weapon, it still falls under the category of firearm."
After stopping the car, the two of them went outside. Hal and Asya activated magical sight.
They ended up discovering trouble apart from the fire elementals they saw just now.
Spirits without physical form were wandering the concession territory like pedestrians.
Gray vortexes, amorphous black shadows, humanoid figures with ambiguous outlines—Hal and Asya's magical sight allowed them to discern the appearances of spirits.
"Dead spirits, ghosts, vengeful spirits, evil spirits, elemental spirits, miscellaneous spirits... Probably a long list like that if one had to categorize all the different spirits gathered in Old Manhattan. It feels like you'll catch some kind of unknown curse even if you pass by them discreetly."
"Oh well, you're a a master-class witch, Asya, while I have imperishable protection," responding to his childhood friend's whispers, Hal shrugged.
"Spirit issues should be resolvable somehow. The fire elementals still take priority after all."
Hal pointed the muzzle of his gun at the ground then took out a silencer to attach securely to it.
Then he fired two shots—Bang, bang. The bullets of light were expelled with fainter gunshots than usual and chipped away a piece of the asphalt. Hal and Asya immediately looked around them.
The white orb of light—the fire elemental—multiplied from one into three.
It had divided. During that instant of the magic bullets' impact.
"Relative to just now, the temperature has risen two degrees too."
Asya took out an electronic thermometer and reported to Hal.
This Old Manhattan Concession was Hannibal's territory where the Army of Fire was stationed.
Naturally, spirits of the fire alignment resided within the territory. If high-temperature flames were to appear, nearby fire spirits would activate.
There would be nothing to worry about if all these firefly-like orbs of light did was multiply, but—
Hal and Asya returned to the car and continued to drive.
"As suspected, even my gun will stimulate the fire elementals."
It was imperative to avoid using tools and machinery that produced fire or heat.
Hal shared the first piece of insight he had obtained after infiltrating the Old Manhattan Concession.
In that case, they should actually avoid using cars that relied on petrol engines. However, even the heat from electric engines or human body warmth was enough to activate fire elementals.
—Using low-heat, low-speed means of locomotion would increase the duration of their stay.
—Conversely, using high-heat, high-speed movement would decrease the duration of their stay.
With the risks being similar, Hal and Asya decided on the latter. Their target was the Upper East Side, a residential area containing their ultimate destination—the former SAURU New York branch.
After leaving the job of driving to Asya completely, Hal sank deep into the front passenger seat.
Manhattan was an elongated area stretching north-south.
Its area was roughly the sum of Old Tokyo's Chiyoda, Shinjuku, Chūō and Minato wards. Upper East Side was located in the mid-portion of Manhattan while the bridge Hal and Asya crossed was on the south end.
"From here to our destination, we'll need to make a huge detour."
"Because many roads are no longer usable. It's a chaotic city that's easy to get disoriented in, after all. Please understand."
Not long before becoming a concession territory, Manhattan had suffered a large-scale assault from dragonkind.
As a result, collapsed buildings and debris were scattered all over the streets.
Due to many blocked roads and obstacles, it was hard to increase the driving speed. In the end, they had to keep making detours.
Furthermore, Asya was already using the shortest route determined through the latest satellite images.
Even though they were driving from Chinatown at southern Manhattan to the middle of the area, they had to make a large detour to the western part of town. If New York citizens from the previous century were told about this route, they would probably end up completely puzzled. Currently, there were almost no usable roads in southern Manhattan.
Their speed ranged from thirty to fifty kilometers per hour, changing nonstop depending on road conditions.
In this manner, the pair were driving in the western part of Old Manhattan—
By the time they noticed, there were already more than a hundred fire elementals following the heat emanating from the military vehicle.
"It's almost time to get out, right?"
"This is the limit..."
The next instant after their whispered exchange, the gathered elementals started to merge together.
The hundred or so orbs of light that were present so far merged to take on a "lizard" shape and started to burn. The blazing light concentrated to become scorching flames.
—The birth of a salamander.
The spirits living in Old Manhattan were the soldiers in the Army of Fire. Aiming to devour nearby heat sources for nourishment, the salamander flew towards the car that Hal and Asya were driving!
Hal raised the magic gun in his right hand, reached out the window and shot.
Struck in the forehead, the salamander was destroyed in an instant.
However, due to this gunshot—plus the heat generated by the salamander—roughly two hundred fire elementals were created as a result. They instantly merged, giving birth to two new salamanders.
"The game of whack-a-mole begins..."
Asya floored the accelerator while murmuring in a whisper.
Unless absolutely necessary, she did not want to call Rushalka out. Summoning a "serpent" in Old Manhattan would cause salamanders to gather in an effort to eliminate her.
The reason for leaving Orihime and Hazumi behind was out of worry for their ability to handle things without using leviathans.
