Rakudai Kishi no Eiyuutan:Volume1 Chapter 4
Chapter 4: Debut Battle
Hagun Academy's selection battles for the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival started on Monday, one night after the Rebellion affair.
「It's finally time! On the schedule for our opening day, we have a B-Rank from the new students, a girl descended from that great hero Ryouma Kurogane―it's her first battle for Contender Shizuku Kurogane!」
This announcement from a member of the Hagun Academy broadcasting club was met with cheers by many students who had been following news on Shizuku, the second best of the first-years.
「Her opponent is a third-year student who performed in last winter's inter-school match and won against Donrou Academy's Festival representative Yamamichiyuki Azuchi. He's a C-Rank knight that everyone's looking forward to seeing in this year's Festival, Contender Shigenobu Suga! Having a young knight face such an experienced upperclassman, what a harsh debut! Will this supernova of the next generation show her strength!? Now, the beginning buzzer has sounded… what!? Contender Suga has already begun!」
A twin-sword Device crackled with electricity in Suga's hands.
"Too bad, 'supernova'! My ability is lightning, the one most effective against the water you use! It's too bad you got me as your opponent, but don't resent me for your luck! ―Hakuraijin!"
With a triumphant expression, Suga threw a slash of lightning at the unmoving Shizuku.
Shizuku tried to defend herself with a wall of water. How could water protect against lightning? Yet Shizuku's Noble Art blocked the powerful current without trouble.
「S-Somehow, lightning had no effect! Commentator Oreki-sensei, what's going on!?」
「*Cough cough* That's probably ultra-pure water….」
「Yeah… everyone thinks that water loses to electricity, right? But no, when water does so it's because impurities like ions and microbes in the water make it conductive. Water becomes less and less conductive as it becomes more and more pure, until it becomes ultra-pure and forms a complete insulator that electricity won't pass through.」
「I see… oh? Then why don't other water users copy this tactic?」
「It's not that they don't, they can't. Completely removing impurities at the ion level is like sifting gold dust from desert sand. Only Shizuku-san's level of magic control allows her to perform such a technique. If an ordinary knight tries to copy this maneuver, won't his mind burn out first? *Cough* As you'd expect for the first-year runner-up… *guh*!」
「Whoa! This is the third time that you threw up blood today! A-Are you okay, Oreki-sensei!?」
「Aah, I-I'm fine, I'm fine. If I take some medicine I'll settle down. …Aah, u'm feeling guud….」
「Oreki-sensei! Oreki-sensei! The medicine is making you slur your speech! Are you really okay!?」
「I'm fineeee…. It's just something for dealing with this disease, 'kay.」
「Sensei! You're getting completely wasted!」
What a chaotic discussion. Anyway, Shizuku seemed impervious to lightning attacks. What was Suga's reaction, now that he understood this?
"Damn, if that's true, I gotta take some distance."
But Shizuku gave a serene reply.
"And how do you intend to retreat?"
「Ah! How shocking! Contender Suga's feet are frozen to the ground! He can't get away like this!」
Shizuku shot a sphere of water thirty centimeters wide from Yoishigure, and the orb hit Suga right in the face, stopping in midair to cover his head. Suga tried to pull or peel the imprisoning orb away, but water wasn't solid, so he couldn't grab it or shake it off. He desperately sought air and clawed at the liquid, but only splashed and muddled it. Before long―
Suga's lungs used up all the air it had left, and when his hands fell limp, Shizuku finally released the watery prison. He collapsed in the ring, and at the same time, the referee made a declaration.
"Shigenobu Suga can no longer fight! The winner, Shizuku Kurogane!"
「The match is over—! Against an incompatible elemental attribute, first-year contender Kurogane has taken the win with an overwhelming difference in technique!」
Coughing modestly, Shizuku turned her gaze and returned a small gesture to Ikki as he waved at her happily from the audience seats.
"It wasn't such a big deal."
Then she turned her attention to the arena scoreboard.
…A suitable time for settling things will come soon enough.
While Shizuku was fighting in the fifteenth training arena, more than four times as many spectators were gathered at the seventh arena where the foreign princess Stella Vermillion, this year's top-ranked newcomer who had already received a nickname from the student body, was having her first match.
"You're unbeatable in a close-range fight, ya know!"
"Show us an upperclassman's intensity!"
「What amazing encouragement from the cheering section! Contender 'Heavy Tank' Momotani's place among the school's top ten most popular isn't just talk! Now, will his signature move that has blown many knights out of the stadium appear today too!? That heavy charge from the rare armor-type Device Goliath!?」
Takeshi Momotani, a giant standing 190 centimeters tall and stout as a boulder, was Stella's opponent for her first match. Pressured by the screams from the cheering section and by the host's anticipation, he lowered his heavily armored body into a ramming stance with one shoulder pointed at his opponent―but after taking the stance, Momotani didn't move.
"What's wrong, Momotani!? Blow her away like you usually do!"
"That girl lost to an F-Rank! Someone like you has more than enough to take her down, yeah!?"
His friends and classmates jeered, but Momotani himself―
That's easy for you guys say, but how am I supposed to do this…?
―was cringing at the sea of flame spread over the ring. Stella, his opponent, stood in the center of that sea with a dress of blazing flame over her body, and the heat of her Dragon Breath was grilling Momotani inside his armor despite more than ten meters of separation between them. He understood for the first time the extraordinary energy Stella held. Fighting against such an opponent was like throwing himself into a furnace.
Stella addressed the unmoving Momotani.
"It seems you have better judgment than that noisy bunch behind you. This match is a real battle, and if you just dash in, you won't get off with illusionary pain. Keeping that in mind, you should think hard before making a move."
Whether because of his own hesitation or the reasoning he just heard, Momotani took her advice quite seriously.
「W-W-What was that!? Contender Momotani, without taking a step after starting the match, has just given up!」
「Wahaha! How pitiful! Disgraceful! But wise~!」
At Momotani's decision, a petite teacher in red clothing laughed crudely from her seat at the commentator station, and said something that could be either insult or praise.
「What do you mean, Saikyou-sensei?」
「There's no way he could overcome that monster, after all! Haven't you been asking him to burn himself to death? He caaan't! But anyway, giving up before taking a single step is a great move! Ahahaha!」
「U-Umm, Saikyou-sensei, I think you should choose your words a little bit more carefully….」
The female students nearby were unable to let Saikyou's words pass. They wore tight, threatening faces.
「Wahaha. Oh no, it's getting super bad. I'm scared so I'm running away~」
Saikyou quickly fled the announcer station.
「Ah, wait, Saikyou-sensei! There are still matches left! You're leaving too early! Who are we going to get commentary from!?」
…That was some rather disordered match coverage, wasn't it?
Stella left the ring in amazement. On the way—
「Err… just now, we received news that the first-year runner-up having a bout in the fifteenth practice arena, Shizuku Kurogane, has taken a perfect victory over her opponent, third-year Shigenobu Suga!」
—she heard about Shizuku's victory. Well, she didn't think Shizuku would lose to that sort of opponent.
「But what strength! This year's freshmen top-seat and runner-up have completely shut their upperclassmen down! They've debuted in these matches without being touched! The new students this year really are something else! With them, reaching the summit of the Seven Stars might even be possible!」
Ikki greeted Stella as she returned to the dorm room after the first day of selection battles ended. Her response was flat, but from how her nose twitched, she didn't seem to completely disregard his greeting.
"Haa. Well, if I have to fight in this sort of competition, I should at least win."
"I guess I didn't get to see your match after all."
"I just torched something superfluous, like usual."
"But it's disappointing that I couldn't make it."
"…I'm the one who's disappointed."
"Eh? What did you say?"
"N-Nothing! We can't help that Shizuku's match was scheduled in the same slot, but next time come and watch my fight properly!"
"Sure, of course. Anyway, aren't you back a bit late?"
"The fight was a letdown and I didn't know what to do with my energy, so I went to the gym for a workout."
"I see. But it's really great that you and Shizuku, and Alice too, all of you won."
Arisuin's match had been held in the fifteenth training arena right after Shizuku's, and he beat a second-year E-Rank opponent in ten seconds. Though Arisuin described himself as disadvantaged in direct combat, his performance showed he was worth being chosen as the roommate of the first-year runner-up.
"I also saw Alice's strength in the fight against Rebellion, but he finds being the attacker disagreeable and kept his offensive ability secret. That sort of trickiness might be a bad match-up for you."
"I won't lose no matter who my opponent is. I mean… you shouldn't be worrying about other people."
"Ah, haha. I guess so."
Ikki returned his attention to the match he had been watching on TV before Stella entered. In that match was Ikki's next opponent, Shizuya Kirihara.
"Again with that guy's recording? You've been watching it over and over since yesterday, haven't you?"
"Yeah. I thought I should understand his moves as well as I could."
The recording was a piece of data that he begged for and received from the newspaper club president Kagami Kusakabe. It was footage from a first-round bout in last year's Sword-Art Festival. In it, Kirihara circled his opponent and shot arrows continuously. That opponent only searched for Kirihara in bewilderment until collapsing from blood loss, unable to fight back even though Kirihara was standing right there. Why? Because the opponent couldn't see him.
