Leviathan:Volume 6 Chapter 3
Chapter 3 - The Ring's Whereabouts
Conferring the spiritual power of exorcism onto Hal's Bow.
After announcing that, Shamiram looked up at the sky. A pteranodon with a wingspan of twenty meters was slowly circling overhead.
The deceased covenantee summoned the ancient leviathan, Ashkelon.
"O Ashkelon, my friend who shares our covenant. Grant me the power to lead lives that have returned from the realm of the dead back to where they belong—the garden of repose!"
Ashekelon was flying ten-odd meters over the island where Hal, Hazumi and Shamiram were.
With her wings outstretched, she was gliding on the wind, circling according to the air currents. As soon as she heard instructions, she flapped her right wing gently.
Next, nine runes of Ruruk Soun descended from her right wing.
They signified "purification of evil spirits." This was the spiritual power of exorcism—The sacred mystic technique used by Shamiram and Ashkelon as a team.
From what Hal could tell using his eyes of a Tyrannos, there was nothing suspicious about this mystic spell.
Still, just to be on the safe side, Hal decided to confirm.
(Is that magic really okay?)
(Oh? You are quite distrustful, brat.)
(It's true Shamiram-san helped us out just now... But ultimately, Solomon-senpai hasn't been destroyed.)
Hal was speaking to Hinokagutuschi who was mocking him from inside the magic gun.
Since they were conversing mentally through a bond of magic, no one else could hear their dialogue.
(The battle could've been staged to win our trust.)
(Indeed that is possible. Regardless, the spell used by not-completely-dead woman seems to be above board.)
(Got it. Say, are you in any position to mock another person as 'not-completely-dead' when you're a ghost?)
In any case, it seemed fine.
Hal pointed the magic gun up at the sky. The runes of Ruruk Soun falling from Ashkelon's right wing were all absorbed by the "magic wand."
Thus, it was imbued with the power of exorcism.
"Next up is a decisive showdown against my master."
"Yeah, but we just fought a great battle."
Hal glanced at the other witch.
Hazumi had made Minadzuki use pseudo-divinity twice today. As a Level 2 witch, she could not issue the order again.
"Let's take a break for now. We need to catch our breath."
"Is that so? By the way, Lord Haruga, may I ask you for a favor?"
Shamiram suddenly made a suggestion.
"Suppose things were to progress smoothly, after we escape from this ark... I would like you to slice me with your twin blades."
"But, if I do that..."
Hal understood. She was different from King Solomon.
Once he did that, she would disappear from this world in an instant. Hoping for her own "death," Shamiram showed an aloof expresion in front of Hal for the first time.
Without any lingering attachments to "life" as a member of the undead, she showed thorough enlightenment on her face!
There was even a calm smile on her face.
"It has been over a thousand year since I followed my master to the grave. Unlike the peers of dragonkind, the Tyrannoi... such as my master or you, Lord Haruga, I find that these long years have been too protracted and too burdensome for a mortal like me."
"It is about time for me to make my way to the underworld."
Hal still did not trust this ancient beautiful witch completely.
However, he wanted to believe in her words. Hal was just about to nod in agreement when Hazumi spoke before him.
"N-No, you can't. How could anyone say they want to go to the underworld..."
"This is nothing. In my current state, I am no different from having one foot in the coffin."
"B-But... How about this? When Senpai seizes Solomon-san's ship, he could let you be the captain, Shamiram-san, to go wherever you wish..."
Coming with all kinds of ideas, she tried to change Shamiram's mind.
Without responding directly, Shamiram told them, "Lady Hazumi, you are truly a kindhearted girl. However, this is the one thing I cannot agree. If you wish to be a priestess serving at Lord Haruga's side, to become the spokesperson for a goddess—a 'serpent'—to aid in his grand conquest... There is one obstacle that must be surmounted no matter what."
The sudden advice stunned Hazumi on the spot.
The witch from the ancient kingdom remained composed the whole time.
"No need to worry, this is not something difficult. Lady Hazumi, your heart and soul already possesses the aptitude for it."
After that, they discussed their next move and overall strategy.
Shamiram would set off first for "a certain purpose."
Hal and Hazumi would only start moving after casting multiple layers of stealth magic. Riding Minadzuki, who had miniaturized again, they set off on a journey through the air.
However, they did not have a destination.
Their plan was to fly casually in the sky to hide for an hour or two.
"Senpai, are you still unable to trust her?"
"Well, I'd really like to trust her."
Hal replied to Hazumi, who was sitting in front. Naturally, by "her" they were referring to Shamiram.
"By saying that, you mean—"
"I... 'm not worried at all. I believe that Shamiram is a really good person."
The two of them were riding Minadzuki the serpentine dragon.
Sitting in front of Hal, Hazumi looked back on purpose, showing a smile of purity.
But right now, Haruga Haruomi was also the guardian of his adorable junior.
Once in a while, unpleasant as it may be, he had to give her the realistic view.
"Without clear evidence, it's not good to draw conclusions based on impressions."
Hal deliberately made himself sound cruel.
"We must prepare for the worst-case scenario at all times."
"Although it might not count as evidence, I think there is still a reason for believing her, because Minadzuki did not react towards her."
"Yes. Whenever anyone untrustworthy approaches me... She will instantly stay on alert. She is very smart."
"I see, so there's such a move huh."
Hal nodded indifferently without revealing that his heart had been melted by Hazumi's smile.
It was definitely quite like a girl to make decisions based on impressions.
Logically speaking, he ought to rebuke this sort of opinion. However, to bring up a "serpent," a supernatural being, as a reason, perhaps this could be what was extraordinary about Hazumi.
Hazumi was not only pure but also had down-to-earth intelligence...
A smiling voice came from behind.
Hal turned his head back to see that the kimono-clad Hinokagutsuchi had materialized without his knowledge. Sitting on the miniature Minadzuki's back, she had her legs sticking up in the air.
"You are quite stubborn and cowardly, brat."
"I don't deny that, but can't you add cautious to that too? Say—"
Hal asked the former dragon queen who was casually appraising him.
"What's your opinion of her?"
"Hmm? Irrelevant. If she is aiding you sincerely, make good use of her. If she has ulterior motives, then use your jaws to crush her together with her trap. Brat, this is what it means to show a king's mettle."
"Thank you for your completely uninformative opinion."
Hazumi giggled after listening to Hal and Hinokagutsuchi's conversation. Then with a sudden realization, she asked, "Excuse me... The 'obstacle that must be surmounted no matter what' which Shamiram-san mentioned, how do I surmount it specifically?"
Supposing Hazumi wished to become the spokesperson for a goddess—a "serpent"—to aid in his grand conquest.
This was the prior assumption in her advice. Confused, Hazumi said, "Do I truly have the aptitude for that? It's not like I'm good at magic, so I really can't feel any aptitude in myself."
"Oh... About that."
Seeing Hal nod, Hinokagutsuchi smiled with malevolence.
"It appears that the brat has deduced most of it."
"Come on, clearly you're the one who already knows everything."
Hazumi widened her eyes, very excited.
"Please do tell me! I wish to be of even more help to Senpai and all of us!"
"Hmm... Sorry, I won't tell you."
Of course, instructing her would not be hard. However—Hal shrugged.
Taking care of everything for her would not necessarily be a good thing, although he might feel a momentary sense of "superiority" as the instructor.
Conversely, it could also cause the one being taught to weaken in "comprehension ability."
Although Hal was young for someone in the workforce, he also possessed extraordinary abilities, hence, he decided to leave Hazumi to her own devices.
"Rather than having others tell you directly, it's better to figure things out on your own."
"Yeah. Even more so for work and professional skills. Well, I think there's nothing to worry about."
Due to his protege looking very worried, Hal added the latter sentence.
In fact, he could have omitted the reassuring words, but there was no helping it. Hazumi was his adorable student.
"Despite her personality being like that, Shamiram-san seems to be a good judge of character. Shirasaka, you do have aptitude—or rather, I believe that your temperament is very suited to developing yourself in that direction."
Hazumi nodded resolutely. Feeling his heart and soul soothed by Hazumi's reaction, Hal then looked at Hinokagutsuchi.
Through the earlier conversation, Hal came to realize now that he thought back to it. The words casually spoken by the ancient beautiful witch seemed to be very profound—
"Sorry for suddenly changing the subject but I've got a question for you. I remember that pure-blooded dragons don't like to take human form, isn't that right?"
Pure-blooded dragons. Beings that were born as dragons from the start.
In contrast to them were the hybrid dragons. They were living creatures that were not dragons to begin with, humans for example, but guided by the path of the unorthodoxy, they had been reborn as dragons.
Currently, Hinokagutsuchi the former dragon king had materialized herself in the form of a prepubescent human girl.
"By taking this form... It means you're a hybrid, right?"
"Oh? Who knows."
"If it's not too much to ask, I hope you won't play dumb as usual."
"I am not playing dumb. I simply cannot remember."
Hinokagutsuchi haughtily tossed a casual reply at him.
She even puffed out her chest, looking very superior.
"Because it was truly too long ago. Well, I am not against telling you should I remember one day. Go ahead and wait patiently, but do not get your hopes up."
The cunning former dragon king had lived for who knew how many thousands of years.
