“Bloom proudly – Livingstone DaisyFlaming Crimson Decapitator!”
A chilling voice sounded in the training room as Julis was surrounded by a red lotus of flame.
Circular discs appeared mid-air, spiraling like a whirlpool. Their burning edges rotated at a high velocity, essentially literal fire wheels.
Dust flew as the numerous fire wheels centered on Ayato. He raised his sword in guard.
Facing that enormous blade, lined with a trace of demonic black, the fiery chakrams came one after another in fiery, merciless succession at a speed the naked eye could not follow. Just as quickly, however, they split, one after another, into halves, their flames vanishing like a candle in the wind.
At that moment, two fire wheels simultaneously attacked from opposite sides.
Silently both admiring and lamenting the precision of Julis’ control, Ayato leapt backward.
His movement, unfortunately, had been predicted. The spinning blade above his head flew viciously downward. In unison, three more chakrams attacked from in front as three more came from behind. This was an attack which was intentionally staggered in order to exploit the timing of one’s opponent.
Concurrently controlling over a dozen bodies in three dimensions was difficult beyond belief, but for Julis, this was performed with the ease of moving her own limbs. It took a prodigious degree of spatial awareness to pull off such a feat.
Ayato twisted his body, dodging the overhead attack, before spinning in a circle, his sword flying in the direction of the oncoming chakrams.
His intent, however, was not to cut through them, for he thrust his sword forward.
As the various chakrams collided with the blade of his sword, sparks flew, and they left their designated orbit.
Flitting past his body, they left a trail of smoke as they soared past ー and nothing more.
Ayato heaved a sigh of relief, before again raising his sword, Ser-Versta ー the Demon Sword of the Black Furnace.
“Honestly, you’re always like this. Wearing such a nonchalant expression as you make such inhuman movements.”
Julis, on the other hand, continued to gape at Ayato in wide-eyed awe.
“I swear, the more I see, the more I can’t help but be curious as to what I’ll see next.”
At Julis’ side, more than ten fire wheels continued to spin.
“No, you shouldn’t be surprised by just this much, Julis.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Julis had barely finished speaking before the chakrams beside her were sent off to attack.
The scene laying itself out before him was a carefully designed formation, a veritable garden of fireblooms.
“I wonder… how’s this?”
Answering, Ayato suddenly dashed straight at Julis.
His upper body nearly touching the floor, he dashed directly at the conflagration.
Taken by surprise, Julis’ reactions came a moment too late.
Although she urged her fire wheels forward, it was already clear they were nowhere near fast enough to catch up to Ayato.
Ayato dodged an incoming chakram, his goal right before his eyes ー when suddenly he noticed.
Julis grinned in satisfaction.
“You fell for it ー bloom, GloriosaRending Fireclaw!”
Suddenly, by Ayato’s feet, a magic circle appeared, from which burst forth an obstructing pillar of flame. There were five in total; enormous talons of flame which aimed to jail their intended victim between them.
(I was baitedー)
Strega and Dante’s powers all carried conditions which had to be met before they could be activated. Accordingly, techniques which could see use as a trap were innumerable; for example, Julis’ technique which was even now springing forth.
“Hehe, looks like, this time, it’s my win.”
From the direction of the inferno, he could hear Julis’ self-assured declaration of victory, though he couldn’t see what kind of expression she wore.
The claws of flame were even now closing in on Ayato, preparing to snap shut the jaws of victory.
Even with the situation as it was, Ayato was completely unworried, and he calmly adjusted his breathing.
“Amagiri Bright Dragon Style, Intermediate Technique
Holding his enormous sword with only his right hand, he whirled, severing everything around him.
Flipping his sword to his left in a reverse grip, he spun in the opposite direction.
The flame pillars enclosing Ayato suddenly flashed with two lines of brilliant light before promptly disappearing.
The flames hot enough to broil him alive suddenly disappeared without a trace as Ayato appeared immediately before Julis.
Julis was so stunned she couldn’t even move. As her chest was touched by Ayato’s attack, a loud sound echoed throughout the training room at nearly the same exact moment.
“Hmph. I thought for sure today I’d win…”
Julis crossed her arms, pouting cutely.
Seated on the floor, Ayato gave a wry smile as he looked up at Julis.
This was the training room assigned specifically to Julis, within which they were the only two people. The ceiling was vaulted, and the room was nearly as spacious as a gym building. This clearly wasn’t something available to just anyone ー a privilege reserved solely for the Top Twelve.
“Even with things planned out like this, I still can’t win. I’m starting to lose my confidence.”
“It’s nothing like that. I think you’re plenty strong already.”
“Don’t try and comfort me with those hollow words. I couldn’t beat you even once today.”
Julis puffed out her cheeks as she glared Ayato.
“I’m not comforting you. It’s true; that last attack was pretty dangerous.”
He’d been thoroughly fooled into falling for that last trap; it was an undeniable blunder. If his weapon were anything but Ser-Versta, he’d have been done in.
Moreover, the rate at which Julis learned was stunning.
When they’d first begun training together, Julis had been unable to keep up with his movements. But now, she was even making traps based precisely on his timing. Of course, given the short time they’d spent together, her ability wasn’t enough to be a serious threat to him, but the gap between them was slowly but surely closing.
“At any rate, you sure have a lot of techniques, Julis. That was my first time seeing that last one.”
“Heh. Well, I do take pride in at least that much.”
Julis expression lightened a little.
Truth be told, her techniques were varied and numerous. Just of those Ayato had personally witnessed, there were more than a dozen types, which included offensive, defensive, and support abilities. This was the proof that she’d completely grasped the essence of her abilities.
