The Unexplored Summon Blood Sign:Volume7 Chapter2
Stage 02: An Enemy Named Olivia Highland
“Onii-chan, what you’re saying makes no sense…”
“Probably not. But it’s the truth.”
(Stage 02 Open 07/19 18:30)
An Enemy Named Olivia Highland
Shiroyama Kyousuke already knew the answer to his question.
But he could not stop the meaningless words.
“Why are you here? How were you able to come here!?”
“Ha ha. What, you aren’t going to call me Via like you used to?”
It was a truly innocent smile.
Just like back then, it was as bright as the sun and contained no hint of wickedness.
Olivia did not hesitate to answer while showing off her skin with her risqué swimsuit.
“Obviously, I’m here because I regained my memories of you by binding a contract with a new summoner.”
That was all the information Kyousuke needed to know that she had strayed dangerously far.
Her mother, the other monarch of Kingdom F, had been a veteran vessel. So even after her contract with Kyousuke ended, she would remember this world every time she saw her mother’s face. To prevent that, that monarch had left her daughter with her wet nurse until she had grown enough to accept the truth of the world.
But it had all been for naught.
The world’s malice had easily destroyed everything they had built up.
“You really are cruel, Onii-chan. We spent so much time supporting each other, but as soon as my problem is resolved, you erase my memories and just throw me out like yesterday’s trash? My life didn’t just end there, you know? What if a bad guy got to me while you weren’t looking???”
She was completely oblivious to the fact that precisely that had happened to her.
“But the strongest of the strongest at the peak of the Unexplored-class is different! She called me to her as her servant, brought back my memories, and gave me this opportunity to meet you again!! The White Queen is incredible!! She’s so cool!!”
And it was all the same as back then.
She left her body and mind defenseless by not doubting the White Queen in the slightest. She truly believed the legends that the White Queen was an incarnation of radiance, justice, and benevolence.
She was different from Azalea Magentarain and the others who saw how twisted the Queen was but followed her anyway. She was a Queen worshiper, but there was no sign of the usual stickiness in her.
“I’m having trouble following this…”
Biondetta and Meinokawa Aoi recovered before Kyousuke himself.
And because they did not know the background here…
“This is getting tedious. Shouldn’t we hurry up and get rid of her?”
“Ha ha. Do you really think I’ll let you???”
Her voice was sickeningly sweet.
With an innocent smile on her lips, a straw hat on her head, and a rose decoration on her flat chest, Olivia’s announcement indicated that the end had already begun.
At first, it looked like a meteor shower had colored the twilight sky.
But by the time he realized it was a series of regulated lines travelling from the ocean horizon, over the farm road, and toward the mountain side of the village, Kyousuke felt a definite pain in his heart. He had identified those countless lights filling the celestial canopy.
“It’s a cheap multiple launch rocket system. They say it’ll level everything from the ocean.”
She smiled and smiled and smiled while providing that nightmarish answer in her school swimsuit, decorative collar, ridiculously short miniskirt, and floral print pareo.
Her expression looked right at home in the midsummer.
“Counting the parent bombs, child bombs, and grandchild bombs, a set of 20 will ultimately split into 18,000. They’re designed for a 30km space, so with two sets, you can destroy two or three tank companies, but you need to be careful because a lot of them end up not going off. Got that, O – ni – i – chan☆”
How many people were there in the village?
There had been a lot of children playing in the river not far from here. The old people preparing for the festival had stopped working and silently prayed when Aoi had walked by. Plus, that festival would be held at the shrine before long, so everyone would be excitedly looking forward to the event.
But he did not have time to protest.
The deadly canopy dropped down like a spiked trap.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom!!!!!!
Instead of dropping explosives on top of a designated target, the destruction dug up the land across a set range.
When the bombardment struck, Kyousuke and Biondetta had tackled the silver-haired shrine maiden into a waterless paddy.
But Aoi chose to continue rolling until she was on top of them. Despite being entirely artificial, she had the warmth and softness of a living being. If the explosive blast hit her, she would be as easily torn apart and blown away as any of them. And yet she did not hesitate to make her choice. Perhaps that was her nature as a shrine god created to protect.
“Well, now. I never thought the day would come that a lady would need to be so tough!!”
If they lost Meinokawa Aoi here, they would lose their path to defeating the White Queen. But Aoi seemed entirely focused on saving the lives in front of her.
The destructive storm swept across the land like a tractor’s rotating blades slicing up the worms in the dirt, but Olivia did not even get down on the ground while wearing her school swimsuit, decorative collar, pareo, miniskirt, and straw hat.
The most she did was grab the brim of the hat with both hands.
A gust of wind too weak to call a gale blew her pareo and miniskirt up, exposing her bright thighs and the armpits inside her short sleeves.
That bright coloration was like a sacred ground.
It did not allow even a single red scratch.
“Good, good, good. Once everything’s been leveled, the landing unit can come in. It’s time for the Hover Edges to do their job. Nya ha ha.”
She spoke calmly while still standing in the center of the crossroads.
Yet when exposed to an explosive blast, standing rather than getting down increased the odds of death by more than 50%.
A great quantity of explosives continued to rain down from above and something approached from the distant ocean horizon. Whatever-they-were raced toward the coast while spread out at even intervals, so they were probably giant Repliglass craft loaded with summoners and vessels.
Released Creations ignored the structures of existing plants and animals, so there was nothing in particular to reference, but in Kyousuke’s view, they looked like sports kite monsters skimming just off the surface. Assuming of course, that kites had creepy compound eyes that accurately scanned the terrain and large propellers to provide thrust. Describing such a device was simple, but creating one would be difficult. Aircushions were viewed as convenient amphibious vehicles, but when piloting one through rubble, there was always a risk of the inflated float being damaged. These probably combined the best features of an aircushion and a glider, allowing them to move smoothly and rapidly while occasionally adjusting their altitude.
“Don’t worry. I doubt any of them will hit you, Onii-chan.”
As 18,000 explosives rained down, the words of a 10-year-old girl were what caused the waitress demon’s face to tense up.
“You’re kidding…right? Those are non-guided, area-suppression rockets! They won’t avoid you if you’re clutching a cheap GPS in your hands and they’re supposed to evenly blow up everything within range!!”
“This is the world we live in. Onii-chan, you’ve caught on by now, haven’t you?”
Kyousuke clenched his teeth in the waterless paddy as her heated and hopeful gaze fell on him.
He spoke the idea that welled up in his chest.
“…So that’s what’s going on.”
“This is the world you wanted, isn’t it?”
Who had given him this present?
The worshipers in Bridesmaid, or the White Queen herself who stood above them?
“But why did you bring the villagers into this summoner battle? If you knew this attack couldn’t kill us, there was no point in making it!!”
“Ehh? But this is something you taught me, Onii-chan.”
She sounded somewhat dependent and somewhat sulky. Either way, it was the calculated way that a child gathered people’s attention. But an unpleasant sensation ran down Kyousuke’s spine when he realized what she meant.
Olivia remained pure and innocent as she continued.
And she showed no concern for the bright thighs visible below the short skirt and floral pattern pareo as they fluttered in the explosive blasts.
“When fighting using the Summoning Ceremony, you need to make sure you don’t get normal people involved. If necessary, you try to drive them away and cut them off from the dangerous battlefield. These are allll rules you followed, Onii-chan.”
So she had done it.
She had “erased” the normal people from the battlefield.
“You’re insane, Olivia…!!”
Surprisingly, it was Meinokawa Aoi who interrupted while using her own body to protect Kyousuke and Biondetta from the rocket blasts. Her pulse did not feel at all artificial as she pressed it up against the other two.
“This Houbi land is the combat village ruled by the Meinokawa summoner bloodline. This area is known for its underground ice rooms, but they are all connected to form a giant network of tunnels. They will not be buried alive there unless the enemy uses one of those…bun-ker bus-ters? Or whatever they are called.”
“But only a fraction of them can use those, right!? Aren’t most of them normal people with no connection to the world of the Summoning Ceremony!?”
“They can be guided. Normal people lose their memories of summoners and vessels once we are no longer in their field of vision, but it is up to their individual nature how their mind maintains consistency. So if we arrange things in a suggestive fashion, they will subconsciously choose to evacuate whenever anything odd happens.”
“Hee hee hee. Isn’t that great, Onii-chan? If this wasn’t Houbi Village, you’d have to give up your title as the king of not killing.”
This had all been so she could say that one thing.
“But that does not mean we can just laugh it off and forgive her,” said Aoi. “She also ruined the festival.”
“Oh, c’mon. All I’m thinking about is how to bring the Queen and Onii-chan together in my own way. Why would I need anyone’s permission to do that?”
No, that was also why Bridesmaid and the White Queen had joined forces with Olivia Highland, a girl he had once saved.
…It was all to utterly destroy the “safe zone” that Shiroyama Kyousuke had believed in.
They had made a mess of the smiles he had seen here and the preparations for the small festival that the village had been looking forward to.
The problem was just how well they knew each other. It would be difficult to find an attack so grand and wasteful that simultaneously tore into Kyousuke’s heart with such pinpoint precision.
“But, Onii-chan, now you can’t run away, can you? I got rid of all the buildings you might have hidden behind and there isn’t a forest of people you can disappear into either.”
“Summoning Ceremony battles are somewhat reliant on the terrain, so now we can fight on even footing. Now, Onii-chan, let’s enjoy this fight now that there’s no one left to interfere.”
Kyousuke tore himself away from Aoi’s overly kind warmth, shouted at the top of his lungs, and got up, but the world had already changed.
Most of the natural terrain remained, but the comfortable rural scenery, which had been filled with a refreshing breeze even in early summer, was nowhere to be found. All of the black soil had been dug up, scorching flames whirled in blazing vortices, and black smoke stained the twilight sky.
“This is your fault, Onii-chan.”
It was just like the civil war battlefield covered in blood and gun smoke he had traversed with that Alice.
Or was it that Olivia wanted to return to that time?
Once the downpour of explosives let up, Olivia gently let go of her straw hat, freeing her slender hands from anything and everything.
She spread them out like fairy wings.
And she spoke as she held the liberating sky in her hands.
“Defeat the White Queen? How could you not recognize how wonderfully pretty, amazing, strong, kind, and cool she is? There’s only one possibility: you still don’t know her well enough. C’mon, Onii-chan. You need to view the world with more of an open mind.”
That was the exact opposite of his problem.
As the girl lectured him on that pure whiteness, she showed no sign of noticing the error of her ways.
“So I just have to teach you. Once you know how powerful the White Queen is, surely even you will change your mind!!”
Just as she said that, the Repliglass craft that resembled giant sport kites began to arrive at the beach and spew lots of summoners and vessels out onto the battlefield.
At that moment, the information that came to Demon Biondetta’s mind was quite simple:
- Olivia Highland was once Shiroyama Kyousuke’s partner. Thus, the odds are incredibly high she is a vessel.
- Olivia Highland is acting alone, but the threat she poses will rise considerably if she manages to meet up with her summoner partner.
- The first wave of rocket blasts is over and a Bridesmaid landing unit has arrived on the leveled battlefield. There are decent odds that Olivia Highland’s summoner is among them.
She chose the obvious course of action based on those facts: shoot the girl immediately before her summoner can arrive.
Biondetta’s waitress-style miniskirt fluttered up as she prepared her folded Blood-Sign which doubled as a bolt-action sniper rifle. And she could pull the trigger far faster than someone could throw an Incense Grenade. It was a sniper rifle, but she raised it like a pistol in a Western quick-draw scene and her trigger finger was already moving.
Even if the girl was a vessel, a human was a human.
If she had yet to join with her summoner and invite a Material inside herself, the little subcutaneous fat of her undeveloped bodylines could not deflect a rifle bullet. The lead weapon used its own rapid rotation to stabilize itself and it would swiftly crush and wreak havoc on the Olivia’s internals as it mercilessly pierced through her.