Hinokagutsuchi smirked craftily, apparently finding Hal's question ludicrous. Hal fell into deep thought.
Shamiram had said this just now:
'It has been over a thousand year since I followed my master to the grave.'
'Unlike the Tyrannoi... such as my master or you, Lord Haruga, I find that these long years have been too protracted and too burdensome for a mortal like me.'
At this point, Hazumi suddenly spoke up, "Senpai, Minadzuki seems to be ready now!"
"Looks like it."
The three of them were currently riding on the back of Minadzuki the emerald serpentine dragon leviathan.
She suddenly released potent magical power from her entire body, stimulating the senses of Hal's group. The usage counter of pseudo-divinity had recovered.
Hal took out a pocket watch.
It was currently 6pm or so on August 18th.
Leviathans would recover their magical power during the night. Although one could not distinguish night and day within the ark, Minadzuki's biological clock(?) still sensed the presence of night.
Furthermore, the battle against Hannibal had ended at roughly 11pm on August 16th.
They had been locked inside here for forty-three hours—Almost two days.
"It's time to settle things with Solomon-senpai."
Hal focused his consciousness on his heart, i.e. heartmetal.
The Crimson Queen, which he had snatched back earlier, the gigantic body of a dragon king appeared out of thin air. Her body ablaze with intense flames, she arrived by Minadzuki's side. As though intending to fly alongside her, she glided at the same speed.
"We're lucky we didn't get attacked while waiting for Minadzuki to recover."
"It's all thanks to Shamiram-san's help!" answered Hazumi.
Hal had asked the beautiful witch to act separately as a "diversionary tactic."
He hoped she could buy time by drawing the attention of King Solomon and his subordinates during the one or two hours before night fell. Meanwhile, Hal and Hazumi would use stealth magic to cover their tracks until then—
"Also, it's thanks to stealing back the queen."
For the enemy, the Crimson Queen was also a trump card.
Hal now held the advantage in terms of combat strength... Theoretically speaking. However, the ark was the battlefield—The interior of King Solomon's legacy. The enemy still held the advantage of home field.
No matter what, Hal's group had finally managed to reach the endgame.
The target was their original destination—The control room. For this purpose, they ordered Minadzuki and the queen to fly faster.
The ark was a legacy of the late King Solomon of the ancient Kingdom of Israel.
Hal had no idea specifically how large was the "sky" inside it. In any case, Hal's party finally reached the airspace that was the center of this sky.
It was their ultimate destination.
Shamiram had told them that the ark's control room was there.
"It's shaped like a ship..." Hazumi murmured.
She and Hal were still riding the miniaturized Minadzuki's back.
The red dragon—the Crimson Queen—was leading the emerald serpentine dragon. Meanwhile, Hinokagutsuchi had de-materialized and returned to the magic gun.
Unlike previous times, what awaited them ahead was not a sky island.
It was a giant rectilinear ship hovering in the air.
The ship was roughly a hundred meters from prow to aft with a width of thirty meters or so.
"This size feels similar to Noah's Ark."
The Old Testament of the Bible had mentioned the legendary ship.
Hal brought up the very famous name. In order to escape the deadly flood, Noah and his family—and all animals—had taken refuge on that ship.
The Ark's dimensions were given as "300 cubits in length, 50 cubits in width and 30 cubits in height."
There were many interpretations on the correct length of the "cubit" mentioned in the Bible.
However, according to the current prevailing view, "300 cubits x 50 cubits x 30 cubits" would basically match the size of the box-shaped ship before Hal and Hazumi's eyes...
The deck did featured neither a mast nor a cabin. It was all flat.
It looked like a ship but actually was not.
Shamiram had called it "the magic device for controlling Solomon's ark."
"As expected, it's not gonna be unguarded huh!"
With the Crimson Queen in the lead, Hal's party would reach the "ship" in about 200m.
At that moment, dragons—bronze statues shaped like them—surrounded the "ship."
These dragonoid sculptures spread their wings and started flying like living beasts.
They bore a great resemblance to lesser dragons in size and appearance. The motions of their necks, bodies and limbs were also the same as Raptors. These were no ordinary statues.
They were gargoyles granted temporary life by magic.
Deciding that Hal's party must be intercepted, the twelve gargoyles flew towards them!
"Senpai, let's have Minadzuki grow big!"
"Don't worry, it won't be necessary."
Hal and Hazumi were both riding Minadzuki's back.
Sitting in front as the rider in control, Hazumi had looked back and spoken nervously. Hal remained calm.
Minadzuki had shrank herself to a body length of five meters or so to serve as their flying mount.
It was not necessary to undo miniaturization yet. Despite lacking Asya's special skill of using wild instincts to detect danger from the enemy, Hal still knew.
The magical power released by the twelve gargoyles were not that strong.
"Even someone like Solomon-senpai won't be able to magically craft subordinates capable of matching leviathans. The queen is enough to take care of them."
Hal's past formidable foe, Pavel Galad, had used alchemy to create powerful minions.
However, King Solomon had remained within "human" boundaries during his lifetime. Hence, his magical power could not reach that level of potency.
One could surmise that he went to develop the techniques for synthesizing leviathans for the purpose of bridging this gap.
In front of the confident Hal, the Crimson Queen was the first to unleash fiery breath. The dragon king-class body discharged flames that swirled through the sky with a blast of scorching air.
The twelve gargoyles were completely incinerated by the flames into ash.
The entire process took no more than a few seconds. Engulfed in flames, the gargoyles did not even have enough time to struggle against the fire, vaporizing with a sizzle.
"Now that he has become a ghost, he should be much weaker than during his prime when he was still alive..."
Even if Hal chose a direct showdown, it was more than likely that he would not be stuck in a difficult battle.
Deduction gradually turned to certainty. Hal silently thought to himself, "hence—I expect Senpai to devise a surprising tactic to counterattack..."
In any case, Hal's party eliminated the obstructions and approached the "ship."
Just like the main ark that had descended upon the Hudson River, this control device was also a wooden ship.
Like satellites, the Crimson Queen and Minadzuki, who had returned to normal size, circled the wooden ship on high alert. Next, Hal and Hazumi finally stepped onto the wooden deck.
"Then let's begin."
Hal summoned his magic gun near the center of the deck.
Rather than shooting, his purpose was searching.
There were many secrets of Ruruk Soun hidden inside the "magic wand" of a gun...
Rapidly searching through the grimoire passed down by dragonkind since antiquity, he found a "usable incantation."
"This is the one."
Hal touched the magic gun and drew out magical power from his heart.
In the next instant, thirteen runes of Ruruk Soun appeared on the wooden ship's deck.
They signified "seize control." The act of snatching away the right to control a magical artifact or familiar, bringing it into one's possession—
This was the secret behind this spell.
King Solomon had used it repeatedly to steal the Crimson Queen.
It was time to give him a taste of his own medicine. However—
"This magic is taking effect abnormally slowly."
Hal had expected this to steal Solomon's ark in one go.
He frowned. The magic gun told him that he had currently seized only 30% control. The remaining 70% was still held by King Solomon.
However, the figure was gradually rising to 31% then 32%.
Why was it happening like this? Hal searched in puzzlement.
He instantly found the runes for "spell resistance," whose purpose was to block specific incantations. If blocking was impossible, it would reduce effectiveness as much as possible.
This was a secret technique of Ruruk Soun with magic defense as the goal.
"Did Solomon-senpai cast this magic on the control device in advance?"
A watertight defense to prevent others from imitating himself.
As expected of the great sorcerer of ancient times. Despite similar power levels, the other party still held a slight upper hand in strategy. But thanks to that, Hal learned a great spell.
Touching the magic gun again, he looked at the Crimson Queen.
Four runes appeared over the red dragon's head—"spell resistance."
Even if King Solomon tried another surprise attack, this spell should be able to protect the queen. Under unexpected circumstances, Hal learned a technique in magical combat.
"On further thought, this kind of strategic contest might be a first."
"Senpai, you are so amazing. Honestly—although this may sound weird—you are truly like a sorcerer," said Hazumi from next to the muttering Hal.
Truly like a sorcerer. Realizing the meaning behind these words, Hal could not help but smile wryly.
Indeed, every instance of SAURU magic that Haruga Haruomi had used so far was very low-key, somewhat different from how ordinary people would picture "Magic!"
However, the wisdom of Ruruk Soun was definitely not a field of study he wished to delve deep into.
Hal subconsciously said, "I don't really want to accumulate knowledge or experience in this area, that's all."
"Eh? Why is that? I believe it's a wonderful thing to be able to use magic with increasing skill."
"That isn't the whole of it, which is why I find it a nuisance."
It would probably take at least twenty minutes to seize 100% control of the ark, right?
While thinking "I wonder if Solomon-senpai might show up during this time?", Hal responded absent-mindedly to Hazumi... Then came to a sudden realization.
He had apparently made a slip of the tongue just now.
His words would expose a certain secret that he had kept concealed so far.
Furthermore, the listener was Shirasaka Hazumi—the girl who faithfully paid attention to Hal's every word, even taking notes on the side, never neglecting to study them—Had he been too careless in saying that just now...?
Hal could only hope that Hazumi had missed it.
Apprehensively, Hal examined her face.
