The Unexplored Summon Blood Sign:Volume6 Chapter2
Stage 02: Insane Believers Never Ask for Anything in Exchange
“Wahh!! Crash, bang, boom!!!!!!”
“Hee! Are you trying to kill me, you idiot!?”
(Stage 02 Open 07/05 10:30)
Insane Believers Never Ask for Anything in Exchange
At only 14, she was the former Government Award 930, Golden Luxury, and also one of the Uniquely Selfless summoners of the White Queen worshiping cult named Guard of Honor. She was a noble girl who inherited the blood of the Magentarain family and also the primary supporter of weapon design and development at Quad Motors, America’s largest defense contractor which was run by the same family. They developed Repliglass, silicon stem cells that were given the structure of various plants and animals. That Repliglass had swept across all 4 branches of the military and even been adopted into largescale civilian infrastructure like city water purification and power generation.
The Magentarain family itself was not completely American and was actually part of the Round Table, a group of those who had once sat on the throne and thus could not accept that the major position of the world police had been taken by a country in the New World created a mere 300 years before. The Magentarain family had been sent to control that country from within, but all of that can be omitted now.
That girl with long curly blonde hair no longer belonged to the Magentarain family.
The small, slender girl had found another symbol to gather around.
“Oh, dear. This is looking as wretched as always.”
Azalea spoke calmly while sitting inside the squat belly of a mid-sized transport Repliglass known as a Hornet.
“So we’re back in Toy Dream 35. Are we going to repeat everything from that time, Shiroyama Kyousuke?”
They had successfully isolated their enemy, but the simultaneous attacks from the various summoner and vessel pairs had ended in failure. Azalea and the others did not know what form the ancient map took, so they could not destroy the building from outside. That was one major factor, but there was more to it.
An elderly butler stood perfectly still in the rocking Repliglass craft and interjected some smooth words. His name was Fractal Leskins and every breath he took demonstrated that he stood at the peak of those who served.
“It would appear everything is going as planned, milady.”
Azalea honestly thought that she needed to learn from him.
After all, she had chosen to become a servant herself.
“Whether consciously or subconsciously, the same vision must be playing in Shiroyama Kyousuke’s head. And there is no need to worry. Even if he fails to notice it, he will reflect on his former victory, assume he is in the same situation here, and relax. But unbeknownst to him, I will be guiding him all the while.”
Azalea could not write off her defeat as meaningless.
Because she had developed Repliglass weapons modeled after various plants and animals, she had come into contact with the information of several archives. For example, lions were known as the king of beasts, but it was the females that led the hunting, not the males with their impressive manes. And that representative example of carnivores could be driven off if the fleeing herbivorous zebras or giraffes kicked back at them or if a hippopotamus bit them.
Nevertheless, mocking a lion would be far too foolish. To do so would show a severe lack of observation. A feline would not repeat an action it considered dangerous. Even a pet cat would no longer approach the stove after it burned itself or the bathtub after it fell in and nearly drowned. And a lion had repeated that learning process day in and day out in an environment of life or death.
The king of beasts was not a creature that settled in at a fixed peak.
They were always updating themselves. And after a pack had sharply honed itself through that efficient decision-making, they would learn to surround the zebras or giraffes and attack from the sides so they could not be kicked by the back legs. Azalea was the same.
After being disciplined by the White Queen, she had cast off her impure soul and her defeat to Shiroyama Kyousuke had rid her of her pride as a summoner.
Just as Kyousuke had learned who Azalea was in their battle, she had learned from him.
She could easily come up with a phrase he was certain to detest.
“So I am something like the child who has inherited the genes of both Her Majesty and Shiroyama Kyousuke.”
The curly blonde-haired girl giggled and traced her fingers across the ribbon reels placed next to her.
“But there is no rule preventing a child from surpassing her parent. In fact, the theory of evolution says that each generation must leave behind even stronger seed. Now, Shiroyama Kyousuke. It’s about time to truly begin. You have scattered your genes throughout the world and it is time you learned what that has wrought.”
Azalea wondered what her past self – back when she was taken away by strange adults while only wrapped in an old cloth – would have thought if she could have seen herself now.
That past self never would have imagined being able to look down on and order around others.
That had been hell.
But someone had rescued her from there.
And that was why she had to live a life that would reward that person and make them proud.
No matter how twisted a path she took to get there.
She used her skinny fingers to flick at a few of the reels and then grabbed one of the pink ribbons. She went for #6. If she was following that incident in Toy Dream 35, she needed to go with the #6 reel that she had lost with then.
The blonde girl slowly stood up in the cargo room and spoke to her butler.
“I’ll be heading out too. Prepare the Meganeura.”
Kyousuke, Sekurtiti, Renge, and Higan ran up the isolated apartment’s emergency staircase. Bridesmaid would soon notice that Biondetta and the tomb keepers had gone to the ground floor. Before they figured out what Kyousuke’s group was up to, he had to summon a Material, scatter rubble in every direction, and take out the Bridesmaid members approaching to surround the group underwater. They had to go that far to clear a way out.
Or so Kyousuke thought.
But then something unexpected happened.
He had taken the lead, but he stopped and quickly held a hand out sideways while a step away from their target floor. Before Renge could say something about being stopped by an arm moving like a railway crossing gate, the floor above them was filled with a downpour of rubble and explosive noise.
Kyousuke more or less shoved the girls back to the next landing down.
“Curse those tomb raiders!!”
Gold-adorned Sekurtiti and Higan were crushed below Renge who groaned and asked a question while lying face down.
“Wh-what? Did they start using that machinegun again?”
“This was something else…”
Kyousuke alone remained on the stairs and he poked his head out into the floor which had been given much better ventilation. Something was maintaining a circular course around the apartment and he initially mistook it for a fairy.
But it was not.
He saw long, curly, and reddish-blonde hair. He saw a pale and small body. And that slender girl was covered in a mountain of sinister weapons. A swimsuit-like console suit covered her body, a giant dragonfly wing unit was attached to her back, and an additional coffin-like device larger than her leg was attached to each leg. The two coffins seemed to contain some large payload and countless heavy weapons stuck out like the frame of a folding fan: a machinegun, a rocket container, a needle gun, a flame thrower, a railgun, a close-range welding blade, a wire shooter, an acoustic weapon cone, etc. The silhouette was reminiscent of a Western multi-tool that stored screwdrivers and knives in the grip of a pair of pliers.
His eyes met the triumphant eyes of a giggling girl.
She pointed at him with a handgun gesture.
The fan-like spread of weapons all bent to focus their aim on him. Kyousuke felt a chill down his spine, but then something strange happened. He heard a footstep from right next to him.
“Then allow me to punish this rude tomb raider just like before.”
It was Sekurtiti, the silver-haired and brown-skinned Tomb Priestess.
She stood tall and directed her pale blue eyes and her hands forward.
This was the ruler’s “wall” that had guided the autocannon gunner to a malfunction before.
This was a crystallization of the skills mankind had spent all of history developing to stand above others.
But Azalea’s smile remained unchanged. Her handgun gesture moved. The index finger moved slightly upwards as if recreating the recoil of firing.
Kyousuke grabbed at Sekurtiti’s skinny waist and tackled her to the floor.
Their momentum sent them rolling along the dangerous floor, but there was nothing he could do about that.
Excess electricity wrapped around the barrel as the railgun gave a roar.
With an air-splitting blast, the reinforced concrete was blown away almost amusingly easily. That also destroyed the emergency staircase up to the next floor. Kyousuke was worried about Renge and Higan on the next landing down, but he did not have time to go down and collect them. With that power, Azalea could blast through the floor and blow away the landing, so he would have no cover. And it would be best not to inform Azalea that the shrine maiden twins were there.
“Just keep your head down!!”
Sekurtiti calmly tilted her head like a young wife in front of the ATM after forgetting her PIN, so Kyousuke grabbed her arm and kept low while running across the floor. The thin inner walls would not work as shields, but remaining where Azalea could see them would be suicide. Even if it was only a thin wall, it would be best to vanish into a blind spot.
He heard what sounded more like an amplified version of a buzzing killer bee than a dragonfly.
He peered around the edge of the crumbling wall and looked into the sky which was no longer covered by glass.
Azalea could have flown into the apartment if she wanted, but she remained outside. She followed a circular course around the building and kept a set distance while making slight shifts to the left and right. That was likely the best course of action when attacking a high-rise building with an attack helicopter. She was avoiding the Summoning Ceremony and attempting to turn Kyousuke and the others to mincemeat before they could take advantage of a Material or the protective circle.
This routine was different from when her pride had caused her noble blood to boil.
A bitter look came over Kyousuke as he realized that defeat may have taught her how to change the way she used her power.
“That’s based on the Meganeura, a Quad Motors personal flight unit, but I thought that was only a mobility support device for infantry and was derived from a hang glider. She’s added way too much crap on there, dammit.”
“Whatever the case, the entire apartment will collapse if she keeps this up. The tomb keepers waiting down below will be crushed, so we need to do something and soon.”
“I know that.”
With their opponent in the air, it would indeed be hard to start a Summoning Ceremony battle, but hard was not impossible. The Artificial Sacred Ground was a 20 meter cube that appeared from the point of the Incense Grenade detonation. So even if Azalea was in the air, he could trap her in a summoner’s cage if he threw the Incense Grenade when she had another building’s wall behind her.
It was all about timing.
Step one was making sure Azalea did not notice what he was up to. If she found out he was trying to start a Summoning Ceremony battle, she would grow cautious of the buildings behind her.
Also, there was a waiting period of several seconds between pulling the Incense Grenade’s pin and its detonation. The ones Kyousuke carried now took 5 seconds. That might not seem very long, but it was plenty of time for any one of the weapons spread out from Azalea’s demonic legs. For example, the machinegun could fire 2000 shots every minute and each shot was twice the size of an anti-materiel rifle bullet. Without a protective circle around him, half his body would be blown away if one so much as grazed his shoulder. 5-10 such weapons were pursuing him, so he could not be optimistic about those 5 seconds. He had to assume that single Meganeura had more firepower than an entire unit of attack helicopters.
Thoughtlessly challenging it would not lead to a miracle occurring.
Kyousuke used his Repliglass Blood-Sign to swiftly pull in a fire extinguisher sitting a short distance away. But that was not enough on its own. He focused on the nerves in his ears and heard a dangerous sound coming from multiple locations. It was not Azalea. I came from within the floor which had almost entirely lost its walls and pillars like some ruins bombed down to the foundation.
(That’s from the remnants of the kitchen and bathroom. There’s gas leaking from both areas.)
He grabbed two bent cellphone batteries and metal clips from the rubble on the floor. And fire was readily available.
He slowly exhaled and made a suggestion.
“You need to set things up so we won’t die in the 5 seconds after I throw the Incense Grenade. Create a smokescreen with the fire extinguisher and then throw some fire into the kitchen and bathroom to trigger an explosion. If Azalea is distracted by the light and noise long enough, then we win. If she’s unfazed, then this will be considerably more difficult. Prepare yourself.”
“Y-yes. Anything is fine if we can strike back at the tomb raiders.”
She never had a choice in the first place.
Even so, Kyousuke waited until after Sekurtiti nodded to reach into his pants pocket and pull out the Incense Grenade their lives depended on. It looked like a hair spray can with a round pin and lever on the top. Anyone unfamiliar with his industry would probably think it was a flash grenade.
He waited for the right moment.
After learning of defeat, Azalea would not let her guard down. She was not a ferocious beast that knew no enemies; she was an injured beast. She refused to get too close and focused on killing him with every bit of firepower available to her.
Kyousuke pressed up against one of the few remaining inner walls and grabbed the Incense Grenade and its lever in one hand.
He passed his other hand’s index finger through the round pin and toyed with it by alternately bending his finger like a hook and straightening it.
Sweat dripped down his nose.
Next to him, Sekurtiti wiped the sweat away like he was a doctor performing surgery. He focused every nerve in his body to pick up the amplified killer bee noise coming from the outside.
The way he focused on his opponent may have been like a cameraman trying to get a shot of a total solar eclipse. He gulped as he watched the sunlight reflected off the opposite building and waited for another shadow to cover it up.
The light bent.
The surface of white light on the flat glass wall gained the dark silhouette of a curly-haired girl’s slender and alluring body combined with heavy weaponry.
Kyousuke and Sekurtiti seemed to burst from the wall as they began moving.
The diversion was gold-adorned Sekurtiti’s job. She threw the fire extinguisher from behind cover and threw a battery wrapped in cloth and set on fire into the remains of the kitchen and bathroom. Azalea fired a spray of machinegun fire each time, but not all of the traps had to work properly. All that mattered was that the heavily-armed Meganeura was focused elsewhere.
At the same time, Kyousuke pulled the pin of the Incense Grenade he held, leaned out from behind the thin wall, and threw the metal can out into the sky with all his might.
Once it was shot, the fire extinguisher’s white smokescreen filled the floor. The ignited batteries failed to trigger any explosions, but the machinegun bullets that followed them did ignite the leaking city gas.
The Incense Grenade passed right by Azalea without being shot down and collided with the other building wall behind her. It bounced, rotated, and then detonated.
“Here we go, Sekurtiti! Get ready!!”
The summoner and vessel would be automatically taken the point of the detonation, but they could not let their guard down. If there was a piece of rebar sticking out in their path, they would be skewered. There was also a risk of Azalea’s gunfire hitting them. Physical attacks would only be negated once they landed on the wall, hit a White Thorn, and summoned a Material.
Their risk was the same as those summoners who he and Biondetta had taken out with their Blood-Signs earlier. He could not help but sense his own genes in Azalea now.
But that proved to be the least of his worries.
The child had exceeded her parent’s expectations.
Nothing happened. Even though the Incense Grenade did detonate.
Even Kyousuke was caught off guard by this. He had thrown the Incense Grenade and it had detonated while he was viewing her with the naked eye and while she was within range of the Artificial Sacred Ground, but the Artificial Sacred Ground he needed did not appear. Nor did he feel the tugging that ignored gravity.
(It failed!? But why would it-…?)
Before he could verbalize his question, that skilled summoner worked out the answer. There was only one explanation for this unreasonable result.
Repliglass was a bestselling weapon all around the world that used silicon stem cells to take on the structure of plants and animals.
And a summoner could only fight a Summoning Ceremony battle with another human. He could destroy a tank or fighter that happened to be inside the same Artificial Sacred Ground and a dragon’s breath or a stone thrown by a giant could leave the Artificial Sacred Ground and destroy the city, but he could not open an Artificial Sacred Ground by targeting a completely unmanned weapon.
“I thought that thing exposed too much skin for a logical and efficient weapon. I mean, it uses a swimsuit-like console suit without a helmet to cover the face or head. But I was wrong.”
The weapon calmly moving horizontally through the sky with its dragonfly wings once more targeting him.
No, the heavily-armed Meganeura was not the dragonfly shape itself.
“Is that tomb raider what I think it is…?”
There was another reason why Sekurtiti’s techniques as a leader had showed no effect.
“Is the whole thing Repliglass, including Azalea inside it!? Did she realize an Incense Grenade wouldn’t work against an entirely unmanned girl-shaped weapon!? Dammit!!”
Immediately afterwards, the inhuman Repliglass modelled after a human opened fire.
An irregular tremor shook the building.
The tomb keepers cried out while waiting on the ground floor. The only one looking calmly toward the ceiling was Biondetta in her modified yukata with her silver Blood-Sign resting on her shoulder and the white serpent slithering across her body after emerging from the ample cleavage left exposed like an Oiran.