It looked like Hal and Asya were going to face tough times ahead of them.
After that, Hal and Asya were attacked by salamanders on six occasions within half an hour.
Despite their lizard-like appearance, they were different from Raptors and not beasts with physical form. Hovering in midair, they were flames imitating the appearance of living creatures.
Apart from that, their legs did not touch the ground even when moving at low altitude. Instead, they pounced while maintaining their hovering state.
The attacking salamanders themselves could be defeated using the magic gun. However, every time Hal did so, the fire elementals would multiply in quantity and continue to pursue Hal and Asya relentlessly.
In spite of that, the two of them still managed to arrive at the south side of Central Park.
This was a metropolitan park located in the heart of Old Manhattan. If one were to view the premises from the air, one would discover that the entire park was shaped like a neat rectangle. Four thousand meters long and eight hundred meters wide, it was quite spacious.
In the past, this used to be a beautiful public park all covered with lush greenery.
Nowadays, it was overgrown with weeds and random trees, giving off a creepy atmosphere.
"Let's switch rides first around here."
"What a waste, even though we expected it'd come to this."
Feeling the time was right, Hal made his suggestion. Asya nodded with a relaxed tone of voice.
The two of them got off the car and took with them the minimum equipment necessary, intending to abandon the vehicle here. After that, even though Asya had called it "a waste" just now, she was still the first to take out a plastic barrel and pour the contained liquid, prepared ahead of time, all over the military vehicle.
The pungent odor of gasoline could be smelled.
After keeping a safe distance, Asya used Ignition magic.
She tossed a magical fire source at the gasoline-covered car—easily igniting it with an explosion.
Sacrificing the four-wheel-drive military vehicle, the flames instantly erupted and started an intense blaze. Due to a newer, hotter heat source, the fire elementals all started to approach the fire.
Gathered together, the white orbs of light undoubtedly numbered over a thousand.
Initially resembling St. Elmo's fire, it later reached a ridiculous quantity like foxfire. From the great number of spirits, six salamanders were born.
"Next, let's see how long this bonfire can last!"
"Buying twenty minutes or so would be enough. Make it quick, Haruomi!"
Hal and Asya mounted their respective motorbikes.
These were small motorbikes with engine displacements of 50cc. The entire vehicle was only 140cm long, stood no taller than Hal's waist, and weighed less than 70kg. In addition, they could also be folded up.
At such a size, they could be transported by car.
Hence, these two motorbikes had been stowed in the backseat space in the large military vehicle on the way here.
Hal and Asya instantly started up their motorbikes and sped away.
From the south side of Central Park to Upper East Side was a trip requiring roughly half an hour.
Prior to becoming a concession territory, this area was part of a quiet residential neighborhood, but there were almost no detached homes. The majority of residences consisted of condos and apartments.
Hal and Asya's target was an old building made of brick.
It was a location that had been called the SAURU New York branch until twenty years ago.
However, Asya frowned when she arrived in front of the destination. She had probably noticed the unusual atmosphere exuding from the former New York branch building.
Hal noticed it too. Activating magical sight, he tried to scrutinize the building as a whole.
Powerful spiritual energies were coming from the entire building.
No—It would be better to call it miasma. Simply standing near the building, there as a faintly nauseating feeling. It felt as though crying and screaming sounds were coming from underground. Despite the sunny August day, it felt chilling.
Hal deployed imperishable protection around Asya and himself.
The pearly radiance formed an appropriately sized sphere to surround the two of them. The nausea, unpleasant ringing in their ears, and horrible chill all subsided instantly.
"This street itself is a gathering place for bad spirits."
"Since magic-related facilities easily attract those kinds of things—a SAURU branch would naturally become a top paranormal spot."
"Although there's the option of entering and searching inside for a mystery house-like adventure game, I'd rather make it quick right now."
Asya whispered while looking around from time to time.
Until just now, there were no signs of fire elementals visible in this area. But by the time they noticed, a large number of white orbs of light had appeared like fireflies gathering at the edge of water.
Furthermore, a salamander had also shown up on the corner of the opposite street in search for prey.
"...Time to cut corners, right?"
"...It's not every day that I get my hands on a new weapon, after all. Twenty seconds should be enough to deal with it."
While the two of them were conversing in whispers, the salamander at the corner was also approaching.
Then another one appeared behind it. At the same time, three newborn salamanders also arrived at the scene from overhead in low-altitude flight, looking like they were going to attack humans on the ground any moment.
However, imperishable protection was currently defending the two of them.
Their defense was flawless. Hal nodded to his childhood friend.
"O ancient divine seal of purity! Send the transient blue wyvern to my side!" Asya chanted a song of summoning sonorously.
The blue wyvern materialized before the two of them, but at half the size compared to normal, roughly on the same scale as a Raptor or a salamander. Asya must have deliberately made adjustments.