"It won't help no matter how many times you watch that boy's tactics."
Stella gazed at the recording scornfully, and Ikki understood her mood. The recording's content was vexing; instead of two contenders in a match, it was more like one player at a shooting gallery.
"However, that method is certainly effective. He didn't take a scratch in his fights all year. Kirihara-kun is strong."
"...But isn't it strange? That guy supposedly fought in last year's Sword-Art Festival, but wasn't able to become a Seven Stars Sword King. Then he must have lost, right?"
"In the second round. But that's a loss by abstention."
"Kirihara-kun didn't fight an opponent who could beat Area Invisible. His ability is strong, but wide-range attacks work well against him. Kirihara-kun can't fight people who have a way to strike the entire ring. For example, you can turn an arena into a sea of flame, right?"
"I see. Invisibility doesn't matter to an attack that covers the entire battlefield."
"Yep, so there's no question he'll withdraw from the fight if he's facing someone like you. Because he has this fighting style that's inappropriate for a knight, he was given the nickname 'Hunter'."
"…Hmph. That's not a very cool nickname. I don't have an opponent I can't win against, and with just a rebuke besides. In comparison, that boy is a total coward."
Kirihara was only strong as long as he was safe. Moreover his style inflicted unnecessary pain on his opponent by avoiding fatal strikes on purpose. It made Stella sick just watching it.
"But… I understand why you say this is your worst opponent."
"Right? He's my natural enemy."
Ikki needed a wide-range technique to defeat Area Invisible, but he had none. He certainly possessed superior sword technique, a tempered body, and skill in hand-to-hand, but all his attacks were short-ranged, and the scope of his offense was limited to melee. Kirihara's Device Oborotsuki was a bow, a long-range weapon, so Kirihara would always take the first move. And more than anything else, Ikki's trump card Ittou Shura could only be used once a day, with a strict duration of a single minute. It was abysmal against abilities that specialize in escape.
On the screen, Kirihara's opponent was being carried out on a stretcher. Stella, whose eyes might see something similarly tragic happening to Ikki himself tomorrow, anxiously spoke.
"It's okay, Ikki."
"You're not worried, are you?"
At his unconcerned response, Stella's face quickly reddened.
"I'm not really worried about you! I'm only worried that if you won't win, I'll have to be that person's girlfriend! Being your slave is the worst, but being that smug boy's girlfriend is even worse than that!"
"You accepted his wager on your own, you know? It's troubling if you make me responsible for it. After I told you to stop, even."
"Uh… but… you were being such an idiot, it was frustrating."
"Eh? But… what?"
Stella suddenly turned her eyes away from Ikki, but while her words were too childish, he understood that Stella wanted him to win.
"Well, I don't need Kirihara-kun's apology, but I also don't want you to see me defeated."
"Do you have a plan?"
Ikki declared so without hesitation.
"I've already found a way to beat him."
Kirihara was the top-ranked newcomer of Ikki's generation, a tough opponent whose overly-strong ability made him the school's Festival representative despite being a first-year. But even so, Kirihara hadn't made it past the second round; how would Ikki take the summit if he stumbled such an opponent? Besides, the Sword-Art Festival fielded six of the best fighters in the school. His homeroom teacher Oreki had said the average knight fights ten matches or more, which meant the ones who go undefeated without withdrawing along the way might have to fight around twenty. If he was beaten here, perhaps he never stood a chance anyway.
But if he was beaten here, everything he endured would end up meaningless. He couldn't allow that.
"I'll definitely win."
Though Ikki sounded slightly different from usual, his strong words satisfied Stella. In fact, before Stella came back to the room, Nagi Arisuin had called out to her after his own match was over. Arisuin had conveyed to Stella a worry about whether Ikki was nervous over his first match, but this energetic attitude was probably fine. Stella understood Ikki's strength the most.
"So it's fine. You'll definitely beat that guy. You're already throwing down the spoon."
"No, no, throwing the spoon is the opposite of what I'm doing."
Stella's Japanese was fluent, but her knowledge of proverbs and manners was dubious, like in the talk about seppuku.
"Anyway, isn't it time for dinner? I'm hungry."
"Yeah, I've already watched the video plenty, so let's go."
"Japanese people eat curry with pork cutlet at times like this, right?"
"…Err, no, we don't really have that kind of custom. Noodles as usual are fine."
Two people left the dorm room for the dining hall together, and so the first day of matches ended like a normal Monday.
「Sorry, Kurogane. I can't stay friends with you anymore.」
Ikki was startled awake by a terrible dream. His hands were tightened unintentionally, and his palms were sweaty.
Why did I have a dream from last year?
Apologetic words echoed in Ikki's mind. He wasn't sleepy anymore, so to cool his head a little, Ikki descended from his upper bunk and left the room, being careful not to rouse Stella as she breathed lightly.
It's a little early for running….
The air before dawn was chilly, but since it was the beginning of April, that chill was comfortable on a sweating body.
"Really, I wonder why I remembered after such a long time?"
Though nobody was around to answer, Ikki still let that question slip out.
「The board chairman seems suspicious of anyone friendly with that guy.」
How long ago did this rumor start? When did he become a solitary student who couldn't take combat classes, with the disingenuous excuse that "he lacks ability, so it's dangerous to let him practice"? He was given no choice, and even if few people knew the staff's attitude for sure, everyone suspected it.
「Associating with Ikki will get you in trouble.」
If such a rumor got spread around, then of course people would keep their distance.
"That reminds me, it was right over there."
Ikki looked through a dormitory corridor window down at the courtyard, a plaza with a lushly growing lawn. Back when everyone was coming to believe those rumors, when everyone except his roommate drew away from Ikki, an unusual person called out to Ikki during lunch. That person was Shizuya Kirihara, the top student of Ikki's class and a superstar who had appeared in the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival despite being a first-year.
In truth, Ikki had already gotten a poor impression of Kirihara. Unlike the ordinary students who stayed away from Ikki and didn't pick fights, Kirihara—without condemning Ikki directly—would slander him with a purposefully loud voice in the classroom, spread unfavorable gossip about him to their classmates, and harass him in various other ways.
Why? Ikki didn't remember attracting Kirihara's enmity. They probably had no real grudge. With no one defending Ikki at the time, Kirihara had spread the idea that messing with Ikki is fine because Ikki was the type of unneeded person that can be found anywhere. Kirihara probably thought confronting Ikki was just a natural thing to do.
Ikki figured they had no reasonable business with each other, and it had indeed been a worthless conversation.
「How long are you gonna keep taking the teachers' scorn like this, when they won't recognize your real ability even if you suffer for the rest of your life? Now's the time to duel with me, right?」
If Ikki had a fair fight with Kirihara who appeared in the Sword-Art Festival, the teachers surely wouldn't be able to deny Ikki's ability, right? It was a proposal that should greatly appeal to him… but Ikki couldn't accept. Though they were in school, fighting without a teacher's permission would be punished. If Ikki was even a little bit tainted by scandal, the board chairman who was connected to the Kurogane household would expel him with glee. And that was Kirihara's goal. Back then, there had been signs of many teachers at the plaza, all of them cronies of the board chairman who always treated Ikki badly. Maybe they were behind Kirihara's actions. Understanding that, Ikki turned down the offer and started to leave. But then―
「Don't say that. I'm worried about you as a classmate.」
―Kirihara prepared to shoot with his Device, Oborotsuki, at Ikki's turned back. Ikki disregarded the challenge, and didn't summon his own weapon.
"I was really amazed at the time, huh…."
He was surprised that despite Kirihara's conduct, nobody reprimanded Kirihara at all, neither the students nearby nor the teachers who were waiting to see what happened. Back then, Ikki hadn't even realized his own position, didn't know how crushing his isolation was.
The teachers seemed to expect Ikki being deceived by Kirihara's provocation, because expulsion was surely the best outcome for the Kurogane house's request that Ikki not become a professional mage-knight. Ikki knew that of course, and he had taken many such attacks without ever summoning Intetsu. If he were to avoid them, someone might interpret his evasion as fighting intent, so he didn't even try to dodge.
Ikki allowed Kirihara's arrow to hit him, and blacked out… so evidence of his refusal to fight was captured by a school security camera, and he wasn't blamed for the affair. But Kirihara's punishment was only a stern warning and a forced apology. It was clear that the board chairman's party had exchanged a secret agreement with Kirihara beforehand.
"Thinking back over it, what a worthless year, huh?"
The harassment didn't stop after that one time, but gradually grew more malicious. There were many students who made Ikki's life miserable, and little by little the atmosphere they, the teachers, and Kirihara's group created piled up―before long, even the last person who had been Ikki's friend, the boy who was Ikki's roommate, turned away with a painful expression. Ikki hadn't voiced any anger, but clearly remembered the regret that had almost burst out. After that, they stopped speaking to each other. If the boy started a conversation, Ikki probably wouldn't have been able to ignore him. Since he didn't, Ikki ignored him diligently. The boy advanced in grade before long, so Ikki who was repeating the year didn't see him anymore, but―
"But I wonder why I had this dream after such a long time?"