Several cracks ran through the walls and a piece of concrete fell right next to her. And on this ground floor, a great mass of seawater awaited beyond a single pane of glass like in an aquarium. If that broke, the entire floor would be flooded.
But the horned demon was not at all tense as she moved her bewitching lips.
“That bastard ran into trouble, didn’t he?”
Azalea Magentarain giggled inside the logistical support Hornet. She was not wearing a revealing swimsuit-like console suit. Her curly blonde hair was worn up, revealing the nape of her neck, and she wore a blue yukata as if she had come to Toy Dream 35 to enjoy the current campaign. The kimono was somewhat baggy, but it was short, it had gothic lolita lace and frills in places, and it used a rose and thorn pattern.
She used a hand in a white glove to brush back her reddish blonde hair and she smiled.
“Now, how do you like my life-size figurine, my – dear – father? I did my best to recreate everything from the budding breasts and slender waist to the alluring color and texture of the skin. I hope you were suitably bewitched.”
“That is a perfect creation, milady.”
“Yes, but it will only fool him the one time. That does not make up for the R&D costs. Regardless, this will have opened the way to the Founder’s Gallery.”
When she slapped her small hand on the Hornet’s wall, several Repliglass weapons slid down from metal rails and out the rear cargo door.
They were all identical Serial Azaleas. They were fully unmanned anti-summoner weapons that combined a girl’s slender form with a heavily-armed Meganeura. There was no more need to keep up the act, so a large number of them could be sent in to directly attack inside the apartment.
Explosive flames and black smoke burst from the apartment building in every direction.
The entire building would probably collapse soon, but Azalea still did not let her guard down.
“Tell The Saint that our trick was effective, but that it is not enough to finish off Shiroyama Kyousuke. Tell her to prepare the Offering Team as planned.”
“And we will head directly to the scene.”
Azalea gave her instructions and then stored the #6 ribbon’s pink reel in the chest of her yukata. The already opened chest of the baggy yukata was pushed dangerously loose.
“Hm? Oh, excuse me. I’m just not used to Japanese clothing. There are no buttons or zippers, so you only have a thick cloth belt to hold it shut. But it’s also quite interesting.”
With that quiet comment, the slender fingers of her fine white gloves fixed the yukata chest and then she took the giant metal cylinder that the elderly butler handed her. It was based on an 80mm grenade launcher and she rested it on her shoulder.
She was finally ready to launch an Incense Grenade for the Summoning Ceremony.
Just like in their previous battle, she leaned out the opened cargo door on the side of the Hornet and targeted with an optical sight that simply used a series of lenses.
“But Shiroyama Kyousuke might not be our only opponent here.”
The shrine maiden twins Meinokawa Renge and Higan grew pale on the stairway landing.
They did not fully understand what was happening, but they could tell it was something unexpected. Specifically, something that Shiroyama Kyousuke found unexpected. That was far beyond anything they could handle.
“Wh-what are we supposed to do, um, Renge?”
“I’m not sure…”
They had two options: go up or go down.
Trying to join the fight would only get in Kyousuke’s way, so hurrying down to join Biondetta and the tomb keepers would not be a bad decision. Setting aside any emotional or psychological arguments, that would help Kyousuke and Sekurtiti from a logic and efficiency perspective.
But the twin sisters were held in place by what Kyousuke had said. They did not know that Alice (with) Rabbit had made a change of plans and decided to battle Azalea. They still thought the plan was to use an Incense Grenade, summon a Material, destroy the upper floors, drop rubble into the ocean, and break through Bridesmaid, so they assumed he would need their help.
So they could not betray him. They could not leave him there.
“Let’s go on up, Higan. We need to end this as soon as possible.”
Was that step a courageous thing, or was it reckless and foolish?
But their fate may have been the same no matter what choice they made.
They had been targeted from the beginning.
Targeted by the beautiful golden bird of prey known as Azalea Magentarain.
The air was split by a sound much like the expulsion of insecticide smoke for roach-extermination fumigation. Kyousuke and Sekurtiti had changed position to throw an Incense Grenade outside, so they could only watch as the projectile flew straight in through the window.
The many shots into the floor had destroyed almost all of the inner walls, so the family apartment had been half-transformed into a single giant space. The projectile trailed smoke as it cut across that entire space and fell toward the emergency stairway.
And right toward Renge and Higan who had just poked their heads up.
“An Incense Grenade…dammit!!”
It detonated just as Kyousuke frantically adjusted his grip on his Blood-Sign. The 20 meter cube opened around the surprised shrine maiden twins. It was an Artificial Sacred Ground. And a pair entirely ignored gravity as they followed the trail of smoke into the mansion.
The girl glanced over at Kyousuke in midair and her eyes were bent in a smile far too seductive for her age. Her curly blonde hair and mini yukata that blended Japanese and Western styles fluttered in the wind, showing off the bright skin of her bared shoulders and up to the base of her thighs. Hers was a slender and lovely wickedness and that sadistic light reminded Kyousuke of a certain white evil.
Those former Government Award 930 monsters landed next to Renge and Higan before the twins could fight back in any way.
After the soles of Azalea’s long boots scraped on the floor, she reached toward the open chest of her yukata and pulled out a ribbon reel in a risqué fashion.
The pink ribbon spiraled around on its own and formed a sturdy Blood-Sign. The initial stock of 3 White Thorns floated nearby and the wounded ruler smiled fiercely.
“Now, shall we begin? It is all to make Shiroyama Kyousuke suffer and nothing more.”
“I don’t think so!! Higan!!”
This won’t lead anywhere good, honestly thought Kyousuke.
Letting Azalea and Renge fight was a bad idea. Because the entire floor was opened up, he was far removed from the emergency stairs. He was outside the Artificial Sacred Ground. If he was going to join the fight after it began, he would be forced to use up his initial 3 White Thorns, but he could not be picky now. If he did not join the fight, 300-level Renge and Higan did not stand a chance.
But as if to mock that thought of his, Azalea knocked a White Thorn into the collection of Roses and sent the countless red balls scattering around. And she made an announcement in her modified mini-yukata with a large flower decoration on the back.
“Could the crude gentleman please leave? Shiroyama Kyousuke, we have some other opponents for you.”
Was it more of those Azalea-shaped Repliglass weapons? He looked to his surroundings, but…
“The Saint, this is your job. Send in the Offering Team.”
The sound of buzzing wings was far louder than before. The mid-sized transport Repliglass known as a Hornet had flown up right alongside the destroyed apartment. The side cargo door opened to reveal a nun with her seductive body contained in a graceful habit. When she snapped her fingers, similar nuns appeared. Unlike The Saint, they were not complete individuals. They were all young girls who were just beginning to build up their individuality inside the convent. The height did not seem to bother them at all as they jumped calmly over the pure stream of air and into the building.
Kyousuke assumed they were new summoners or something like that, but it did not matter. Getting inside Azalea and Renge’s Artificial Sacred Ground came first. He was used to fighting against a group on his own, so he could still fight just fine even if the nuns intervened as well.
“Offering Team, begin special action. The Lord may not forgive you, but Her Majesty will surely accept your entire being.”
Or so he thought.
But The Saint’s voice smoothly continued.
“Pierce your own chests. And make sure that Alice (with) Rabbit has a good view.”
His breath caught in his throat.
Even then, the situation was underway. Those incomplete nuns looked downright adorable, but then they all tore the fabric covering their chests. They did not seem to care that this revealed their sensual breasts covered by the unfashionable underwear that had likely been issued to them. They held what looked like Blood-Signs, but they were not actually Blood-Signs. The tip had been replaced by something like a sharply pointed wooden stake.
They did not hesitate.
Each of the 20 or so young girls pressed the bottom of their modified Blood-Sign against the floor and placed the sharp tip against the center of their own chest. They then leaned forward as if to place their full body weight on it.
If they really were nuns, this would be an unforgivable act. The monotheistic religion symbolized by the cross might allow martyrs who risked their life for their faith, but it did not allow suicide. But based on what The Saint had said, they seemed to expect the Queen to accept their soul even if their god abandoned it. And yet that evil would never pay any attention to the puny 7 billion people on this planet!!
On one side were Meinokawa Renge and Higan who had once risked their lives alongside him.
On the other side were suicidal nuns he had never met who belonged to a Queen worshiping cult.
It was obvious which one he needed to prioritize. There was no need to hesitate. But at the same time, he was Alice (with) Rabbit. No matter the situation, he could not allow any death. From enemy or ally. And since this had clearly been caused by one of the White Queen’s distortions, he had to stop it at all costs. His soul was raging inside him.
This was a countermeasure put together with a perfect understanding of the life form known as Shiroyama Kyousuke.
This Queen worshiping cult was the Queen and Kyousuke’s “child”. At the same time, it was an endlessly sinister thing.
Time passed even as thoughts raced through his mind.
He could see Renge and Higan having trouble against Azalea. They were right in front of him and he could save them with a single action, but more than 20 nuns were trying to take their own lives around him. They were victims who had been so blinded by the Queen’s false light that they forgot all about their original god and came to believe this was true salvation.
When Shiroyama Kyousuke yelled, identical alluring smiles appeared on Azalea and The Saint’s lips. They had inherited that smile from the White Queen.
At the very last second, Kyousuke redirected his salvation. His Blood-Sign gave a roar as it flew horizontally to strike, break, and knock away the modified Blood-Signs the girls were using to pierce their own chests.
He chose one side and abandoned the other.
And that choice squeezed at his chest and the soul contained therein…
Renge and Higan did not have any hard feelings over his choice to distance them from salvation. They felt this was how it should be. They were summoners but also shrine maidens. Even if the god they worshiped and the scriptures they followed were different, they could see through to the essence of any who entrusted themselves to their god.
These girls who had chosen suicide were different.
They were not worshipers of the Queen and they were not even nuns whose souls had been polished in a convent.
They were probably no more than girls gathered at random within Toy Dream 35 who then had their sense of self temporarily taken away by incense, suggestion, and group psychology. One point the religious wished to reach was to remain unfazed by anything, but that was not the same thing as containing nothing whatsoever inside. These girls clearly had no god at the core of their being.
And Renge and Higan were also professional summoners.
Their skill might not have been at the 900 level and they might not have reached the point where they could become their own legend, but they knew which way the scales would tip when the life of an amateur was weighed against that of an expert.
So they had to remain resolute to the very end.
“Oh, it’s so adorable that you would think that.”
The Artificial Sacred Ground had already vanished.
Azalea and Fractal reigned supreme on that rubble-strewn floor. The pink ribbon unraveled and trailed along the floor where the shrine maiden sisters lay collapsed on their sides like broken dolls as they slowly repeated the same action with empty eyes. Renge was probably still trying to fight even now. The way she clenched her hands and thrust them forward looked a lot like using a Blood-Sign.
When Azalea snapped her white-gloved fingers, her elderly butler did not utter a single complaint as he picked up the twin shrine maidens and held them under his arms like they were the girl’s overstuffed vacation bags.
Kyousuke had only just finished knocking out the last of the suicide squad known as the Offering Team.
“Oh? How rare of you to be giving that look to anyone other than Her Majesty. Have you finally decided to give me the time of day?”
She viewed attention from Shiroyama Kyousuke as a positive thing.
Those were the Queen’s eyes. They were filled with wickedness.
“Do you finally understand what we’re after here? We don’t know what form the ancient map takes, so we could not just bring down the entire apartment building. But that is also what you are after. I thought you might run out clutching the ancient map if we poked at the building from outside, but…oh, I see. So it takes that form, does it?”
As the Queen began to reside within them, Azalea’s eyes turned toward the brown girl accompanying Kyousuke.
…And at the same time, the logic and efficiency in those eyes was the same as Kyousuke’s.
A smile spread across the face of that monster who had become a child born from the White Queen and Shiroyama Kyousuke.
“And I now have two bargaining chips that work exclusively on you: Meinokawa Renge and Meinokawa Higan. You don’t mind trading the Diamond Master Key for one and the ancient map for the other, do you? This is checkmate.”
She had it all.
Azalea Magentarain was on an entirely different level from the summoner he had once fought who had been manipulated by her inexperienced pride. She now carefully observed her enemy, lined up every method available to her, and threw out all pride and honor to unhesitatingly grab for the optimal answer. Kyousuke and the Queen had done this. They had transformed her into an irredeemable monster.
“What are you all trying to do with the Founder’s Gallery? I’m not talking about your ultimate objective. I already know it’s to be loved by the Queen. But what specifically are you going to do with it!?”
“The Natural History’s missing entries.”
“That strays from Bridesmaid’s primary path, but I am sure everyone will accept it. And you will soon understand exactly why they will accept it.”
The amplified sound of buzzing killer bees shook the air.
“You might not be carrying the Diamond Master Key with you, so we will be leaving for now. I will send you an invitation to the next party. Make sure you do not forget the Diamond Master Key and the ancient map when you show up. I will be opening the chest on the spot, so don’t think you can trick me with detailed fakes. And for each part of that dress code you fail to obey, one of the shrine maiden twins will lose their life, so think very carefully about what you plan to do.”
A Summoning Ceremony battle only worked with both a summoner and a vessel.
Kyousuke prepared to throw his Blood-Sign like a javelin to hit Fractal between the eyes, but then someone else interfered.
One of the Azalea-shaped Repliglass weapons flew in from the side and opened fire with a machinegun. A giant sewing machine seemed to pierce holes in the floor to separate Kyousuke and Sekurtiti from Azalea, Fractal, and the twins. The entire emergency staircase near the outer wall was torn away and his nemesis was thrown outside.
The wind caught Azalea’s modified yukata and it blew wildly around her.
The afterimage of the bright skin visible from the bared shoulders, open chest, and short hem were burned into the eyes of everyone watching.
Kyousuke ran across the floor as fast as his legs would take him, but several Azalea-shaped weapons swarmed in like a flock of seagulls. The falling summoner and vessel and the defeated shrine maidens they held were collected by the unmanned weapons and then taken away into the sky along with the Hornet.
There was nothing he could do.
Unlike the past, it was Kyousuke who had to slam his Blood-Sign against the floor and watch her leave.
The Serial Azaleas had superb specs. Even when carrying a burden in both hands, they could match the speed of the flying Hornet, land inside the cargo door, and stow themselves away.
“Excellent work, milady.”
“Yes, you too.”
The Hornet had a lot of cargo space given its overall size, but it was still cramped once the several Serial Azaleas returned. Especially when two hostages who mindlessly repeated the same action were included.
“…Hee hee hee.”
The elderly butler’s tone rose as a question at the end of the word, but the laughing modified yukata girl did not reply for a while. She held her small shoulders in her arms, doubled over, and still could not suppress the powerful tremor that rose from the core of her body. The large flower decoration shook while supported atop her hips like a ball.
Her determined face may have been small enough to inspire a protective desire inside those who saw it, but it was now filled with sinister delight. No, it might be better to simply say her face melted with a kind of pleasure wholly inappropriate for her age. Even as her lips started to grow slack, she desperately tensed them, but she had no way of hiding the sweet scent coming from her curled hair or the flushed nape of her neck.
“Fwah ha…ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
Her shoulders had already been bared and a dangerous amount of her modest chest’s bright white skin spilled from the yukata, but she did not care. In fact, she had a sadistic look of irresistible enjoyment.
“Did you see the look on Shiroyama Kyousuke’s face? The hostages as well as the key and chest he needs to reach the Natural History’s missing entries were right there, but he could only helplessly clench his teeth. He was like a lowly dog forbidden from devouring the feast before his eyes by the chain around his neck!! Yes, yes. This is Shiroyama Kyousuke. This is how to truly enjoy him. Outdo him, take everything away from him, and trample on him! Oh, such a liberating feeling! Oh, such an almighty feeling!! This amusement must by why Her Majesty can’t stop loving him!!!!!”