"Excuse me, what did you mean by 'that isn't the whole of it'...?"
His hopes were dashed. Hazumi gazed at Hal, looking extremely worried.
Should he muddle through with a random excuse?
However, Orihime knew a long time ago. Luna Francois had also grown suspicious of the risks from wielding the power of dragonbane.
And Asya too—
Perhaps Hal's childhood friend might—
Making full use of her wild instincts and the miraculous powers of their inseparable bond, perhaps she might have noticed something was off, but had intentionally refrained from bringing it up. No, but it was very likely that she really had not noticed yet.
In any case, Hal sighed.
His Tyrannos level had risen to the point of being able to use the magic of Ruruk Soun.
Maybe it was time for him to confess the "bad news" to his circle, not just the good news...
"Actually," Hal prayed that his tone sounded as relaxed as possible, "it seems like I'll turn into a dragon if my power continues to grow."
The man in black, Sophocles, had said the following to Hal before.
'By conquering water, sky and earth, successors to the power of dragonbane can become even stronger.'
'The more you increase your territories, the greater your power will grow, while at the same time, the closer you will get to becoming a dragon king.'
'In the past, the type of non-dragon creatures known as "hybrid" dragons—In truth, they were unexpectedly commonplace.'
Sophocles had calmly explained the rules of the dragonslaying game, the Road to Kingship. While explaining that, he was also telling Hal about the possibility of Tyrannoi turning into dragons.
The scene returned to the vast sky within Solomon's ark.
Standing on a wooden ship's deck, a place never in his wildest dreams would he ever expect himself to be, Hal told Hazumi the whole story.
Just as what Sophocles had explained for him previously.
"That being said, I've no idea how long it'd take for me to turn into a dragon."
Hal rolled his sleeve up to his elbow and presented his right arm to Hazumi.
The entire arm was giving off a glassy luster. The hard texture felt like metal.
Previously, Orihime had also noticed these "changes to the physical body."
Seeing Hazumi gasp, Hal shrugged and pulled his sleeve back down.
"Because I've been leveling up very successfully lately, I guess. I think it's time I start taking more care."
Acting as the confidant, Hazumi was dumbstruck, too stunned to take any notes.
It must have been quite a shock for her. However, ever since inheriting the dragonslaying rune Hal had suspected whether there might be risks, hence this news was nothing unexpected for him.
"Well, if you look at it from a different angle..."
Speaking on behalf of the dumbfounded Hazumi, Hal continued on his own.
This was because he found the silence inexplicably awkward. It felt very somber.
"This risk might not be that big after all. Think about it, I can still take human form after becoming a dragon. It's the same for Yukikaze, Hannibal and Hinokagutsuchi. To the point that it's hard to tell whether their true appearance is a dragon or a human."
Hazumi finally spoke. Her voice sounded far more uncertain than Hal's frivolous tone of voice.
"I believe... If you truly think that, Senpai, you wouldn't have kept this a secret for so long."
"Is there anything else you're hiding? Apart from turning into a dragon, is there anything else very serious that will happen!?"
Sure enough, Hazumi was very smart. Despite her inexperience with matters of the world, on a fundamental level, she was a very wise girl.
Having pointed out the crux of the matter straight away, she left Hal no choice but to surrender. If possible, he wanted to keep this secret to the very end—No.
That was not it. In fact, it was the opposite.
Hal was aware of the fragile parts of his own heart.
Very likely, he actually wanted to find someone to discuss this. Hence, that was why he was prepared to tell this young girl about his speculation while sighing...
"Hinokagutsuchi said earlier that she couldn't remember if she started out as a dragon or a human because it was really too long ago," Hal said calmly.
"Based on my deductions, it's more than likely she was originally human. Then as her dragon powers grew stronger, she lost her memories from that time. However, I don't know if it happened before or after she became a dragon king..."
"Sh-She lost her memory?"
Hazumi jumped. Hal shrugged and said, "Who knows? Maybe it's like how we naturally forget our childhood memories, they gradually forget the memories from when they were still human. You've probably forgotten everything from your days as a baby, right?"
"That's the basic gist I'm getting."
For hybrid dragon kings (and Tyrannoi), their human phase would be equivalent to "infancy."
After all, they were superbeings that could live for hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years. The mere decades of a human's life expereince was nothing than a blink of the eye.
Hence, they would forget. They would naturally forget their time as a human.
Apart from that, their self-awareness as "a former human" would gradually fade away. Through the passage of time, their mental side would also change progressively.
From human to former human. Turning into an entity closer to dragonkind.
Human-like aspects would slowly deviate from one's original character, finally developing into a more monster-like personality.
Indeed. A personality as befitted a dragon king—the status belonging to dragonkind's sovereigns.
Hannibal's bold and unfettered ways, Princess Yukikaze's childishness and charisma, Hinokagutsuchi's haughtiness, perhaps these were the outcomes of such a transformation...
Hal explained his theory to Hazumi calmly.
From a long time ago, he had started secretly suspecting this possibility.
"Clearly my body is still a human's, but previously, Shamiram-san had called the Tyrannoi 'peers of dragonkind'."
"As a result, I think she's probably talking about the mental side of things. It wouldn't be weird for ordinary humans to go crazy after living for thousands of years, but I think what happens is that we lose our past and awareness as humans, living on through the years no matter what—as dragons."
Hazumi interrupted, finally able to squeeze out a voice and her thoughts.
"All this is all from your imagination, Senpai, isn't it?"
"Then it's also possible that reality is different from what you think!"
"But it wouldn't make sense otherwise. Based on all kinds of circumstantial evidence, I can be virtually certain that Hannibal and Princess Yukikaze are so-called hybrids... But you also know that they definitely see humanity as 'another race.'"
Hal recalled the way they spoke and behaved.
They should be humans to begin with, but Hannibal showed genuine curiosity in human culture, always treating humanity as another race. Yukikaze was similar.
Perhaps Haruga Haruomi would end up like that eventually.
"As I turn more and more into a dragon—"
Hal said quietly.
"Not only my body, but even my mind is affected... I might totally forget these past fifteen or sixteen years of my life. I'll end up not recognizing you, Asya, Juujouji, Luna and forget my relationship with everyone."
Indifferent to people in general, Hal did not actively cultivate social relationships.
For someone like him to lose all ties to friends and acquaintances, to begin a new life as part of the warrior race of dragonkind—
What a truly worrying blueprint of the future.
Sigh. Hal sighed lightly and shook his head.
Yet of all times, Hinokagutsuchi did not show up now. She did not say "on the contrary" to Hal... Did this imply that she was tactfully affirming Hal's speculation?
"C-Could it be that—"
Hazumi spoke in trepidation.
"You refrained from responding directly to a confession from someone as outstanding as Luna-san—It was because you were worried that you might turn into a dragon eventually and lose your memory?"
The two of them had finally built up a good relationship, yet he had to worry about something like this.
There would probably be many problems...
Now that Hazumi brought it up, Hal definitely felt that "this won't do" as well. Although he had not been aware of it, perhaps this was the sort of mindset that became a hindrance.
Hazumi continued to speak to Hal, who had fallen into deep thought.
Furthermore, it was an attack that blindsided him.
"Furthermore—I apologize if I misunderstood, but—Senpai and Nee-sama... There are signs that you didn't start going out despite harboring mutual affection for each other, sure enough, the reason is also—?"
The fresh bomb dropping out of the blue left Hal at a loss how to react.
Due to his theory that "romantic relationships within the team would cause many problems," Hal was prepared to answer "of course not, that's definitely not the kind of relationship I have with Juujouji"—
In the end, under Hazumi's candid gaze, Hal found himself at a loss for words, whether to respond or to skirt the issue.
"Well, umm, how should I put it...?"
However, Hal did not have sufficient experience on this front to be able to speak fluently.
Panicking more and more, Hal desperately racked his brain on how to explain himself.
"I guess it might be impossible for me to deny that I hold certain special feelings for Juujouji, yeah. It is evident that the other person involved, Juujouji, might possibly... or rather, more than likely, holds feelings for me beyond what one would reserve for an ordinary male friend..."
"Uh, in other words... Both of you are aware of each other's feelings, isn't that right?"
"Yeah, something along those lines."
Hazumi had summarized the crux of the matter in a single sentence. Hal nodded stiffly.
In fact, they had "taken a small step forward" in progress, but Hal found it too embarrassing to talk to his junior about this sort of thing.
Furthermore, it was possible that Juujouji would want to keep it a secret from her cousin too.
Taking care not to say anything reckless, Hal finally turned to face Hazumi.
"Say, Shirasaka, when did you notice 'that kind of relationship' between Juujouji and me?"
"I think it was around the time before the summer vacation."
While Hal was thinking "Eh? She already noticed back then?" in surprise, Hazumi said softly, "I love both you and Nee-sama very much, which is why I am always watching you two... Then seeing you two together, I feel that there is a nice atmosphere between you."
"It struck me that 'Nee-sama and Senpai are walking so close together.' I also sensed different vibes from the two of you together compared to back in early spring."
Hal jumped in surprise. So we were already acting "weird" all the way back then.
But on further thought, Luna had named Orihime as her foremost rival after confessing to him. Weird rumors were also circulating in school...
Was Asya, given her extreme lack of feminine charm, the only one who had failed to notice?