It was already done and over with, and Ikki didn't care enough about it to be recalling it in his dreams. This must've been from talking with Kirihara after all.
Well, there's no need to ponder it, right?
It had nothing to do with the present. That board chairman was gone, and nobody was hindering Ikki. Only his own efforts decided the future now.
Suddenly, a warm light shined on the side of Ikki's face. Bright golden light blazed forth from the dormitory window and the townscape's silhouette beyond. Squinting at the light that announced the break of day, Ikki certainly felt it.
It was the beginning of the H-block matches. Today, everything of Ikki Kurogane would be tested.
School continued as usual in the morning, and the selection battles were conducted from the afternoon until evening. Ikki's turn was at one-thirty. It was one of the early slots, a delicate time when lunch was still stuffed firmly in his stomach, and on that day he finished the gelatin provided by the school cafeteria. Along with Stella, Shizuku, and Arisuin, he was going to his match at the fourth training arena.
The time was already one o'clock. In the ring, the match before Ikki's was already being held. The people appearing needed to come early and wait on standby, but there were still twenty minutes left. Sitting in the audience seats for a while and viewing other people's fights together with friends was probably not a bad idea. Both Stella and Shizuku intended to do so. Not Ikki, though.
"I'm going to the waiting room a little bit early."
"Eh? You won't watch some matches here?"
"No, right now I want to concentrate on my own."
Ikki was already readying himself against Kirihara. He'd hate to disturb his mindset by watching someone else's match.
"Well, I'm off."
"Please triumph, Onii-sama. I have faith in you."
"Since you told me yesterday that you'll win, I won't forgive a poor showing."
"Be careful, okay?"
Returning a nod to each of those three different forms of encouragement, Ikki headed toward the waiting room.
"Ikki Kurogane of Year One Class One? Your identity has been confirmed. Here's your student datapad."
The female receptionist in front of the waiting room completed the match formalities using her computer terminal.
"Since the first match is ending, I'll explain the rules for the selection battles. These battles use the same actual-combat format as the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival: one-on-one duels. There is no time limit. Surrender is allowed. Because it's actual combat, illusionary form is not used, so there is a possibility that the lives of participants will be endangered. Various staff personnel are present in the arena to forestall such incidents, and depending on the situation the referee may also stop the match, but nevertheless absolute safety is not guaranteed. Taking that risk into account, if you are determined to participate, press the 'Yes' button on the datapad's display. If not, please press the 'No' button. However, once you press 'No', you can no longer join the selection battle entry lottery, so please choose carefully."
Ikki pressed "Yes" without hesitation.
"Wahaha, a lad who makes a prompt decision, I see―♪"
A playful voice made Ikki turn around, and standing there behind him was a petite girl in a blossom-patterned white kimono and an eye-catching red haori. An innocent girl's features with a loose kimono that didn't match her height―this combination gave an awfully childish impression, but Ikki knew she wasn't a student.
"Nene Saikyou-san... am I right?"
"Ohh? You know my name?"
"Everyone in this school knows last year's Japanese Olympics representative and the KOK top league contender, the 'Yaksha Princess'."
"KOK" was the "King of Knights", a contest between Blazers in hand-to-hand combat. It was the most popular sport in the world, said to make three trillion yen in broadcast revenue in one year. All mage-knights knew of this person, who was both a star at that level and an active celebrity athlete called the strongest in the Asian-Pacific. Later on, she became a topic on many talk shows because she had quite an infamous private life. Well, that wasn't something he should mention to the person herself, but….
"But why is an active professional in a place like this?"
"Of course, I came to meet you, Ikki Kurogane...-kun."
"Yeah, yeah. Since Kuu-chan... ah, that's Shinguuji. I was wondering what kind of F-Rank person Kuu-chan would have her eyes on, and came here to see."
"Ohh… but I thought the academy is strictly barring entrance to outsiders."
"Not a problem. After Kuu-chan fired the useless teachers, she didn't have enough aides, so I came to help in my free time since we're of the same generation. I've received a legitimate teaching appointment."
"I see, is that how it is?"
Ikki instantly understood, because he also knew the former board chairman's teaching staff had been massively restructured at the time Kurono took her position. Saikyou nodded.
"After that, well, I wanted to take the opportunity to sample some delicious-looking young men… wait, maybe I shouldn't put it like that? Ignore what I just said."
"I-I didn't hear anything."
"Wahaha. I like tactful men, lad. I like gallant men too. A strong, prompt decision is very attractive. All matches before high school require illusionary form, so a lot of kids panic when their schools turn into splendid execution grounds, right?"
Actual combat was always accompanied by bloodshed. Even in KOK league battles, it wasn't rare to see arms and legs cut off and sent flying. Such injuries were recoverable via the use of iPS capsules, but the spectacle of severed limbs was still devastating. New students would naturally become scared by such images. Ikki shook his head, though.
"I've known about all that ever since I first decided to become a mage-knight."
"It's human nature to lose your nerve even if you know it. Still, your courage is worthy of the only one Kuu-chan has set her eyes on, huh? And looking closely, you have a wonderfully cute face. Isn't that right, lad?"
At that moment, the meter of distance between Ikki and Saikyou vanished.
Ikki was surprised that someone had gotten so unexpectedly close. Saikyou had gracefully flattened herself against his chest, and was now turning her eyes up at him seductively.
"How about a special lesson tonight in my room―"
"You bitch, what are you doing to my student?"
A threatening voice came from over Saikyou's head. Its owner was a scowling woman in a suit, the board chairman Kurono Shinguuji.
"Whoa, what a surprise! Stop it, Kuu-chan, standing behind me so suddenly. I might've killed you before I realized who it was."
"Could you kill me if you tried? Leaving that aside, what are you doing here? You were supposed to provide commentary and supervision in the fourth training arena, right?"
"Ah, yeah, but the match was tiresome so I had some free time. I just came over a bit to inspect Kuu-chan's favorite, and maybe take the chance to pluck a flower."
"I-It's not like he's my favorite!"
Kurono seemed a little bit embarrassed as she struck the shorter Saikyou's whorl of hair with a thump, and Ikki averted his gaze from the unusual expression she made.
"Sorry, Kurogane. I've disturbed your concentration with a strange quarrel."
"N-No. I was a little bit surprised, but I'm fine."
"She's heading back right now, so don't worry about her nonsense. Hey, return to your station, you walking public indecency!"
"Yeah yeah, I get it, I get it, so don't pull on my clothes! I see your point already!"
Kurono pulled Saikyou away, her effort making a dragging sound across the floor. As Ikki watched them go, Kurono gave one last message over her shoulder.
"I said this some time ago, but don't go overboard, because tonight is a celebration party with everyone."
Her words implied that he would win.
"Wahaha. It can't be helped if plans have been made, right? Too bad, too bad. If that's how it is, show me an entertaining fight. Your match is one I'm watching over."
A slender index finger came out of Saikyou's long sleeve and pointed at Ikki. Saikyou floated a giggle and left together with Kurono, her single-toothed clogs clopping.
How serious was any of that…? What an unreadable person.
However, his body felt only her strength.
A moment ago, she leaned herself on me before I knew it.
Ikki had never felt that before, that uncomfortable experience of someone getting close without him being able to react. It was probably some kind of classical martial art, perhaps a variety of footwork from an ancient Japanese martial lineage. He didn't know exactly what kind of trick it was, but―
"…Uh, it's no good if I don't concentrate on the match in front of me right now."
Short footwork that uses eye-to-eye contact with an opponent to make distance hard to measure. It was an interesting technique, but there was probably no way to practice it at the moment, so he had to suppress his interest for now and continue preparing for his important match.
Focusing on his preparation, Ikki stepped into the waiting room. It had several lockers and benches, plus full-length mirrors affixed to the walls, and was otherwise a rather dreary space with nothing to see. However, inside the room was also a small door that released an odd pressure. Beyond that door, the stage of his formal debut battle was waiting.
I've arrived at last, huh?
Seven Stars Sword King. The road leading to the summit as a student knight. That beginning step. Coming here… lots of things had happened. Family, time, friends… he had lost many things. Nevertheless, he continued to walk forward without giving up, and arrived at this moment. Beyond this door, his fight with Kirihara awaited him. Had any of his pain and sacrifice been meaningful? Now was the time to have his answer, but―
His heart suddenly jumped.
W-What… is this?
His field of vision was shaking. Colors were blurring like paint in water, and he felt sick. Was something happening to his body? He didn't know. He didn't know, but his throat was terribly thirsty. Water. If he didn't drink some water―with that thought, Ikki opened the cap to a plastic bottle he brought in. However, his hand didn't move as he wished, and the bottle fell onto a bench. The cap rolled. Water spilled. His shoes got wet. If he didn't wipe it off. With what? With what? No, before that, his throat was―
「First-year Ikki Kurogane-kun. Second-year Shizuya Kirihara-kun. Your match is now starting, so please come to the entrance.」
The announcer dragged Ikki's awareness back to the surface of his turbulent thoughts. When he looked at the clock in confusion, the time was one-thirty. Even though he came early―
The heck, how many minutes was I standing here...