Still doubled over, Azalea backed up and pressed her small butt against the bulkhead. She may have been laughing so hard her legs were growing weak. She then slid her hips down to the floor and kicked her slender legs around in their garter belt, white stockings, and long boots. Her modified yukata’s short hem provided a view nearly up to the base of her thighs.
“Her Majesty resides within me right now. I can feel her joy like I’m holding it in my hand. …Nnnn! Pant, pant. I am truly grateful to have a gentleman like you here. If I was alone, I would be unable to contain myself and might even begin a shameful act…”
The small girl was supposedly holding her own shoulders, but the slender fingertips in her white gloves were wriggling like independent creatures. She felt like she was resisting the pull of a powerful magnet, so if she let her guard down even for a moment, they would crawl over toward her flat chest.
Of course, Azalea had not always been like “this”.
The elderly butler named Fractal had originally served a man named Claude Magentarain. That man had sacrificed the many things he owned to save Azalea. The girl had never seen the man since. So to repay Claude for everything he had given up for her, she had wanted to use her life toward some great achievement.
That great achievement was the White Queen.
But that light had been too powerful, so it had blasted the footing out from under her and distorted how she defined her world. She probably no longer saw any distinction between her heart’s original attraction to Claude and its later attraction to the Queen. She simply wanted them. Enough to devour…no, enough to drown in. She had shown signs of recalling something more pure after her defeat against Shiroyama Kyousuke, but even her pursuit of that had led to the Queen.
Even in the unrealistic amusement park city of Toy Dream 35, military Repliglass weapons flying around the sky in broad daylight would stand out. It was also possible she had been detected by the Government and Illegal forces that had taken root in the city.
But that did not actually matter.
A much louder sound of buzzing wings passed by directly overhead.
More than 200 identical Hornets were circling randomly above Toy Dream 35. And they were releasing tons of deception weapons, so the control towers would see more than 10 times as many dots on the radar. This was of course a diversion and they would slip past the eyes of everyone watching, land in the many Blue Whale Repliglass submarines waiting on the ocean surface, and disappear to the ocean bottom.
Azalea and the others still had work to do in Toy Dream 35, so they could not do the same. They would disembark at a rooftop along the way and leave the pandemonium in the sky.
One of their allies had prepared bags on the corner of the rooftop, hidden behind an industrial air conditioner unit. The elderly butler stuffed the two hostages into a suitcase and a duffel bag and then calmly followed after the ringlet curl girl.
The giant bridges between buildings were packed full of boys and girls wearing yukatas and jinbei for the Tanabata fair. Azalea was a foreigner and her yukata was a striking fusion of Japanese and Western designs, but she still did not stand out much. Toy Dream 35 was a foreign-owned tourist city, so people from other countries were catered to with things like signs written in the alphabet.
“You should have tried wearing Japanese clothing too.”
“This is my formal dress as your servant and it also binds me as a vessel.”
There were an awful lot of students for midday on a weekday, but that was likely due to the Hornets flying around overhead. The high-rise apartment had been attacked by summoners, but that did not erase the gunfire and explosions.
“Oh, Fuuki-san! You came!!”
“Shut up, you brat. Why do I have to babysit you to and from school too?”
A girl with long black hair and a red blazer was pulling on a small boy’s hand.
That meant the schools had called off classes for the day given the major incident. There was clearly something wrong with the country’s crisis management skills. Why were they releasing the children into the streets when there was a firefight occurring in the streets?
Azalea continued on to their base as she gave an exasperated sigh, passed by some tourists busy aiming their smartphones overhead, and took a round fan with a diagram of the summer constellations on it when a Gozaru Samurai costume handed it to her. Everyone around her was raising their head and defenselessly exposing their throat as if offering that vital point up to her.
For a frontline base in Toy Dream 35, they had chosen a haunted house modelled after a Western mansion built on a plaza-like suspended platform. They of course did not use the passageways meant for guests. The haunted house was known to have countless backstage passageways for staff, but not even the staff visited a lot of the space inside. There was a machine room that stored the giant gears and winches that controlled the largescale electronic attraction. Needless to say, the staff avoided that area because there was plenty of risk of getting caught in the exposed machinery. But if one knew where the dangerous spots were, they would have a decently large space all to themselves. It was a little scattered about, but the space was about the same size as half a school building.
“That was quick.”
The reply came from The Saint in her graceful nun’s habit. Her only job had been sending in the Offering Team, so she had returned a little sooner.
“As planned, we have the ‘packages’.”
Azalea’s frilly sleeve swayed as she pointed a thumb over her shoulder.
The elderly butler held a duffel bag and suitcase under his arms. And they were both just big enough to contain a small girl if her arms and legs were curled up.
“We will soon send an invitation to Shiroyama Kyousuke, so come up with a site to make the trade.”
Make no mistake: their frontline base was not where they would make the trade. The enemy would know the location of the trade once the invitation was sent, so it had to be a disposable location. They would have to send someone in to investigate it ahead of time and clean up afterwards, but they wanted somewhere they would not otherwise need to visit before or after the trade. The conditions were somewhat different than for a secret base. They wanted a place where they would leave no trace, where they could monitor the entire area, where it was difficult for anyone but the enemy to intervene, and where they had multiple exits just in case. That sounded simple, but was actually quite difficult.
“Tell Doctor S that I am thankful. We may have been the ones to give the Serial Azaleas and the Offering Team an actual form, but the idea itself was incredibly valuable. To think the Shiroyama Kyousuke would falter like that.”
“Did you enjoy your taste of that rabbit dish?”
Azalea reflected on the tremor that rose from the core of her body with too much intensity to hide. It was like recalling the juicy flavor filling one’s mouth after tearing off a large mouthful of thick meat. She held her body in her hands, she doubled over, and yet she still seemed unable to contain herself. The open chest of her modified yukata was already growing even looser.
Fractal quickly spoke to her.
“A-ahem!! …I apologize for that. Well, I can hardly complain if I think of it as taking even a small step closer to Her Majesty. My tongue is still nowhere near as refined as that of a gourmet like Her Majesty, though.”
“My, it was that great? Then I might just have to try some of it myself. To feel something closer to Her Majesty’s happiness.”
“Let’s share it amongst us all. But we must make sure to restrict ourselves to no more than the occasional taste. Never so much that we earn Her Majesty’s wrath.”
The girl and nun both laughed while surrounded by a strange charm and allure.
Unlike the previous groups, a certain scent seemed to reside within them as they continued with their planning meeting.
“Fractal, remove the packages from their cases. We can’t have them dying.”
“Of course, milady.”
“Oh, dear. But isn’t abducting them enough?” asked The Saint. “Won’t Shiroyama Kyousuke appear before you whether they are alive or dead? He can’t see what happens here, so he wouldn’t know.”
“Yes, but that would be too boring.” Azalea pulled the chest of her yukata back together and brushed her golden curls back with a hand. “If they are not alive, I cannot take them from Shiroyama Kyousuke in front of his eyes. Wouldn’t that be Her Majesty’s way of doing things?”
“Oh, you are making me jealous now. Perhaps I too should have had a taste, even if just a mouthful.”
The Saint brought her index finger to her lips and narrowed her eyes in a spellbound look.
Meanwhile, the two shrine maidens were removed from the sealed bags. They were still in their 24 hours of mindlessness after suffering a defeat in the Summoning Ceremony, so they lay on their sides and slowly repeated the same action with empty eyes. There was no sign of their former personalities. If someone had pulled on their hands, they would not have hesitated to throw themselves into the gears which were taller than they were and would tear their bodies to pieces.
To make sure that did not happen by accident, Azalea sat down next to Renge, who was moving more than Higan, and clung to her upper body like she was hugging a stuffed animal. The slowly moving girl’s mind would be entirely empty now, but it still felt nice stopping that entirely pointless counterattack. The mechanically repeated motions of Renge’s arms and legs caught on Azalea’s yukata and threatened to pull it from her body, but she did not care. This was the joy of one who used their power to trample on others. She pressed her ear to the living sacrifice’s chest and slowly shut her eyes as she abandoned herself to the beating heart there.
“I will look after them for now. Contact me if anything happens.”
“Understood. I will begin searching for a suitable location for the invitation.”
After The Saint left, the elderly butler spoke to the girl.
“Milady, you will catch cold if you sleep there.”
“Heading to the bed now would be tasteless. More importantly, Fractal, bring me you-know-what.”
“Just do it. You know my tastes.”
With an exasperated sigh, Fractal Leskins briefly moved to the back of the machine room. By the time Azalea began to doze off while clinging to her large stuffed animal, he returned.
He held a cheap convenience store bag in his hands.
He gave a complicated look when his master’s eyes lit up and she hopped to her feet.
“I can fix you any kind of food you might like.”
“This is a different issue entirely, so I’m not insulting your skill. Make no mistake about that.”
She said that, but Azalea was so busy snatching away the bag and peeking in at its contents that she did not even look his way. The bag had a limited edition Tanabata design with super-deformed versions of Orihime and Hikoboshi drawn on it and it produced more and more mass-produced hot snacks: fried chicken, French fries, thick-cut bacon, fried fish, spring rolls, corndogs, and a strange type of popcorn that was popped only after ordering it. That last one was a new product with cheese or caramel powder that was poured in the bag and shaken into the popcorn. To drink, she had a zero calorie soda with tons of artificial sweetener in it.
Unlike before, her smile was now that of a child.
Even as part of a noble family, she secretly bought junk food as if rebelling against something. This was another side of the complicated girl named Azalea Magentarain.
She showed no annoying table manners and did not even use a fork or knife. She removed her white gloves and carefully wiped down each finger and then her palm with disposable napkins that used the antibacterial properties of bamboo leaves as part of the Tanabata fair. After that, she grabbed a fry that had an excessive amount of salt and grease and she tossed it into her mouth. She immediately squeezed her eyes shut and kicked her slender legs while still hugging her doll. The visible white of her thighs went beyond risqué and provided glimpses of a truly dangerous territory.
“Mmm, mmm, mmmmm!!”
As a butler, Fractal could say nothing when his master was enjoying herself so much.
Azalea moved on to eating some of the fried chicken and spring rolls, but then she changed her target. Just for fun, she held a piece of fried fish out toward the sacrifice she held in her arms.
“Whoops. Oh, this is surprisingly difficult… I can’t let it fall apart, which isn’t easy. Maybe I should have started with the fried chicken.”
She struggled for a while. Whether she noticed or not, the flower decoration on the back of her hips was swaying left and right to match the movements of her small butt. The empty-eyed black-haired shrine maiden’s lovely lips were glistening with grease and the chest of her shrine maiden outfit was covered in crumbled flakes of fish, but she did not so much as move an eyebrow. She only slowly moved her arms and legs to repeat the same motion.
“Ah, she’s chewing!”
Azalea sounded like someone watching their new puppy eating for the first time. She finally succeeded in shoving the fried fish into the gap between the girl’s lips. It may have been some kind of reflex, but the shrine maiden touched the foreign object with her tongue, realized it was food, and started weakly and slowly moving her jaw. But instead of trying to swallow it, she let it start to spill from a corner of her mouth, so Azalea grabbed her skinny jaw and forced it to face upwards. This was a fairly dangerous thing to do, but it led the shrine maiden to swallow the fluid in the back of her throat.
Azalea narrowed her eyes and brought her small tongue to the index finger that had been touching Renge’s lips. She licked off the grease from the fried food.
And she spoke with a satisfied look of superiority.
“Hee hee. I think I’ll feed the blonde one later.”
“Do you like one of them better, milady?”
“Not really. But, well, the one with something I lack does seem more appealing. I wonder how she cares for that black hair. Does she use a different method from us? I am endlessly curious.”
Azalea pulled a corndog from the convenience store bag as she answered. She started to bring it to her doll’s mouth as well, but she must have decided the stick would make it dangerous because she gave up and stuck it in her own mouth instead.
This may have been another unfulfilled side of Azalea.
Magentarain was a noble family. She had many siblings who shared her blood, but she herself was an illegitimate child born of a commoner and she was the youngest of the siblings. She had been given few chances to interact with a family and she had not been blessed with a brother or sister younger than her. Feeding this girl…no, taking care of this girl may have been a subconscious replacement for that.
If Claude had not been “away”, she might have leaped right into his chest and had him adore her. Her eyes narrowed a little as she imagined that.
But Azalea Magentarain was a worshiper first and foremost.
Enough so that the Queen’s ecstasy filled her eyes and Kyousuke’s logic filled her thoughts.
If it was necessary for her goal, she would dispose of this soft replacement. In fact, she would do the same with her real family.
She appeared to be dozing off as she felt the sacrifice’s pulse through her ear.
“Let’s begin our preparations here. We have two faithful servants who will do anything we want them to. Let’s do something that will truly make Shiroyama Kyousuke scream.”
Inside a room that took up the entire top floor of a luxury apartment building, the slender bikini girl named Aika waved around two boxes of chocolates: one shaped like mushrooms and the other like bamboo shoots. This was a part of a hundred years’ war or an endless Armageddon, but the Tanabata fair had changed that somewhat. A limited edition advertised as “An overgrown bamboo shoot that forms a light stick of bamboo!” had been released, so the bamboo shoot version was going to be the winner for the time being.
As Aika cheerfully opened the boxes, Kyousuke flatly spoke to her.
“Do you need something?”
“The liger is super scared and cowering over in a corner, so could you lower the level of irritation in here? If you rode an elevator with a normal person right now, they’d probably suffocate to death.”
Kyousuke looked over in surprise and found the 5 meter combination of a lion and white tiger was indeed in the corner. More than the king of beasts, this was an emperor who did not exist in the natural world, and yet she was trembling like a kitten out in the cold. Her tail was tucked between her back legs and her body language clearly said “please don’t look at me” in the cat language.
“Sorry, sorry, liger. This has nothing to do with you.”
“Onii-chan, if you really want to make up with her, you need to offer her an extra-large hunk of meat on the bone.”
“Yes, I suppose a frightened animal is supposed to be dangerous.”
Adventurer Shiroyama Kyousuke entered the tiger’s den with a giant club of meat that looked like a giant hunk of ham before it was made into ham. It was just like what one might see shown off at a Spanish restaurant.
And Biondetta did not betray anyone’s expectations.
That demon was more cruel than mischievous and she raised her hands behind Kyousuke.
“Wahh!! Crash, bang, boom!!!!!!”
“Hee! Are you trying to kill me, you idiot!?”
Right in front of history’s greatest carnivore, Kyousuke and Biondetta started having something like a pillow fight using giant hunks of meat. Everyone’s beloved big sister rolled around, causing some highly indecent things to occur at the chest and thighs of her mini-yukata.
On a sofa at the other side of the room, Modified China Dress Lu Niang Lan was curled up with her arms around her knees. She had gone entirely pale and no one would have believed this was the legendary assassin who had killed Government’s Award 1000 after he became a global tyrant.
“It doesn’t matter… I’ll just find a way to shine in this position. Eh heh heh heh.”
But this was no time to be goofing off.
Meinokawa Renge and Meinokawa Higan had been taken away by Bridesmaid who worshipped the Queen. He had to save them somehow.
They were all interrupted by the silver-haired brown girl who was too skinny to call slender, who wore gold decorations and red jewels, and who was wrapped in bandages and a Y-shaped cloth as thin as fairy wings. The way she took charge may have been from her position as a ruler.