To keep her promise of "twenty seconds," she sought speed and agility.
Hal and issued orders instantly.
"I'm entrusting the queen's power to you too. End it in one go!"
Rushalka's body became equipped with Queen Form armor with mechanical arms to serve as forelimbs.
In addition, there was a change in the magic gun held in Hal's hand—under the barrel with the silencer attached. A bayonet appeared. At the same time, an c appeared in Rushalka's right hand while a kodachi appeared in her left.
The two swords, one big and one small, had slightly curved blades, shaped similar to Japanese swords.
The Rune of the Twin Katana also surfaced on Hal's right palm and the back of Asya's left hand at the same time.
Preparations were already complete so all there was left to do was attack. Asya yelled, "Use the Rune of the Twin Katana with pseudo-divinity—Turning Spirits!"
The two swords wielded by Rushalka glowed with blue radiance.
Bathed in this light, the gathering salamanders (increased to fifteen already) all stopped moving, rendered frozen. This was sacred light of a binding curse.
Simply exposure to the radiance of the dual swords rendered malevolent spirits immobile—
The instant the binding curse activated, Rushalka also made her move.
Weaving, jumping, flying between fifteen salamanders, she engaged in high-speed movement in all directions. Naturally, she did not neglect to swung her two swords. Every time Rushalka passed by a salamander, she would slash using both the ōdachi in her right and the kodachi in her left, slicing her prey into two.
Within ten-odd seconds, a dragon-like silhouette turned in to blue lightning on a raging rampage.
The final result was the total annihilation of the fifteen salamanders. Obtaining overwhelming victory through instant kills, Rushalka then raised the ōdachi towards the upright building before her—and brought it down, slicing the former New York branch's wall.
One flash. A second flash. A cross-shaped mark was carved upon the wall.
In that instant, the miasma from the building where bad spirits gathered was swept cleanly away.
The magical power of the pair of sacred swords purified this land.
"Rushalka, that's good enough. Dematerialize!"
Asya proceeded to give orders. Along with the two swords, the blue wyvern vanished.
What attracted evil spirits in Old Manhattan and fire elementals was not only heat but also the spiritual energy of a leviathan. To aovid unnecessary risk, it was essential to end the fight and the summoning in the shortest time possible—This was a job that only the master magi, Asya, could accomplish.
Not only that, Asya was always able to remain calm and composed after a battle, no matter how astounding the combat power she displayed.
(Clearly so confident every time yet so perfect and flawless.)
Hal did not speak out, simply keeping his impressed comment to himself.
Next, he checked his watch. In fact, he had pressed the timer the instant the summoning started. He was only able to do this calmly due to his trust in his childhood friend and Rushalka.
However, Hal cocked his head—Twenty-three seconds. The promised twenty seconds had been slightly exceeded.
For Asya to break a promise regarding battle, one could say this kind of case had never happened before—
"Whatever, it's still within uncertainty, I guess."
Hal shrugged and decided not to bring this up for now.
The search of the former New York branch ended quickly.
Just as heard beforehand, the target item was placed on a table in the underground book depository.
It was the book that Auntie Yulia and Hal's father had acquired at one point in their youth, twenty years ago. Discovered together with the flint, it was a grimoire personally written by the great mage Solomon.
The book title on the cover, written in Greek—The Posthumous Writings of Progenitor Solomon.
In modern categorization terms, it would be bigger than A3 size with the book spread open. Thickness was rougly the size of Hal's palm. The internal pages were made of parchment.
Using a cloth to wrap up the heavy ancient text, Hal stored it properly in his backpack.
Although numerous ancient books were lying dormant in this underground library, time was of the essence. Hence, Hal and Asya made the decision to ignore these books. The two of them exited the library successively and climbed up the staircase.
This room was built deep underground. The antiquated building did not have an elevator.
The two of them could only walk diligently, one step at a time, up the staircase.
The scorching summer heat in the outdoors seemed like a lie. Whether the underground library or these stairs, both were quite cool in temperature.
"Despite its rundown state, it's still a SAURU facility after all," Hal commented poignantly.
"Even though there's clearly no air-conditioning, it doesn't feel humid at all. What an ideal place for storage."
"Since what damages books are humidity, bugs and light... Perhaps the excellent storage environment was preserved only after the electricity was cut and because the building itself is very old."
"After all, it's only in the last half a century that air-conditioning became widespread."
Asya and Hal nodded at each other.
Back in the beginning, they had decided to retrieve the target even if it meant taking a risk, only because they had heard that it was kept in an underground library specialized for ancient texts. Even though the part of the building above ground was blown away along with the salamanders, there was a very high chance that the books kept underground would remain intact.
Finally, they reached the ground floor. After walking out the building, Hal and Asya took a deep breath.