No way, was I that nervous…?
Settle down. Settle down. Ikki regained control of his heart, being mindful of himself. He had already seen through his opponent's trick in the video. He had analyzed the strength his enemy used for shooting, the angle of the shots, and the expected maneuvers afterward. He had already developed a way to break Kirihara's Noble Art, Area Invisible. He had trained his counter-strategy through many simulations.
It was fine to be nervous, and fine to win too. If he won, the hardships he had put up with so far would be vindicated, because they wouldn't be pointless―!
With that strongly in mind, Ikki subdued his jumping heartbeat and went to open the door to the ring.
「Okay, the third match has ended! It's finally today's fourth match, and amazing people have entered! Hey, aren't a ton of people watching this match!? Continuing the live coverage is me, Tsukuyomi from the broadcasting club, and in charge of commentary is Nene Saikyou-sensei! Now, let's introduce the contenders! First is the previous year's top-seated new student who appeared in last year's Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival. He achieved the amazing feat of destroying Bunkyoku Academy's third-year representative, who was considered most likely to win the championship, in a crushing match during the first round! Claiming he'll win against any opponent he can beat, he's seized perfect victories in both regular and inter-school fights, earning him the nickname "Hunter"! He's the highest leading challenger for the Sword-Art Festival representative position, second-year contender Shizuya Kirihara!」
Kirihara, who was standing in the ring, raised one hand. In response, high-pitched cheers erupted from the spectator stands.
「As you'd expect of Contender Kirihara's good face and figure, he has extraordinary popularity with the girls!」
「Me, eh, my tastes go toward a little more wild―」
「I'm not listening to Saikyou-sensei's tastes.」
Holding a grudge against Saikyou for escaping and abandoning the job, Tsukuyomi gave Saikyou the cold shoulder as she introduced Kirihara's opponent.
「Now, facing the Hunter is an F-Rank knight! But don't make light of him, because he's no ordinary F-Rank! Just about everyone here already knows that this competitor has somehow won in a mock battle with that A-Rank knight, the "Crimson Princess" Stella Vermillion, as his opponent! Was the strength shown in that recording the real thing!? Or is he, as we thought, just an ordinary "Worst One"!? Now's the time to make this mysterious power clear! It's the first-year contender Ikki Kurogane!」
Ikki lightly saluted the audience.
What an amazing number of people.
Fighting for the first time in front of such an audience was somehow very agitating, and Ikki felt a distance between his body and spirit as if someone else had entered the ring. His awareness was stuck in a white haze, and he couldn't assemble thoughts well. As Ikki stood bewildered, Kirihara addressed him.
"I can't believe you actually came out. Even though you did the smart thing in the past and ran away from my challenge."
"…That's already an old story."
"Really? Well, whatever you say. But now that you're on this stage… have you prepared yourself?"
"We're already standing here. Do you need to ask?"
After lightly bantering, the two duelists took their stances.
"Come forth, Intetsu."
"Time to hunt, Oborotsuki."
Both parties summoned their Devices. Ikki called a black steel katana to his right hand, and Kirihara took a green bow.
「And now, today's fourth match. Begin!」
The starting signal for the match came. And at the same time, Kirihara's body disappeared from the stage.
「Ooh! It's suddenly out, Area Invisible! Using this, Contender Kirihara can't be seen by the naked eye!」
「What a bothersome ability~. It can't be dealt with except by a wide-range attack.」
「Yes! In the first round of last year's Sword-Art Festival, the third-year from Bunkyoku Academy who fought with Contender Kirihara was the type to specialize in close-range single-hit kills, but because he didn't have a wide-range attack skill, he was defeated easily. Does Contender Kurogane have a wide-range attack!? We're not exaggerating when we say these things, you know!」
The hunter concealed himself in the deep forest, and from cover drew his bow on his prey. Seeing that hunter was already impossible, so there was no one to stop that shot, and from what should be empty air, magic arrows suddenly appeared and drilled into Ikki's back from his blind spot!
That was how it should have worked.
「Knocked away! Contender Kurogane has used his katana to knock away the unseen enemy's arrow!」
「No, it's not over yet~. Look!」
As Saikyou said, Ikki hadn't just deflected the arrow coming from his blind spot. He immediately spun his body half-way around like a top, and ran in the direction those arrows were flying from.
Kirihara was certainly impossible to see. However, the arrows were different.
The location of the hand sending those arrows can be calculated from where those arrows fly. That's Area Invisible's weakness!
If one carefully determines the arrows' moment of appearance, it was possible to spy out this location. Ikki's strategy against Area Invisible was to calculate the opponent's direction and distance from the force and angle of those arrows.
Ikki swung Intetsu's blade, aiming at the place where the enemy must be. But the edge scythed down empty air, and from empty air, scraps of a uniform fluttered down gently.
"Ha, so close. Not only deflecting an attack from a blind spot but even guessing my position after I disappeared? That takes real concentration. Is this what they call seeing without sight?"
"It's hardly something that great."
Ikki returned humility to the voice that had become vague in both range and direction. However, unlike his humble words, Ikki was feeling quite confident.
This is good!
Before the match, his concentration had become disarrayed, but the strategy he worked out beforehand for dealing with Area Invisible was working splendidly. He was sure to catch Kirihara next time. Holding that strong spirit, Ikki concentrated in preparation for the second shot.
"Ooh, scary eyes. Making those eyes at a former classmate is pretty cruel, no?"
"It's hardly unreasonable for a match."
"Hmph. In other words, you're trying to beat me?"
"If not, I wouldn't have come here."
"…Haha, hahaha! Indeed it's just like you. I thought repeating the same grade might make you understand your position, but just like before it seems there's no way to fix stupidity. You haven't changed at all, still acting like you did in the past. So, so disagreeably."
Bloodlust filled Kirihara's voice, and Ikki knew it was time to focus on the second shot. Sharpening his concentration to take in all possible angles, he stretched out his perceptions and provoked an attack.
"If you think it's disagreeable, you should nock an arrow into that bow and shoot to kill. I'll brush it away entirely."
He'd use Ittou Shura the moment he perceived the next arrow, before Kirihara could escape. Victory would be decided here!
"Heh… a face with fighting spirit. Surely your sword arm is terrific. That's something even I'd acknowledge. But how sad, it's only so great as far as peasants go. For Blazers, humanity's new chosen breed, battles are all about ability! I wonder if an F-Rank who's not much more than garbage can break my Area Invisible?"
"We won't know unless we try."
"True enough. Then from now on, I'll do this."
In that moment, blood spurted from a hole in Ikki's right thigh.
A hot metallic pain raced through Ikki's thigh and stabbed into his brain.
Ikki let out a cry in shock. But astonishment outweighed the pain.
Despite sharpening his concentration and checking possible lines for every attack, how had he just been injured? Holding together his disordered consciousness tightly, Ikki looked down at the hole which had been suddenly opened in his thigh. Where he looked, there was a spray of blood hanging unnaturally in midair, as if the blood was coiling around something transparent. Reaching out with a hand, he grasped something solid there.
"It can't be…."
For Ikki, this was the worst case scenario.
"Exactly. This year, the arrows I shoot can also be hidden. Do you understand? In other words, my attacks can strike invisibly!"
Arisuin frowned as he watched the match from the spectator seats.
"This is bad, isn't it?"
"Yes. Onii-sama marked the arrows' flight, and thought of a way to deal with Kirihara. But… right now, that plan has been ripped apart. If he can't see the arrows, then forget about counterattacking, he can't even defend or evade…."
"As you'd expect from last year's Festival representative, no? What an outrageous ability."
Suddenly, Stella cut into Arisuin's words.
"Area Invisible is certainly such foul play that even I was surprised, but that's not the problem! More than that… Ikki was acting weird beforehand!"
"Onii-sama was acting weird?"
"That's right! After all, why didn't he attack immediately after the match started!? He should know his opponent would disappear! Then wouldn't the instant the match starts be the deciding moment!?"
Hearing that, Shizuku replied in astonishment.
"You, haven't you learned anything from the terrorist matter the other day? Don't you think that carelessly rushing into a Blazer opponent would be suicide? Onii-sama's tactics are based on reading the enemy's tricks and stealing his idiosyncrasies. This was done to you too, wasn't it?"
But Stella shook her head.
"That's not it. Sure, Ikki observes his opponent and carries out a plan to win, but… the enemy this time disappeared, you know? He'd be constantly facing attacks from an invisible enemy. How badly do you think he's being pressured by exhaustion!?"
Shizuku also realized this upon being told. The mental strain from not knowing where the arrow was coming from, the pressure of staying alert continuously, such exhaustion was beyond the norm. For this drawn-out contest, Ikki's usual plan was terrible. Compared to that, seizing the opponent's position with a swift attack at the start looked hasty at a glance, but it was actually the best choice.
"Despite that, why…?"