“I would like to get down to business. I cannot abandon the summoner and vessel who helped save the tomb keepers under my command. As that irreverent lot holds the crucial cards and we do not know when the time limit will arrive, we cannot afford to waste even a second.”
She argued from a position of responsibility just like a class representative.
When the light of her pale blue eyes reached them, they all gathered in front of Sekurtiti. Even the frightened white liger obeyed her and sat in front of her.
After obediently sitting down, Kyousuke raised his hand for permission to speak.
“It is true that it looks like Bridesmaid is in complete control here. We don’t know where Renge and Higan are, so we can’t attack their hideout. But just waiting for their invitation earns 0 points as a plan. That leaves us no chance of taking them back.”
“They need the Founder’s Gallery. They even mentioned the Natural History’s missing entries. They want the Diamond Master Key and the ancient map no matter what. That means they’re sure to designate a location for a hostage exchange. …Of course, the odds of them returning the hostages safely are more or less 0.”
“But what does that give us? They will choose the location, so they are still in control. If we complain about the location, it might lead Bridesmaid to harm the hostages. So aren’t we stuck waiting regardless?”
“You’re surprisingly hardheaded. You like to stick with the first step, don’t you? Everyone will walk all over you in the world of the Summoning Ceremony where all sorts of monsters run rampant,” interrupted Biondetta (who made sure to raise her hand first). “It’s true that Bridesmaid is in control with the hostages in their grasp, but this city is the home ground of my client and his Government and Illegal hangers-on. They know the area far better than outsiders like Golden Luxury or The Saint. And there are only so many locations in a city that will satisfy a professional for this kind of hostage exchange. My client and his hangers-on know Toy Dream 35 well enough to have likely thought up a few candidate locations right away.”
Next was Swimsuit Aika who was giving a giant hunk of meat on the bone to the white liger who had calmed down by now.
“They’re probably quickly searching out a delicious restaurant for their party and preparing to decorate it, but we only have to get ahead of them and buy up all those restaurants. Do that and we can stab them in the back before they’re ready.”
“Ah,” said Sekurtiti with a surprisingly cute voice.
This may have been a glimpse of the girl before she had become half divine.
“To be blunt, this would never work out if we tried to turn things around after arriving at the stage Bridesmaid had already set for us. It would be like starting a chess game while already in checkmate and trying to turn it around from there. But things are different if we sneak around and make a surprise attack when the pieces are still scattered and the checkmate is not yet complete. We can reclaim control of the situation.”
Coming up with the actual methods was a job for Aika in Government and Lu Niang Lan in Illegal. A projector displayed the data they had gathered onto the ceiling. This was one of the self-indulgent items installed for the swimsuit shut-in to surf the web while lying down.
“This is a crime prevention map that Government updates in real time.”
“And this is a map of the patrolling police officers that Illegal keeps tabs on.”
“This is a map of the areas controlled by the different factions within Government.”
“This shows the territories of the different organizations and families that make up Illegal. Think of this map as the underground version of that last one.”
“Honestly, Illegal’s search system looks so dangerous.”
“I don’t want to hear any talk of righteousness from a group that used to be led by a scumbag who kept his vessels in animal cages.”
“You’re getting off topic,” pointed out Kyousuke for a gentle course correction.
There were plenty of areas people rarely went, but comparing the 2 data sources eliminated most of those. People apparently already controlled the harbor or warehouses at night, as well as the party spaces at fancy restaurants or hotels. They looked private but were actually casually monitored, so no outsider professional would go there.
But there were a few areas not filled in by either color.
It would be hard to find somewhere not covered at any time around the clock, but they only needed somewhere that cleared out in the early morning or late at night. After all, this was for an exchange and not a hideout.
“Here. This is the primary candidate.”
Kyousuke used a lecturer’s laser pointer to indicate a point on the ceiling map.
“Z Block’s metropolitan zoo. It’s empty from around midnight until the employees arrive at 6 in the morning, and no faction uses it for anything. The temperature is automatically controlled by heaters, so they barely have any nightshift staff. This meets the conditions we’re looking for.”
“And isn’t this the amusement park rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a girl who fell into a cage and was eaten by a lion, Onii-chan?”
“I’m pretty sure those rumors started when people saw you going out with your pet for late night trips to the convenience store.”
“Really, though. A faceless phantom girl in an amusement park? We’re not talking about The World’s Happiest Girl who was supposedly involved in the creation of the Toy Dream parks.”
“What was that again? Didn’t President Toydream create the amusement parks to match a new fairy tale he had written, but that fairy tale was never released and no one knows what the story is?”
“But I’ve heard the completed story is hidden somewhere in the Toy Dream cities scattered across the world. A lot of books end up in my Chinatown trying to pass themselves off as the real one. They even go out of their way to use authentic paper and ink like with those fake Da Vinci diagrams or Einstein journals…”
“We’re really getting off topic now…”
Aika actually steered them back on topic for once.
And it was Sekurtiti who resumed the discussion with a puzzled look on her face.
“Anyway, there is no guarantee Bridesmaid will choose this location, is there? There are plenty of other possibilities.”
“Yes. A quick glance here shows about 23 different suspicious spots.” Kyousuke did not sound worried. “But nothing says we can’t eliminate their possibilities. Maybe there’s a small fire, an electric short, a gas leak, or a burst water pipe. We just have to cause some harmless but noticeable accidents to gather attention. The trick is to use enough variety that it won’t seem unnatural even when it happens at 23 places in a row. We’ll change the flow of people to ruin their ideal hostage exchange locations.”
Their time was of course limited, but there was no excessive rush in knocking out those candidate locations. Even if Bridesmaid had already decided on a spot other than the zoo, they would have to switch to another candidate if that one was eliminated.
Meanwhile, Kyousuke and the others could not put off dealing with the zoo itself. If they did not infiltrate the location ahead of Azalea’s group, they could not fool them.
Kyousuke immediately made up his mind.
“Let’s split into 2 groups. Biondetta, you take out the other candidates. Sekurtiti and I will infiltrate the zoo as a pair.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll give this my all☆”
“Lu-san, I need your help as a supply shop. Sekurtiti is ultra conspicuous in nothing but bandages, so get her some clothes.”
“Yes! Finally a job only for me that that pheromone waitress can’t do!!”
He ignored the sexy modified China dress as she trembled in mysterious joy.
“Azalea’s group might begin their party in as soon as an hour. Time is our enemy, so let’s get ready as quickly as possible.”
The twin shrine maidens had been captured by a powerful enemy and they had no time.
But they did not need to rush into any kind of eccentric action during the preparation phase. Instead moving between buildings by clinging to a helicopter’s landing struts or swinging across on a wire, they bought a ticket at the station and rode a train to the zoo in Z Block.
“Celebrate Tanabata by giving bamboo grass to the pandas!”
“The Capybara Knights are also praying for a beautiful night sky!!”
The train was covered in hanging banners and electronic advertisements for the Tanabata Fair.
At this stage, they could not afford to stand out or be delayed. They bought tickets for the zoo and entered through the main gate like normal. Two high school tickets came out to 3200 yen. The basics were important.
“What is that electric noise?”
“Oh, that’s a bug zapper. Zoos end up with a lot of bugs, so they lure them all in to fry them.”
“Hm? But I thought those traps only worked at night. The bug zappers I am familiar with are a technology that takes advantage of insects’ attraction to lights. Pant, pant.”
“Why are you breathing heavily? My guess is this one uses smell as well. Fly and roach traps often use some kind of jelly.”
“Gasp! You mean this is a brand new kind of cutting-edge trap!? And a pure one that protects people’s smiles from disease. Kh. I never thought I would find these things even here. Japan truly is a great nation of traps!”
“You really are a pain in the ass, you know that!?”
He had a feeling he did not want to let her see one of those clockwork toys that rolled small metal balls around inside it.
Also, they had received something with their tickets.
“What is this? I have never seen this plant before. What as strange aroma.”
“I guess they don’t have these in northern Africa.”
“Is it a trap?”
“No, and shut up about traps. It’s called bamboo grass. It’s a type of bamboo, so-…”
“Bamboo spear traps! I’ve heard of that. They are the distinct Japanese flavor added to falling ceilings or pitfalls. They are the umami of traps, aren’t they!?”
“Try to control your heartrate, Sekurtiti. Anyway, this is the favorite food of the zoo’s prized pandas!”
It was noon on a weekday, but there were an awful lot of small children running around wildly with no concern for the flow of foot traffic.
“Did you write your wish on the tanzaku?”
“I heard the paper and ink are both made from bamboo grass.”
“I hope I found the Phantom Girl picture book. Now eat up, panda! Make my dream come true!!”
The number of children was too great to just be families that had taken time off of work and school, so it may have been a school field trip.
The air contained a unique mixture of straw and animal smells.
“Will such a bright place really be used for an ugly hostage exchange?”
Sekurtiti looked around doubtfully while wearing a primarily yellow yukata. She still wore the tiara and thus most likely still wore the other decorations and the bandages below, but she looked normal enough. She had brown skin and short silver hair, but she did not stand out much since there were a lot of Japan-loving foreign visitors to Toy Dream 35.
“Sekurtiti, the zoo is for looking at the animals, so try to keep your eyes on the cages.”
“Eh? Ah? R-right.”
“And summoners and vessels vanish from normal people’s minds once we’re out of view. The normal methods to lose someone tailing you might actually clue them in if they focus on the abnormal movements in the crowd.”
He grabbed the brown yukata girl’s hand. Since she was not used to this, it would be faster to escort her. And no one would find it odd to see a young boy and girl holding hands at the zoo.
Yes, even if the brown ruler’s cheeks were flushed red.
Kyousuke walked around the zoo along the normal routes with Sekurtiti in tow.
“Um, are my clothes okay?”
“There are a lot of foreigners in Japanese clothing here, so you don’t stand out.”
“That isn’t what I meant… Perhaps I should try to act more like that proper Yamato Nadeshiko over there. Even from behind, she is practically oozing sex appeal.”
“No, wait. That’s a bad example. That’s no Nadeshiko. It’s Rendou Akiya.”
Kyousuke dejectedly viewed the yukata-wearing person walking gracefully through the crowd. He had guessed classes would be canceled at school due to the gunfight with Azalea’s group, but since that classmate (♂) was at the zoo in a yukata, he must have been meeting someone here.
On the way, they gave their bamboo grass tanzaku to the panda cage without writing anything on them.
Space was limited in Toy Dream 35, so most of their movement was vertical. The overall pathway spiraled downwards. The area was divided into 5 different layers with Layer 1 at the top and it looked something like one of those parking garage toys that let minicars run along rails.
Sekurtiti tilted her head when she saw the guide map.
“Lions, elephants, giraffes… They come from the same ecosystem, but their cages are scattered around. Why wouldn’t they gather the animals into an African section or a South American section?”
“It’s like the shelves at a supermarket. They want you to naturally visit the entire zoo to see what you want to see, so the most popular animals are spread out across the zoo. If they put the penguins, pandas, and capybaras all in one place, no one would ever go anywhere else.”
“A supermarket? So even Freedom Award 903 uses those?”
“Oh? Was that too much for the great Tomb Priestess?”
They stopped at the shop section that doubled as a souvenir shop and food court and they bought a sandwich set they could eat as they walked. For the Tanabata Fair, it was wrapped in antibacterial bamboo leaves instead of a clear plastic package. They would have stood out too much if they were not holding a pamphlet or some food. It would look odd to pay money to visit the zoo and then not enjoy themselves.
But there was a problem.
“Sekurtiti. I don’t know how you normally live. If you don’t like the food, you don’t have to force yourself to eat it.”
“No, this is one thing I want to challenge myself with. So do not worry.”
That phrasing left him even more confused as to how she normally lived. Surely she did not really live on nothing but mist and dew.
She must have always wanted to eat while standing because she leaned up against a wall near the shop section and had trouble choosing what to take from the set Kyousuke held. She finally pulled out the tomato and lettuce vegetable sandwich. After sniffing it a few times, she grabbed it in both hands and took a small bite from the corner.
Before she even swallowed, her pale blue eyes widened. Even Kyousuke could tell her body was moving below the yukata. It seemed like her organs were wriggling near her chest and navel.
“Nbh, nheh! Cough, cough!!”
“N-no, I’m fine. I’m fine…”
She smiled, but there was a cold sweat on her forehead. He wanted to pass her a drink, but since she existed outside the Summoning Ceremony, he could not say if that would help or only make it worse.
“Phew… I can tell the flavor is not bad at all. In fact, it is extremely fascinating. That might change once I swallow it, but it is worth the challenge.”
A mint or some gum might have been the better choice, but he could hardly stop her touching efforts when he saw her continually tearing off small pieces and tossing them in her mouth like she was feeding a small bird. Kyousuke had to wonder if he would behave the same way if he was told he would be given 100 million yen if he ate the entire morning paper. She did swallow it, but he was worried about what would happen later. He decided to ask the tomb keeper elder. …Although that old man might punch him the instant he heard about it.
After spending a long time breaking the sandwich down like a jigsaw puzzle and swallowing it all, Sekurtiti forced a smile.
“Sorry about the trouble. Now, let’s go look at the rest.”
It looked like she could not finish it, so Kyousuke ate his sandwich while she shared the rest of hers with a stray cat that had snuck into the zoo.
Even so, Sekurtiti narrowed her eyes and smiled.
“Do you like cats?”
“In Egyptian mythology, they are a sacred beast just as important as the crocodile and the leopard. How could I not like them? And while cats are loved the world over now, they are companions who originated in Egypt.”
That girl had taken one step away from the human world using a method other than reaching Award 1000. Hers was the achievement of a much older age than the Third Summoning Ceremony discovered in 1999. Kyousuke knew this was outside his field of expertise. Was that because he was only the strongest when standing on his stage with a Blood-Sign? Or because he was still partway through the 900s and had not yet seen Award 1000 for himself?
“It is nothing that special.”
Her voice seemed to see right through him. Sekurtiti herself pressed her palms against the railing and watched the lion in the concrete walls a few meters below. She watched that king of beasts yawn on the napping bed covered in straw.
“I am known as the Tomb Priestess and as a ruler, but I am the same as that beast in a cage. I only eat what food those with special knowledge have prepared and I can only wield my power within the field provided to me. It probably makes me look like quite the ferocious beast. After all, no one knows if I can actually run around the grassy field and catch prey with my own claws and fangs.”
“…That’s painful to hear.”
Kyousuke felt like she was talking about him. He was half the reason the world was what it was. That was not a lie, but if he was asked if he had walked all around the world to see if it had really changed, he would have to answer no. He only had the environmental changes he had predicted based on his theoretical calculations.
He was undoubtedly in the strongest position for “this world”. But how large was that “world” really? He was too deeply dyed in the colors of the Blood-Sign system’s “world” to judge anything outside of it.
Everyone had their own “world” and this was the path he had chosen.
But there was no definite standard with which to measure the superiority of his “world” to that of the person walking alongside him.
Meanwhile, Oiran-style Modified Mini-Yukata Biondetta was stomping around Toy Dream 35’s R Block with her boots. Of the pizza slice blocks of the city, this one had a relatively large number of schools.
“If your heart is brimming with justice, then let’s get shooting!! Come study the stars with the Shooting Rangers and then we can combine our powers to defeat the Doshaburin Raincloud Monsters! Have you started up your cheering app? Orihime is Vega of Lyra and Hikoboshi is Altair of Aquila. Believe it or not, Orihime is 70 times brighter than the sun. She’s said to be the brightest in the summer constellations. On the other hand, Hikoboshi is…”
A group of five in full-body tights was holding some kind of study session on one of the giant bridges. Instead of using a screen or monitor like the weather lady, a barcode of light appeared on their tights’ decorations. The children could apparently hold up their smartphones to scan those codes to view the changing education text that went along with the hero show. The show itself was free, but the app needed to fully enjoy it came with a small fee. Even if the gadgets were new, the basic idea was the same as the old kamishibai. The cheap candy had just been replaced by the app.