Hal was frozen on the spot by embarrassment.
"So, Senpai... How will you handle your relationship with Nee-sama?" Hazumi asked in a murmur.
For some reason, the emotions on her face were mixed with sorrow and worry.
"Will you start going out as an official couple—"
The directness of Hazumi's question left Hal unsure how to proceed.
'Am I allowed... to love you, Haruga-kun? Or is romance within the team forbidden?'
'O-Of course, you're allowed, Juujouji!'
Indeed. This conversation with Orihime remained a vivid memory.
However, suppose Orihime had spoken words that were more direct and specific at the time, such as what Luna had said to Hal, "Let's start by going out then give the future some serious thought, okay?"
Would he have been able to give an affirmative reply immediately?
Just now, when Hazumi had asked him why he had not responded directly to Luna's confession, the same doubt had surfaced in Hal's mind.
How much longer could Haruga Haruomi maintain his personality and self-awareness as a human?
"Well, of course I'm very glad that she likes me. But someone like me... Am I allowed to have that kind of relationship with a normal girl?"
Hal voiced his thoughts honestly.
"Although one shouldn't think too much during times like these, from the perspective of animal instincts and love theories, dashing straight to the finish might be the correct answer after all."
Of course, there also existed the kind of love that blazed intensely because time was running out.
Unfortunately, being slightly over-rational, Hal would not do that. For better or worse, he had a tendency to think too much.
After Hal brought out his own view, Hazumi spoke to him firmly "as someone currently still human."
"B-But Senpai, you are shouldering the toughest job... I believe you are the one who needs a g-girlfriend or family to support you the most!"
"No no no."
In the process of speaking his mind, Hal had organized his thoughts and feelings.
"Putting stuff like romance or love as the first priority in life doesn't suit my personality after all. I am really grateful to Luna and Juujouji for their feelings, but it's best to leave our relationships at the stage of 'more than friends but less than lovers.'"
"Please don't suppress yourself like this—Nnnnn!"
Hazumi suddenly fell on her knees, clutching her gut.
Her stomach seemed to be in great pain, twisting her adorable visage in suffering, causing her to break out in cold sweat. Hal recalled what had happened earlier.
Was it another stress-induced stomach cramp?
"What on earth is happening to you?"
"I don't know... But Senpai, I suddenly feel a stomachache as soon as I imagine you going out with Nee-sama and Luna-san."
"Don't be silly. Didn't I just say that I won't be going out with them?"
"Th-That's wrong! I believe you must make as many happy memories as possible, Senpai. Ever since you obtained a dragonslaying rune, you've been working or making preparations for the future, always busy beyond belief, getting little rest even at night..."
Before losing his awareness as a human, before turning into a dragon...
Hal instantly understood that Hazumi had omitted these final words out of consideration for his feelings.
Despite the sudden stomach pain tormenting her, she was still trying her best to be considerate for others. This kindness was truly in Hazumi's style. Hal could not helped but feel touched.
At that moment, a devil's voice, opposite to an angel's, could be heard.
Hinokagutsuchi finally materialized, cackling while she stared at the two of them.
"Worry not, Hazumi. Although this brat has pulled out a ton of nonsense logic... He is a man, all things considered. Furthermore, he is a man whose heart conceals an astounding amount of desires of the flesh."
She suddenly began to utter rubbish.
"This guy has already kissed the priestess whose name is Orihime."
"Ehhh!? Senpai, didn't you kiss Luna-san last time too—Right!?"
Hinokagutsuchi revealed the secret with a smug and knowing look, greatly shocking Hazumi.
Hal wanted to accuse her of invasion of privacy, but the self-styled devil was not finished.
"Well, simply stated, despite his eccentric and difficult personality, this guy still finds desires of the flesh impossible to resist."
"D-Desires of the flesh? Sorry, I don't know what that means..."
A term that could be designated R15 was making Hazumi tilt her head in puzzlement.
"Is it like a 'desire to eat meat'?"
"A bit off but not too far away. Your intuition is quite accurate. Please check the dictionary on your own later."
"Shirasaka, don't check that kind of term! Y-You, stop teaching her weird things!"
"This is nothing weird, brat. Know that it is a grave matter concerning your future."
Hinokagutsuchi smiled at the indignant Hal.
She seemed to have picked this timing to jump out and speak for the sake of causing trouble. Furthermore, the former dragon queen casually added, "I know not whether your theory is right or wrong, because I have already forgotten everything from when I was a Tyrannos, prior to becoming a dragon king."
"I knew it."
"Be that as it may... That little girl, Yukikaze, was definitely human once."
"Now that I reflect upon what you said earlier in light of this—Fufufufu. Indeed, there are many points which make sense. Brat, I concede that focus of your argument is quite amusing. Allow a former queen such as I to offer a few words of praise to your discerning eye."
"Even if you praise me, it doesn't make me happy at all..."
Hal could not feel any joy from receiving extremely rare praise from the former dragon king.
Hinkagutsuchi laughed at the scowling Hal and turned to look at Hazumi.
"Hazumi. You wish for the brat to live slightly more 'normally' as a human, is that correct?"
"Th-That's exaggerating quite a bit... I simply wish for Senpai to live happier."
"The meaning is the same. You have noticed too that he is man who would brush normal life aside and immerse himself in work for the sake of pursuing his goals."
She seemed to be mocking Hal.
However, Hal was unable to muster a rebuttal.
Impressive as always, the former queen. She was unexpectedly sharp and had seen through Haruga Haruomi's true nature.
Indeed she was correct—Hal was someone who did not care about elements of happiness such as having droves of friends, self-indulgence after school, social networking on the internet, a clean and tidy home, fulfilling meals, sufficient sleeping time, family warmth, social gatherings, weekend dates... etc. The focus with which he buried himself in work was enough to label him a workaholic.
Never stingy with effort that would make life easier for himself—That was Hal's motto.
But conversely, this could also be construed as doing whatever it takes to succeed.
"Yes. Senpai is always sloppy about his own personal matters, which is why I worry a lot..."
"Even for a man of this sort, so long as thoughts of lust persist in his heart—"
The young girl in the kimono laughed.
"There will still be temptation he would find difficult to resist. Like secretly kissing your cousin, for example."
She was imparting inappropriate knowledge to Hazumi who was worrying about Hal.
Her words were like Satan's whispers, tempting the pure-hearted Eve, who was living together with Adam in the Garden of Eden, making her aware of "wisdom and desire."
"W-What kind of temptation is it?"
"For example, if your cousin were to offer up her magnificent body and demand to spend a night of passion in his company."
"Suppose this were not enough, then have that lass named Luna do the same."
"By this point, if he is still grumbling this or that, Hazumi, you could simply join in and tempt the brat too."
"H-Hold on a sec, what are you trying to make Shirasaka do!?"
Hazumi was left dumbstruck by the series of outrageous statements, so Hal screamed on her behalf. Hinokagutsuchi puffed out her chest proudly and snickered.
"I feel that developments would take for an amusing turn next, which is why I wanted to guide her along the path of love."
"I knew it, you were planning nothing good!"
"It is not like you have nothing to gain from this, so just shut up."
"Don't tell me to shut up! Stop putting strange ideas into the angelic Shirasaka's head!"
He was the only one who could protect his junior's pure and innocent soul.
Filled with righteous fury, Hal protested against the young girl who was the devil incarnate. He also asked Hazumi, "By the way, Shirasaka, you don't think of me like that, right?"
"Huh? Like what?"
Hazumi was taken aback for a moment. Hal asked more explicitly, "As a romantic prospect, someone to develop a man-woman relationship with."
"Uh, umm, well... Of course I love you very much, Senpai. I wish to maintain a good relationship with you forever, and sometimes I think 'wouldn't it be wonderful if only I had an older brother like Senpai?' B-But, I've never thought about going out with you or getting married..."
As expected, Hazumi denied it.
Hal nodded. Indeed, their relationship ought to remain platonic, starting as senior and junior then finishing as a pseudo-sibling relationship.
He would be overjoyed if Hazumi really thought of him as a potential partner.
Ignoring Hal, Hinokagutsuchi asked the girl, "I see. So you have never thought about it before? Then what about now?"
"Hazumi. After the battle against the Red Flame Emperor... known nowadays as 'Hannibal,' you have been experiencing frequent stomachaches. Every time, you were thinking about this brat, weren't you?"
"Y-Yes. I was thinking about Senpai and Nee-sama."
"Fufufufu. The pure little lass has finally awakened her jealousy? Well, the embers of carnal desire do get lit by the bond of unorthodoxy linking her to the palm and heartmetal of the man she admires..."
Hinokagutsuchi was speaking as though Hazumi was harboring affections for Hal.
Hazumi also sneaked a glance at Hal before lowering her head immediately. It seemed as though she was too embarrassed to show her face to anyone, unable to organize her thoughts and feelings.
What the heck? Hal was thrown into confusion.
This atmosphere makes it almost like Shirasaka actually likes me in that way—
"By the way, brat."
Hinokagutsuchi suddenly spoke to the confounded Hal.
"Suppose your assumptions are correct, it would not be strange for your mind to show symptoms of 'losing one's memories and self-awareness as a human,' would it? Allow me to help you confirm."