To Stella who was grinding her teeth, Arisuin answered with the reason Ikki neglected a fast opening attack.
"It's not that he didn't do it. He couldn't do it."
"Difficulty's no reason not to try! Isn't Ikki obviously the sort of knight who won't give up!?"
"It's because he won't give up that Ikki's now giving out."
"No way! That kind of thing is completely…."
Not like him. Stella was going to say it, but her words stopped in her mouth. Did she really believe them?
「I'll definitely win.」
Ikki had been behaving a little bit strangely yesterday. Was he the type to use strong words like "definitely win" before a fight? His duel with her had been different, at least.
「But you know, it won't be clear if we don't fight it out.」
Despite aiming for victory, he understood the dangers of a match quite well. Could it be that Ikki's strong words had only been a frantic attempt to deny the pressure he felt from the possibility of losing?
"It seems you know what I mean. But don't blame yourself for not noticing, Stella-chan. It's hardly something you'd be responsible for when not even the person himself is aware of it."
"The person himself?"
"Yes, Ikki is too used to being wounded. He can't hear the cries from his own heart. If we consider how he struggled to get into this competition, it's certainly abnormal to struggle that way for as long as he has."
Ikki's hardships in coming here. Thinking of that, Stella lost her words of denial. No one understood him, no one helped him. Being denied opportunities for an utterly outrageous year… no, enduring months and years of the same before that. He believed that a chance would eventually come, but at the same time, that chance would also risk everything he endured. If he lost here, those bitter experiences would all come to nothing. And in that kind of decisive test, he faced a capable opponent who was his natural enemy―
His mind must be strained by a situation like that….
Acting normally was impossible with so many pressures smothering him. They would surely be impossible to bear.
Why didn't I notice that? Even though I'm closest to Ikki…?
Now that it was too late, she was regretting her ignorance. And as Arisuin thought, Ikki's accumulated stress had erupted at the worst time.
"Anyway… now that the arrows are hidden, Ikki's fangs won't reach this Hunter concealed in his deep forest. Both of you should brace yourselves. What starts here won't be a match, but a straightforward hunt."
It was ten minutes after the start of the match, and the voice of Tsukuyomi, who was providing live coverage, was faltering. In the ring, Ikki could just barely raise his sword with bloodsoaked hands. He had been reduced to this after Kirihara's invisible arrows destroyed his strategy. Yet the battle still continued, because while arrows had been driven through every part of his arms and legs, none had pierced his vitals. Was that mercy? No, everyone watching knew that it wasn't. This spectacle showed only a Hunter tormenting prey.
At the excessively lopsided match, Tsukuyomi tried to plea with Saikyou sitting next to her.
"Saikyou-sensei! There's no more meaning to this fight! I'm begging you, please end the match! We can't watch any more of this cruelty!"
But Saikyou didn't respond. Hiding her usually easygoing manner from just a while ago, she was staring at the ring with a dreadfully earnest expression, so Tsukuyomi continued her coverage helplessly.
「…Contender Kurogane admirably knocked away Kirihara's first shot, but from the invisible arrow of the second shot onward, he's been completely unable to react, and the match has proceeded hopelessly. But Contender Kurogane still hasn't surrendered. Maybe he has some kind of plan?」
Ikki laughed bitterly at Tsukuyomi's announcement.
Can't say I do. My strategy was shallow….
If he had thought about it, Kirihara would obviously be different between this year and last, so the opening moment when stealth would be least effective was the point where victory favored him the most. Realizing something so obvious so late, Ikki had become more and more conscious of his own mental strain and cracking composure.
It's just like Alice said, huh?
Thinking back, the dream he saw this morning might've been the cries of his heart that Arisuin mentioned, but Ikki hadn't realized it then. He was too used to acting tough, and this was the pathetic outcome.
…No, I can't be worrying over that right now.
Well then, what was the best option? What should he do from here on? How would he capture this invisible opponent?
"Heh heh heh. Not giving up even this late in the game… it's beyond amazing."
"…Withdrawing over just this much… would be even worse than repeating a year."
"Yes, yes, that's quite like you. Alright, to show a little respect, I'll give you a handicap. I'll tell you the place I'll pierce you next. Try and avoid it. Now, here I go. To start with, the left thigh."
"What's the matter? Your reaction is slow. There, right shoulder!"
"Come on, try to dodge! The next one is your right ear!"
"Your movements are slow, Kurogane-kun! Don't you have some motivation? Put more spirit into it and run around! Here, left shoulder! Right thigh, right palm, calf, right knee, small intestine, stomach! Liver! Kidney! Large intestine! You'll die, you'll die! If you don't dodge well, you're as good as dead!"
Ikki's knees finally collapsed as Kirihara's arrows started to fly at the internal organs in his torso.
"Hehehe, ahahahaha! So disgraceful and dirty! You have a miserable face on, don't you Kurogane-kun? Now now, keep fighting, keep fighting with a smile. You should have a reason to keep fighting, isn't that right? After all, Kurogane-kun, you're in this match because you want to graduate."
To Kirihara's unexpected words, the spectators felt their breaths seizing in their throats.
「H-Hey, what is he saying about graduating?」
「They said that not joining the selection battles doesn't impact grades, right?」
「Wait a second! I declined because there's no penalty for….」
"Ah, sorry, sorry everyone. It looks like there's a little misunderstanding. Calm down. The only one who wants to graduate is this guy. The F-Rank knight here, Ikki Kurogane-kun, has ability so low-grade and ordinary, it seems he can't graduate. Because of that, the new board chairman created an exception that if he takes the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival's championship, and becomes the Seven Stars Sword King, he'll be allowed to graduate."
That truth was announced to the spectators. Their commotion suddenly stopped, and―
"…Bu-AHAHA HAHA HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!"
Laughter that ebbed and flowed like the tide exploded from nearly every spectator in unison, and filled the fourth training arena.
「He'll graduate by becoming the Seven Stars Sword King!? Hey hey, you're not serious!」
「There's no way such a thing's possible for an F-Rank! The new chairman has gotta be kidding!」
「Pff, and that idiot accepted that promise!?」
「Hahaha, forgetting his place and coming all the way here is pitiful, ain't it!?」
「There's no way some guy getting wiped out at the first fight can become the Sword King, right!? Hahahahahaha!」
The Seven Stars Sword King was the summit for all student knights in Japan. Among the past generations of Kings, almost all of them were B-Rank, with the remainders being C- and an extreme minority of A-Rank knights. An F-Rank, a below-average failing student crawling in the dirt, could not possibly take that summit. By common sense, it could only be a joke.
But there were people who raised their voices to oppose the resounding scorn. They were Ikki's classmates.
「That's not true! Kurogane-san really is amazing!」
「That's right! We've seen it! We've seen Kurogane-san defeat five people wielding Devices with his bare hands!」
「More than anything, didn't Kurogane-kun win against Vermillion-san who's an A-Rank knight? An A-Rank that rarely shows up even among the Seven Stars Sword Kings? And he has real ability that he can win with!」
「I~diots. Don't you know? That recording was determined to be just some questionable thing from the Net.」
「You guys are the idiots. How can a princess participate in something questionable? It'd be impossible, if you think about it.」
「What the hell do you know? Did you know your F-Rank is a son of the Kurogane house, that wealthy and world-renowned mage-knight lineage?」
「That's right, that's right. That Kurogane family sent money to the poor Vermillion Empire and arranged a fixed match to support their kid. It's probably to distinguish him by having him win against a rumored prodigy.」
「Wha… that can't be!」
「If you say it can't be, then an F-Rank winning against an A-Rank is even less likely. We don't know why she's supporting that guy, but shouldn't you guys put some common sense into your heads?」
To that argument, the classmates supporting Ikki gulped down their words, leaving the arena filled with nothing but jeers.
「Someone who buys a win with his parents' influence, becoming the Seven Stars Sword King? Don't make me laugh, idiot!」
「You're garbage, a disgrace to us knights!」
「Aren't you reaching beyond your ability despite being an F-Rank!? You fraud!」
The Kurogane household fixing a match to support their own son? It was a lie based on unfounded rumor, probably the irresponsible fantasy of somebody on an anonymous online forum, tossed into the public consciousness where it had spread widely. There was no way the Kurogane house that continuously tormented Ikki would do such a thing, and even as a joke it was also preposterous at best that the Vermillion Empire's royalty would take a bribe from what was nothing more than a single knight family.
However, that fantasy had been taken as truth here, because it was comfortable. The majority of student knights were E- and D-Rank, envious people who constantly look up to those called 'prodigies' existing above them. To such E- and D-Ranks, the ones labeled F-Rank were few in number and lower than themselves, people safe to look down upon and abuse. They needed inferiors who they can surpass, who would call them geniuses and consider them blessed. Because they were resigned to never achieve feats like beating an A-Rank, they had little to feel good about, so they took a convenient fantasy as the truth and raised their voices in insults.
To those words, Ikki ground his teeth.
It's frustrating, huh….
Ikki didn't particularly want other people's evaluations, didn't particularly want anybody's approval. He wasn't concerned about who's going on about what at this point. But… it pained him that bad things were even being said about Stella, so of course his own worthlessness was irritating him.