It was mostly elementary school kids gathered around and no high schoolers were stopping for it.
“Oh, how nostalgic. Ryouko-chan, it’s the Shooting Rangers. Which generation are they on now?”
“O-Onee-chan, don’t stop here. It’s too embarrassing.”
“Oh, right. You always preferred Cuticle Star. Didn’t you come begging me to braid your hair because of that pink magical girl in glasses named Milly-chan?”
“This is not helping with the embarrassment!!”
The demon walked right past a pair of high school girls in red blazers (one confident and short-haired and the other librarian-like with glasses and braids).
(This is all mixed up…)
Biondetta sighed as she walked through the crowd.
There were a lot of children for midday on a weekday, but that was because classes had been cancelled after the firefight with Azalea and the rest of Bridesmaid. So why were those children being kept out on the streets? It felt like leaving a bird cage out in the middle of the savanna, opening the door, and waiting for a wild beast to arrive.
However, Biondetta’s objective was not to monitor the people or to instruct them on disaster management.
She was here to take out the candidates for Bridesmaid’s throwaway hostage exchange location, leaving them with only the metropolitan zoo in Z Block.
It was not well-known, but schools were quite useful for such things. After all, there was generally no one there at night. And these days, they relied on their home security system and no teachers stayed behind. One only had to know how to kill the electronic cameras and sensors. In fact, there were some places where overgrown trees or ill-placed signs had covered up those mechanical eyes. Find a careless and peace-dulled school like that and the underworld would attach a price tag to it.
(Those mothers in upside-down triangle glasses would probably faint if they knew guns, drugs, and women were being sold and bought at the schools they thought symbolized peace and safety, but that’s the sad truth.)
Those who refused to hit a woman would be killed by a woman. Those who went easy on kids increased the value of child assassins. Those were the ironclad laws of the harsh world. People were free to support bushido or chivalry if they wanted, but pacifists needed to use their heads a little more and realize they could easily be indirectly supporting the underworld by leaving openings that the less principled could take advantage of.
And if Kyousuke and Biondetta had done so, they might not have become such perfect summoners.
(It doesn’t really matter now, though. I can’t have anyone taking this power from me.)
“Hm, hm, hm, hmmm☆”
The pink demon hummed as she took photos of her surroundings with her smartphone. Loitering around a school and pointing a camera around should have been alarming, but this was the tourist city of Toy Dream 35. It might be unusual for a woman to go on a foreign trip all on her own, but this was the age of SNS. If an attractive woman was wandering around taking a bunch of selfies, people would assume the horns on her head and tail on her butt were just a way for a showoff foreigner to get more hits on her page. No one would ever think to notice that the camera’s focus was more on the buildings behind her and the security camera locations than on her own smiling face.
(This is an industrial technical college and, based on the schoolyard equipment, that must be a sports-focused school. Those would be tough. Ohh, there’s a handy elementary school over there. Heh heh. They’ve kept the number of cameras low to protect the kids’ privacy and elementary schools generally don’t have club activities, so it’ll be empty at night. They’ll want to go after this one, so I need to seal it off.)
Biondetta came to a stop. She turned her head and swiped her slender index finger along her smartphone’s screen. Mobiles were so very convenient. Tourists no longer needed a physical map and she would look just like a tourist checking her destination on a digital map.
Even if the screen displayed something else entirely.
(Government and Illegal…hmm. This is an educational facility, so the world police probably have a greater presence. Although it looks like Illegal is using some bad people to start breaking into the area.)
She generally used the two maps they had seen in Aika’s apartment, but the problem was how to use them.
She moved to the back of the school and found a small faculty entrance. Fortunately, there was a small bush right next to it.
Hanging from her shoulder was one of the light hiking rucksacks that foreigners often used when sightseeing and she stepped over the fence despite the short yukata and black knee socks showing off her thighs right up to the base. Her investigation had already found that a soundproof panel for construction created a blind spot in the cameras here. She approached the faculty entrance, lowered the rucksack, and unzipped it.
It contained a heavy metal cylinder, but it was not a water bottle refilled with tea.
“You shouldn’t be so careless, Azalea-chan. You can fire like crazy if you want, but leaving unexploded ordnance on the scene comes with its own risks. For example, they can be reused as IEDs☆”
What she had to do was simple: shove the unexploded missile into the bushes near the entrance and hit the remote switch when the Government dog dressed as a faculty member got close.
It would be a pain to sit around waiting for them to arrive on schedule, so she just had to call the faculty room without actually saying anything. If she hacked a student’s smartphone, spoofed the location data, and made it look like they were playing behind the school even after classes were canceled, the teacher would put their shoes on at the faculty entrance and step out to scold them. And that would mean passing right by the bushes hiding the unexploded ordnance.
Biondetta did not really have to kill them.
She could intentionally hit the switch while the target was still a good way away from the explosive. After just barely surviving, that ally of justice would first start a skirmish with Illegal and only start investigating Bridesmaid after identifying the explosive. Using unexploded ordnance left by someone else was just like using a hacked account: it brought such wicked enjoyment.
Her client Shiroyama Kyousuke had asked her to eliminate the candidates in a way that looked natural.
Biondetta had faithfully obeyed him.
To that pink demon, detonating bombs in the city still qualified as a “natural accident”.
Just to be clear, Biondetta’s goal was destruction and not murder.
She wanted to disturb the scene enough that Bridesmaid could not use any of the candidate locations except for the metropolitan zoo in Z Block. And it had to be done quickly enough that obvious results would be seen in only a few hours.
She had found the best answer for that.
(After this, I guess I’ll attack an Illegal base. While pretending to be Government, of course. They’ll begin fruitlessly attacking each other and they’ll also reveal the existence of their common enemy: Bridesmaid. Hmm, it looks like those two enemies are going to heroically join forces. Such a silly but lovely and freeze-dried story!)
In the zoo, Yukata Sekurtiti spoke with doubt in her pale blue eyes.
“By the way, Shiroyama Kyousuke. We’ve gone around making preparations, but what exactly are we going to do?”
“We need to finish checking around first. The zoo is a large facility with a hidden area they don’t show the guests, so we need to check there too.”
Just as Kyousuke said that, a female zookeeper made an announcement from the speakers installed along with lights on the branches of the trees lining the path.
“The 2 PM petting show with the popular Capybara Knights is beginning soon. This is the last time they will be fed today, so keep that in mind if you have purchased food pellets for them. All of the Capybara Knights will be making an appearance at…”
Children only as tall as Kyousuke’s waist rushed over. The show seemed to be happening nearby. Yukata Sekurtiti let go of his hand as the stream of children separated them, but she gently narrowed her pale blue eyes like she was seeing something heartwarming.
And then the summoner raised his leg without hesitation.
He coldheartedly kicked right toward one of the children.
The brown girl’s face was colored by an indescribable mixture of surprise and disgust, but the Tomb Priestess caught on a moment later. The right sleeve of her bright yellow yukata had been ripped apart. Not even bumping into someone and catching on their fingernails would do that.
A flash of silver light was mixed in with the sea of innocent children.
It was a knife. An unmistakably deadly weapon.
Sekurtiti held her torn sleeve and quickly took a step back, but the surrounding people had not even noticed anything was wrong. Most eyes were on the rodents released inside a short fence and Kyousuke alone stared coldly at the attacker.
His kick to the back of the elbow had caused the attacker to miss, but that attacker looked like a girl of only 8 or 9. Her long hair seemed more like ice than silver, she wore a long, sleeveless dress with a blue ribbon on the chest, and she wore a backpack that resembled a stuffed tanuki which seemed to be a character from something. At first glance, it looked like a summery dress with fabric so thin that her small silhouette showed through, but that was a false image. In truth, an optical effect was used to make it look like her silhouette showed through while she actually had a variety of weapons hidden inside.
Unlike Sekurtiti, there was no shock on Kyousuke’s face.
He only spoke with some annoyance in his voice.
“Those eyes. They remind me of my past.”
They both jumped back to put distance between them.
“The Capybara Knights love plants that grow near the water and plenty of those have been put in the pellets all of you have. When you pick them up, go like this and…”
The children cheered at the zookeeper’s explanation, but just a few meters behind them, an unrecorded fight to the death was beginning. Even though it was July, the assassin looked like a snow fairy and she reached for the backpack on her back. She pulled out what looked like a fishing reel, but it was much larger and more sinister.
(A windlass pike?)
The mass of steel was as solid as a vise and when the mine cart lever of a stopper was removed, something rapidly slid out. It was a weapon made by attaching a 250 cm special steel shaft on the back of a combat knife with a 20 cm blade. It had only fit in the backpack because the reel had been used to forcibly wrap the shaft around.
It was far too large a weapon for a girl with a height of only 120 cm.
But that impression was quickly overturned. Right or left. The girl stabbed the sharp point into the ground, held onto the special steel shaft, and swung around like a ballet dancer or figure skater, or like she was twisting a large man’s arm around. Each time her large skirt fluttered up around her and the entire dress created a false image in the backlight, the shaft bent, spun, and built up strength. Finally, the girl used her toes to kick the tip she had stabbed into the ground.
The cocoon exploded.
The special steel shaft demonstrated the beauty of a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon as it rotated around and released its incredible power like a spring. It became a deadly blade storm that blew toward Kyousuke. It flipped vertically, horizontally, up, and down. It probably looked like a mere afterimage to a normal person. Not even a martial arts expert could produce this much speed and numbers.
But Kyousuke did not back down.
He pulled a metal cylinder the size of a hair spray can from his hoodie’s pocket. Needless to say, it was an Incense Grenade, but he did not plan to pull the pin and throw it. Unlike his 180 cm Blood-Sign, he could use this blunt weapon while hiding it in his hand.
If his aim was even a few millimeters off or his timing was even 0.3 seconds off, this dangerous storm would take off all the fingers on his right hand. A few orange sparks scattered within it.
The ice fairy’s deadly blade did not stop. Before the storm could settle down, the tip stabbed back into the ground and she twisted her body complexly around to build up power in the spring and seamlessly begin the next attack as her skirt fluttered around her. Any normal reaction would have been worn down and killed with no chance for a counterattack. Yes, any “normal” reaction.
This was why Kyousuke had chosen the Incense Grenade over his Blood-Sign.
“Are you sure you want to make me go all out?”
Kyousuke spread his arms in front of the attacker and showed off the scratched metal can he held.
“If this goes off, an Artificial Sacred Ground will open. I have a vessel with me, but you’re alone. You might be an expert in that field, but you can’t wield the Summoning Ceremony right now. …Letting this detonate would be devastating for you. Wouldn’t it be awful to be crushed to death by the Cost 1 Original Red (b)?”
The attacker’s movements tensed for just a moment, but Kyousuke used that moment to step forward.
He did not actually have to make that choice. Making her think he had was enough. It was devastating enough to simply drive a wedge into her seamless movement between attacks.
After stepping right up to her, Kyousuke raised the metal can like a hammer to gather her attention and prepared to attack with his feet from below. This was checkmate. This snow crystal of an attacker could not avoid his next attack.
Or so he thought.
A moment later, his entire vision rotated vertically.
He had no idea what had happened.
The dull pain in the side of his head told him he had been hit by something powerful enough to flip him around, but it had not come from the attacker’s windlass pike.
It had come from someone else. A third party.
(I couldn’t even sense their killer intent!?)
Too much about this had been odd, but he did not have time to lament the unfairness of the world. While flipped upside-down, he rapidly regained control of his body and thoughts, pressed one palm against the ground, and regained his balance. He moved away from the attacker he had failed to hit and returned to defenseless Sekurtiti to shield her.
A large man’s deep voice reached the boy’s ears.
“You’re known as the All-Around Armament or 3A, but I guess a Freedom 900 level was too much for you, little girl. Now, come crying to your dandy guardian. Kids have got to have that cute side to them. You’re not that White Queen, so no one expects you to be perfect at everything.”
When she heard that voice, the tiny assassin puffed out her cheeks while remaining expressionless.
“No. I have yet to be hit by even a single attack. I disagree that I am having any trouble here.”
“It’d all be over once that single attack hit you. How about you get that boy over there to explain it to you? The intellectual type loves explaining their plans.”
Who was it directing her toward Kyousuke?
When he tried to search through his memories, he started to feel faint. He briefly lost his balance. He very nearly fell to his knees like he had been hit by a hypnotic mental attack.
The man gave off an entirely different impression from when Kyousuke had met him before.
His long blond hair was tied back and his right eye was covered by a black leather eyepatch. His fancy gold-embroidered coat looked unnaturally unsupported in the right sleeve. He was missing an arm.
But the man had an inner core that prevented that flashy appearance from gathering too much focus.
Kyousuke remembered him.
When all his bones had been broken and he had just barely escaped the Queen’s Miniature Garden alive, it was this man who had carried him to the transport helicopter. This summoner had given up on his own slim chance at survival and returned to that hellish battlefield to suppress the rampaging White Queen.
“Why are you here? How are you alive!?”
“The name’s Claude Magentarain. Come to think of it, did I even introduce myself back then?”
The wild man grinned and toyed with something in his one hand.
It was a dull silver key with a 30-carat diamond in it. Kyousuke clicked his tongue in annoyance, but it was too late. His hoodie pocket had been sharply split open. This man had approached and performed a roundhouse kick to the side of the head before Kyousuke had noticed anything at all, so it would have been easy for him to add in another trick or two.
That was why the tiny assassin had targeted Sekurtiti’s yukata sleeve. They were after the pockets before the vitals. That way they could take the key no matter who had it.
That family name reminded him of that curly, reddish-blond hair. And Azalea had attacked Kyousuke with mass-produced Repliglass weapons made to look just like her. He initially suspected this was a copy made based on Claude’s biological data, but he quickly realized that did not add up.
The lost eye and arm would be meaningless. It would confuse Kyousuke further to make him look identical to Kyousuke’s memories from the Queen’s Miniature Garden. And data on the Queen’s Miniature Garden was not easily acquired. The puzzle pieces simply did not fit for Azalea to have calculated it all out.
(Or has Bridesmaid absorbed someone connected to the Miniature Garden? No, that couldn’t be. Calm down. You’re reading too much into this.)
In that case, had that man really survived?
No, that was not what he needed to focus on now.
(This isn’t good. Does Azalea know about this!?)
“Is that girl your current vessel?”
“No, no. She’s to replace my missing right arm. Think of us like a three-legged race summoner. My vessel is here.”
Claude casually tossed the Diamond Master Key straight up.
Kyousuke suspected that was meant to draw his eyes up so the man could make a surprise attack, but he was wrong. A giant bird of prey cut across overhead and snatched the silver key from the air.
Its wingspan was more than 200 cm.
Kyousuke recalled that Azalea had referred to herself as a bird of prey.
“His name is Ricky and he’s probably smarter than me. He might’ve invited too many Materials inside and triggered a revolution in his mind. All hail the Queen, I guess.”
The man spoke of a definite benefit or blessing from the White Queen.
If their main unit learned Kyousuke had set things up at the zoo and that the Diamond Master Key had been stolen from him, he would be at a serious disadvantage. He had to assume his chances of getting Renge and Higan back safely were fast approaching zero. That left one thing to do. And it did not matter if this man was real or not for this.