A smile was hanging on the young girl's face.
"Fufufufu. You have known that girl named Asya for many years, have you not? When and where did you first meet her? What were you two doing together at the time?"
"Now that's a really sudden question from you."
The subject had changed without warning. Hal could not help but grumble.
However, this turned out to be perfect for dispelling the awkward mood between him and Hazumi.
"I remember it was eleven years ago when we were five. The two of us... were lost in a certain European country, so we bought either a burger or a hotdog to share. Back then, it was either Asya or me who paid, I guess?"
Hal answered fluently.
He remembered very clearly, so it took no effort to recall.
"Anyway, I don't think there's any problem with my mind."
"Apparently so. It would be very entertaining if you turned into a fool as quickly as possible."
Hal and Hinokagutsuchi bickered.
Listening from the side, Hazumi tilted her head slightly in puzzlement, perhaps unable to keep up with the two who had dispelled all sense of gravity from the situation.
Just as Hal was about to explain to Hazumi—
The silhouettes of seventy-two dragons suddenly appeared in the sky over their location of the wooden ship's deck. Naturally, they were the serpent souls.
The serpent souls began to sing a mournful melody.
King Solomon had finally arrived at the "climax."
Seeing the final opponent's arrival, Hal motioned to Hazumi with his eyes.
Stop the conversation, it was time for the final showdown—Hazumi instantly nodded to acknowledge Hal's message.
They were standing on the device used to control King Solomon's ark.
Hazumi's partner, Minadzuki, was flying around the ark's control device on guard.
In an adorable voice, Hazumi called out to the emerald serpentine dragon leviathan.
Minadzuki flew to a spot roughly ten meters over Hal and Hazumi.
She craned her neck like a poisonous snake on a hunt, glaring at the sky afar.
The seventy-two serpent souls serving King Solomon were flying in a flock over there, roughly two or three hundred meters higher in altitude.
The serpent souls were not flying in uniform formation.
Scattered all over the place, they kept tracing out elliptical trails in the air, circling repeatedly.
The serpent souls always took this action when supporting King Solomon. Not to be outdone, Hal issued orders to his minion.
"Come over here, queen. Come to our side."
He was speaking to the Crimson Queen on alert near the wooden ship.
The red dragon king descended next to Hal and Hazumi, on the wooden ship's deck. The ship was massive with a length reaching a hundred meters, so having a dragon land on it was no problem at all.
Hinokagutsuchi swiftly disappeared, returning to inside the magic gun.
Now they were fully prepared for the incoming battle. Meanwhile, King Solomon's faction suddenly did something unprecedented.
'...Impressive as ever, the one who obtained the key to my legacy.'
A deep and authoritative male voice was heard from the sky.
It sounded like thunder. However, the vast blue sky inside King Solomon's barrier did not have a single cloud.
'...O bow user, I never expected you to be such a thorn in my side.'
"In other words, you're Solomon-senpai?"
Even this brief answer was deep and solemn, resounding across the entire blue sky.
Although Solomon himself could not be seen, this was still quite an elaborately staged performance.
If this had been taking place in the world of Japanese animation, a super famous voice actor would most likely be hired to portray his wonderful voice. In any case, it was very deep. Hal felt that the voice acting fee would be very expensive.
"I-It's like God."
Unlike her senior who was entertaining frivolous thoughts, Hazumi expressed sincere admiration from the heart.
In contrast, Hal nodded the same as usual.
"Hmm. I think I know where this performance comes from. In the Old Testament of the Bible, there were prophets who could hear the voice of the one true God in heaven. Before the arrival of Jesus Christ, it always played out this way. There are many other versions too."
He began to explain, seeming unexpectedly laid back.
"Speaking of which, the Old Testament of the Bible recorded the story of the Jew's ancestors—the people ruled by Solomon-senpai's ancient kingdom of Israel. In terms of ethnic lineage, they are part of the Semitic peoples, although the sky gods appearing in Semitic myths are actually the origin of the 'God' in the Bible's Old Testament. Treated as a demon in the Bible, Baal was actually a sky god of the Semites but not the Jews, and the chief god in the pantheon to boot. You can actually find traces of ancient religions like this all over the Old and New Testaments of the Bible."
Hazumi nodded but she was clearly lost.
She was probably unable to understand why Hal could be this calm. In contrast to Hazumi, the amazing voice from the sky sounded a bit delighted.
'...Tyrannos of a later era, you are speaking of things outside my knowledge, are you not? That is quite calm and composed of you.'
"I'm good, thanks. Because your background is the same as mine, Senpai... Someone halfway in between, more than human but not yet a dragon king. Compared to the likes of Hannibal, facing you is a bit easier."
Despite sounding relaxed, Hal did not lower his guard at all, of course.
This was a showdown between two people of similar power. A moment's carelessness would be taken advantage of. However, just as Hal said, he was having an easier time on a mental level.
This was thanks to the experience he had accumulated over numerous intense battles—A fact that truly did not bring him any joy now that it was brought up.
Regardless, as a bookworm diametrically opposed to warrior races, Hal was currently facing off against this voice in the sky.
"I guess your goal is that tired cliche, you're going to steal my body, right?"
'...You are correct. If a Tyrannos capable of finding my legacy were to appear, I would steal his body and dragonslaying power to allow me to rebuild my kingdom... That is my plan.'
As expected. Hal shrugged.
That being said, dismissing it as a tired cliche was probably because Hal lived in the modern age. For a human living in the pre-Christian era, King Solomon's resurrection plan was definitely a pioneering notion beyond its time.
He said, '...Be that as it may, you have been no pushover. I have been forced to take many great pains.'
"That's the way it is. Those lower than me in level won't be able to get here, but if your opponent was a dragon king instead, Senpai, you'd be the one in trouble. By the way—"
Hal changed the subject.
"I am actually a little optimistic."
'...Oh? Optimistic about what?'
"The fact that you're coming out directly and even conversing with me—Doesn't that imply that you've finally used up all your sneak attacks?"
"Cloak and daggers are pretty much my thing, but I'm starting to miss the earth, so I'd like a frontal showdown to bring this incident to a close."
'...Then keep your eyes peeled, bow user.'
King Solomon's ghost spoke to Hal in a cheerful voice.
'...This is the final ploy I have devised for the sake of defeating you. Fufufufu... O seal of purity and justice discovered from the secret annals of the sea of stars.'
"Senpai, what is that!?"
Hal and Hazumi reacted with alarm and shock.
Responding to King Solomon's summon, a brightly shining pentagram appeared in the sky. Indeed. Black flames were leaving trails in the air to trace out a giant seal.
For those knowledgeable in magic in the modern day, that pentagram would be considered a familiar symbol.
'...Heed my call and let the archdemon descend upon the world. I, King Solomon, hereby pray for the arrival of a new servant. Gods—I implore you to listen to my request!'
Before the two modern humans' eyes, the pentagram changed into a "∞" shape.
Then it transformed into the body of a gigantic magic beast. It was a dragon—identical in appearance to the Crimson Queen too.
However, the new queen and the flames shrouding her body were black, in contrast to the red dragon king.
The color of her body was akin to the "blackness" of black lotus. The surrounding flames were also pitch black. If one had to give her name, it would probably be the "False Black Queen."
"I didn't expect such a move... Now that's my Solomon-senpai."
Feeling impressed, Hal muttered to himself.
"After all, he's the originator who came up with the technique of leviathan synthesis. Also, he not only created a 'serpent' suddenly—but even copied my queen too!"
Eloim Essaim was a magic incantation only privy to those in the know.
The false queen, summoned by this sacred incantation, roared ferociously.
The atmosphere shook as a result. The power was no less than the Crimson Queen's.
Sensing the flow of magic, Hal could see the serpent souls flying far above in the air currently offering magical power to serve as the false queen's energy source.
The magical power rivaled that of the Crimson Queen that was connected to Hal's heart.
'...Bow user, you are correct.'
After roaring loudly, the false queen said to Hal, 'Now that it has reached this juncture, victory will go to whichever of us proves to be superior. Let us settle this!'
King Solomon's magnificent voice came out of the black dragon's mouth.
For the sake of defeating Hal's faction in a direct confrontation, he had possessed the ancient leviathan he created himself, to face off against Hal and the queen.
"Senpai, that dragon looks really strong..."
"Yeah. But she probably can't last for too long. Didn't our queen collapse pretty quickly last time?"
Hal reassured the worried Hazumi.
That dragon was ultimately just a replica. Its specs could not possibly be higher than the real thing. However, it would probably take twenty or thirty minutes before she collapsed.
Not long but not short either. It was also possible to end the battle within this duration.
"So pitting trump cards against each other would be the wise choice huh..."
The False Black Queen began to descend from the sky above.
Naturally, she was moving towards the wooden ship where Hal and Hazumi were. Her movement did not appear fast because they were some distance away, but in terms of actual speed, she was probably moving faster than a hundred kilometers per hour.
The false queen arrived within the blink of an eye. Hal aimed his magic gun at her.
At the same time, the Crimson Queen also summoned the Bow to her hand.
It was a crimson longbow—the weapon manifested from the Rune of the Bow. However, she had yet to call forth the all important arrow.
Hal issued orders, "Shirasaka, use pseudo-divinity!"