“Stop that. She’s just a child. How immature of you.”
“!? Oh, honestly!!”
A slender hand casually reached in from the side, grabbed Biondetta’s gun and pointed it straight up. The culprit was Meinokawa Aoi. The movement of her sleeve pulled on the chest of her shrine maiden outfit, causing it to jiggle, and then the bullet flew through the evening sky like a warning shot. Excellent accuracy was the selling point for bolt-action weapons, but they were hopelessly unsuited for rapid-fire because the cocking lever had to be pulled for each and every shot.
The look in Kyousuke’s eyes grew even sharper.
“Eek! Does this mean you’re going to insist on a late-night talking-to!? First I fail to finish off my target and now I have to sit through a lecture!? This really is the worst!!”
Just as the contracted demon shouted in desperation, the many white Repliglass craft skimmed by a lot like giant sports kites. Shiroyama Kyousuke was an obvious target, but they moved to suppress the entire village instead, so they may have also wanted to collect the documents and equipment related to the Meinokawa Shrine.
Meinokawa Aoi held ancient knowledge on how to create artificial vessels, but she would need a manufacturing facility to give that information physical form.
Olivia belatedly held down her straw hat and miniskirt as the artificial wind blew through.
Once the Repliglass group had passed by as a white wind, something unfamiliar had joined the scorched and hellish landscape.
A man of nearly 2m stood next to the 135cm girl.
It was late July and the first day of summer break, but he ignored all of that to wear a black riding suit and a lab coat. But the most conspicuous part was the full-face helmet like a fighter pilot might wear. It included an oxygen inhaler which was connected to the wheeled oxygen tank lying at his feet like a suitcase.
Kyousuke had no idea who he was.
But he could make a pretty good guess based on the spear-like object longer than he was tall.
It was an excessively-long Japanese sword and sheath held closed by rusted wire like a faucet during a water conservation period.
It looked something like a single long rod.
It was a Blood-Sign.
“Now, shall we get started, Onii-chan?”
The girl freed her skinny arms.
Olivia Highland giggled and stepped closer to the man who was nearly twice her height. Summoners were the backstage performers who ensured the vessel could make their greatest performance while calling a god down onto the stage. This was the practical form linked to her origin.
“I’ll show you alllll sorts of great things about the White Queen!!”
Kyousuke had announced his intention to kill the White Queen.
He had expected to run into Bridesmaid since they worshiped the Queen over anything else in the world.
But as he pulled his Repliglass Blood-Sign from his back, a certain phrase came to mind.
(I need to fix this little by little. If I do what they want, things will only get worse!!)
To be blunt, his group gained nothing from fighting Olivia.
Their goal was to learn from Meinokawa Aoi and acquire an artificial vessel that suited their purposes.
And yet the situation was rapidly headed toward battle.
Win or lose, they took damage just from taking part. It would tear their schedule to shreds.
They did not have time for a strategy meeting with the enemy right in front of them. Biondetta made complex movements using the artificial bones inside her dominant hand in order to communicate with Kyousuke.
(Let’s throw our Incense Grenades simultaneously. They must not want to let us build up our Cost using Chains because they haven’t surrounded us with summoners. It’s two-against-one, so we have the advantage and we need to use it!!)
Kyousuke had no objection to that plan.
Alice (with) Rabbit pulled a metal can the size of a hairspray can from his hoodie pocket, pulled the pin, and threw it. Liar Cat spread her legs and a sphere a bit smaller than a baseball fell from her waitress-style miniskirt.
Even if one was deflected, the other would detonate.
The standard for a group battle was to trap your target in your own Artificial Sacred Ground.
And that was what should have happened.
It was a pristine sound, as if from a metal wind chime.
By the time the vibrations had propagated through the air, the change had already arrived.
A slight vertical cut ran through the very bottom of the miniskirt and the tool she had supposedly dropped between her legs was cleanly destroyed. Even Biondetta felt her throat grew so dry she could barely force her voice out through it. The Incense Grenade was sliced apart as easily as a piece of fruit. And with enough accuracy to remove the fuse, preventing it from detonating.
Aoi brought a hand to her mouth in surprise, pushing up on her soft breasts in the process.
“Even with Incense Grenades thrown in two different directions, that helmeted man not only sliced through them but defused them as well!?”
That 2m Japanese sword had supposedly been held in place with wire, but the strength of his thumb had been enough to forcibly break that wire and release the seal.
It had been an iai strike.
Without losing any momentum, he had smoothly made a second and third sword strike. Just like a roller coaster endlessly switching between kinetic energy and potential energy, the faceless man’s sword edge never came to a stop. After the storm of flowing silver lines was released from the sheath, it could not have been even two seconds before it was returned to the sheath.
And that frightening sword edge would be able to target more than just Incense Grenades.
In general, an Incense Grenade’s timed fuse took 3-5 seconds to detonate.
Against this lab coat and riding suit man, those few seconds seemed to stretch out into an eternity. It was hardly surprising that Biondetta and Meinokawa Aoi decided their best course of action was to immediately move back to put some distance between them and wielder of that long weapon.
But the boy chose the exact opposite path.
Shiroyama Kyousuke adjusted his grip on his similarly long Blood-Sign and charged forcefully in toward the man.
The previously pristine sound grew distorted.
It was not the man’s blade that Kyousuke’s Blood-Sign had caught. He refused to even let the man remove the sword from its sheath, so he had caught the wrist of the hand holding the hilt.
“The weakness of longer weapons is the range you need.”
He approached to just a dozen or so centimeters away and they both poured all their strength into their respective weapons.
“And it’s even worse with a sword since you can’t move your hand up the shaft like you can with a spear or naginata. So it’s actually safer to move in close.”
That was as far as he got.
The supposedly-restrained helmeted man turned his body even further. That freed his arm from the Blood-Sign and pulled Kyousuke’s wrist forward as he tried to pursue it. When using iai techniques to kill instead of as a performance, this was a recovery technique for when your sheath or hilt was captured.
He did not rotate his hips to shift his entire body weight. He only used the strength of his arms. And there was not much actual power contained in the movement.
But Kyousuke’s body flipped quite dramatically. He had been forced to do it himself to escape the pain in his wrist joint. This was an aikido style throw that used the bare minimum of strength to control your opponent.
Shiroyama Kyousuke did not bat an eye even as he was flipped upside down.
Had the man failed to notice his expression because they were too close for his eyes to focus properly?
Kyousuke’s flipping body obscured the lab coat and riding suit man’s vision and he moved to the side as guided by the man’s recovery technique.
And once he was out of the way, the helmeted man saw something else instead: Biondetta’s bolt-action sniper rifle.
A dry blast rang out.
The recoil ran violently through the alluring body contained in the waitress uniform.
The fact that the man managed to draw the blade and block the rifle proved his skill really was the best of the best.
But this was not a battle between a blade and a bullet.
It was a battle between summoners who fought by calling in otherworldly beings.
They had only needed to stop the man’s movement for just a moment.
Even as he was thrown into a side flip and out of the way, Kyousuke stuck his left hand in his pocket and tossed out the metal can found inside.
He had already been outside the swordsman summoner’s focus.
And he had also tensed up due to the knockback from the rifle bullet.
The silver flashes would return a moment later, but that brief pause had killed the speed of proper iai. It was only by some miniscule fraction of a second, but he was too slow all the same.
The blade did dig into the surface of the metal can.
But that was when it detonated.
The mixture of herbs and minerals was arranged differently for every summoner, but that incense now spread out and surrounded a 20m cube to cut it off from the rest of the world.
A stock of three white balls of light known as White Thorns appeared near Kyousuke, Biondetta, and the helmeted man, a Rose created from 6x6x6 red balls of light known as Petals appeared in the center of the Artificial Sacred Ground, and 36 Spots opened all across that space.
“We finally cleared step one…”
The first one to hit a White Thorn with their Blood-Sign was Biondetta who had moved away and was thus free to act.
“…But we’ll have the upper hand once I summon a Material!!”
The sword user cut at Kyousuke to force him to block with his Blood-Sign and launched a White Thorn while Kyousuke was knocked back. But in the meantime, Biondetta’s White Thorn caused the Rose to burst and the red Petals scattered every which way. She really was the fastest one. Several Petals fell into the Spots and the white snake vessel transformed into a Material.
Sound Range: High. Cost: 6.
Predatory Fire (l v z – w z b).
Seeing as Olivia’s side only had the Original Yellow (s), a slime of Cost 1 from the high Sound Range, their plan had paid off. This was an overwhelming advantage. They were the same Sound Range with a Cost difference of 5. There was no way Biondetta could lose.
But Kyousuke felt a chill down his spine.
That line. Biondetta’s words. He felt like the pupa of hopeless slaughter was waiting to spread its wings…
Then it hit him and he called out to her.
“Don’t let your guard down!! This isn’t over yet!!”
He did not get through to her.
Biondetta gave him a puzzled look just before it happened.
There was a cost difference of 5.
They were both at the same Sound Range, so that would not have played a role.
Biondetta’s eyes opened wide, like she was viewing something truly unbelievable.
The translucent yellow slime’s body had burst straight through the pulsing central weak point of Biondetta’s supposedly stronger Material.
It had broken through the Silhouette.
That was the Material’s weak point where the vessel’s mind resided.
That blatantly-displayed weak point was never taken advantage of because not even the chosen vessel could fully control the Material. The best they could hope for was to just barely keep the rampaging targeting cursor on the target, so precise targeting was no more than a hopeless dream.
(The Third Summoning Ceremony refers to a contract bound between humans and Materials.)
The enemy had done it.
(So the exact classification and definition of “human” becomes an issue. The more accurately a vessel can indicate what a “human” is, the clearer the Material can perceive them and the greater they synchronize. And that binds them more closely together. That is why shrine maidens and holy women cut themselves off from worldly impurities to preserve their purity, and that is why there are traditions of finding special meaning in the structure of the human body itself, such as a sage’s skeletal structure or the Adam Kadmon. While you can be taught to be a summoner, being a vessel is mostly reliant on inborn talent. There are natural ones like Meinokawa Higan and Sekurtiti and there are created ones like Isabelle who had her soul artificially worn away and Lu-san whose family is searching for the perfect form of mankind. And the greatest one I’ve ever seen is…)
The small vessel before his eyes right now.
As a vessel with royal blood, royal flesh, and a royal soul, Olivia Highland could fully control her Material.
And no matter how it had happened, there was only one result once the Material had been defeated.
The defeated summoner and vessel would be hit by a shock equivalent to seeing their god slaughtered before their eyes.
As soon as everything burst and the white snake was released into the world once more, Biondetta arched her back. As if she had been hit by a stun gun in the back, she could not close her gaping mouth and she collapsed to her knees.
Even so, this would never have happened to Biondetta normally. At Freedom’s 900 level and as an actively scheming demon, she would have immediately picked up on the scent of her opponent trying some kind of trick and she would have put up her guard.
It was obvious what had dulled her senses.
(That summoner was trying to prevent us from using the Summoning Ceremony, so she assumed victory was ours as soon as the Incense Grenade detonated. Even though there was nothing at all to suggest that. They placed a nonexistent borderline in her mind and launched a surefire attack in the instant she crossed it and relaxed. Olivia, when did you get so clever!?)
The yellow slime turned to face him.
A Material was normally a mass of fighting instincts, but this one came to a stop even though Kyousuke had yet to summon a Material and thus gain a protective circle. It was like a rider holding their trusty steed’s reins and ordering it to wait. That alone proved just how extraordinary Olivia’s talent was.
She had overcome a Cost difference of 5 for an instant kill, so even if Kyousuke summoned a Cost 1 member of the Original Series and tried to build his Material up from there, Olivia would kill it before he got anywhere. And even after all this, Olivia may not have been satisfied. She had said she wanted to show off all sorts of great things about the White Queen, so she did not seem to want a quick end to the battle.