Claude smiled as he watched the bird of prey fly in a gentle circle above.
“I’m guessing you’re not after the 30-carat diamond. Since you’re so obsessed with that old junk, are you perhaps after the Natural History’s missing entries?”
(I have to defeat him before he returns to their main unit with the key or that information!!)
Just using the Incense Grenade clenched in his fist would not be enough. He reached for the Blood-Sign on his back. He did not want to cause too much of a scene, but he had to use the Summoning Ceremony to keep the battle out of the public eye even if only to take out the flying bird of prey and retrieve the key.
Kyousuke’s entire body seemed to exude an invisible miasma, but Claude did not seem to care.
Freedom Award 903 could not even maintain control of the conversation.
“I’ll praise the speed of your conviction, but you should really observe your surroundings better.”
He snapped his fingers.
“Okay, that ends the 2 PM Capybara Knights petting show. Are they all sleepy now that their stomachs are full? The Capybara Knights will be taking a nap now, so please go visit the other animals.”
It all drew back.
The many children seemed to be pulled by a powerful force and then they turned around and scattered in every direction.
“The Natural History’s missing entries and the Queen’s territory beyond that are too much for you to handle. Leave this to a ghost from the past. If I feel like it, I’ll give you some of the leftover scraps. …You see, I too have business with her.”
As he was swallowed up by the ocean of short children, Claude turned his back with 3A who had hidden her weapon in her backpack.
“Wah! …What? There’s a pirate here.”
“Is he a bad one? A bad pirate would be scary.”
Unsurprisingly, his gaudy getup drew the children’s attention, but…
“That’s right. Haven’t you seen Mystery Pirates? I may not look like it, but this dandy gentleman is the legendary pirate who was swallowed up by the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle.”
He followed the current and let the waves of people carry him away.
As they left, the girl known as 3A tried to pull out a small blade within the crowd of children, but Claude lightly kicked her to stop her. He understood that would have the opposite of the desired effect with Kyousuke.
There was nothing Kyousuke could do.
A Summoning Ceremony battle that threatened to destroy the entire zoo was one thing, but he could not think up a way to defeat enemies on that level without causing a scene. No matter what he did now, the surrounding children would be caught in the middle of it. Controlling a Material was like holding the reins of a rampaging horse and releasing it in the desired direction, so they were poorly suited for precision attacks.
“You did the right thing. There is nothing to be discouraged about.” Sekurtiti spoke kindly to him. “Even if Bridesmaid has the Diamond Master Key, the ancient map remains on my back. We can go through with the exchange.”
(That’s not the problem here…)
Kyousuke clenched his teeth and kept his thoughts to himself so as not to worry his partner any further. There were two major problems:
1. Bridesmaid would now learn that Kyousuke had set things up at the zoo. They lost any advantage that would give them.
2. The Offering Team made it clear that Bridesmaid knew that Shiroyama Kyousuke would not allow death no matter how much it hurt his position. And now the master key had been stolen, leaving him with only the ancient map. He could have threatened to destroy the key to negotiate, but he could not destroy the ancient map.
His only option now was to do what his opponent said.
The situation was about as bad as it could be.
And at that very moment, his smartphone rang.
“Aika, did something happen?”
“Bridesmaid has contacted a secret line to the president of one of Government’s official corporations. Namely, Quad Motors.”
“Curse those underhanded tomb raiders…”
Sekurtiti gnashed her teeth, but Kyousuke needed to focus on Aika. They were at a disadvantage, but refusing to speak would not improve their situation.
“The world’s largest defense contractor is doing everything it can, but the connection is somehow entirely untraceable. They’ve relayed it on to us. I can only guess, but this has to be Azalea Magentarain. Onii-chan, are you ready?”
The world seemed to grow dark, but he could not give in to that.
He immediately refocused his thoughts and put together the best performance he could muster. He focused on the noises around him and checked for any noticeable animal cries or zoo announcements.
“I’m ready at any time.”
The situation was a mess, but he began a negotiation with lives on the line. As part of the Tanabata Fair, the hold music was a nursery rhyme about the stars. Just when the song started to loop, it ended and he was connected to the other end.
“Hi, Azalea. Are you planning to visit home?”
“If the Quad Motors HQ in the States isn’t enough, you’ll have to get every other agency you can find to work at tracing this call. Still, I meant this as a show of good faith so you wouldn’t waste your time with a lot of pointless effort.”
He did not need to take any of that at face value.
Azalea had not directly called Aika or Kyousuke simply because she had not known their numbers, but that would not be the only reason she had used her old home of Quad Motors as a relay point. That choice may have been made for very personal reasons, but it was still important information for Kyousuke.
For one thing, he still did not know why her soul had been swallowed up by the White Queen during the previous incident. And what had happened after she was captured and sent to the Colorful Museum? The foundation of it all might be found at Quad Motors or the Magentarain family that ran it.
It was also possible that the dubious man named Claude Magentarain was deeply involved.
“What happened, Azalea?”
“I could ask you the very same question, but do you think you could easily sum up the full history of what made you who you are?” The worshiper girl giggled. “Let’s not even attempt the impossible here. For now, I’d like to tell you the time of our party.”
Kyousuke was not even allowed to breathe in the air that smelled of straw and animals.
The zoo was off the table now and the Diamond Master Key had been stolen. That only left the ancient map that could not be destroyed since it was on Sekurtiti’s back. And he would have to begin the negotiations at an irregular location with no time to prepare.
Or so he thought.
“Please visit the designated location at the designated time and make sure to bring the Diamond Master Key and the ancient map with you. The time will be 1 AM tomorrow morning and the place will be Toy Dream 35’s Z Block. I will contact you later with further instructions.”
Confusion filled his mind.
She was falling for his trap. It was all going as planned. But it should have been diverging from the plan after something so out of the ordinary had occurred. Why did she not mention the loss of the master key? Why would she designate a location where he had been seen? She should have given up on the entire block and moved to another location. He briefly wondered if he was being tested or if he was speaking with a recording.
Had Azalea still not received a report from Claude?
…Or was Azalea entirely unaware of Claude’s actions – or presence – here?
“Are Renge and Higan still alive? Do you have a way of proving that?”
Various pieces of information and possibilities exploded in his mind, but he could not let Azalea notice. He kept his mouth moving and attempted to keep the conversation underway.
“And here I thought I was showing a sign of friendship by not asking you to prove you had not destroyed the master key or killed the ancient map girl.”
“I know it would be hard to get them to speak after losing in the Summoning Ceremony, so show me a video of them. I’ll be able to tell if it’s just a recording. And if you can’t earn my trust, the deal is off.”
“Hee hee. You would never do that. You want the Founder’s Gallery as much as we do.”
“At the very least, I have the ancient map. I can find another way to decode it. It might take a lengthy detour, though.”
“None of us would be going to all this trouble if we could do that. The key and chest would be meaningless.”
“To a normal person maybe. But do you really think I fall into that category?”
“Alice (with) Rabbit will not allow anyone to die.”
“Is that so? Then what kind of retribution would you like? If I wanted, I could give Sekurtiti general anesthesia and flay the ancient map from her. I won’t hesitate when it isn’t about an actual life. Don’t forget that.”
Sekurtiti’s pale blue eyes were giving him a look. She clearly wanted to know why he was provoking Azalea when things were going unexpectedly well. But that was not how to look at this. When things were going too smoothly, he had to be skeptical. He still did not have a full grasp of what it was, but something was not right here. And that could become a slight starting point that he could not afford to let Azalea know about.
The ominous animal smell grew stronger than the straw smell.
“Fine then,” said Azalea. “I hope you see this as a sign of my desire to complete this exchange peacefully. Please switch the call to visual mode.”
Kyousuke was not an idiot, so he only did so after crushing the smartphone’s lens with his finger. He could not let her know he was at the zoo. There was a chance she could analyze the background noise to determine his location, but this was better than nothing.
And then the view from Azalea’s device filled the smartphone screen.
Sekurtiti peered at it from the side.
He could not tell where it was. He saw some kind of black curtain and could hear machines running. And that background was mostly obscured by a close up of Azalea’s face. She was probably holding the smartphone in her hand. The distance was a little odd. She was holding it from a somewhat elevated angle, so he could see the bright skin at her yukata’s open chest.
“How cautious of you. But fine. I’ll view that as proof that you’re taking this seriously.”
The smartphone pointed away from Azalea.
Sekurtiti covered her mouth with her hands. She seemed to be suppressing a scream.
The screen showed a large doll seated against the wall.
No, it was a black-haired girl in a shrine maiden outfit. The chest of her clothes was removed and the soft skin hidden below was opened wide. The skin, muscles, ribs, and everything inside were clearly manmade. The artificial organs looked like leather bags stitched into shape and they pulsed with the same accuracy as a human’s.
“Even I was shocked by this. I managed to retrieve the Joruri Texts of the former Meinokawa Shrine… I had heard they were originally trying to create a fully artificial vessel, but I never thought they would have created a summoner too. And this is more than just a theory; they’ve actually made one… Peh heh heh. They could create a truly unmanned and mass-produced unit like this!”
“Oh, don’t you worry. Everything that was removed for examination will be back inside her by the time of the exchange. Yes, with nothing missing.”
The curly-haired girl giggled.
“I told you before that Repliglass is the remnants of a failed attempt to create a likeness of Her Majesty, didn’t I? This will allow me to make up for its deficiencies and then some. Of course, even this is incomplete, but if I incorporate the Joruri Texts into Repliglass, I might just be able to resurrect that lost dream. …Yes, I might just create a vessel with greater accuracy and strength than a human. Then Her Majesty can remain in this world indefinitely.”
The conversation turned in her direction.
No matter where he went, all calamity and mayhem seemed to fall toward that white evil as if there was a powerful pull in that direction.
“That said, the Founder’s Gallery is still necessary. Even if I fully absorb the Joruri Texts, that plan will be a long way from completion. Including the Natural History’s missing entries in the doll and fusing the new techniques with the old would be the best way of indefinitely fixing Her Majesty’s soul in this desolate world.”
“I mean, I lack the necessary parts as things are. Although that might change if you gave me permission to dig out the spine of a vessel as excellent as Meinokawa Higan.”
This was no longer just a cruel game.
If she was only toying with the twins’ lives to make Kyousuke suffer, there was still something he could do. Simply put, he only had to give her something else with which to torment him. But not even that would work anymore. Bridesmaid had found definite value in Renge and Higan.
They would never let go of those shrine maiden twins.
This was about more than just defeating Kyousuke. If the twins were now an offering to the Queen, he doubted Bridesmaid would let them slip away so easily. They would want to hold onto Renge’s artificial organs and Higan’s spine, just in case the Natural History’s missing entries were not found in the Founder’s Gallery or were a disappointment.
“You wanted proof they were alive, didn’t you? Satisfied?”
“Yes.” Kyousuke briefly forgot to keep up his act and responded in a deep and icy voice. “Now I have no reason to hold back. None whatsoever.”
It was late at night and the Milky Way shined with a cold light overhead.
After sending Shiroyama Kyousuke the location at the very last second, the Bridesmaid group led by Azalea and The Saint hid in the darkness as they entered the metropolitan zoo. It was half past midnight, which was half an hour before the exchange began. That might seem like cutting it close, but this was the right answer. The location of an exchange like this was not the same as a hideout. They wanted to depart while leaving as little a trace of themselves as possible, so they wanted to avoid staying too long and thus leaving too much evidence in the form of hairs, saliva, sweat, footprints, etc.
The zoo was already closed and the staff had left the darkness, but there were a few night nightshift workers who stayed throughout the night. Animals lived at the zoo, so they could not eliminate the possibility of a sudden health emergency.
That said, the number of nightshift workers was woefully few for such a large zoo.
Plus, Bridesmaid had been prepared to swiftly “eliminate” any such uncertain factors the moment they entered the zoo.
But the members searching the large zoo gave the following report:
“The nightshift vet and zookeeper are nowhere to be found. We found some warm coffee and an open packet of crackers in the administrative office, so it looks like they were here not long ago.”
“That is fine. …No matter what might happen, he is still Alice (with) Rabbit. And catching them off guard would have been the easiest way to not leave a trace.” Azalea giggled as she answered. “Did he realize he couldn’t change anything once we arrived? Even if we tried to cancel the deal and leave now, he is sure to pursue us and insist we follow through. We will settle this here. Our top priority is the Diamond Master Key and the ancient map. If we obtain the Natural History’s missing entries, we will be able to invite Her Majesty’s soul into this world. It is a bit early, but it seems Shiroyama Kyousuke has already arrived. …Let’s begin once everyone is in place.”
After a quick look from his small master, the elderly butler gently indicated the duffel bag and suitcase he held under his arms. They were ready to go.
Azalea calmly smiled and pulled a smartphone from the collar of her lacy and frilly yukata.
Kyousuke’s smartphone vibrated from an incoming call.
He would have to activate the backlight in this dark space that smelled of straw and animals, but there was no use worrying about that now.
The game had begun.
“How do you do?”
“It’s 10 minutes until the time you set, so are you starting already?”
“You’re sick of waiting too, aren’t you? Come to the lion cage on Layer 3. And keep this call active.”
“Sorry, but the battery’s about to die.”
“I had a feeling you would say that.”
Kyousuke hung up and spoke to Sekurtiti.
“Just to be clear, there is no going back once this begins.”
“Why say that now after everything you’ve gotten me involved in? Besides, you cannot clear the very first barrier without the ancient map on my back.”
That was an important bargaining chip for Kyousuke and Bridesmaid. It was a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Or it should have been.
Even after the normal guests had left, the animals had returned to their beds in the stables, and everyone but the nightshift workers had gone home, Kyousuke and Sekurtiti had remained hidden in the zoo, giving them plenty of time to think. But they had found no way of eliminating the uncertain factors of this deal: Claude Magentarain and 3A.
That man had taken the Diamond Master Key, but would that prove to be a good thing or a bad thing?
(I was worried they would change the deal at the last second, but we’re still at the zoo. What do they gain from this? But we have to do this regardless.)
Needless to say, Kyousuke’s goal was to get everyone back safely. He had to rescue Renge and Higan, but he could not let Bridesmaid capture Sekurtiti in exchange.
“Let’s get started.”
The Milky Way filling the sky overhead seemed coldly indifferent. The closed zoo had no lights on in order to help with the Tanabata astronomical observation fair. Plus, this place prioritized the lifestyles of the animals over the humans. Even if the animals were back in their stables, it would be strange to have bright lights on at night.
As they walked through the zoo and its powerful scent of animals and the night, Sekurtiti turned her head every which way.
She heard a rustling sound, but when she looked over at the bush there, she only found a stray cat that had boldly snuck into the zoo.
“Don’t worry. There are no snipers around here.”
“No, it isn’t that. This is something of a habit of mine.”
“The desert might make you think of a sweltering midsummer sun, but the true terror is found in the frigid desert nights that drop below freezing. And most carnivores are nocturnal. My senses seem to grow sharper when I smell an animal at night.”
Kyousuke and Sekurtiti followed the spiraling path below the carpet of stars that was unnaturally vast for a big city.
“Sorry,” muttered Kyousuke.
The brown girl did not seem to understand.
“What do you mean?”
“Sorry I got you involved in all this. This is almost entirely my own personal fight. It isn’t even meant to fulfill a client’s order. Part of me is only viewing you as a weapon.”
Sekurtiti’s primary request had ended when they had protected the tomb keepers at the apartment. Rescuing Renge and Higan only came from the obligation she felt toward the summoner who had worked to fight the tomb raiders. Even assisting from a position of safety would be out of the ordinary now, so it would be hard to find any reason for her to act as a bargaining chip in a hostage exchange where he was at such a disadvantage.