"Yes! Minadzuki, please!"
The bond of the covenant established by the rune allowed them to communicate through thoughts.
Hearing Hazumi's wish, the emerald serpentine dragon cried out sonorously. Using the pseudo-divinity of Wind, she summoned thunderclouds in the sky.
Tearing through the sky, a bolt of lightning descended into the Crimson Queen's outstretched right hand.
Holding the crimson bow in her left, the Crimson Queen formed the lightning in her empty right hand into "an arrow of electricity," turning it into the queen's weapon.
The red dragon king placed the arrow onto the bow and fired.
Naturally, the target was the False Black Queen. Hal also pulled the trigger of his magic gun at the same time. In the next instant, the arrow of lightning shot by the Crimson Queen became enveloped by nine runes of Ruruk Soun.
Hal had imbued the arrow with the power of exorcism—the magical power of "purification of evil spirits."
This was the "goddess power" that Shamiram had bestowed upon the magic gun earlier.
"Counting on you!"
Imbued with the spiritual power of exorcism, the arrow flew forward to intercept the approaching false queen.
Hal watched with anticipation. After using this arrow to damage King Solomon's spirit body, he would then have the Crimson Queen swing the Twin Katana to seize victory.
Seeing the arrow arrive, the false queen—
'...O sacred shield!'
King Solomon's voice recited a defensive incantation.
In the next instant, a gigantic cross, rivaling a dragon's body in size, suddenly manifested in front of the false queen, serving as a shield to block the arrow of exorcism.
This alone would not have surprised Hal. It was a very common type of defensive magic.
However, chained to the cross was the massive body of a pteranodon.
It was Ashkelon. Not only that, but the beautiful witch from the ancient kingdom was also tied to Ashkelon's throat by a smaller chain. A beautiful captive.
Her head hanging, eyes tightly shut, she seemed unconscious.
Hal cried out in surprise.
At the same time, he subconsciously redirected the arrow.
Responding to Hal's thoughts, the arrow of exorcism deviated greatly from its trajectory. Just before striking Ashkelon and the cross, it changed direction—
It flew up into the sky.
...Had he contemplated calmly, Hal would have known.
Shamiram hoped to disappear from this world, so she did not mind getting caught in the fray of battle.
Since there was no way to rule out the possibility of her betrayal, naturally, Hal could have made the cruel choice of "piercing her together with the target."
He could have come up with a number of "smarter options."
However, Haruga Haruomi was not a member of a warrior race. None of these options was a choice he could make in desperation. More importantly, he did not want to do so. However, he paid a heavy price for it.
'...This is quite a irrevocable mistake, bow user!'
The false queen roared with King Solomon's voice.
A golden ring appeared on her pitch-black right hand. With a diameter of seven meters, it was the Rune of the Ring manifested as a weapon.
An unpleasant and dissonant noise erupted in the air next.
The golden ring emitted a sound of "nyyyaaaarrrllaaaaaathooooooottt……@@×◆□◎△＋＝*￥！"
This evil sound was targetting Hal and the Crimson Queen.
Hal could clearly feel the excessively abnormal noise invading his brain through his ears.
His brain stem was boiling. His innards felt stirred and uncomfortable with a rising wave of nausea surging up his throat, making him want to abandon all human thought, giving himself up to relentless screaming.
However, Hal still noticed. This was a technique of assured annihilation.
Nine runes of Ruruk Soun had appeared over the false queen's head.
The arrangement signified "I play the sound of the star of aggravation to disorient sentient minds"—
Furthermore, the false queen, i.e. Solomon, did not stop attacking. Using the golden ring as a frisbee, she tossed it out to strike the Crimson Queen.
The queen's giant body was sent flying by this attack.
Combined with the physical and mental damage caused by the weird noise, the queen could not stand up again, simply lying limp on the wooden ship's deck. The same went for Hal.
Feeling his knees go weak, he sprawled on the ground.
Hal could only groan.
Hazumi hastily rushed over to Hal's side but stopped halfway.
This was because the False Black Queen was descending from the sky, approaching the wooden ship. Hazumi was the only one left who could attack.
Hazumi glanced at Hal helplessly then immediately looked up.
Facing the approaching false queen squarely, she prepared to fulfill her duty, even though her adorable face was tense from worry.
Sure enough, that was the kind of girl she was.
Thinking hazily amid the chaos in his mind, Hal looked at the magic gun in his right.
Despite his current sorry state, he still had the strength to pull the trigger. Should he exhaust the remainder of his meager power to aid Hazumi...? No. Hal deliberately refrained from doing so.
Instead, he spoke in a barely audible voice.
"Can I ask you to pass a message for me...?"
The damage from the weird noise had rendered Hal barely capable of moving his lips.
However, his intent evidently reached his target. The presence of the self-styled devil and guardian vanished from inside the magic gun.
Red Hannibal was locked in a gray space.
Lying on the ground, he opened his mouth wide to let loose a yawn, tears welling in his eyes.
"These guys are too inconsiderate... I have napped for so long, the boredom is killing me."
Literally bored to tears. He had nothing to do at all.
From the bottom of his heart, Hannibal was thinking, wasn't it time for interrogation or torture?
Also, "these guys" referred to the one who had captured Hannibal, of course.
If these guys showed themselves, Hannibal intended to complain right off the bat.
A prison consisting of absolutely tasteless gray extending to infinity was far too sloppy. Put in a little effort and make serious preparations.
However, not a single person appeared.
"Could the intention be for me to go insane and die of boredom?"
Hannibal began to ponder "hmm..."
He had survived all kinds of crises but "boredom" was the one thing he absolutely had no idea how to deal with.
He enjoyed killing time doing nothing. Napping was nice too.
However, in those cases, he had to ride the wind and float in the air with white clouds as his pillows and the blue sky as his bed.
Spending time in this gray space without nothing to do did not suit his interests.
"...In that case, it is time to say goodbye—Now then."
What was the situation outside the prison like?
Acting with caution more like a warrior than a dragon king, Hannibal wanted information.
Bold and unencumbered was more his style, but he was unable to transform into a dragon for the near term. Gathering detailed information was necessary once in a while, but—
"It might be a different kind of fun to make some rounds in this form and see how far I can get."
Struck by a sudden whim, he stuck out his tongue and licked his lower lip.
Hannibal's original plan was to wait until his magical power and stamina had recovered to the point of allowing him to transform into a dragon before taking action.
But on further thought, trying to escape while using a human body was clearly much more interesting. A challenge to see how far he could go in his current state was not a bad idea either.
He sat up.
In that instant, he sensed a familiar presence, so he spoke, "Greetings, Crimson Queen. It is wonderful to see you in good health."
"I am simply not completely dead. There is no good health to speak of."
The girl dressed in red silently appeared next to the yawning Hannibal. It was the human form belonging to the dragon king once known as the Crimson Queen.
Speaking in sarcastic tones as usual, the queen grinned.
"However, there is a bunch of fellows causing a ruckus outside."
"Oh? How enviable. Is that why this prison has been so lax in security, even allowing you to find this place so easily? In that case—"
Hannibal smiled with satisfaction.
"Queen, why have you come to see me?"
"Merely on a whim. I know that you enjoy crowds, hence if I were to inform you of the situation outside... You will surely go on a rampage of your own. Then all I need to do afterwards is take advantage of that."
Hearing his old acquaintance's self-centered reasons, Hannibal laughed heartily.
Hinokagutsuchi's tongue remained harsh as ever even after her death. Furthermore, her knowledge of the strongest dragon king Hannibal's personality remained impeccable.
"Well, apart from that, I am also bringing a message from the brat who inherited my bow."
The former queen revealed a malevolent expression and added.
"'A temporary alliance until we get out of here, how about it?'"
"Indeed... It is a rare festival and it would be quite boring to leave me alone here. Let me join in despite the tardy arrival."
He nodded firmly then whispered, "How is the situation outside? From what I can see, the Tyrannoi of the Bow and the Ring... are evenly matched in power, though the Ring's side holds a slight upper hand in strategy."
"That is the long and short of it. The bow brat has just been checked, but—"
The queen shrugged in the form of a young human.
"He has hidden an ace up his sleeve too. The decisive battle only begins now."
A melee battle finally unfolded in the air.
The False Black Queen and the emerald serpentine dragon Minadzuki were locked in a struggle.
However, the false queen was holding the upper hand. One could tell at a glance, because the gigantic black body remained motionless in the air, confident and composed, barely moving from her position at all.
On the other hand, Minadzuki was dashing this way and that, trying to find an opening.
As Hazumi's partner, the serpentine dragon possessed a long and slender body like a snake's. Slithering her body, she flew back and forth, searching for opportunities to bite her enemy.
Minadzuki widened her jaws and instantly flew up to the false queen. Her movements were as fast as lightning.
However, the imperishable protection surrounding the false queen defended against the attack.
In contrast, Minadzuki did not have imperishable protection on her, because Hal the provider was collapsed on the ground in a delirious state.
Ravaged by the bizarre noise, his body remained immobilized.
However, his thoughts were gradually recovering in clarity.
Hal tried to get a grasp on the situation.
Hazumi was up ahead, not too far away, watching the aerial battle with worry. She did not glance back at Hal at all.