The silver-haired shrine maiden sighed in a mixture of exasperation and awe.
She held her own head between her soft hands, but it did not look like her mind was ruled by agony. She also gave her partner a glimpse of her defenseless armpit through the opened shoulder of her clothing.
“So this is the cutting-edge form of the Blood-Sign method. And it would seem you have developed some secret techniques not even I am familiar with. But if you are going to cheat, then you can’t complain when I do the same, can you? I have had far more than enough time to sit around and think while being used as a shrine god.”
As soon as she said that, something happened.
She used her hands to pull off her own head. It came off far too easily.
The action was as casual as removing a full-face helmet.
And with her head missing, Meinokawa Aoi held the removed head to her surprisingly large chest and spoke.
“Now, a question. Girl, where do you think the human soul resides? In the brain? Or maybe in the heart? But the answer doesn’t actually matter. I am a fully artificial vessel, so I am not actually a living creature. In other words, I have no center point. That is an extremely important fact.”
Olivia had become the Material, so she could not actually speak.
But even if she had a mouth with which to speak, would she have tried to communicate with Aoi?
“Since I have no center, where will the Material reside if I split my body in two within the Artificial Sacred Ground? In the brain, or the heart? As I said, I do not have the center point you call a soul. Now, will the Material choose correctly? Or will it choose wrong? Or will it be unable to choose just one and be torn in two to reside in both halves? What matters here is that the Summoning Ceremony is the modern version of the extremely dangerous ceremony used to call down the gods. If you keep that in mind, I think it should be obvious what is about to happen.”
She was plotting something.
Knowing that must have been enough because the Original Yellow moved swiftly. It moved to eliminate Meinokawa Aoi who was producing dissonance.
But it was just a moment too late.
“If the margin of error grows beyond the tolerable limit, the contradiction cannot be contained and the ceremony will fail. It does not matter what Material you have or how long until the proper end. It will be immediately canceled, the Artificial Sacred Ground will collapse, and we will regain our freedom.”
It was like a giant balloon popping. The pull of gravity vanished from Kyousuke’s feet. By the time he realized he had been blown away by an invisible explosion, he had been knocked quite a ways backwards. And he was not the only one. The same had happened to all of those arrogant enough to take part in the Summoning Ceremony and insolently wield a higher power.
The summoning had failed.
This never should have happened in the modern age of the Third Summoning Ceremony.
“I may only be an artificial lookalike, but do not forget that I am a shrine god who has long listened to people’s prayers and warded off evil, you fools. If I was going to give up on someone’s life just because that life is not my own, I would never have been worshiped by the people in the first place.”
Kyousuke took the full brunt of the magical reaction and rolled across the scorched paddy field. The core of his spine ached from the pain he never should have experienced as the successful one.
He groaned on the ground and nearly forgot how to breathe, but it could have been worse. He would have been hit by far more had he already summoned a Material. Then he heard a rustling sound. He looked over while holding his throat and saw Meinokawa Aoi looking down at him with her head reattached and unconscious Biondetta held under one arm.
The silver-haired girl needlessly pushed her chest out, causing that portion of her shrine maiden outfit to swell out.
“Honestly. Back before the convenient Blood-Sign method, magicians said you only counted as a proper beginner once you could eliminate the reaction assaulting your body. I feel like I’m looking at a chef who specializes in using a peeler and doesn’t actually know how to use a knife.”
From Kyousuke’s perspective, that sounded like trying surgery using the techniques from a time when no one knew to sterilize their tools. Attempting a few reckless stunts was not at all useful when standing on the modern front line where common knowledge had been entirely rewritten.
Regardless, Aoi herself was entirely unaffected.
“As I don’t have a soul, I can’t think of anything within me that could be shaken by that shock. That means this kind of reaction can’t damage me. You should be thankful the Joruri Method can cheat like this. Let’s get out of here while they’re knocked out.”
Once she grabbed Kyousuke’s arm and forced him to his feet, he kept his unsteady body standing and looked around the area. Olivia Highland and the helmeted man were indeed collapsed on the burnt paddy field.
“Hey, we don’t have time to carry an extra burden,” said Aoi. “I’m sure more of them will be after us soon. If we don’t get out of here, they’ll capture and interrogate…no, torture you.”
“C’mon already. Besides, that would be suicide if she swallowed a homing beacon. I don’t know if you’re planning to stick your hand down her throat or up her ass, but can you really search the inside of her body right away?”
“Oh, come on! Come oooon!!”
Kyousuke ignored her as he moved his unsteady body and scooped up Olivia’s small frame in his arms. The straw hat girl was not even 135cm tall, but she felt as heavy as a weightlifting barbell to Kyousuke at the moment.
Even so, he picked her up.
He had a reason to do so.
He had once bound a contract with her, saying he would save her.
(Olivia seems to be in the same state as anyone who loses. That means she’ll be like this for 24 hours. I’m really glad that happened before I summoned a Material.)
“Okay. Let’s get out of here, Meinokawa Aoi.”
“Fine then, you kidnapper. Quit acting like some kind of hero, you pervert. But looking at her again, that is quite the getup that brat is wearing.”
“She was born in the landlocked Kingdom F, so she had never visited the beach. She had this weird obsession with Japan’s swimsuits and the idea of swimming in the ocean.”
18,000 rockets had leveled the village and then a great number of summoners and Repliglass soldiers had landed. It was best to assume Houbi Village had fallen into Bridesmaid’s hands, but while the outsiders would be using satellite photographs and map data, Meinokawa Aoi knew the land inside and out. There was no hesitation in her step, so she likely already had a destination in mind.
Her scent and warmth were just like that of a human.
Kyousuke made a comment while following her.
“The Joruri Method can cheat, huh?”
“All cam-er-uhs and sen-sers cease to function inside an Artificial Sacred Ground, so it’s already cheating that an artificial summoner or vessel can do anything inside there.”
“That’s true enough, but…no soul?”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“…But Meinokawa Renge was affected by the penalty when she lost. She was hit by the shock equivalent to seeing her god slaughtered before her eyes. That would mean she has something inside her that can be shaken.”
While placing limp Biondetta over her back, the very first Joruri Method gave a dry smile.
“Then it would seem future generations have gained some functions I lack. Now I’m jealous.”
Freedom 903 was in a sorry state.
Kyousuke breathed the scorched air while carrying the small girl he had once fought alongside.
It felt like a warzone.
Nothing remained of Houbi Village and its refreshing breeze.
“Do not let it bother you. That child’s evil actions are not your fault.”
“No, I should have predicted this. Given how obsessed with me Bridesmaid and the White Queen are, I should have considered the possibility that they would also become a threat to people I know.”
This went beyond Olivia Highland.
He pictured the Alices he had saved either in the past or by altering causality.
Librarian-chan and her sister, Isabelle and Murasame Kuina, Himekawa Mika and Ellie Slide, Sekurtiti and Azalea, Meinokawa Renge and Higan, and all of those before then. All of those people had paved his way to 903 Awards.
Just because they had not been targeted yet was no guarantee they never would be.
“If you ask me, they might have been intentionally left alone,” said Aoi while carrying Biondetta whose body was defenselessly sprawled out.
“Do not feel bad. Because I am a lookalike for the Queen, I feel like I can understand how she thinks to a certain extent. Yes, I simply feel like I can.”
The silver-haired shrine maiden sighed.
She was still carrying Biondetta over her back, so the two girls’ cheeks were rubbing together.
“What a girl in love fears more than anything else is being ignored. And on that front, you are very easy to manipulate. I mean, you have announced you refuse to let anyone die, so it’s obvious from the start what someone has to do to get your attention.”
“From the very beginning, you’ve displayed the one weakness you can never ignore. If someone dreaming of you is ever feeling uncertain, it goes without saying what she needs to do to put her mind at ease, right?”
Did that mean those girls would not have been targeted if Kyousuke was not “like this”?
Did that mean the best possible path Kyousuke had thought up had actually directly led to this hell on earth?
“Indeed. But we can view this in a positive light. If the White Queen is playing one of the cards she had held in reserve, it means she is feeling the pressure. In other words, she feels the need to shake you using one of her trump cards.”
While they held their conversation, Meinokawa Aoi guided him to an irrigation ditch dividing the paddies. This should have been in clear view of the satellites overhead, but there were a few exceptions.
For example, below an intersection with the ocean embankment.
When Kyousuke peered inside the round opening using his smartphone’s LED light, he saw a rusted and broken grating with water falling even further down through it. It was not a problem for Kyousuke and Aoi, but if a small child like Olivia followed her curiosity and crawled inside, she might end up trapped.
There were numerous cracks, but the tunnel had not collapsed even after the downpour of rockets. Even with the disaster-prevention embankment so close by, it was unnaturally sturdy for a civilian structure.
“You can get underground from almost anywhere here. Burning a few scorch marks on the ground isn’t enough for this Houbi land to collapse.” With Biondetta still on her back, the silver-haired shrine maiden freed one of her hands and waved her slender finger. “Since you’re in contact with Renge of this generation, I assume you understand the Meinokawa Shrine’s situation. Including the fact that Guard of Honor came to steal the Joruri Text.”
“They eventually managed to get it due to the gambling debt, but there were a few largescale attacks before that. With the Toy Dream policy underway in various remote rural regions, no one cares much about a poor, declining village. This is not the first time that this Houbi land was destroyed. Rebuilding afterwards is our way. It’s like a filming set for the silver screen.”
Was that why the Meinokawa Shrine’s wood had smelled surprisingly new for such an old building? They had perfectly recreated it, including intentionally damaging the wood and adding moss.
“We are a tough people both inside and out. And that includes Renge and Higan. So don’t worry about it too much.”
“…But if you can get in from anywhere, won’t Bridesmaid notice the underground tunnels too?”
“They will of course find an entrance or two. But the inside is a complex three-dimensional labyrinth and their sat-a-lite fotos and map daytuh will not be of any use. It will take them ages to map it all out themselves.”
“Could they smoke everyone out with poison gas or flamethrowers?”
“It is possible, but we can switch between several patterns for the wind direction inside the tunnels. By determining the routes through which air can travel, we can keep the damage to a minimum even if they send poison in through an entrance.”
It did not matter that they were wearing sneakers and leather boots. They stepped into the source of the unpleasant mixture of a muddy and salty smell and let their feet sink into the sludge as they trudged on. They saw a few branching tunnels that were protected by metal grating, but one of those had a door locked with a chain and combination lock.
“Um, what was the combination again…? N-no! It isn’t that I’ve forgotten!! Don’t treat me like an old lady!!”
“I didn’t say anything. Now move out of the way.”
Aoi hopped up and down, causing a variety of jiggling, and made a preemptive denial while blushing, but Kyousuke pushed her aside and grabbed the longish combination lock. He set all of the 8 digits and then unlocked it.
“Huh? How did you do that???”
“That’s the kind of world this is.”
Kyousuke began to think this might also prevent any harm even if Bridesmaid used poison gas. Anything inorganic was not a real threat. As everyone fled through the complex arrangement of tunnels, they would just so happen to make the correct choice.
(On the other hand, things could get very bad very quickly if they have actual people perform a direct search. They might miraculously find the villagers right away.)
“What do we do now?”
“Those…Bridez-made? Anyway, those people with a Western name are Queen worshipers, right? To be honest, this isn’t looking good. I don’t know how skilled you are, but I doubt we can push them back in a direct confrontation. It would be a lot of work with little excitement, so it would be boring and a pain to go along with.”
“Well, I suppose so.”
To reiterate, Kyousuke’s group gained nothing from fighting that Queen-worshiping cult. It would not help them complete the trump card the boy had in mind. Win or lose, they would lose something if they were caught in a battle with that pain-in-the-ass group.