"Oh, oh, it seems you're being thoroughly gossiped over. But what can we do? Everyone saw you dreaming beyond your means, and it made them angry."
Kirihara rubbed the insults in relentlessly, while Ikki hung his head and rested on his knees.
"How about I have you accept facts already? A small fry with something like body strengthening as his ability, continuing to fight in this place? Because of my Area Invisible, you don't have arms or legs left to use. This is reality, you know? A person's status is decided from birth. In the end, there's no truth to ideas like great effort coming before talent. No matter how bravely you act, it just looks ugly. Hey, doesn't everyone think so too!?"
「It's just as Kirihara-kun says!」
「You're really unsightly! Isn't it like Shizuya-kun's completely bullying you!?」
「Concede instead of relying on nepotism, you bastard!」
「You're brazen even though you're just a drop-out! How long will you show us this ugliness!」
The spectators moved together under Kirihara's direction, their voices becoming a heavy pressure that struck Ikki. The pain that reverberated in his creaking body brought Ikki's sense of powerlessness home to him.
Indeed, it might look that way. Right now, he had no effective strategy against Area Invisible, a stealth that concealed sound, indication, odor, and shape. He couldn't even tell if an attack was coming until it was too late. What should he do against such an opponent? He hadn't the slightest idea, and at this point he was still upright only because of willpower. His will to not surrender was strained to its limit. If he gave in, the black mark of being defeated in a selection battle would be irremovable, but wasn't that still better than this bitterness? In the moment that Ikki's heart turned in a vulnerable direction―
"SHUT THE HELL UUUUUUUUUPPPPPPPPPPP!!!"
A scream swept over the jeers like a tsunami, and everyone turned toward the direction of that sound. There―
―the Crimson Princess stood, with scarlet pupils burning in outrage and a shower of embers swirling about her figure.
Shizuku and Arisuin were staring in wonder, but why would Stella care? She couldn't bear it. Shooting a curse at the spectators with indignant eyes ablaze, she struck with words as if she was breathing fire.
"There's no way an F-Rank can win against an A-Rank? Isn't that something you people decided yourselves!? Limiting yourselves as unable to surpass a prodigy, you're only justifying your own resignation! You people are giving up like that for convenience, you know. But don't you use your resignation to deny Ikki's strength!"
That was intolerable, absolutely intolerable, because even though Ikki was inferior to everyone here, he kept on rejecting that resignation! If it was Ikki, he could withstand being sneered at by all, being cursed as trash, and being told that talent was insurmountable. He still continued to believe in his own worth. And despite that outrageous treatment, he obtained the strongest single minute that wouldn't lose to any talent. The brilliance of Ikki's spirit she saw that day was still burning in Stella's eyes even now. She hadn't thought as strongly about another person before. She hadn't admired another person as much before. Because Stella understood how high her pride was―
"He doesn't have anything like talent, but you people who cling to such petty things, there's no way you understand Ikki's strength! There's no way you can see it! You fools with your all-knowing tone, don't make fun of the knight that I love!!!"
At such emotions gushing out, at the words that struck him, Ikki raised his eyes, and Stella's chest throbbed painfully at the emotions she found there.
"Why are you making such a miserable face…!?"
His expression was so frail it could crumble at any moment. Stella understood it, since Ikki was not yet as mature as she was. Rather, he was still so young that one could call him a child. No matter how he tried to be tough, no matter how he carried a steely determination―there was no way he could be so callous. He would be wounded by such jeers, and his heart would be injured by such abuse. Compared to that constant tormenting distress, it may be a merciful dose of reality for the person called Ikki Kurogane to lose and break down here. But still―but still…!
"Ikki, you told me, didn't you? That whatever other people say, you won't give up on yourself…! I thought if you were like that, I'd follow you wherever you go! So to these people saying whatever they please, don't make a face like you're giving up! I don't intend to lose to a man that weak! Because… the one I admire, the one I fell in love with, the one I always look up to, is the knight I continue to take pride in named Ikki Kurogane! ―So…
"WHEN YOU'RE IN FRONT OF ME, ALWAYS BE AS COOL AS I KNOW YOU ARE, YOU IDIIIOOOOOTTTTT!!!"
There was a place she wanted to reach together with him―that was why Stella put all of her feelings into her scream. It wasn't just Ikki himself that believed in Ikki Kurogane's worth anymore. In that moment―
*Pow!* Ikki punched his own cheek with enough force that the sound could be heard from afar.
Everyone there shouted in astonishment at this sudden, eccentric act. What the heck was he doing? Under the questioning gazes, Ikki―
"Thanks, Stella. You really put life back into me."
―slowly, but with strength, stood back up.
Rising to his feet, Ikki gazed at the red-haired girl who had scolded him. Large bright teardrops were spilling from Stella's crimson eyes. For whose sake were those tears pouring out? For whom was she grieving? Ikki wasn't so thickheaded that he didn't know. But even in her pain, Stella was saying this.
Stella knew how hard and painful Ikki's path was, but she still wanted him to keep fighting.
So there's someone other than Ryouma-san saying that….
Ikki thought that if he lost this fight, everything he had suffered would become meaningless, and he was afraid to think on that loss. But he was mistaken. His goal of becoming a mage-knight might have taken great effort so far, but those days of trying hard and moving forward wouldn't become meaningless at all.
Because I met a girl who says that she loves the way I've lived!
The instant he understood that, *click*, Ikki felt his heart and body joining together. His thoughts that were clouded by tension and dismay turned alarmingly clear. His body that was injured and bleeding was already on the brink of collapse, but it moved as he wished. Ikki's fighting condition had finally reached its zenith.
Then it was still too early, much too early, to give up. He couldn't, not yet. There was still something to try. Something that he, Ikki Kurogane, must do. He would move forward, no matter how punishing that was supposed to be. If he was defeated while using all his power, he could recover from his injuries and fight again, but….
But losing his nerve and running away, that would disgrace a knight for the rest of his life!
Ikki raised a war cry and fired himself up. From his flesh, from his blood, from every single cell, he gathered magic power and ignited it all in a flash. Ikki Kurogane's body shined with a blue flame that flowed like wind, radiating the glow of his Noble Art, Ittou Shura. And in doing so, Ikki declared his determination to finish this bout right here.
"With my greatest weakness, I'll catch your greatest strength―let's fight, Kirihara-kun!"
「Aaaaah! Contender Kurogane, who we could only think had already been defeated, has made a grand challenge! He's invoked Ittou Shura, the Noble Art which eliminated the A-Rank knight Stella Vermillion! Now the great technique which can be used only once a day has been activated―could he have found a way to beat Area Invisible!?」
With the sudden change in the battle that Kirihara was completely dominating, the tone of Tsukuyomi's live coverage lifted. Even she had been appalled by the Hunter's gruesome tactics. She had hoped for this turn of events, and sent Ikki her heartfelt encouragement. But alas, Ikki didn't have the solution Tsukuyomi was expecting. Area Invisible was perhaps the strongest anti-personnel Noble Art, not a technique that would be beaten by the strength of a Failed Knight in the first place.
And Kirihara also knew that.
"Catch? A 'Worst One' like you is going to catch me, the 'Hunter' Shizuya Kirihara? That kind of thing is beyond you. Aren't you boasting about something you can't even do?"
Right, exactly right. Ikki was boasting about something he couldn't do. Acting like that had surely been a mistake, and trying had only confused everything. Ikki Kurogane could accomplish only one feat since the beginning.
"You've already struggled in futility long enough, I think. I'm also pretty tired of watching something so uncouth, so it's about time I bring it to an end. …Hmm, which reminds me, I promised to tell you where I aim, right? That's right… the next one is―"
There was a certain bloodthirst dwelling in Kirihara's voice as he nocked an arrow on his bowstring. Perhaps his move would be deathblow to decide this fight.
"―to the crown of your head. If you don't want to die, dodge it, you held-back failure!"
A destructive killing intent shot invisibly, an arrow capable of even snatching away life, was racing directly toward Ikki. But―killing intent was inconsequential now. Of the arrow, there was nothing that could be seen, nothing that could be heard, so rather than try for the arrow, Ikki would only see what he could see, hear what he could hear.
The order he received his wounds, the direction―
The depth of his injuries, the angle―
Kirihara's words at that time, the voice―
Everything about this match was packed into those details. As if perusing the history of its fencing from the sword style technique, derive the enemy's process from the order and direction. As if collecting the school's knowledge from its swordsmanship, reverse-engineer the position from the injuries and angle. As if stealing the principles of its invention from its tricks, expose the patterns of thinking from the words and the voice. And then from everything there, investigating the previous degree of piercing's tendency, the personality, technique, design, by integrating, analyzing, understanding, exhausting data on all kinds of things―grasp everything about the person called Shizuya Kirihara!
There was no reason he couldn't do it. It wasn't difficult. Because all along, since long ago, Ikki Kurogane had fought that way!