But that ruler did not hesitate to answer.
“I do not mind. You may indeed have saved a great many people, but that does not mean that no one can want to save you in the same way. And I am actually grateful that I have found someone who will worry about me on that level.”
“The tomb keepers are all aware they are servants and they do not hesitate to offer up their very lives for me. So their service is partially fixed in place and they risk their lives like they’re running digital equivalent exchange calculations: This threat is worth this life, or the numbers check out if the danger rises above this point. …Their lives are always handled like that, so I rarely have a chance to contact human emotion that cannot be replaced with numbers and equations. The intense emotion in your heart is a luxury to me.”
“Is that how it works? A part of me does sometimes think about ‘graduating’ or ‘retiring’. I start to think everything I’m doing is just for my own selfish reasons and that all my struggling is only widening the world’s wounds.”
“Selfishness is nothing to look down on. For example, my parents risked their lives to protect the pharaoh’s slumber. They fought Seth, a traitor who leaked information on the burial treasures to an outside band of tomb raiders. My parents lost their lives, so I was given the title of Tomb Priestess at a very young age as a way to strike back.” In her golden tiara, Sekurtiti looked up at the Milky Way. “Seth was actually a faithful servant and his treachery was only an act meant to place me on the throne so young. We are a group that can and does do such things. My parents had passed their prime and were beginning to decline. If they had refused to hand over control and had clung to the throne, if honest Seth had refused to sully his name, or if anyone had been even slightly selfish or greedy, this never would have happened. We would have been too pure and we never could have rid ourselves of the digital pre-established harmony.”
“If the president of Toy Dream had not suggested I look at everything from a different angle when he assisted in restoring the wall art, I never would have noticed this truth and I would have become nothing more than a producer of good deeds. So I must be thankful for everything that has happened as I protect the pharaoh’s slumber and fight the tomb raiders. I am so very thankful to my parents who gave up the throne, to Seth who took on the villain’s role, and to President Toydream who built this city. I do not want to repay them with an answer found through digital calculations. I want to learn of more intense emotions. I want the power you have to bend the world around you with a single feeling. I want the kindness you have to distort what is right using your selfishness.”
“Am I wrong?”
Kyousuke did not respond.
He intentionally changed the subject.
“I see. You said wherever the pharaoh slept was sacred ground, but I didn’t realize you had such an attachment to this city.”
“If I didn’t, I never would have allowed the pharaoh’s remains to be transported from the pyramid. The president has a very observant eye and excellent analytic ability and he can tell which truths should be divulged and which should not. If he kept this gallery a secret, he must have had a good reason for it. It might be an important document for the Summoning Ceremony and it might be the Phantom Girl book he worked on for years but never had a chance to release. Shiroyama Kyousuke, I said I appreciated your intense emotion and I have decided it might just be enough to break through the president’s reason for keeping this hidden. I want to locate the gallery and protect the treasure within before those lowly tomb raiders can break through the stone door. Just as that president’s discerning eye broke through millennia of tradition, and just as we carried the pharaoh from the pyramid to protect his slumber.”
They arrived at the lion’s cage.
It was a large circular field. It was surrounded by a concrete wall several meters tall and it was situated lower than the surrounding area. Straw was laid out for a napping area and tires were lying around as toys. Most of the visitors would probably lean over the railing to peer below, but that open space looked like a giant gaping maw at the moment.
Kyousuke’s smartphone vibrated.
He pulled it from his pocket, but this meant their enemy knew where they were. He saw the faint light of a phone’s backlight on the opposite side of the circular cage.
It was Azalea Magentarain.
Kyousuke glared at her as he answered the call and her statement was short.
“Pull out your Blood-Sign and Incense Grenades and get rid of them. I will measure your sincerity based on how far you throw them.”
He obediently did as she asked. He pulled the Repliglass Blood-Sign from the back of his hoodie and threw it to the side. Then he pulled an Incense Grenade from the pocket, dropped it to his feet, and kicked it down toward the tire toys.
“There is an unnatural weight in your hood. Should I interpret that as insincerity?”
“You’re watching carefully.”
He removed the Incense Grenade hidden in his hood and threw it aside. He was now unarmed.
As he had said before, the game had already begun. Nothing his opponent told him to do was going to help him. He would be surprised if they were not being targeted by multiple snipers with night vision goggles.
He was truly unarmed as a summoner.
He had already predicted this, but he would be lying if he said he was not nervous.
After all, his life was not the only one at risk here.
“Climb down. Inside.”
Climbing into the lion cage sounded quite dangerous, but he might as well not have shown up if he was going to quibble over something like that.
Sekurtiti shrieked when he picked her up and hopped over the railing. It was a drop of several meters, but he bent his knees to soften the impact.
A girl and a man jumped down on the opposite side: Azalea Magentarain and Fractal Leskins.
The rose thorn patterned yukata caught the air and fluttered around her, so the faint light of their smartphones revealed the brilliant white of her chest and thighs.
The summoners ended the call, put away their phones, and began speaking directly.
The elderly butler lowered a suitcase and duffel bag to the concrete ground while the young girl with long curly hair arrogantly tapped her long boots on the ground, smiled thinly, and licked her lips with her small tongue.
“What you want is right here.”
“I’d like to open the bags to make sure.”
“If you want, but keep in mind this is a lion cage.”
Kyousuke heard a heavy metal door opening behind him. Sekurtiti looked back in shock. The sound of sharp claws clicking on the concrete ground arrived at irregular intervals. The lingering scent of straw and animals was washed away by something much stronger. What was this cage for? Its residents had gone back into the stable, but they almost sounded irritated that their normal schedule had been disturbed. Or perhaps stepping on the napping straw counted as violating the king of beasts’ territory.
“We hold the reins of otherworldly Materials on a daily basis, so those mere beasts will never get the better of us. They shouldn’t even be able to approach.”
Azalea should have been in the lethal zone as well, but she did not seem to mind at all. She maintained her confident smile.
“But in their current state, those girls lack that ‘pressure’. In fact, could 300-level amateurs like them do it at all? Regardless, you should assume they will be helplessly devoured while they ceaselessly repeat the same action.”
If what Azalea had said was accurate, then they saw Renge and Higan as a prize.
But that was why she did not just hold a gun to their heads. It was difficult to imagine the pain of a gun. She could easily foolishly trap herself in a situation where Kyousuke made a reckless attack and she was forced to pull the trigger even though she did not want to.
So she had gone for something more inefficient.
Being eaten by a ferocious beast was the primal fear of being unilaterally tormented by a lower but more powerful creature. That would prevent Kyousuke from doing anything rash.
The elderly butler moved his hands and the twin shrine maidens rolled out almost too easily.
They were still being affected by their loss, so they slowly repeated the same action while lying on their sides and had no issue with rubbing their cheeks against the floor of a cage that reeked of animals.
“Now, hand over the Diamond Master Key and ancient map. You can resist if you like, but while we clash, those two will be torn to pieces and killed. Plus, I doubt you can oppose us without a Blood-Sign and Incense Grenade.”
It all came down to this.
All of these lives relied on Kyousuke’s choice here.
The first thing he had to consider was whether Azalea was making a serious deal or if it was all a farce. In other words, did she or did she not know that he no longer had the Diamond Master Key? He could always bluff that he did have it, but she would see right through it if she was connected to Claude. If she saw that as a sign of his insincerity, she could start in a lethal direction. But he was also reluctant to bring up Claude’s name here. In the off chance that Azalea was unaware, that could mean revealing his trump card prematurely.
So he took a step forward on the straw and spoke.
“If I hand over both at once, you might just leave without giving me anything. So I’ll trade for Renge and Higan one at a time.”
“Oh? You’re giving me the choice? Then I can I have the ancient map first? And here I thought you would put human life first.”
Kyousuke glanced over.
Sekurtiti gave him a small nod back and took a step forward. Needless to say, this was all over if she was taken too. But he could not keep her with him forever. None of Azalea’s instructions were going to help him, so Sekurtiti would be taken away eventually even if he tried to keep her around.
“Start with Renge.”
“Hee hee. So you have a favorite twin.”
Azalea probably thought she could kill him with the Summoning Ceremony at any time, so she had no preference there. She crouched down, waved her finger in front of the sacrifice’s face, and slowly pointed over at Kyousuke. Renge began slowly crawling over on all fours.
Sekurtiti walked forward in her gold tiara.
Kyousuke crouched down to hold the black-haired shrine maiden who had been stripped of all pride, dignity, and even human behavior. She had once self-deprecatingly said she was manmade, but she had the same warmth, pulse, and flowing blood as a human. He had failed to protect her when Bridesmaid had gotten ahead of him, but she was still hanging on by a thread and he could not allow that to be cut.
After receiving the brown girl in a yukata, Azalea left the ancient map with her elderly butler and made an announcement.
“Now, the Diamond Master Key. I know that leaving with just one of the two isn’t what you really want.”
This was the true black box.
Did she know the truth about the key?
The answer to that question was a devastating bomb hidden in this deal.
He had given it a lot of thought.
And he still did not know the truth as he held slowly-moving Renge and gave his answer.
“What I really want? You want to know what I really want???”
“Then I’ll tell you. My plan is to rescue both Renge and Higan. And I can’t lose Sekurtiti while doing so either. I’ll rescue everyone while also stealing away the Golden Treasure Chest you have. Then I’ll walk unharmed into the Founder’s Gallery and acquire the Natural History’s missing entries without anyone interfering. And there is no room for Bridesmaid in my plans. I need all of you to disappear.”
“It sounds like I need you to suffer some more.”
Azalea reached into the collar of her modified yukata that revealed both her cleavage and shoulders. She was probably reaching for the ribbon Blood-Sign wrapped around a reel and for her own Incense Grenade. Kyousuke could not do anything to the White Thorns without a Blood-Sign of his own, so the Artificial Sacred Ground would mean his death.
“We will never attempt to judge what Her Majesty is thinking. Shiroyama Kyousuke, no matter what shape you might take and whether you are alive or dead, Bridesmaid will prioritize offering you to Her Majesty once she has been invited to this world. I can search your corpse for the key. And if it is not there, I can go ask someone else who would know.”
“The thing is…”
Kyousuke ignored her and continued speaking.
Was it an expression of her unease over the calamity befalling her or was it an expression of kindness? Sekurtiti held the blonde shrine maiden in her arms.
“Securing Meinokawa Renge in advance was the first and last barrier for me. After all, you had opened her up. Retrieving her is fine and all, but this would have been troublesome if she was missing some organs or you had stuck a bomb inside her. So it was important that I actually had her in my hands to confirm she was just fine. I especially needed to check her breathing and pulse.”
“And Sekurtiti’s location honestly doesn’t matter. After all…”
Kyousuke kicked away the napping straw at his feet.
And he revealed what was hidden below.
“If I detonate an Incense Grenade like this, the summoner and vessel are carried to the same spot.”
It was too late by the time Azalea and Fractal tried to act.
The brown girl they held was pulled back to Kyousuke by a dreadful force. Along with Meinokawa Higan in her arms.
Renge, Higan, and Sekurtiti.
They were all back with him. Shiroyama Kyousuke no longer had to hold back. He kicked up the Blood-Sign that had been hidden below the straw along with the Incense Grenade and he caught it in one hand.
Azalea and Fractal were already trapped in a cubic cage.
A ribbon spiraled through empty air to form a Blood-Sign and the large flower decoration on the back of Azalea’s hips shook as she spoke in a low voice.
“You knew I would confiscate your equipment, so you hid a set here in advance? But you couldn’t have known I would instruct you to climb into the lion cage.”
“No. That’s why I hid them all over the zoo. Just like a stage magician does with playing cards. No matter what card you drew, I had a full set of 52 cards hidden here and there on the stage. So I could claim I had predicted what card you would choose.”
“But how? You didn’t have enough time for such a detailed setup after I told you the location…”
“Yes, I wonder how I managed that.”
This had been a gamble on Kyousuke’s part.
But now that he had the hostages back safe, he could guess that Claude had not reported back to Azalea.
“Then I shall use your weakness against you. Offering Team, prepare yourselves.”
If those girls given suicidal desires were here, Kyousuke would have to go rescue them.
But that was not a problem for him.
It sounded like gas was escaping all around them. And that was probably accurate. A look up at the railing above the lion cage showed the growing girls who should have been committing suicide were doing nothing at all.
“I didn’t just hide Blood-Signs and Incense Grenades. The original incenses were a mixture of plants and minerals that would put people in a trance. Lu-san really ripped me off, but mixing up a downer incense that knocks people out is quite easy.”
Azalea tapped her long boots on the ground and gave her butler a look, so he showed her a wristwatch that was likely worth a fortune on its own. It was 1 AM, the original starting time.
“I could say the same about you.”
Without the Summoning Ceremony, they all would have fainted. And Kyousuke did not care if Renge and Higan were taken out too. As long as he could bring them back alive.
And in the end, it was a simple thing.
Whoever won the Summoning Ceremony would obtain everything.
The summoners simultaneously called out to their vessel and raised their Blood-Sign.
The three-dimensional Rose made from 6 x 6 x 6 = 216 Petals appeared between them. To take everything from the other, they both chose one of their initial 3 White Thorns and struck it with the tip of their Blood-Sign. The powerful impact from both sides shattered the Rose and the countless Petals scattered around the area.
But Azalea seemed more focused on the light in Shiroyama Kyousuke’s eyes than on the Petals or White Thorns. Almost like an invisible flame was burning her neck and forcing her to move.
And the hunter spoke.
“It’s time you paid for treating those two like tools.”
It had finally begun.
The summoners fought using those that lurked beyond the gods of legend.
Azalea’s adorable and yet alluring lips smiled.
They looked like a flower bud.
At the same time, the White Thorn that should have hit a Petal instead hit the wall of the Artificial Sacred Ground. This was not random. After ricocheting a few times, it accurately returned to her.
She spun and once more hit the White Thorn before it disappeared. This high-speed loop was Azalea Magentarain’s pattern for assured victory. When a White Thorn was used, it was supposed to take 10 seconds to be replenished, but she overturned that and continued hitting Petals in with the force of a Gatling gun to build up a Material of overwhelming Cost without giving her opponent a chance to fight back. This attack was a nightmare to her opponents and it had brought her up to Government Award 930.
But Kyousuke had broken through this overwhelming barrage once before.
The Artificial Sacred Ground was a 20 meter cube at first, but it expanded and contracted to match the size of the summoned Materials. He could use that to change the size of the Artificial Sacred Ground’s walls she was trying to use and thus break her accurate loop.
Kyousuke had the Original Red (b). Cost: 1. Sound Range: Low.
Azalea had the Original Green (k). Cost: 1. Sound Range: Middle.
(Use my body as much as you want. I have no reason to let these lowly tomb raiders get away. Especially when they are so blinded by the glitter of treasure that they take hostages!!)
The voice from his contracted vessel scorched the back of Kyousuke’s mind.
It all began there and he knew the weakness of Azalea’s wild rush, but he could not fully break down her strategy. No matter how much he obstructed her, Azalea’s loop would close once more.
She had updated her weakness after her previous loss.
She had honed her skill to the point that she could accurately respond when the moving walls of the Artificial Sacred Ground grew or shrank.
Kyousuke had the Floating Blood-Craving Hammer (zn – bih – ei – xa – qux – hdi)
Cost: 15. Sound Range: Low. Just the head of the giant hammer was taller than Kyousuke. The head was a black and shiny stone, but the lovely girl’s form visible inside it made it look like a tranquil coffin.