Unfortunately, Bridesmaid was not taking their circumstances into consideration.
“Now, it’s about time we got serious. Even if the role was forced onto me, I am a shrine god and I must protect the people of Houbi Village.”
“And how will you do that?”
Meinokawa Aoi shifted defenseless Biondetta’s position on her back as she answered Kyousuke’s question.
“They worship the White Queen, so let’s break that mental pillar and bring them to a state of apathy. The best course of action is to construct your method of killing the Queen and shove that blade toward the Queen’s throat.”
“Even with the appropriate knowledge and technique, you cannot acquire an artificial vessel with special artificial blood in its veins if we do not have a workshop to give it physical form. But how many such workshops do you think are hidden in this village? …Well, let’s just say that Bridez-made cannot find them all if they cannot even grasp the full scope of these underground tunnels.”
(…Artificial blood, hm?)
That term had not come up before, so Kyousuke made sure to make a mental note of it.
They could not see the stars in the narrow underground tunnel, but Kyousuke’s sense of direction told him they were generally moving from the ocean to the mountain.
“A cruise ship has been abandoned at the top of the mountain. It is called the St. Elmo.”
“At the top of the mountain? Why???”
“It was originally used for leisurely cruises in the crater lake, but an earthquake created a deep crack in the lake bottom. It dried up and now only the ship remains.”
“So is that the workshop?”
“One of them, yes. Even if Bridez-made breaks into a government office daytuh-bays, they shouldn’t find anything if they only check for ‘buildings’.”
Whether or not something showed up in a search could sometimes lead you astray far more than whether or not that thing was visible. Of course, they would likely discover it if they spent months performing a thorough search, but Kyousuke and Bridesmaid were in the middle of a blitzkrieg where speed was everything. Kyousuke would not give them the time.
After they continued on for a while, their surroundings began to change.
The sewer-ish smell vanished and the plain concrete walls and floor were replaced by the smooth curves of a limestone cave. Rather than developing the area according to a blueprint, they had apparently forcibly connected the tunnel to a nearby cave. It felt a lot like a sightseeing cave.
(Since the awful smell hasn’t gotten in here, she might have been right about their ability to control the flow of air to fight against smoke and poison gas.)
While thinking about that, they climbed the gradual slope of the limestone cave. Perhaps because it was so damp, none of the evacuees were gathered here. Closed environments helped mold spores harm people’s lungs and mouths, so that dampness could not be taken lightly.
“Phew. I’m soaked just from all this walking.”
“Hey, quit thinking and try blushing a little. A young maiden’s clothing is all wet and see-through. And I can’t cover up while carrying this summoner.”
“I’m glad to see the Joruri Method has more horsepower than a normal person.”
For some reason, Aoi puffed out her cheeks as the two of them continued on.
That reaction was less like an old lady and more like a little sister who was ignored after putting on a show of as much sexiness as she could manage.
Once they arrived at the edge of a large underground lake with a metal bridge across it, the unpleasant moisture soaking their hair and skin had vanished. This area seemed to be well ventilated.
“…This would be a good place to rest.”
“Oh, I see! So wet clothing just wasn’t good enough for you. You were waiting until you could see a girl bathing. I have to admire your dedication, you utter pervert!!”
“That nonsense aside, we need some place to set down Olivia and Biondetta.”
“Just as a warning, it is quite rude to not bat an eye when faced with a defenseless girl.”
He already knew from his experience with the true white evil that this kind of idiot would only look at you like an idiot if you idiotically did what they claimed to want.
The underground lake’s water was probably used to create a division between the cave system’s currents and moisture. And the area around the lake was not entirely cut off from human civilization because, after taking a short walk, they discovered a small shrine-like wooden building. It did not seem religious and they found several blankets and camping goods in plastic packaging inside.
There was also some portable food on the level of canned goods.
“This is surprisingly gourmet. There’s rice and freeze-dried vegetables that only need hot water. And all sorts of seasonings too.”
“Well, it takes a lot for salt or soy sauce to go bad.”
Aoi must not have liked how her damp leather boots felt because she stripped them off. All of the supplies were carefully packaged, but that was likely to prevent snakes or bats from getting into them. However, Kyousuke was less interested in the oddly unique options than he was in the world-famous cup noodles.
“…This is an incredibly outdoorsy selection.”
“Well, in this rural area, there isn’t much else to look forward to. And look at this lineup: if they weren’t going all out, there wouldn’t be so many options.”
From the looks of this, the entire three-dimensional labyrinth might have similar supply areas just like the pay phones and vending machines that never seemed to entirely go away. Instead of preparing with a specific threat in mind, it felt more like they had been having fun turning it into something like a secret base.
(I wouldn’t be surprised to find traps that send boulders rolling down slopes or levers that change waterways.)
Kyousuke prepared himself for the worst when it came to that slight “playful spirit” he sensed here.
At any rate, they finally managed to let Olivia and Biondetta rest while defenseless both inside and out. As Aoi had said, their hair and clothing were quite wet just from the dampness of the cave. Olivia’s school swimsuit had grown a deeper shade of blue. After lowering the two girls onto the wooden floor, Kyousuke and Aoi broke open the clear packaging and pulled out a few blankets.
“The losers can’t resist anything, so if we leave them be, they could catch cold or even come down with pneumonia.”
“I’m aware of that,” said Kyousuke. “But if we lit a fire inside here, it would cause carbon monoxide poisoning. That means we need to remove their wet clothing to dry them off.”
“Now, then. I’ll leave the decision to you, but who will dry off who? Choose, boy. Face the abyss within yourself: A flat chest or giant boobs. I am willing to let you enjoy your fetish. Hah hah!!”
“…Okay, okay. I’ll do both of them. I’ll be a good girl.”
“Dry off Biondetta’s white snake too. Be extra careful with it since it’s cold blooded.”
When Kyousuke put his hands on his hips and glared at her, Meinokawa Aoi shrank down. After tossing his vessel a towel, the boy left the shrine(?).
As far as he could see, there was no sign of Bridesmaid summoners or Repliglass soldiers hiding in the area. Even by the large underwater lake, there were only so many passageways leading here, so he considered setting up a simple trap.
Given the large space and the excellent ventilation, he figured he could start a fire next to the lake.
(That said, that’s only if we decide to wait around here.)
It was an entirely unnecessary action, but Kyousuke picked up a nearby stone and threw it toward the vast lake.
After making a prediction, he counted the number of times the stone skipped off the water’s surface.
He made sure it was not just a coincidence.
He finally breathed an exasperated sigh.
Kyousuke had not thrown the stone after making every last physics calculation like Laplace’s Demon. He had intentionally omitted all calculations in order to prove something.
“…Honestly, this is one hell of a world. It’s like I can manipulate coincidence.”
And this was no time to be doing that.
At the moment, he had two major choices available to him.
The first was to wait for Olivia and Biondetta to recover so they could replenish their fighting force before continuing on to the cruise ship at the mountain’s peak. Olivia was technically not an ally, but having to carry her around and having her walk on her own two feet would make a major difference.
The second was to not wait for them to recover and start for the cruise ship right away.
Simply put, it was a choice between speed and caution. The pros and cons of both went without saying.
Aoi walked over from the double doors of the shrine(?).
She had apparently finished drying off the two defenseless girls, getting them dressed again, and placing the blankets over them.
“The sun has likely set outside, so it wouldn’t hurt to fill our bellies.”
He realized Aoi was holding some cup noodles and freeze-dried foods against her surprisingly ample chest.
“Um, just out of curiosity…Renge could eat like normal, but what about you?”
“Have you not seen ‘inside’ Renge? Just because we use artificial parts doesn’t mean our body is structured any differently. If we are injured, we bleed red. If we move around a lot, we get hungry. I like to have more than 30 minutes of exercise a day to stay healthy and I ideally get 8 hours of sleep a day. Although since I am artificial, I can switch all that activity on and off.”
“Oh? So you’re like a dried-up human water bear.”
“You just pictured something incredibly pathetic just now, didn’t you!? Toryahh!!”
Out of nowhere, Meinokawa Aoi made a strange cry, threw her hands into the air, and collapsed backwards into the clear water.
“What are you doing!? This is kind of an emergency situation!”
“Oh, shut up! An impertinent brat called me a dried-up old hag, so I’m just hydrating myself is all! Besides, I was already wet from all this moisture. What does a little more matter?”
The lake was not all that deep right at the shore, so Aoi sat up and laughed. Some of the clear water pooled up on the surprisingly large chest of her shrine maiden outfit.
“How about you? Build up too much stress and it will affect your performance, so it might be a good idea to blow off some steam.”
“…Then could you please try harder to avoid giving me any stress in the first place?” Kyousuke brought an exasperated hand to his forehead. “And this is the same as when you played in the river. It’s the wet clothing that’s bothering me.”
“Mwa ha ha. And what if I said I was doing it on purpose?”
“Keh heh heh. I’m joking,” said Meinokawa Aoi as she trudged back over to him. “Quit taking everything so seriously. It’s stifling.”
It was not that he maintained an unshakable heart; he simply knew how to quickly recover when it was shaken. And that was not just splitting hairs because every little thing seemed to transform into a major event around her.
Meanwhile, Aoi stood on one leg, tilted her head to the right, and tapped her palm against the side of her head. She seemed to have water in her ear, but she did not seem to notice that her careless action also caused her surprisingly large breasts to move up and down.
“Yo…ho…Ah, that got it out. Hey, can we start a fire here?”
“I warned you. So are you getting chilled?”
“No. After letting dust gather on me for so long, I want to fill my belly for the first time in forever. And I can’t hold back any longer with those cup noodles right in front of me. Oh, I want some junk food so badly right now!”
“…Well, it is unlikely Bridesmaid will show up now.”
Aoi’s face lit up and she lined up her prizes along the edge of the lake.
“What, do you only have an oil lamp? A campfire would seem a lot more outdoorsy!”
“…You are freezing, aren’t you?”
“No, not really. Although I am soaked, so I could stand to let my clothes dry. Uryahh!!
She let out another strange cry.
And of all things, she reached for the string of her bright hakama and undid the knot. From there, gravity did its job. To describe it with a sound effect, it fell right down with a “fwoosh”.
Unlike a normal kimono, it lacked a separate obi, but the kosode being so wet paid off and the front remained in place and the collar stayed together. It may have been something like throwing a wet towel against the wall.
An incredibly grim look came to Shiroyama Kyousuke’s face.
“What are you doing?”
“Mwa ha ha. There’s no need to force that serious look. You’re secretly panicking because I already mentioned that girls in traditional clothing don’t wear Western underwear, aren’t you? But too bad! The kosode is made long, so you still can’t see anything!! Just like a girl in nothing but a baggy dress shirt!!”
“I can’t believe this. And come to think of it, I never asked Renge if you were waterproof. This is going to be a lot more difficult if all this water is making you malfunction.”
“Hold it! Why aren’t you blushing!?”
In her Japanese-style naked dress shirt(???), Meinokawa Aoi raised both arms in anger, but not even Kyousuke knew how he was supposed to react here.
Regardless, Aoi herself set her butt down on the ground, pouted her lips, and twisted the knob on the oil lamp that would boil water for them.
“What’s that weird groan for? Did you get all sandy when you sat down?”
“I really don’t think you should take such a realistic view of a girl in nothing but a single piece of clothing!! And a proper woman knows how to protect herself without letting it show on her face!!”
“Except it’s most definitely showing. And the way you’re lifting your hips is about to let something else show, so fix that!!”
The collar was only plastered in place with the moisture, so it could open up at any moment.
And despite the conversation, they were not about to forget they stood on the front line of the Summoning Ceremony.
“Let me make something clear,” said Aoi.
“Even if that…Olivia, was it? Even if she comes to, it will not be easy to open her eyes to the truth when her faith in the Queen is so strong.”