In that instant, the arrow shot from Oborotsuki bit into Ikki. The place it pierced… was not the crown of the head, but the heart. Yes, Kirihara had set a trap into the last blow with a Hunter's composure and cool-headedness. His opponent was already in a hopeless situation, but just in case none of the injuries had occurred, he had shot an arrow at Ikki's heart while saying he was aiming at Ikki's head. A feint in addition to invisibility, his attack permitted no evasion. And exactly as the Hunter planned, the invisible killing intent pierced Ikki's heart―
That sound spilled out from Shizuya Kirihara's mouth at the inexplicable sight before him, and his mind went blank. He had sent an arrow of certain death that couldn't be avoided or blocked, but―Ikki's left hand had grabbed it, stopping it on the verge of penetrating Ikki's chest.
How was it possible? Did such a thing really happen? To the astonished Hunter who was confronting a reality beyond his comprehension, his red-soaked prey coughed and said―
"…As I thought, there's no way you'd tell me the truth."
"What… are you saying―!?"
In that moment, Kirihara shuddered as if a worm had burrowed into his back. Ikki's eyes, without the slightest wandering, were staring him down even though he should be imperceptible.
"It… can't be…."
He had never experienced this, and icy sweat was pouring from all over his body. A chill crept up his spine, and his limbs trembled with a clatter. In Kirihara's swaying field of vision―
"…Yeah, I caught it. And I won't let you get away again."
―the bloodstained knight before him laughed weakly.
「W-W-What happened―!? Contender Kurogane just caught the arrow that he shouldn't be able to see! What the heck is going on!? Even I, reporting live on location, still can't find Contender Kirihara! Area Invisible, the perfect stealth, is still going strong, but the images from our camera are being delivered now… and they reveal that Contender Kurogane reacted to the arrow flying at him! Is he seeing what we can't!?」
「Aha, wahahaha! Are you serious!? That guy really did it!」
Saikyou, who was also giving commentary to the arena, abruptly clapped her hands and gave a resounding laugh.
「Saikyou-sensei? Did you just figure something out!?」
「Heh heh heh…! Yeah, I figured it out. It's exactly as it looks. Area Invisible is already useless.」
Kirihara countered Saikyou's words reflexively.
"D-Don't be ridiculous! My Area Invisible is unbeatable! There's no way this F-Rank garbage has seen through it!"
「Ahaha. Yeah, that's right. That's also what I think. Kiri-yan's Area Invisible is the strongest Noble Art against individual fighters. It's fine to be confident about it, because after all, Area Invisible can't be seen through. The thing that's been seen through is… the Hunter himself.」
"What the hell does that mean!?"
「Oh goodness, you're exceptionally dull, aren't you Kiri-yan? Haven't you seen the fight between the princess and Kuro-bou? At that time, Kuro-bou saw and stole the princess's Imperial Arts, but stealing a sword technique isn't an ordinary feat like imitating a style. From something like a style or swordsmanship, the accumulated history is studied, taking the ideas arrived there, and exposing and returning with the principle of its foundation. That's what we call stealing a sword technique. And just now, he did the same exact thing to you. During the fight, he stole the person called Shizuya Kirihara. Isn't that right, Kuro-bou?」
At Saikyou's nonsensical words―
"Eh, well. It was something like that."
Ikki affirmed her analysis with a nod. He had employed his anti-personnel technique, Blade Steal, against Kirihara.
"R-Ridiculous! How can something like that happen!? Especially since I must have been invisible to you…!"
"I didn't see you, but knowing 'where Kirihara-kun is right now' isn't that difficult, because you've left a lot of clues, you know?"
"The wounds you've put on me. Your procedure from the sequence of wounds I took. Your direction from the angles. And the distance from the power. They all tell me where you are. Tracing the Hunter's position at any particular moment is easy if I follow these markers, and if I understand that much, it's the same as being able to see you. In that case, it's fine to do what I usually do. Whether it's sword technique or people, there's a principle that fundamentally governs all their actions. You can call it a system of values. By using that―the person's actions and plans, what that person is thinking right now, how I myself should move, what countermeasures should be taken, whether to move forward or draw back, to attack or defend―every possible action is completely and quite clearly predictable. For example, at this moment, I know that you've taken three steps back."
Kirihara's body froze in fright at Ikki's light declaration, and he leaked out a soundless shriek, because what Ikki had said was unmistakably true. But of course Ikki could know Kirihara's response. The principle he spoke of wasn't a notion limited to the here and now. That predictability of human thought was a firmly-rooted identity, not something that could be changed in an instant. However much the person himself wants to outsmart that identity, even the thought of outsmarting it arises from the identity itself, and therefore couldn't escape Ikki's perception. By stealing the opponent's identity, Ikki seized all those thoughts and feelings.
If Ikki had to name this technique, it would be Perfect Vision. Before its power, Kirihara finally understood. The true dreadfulness of the knight called Ikki Kurogane wasn't sword technique, a one-minute boost, or anything else like that. It was his ability to expose and reflect the true nature of everything he sees, a discerning eye like a shining magic mirror. That mirror could capture even the invisible Hunter. Therefore―
"I see everything you're capable of doing. In this match, I'll take the win!"
With that declaration, Ikki burst forward to thrust a fang at the Hunter who had lost his refuge!
In response, Kirihara put up one final resistance. Drawing Oborotsuki so forcefully that it creaked, he faced the sky above and shot one arrow that had all of his magic loaded into it. A moment later, the arrow exploded in midair, becoming a hundred slivers of iron shining with light invisible to the naked eye. Overtaking Ikki as a sudden shower, they homed and poured down on him, drilling into and smashing the stone floor of the battleground, heaving it up and smashing it again.
There was no pattern to the destruction. The Noble Art Million Rain was an attack of indiscriminate scope made of more than a hundred pieces of iron. Kirihara had concluded that if his thoughts were being read, he should carpet-bomb the area without thinking. The idea had to be correct, but even so―
"Why!? Why doesn't it hit!?"
―Ikki cleared away the invisible arrowheads, running through the destructive rain without slowing the slightest and darting through the rolled-up cloud of dust. In truth, he had already seen all of it.
"It's useless, you know. No matter how much you try to keep your heart clear, you want to beat me. You want to kill me. The urge for that frightened heart to shout its killing intent can't be restrained. No matter how much you want to attack with an unreadable mind, the killing intent dwells inside you."
And Perfect Vision accurately captured that intent. Attacking an enemy without consciously aiming to kill was a mental state taught by certain martial arts, but it wasn't a skill that someone like Kirihara could use. He had only increased the number of arrows he had shot.
"Whether a hundred arrows or a thousand, my Ittou Shura won't fall to such things!"
Every resistance was already meaningless. Like a superior player who predicts a hundred moves ahead, Ikki had already seen the endgame!
"Wait, wait! Stop! Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop I said! Do you hear me!? Stop fucking kidding me! Am I supposed to fall to this F-Rank failure of a student!? Unlike you, people expect things of me! Unlike worthless garbage like you, I have things to lose, you know! Someone like you, there's no reason for you to win against me! So stoooooop!!!"
Ikki didn't stop. He already couldn't be stopped by Kirihara!
"H-Hey! This is a joke, right!? Yeah! Let's drop it! Let's drop it already! That kind of, that blade!? If you cut a person with that thing, it'll probably become a disaster, right!? That kind of thing isn't normal! There's other ways for us to do this! So let's stop! I-I know! Let's decide it with rock-paper-scissors! That's good, right!? Hey, Kurogane-kun! Aren't we classmates, friends!?"
Ikki wasn't going to listen. Who was it that asked if he had prepared himself in coming onto this stage? From the moment a knight entered the ring, he was resolved to kill or be killed. Therefore, Ikki would have no mercy. The black blade would clear away Kirihara's resistance, grasp Kirihara at sword distance at last, and―
"H-HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII! S-STOOOOOOOOOOOOP!!! I get it! I'm fine with losing! I'm fine with losing so DON'T HURT MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!"
Ikki swung downward with a flash, and in that moment, the space Ikki sheared through shined bright. Kirihara's body was visible in the middle of that light, and he fell on his back onto the ground already unconscious, turning up the whites of his eyes, spouting foam from his mouth, but… without injury. He had been cut so shallowly he wasn't even bleeding from the skin on the tip of his nose.
Ikki understood that Kirihara was giving up, and had no intention of killing Kirihara from the beginning. And yet―
The predicted distance was off by a millimeter, huh.
―yet even though he hadn't intended to wound, the sword edge did slightly touch skin. It was only because the power of Kirihara's arrows made reading the distance difficult.
My training's still lacking, I guess? There's still a long way to go.
And seeing that the Hunter was defeated by the sword-wielding beast before him―
"Shizuya Kirihara can no longer fight! The winner, Ikki Kurogane!"
―the referee announced Ikki's first victory.
「The match is oveeer! Somehow the F-Rank knight, Contender Ikki Kurogane, has taken the victory! Even though he was prohibited from attending classes last year, he has defeated his generation's strongest knight in a fight to the death, and acquired a splendid first win in these selection battle matches!」
The moment Ikki's victory was announced, the string holding him up snapped. Everything he'd been holding in with vigor alone―wounds and bleeding from the fight, extreme fatigue from Ittou Shura's backlash―poured out together.