But that was the correct thing to do. To look away and worry about others in such an emergency would be hugely problematic.
At this very moment, Shirasaka Hazumi must focus wholeheartedly on the battle.
Meanwhile, the false queen was facing off against Minadzuki.
Possessed by King Solomon, the false queen's defenses were solid as rock due to imperishable protection.
No matter how Minadzuki bit ferociously, attacking bravely with her teeth, the pearly light always deflected her effortlessly. Then the unscathed false queen would use her gigantic body of a dragon to attack the emerald serpentine dragon.
Using her five-clawed hands to attack Minadzuki, her talons ripped through her body.
Using her muscular arms to seize Minadzuki's body, she executed a bear hug. It was almost like a sumo wrestler using a sabaori move on an opponent.
Not only that, but the black dragon was also biting Minadzuki.
Minadzuki would scream with every inflicted injury.
"I'm so sorry, Minadzuki! But please, try harder...!"
Hazumi desperately cheered for Minadzuki.
There should be one more use of pseudo-divinity, but it did not look like she was going to use it yet.
She was biding her time—No, most likely, she lacked the resolve. In the event that she used her last chance but did not succeed...
Were Asya here, she would focus her mind and heart on a single gamble.
She would commit her determination and put everything on the line. However, Hazumi was unable to make such a decision. Her inborn personality and lack of battle experience caused her to hesitate.
Sprawled on the ground, Hal watched over his protege in a crisis.
He did not have the strength to stand up, but if it was just pulling the trigger of his magic gun... No.
Hal mustered every last ounce of strength and turned his body around. He was now lying flat on his back instead of sprawling. This gave him a more expansive view.
He muttered to himself, "So the ring is still unscathed huh..."
The false queen and Minadzuki were dogfighting in the air.
Behind them, the golden ring was hovering in midair.
The ring continued to emit weird noise from its technique of assured annihilation.
The volume was not as deafening as in the beginning. Instead, it was at a softer volume as though reciting a cursed incantation nonstop. Even now, this sound continued to torment Hal's body and mind.
"The Rune of the Ring... has mostly attacks for assaulting the mind or depriving the target's freedom..."
In ancient Europe, the ring also symbolized "restriction" and "obedience." It was a kind of curse and magical tool.
One interpretation of wedding bands and similar items as proof of restricted social status stemmed from such symbolism.
Perhaps that was the distant origin of the Rune of the Ring.
"Anyway, looks like there's no choice but to get rid of that thing..."
At that moment, a change occurred in the aerial battle.
The false queen picked up a new weapon in her hand—The gigantic cross.
It was what King Solomon had summoned earlier to use as a shield against Hal's arrow of exorcism. The gigantic pteranodon, Ashkelon, was still bound to it...
After that, the cross had remained hovering in the air.
Holding it, the false queen used a dragon's arm strength to execute a mighty swing, striking the nearby Minadzuki squarely in the head with a massive thud.
The cross was made of wood, so it immediately shattered into fragments.
Tied to the cross, her restraints now shattered, Ashkelon began to fall.
Like a baseball struck by a bat, Minadzuki's giant body flew back as well. However, even after seeing the situation, Hazumi did not cry out her partner's name first.
Indeed. The beautiful witch from the ancient kingdom was still tied to Ashkelon's throat.
Thrown into the air, her delicate body fell.
Furthermore, this was a world consisting of scattered sky islands without any ground beneath. Shamiram's body kept falling like that.
Continuing to fall, the beautiful witch and Ashkelon disappeared from Hal and Hazumi's sight.
"Minadzuki! Hurry and save Shami—"
Hazumi closed her mouth mid-sentence.
She must have realized it was too late. Furthermore, to turn her back to the false queen at this time and leave the battlefield would not be possible.
Because she and Minadzuki were the only ones remaining who could still fight properly—
Meanwhile, Hal grew increasingly unsure whether to pull his magic gun's trigger or not. He could add auto-homing magic to the bullet, allowing it to track down Shamiram and Ashkelon's whereabouts.
However, in the next instant, Hal heard a whisper.
"Eh? Shimiram-san, where are you now?"
He could hear but not see her. Shamiram seemed to be using magic to send her voice to his ear.
(I have fallen on an island... Or rather, crashed into one. As a result, I did not fall into the abyss of hell.)
"That's great to hear. We'll go pick you up once the battle is over."
(Oh, no need for that. You do not need to take the trouble. I will head over to converge with you two once I make myself presentable.)
(Yes. After all, I did fall from quite a great height. My skull has cracked open and my guts have burst out of my abdomen. Little of my prided beauty remains intact and my limbs have been bent in bizarre angles. As for my right arm, everything beyond the elbow is—)
"I get the picture. I look forward to your swift return."
Despite her condition, she sounded rather cheerful and energetic.
As expected of the dead, I guess? Or perhaps, he should praise Solomon's curse for the fact that Shamiram still failed to pass on despite suffering such grave injuries?
(My apologies. I only ended up like this because I was captured by the master when flying around as a diversion.)
"Please don't let it bother you. I was the one who asked you to help in the first place."
Hal himself was still immobilized but his discomfort had lessened somewhat.
As though chatting in leisure, he said, "I'm relieved now. It looks like you're in unexpectedly good health(?)... But if that's the case, couldn't you have used magic to struggle free before you got attacked?"
(Indeed that is so. My reason for not doing so is most likely identical to yours, Lord Haruga.)
Shamiram seemed to have noticed that Hal had held back.
(Lady Hazumi is a good girl as expected. Just as we have hoped—She is finally approaching the time of her awakening.)
Hal looked at his protege again.
There was a pulsation of what seemed to be spiritual energy from Hazumi's petite back as a faint green glow slowly rose. Unmistakable. It was the phenomenon of magical power leaking out.
Like Hal, witches also used their hearts as their source of magical power.
Hazumi was currently drawing out magical power from her heart, beyond what her body could contain.
"Sorry... I must stop you no matter what."
Hazumi stared resolutely at the "enemy" and spoke solemnly.
She was standing on the deck near the wooden ship's prow. The target she was looking up towards from there was, of course, the False Black Queen.
Dominating the sky battlefield was the false black dragon.
This was the enemy that had caused Minadzuki suffering and sent Ashkelon and the beautiful witch Shamiram to their graves.
However, the false queen—or more precisely, King Solomon who had possessed her—did not seem to hear Hazumi's declaration. With Hazumi's words falling on deaf ears, the false queen looked down upon the world contemptuously in leisure.
The Crimson Queen and Haruomi-senpai were overpowered by the Ring, immobilized.
Her partner Minadzuki was battered all over.
She could not keep relying on others. She must depend on herself.
Hazumi took a deep breath.
What a nostalgic feeling—In the past, when Tokyo New Town had her as its only witch, Hazumi always headed out to the battlefield alone.
But back then, her opponents were primarily Raptors.
As long as she had Minadzuki's power, she could not possibly lose. All she had to do was issue orders casually and her partner would take care of the rest.
After gaining comrades, she had always listened to the commands of the older witches and Haruomi-senpai.
But now it was different. The enemy was King Solomon the great sorcerer and the false queen. An enemy that she had no chance of defeating even if she mustered her full strength. But even so, she still had to confront—
"I will work my hardest, so Minadzuki, you too... Please!"
Not simply a sincere prayer, this wish was also fueled by burning determination.
Its foundation was blazing wrath and firm willpower.
This was wrath born out of seeing injury done to one's loved one and someone who had treated her with kindness. It was unshakable willpower, determined to rely on no one but herself no matter what—
Just as these emotions surged from the depths of her heart...
Extremely potent magical power exploded from Hazumi's heart, so great the quantity that it was beyond her body's capacity to contain. Turning into a faint green glow, the magical power leaked out of the body.
She was experiencing this for the first time. In that very instant, she realized.
She disliked conflict and was not good at magic.
This notion had often led to her stagnation in controlling her "serpent" in battle... However, it no longer applied to her as she was now. Her firm willpower, to "do it herself" no matter what, forbade her from faltering.
Perhaps this was the reason.
The magical power filling up her entire body felt lighter and more agile than ever before. She was able to control it freely as she wished.
Next, all she needed to do was what Hinokagutsuchi had instructed, to offer sincere prayer to the partner possessing goddess power—despite being an imitation—
"To protect us... Use this power, Minadzuki."
With her hands clasped before her chest, Hazumi whispered quietly.
At that moment, the false queen happened to attack Minadzuki. Flying at Minadzuki, she was about to rip the emerald body to shreds with the sharp claws on her hands.
She had not noticed the change in Hazumi at all.
...That was why things were progressing so well. Suddenly, a whirlwind blowing from Minadzuki's entire body struck the false queen head on.
Next, nine runes of Ruruk Soun appeared over the gentle serpentine dragon's head.
They signified "purification of evil spirits"—The power of exorcism that Hal had used just now. Enveloped by the whirlwind imbued with the spiritual power of exorcism, the false queen screamed loudly.
This pained shout was, of course, King Solomon's magnificent voice.
After Hazumi and Minadzuki had dealt King Solomon a devastating blow using "purification of evil spirits"...
The false queen toppled backwards. Even so, instead of crashing down, she barely continued to fly, distancing herself from Minadzuki unsteadily.