“I’ve taken that into account.”
Meinokawa Aoi had created the shock of a failed summoning and it apparently put people in the same state as losing a Summoning Ceremony battle. That meant it would take about 24 hours before they recovered. Aoi had likely planned it this way, but Kyousuke’s side was fortunate that they had taken less damage due to not summoning a Material.
That gave them time to think.
“Oh, they had water bottles in there, didn’t they?” asked Kyousuke.
“This land is known for its water, so why not just drink from the lake?”
“Do you have any idea how much bacteria there must be in there? Even commercial mineral water is boiled and there might be germs that can resist the heat. We don’t have time to examine the water quality, so if there are bottles it’s best to just use it.”
“And judging what is going on inside that Olivia girl’s head would be even more difficult. Then again, she contains the royal blood that allows her to control the Materials with such incredible precision. To be honest, I am not fond of the idea that your bloodline determines everything before you are even born, but she would make for a powerful ally if she was fighting on our side. Of course, that’s only if we could convince her.”
“I know that.” A grim look came to Kyousuke’s face. “But we might be able to manage since this is Houbi Village. For that, I’m thankful.”
Aoi shook her long silver hair, walked back to the shrine(?), and returned with a family-sized water bottle held against her surprisingly ample chest. Since both her hands were full, she could not hold down the bottom of the kosode that showed off her thighs right up to the very top.
Once the shrine maiden sat down with only the kosode covering her butt, she poured the imported deep sea water into a metal pot from the camping goods.
“Now, I want to decide on a general plan,” said Kyousuke. “At the moment, we have two primary options.”
“Yes. I would like to head for the summit as soon as we finish eating this. This Houbi land has fallen to those Bridez-made people and the people cannot elude them forever. Our time limit is two or three days at the most, so there is no time to waste.”
“Really? I was hoping to suggest we wait for those two to recover.”
“And why is that?”
There was a wide variety of cup noodles, but Kyousuke chose the standard soy sauce flavor while Meinokawa Aoi chose the limited edition seafood tomato soup flavor.
“First of all, to increase our strength. Simply having Biondetta able to fight will mean a lot. And if those two can walk on their own, we won’t have to carry them.”
“Hmm. Sorry, but based on that battle, I’m not sure what help she would really be.”
“That was just a bad matchup for her.”
They pulled the lids of the cups halfway up and then Kyousuke froze in shocked silence. In nothing but a soaking wet kosode, Aoi sprinkled grated cheese into her container before even pouring the hot water inside.
“Why was there cheese in the disaster goods?”
“Why not? Fermented foods are generally preserved foods, right? Just like seasonings, it takes a lot for things like natto and kimchi to go bad. Hm, hm, hmm. There is nothing wrong with adding a hint of extra flavor, so it’s time you had a taste of a maiden’s aesthetics.”
“Maybe so, but you wouldn’t just leave yogurt sitting out, would you!?”
“What, have you never heard of greke yo-gert? Get with the times!!”
“You don’t store Greek yogurt at room temperature!”
The two of them continued bickering and fighting over each other’s toppings. Kyousuke was not too picky except when it came to cereal, but he needed to acquire the proper nutrients when he knew he had to fight. Simply put, he had to eat when he had the chance.
“Oh? Are you the kind of boy who knows his way around the kitchen?”
“I’m not an expert or anything, but I can handle it at the moment. Even without any special knowledge, everything will miraculously come together if I just choose at random.”
“It’s the same as that combination lock. This is a world where I can mix random drinks at the soda fountain and end up with the kind of success worth getting patented. As long as there’s at least one possible success among the random options, I’ll end up choosing that one. Of course, that’s only when I don’t come into conflict with someone else’s choices.”
As he explained, Kyousuke’s hand wandered about and grabbed something at random: a freeze-dried vegetable set. He poured hot water in there, set it back down, lightly cooked it in a frying pan, and mixed in some starch and water. All of it was simple enough for a child to do, but it ended up making his cup noodles ankake-style. It lacked meat, but he did not reach for the canned goods, perhaps because it would have clashed with the thick tare sauce.
Meanwhile, Aoi sat with her bare thighs placed in front of her.
“Hm, hm, hmm.”
“What are you doing with that rice? Surely you aren’t making ramen rice.”
“You fool. Have you forgotten my cup is already something of a mess with the grated cheze inside?”
“So you admit it’s a mess!?”
“But if I rehydrate the rice and dump it in…tah dah!! It transforms into something like a rizo-to!!”
“What the hell kind of food is that!? The noodles are extraneous at this point!! The cheese, soup, and rice would be enough!!”
But because of the world they now lived in, that too was a success.
The world was a complicated place.
“Hmm, it could use some more color. Oh, I know. There were some canned goods. Yes, there’s some salted chicken. That would be the perfect finishing touch!”
The lid had a pull tab, so Aoi did not need a can opener. Only after seeing that did Kyousuke realize there were cans with a non-tare sauce. He had failed to properly look over everything because he was relying on the random choices like a book fortunetelling. The meat in cup noodles always made one wonder if it was really meat, so he was honestly jealous.
(Does that mean I can’t choose any coincidental successes that weren’t in the options I thought were possible?)
“Uuuhh, I was caught by a fearsome trap.”
“Don’t try to make this sound more exciting than it really is. Just say you cut your finger on the edge of the can’s lid.”
Aoi grew tearful as a red drop of blood appeared on the tip of her index finger.
“Oh, I know. Boy, I think you should lick this off to disinfect it.”
“Well, I don’t think so. Why would I?”
“Don’t act like it’s some awful thing! You made me do it when we bound our contract, but now you refuse to put mine in your mouth!? Honestly! Oh, honestly!!”
Aoi was quite upset and began licking off her own finger.
Their ridiculous conversations did help pass the time. When adding original toppings, it took time for them to work their way into the entire cup. If you miscalculated, your noodles could end up overcooked.
“Well, even if she only diverts the enemy’s attention, I can see how letting Biondetta recover would be useful,” said Aoi. “But what about Olivia? Letting that child wake up seems to me like it would only complicate matters. She would likely try to escape from us at every opportunity and I doubt Biondetta would appreciate it after losing to her. We could end up with an internal threat in addition to the external ones.”
“That ties into my second reason. If we can get information out of Olivia, we might be able to get some details on the Bridesmaid troops deployed in Houbi Village.”
The silver-haired shrine maiden gave a bitter look.
Aoi crossed her arms, which lifted her surprisingly large breasts.
“That seems overly optimistic. Wouldn’t that require fully eliminating the Queen worship rooted so deeply in that child’s soul? Although I would appreciate it if we could accomplish that.”
“I am not just talking about whether she will obey us or rebel. If she pretended to turn over a new leaf and fed us false information, it would only invite chaos.”
Of course, Kyousuke knew all too well the troublesome transformations people underwent when influenced by the White Queen.
The promised time arrived, so Kyousuke removed the small stone from the top of his lid.
“If we can’t get Olivia on our side, we’ll have to search out the extent of Bridesmaid’s deployment on our own.”
“We have a set destination in mind, but the route we take to reach that cruise ship at the mountain’s peak depends on Bridesmaid’s location. It would mean a lot to know their timetable in advance.”
“Summoner battles are quite different from those of traditional armies. Isn’t a dense mass of enemies the perfect opportunity to build up a Chain and wipe them all out? Aren’t you at Freedom’s 900 level?”
Meinokawa Aoi fully peeled up the lid, bent over at the hip without bothering to grab any chopsticks, and leaned forward to bring her nose to the steaming container.
“Ahhh. The combination of tomato and cheese seems to have come out well. Didn’t it, my cute chicken cheze rizo-to-chan☆”
“You can’t even call that ramen anymore, so it’s actually scary that it looks like it might actually be decent.”
“D-don’t leer at me like some kind of wild animal… But if you are jealous of my amazing creation, I am willing to give you a bite. But just one! O-okay, say ‘ah’.”
“…What am I supposed to do here? I understand the rules of this world, but I’m just having trouble believing it…”
“What, so you want to fight? Then let’s let our fists do the talking.”
Meinokawa Aoi puffed out her soft-looking cheeks, but there was a clear look of enjoyment in her eyes.
She soon began eating the risotto(-ish thing) she had created.
“Eating with someone else really is nice.”
“Renge has been better than most, but I really have been neglected as the generations go by. There really is no substitute for eating a proper meal like this.”
Kyousuke got back on topic while slurping up the cup noodles he had successfully modified into ankake ramen.
“Using their superior numbers against them by breaking through a dense formation with a Chain is certainly a viable tactic, but what if Bridesmaid sees it coming? They might have intentionally spread out their people to prevent a Chain. They might even skip the whole Summoning Ceremony business and just snipe us from a distance. We’re not talking about that pure white here and summoners aren’t all-powerful. I also want to ask Olivia how well they understand me. Even if that means angering her into letting something slip.”
Olivia was a member, Azalea had been a member, and they had their connection to the White Queen herself. Bridesmaid knew far too many people who understood Kyousuke as a person rather than a legend. If they understood the details of his thought processes and built up a flowchart people could use, it would be dangerous to continue blindly on with no hope of supplies or reinforcements. They might lure him into wasting Incense Grenades. He did not have access to anyone like Lu Niang Lan or Ellie Slide here, so he could not resupply and needed to be careful.
Meinokawa Aoi’s surprisingly large chest rose and fell as she worked her artificial lungs to blow on and cool down the contents of her container.
Then the shrine maiden looked up in just her white kosode.
“…I’ll just have to trust your judgement then.”
But then she grabbed some of her thick rice porridge creation, held the chopsticks out toward Kyousuke, and winked.
“Listen. Do not forget that this smooth decision is a result of a pure and beautiful maiden taking a step back so the gentleman can show what he can do. Besides, you seem biased toward those girls with Western names like Olivia and Biondetta, so I need to remind you that I am the one with the contract to share your destiny as your vessel.”
“That’s the kind of behavior I’m complaining about! Stop acting like I don’t matter at all to you!!”
Kyousuke had feared using the oil lamp would burn it, but that was not the world they lived in now. Still, they took their time drying out the shrine maiden outfit. And surprisingly, Meinokawa Aoi seemed to be the sort of person who would go all in on the task before her eyes, no matter how dull it was. Perhaps it was like finding an abandoned puzzle magazine in a mountain cabin during a blizzard.
“That should do. Fwa ha ha. Look, it’s perfectly dry now, isn’t it!?”
“Yes, yes. If you have time to strike a pose with your hands on your hips, then get that hakama on already…”
They had washed Kyousuke’s shoes and Aoi’s boots in the lake and then dried them. Kyousuke and Aoi (once she was dressed again) made periodic patrols around the lake, but they never found any Bridesmaid summoners or Repliglass soldiers. Not only was the network of tunnels below Houbi Village quite complex, but it was likely designed with large decoy rooms and treasure storerooms that looked quite suspicious but did not actually have anything in them.
Since the enemy did not immediately attack this kind of “truly important location”, it was unlikely that Renge, Higan, or the other villagers had been captured and forced to talk.
“No, wait. Choosing at random will always work out right now, so that can’t be it. Maybe the fact that we have a clear objective in mind has started having an effect.”
Meinokawa Aoi cutely tilted her head like a child despite giving off such alluring charm, but as the two of them killed the abundance of time on their hands, the moment they were waiting for finally arrived.
24 hours had passed.
The losers were freed from their penalty.
In the shrine(?), Biondetta and Olivia groaned and started moving below their blankets. Instead of their previous, mechanically-repeated movements, these motions had a clear human will behind them.
“Tch, the enemy!?”
“Stop, Biondetta! The battle is over!!”
“And why are we naked? What in the world happened on the way here, sir? Surely you are not going to claim ignorance to the difference between seeing and being seen.”