The current time was just after 2pm. They should be able to get back to Brooklyn before sunset.
An unexpected character appeared before Hal's eyes, causing him to gasp and instantly summon his magic gun.
Next to Hal, Asya put on a stance too to enter combat mode. In addition, residing within the magic gun, Hinokagutsuchi went "oh?", making a sound for the first time today.
Under everyone's scrutiny, the problematic character raised his right hand lightly and said, "Hello."
An extremely casual greeting. Even a friendly smile surfaced on his face.
If this person was truly whom Hal thought him to be... Instead of raising his gun to aim, Hal used inquiry instead, throwing questions at him.
"...Which newspaper do you usually read? The New York Times? Or the Wall Street Journal?"
"Both. I also read USA Today, just not every day."
The tall red-haired man in the red jacket laughed.
Putting aside the streets of the Upper East Side that had turned into a wasteland, it looked like he was quite familiar with human cities. All things considered, he claimed that he often browsed through three major American newspapers.
"Although it's a bit lowbrow, the NY Daily News is not bad too."
The man's word took Hal aback for a moment. Never expecting the guy to read even tabloids, Hal said with exasperation, "Is this how you studied humans and found out about the governor's election?"
"Studied... Not quite. I simply wander the streets in search for fun, thus coming across all kinds of experiences. Oh right, that reminds me—"
The tall red-haired man continued mischievously.
"My favorite order at the cafe I frequent consists of an espresso, toasted whole-grain wheat bread, with an egg, sunny side up. Add some crispy bacon on top and that's even better."
"I-Isn't this a lifestyle with higher food standards than mine?"
While Hal was feeling drained by the unexpected admission, Hinokagutsuchi materialized next to him.
Dressed in a scarlet kimono, the young girl smiled malevolently and said to the brawny man in the red jacket, "Still the same as always, Flame Emperor."
"Just call me Hannibal, queen. Actually, I quite like this name."
Finally—The tall man introduced his name.
Red Hannibal. The ruler of the Old Manhattan Concession. Hal could not help but sigh.
Naturally, someone who could strut around fearlessly in the concession territory would not be any ordinary character. Although Hal had guessed that it could be Hannibal's transformation—He would rather himself be wrong!
"...This is my third time meeting a dragon taking human form."
Asya said with nervousness on her face. As a master mage, she had lived many years painfully aware of how terrifying elites and dragon kings could be. Compared to non-combat personnel like Hal, her impressions must be far more poignant.
Meanwhile, Hannibal smiled candidly at the human witch.
"Even for those with knowledge of how to transform, the majority of my kind will not put it into practice. On this aspect, hmm, I am not very particular. I want to be free to go where I want to go and meet whom I want to meet. Hence, on this occasion too—"
The red dragon king looked delightfully at Hal's face.
"I came to have a look because I sensed the nostalgic presence of the twin katana cross star. And the result? Not only do I get to meet the long deceased Crimson Queen again but also the Tyrannos to whom she had entrusted the Bow. Hohohoho, I never thought you would even gain hold of the Twin Katana too..."
"In order to make up for the absolute disadvantage in strength, I have to increase the number of weapons, at least. That's all." Hal shrugged.
"However, it looks like the truly powerful dragons don't think about such stuff."
"Indeed. For a dragon king in possession of sufficient valor, one style of dragonslaying is enough. By the way, using quantity to make up for lack of strength, that is quite an interesting idea."
Narrowing his eyes as though looking at an exotic toy, Hannibal spoke.
"O Tyrannos of the Bow. You ought to know that I am currently making preparations for the governor's election. If it is agreeable with you, I hope you could lend your aid to those humans."
"Shouldn't you ask me to apply pressure instead of lending aid in this kind of situation?"
"On the contrary. I specifically instigated this incident for the sake of enjoying the truth of 'democracy.'"
The smile on Hannibal's face changed in nature.
The brawny man with the friendly expression naturally turned into a bold warrior.
"If possible, the more obstacles the better. That is how I can fully enjoy myself."
The so-called elite dragons were hot-blooded battle maniacs for the most part.
However, standing at the summit of dragonkind, Hannibal seemed to stand out differently. Or perhaps ultimately, his true nature still did not escape the norms of dragonkind?
Regardless of the truth, Hal had no room to make a choice.
"Well, since I'm busy with my own trials and career plans, even if you hadn't asked, in the end, it'd probably turn into a situation where I must assist those involved with New York State."
When Hal spoke with a sigh, Hannibal nodded with satisfaction.
...After that, the red dragon king saw Hal and Asya off with a smile while they departed. All the way till Brooklyn, no fire elemental attacked them again.
Presumably, Hannibal had intentionally arranged it that way to allow Hal safe passage.
If possible, Hal really wanted to return to Tokyo New Town directly and ignore the various troubles in New York State—But most likely, things were not going to go his way.
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