Hal was certain she was trying to escape from follow up attacks.
The ring's power still restrained him, but in that instant, Hal pulled the magic gun's trigger.
The gun's muzzle shot out thirty bullets of red light in full auto mode. Every bullet was imbued with the magic of auto-homing, each tracing out a curved trajectory in the air, heading towards the false queen—
All met their mark without fail.
King Solomon screamed again. It looked like he had suffered substantial damage this time.
The false queen's giant body finally began to fall. Lying on the ground, Hal praised Hazumi from his heart after firing his magic gun.
"You're so amazing, Shirasaka... You really did it with your own strength."
In the end, what Hazumi lacked was probably the willpower "to rely on herself no matter what."
That was what Hal thought. In fact, until now, all early signs of Hazumi's awakening had mostly occurred when she took action on her own initiative.
Hence, Hal had refrained from helping out this time.
However, this was also a decision that he had made under the prior condition that he must not recklessly use up his last hope—the magic gun's thirty bullets.
Hence, he had not chosen to wait and see in the hot-blooded shounen battle manga fashion of putting faith in "Hazumi will definitely be able to do it!"
"I guess this outcome is acceptable, although it was close as hell..."
(This was also thanks to Lady Hazumi being an honest and forthright young lady. Lord Haruga, you are truly fortunate to have such a fine lady in love with you—)
"No truer words."
That part about being in love was a misunderstanding... But Hal agreed that he was lucky indeed.
At that moment, ten-odd meters away from Hal, the junior who had just accomplished a great feat suddenly cried out "Ahhh!", stunned on the spot.
Halting her fall into the depths of hell, the false queen recovered.
"Was it not enough...? Queen!"
Saying that, Hal clicked his tongue.
The Crimson Queen still could not move. Like Hal, she had suffered from the Ring's technique of assured annihilation and was lying on the wooden ship's deck. Hazumi had also used up her two counts of pseudo-divinity.
They had nothing left to oppose the false queen and Solomon.
"Hahahahaha! Do not forget my presence!"
At that moment, Hal heard dragon king Hannibal's voice for the first time in a while.
He focused his eyes and saw a well-built man flying lightly in the air. With his red coat billowing in the wind behind him, that figure undoubtedly belonged to the strongest dragon king.
"O Tyrannos of the Bow! I have accepted your invitation and gone out of my way to come here!"
In front of the flying Hannibal was the golden ring hovering in midair.
He opened his mouth wide and breathed out fire despite his human form. His target was the ring—The Rune of the Ring that was preventing Hal and the Crimson Queen from taking action.
Scorched by fire, the golden ring began to melt—Then finally, it disappeared.
Naturally, the weird noise of 'nyyyaaaarrrllaaaaaathooooooottt……' also ceased.
In the next instant, Hal was able to move freely. He stood up all at once.
Hearing Hal's call, Hazumi looked back, of course, She immediately rushed to him.
Also, as soon as she arrived in front of the liberated Hal, she swiftly turned around with her back towards him.
"Senpai, please! Do what you did last time!"
"Huh? But Shirasaka, I don't think you can still use pseudo-divinity—"
It was mid-sentence when Hal noticed.
Until now, Hazumi had always been a Level 2 witch. But now, the plentiful magical power inside her had already surpassed quantities dictated by that level.
During her awakening just now, did her level as a witch advance as well?
She had probably reached Level 3. However, Hal was still hesitant despite discovering this. This posture meant that Hazumi was requesting for him to use "that method."
However, Hazumi said firmly, "If it is Senpai... If it is you, Haruomi-senpai, I am fine with it. Please use Minadzuki and my power to avenge Shamiram-san—Please!"
Seeing Hazumi so brave, Hal dispelled his indecision completely.
He reached out with his right hand and grasped Hazumi's breast tightly with his palm where the Rune of the Bow had appeared. Although she was still growing up, for a fourteen-year-old, this volume was more than enough—Hal felt the softness in his palm beyond a doubt.
In fact, seeing Hazumi show such rare initiative, Hal silently felt moved in his heart.
The massive amount of magical power produced in Hal's heart was completely transmitted into the girl's body without any loss.
He heard Hazumi's voice of pain.
In addition, his young protege used the same voice to force out a request to her partner.
"Nnnn... Minadzuki, please—Use Hinokagutsuchi-san's bow to shoot that black dragon!"
Minadzuki roared loudly. The emerald serpentine dragon leviathan was holding a crystal ball in her right forelimb. From there, a gigantic bolt of white lightning shot out.
This was the technique of assured annihilation, the sun-shooting divine bow.
Unable to resist, the False Black Queen was gradually erased by the light of the deadly lightning.
Only an ambiguous black shadow remained. Realizing that was precisely King Solomon's soul, Hal commanded at the same time.
The Crimson Queen flew towards the black shadow.
She was wielding a long sword in her right and a kodachi in her left, manifestations of the Rune of the Twin Katana. Slashing from left and right, the queen seemed to slice through the black shadow in a cross shape—
King Solomon's screaming resounded all around. However—
Although the twin blades' power caused the black shadow to shrink all at once, it did not disappear because the queen had held back. This was so that Hal inflict upon King Solomon a move of retribution that had just occurred to him.
"Runes of Ruruk Soun!"
Responding to Hal's call, five magic symbols appeared around the black shadow.
They signified "absolute obedience." A curse of coercion. In the past, King Solomon had cast this magic on his lover and priestess—Shamiram.
After casting this spell, the Crimson Queen devoured the black shadow—Solomon's ghost.
She opened her mouth, took a bite and swallowed.
"I'm sorry... but you'll have to live under my control, just like what Shamiram-san had to endure," Hal spoke quietly.
However, Solomon did not respond. King Solomon's soul was barely alive after being struck by the twin blades, virtually devoid of strength or ability to think.
Precisely because of that, "absolute obedience" was able to take effect even though it was normally ineffective against enemies of the same level.
King Solomon and his rune had now become Hal's possessions.
The seventy-two serpent souls circling in the air far above floated down one after another and were absorbed into the red queen.
In that very instant, Hal came to inherit the great king's legacy completely.
In addition, the "seize control" spell he had used to take possession of Solomon's ark also reached completion at this time, achieving 100% control.
Now that the time was right, Hal ordered the ark to return immediately to the earth.
Overhead, countless stars were hanging in the night sky.
Rather than inside the bizarre bounded field filled with a large number of sky islands, this was the night sky as seen from the earth. Similarly belonging to the earth, a light breeze blew across, gently caressing Hal and company.
The season was summer. The location was on the vast ocean.
Hal and company were riding on a wooden ship, i.e. the control device of Solomon's ark, drifting on the sea.
He hoped that their location was somewhere in the Atlantic, or near the mouth of the Hudson River where he had fought Hannibal, because in that case, they would not be far from New York City.
"Hmm, compared to a nonsensical prison, this place is still better."
In human form, Hannibal muttered to himself.
He was probably using magic. Hannibal was relaxing in the sky, using the air as his bed and mattress, reclining slothfully.
His posture was both elegant and childish.
Ignoring the lazy dragon king, Hal and Hazumi stood on the wooden ship's deck.
The two of them were facing the beautiful witch from the ancient kingdom. Shamiram's beautiful face and body were intact. Presumably, Ashkelon had cast healing magic on her.
After having made herself "presentable" flawlessly, she smiled at Hal.
"Well then, Lord Haruga... It is time that I ask you to do what you promised."
At her request, Hal pointed his right palm at Shamiram.
Appearing on the center of his palm, the Rune of the Twin Katana severed King Solomon's curse that was binding Shamiram, one of the living dead, to this world.
Next, Shamiram showed a gentle smile before vanishing instantly.
Without any touching scene, this was how they parted ways with the ancient witch. However, this type of decisive farewell was probably what she preferred, instead of setting off on her journey in sorrow.
Hal exhaled and said, "With that... This commotion has finally come to an end, I guess?"
"Looks... like it."
Hal and Hazumi spoke softly, smiling as they gazed at each other.
The two of them had surmounted many trials and tribulations to finally return to the earth. In terms of time, this journey had probably taken only two days, but in the process, the two of them seemed to have grown closer.
Hence, they were gazing at each other, smiling.
At the same time, Hinokagutsuchi materialized without warning.
The former dragon king spoke to Hal, who was filling his lungs with air from the earth's surface.
"I must apologize for this sudden question, but you ought to have remembered by now, have you not?"
"Eleven years ago, what you ate together with that girl named Asya on your first encounter."
"Now that's a really sudden question."
Hal sighed and replied, "I remember we were lost in Luxembourg and Asya used all her remaining cash to buy a hamburger. Then she shared half with me... No wait. I'm pretty sure Asya ate more than me. What about it?"
"Nothing. It is good that your memory is sound."
Even when confronted with a sudden question, Hal was able to reply fluently.
The adorable junior was watching from the side. Hal was relieved to have preserved his dignity as the senior. Incidentally, Hazumi was staring at Hal with widened eyes. There's no need to be so surprised, is there? He thought.
Hal was finally able to release that heavy weight in his heart.
Despite encountering a mountain of problems, he had managed to take care of them all. Next, all he needed to do was return to his friends at New York—
He began to think. First of all, he must confirm the current location.
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