“Oh, no. Now she’s aiming her gun at me with a smile. I’ve completely lost track of what that might mean. And you really did a half-assed job, Meinokawa Aoi. This is the first I heard of you putting them to bed in the nude!!”
He had to distance himself from the two girls covered in nothing but a blanket, but if he left Biondetta alone with Olivia, it could easily lead to a fight to the death. That left only one option.
“Aoi, you take care of this. It’s best for you girls to stick together, right!?”
“Ehhh? Do I have to remind you not to treat me like this!?”
Kyousuke escaped the shrine(?) and simultaneously tossed the silver-haired shrine maiden inside while ignoring how he messed up her clothing in the process, but then he heard some odd sounds of destruction from within, something like a broken branch flew out of the door, and a round object about the size of a volleyball came bouncing out.
It was the alluringly slender arm and beautiful head of the Joruri Method girl. And as soon as their eyes met…
“Wow, is that an old-fashioned joke!”
“…This is not good. My joints might have gotten looser. They seem to be coming apart easier than normal.”
He picked up the arm and head just as Biondetta left the shrine(?) with her clothes back on and her decorative tail swishing back and forth.
“Sir, explain this.”
“Umm, Olivia’s still alive I hope?”
“Should I assume she is no longer our enemy?”
He hesitantly peeked below Biondetta’s arm and inside the shrine(?) where the (headless and somewhat dismembered) shrine maiden stood to protect Olivia who was frozen with fear in the corner.
“Sigh, so I was captured, was I?”
The double blonde braid girl did not seem all that bitter about it. She rubbed the flat chest of her school swimsuit to make sure it was fitting right and she stuck her hand below the white floral pattern pareo to fix the swimsuit that was riding up in her butt. She then breathed a short sigh.
“But, well, if this is the will of the White Queen, then there’s no helping it. There is meaning in all things, so I must have lost for a reason! Right, Onii-chan☆”
Those words and her smile put a bitter look on Kyousuke’s face.
This was rooted deep.
To Olivia in her straw hat, the White Queen was the same as “good morning” and “good night”. She was the same as the portrait on a paper bill or a coin. Olivia was not being forced to perform a special and holy ceremony; it had completely become a part of her normal life.
(But that’s why this can work.)
Kyousuke thought quietly to himself.
It did not matter who had the advantage. A summoner fought by using everything to their advantage
(This isn’t Kingdom F in Eastern Europe. It’s the distant Houbi Village.)
Now, it all began here.
Kyousuke forced the detached head onto the shrine maiden, passed her the arm, and then ducked below her other arm to put himself on Olivia’s eye level.
“Olivia, I have something to discuss with you.”
“I have to admit, Onii-chan, I didn’t expect for you to avoid a straightforward approach and attack while I was unconscious. But I see. So you prefer to play with people in their sleep. But that’s a problem. That makes you a pervert, but for some reason I don’t mind when it’s you.”
He spoke more strongly and used his old nickname for her.
Her small shoulders jumped, so it seemed to have worked. She was still refusing to look at him, but her imaginary tail was wagging.
(What did I do in these moments back then?)
After thinking back, he gently rubbed her head. Only then did she deign to turn toward him.
The girl sat with her knees up despite her floral pattern pareo. She also pouted her lips and rubbed her big toes together.
“I won’t listen if this is about you and the White Queen fighting. I mean, it’s all your fault for being mean to her! She’s trying to welcome you, so if you would just face her and accept the invitation, no one would have to say goodbye!!”
Still crouching, Kyousuke tapped his index finger against his temple. Biondetta quickly gave a suggestion while standing by the shrine(?) door.
“Is it too late?”
“No, not yet.”
It was easy to say she would never understand, but you could not start a dialogue with that kind of attitude.
He analyzed Olivia Highland’s unique mental state in his own way.
“Mutter, mutter…Onii-chan won’t listen to me…mutter, mutter…”
“This isn’t like before.”
“Sigh. So is the problem that this school swimsuit isn’t white? I didn’t realize a pervert from an island nation would be so picky. But I need to study up on this ocean-loving nation’s swimsuits for the sake of your future, Onii-chan!”
Biondetta must have decided this was never going to end because she butted in.
“Just tell her the truth already.”
“No!” protested Olivia. “And who is she anyway, Onii-chan!?”
“Are you not going to listen to your teacher!?”
“Eh? Teacher…? Hmm, then I guess I have to…”
She had erased an entire village from the map using around 20,000 rockets, and now this. Were they lucky the rules of a child’s world were making an appearance, or was this only a sign of how deep the distortion went?
Kyousuke looked to the light pink rose decoration on her tiny chest. It took the Queen’s white and added a bit of the red that Kyousuke tended to choose for his clothing.
“You know what?”
She worshiped the White Queen, but she was not Kyousuke’s enemy. You could say she was an ally to both. Or to put it another way…
(She’s like a child trying to protect her own little world by keeping her parents from fighting.)
Kyousuke wrinkled his brow at the headache brought on by that idea.
Even as a joke, it was simply too cruel, but that was the truth as Olivia saw it.
Simply put, Olivia wanted to bring Kyousuke and the White Queen together. So depending on the situation, she would fight for either side. She was currently taking the Queen’s side and attacking Kyousuke, but she focused on maintaining a balance and she would take the other side if the scales tipped in that direction. She did not really want to kill him. It was more like she wanted to correct his mistake.
But that was all.
She wanted to bring Kyousuke and the White Queen together, so anything else would look like noise to her. The girls like Meinokawa Aoi and Biondetta in particular would look like distractions from the “family” she envisioned, so she would view them like a job or mistresses. That was why she had not hesitated to attack Houbi Village.
That word referred to the pure white bride’s attendant. This girl truly embodied that concept.
“…What is it, Onii-chan?”
Kyousuke spoke to the double braid and straw hat girl who sulkily puffed her cheeks out in the corner. He spoke slowly so she could process it one thing at a time.
“Sorry, but I can’t do that.”
She seemed to have understood what he meant.
Olivia’s eyes widened like a child who was asked whether she would go with her mother or father.
From her point of view, he had skipped past the important point.
“Why can’t you!? No one would reject anyone, there wouldn’t be any conflict between anyone, and it wouldn’t cause anyone any trouble, so why do you alone push her away!? If you would just bury the hatchet and take just one step toward the Queen, it would fix all the problems in the world!!”
It might look that way if you did not know anything.
It might look like the conflict would end if Kyousuke stopped rejecting the White Queen’s intense appeals.
“I can’t do that. No matter what.”
“That’s not a reason!! The White Queen loves you so much, so how could she be doing anything wrong!? It’s your fault for not looking her way! That’s why she’s sulking!! So why do you actively seek that chaos, Onii-chan!? The White Queen is so admirable, so what don’t you like about her!?”
“Because that evil is in love with Shiroyama Kyousuke the Strongest.”
Olivia fell silent because she did not know what he meant.
Her small hands did not touch anything: not her double braids, not her decorative collar, not her thick chain, and not the keyhole of the bag-sized lock. She could not even comfort herself by fidgeting with something in her hands.
Her eyes remained wide as she tilted her head in actual confusion for once, so Kyousuke looked her in the eye and explained.
“That is not who I am. It is a fictional being. She is obsessed with an image of Shiroyama Kyousuke that she created in her own mind, so it wouldn’t solve anything for me to approach her now. The discrepancies between the ideal and the reality would be laid bare and it would all fall apart. She would decide her love had been a crude fake.”
“The person in front of you here can’t compare to the Shiroyama Kyousuke the Queen thinks I am, Olivia. In fact, no one can. Since I don’t meet the specs of that framework, I can’t even control the White Queen through her love. That leaves only one option: killing and stopping her, once and for all.”
“That’s not true!! I don’t understand what you’re saying, Onii-chan! There isn’t more than one Shiroyama Kyousuke! Why can’t you understand the simple fact that there’s only one of you in the world, Onii-chan!?”
“Yes, there is only one of me. And I only have this one life.” Kyousuke readily admitted it. “But the White Queen doesn’t understand that. She might look completely obsessed with me, but if I actually die, she’ll give up on me in the blink of an eye. She’ll decide it had all been an illusion and she’ll search out something else that won’t be destroyed at the slightest touch. And if that happens, no one will be able to predict what she’ll do because they won’t know what she’s obsessed with. That’s why I have to kill her myself while she’s focused on me. Anything else would do irreparable damage to the world.”
“Onii-chan, what you’re saying makes no sense…”
“Probably not. But it’s the truth.”
“That settles it. I’m going with you, Onii-chan. I mean, you’re clearly insane and that will never change if I’m not with you. It’s clear now that you won’t join the White Queen unless you realize the error of your ways!”
Kyousuke slowly sighed.
That was good enough for now.
He had been afraid they would reach a stalemate, but now he knew Olivia would stay with him instead of wandering off. They did not need a complete mutual understanding right away. It was more important that he set up a situation where they could contact each other at any time.
“Olivia, I’m fairly certain we’re safe since we haven’t been attacked for more than 24 hours now, but just to be sure: you don’t have a bug or homing beacon on you, do you?”
“You’re the one that stripped off all my clothes, aren’t you? You didn’t check then?”
“That is one hell of a false accusation there, but whatever. How about inside your body?”
“Do you want to check every nook and cranny yourself? Here: ahhhh.”
She was acting just like a sulking child. She did not care if he saw her small tongue or the uvula in the back of her throat. Olivia opened her mouth wide and looked up at him, so Kyousuke ran his smartphone along her undeveloped bodylines like a metal detector.
He also looked deep in the defenseless girl’s throat before answering.
“Well, I can tell you aren’t giving off any obvious EM or IR signals. Still…”
“Isn’t that good enough? Hmph.”
If they were using Repliglass, it was possible an aromatic or chemical signal was conveying information like ant or bee pheromones, so this was still not perfect. However…
“But this could be a problem. If I’m caught off guard and die, I’ll never have a chance to make up with the Queen. Never ever.”
“! I don’t have anything! If I did, I’d tell you!!”
This was Olivia Highland’s controller.
Kyousuke decided to trust her here.
Whatever was motivating her, he doubted Olivia would lie. That small girl in a school swimsuit, a decorative collar, a ridiculously short skirt, and a floral pattern pareo would not allow anyone to get in the way of bringing Shiroyama Kyousuke and the White Queen together. Not even if it was a fellow Bridesmaid member. Her belief in the Queen was different from Azalea’s or The Saint’s. It was purer, more transparent, and void of ulterior motives, but that made it much more deeply rooted.
“Then let’s move on to our next destination.”
That was all he said before leaving the shrine(?) which housed emergency supplies. As he left through the double doors, Waitress Biondetta whispered into his ear.
Only someone who had shared his past in the Queen’s Miniature Garden could speak these words.
(You really don’t need to let that March Hare incident bother you after all these years, you know?)
Kyousuke responded without looking back.
His voice was deep and cold.
“It’s a simple fact.”
Meinokawa Aoi guided them from the large cave and into more complex passageways. These had outdoor lights attached at irregular intervals, but the bedrock was supported by wooden pillars. Perhaps due to the moisture in the air, they seemed somehow swollen. It may have been a way of keeping people away from this holy ground, but…
(This is bad. A lot of this looked hand dug, but this area looks especially dangerous.)
“This area sure has changed,” commented Aoi.
“Given my origins, I used to use the caves as a playground, but I don’t remember it looking so rundown. This is what happens when you look away for a moment. The flow of time is so cruel.”
The silver-haired shrine maiden narrowed her eyes and sounded somewhat sorrowful.
The wooden framework must have reminded her of traditional scaffolding and the modern lights of traditional lamps because Meinokawa Aoi pouted her lips.
“I wonder what will happen with the festival. I never know when I will be able to come to the surface next and it isn’t often that coincides with such a festive opportunity. I had hoped I could go enjoy it with everyone.”