「Congratulations…! Aaaaah! Contender Kurogane has fallen in the ring! Isn't it quite clumsy to collapse after winning!?」
「Aw crap. Medical team! Hurry up and stuff that guy in a capsule!」
Accepting Saikyou's instructions, the facility's staff put Ikki's body on a stretcher and carried him out. Because iPS capsules were installed in every training arena, the worst-case scenario would probably be avoided. And after the winner was removed this way, only the fainted Kirihara remained in the arena, until Kirihara too was dragged out by a staff member.
「Contender Kirihara has also left the ring just now. He was considered the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival's leading candidate for this year, but was unexpectedly defeated! Perhaps due to that huge shock, there's no sign he's getting up despite not receiving any injury!」
One member of Kirihara's cheering party, who had seen the fight's conclusion from the spectator seats, coughed.
"He was somewhat… uncool."
"The last part, wasn't he crying? 'Don't hurt me?'"
"I'm disillusioned, honestly…."
"Let's go back, go back. I've already kinda lost interest."
Tsukuyomi and Saikyou watched all this from their commentator seats.
「Uh-oh, the cheering girls are leaving in droves. Well, it must be hard to lose an idol.」
「Even if he was hurt, they'd have seen what he's really like sooner or later, you know.」
「…That's also true, huh? Ehh, then today's fourth match ends here. The fifth match will begin after the ring's cleaned up, so the contenders who will appear, please get ready.」
After making the announcement, Tsukuyomi cut her microphone.
"Whew… what an amazing match. Contender Kirihara's Area Invisible that got him so many wins without injury, being defeated by an F-Rank knight. I didn't see that coming."
Relaxing, she said so to the nearby Saikyou. But where Saikyou should've been sitting, there was only a note bearing a short message: 「That match was satisfying enough, so I'm outta here.」
"Noooooo! I don't want to do this anymooooore! Somebody switch with meeeee!"
While Tsukiyomi screamed, the student spectators were also leaving the fourth training arena one by one since most of them came to watch this match. But two people stood in the middle of that flow without moving their feet.
"With so much of the audience walking out, I feel a little bad for the pair fighting in the next match."
Arisuin coughed while looking towards the movement of people, then asked the petite girl who was standing next to him.
"On the other hand… isn't Shizuku going to the hospital room?"
Shizuku shook her head slightly.
"…He'll just be sleeping even if I go."
"He might be sleeping, but in a girl's heart she wants to be nearby at a time like this, right? Stella-chan was running after him. …Maybe you're thinking of leaving the two of them alone?"
He asked the question carefully, but Shizuku's face swelled with the beginning of a sulk anyway. She bared her teeth in a huff.
"Today is… special. It looks like that girl got a victory."
Shizuku seemed exceedingly reluctant, but she was also happy. Nobody knew this, but because Stella had majestically declared in front of the masses a love for the will and feelings of Shizuku's brother who nobody comprehended, Shizuku resisted the desire to run after him immediately and hover nearby. She simply stood here, because at least for today, she didn't want to interfere with them.
"But it's really only for today."
"What? You want to poke fun at me for losing?"
"Not at all. Don't you know? I very much like Shizuku the way she is."
Her pale cheeks turning red, Shizuku sulked more and more.
"Jeez! Please don't play with me like that!"
"Haha, I'm sorry. I won't touch this subject anymore, so won't you cheer up? Well then, what should we do? Since we're here, how about watching the next match?"
"…I'm not very interested."
"In that case, should we travel a little farther than usual and go eat something delicious, just the two of us? With Ikki injured like that, today's victory celebration will certainly be canceled."
Using a capsule would mend wounds immediately, but fatigue couldn't be improved so easily. Ikki would probably be in a coma for the rest of the day. And until he woke up, Stella definitely wouldn't leave his side.
"Since you're giving those two some time alone, you deserve a bit of luxury in return, don't you think?"
"…A place with tasty alcohol would be good. I'm already an adult, so."
"Gotcha. I know a place with good atmosphere you can look forward to."
"Despite what I said just now, I'll absolutely regret leaving that sow alone with my brother in a few hours, which means I'll have an extremely bad temper. Sorry, but you should be prepared for that."
"Hahaha. Don't worry, I'll be ready―♪"
Then while deciding whether they'd return to their room to change clothes, the two headed for the exit behind the flow of people. Watching the backs of the spectators who left first, Shizuku suddenly coughed.
"Those people who insulted Onii-sama some time ago, I wonder if they still refuse to believe that he's strong?"
"Who can say? There are probably some who don't accept reality even when they see it with their own eyes. But everyone who has the strength to try for the summit of the Seven Stars will surely recognize it, and remember the name Ikki Kurogane. So Ikki won't turn back into the ordinary Failed Knight that he seemed to be until now. Definitely not."
Arisuin's words were correct. Today was a turning point, when the Failed Knight took another name in a corner of the Net.
Crownless Sword King.
Such a name demonstrated that Ikki wouldn't remain just a Failed Knight, because Ikki Kurogane had taken down one of the Seven Stars Sword-Art Festival's leading representative candidates.
"Well well, what an amazing sight today. An F-Rank Failed Knight overthrowing a Hunter who uses the strongest anti-personnel Noble Art, and with such an unconventional method? Seeing through the opponent's identity in the middle of the match is beyond human."
In the audience seats of the fourth training arena, a petite red figure ascended the stairway while her shoes made a clip-clopping sound. She was the one who fled after giving some match commentary, Nene Saikyou, and she was uttering a monologue about the match with passionate favor.
"Not even people in the A-class league could do something like that. No, no, he's just Kuu-chan's secret weapon. The selection battles will be enjoyable though~. But next time, I want him to duel with a stronger opponent. For example, yes… like this academy's student council president."
She arrived at the spectator seats' top floor.
"Don't you Hagun Academy student council officers agree?"
She turned a smile with hidden meaning at the four knights there. Those four had magic power of a quality obviously different from the students leaving the arena, and they all held individual nicknames.
The vice president, "Fifty Fifty" Utakata Misogi.
The treasurer, "Scharlach Frau" Kanata Toutokubara.
The secretary, "Destroyer" Ikazuchi Saijou.
The general affairs manager, "Runner's High" Renren Tomaru.
They were Hagun Academy's most influential people.
"It's too bad that To~ka-chan isn't here, right? She wanted to see today's match, you know. My intuition says Kuro-bou will become To~ka-chan's rival in the selection battles."
At Saikyou's words, Utakata Misogi, an elementary student… no, a petite boy who might even be a kindergartener, burst into laughter.
"Ahaha―☆. Saikyou-sensei is being deliberately mean, isn't she?"
Kanata Toutokubara, the tall blonde girl wearing a pure white dress as if she was a French noblewoman and carrying a parasol even though it was indoors, smiled as she stood next to the smaller Utakata.
"Hmm. Yes, entirely. He fought onwards so gallantly after great injury, so it would be pitiable not to set him at an even higher value, wouldn't you say?"
"Heh. Aren't you both quite confident? Is the gap between regular students and the best four of last year's Sword-Art Festival really so wide?"
"Ahaha―☆. Saikyou-sensei really is deliberately mean. Even though she knows it."
"Hmm, surely so. It's true even without looking into things of the past, like records from previous years."
"What are you saying?"
Toutokubara raised her face slightly, and narrowed her blue eyes like she was looking far away.
"It's quite simple. However sharp the claws, however sharp the fangs… why should a mouse win against a lion? She'd take no notice of that boy. Our princess is so far beyond him, he couldn't even see someone so high above."
- Hakuraijin, 白雷刃: "White Lightning Blade"
- Suiroudan, 水牢弾: "Water Prison Orb"
- Area Invisible: This uses the kanji 狩人の森, Kariudo no Mori ("Hunter's Forest").
- Oborotsuki, 朧月: "Misty Moon"
- Throwing down the spoon: A Japanese proverb, meaning to admit defeat—literally, a doctor throwing down his medicine spoon because he can't treat an incurable patient.
- Yaksha: A class of nature spirit found in Hindu, Jainism, and Buddhism. They have a dual personality: one inoffensive, one malicious.
- Three trillion yen is approximately thirty billion United States dollars. In comparison, the 2012 London Olympic Games earned approximately three billion US dollars in broadcast revenue.
- Kiri-yan: A contraction of "Kirihara-chan". Compared to using the suffix "-chan", which means "little" and is used to address children, referring to Kirihara with a cutesy "Kiri-yan" is treating him even more like a child.
- Kuro-bou: A contraction of "Kurogane bouzu", where "bouzu" means "boy". Similar to Kiri-yan, this is a cutesy way to address a child.
- Perfect Vision: This uses the kanji 完全掌握, "Kanzen Shouaku" ("Perfect Grasp").
- Million Rain: This uses the kanji 驟雨烈光閃, "Shuu'u Rekkousen ("Downpour of Violent Light").
- Scharlach Frau: "Scarlet Woman", in German.
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