Azalea had the Witch Trapped in a Bewitching Flower who Spreads a Sweetly Putrid Stench (su – j – ou – ve – bo – xm – wg – ei – ig – ta – ux).
Cost: 21. Sound Range: High. Just the upper body of an alluring and evil woman stuck out from the center of a giant flower with countless thick vines wriggling around it. Each time she twisted her body, a sweet smell lured in the enemy with a powerful attraction. Once the enemy was within the lethal range, the cruel monster’s vine spears would pierce their body and drain them of their nutrients.
Kyousuke had the superior Sound Range, but once the Cost difference reached 10, she would be able to force her way past that and wear down the Silhouette at the core of his Material. He of course had to solve this before that happened.
(Kh. This is hard enough on its own, but I have to protect the two hostages at the same time…!?)
Sekurtiti’s thoughts flowed into Kyousuke’s mind as his contracted vessel. Renge and Higan were also inside the Artificial Sacred Ground. They could not let Azalea’s Material hit those two and they could not let their own Material’s rampage hit them either.
The lion cage was just not a good place to be.
So Kyousuke did not hesitate to shout an order.
“Destroy our footing, Sekurtiti!!”
(You want to open a pitfall below the lowly tomb raiders to send them into the abyss, don’t you!? I understand completely!)
The ground was concrete, but a swing of the hammer smashed the world around them. Kyousuke and Azalea both fell down along with the stage itself. Renge and Higan could not brace themselves for impact, so he reached out his Blood-Sign, caught them, and lowered them to the floor. They were now inside a large space with a temperature of -10 degrees.
(It’s cold? What is this? It reminds me of the desert night.)
Azalea’s long boots sounded on the ground as she landed in the nearly freezing space. Due to her struggling, her rose thorn pattern yukata was coming off in places, but her expression remained unchanged since she was safe inside her protective circle. No, even if she had not been, a summoner would leave behind such trivial worldly matters when focused.
Kyousuke and Sekurtiti had entered this off limits area back when they made their preparations. This was a meat storage room for the carnivores’ food. Aika’s white liger ate several dozen kilograms of meat a day, so a very large cold storage facility was needed to serve a zoo of this size. Zoos were on the front line of animal welfare, but they also had to allow some lives to be consumed to preserve the lives of their own ferocious beasts.
Frozen meat was savagely exposed while stored along steel racks and in containers. The overall location felt like a library or document archive built for giants. The steel racks were stacked as high as a 3-story building, so they could be knocked over, pulled out, or used in any number of ways.
But even with so much of her bright white shoulders, chest, and thighs exposed to the subzero temperatures, Azalea calmly adjusted her grip on her Blood-Sign.
“Such a boring location. Did you think you could stop my Gatling gun with this?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Their fierce attacks resumed.
He could not suppress Azalea by growing and shrinking the Artificial Sacred Ground like before. She could make more attacks than him, so the Cost difference between Materials would only continue to grow. Certain defeat awaited him at this rate. He knew that, but there was nothing Kyousuke could do. There was no way he could manipulate the White Thorns to catch up to Azalea’s speed.
He knew that of course.
And he also knew failure here meant losing everything.
But as Azalea repeated loops as accurate as clockwork, her eyebrows shot up in doubt. Kyousuke’s Blood-Sign had clearly done something other than control the White Thorns. He sharply jabbed it toward something baffling: a faucet.
That faucet was made to produce water in the subzero cold storage room.
Perfectly normal tap water erupted from the faucet. The jab from the Blood-Sign sent it flying through the air like a water gun and it collided with a nearby steel rack. Before gravity could pull it down, it froze right where it landed.
“Cold storage rooms often have heated water pipes prepared in case the products freeze to the floor or wall. But it’s only an emergency measure, so it can actually freeze things or even harden if you let it.”
Irregular obstacles were built up all around the area.
And those obstructed Azalea Magentarain’s White Thorns. No, in that case, she would only have to recollect her randomly scattered Thorns. But Kyousuke’s attack went beyond that. He changed the direction of the water torrent according to his calculations in order to capture, swallow up, and stop Azalea’s Thorns.
There was nothing she could do then.
The stopped White Thorns quickly vanished into oblivion. She had set up her rapid loop Gatling gun to fire infinitely without using up her stock of White Thorns, but this water cannon made short work of that.
“Summoning Ceremony battles usually rely on the paranormal elements of the White Thorns, the Petals, the Artificial Sacred Ground’s walls, and the Spots, but that isn’t all there is.”
Now that the barrage had ended, Kyousuke started to catch up.
The Cost difference vanished.
“At times, life and death is determined by an entirely ordinary science experiment that even an elementary schooler could understand. All we’re doing is placing divine models on a stage created from the normal, everyday world.”
Azalea was dumbfounded as she stared at the ever-changing stage.
Just 5 minutes earlier, she had been an absolute queen. She had taken hostages, she had bound her opponent’s actions, and she had even held his life in her hands. She had taken away his Blood-Sign and Incense Grenades, she had surrounded him with a group, and even if he had fought back, she could have immediately and unilaterally crushed him with the Summoning Ceremony while remaining entirely safe herself.
But it was all gone now.
Her plans had fallen apart and she had nothing with which to get back on her feet.
Azalea did not let up even now, but her Gatling gun revealed its fragility now that it was trapped by the concept of ammo. It was just like how actual machineguns were sometimes hated on the battlefield for using up ammunition too quickly and thus were modified on the scene to lower their rate of rotation. Azalea’s impressive rotation rate worked against her now and she only used up her White Thorns too quickly. She was strangling herself like this.
“But I must approach Her Majesty all the same. I am not worthy of this life that I received from Claude. So I must repay him! I must accomplish something glorious enough to make him glad he gave that life to me!!”
“I met him.”
Kyousuke kept his comment brief.
And he thought for a moment when he saw her eyes widen in surprise. Which meeting should he tell her about? He ultimately chose the Claude Magentarain he had met long ago.
“I had pulled the trigger and no one would have blamed him for killing me right there, but he still picked me up and ran across that nightmarish battlefield. He placed only me on a helicopter that could have been shot down at any time and he casually returned to that hell. And do you know what Claude Magentarain said to me then?”
“You worked hard. That White Queen is enough to make a group of grown men shake in their boots, but you kept challenging her until your tiny body was this beaten up. So, boy, that effort gives you that much more of a right to seek happiness. If it didn’t, this world wouldn’t be worth fighting for.”
“He was completely misguided and a great sinner like me had no right to hear those words, but I still remember them. I don’t know about now, but the Claude Magentarain from back then definitely said that with a tremor in his voice. He did not view the White Queen as divine! You’re free to walk the path of a worshiper if you want, Azalea, but that path will never lead to an accomplishment that would satisfy the Claude at your starting point!!”
Kyousuke’s White Thorn bounced around the cold storage room in a flash and knocked several Petals into Spots.
The Material based around Sekurtiti twisted around and changed form.
Divine-class. Cost: 11. Sound Range: High. It was a beautiful half-naked woman who was adorned with countless feathers that left most of her brown skin exposed. The Aztecs knew her as an impure sexual demon of beauty and love, but also as a goddess who absorbed the malice and hatred from human souls and carried it in their stead. She changed from a young girl to an old woman with the waxing and waning of the moon, she devoured human sin, and she stood on the front line as a god of war. This many-faced goddess was said to be the death brought by lust and the mother of all things. Now, she made an appearance to take on the impurities of the lost child named Azalea Magentarain.
But it was no use.
Azalea Magentarain could not escape the White Queen now.
After all, she had lost much while walking that path.
She was an illegitimate child of the Magentarain family. She was the seed of disaster created by sharing the legitimate bloodline with a common woman. She had been taken away – kidnapped really – wearing nothing but old rags and she had thought she would be literally torn to pieces by her father’s jealous wife, but then that man with such large hands had saved her. He had also been a likely candidate to inherit the Magentarain Family, but he had saved that rag-wearing girl and been driven from the family. Azalea had never forgotten that summoner.
The Magentarain bloodline meant nothing to her.
She had been told to live a life she could be proud of in the name of Azalea, so she had done so. As if pursuing his vanished back, she had desperately searched for a way to make up for his disappearance. She had searched all over the world and found nothing. She had walked around until her feet were blistered and raw, she had checked every nook and cranny, and she had finally found it.
The White Queen.
The strongest, greatest, and ultimate accomplishment.
If she had that, wouldn’t her savior’s disappearance have been meaningful after all?
That had been the thought in her mind all this time.
“Please do not…take this from me.”
No matter how much she struggled, her Material was still in the Regulation-class.
She could no longer defeat Kyousuke who had reached the Divine-class.
“Please do not take this desire from me!!”
“Don’t be stupid. You need to face your past. Who did you start all of this for? Look back to your starting point and redo it all from there! Assuming, that is, you can even come back from what you’ve done!!”
How could she?
How could she come back?
After living this long and after being saved on a whim by that smiling man, Azalea Magentarain’s life had left the rails and her world had veered off course. So how could she come back?
She could not win.
Even so, she clenched her teeth and tightened her grip on the Blood-Sign.
Come with me, she willed.
Fractal Leskins, her vessel, had transformed into an otherworldly Material. He was her partner who had pursued that man with her and also arrived at the White Queen.
(That is fine by me.)
A voice replied in the back of her mind.
(If that is what you want, then it is sure to get through to Master Claude who let you live. So follow your own will as far as it will take you. The duty I have been given is to help you down that path.)
Those were words that would change meaning like a kaleidoscope depending on who heard them.
Someone with a brutal heart might let loose and rampage around. Someone with very little responsibility might place their sins on the shoulders of someone who was not even present and then flee.
But Azalea was different.
With the sound of rustling cloth, her wrapped ribbon Blood-Sign began to unravel from the tip.
“That would mean my evil deeds are dirtying his hands…”
As soon as she accepted that, her innermost core broke.
It happened once she viewed her life in pursuit of the White Queen as “evil deeds”.
The world was kind.
Even after coming this far, she was given a chance to “go back”.
And it all ended with a single attack.
A beam of what looked like concentrated moonlight swept across everything and Alice (with) Rabbit blew away his enemy.
The battle was over.
Once the Artificial Sacred Ground and protective circle vanished, the icy chill assaulted Kyousuke’s entire body. He was worried about Renge and Higan and he could not ignore Azalea and Fractal now that they had lost. When the temperature was this low, there was a risk of their skin sticking to the floor or wall, so he could not leave them lying around for too long.
“Sekurtiti. Sorry, but can you help out?”
“Understood. I will carry the shrine maidens. I would prefer not to touch the tomb raiders.”
The butler named Fractal was a large man, but since Azalea was so tiny, either pair seemed about the same weight overall.
Kyousuke and Sekurtiti left the carnivore food storage room. They were in the off-limits underground space. The Bridesmaid group up top would have been knocked out by the incense, but they could not let their guard down. The incense could have missed some spots depending on the wind and it was an occult incense. An incense expert like Ellie Slide might be able to overcome such things with a unique breathing method or a built-up resistance. Kyousuke did not want to continue fighting while carrying 4 defenseless people. He wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.
But there was one thing he had to check first.
After entering the room temperature underground corridor, he lowered Azalea to the floor. He had her sit with her back against the chilly concrete wall and faced her. The rose thorn yukata gave some indecent glimpses of bright skin at the chest, but the girl did not seem to care as her head slumped to the side.
Sekurtiti also lowered the shrine maiden sisters to the safe floor and then she shivered.
“What? I get being cold, but…why is my whole body sticky?”
“The cold storage room is an artificial environment and this one is storing a lot of raw meat, so it also functions as a storage tank for the moisture that seeps out into the air.”
“Hm? Hmm? I thought water froze at subzero temperatures.”
“It might sound strange, but you’ve seen something like frost on the inside of a fridge, right? Diamond dust might be visible, but not all of the moisture in the air freezes. Some of the moisture remains to move freely through the air, so the humidity never reaches 0%.”
However, showing off his knowledge was not going to dry off her body now that it felt like she had walked through some fog at night.
Kyousuke crouched down and fixed the chest of Azalea’s yukata which had grown wet in the room temperature, but then he asked a coldhearted question. He still had to find the Founder’s Gallery and acquire the Natural History’s missing entries.
He kept it short and blank-eyed Azalea tilted her head.
“Where is the Golden Treasure Chest?”
After losing, Azalea could not resist any external stimuli. No matter who they came from. Thus, her small lips replied readily and smoothly.
“In the left sleeve of my yukata…”
He reached inside and indeed found it there. It was an apple-sized box that looked more like an antique music box than a grand treasure chest. It was one of the original items that had been separated.
He now had the Golden Treasure Chest and the ancient map.
That just left the Diamond Master Key which had been taken from him.
“Where is the Diamond Master Key?”
His question was met with silence.
But that was odd. To reiterate, Azalea could not resist any external stimuli now. She could not remain silent or lie.
“Claude should have it. The Diamond Master Key, that is.”
“I don’t know.”
He went further and mentioned that man’s name, but the result was the same.
Did that mean she had not received the Diamond Master Key from Claude? Or was there a more fundamental meaning?
“I don’t know what happened to Claude after that.”
It was Kyousuke’s turn to fall silent.
Azalea Magentarain could not lie. So what did this answer mean? He used his confused mind to think and arrived at a certain theory.
“Was Claude Magentarain not a member of Bridesmaid?”
The confused girl only tilted her head.
Unable to support the weight of her head, she fell on her side like a broken doll.
“Then where is the Diamond Master Key!?”
That was a rhetorical question.
Azalea did not know the answer, so he was not expecting her to speak. This only told him the Diamond Master Key was not in Bridesmaid’s hands and that he was less likely to be pursued by someone on Claude’s level. What he needed to do now was leave the zoo immediately and lose any pursuit Bridesmaid did send after him. He had to avoid letting anyone else interfere and possibly harm Renge, Higan, or Sekurtiti.
Nevertheless, all of those plans were driven from his mind a moment later.
No, it may have been more accurate to say his mind was filled with pure white.
Someone gently embraced him from behind. Two slender arms reached over his shoulders. A soft and warm sensation surrounded the boy. A rosy aroma wafted in from the white hair behind him. A heated breath blew on his earlobe from close enough to bite it and she made an announcement as if speaking to a lover.
It was a sentence of death.
It was a proclamation of the world’s end.
“Hee hee☆ Who do you think has it, my – dear – brother?”
- Azalea attacked Kyousuke and the others using Repliglass indistinguishable from herself. Incense Grenades do not react to them. Since Incense Grenades do work on Renge who is also entirely artificial, the older Joruri Method likely creates a more complete “human body”.
- Sekurtiti has partially become divine even in life and her lifestyle seems to be very different from a normal person’s, so eating a single sandwich is a struggle for her. But she does seem interested in the flavor of food.
- Bridesmaid’s goal is to improve Repliglass technology and complete a fully artificial vessel that allows the White Queen to reside in this world indefinitely. It is unknown if they could complete it even with the rare materials they view Renge and Higan as, so they would still have to rely on the Natural History’s missing entries.
- Azalea “opened” Renge’s insides in the name of acquiring the technology, but everything seemed back in its rightful place by the time of the deal. This suggests Azalea somewhat succeeded in gaining an understanding of the Joruri Method.
- He had lost an eye and an arm, but Claude Magentarain was seen here. He attacked Kyousuke and Sekurtiti at the zoo and stole the Diamond Master Key.
- Azalea did not know that the Diamond Master Key had been stolen.
- The White Queen appeared! …Her time begins now.
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