“Well, I know I’m hardly normal. They were all just little kids, but it won’t take long before they outgrow me both physically and mentally. And who knows how the festival will have changed form by the time I make another appearance. Honestly. Just honestly.”
At that point, Aoi slowly shook her head.
Instead of not creating stress, she immediately rid herself of the stress she did create.
That seemed to be her way of life, so she intentionally changed the subject.
“The Joruri Method is a technological system with a history stretching back five or six hundred years, but as its name suggests, it is something of a hodgepodge of different things.”
Both moisture and dust filled the air, but that had to be a harsh environment for a fully artificial being. She wiped moisture from her brow, which showed off the armpit hidden below her wide sleeve.
“Just as Joruri is a collection of various plays, songs, and dolls, the Joruri Method forming my body has gathered many technologies from both the East and the West. A lot of it came from the South Seas and the Western Continent, so you could maybe even say it is primarily a Western thing.”
“…What’s your point?”
“Prepare to be amazed when you see the St. Elmo at the summit. Golems, Homunculi, the Shakoki-Dogu, the Terracotta Army, images of the Virgin Mary, images of the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara, and even execution devices like the iron maiden and the wicker man. Oh, you will be all too aware of just how greedy and indiscriminate a people the Japanese are.”
“If you say so.”
“You! Will! Be! Amaaaaazed!!”
Aoi began childishly thrashing about (which made those surprisingly large things jiggle), but when she saw that exchange, Olivia pouted her lips while clinging to Kyousuke’s hips, which she had apparently decided was her designated spot.
“Boo. If you were always like this, you wouldn’t have to fight with the White Queen.”
Since Aoi was designed to look just like the Queen, this situation might indeed look something like that, but in reality it could not have been more different.
Kyousuke and Biondetta simultaneously grabbed Meinokawa Aoi’s shoulders as she took the lead once more.
This was a hand-dug tunnel, so it was not as straight as a school hallway. It meandered here and there and they had heard a quiet noise from further ahead.
The silver-haired shrine maiden gave them a puzzled look, so Kyousuke used a gesture that would be understood in most any country in the world: he pressed his index finger against her soft lips.
And on top of that…
“(The footsteps are too regular. They’re probably with Bridesmaid. Should we take them out here?)”
“(The bedrock is unstable. The pillars are rotted and half broken, so summoning a Material could easily get us buried alive.)”
“(Yes, and Bridesmaid would probably happily do it on purpose if it was for the Queen.)”
They could not reproduce any detailed nuance while communicating using their eyes and fingers instead of words, but that was the gist of the conversation.
They had to think up some way around this. The tunnel curved a lot, but it was still just the one path and there was no other path to take.
And a moment later…
“Wait!! Is someone there!?”
A booming voice struck Kyousuke in the back.
It came from Olivia Highland who had been clinging to him until now. She let go of his hips and walked on ahead. Thinking she was betraying them, the waitress demon prepared to snap at her, but Kyousuke stopped her with a hand. The situation was already underway. He could only reach for the Incense Grenade in his pocket while carefully watching the girl in a school swimsuit, decorative collar, ridiculously short skirt, and floral print pareo.
“You were safe, Miss Highland!?”
(Oh, I get it…)
Kyousuke thought to himself while listening to the voices from the blind spot down the tunnel.
(She had gone missing, but it was possible they still didn’t know Olivia was working with us.)
“There was some trouble with the bombing and everything else, so I got separated. You hadn’t heard?”
“We had. He was worried.”
“We can head there right away. We’ll get you some hot food and a blanket.”
“No, I can still walk around, so don’t worry. Don’t take away my faith in the White Queen.” Olivia spoke cheerfully. “More importantly, I saw footprints matching Shiroyama Kyousuke’s on the way here. And the food wrappers hidden around here were a lot like what I saw in the shopping district. Investigate outside. He’s probably been frequently heading up to the surface.”
After hearing the footsteps disappear into the distance, Olivia stuck out her tongue. The others remained hidden until there was no chance they would be heard.
“Well, that should about do it. If I’m going to get Onii-chan and the Queen together, I guess I can’t let Bridesmaid capture you here.” She lightly struck her small chest with her fist and she winked. “See? I’m not your enemy right now, Onii-chan☆”
“Hm,” muttered Kyousuke as he focused on their surroundings.
The group blocking the way forward really did seem to be gone, so she was not bluffing.
Confident in that, he crouched down to her eye level.
“Which will it be, Olivia: a rap on the head or a spanking?”
“What else could you expect after running off without asking our opinion first!?” demanded Biondetta. “Sir, this isn’t worth your time. Allow me to turn this insolent little butt bright red.”
Olivia made a surprisingly swift escape, but she ultimately took up her position hiding behind Kyousuke’s back. Her already small body shrank down further and tears filled her eyes.
“Biondetta, aren’t you chasing her around a little too much? You’ve scared her enough to count as a punishment, so leave it at that.”
“I see. So it was you spoiling her like this that created her current personality.”
“Oh, deary me.”
As an antique, Aoi gave quite an elderly-sounding exclamation as she climbed up an especially tall step in the tunnel. Once past that, the scenery changed entirely. Before, it had been a tunnel with mining lightbulbs installed at irregular intervals, but now the walls were covered in white crystals. Due to the crystalline structure, they seemed to form giant diagonal pillars and the light reflected off the walls and ceiling made it hard to judge distances or depth.
Was it black-haired Renge who had mentioned these crystals were used for the shrine’s protective charms?
“Once through here, we will be near the summit. I mentioned a crater lake that had dried up after the bottom grew cracked, right? A ladder was embedded in the side of large crack, so we can use that as a shortcut.”
Kyousuke nodded once in the even greater moisture of this cave.
“…But it looks like we’re going to run into some trouble first.”
The sound was too high-pitched to call footsteps. Perhaps that was because this was a crystal deposit.
A single figure blocked their way forward.
The large man wore a lab coat and a black riding suit, so he looked out of place among the white crystals. His inhaler-equipped helmet resembled a fighter pilot’s and a wheeled oxygen tank rolled at his feet. This was the swordsman summoner who had worked with Olivia and caught Biondetta off guard the day before.
Before he could draw the sword which was longer than he was tall, the vengeance demon aimed the muzzle at the end of her silver Blood-Sign.
But not at the large man. She aimed it at the back of Olivia’s head as she clung to Kyousuke’s hips.
“No, sir. Olivia Highland is skilled enough to accurately destroy the Silhouette at the core of a Material, so beginning a battle against her at Cost 1 would be suicide. If you can’t start with a Cost advantage of at least 5 and preferably more than 10, it would be best to avoid using the Summoning Ceremony.”
“It doesn’t matter,” replied Kyousuke. And he was not just letting emotion cloud his judgment. “If that was all it took to be the strongest, I would have killed the Queen a lot sooner.”
Olivia trembled even more than Biondetta when she heard that.
What was it that had shocked the small girl? That he was denying her talent, or that he had mentioned killing the Queen?
“Olivia, are you going to rejoin him?”
“Do as you wish. Either way, I’ll crush him and continue on.”
Kyousuke did not even look back at the girl whose swimsuit had grown a darker shade of blue after reabsorbing so much moisture. For one thing, she was still contracted with that summoner. If that helmeted man threw an Incense Grenade, she could not reject it.
And Olivia could accurately guide an attack toward the Silhouette and ignore the Cost difference.
(But that perfect one-hit-kill technique is reliant on Olivia Highland actually controlling the Material.)
Kyousuke kept his eyes on the enemy before him and pulled his Repliglass Blood-Sign from his back.
(So it’s just like trick art or an optical illusion. If I can fool Olivia’s sensory organs, she’ll still miss and won’t be able to pull off that one-hit-kill. Of course, the Material will be changing every few seconds and each time I’ll have to rearrange the trick to work with ultrasonic waves, infrared, or whatever other senses it has, but that’s fine. I have it all memorized.)
“What’s the matter, Bridesmaid?”
He put on a daring smile as he made his announcement.
He had no idea who this man was, but if he was reliant on Olivia Highland’s talent, it was all over for him.
“Just try it. Assuming you’re really so confident that you can defeat me with the same trick twice.”
The helmeted swordsman summoner did not move out of the way and he remained silent.
No, it was hard to tell with the mask covering his expression, but he was laughing.
“I knew it…”
Finally, he spoke.
But Shiroyama Kyousuke was the only one who tensed in realization of what that voice meant.
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. So a mere princess was not enough to stop you.”
“You… It can’t be…”
Biondetta frowned at how he said the word “you”.
There were only a select few people with which he put such emphasis on the word. This had to be someone quite close to him but also a target of his hatred.
Then who was he?
This had to be someone just as – or more – twisted than Biondetta, but what candidates remained?
Olivia gave the answer.
While still clinging to Kyousuke’s hips, the double blonde braid girl called her partner’s name.
“That’s right. And the S stands for Shiroyama, you failed guinea pigs.”
Once, 15 children had been gathered from around the world and placed in a secret facility deep underground. The children living in the Miniature Garden had all been given new names, but there had been one point in common between those names.
They had all been given the surname of Shiroyama.
The situation was set in motion before their thoughts could catch up. Doctor S pulled a pineapple-shaped Incense Grenade from his lab coat and Shiroyama Kyousuke’s Blood-Sign sliced through the air before he could pull the pin.
The weapon roared like a metal bat and was clearly being used to prevent Doctor S from starting the Summoning Ceremony.
That was hardly surprising.
His attack hit the back of Olivia’s neck as she clung defenselessly to his hips. He did not hesitate to strike the bright nape visible below her decorative collar.
Even if the summoner and vessel were spiritually linked, there was nothing they could do if one of them was physically knocked unconscious. Olivia crumpled to the cave floor like a broken doll. Doctor S laughed within his helmet and toyed with the useless Incense Grenade in his hand.
“I thought you said she could do as she wished, you failure.”
“I take it back, you piece of shit.”
Even during that carefree exchange of words, they were already clashing. Kyousuke and Doctor S left everyone else behind and swung their Blood-Signs as purely physical weapons. Kyousuke knew the swordsman summoner would knock his Blood-Sign from the air with his sword, but he incorporated that into his plan and transformed the ricochet into an unexpected lucky hit. His Blood-Sign shot up irregularly and veered sharply toward the man’s face.
With the sound of something solid breaking, the lab coat man’s head jerked backwards.
The single blow had shattered his military grade helmet like an eggshell, but the man known as Doctor S did not seem to mind. He moved back and used almost elegant movements to pull a clear medical device from his lab coat, press the inhaler mask to his mouth, and tighten the tubes running through his riding suit like a fighter pilot’s suit.
That artificially reproduced a hyperbaric oxygen environment to manipulate his own thought speed.
He was a man leaving middle age and approaching elderly.
But even with his gray hair revealed, he did not look at all physically inferior. His body was covered in the muscles of an athlete who constantly trained with machines.
And it was a mistake to breathe a sigh of relief just because he stepped back.
Despite that action, Doctor S was still close enough for his long sword to behead or bisect Kyousuke. Just like with Biondetta, he had created an imaginary hurdle to cover himself with the apparent shadow of defeat.
After a short delay, Kyousuke raised his Blood-Sign vertically to defend. A moment later, orange sparks and an impact burst out before the sound of slicing air was heard. Unable to fully stop that weight, Kyousuke was knocked off balance.
Biondetta joined the fight with her waitress-style miniskirt fluttering around her.
She had no idea which way Doctor S himself would move, so she instead fired a sniper rifle bullet at the wheeled oxygen tank at his feet. The metal can was defenseless because it took a moment for his movements to propagate down and move it, so her bullet opened a hole in its center. But…
“Biondetta, not yet!!”
“!? Really!? It’s still not over!?”
Had anyone said it was over once the oxygen tank was taken out?
Just as the tank exploded, Doctor S moved forward. Kyousuke was forced to defend and his movements were further sealed by the need to cover for Biondetta.
Meinokawa Aoi sounded far too carefree as she cut between the two of them.
Doctor S now had his inhaler connected to an oxygen tank the size of a hairspray can and he naturally drew his sword and made a horizontal slash toward the defenseless shrine maiden’s slender neck, but…
“Removing my head will not kill me.”
She did it herself.
It was like removing a hat with her dominant hand. Meinokawa Aoi winked and removed her head just in time for the tip of the silver line to pass through the empty air between. And it was not over yet. With her needlessly large breasts pushing out on her shrine maiden outfit, (headless) Aoi had removed the expected resistance from the sword’s path, so it continued on and forcefully struck the wall of the crystal cave. It seemed not even Doctor S could fight the pain that sent shooting up from his wrist.
“Oh? That’s a neat trick!” he said.
“Surely you know why samurai and ninja mansions were built with such narrow hallways. Besides, the katana is a part of our culture, so I would rather a mere fan not act like an expert.”
Before the brief pain and tingling passed, Kyousuke and Biondetta were on the move again. The two summoners rushed past headless Meinokawa Aoi on either side and Doctor S finally managed to move back to put more distance between them.
The flow of time changed from fast to slow.
But it was a tense slow, like a taut bowstring that could be released at any moment.
The inhaler-equipped full-face helmet of a fighter pilot had been broken and Kyousuke roared at the exposed face of the gray-haired man.
“What the hell are you doing here, dad!?”
“Yes, yes! I am still searching for the ‘answer’ that kept you from calling me scum!!”
Some questions about Shiroyama Kyousuke’s past had remained.
He had seemed familiar with the Summoning Ceremony even before arriving in the Miniature Garden. He had set an objective for himself and fulfilled it like a precision guided missile, but who had made him that way?
Just like young Biondetta had arrived at the Miniature Garden after experiencing something that not even “horrific” suitably described, where had Kyousuke come from to arrive in the Miniature Garden?
All of the answers were found here.
Doctor S switched to a clear medical inhaler before speaking.
“My greatest desire was fulfilled in July of 1999. I saw the future then. I discovered the Third Summoning Ceremony, contacted the beings that surpass even the gods, and saw that purest of white lights. And there I saw nothing but despair.”
If he drew the blade, he would make a slash. If he sheathed it, he would deliver a blunt blow.
Even with the Summoning Ceremony taken from him…no, because it was taken from him, Doctor S shined all the more.
As if to say he had always been strongest on his own.
“But the stagnation afterwards was truly awful. You understand, don’t you? I created you, remade you, and released you into the world as a guiderail for the Queen! But you failed!! Humanity! Has! Made! No! Progress!! Ever since, I’ve had my hands full simply making course corrections! Yes, even now!!”
“From the beginning…?”
Based on how long they had lived, Meinokawa Aoi was much older than Doctor S. Since she had been created as an exact lookalike, she would have made at least partial contact earlier than him.
But the silver-haired shrine maiden still used that wording.
She reattached her head and brushed her long hair off her shoulders.
“He was involved in it all from the very beginning? From the moment the Blood-Sign Summoning Ceremony was created!?”
“Hurry it up.”
The man who carried a different legend from Kyousuke’s spoke in a voice shaking from either irritation or joy.
Regardless, he urged Kyousuke to hurry.
“Hurry up and bring the Queen under control. Then this world will be completed. Humanity will be able to stand at the true peak. You guide while I experience. You don’t mind if I give you a push forward and move the hands of the world’s clock ahead a bit if it helps us fulfill our respective roles, do you?”
“You thrill-obsessed freak…”
“Precisely! It is because I feel more fear than anyone that I desire more than anyone, ensure my safety more than anyone, and want to experience it all from closer than anyone!! Yes, yes!! This tingling in my spine is everything!! But why bother mentioning how I live my life at this point?”
Either way, it did not matter what Kyousuke thought.
This man had not wanted to be destroyed by the pure white, so he had given that role to someone else. He had merely used his own child as the bumper of his car so he could remain in the driver’s seat and feel none of the pain himself. That was why he had “created” Kyousuke.
Yes, he did not even feel the attachment one might for a stuffed animal. It was all purely mechanical.
If they saw the number of things forced onto Kyousuke until he had given up on living a life in the light of the sun, anyone would have known it was far too much for a single person to bear.
This was not for someone else or for an Alice.
Just how rare was it for that boy to shout in anger for himself?
That unspeakable cruelty had already gone much too far.
“You said you would give me a push forward, didn’t you?”
“Did you never consider the possibility that I would kill you before that?”
“Of course not.” Doctor S’s shoulders would not stop shaking with laughter. “Surely you didn’t think my experiment could be stopped simply by taking Olivia Highland from me. Surely you didn’t think the nightmare of Doctor S would stop at that.”
He snapped his fingers.
Immediately, an invisible but definite change occurred. Only those involved in the Summoning Ceremony would understand what had happened.
(He ended his contract with Olivia!?)
“You can throw an Incense Grenade if you feel the need,” said Doctor S. “Yes, you, the failure over there! You are Biondetta from the Miniature Garden, aren’t you!? You were such a failure your file wasn’t even worth tagging, so you two feel free to work together and attack me with two Materials at once. Either way, there is no chance of me being defeated here.”
That demon of vengeance scorched even the air around her with all forms of madness and barbarity, but she was just about overwhelmed by the great pressure of Doctor S.
“No matter how skilled you might be, that advantage only gives you the upper hand until we summon the Materials,” she warned. “Once we summon those otherworldly beings, a flesh-and-blood human will be crushed with no way to fight back. And that is true even of the Cost 1 Original Series.”
“True enough. If we are following those stagnant rules, anyway.”
He admitted it, yet his confidence remained.
He was hiding something. And this trump card was so great that it would overturn everything the instant he revealed it.
(Don’t tell me…)
Only one thing came to mind.
That was the great evil that Kyousuke least wanted to remember, but it was still the very first thing that occurred to him.
“Don’t tell me! You…!!”
As if to reject the answer he had accepted, Kyousuke pulled the pin from a metal can and threw it.
But it did not detonate.
It did not even fall to the crystal ground.
“It may only be five seconds, but that is still five seconds.”
The next thing he knew, another hand was reaching out from the space next to Doctor S. There had been nowhere for a third party to hide in this open tunnel, but it readily appeared from behind him like a piece of trick art.
It was a slender hand wearing a long white glove.
This was not Meinokawa Aoi.
This was not the lookalike…!?
“The flow of time is not a set thing. For example, if you approach impossibly close to the speed of light, a mere instant will stretch out almost infinitely long. In other words, five seconds in this hand is the same as an eternity, brother.”
A sensation much like goose bumps raced across Kyousuke’s entire body.
He recognized this.
No one wanted to, but Kyousuke recognized this sensation.
Something was appearing.
Something stepped out from behind Doctor S’s back as if flipping over a card.
At this point, there was no denying it.
“Hello, brother. It’s finally me☆”
More than terror or rage, it was overpowering nausea that initially exploded in the center of his body.
He doubled over, just barely forced down the burning sensation in his throat, and began to step back.
But the sense of danger did not vanish.
The White Queen had appeared.
And yet he could not see the end of it. This was the worst possible situation he could think of, but was it going to get even worse!?
Those leisurely footsteps did not come from the Queen before his eyes.
They echoed off the crystal cave’s walls and ceiling as they surrounded the boy and the pure white. But who were they? The greatest evil had already made an appearance, so what was this rotten world waiting around to reveal to him?
“Brother, you already understand, don’t you?” The White Queen giggled and casually crushed the Incense Grenade trapped in her eternal prison. “What could possibly overpower the pressure I produce as an individual? Surely you already know the answer.”
He did not.
He could not find the answer.
After all, he couldn’t think of any being that could surpass the White Queen. If anything could overpower that one-of-a-kind and frustratingly absolute white evil, she never would have been such a problem. It was the lack of such a being that had led him to create one, so how could one be walking around now?
After thinking that far, Kyousuke froze in place.
That meant there could not be two White Queens.
But was that really true?
“Now, then. It’s time to announce today’s horror theme.”
The White Queen gave a carefree smile.
Kyousuke used his trembling throat to speak in something like a groan.
“It can’t be what, brother?”
Kyousuke could feel the relief inside his chest when she readily denied that possibility. It was as humiliating as receiving pet food from a kidnapper, but he could not deny the truth. He had to accept it.
But then she said more.
Step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step.
Those disconcerting footsteps filled the entire area and she smiled to show off her unnaturally long canine teeth.
“The correct answer is infection. And I mean of humans, of course☆”
Immediately afterwards, the White Queen placed her hands on her flushed cheeks. Her eyes were damp, her breaths were heated, and a tremor ran down her spine because it was just that perfect.
Shiroyama Kyousuke’s mind exploded into sparks and he screamed at the top of his lungs.
Secret Document Concerning Kingdom F 02
This saying remains in a small, historical kingdom hidden in the depths of the mountains of Eastern Europe:
The large roof of Kingdom F is supported by two pillars.
In addition to the royal family that handles the official duties and stands before the people, there is apparently another bloodline that thoroughly supports the kingdom from the shadows.
Neither side is superior or more prosperous than the other.
They burn through their lives and fulfill their duties equally to preserve the peace and order of Kingdom F.
It is said the White Queen will swing down the hammer of punishment when rebels appear to tear apart that beautiful land of ice and snow.
That role is fulfilled by the Royal Shadows, but that also means they only have a chance to serve their kingdom when it is in urgent need. That may be the reason why. They refused to make their name public despite belonging to a legitimate bloodline, but that may have been due to their self-imposed rule to never desire any action that would destabilize the kingdom.
They remain in the shadows while fighting to protect the people.
Those iron watchmen desire only the smiles of the people and refuse even formless glory.
As they fight in secret and die in secret, tracing their footsteps is incredibly difficult, but if you check in the deepest depths of Kingdom F’s giant royal library, legend has it you might just run across a text filled with specially compiled records.
The only thing known for sure is that Kingdom F has survived to this day.
That is proof enough that there have been people protecting its continued existence.
Incidentally, there is a small fragment of a record that has survived:
Government Award 913, Noble Bride.
However, her Awards have been reset a few times in the past, so that number does not accurately represent her skill. Even as the monarch herself, she is an extremely skilled vessel who follows an absolute merit system in which she selects the most skilled man among the royal knights as her summoner.
- The Third Summoning Ceremony is a contract between a human and a Material, so the better someone demonstrates the definition of “human”, the better they are perceived by the Material and the better the two synchronize.
- The vessel’s mind is contained in the Silhouette at the core of the Material and destroying that allows an instant kill even with a Cost difference of 5-10. But only a vessel at Olivia’s extraordinary level can pull it off outside of a lucky hit.
- The Blood-Sign Summoning Ceremony is still a ceremony, so a failure hits the magic user with damage that can be called a reaction or side effect. Meinokawa Aoi used this to hold back Olivia.
- Meinokawa Aoi is attempting to procure an artificial vessel using the facility in a cruise ship near the top of the mountain.
- Olivia sees the conflict between Kyousuke and the White Queen as a couple’s argument, so she intends to become the enemy or ally of either in order to bring them back together.
- When a vessel becomes a Material, they receive information on the outside world through the specific Material’s sensory organs.
- Doctor S is Shiroyama Kyousuke’s biological father and he used his own child as a guiderail for the White Queen. After the Queen’s Miniature Garden, he decided that plan had ended in failure.
- Doctor S was one of the researchers who constructed the Blood-Sign method in 1999 and he was planning to usurp the White Queen’s position from the beginning.
- The Queen is infecting people this time.
- Currently, there are 14,902 White Queens inside Houbi Village. And that number continues to grow.
Notes and References
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