“Unfortunately, I still can’t win the Festa like this… Let me give you an example. If the Festa were to separate the Strega and Dante on one side, and everyone else on the other, who do you think would win?”
“Eh? The Strega and Dante, naturally.”
The Strega and Dante were almost without flaw. The sole exception was that their abilities required the consumption of Prana, which wasn’t a limitless resource. Nonetheless, when compared to those without their abilities, they certainly were a force to be feared.
Nevertheless, Julis shook her head.
“Certainly they would win… the first time, but only then.”
As she spoke, a complicated expression flitted across her face.
“As such a competition continued, however, the ability users would fall, one by one. Once one’s techniques have been seen through, spread and made known, they can be countered. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but at best, it’s fifty-fifty.”
“The people here aren’t stupid. If they knew of my abilities, the least they could do would be to think up ways to counteract my flames. Like Cyrus did, for example.”
Ayato thought of the young man they’d fought a few days before.
He’d intentionally prepared flame-retardant puppets in order to deal with Julis.
“I see now. In other words, as a Strega or Dante, it is vital not to allow one’s abilities to be known.”
“Right. The more specialized one’s techniques, the greater their power and the less their general effectiveness. The first time you encounter an opponent, of course you have the advantage. Continue to battle, however, and you can no longer rely on that advantage. Those who stand in the foremost ranks have a very clear understanding of this.”
Although she spoke rather casually, but to stand at the top of Asterisk and continue to obtain victory was a nearly insurmountable task. This Ayato finally understood.
“Thankfully, my ability is ever expanding and many-faceted. This much is necessary to see the greatest degree of usability.”
“The Strega and Dante aren’t the only ones at a disadvantage once the essence of their techniques have been grasped though?”
“That’s true enough. It’s just that for them, the issue is especially pertinent. Hmm, by the way ー how’s your body holding up?”
Julis suddenly focused on Ayato’s face.
Julis likely meant nothing by it, but as she leaned in, Ayato unconsciously reddened.
Suddenly realizing the reason for his reaction, she pulled back in a hurry. Ayato averted his gaze.
“Um… well, not too bad, I guess. About the same as usual.”
Pulling back a step, the tense atmosphere faded, and he dusted his pants off.
“I-Is that so? That’s good.”
Julis spoke in a deliberate tone which suggested she wanted nothing more than to sigh.
“Hah… It looks like three minutes really is your limit.”
“Just about. That really won’t cut it. Huh?”
“To be frank, it’ll be difficult,” Julis answered, with an awkward expression.
Julis’ training with Ayato wasn’t just a straightforward battle.
They were also testing the limits of Ayato’s ability to fight at full strength.
If it was just for a short period of time, Ayato was able to forcibly release the bonds his sister had placed upon him. Unfortunately, “short” was the right word; his released state could only last for a few minutes at a time. Moreover, the recoil from forcibly unsealing himself left his body tormented by pain and just about unable to move.
Three minutes ー that was the upper limit on how long he could last without suffering the recoil.
“At the very least, I can still fight at a normal level.”
“At that level, I’m not sure that ‘fight’ is the right word. Then again, that’s infinitely better than simply collapsing.”
When his abilities were sealed, Ayato’s strength was below average as compared to the students of Asterisk.
He was capable of releasing his abilities for just over five minutes at max, with the cost of such an action being an inability to move for an entire day. The cost was simply too high for such limited gains.
Julis dipped her head in thought, before slowly raising her gaze.
“Let me double-check something. You are unable to break your seal again in your current state, correct?”
“Unfortunately not. I need to rest for a few hours in between.”
Whatever energy he had remaining after doing so had to be used to sustain normal bodily functionality.
“So even if just for a split second… it’s not like it’s impossible…”
For example, in the fight he’d just had with Julis, he’d only broken his seal for the slightest instant, which hadn’t resulted in any undue burden. Perhaps it was better to describe it as having bored through the seal, as opposed to breaking it.
Moreover, the upper limit on time was a hard restriction.
“That sort of life-or-death dodge could at the very least be used in a surprise attack. At full power, of course.”
He had just shown this to be the case, after all.
Thinking of life-or-death dodges, he suddenly recalled the silver haired girl he’d run into in the hallway. As he thought of her actions, so much like that of a small animal, he couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s pointless to cry over spilled milk. Let’s figure out how to use your three-minute limit as-is.”
“I think that’s probably for the best.”
“Well, even if it’s only for three minutes, but in that state, who could even last three minutes against you? If they were stronger than me, it could potentially be a problem, though… Hmm. We really just need to try it out and see. But just how do we find such a person?”
“Are there really students stronger than you?”
Julis was stunned by his words.
“…Are you serious? No, you know what? Forget it. I already know what kind of person you are.”
“Ayato, I’m honestly happy that you think so highly of me, but when it comes to those who are stronger than me… Although I don’t really like to say this myself, but there’s definitely a number of them if you include this entire city. At the very least, enough that you couldn’t count them with your fingers and toes.”
Julis was very strong. Although she’d had trouble against Cyrus a few days ago, that was only because of the extent to which he’d laid out traps beforehand. In a true contest of strength, Ayato was sure the fight wouldn’t last long.
That said, the ability to manipulate the situation to one’s advantage was undoubtedly a kind of strength as well; that much, he wouldn’t deny.
“Let me give you an example. St. Garrardsworth’s student council president is rumored to be a swordsman who stands at the very height of swordsmanship. From what I’ve seen in previous tournaments, his abilities are, at the very least, equivalent to yours when unsealed. The student council president of World Dragon is also rumored to be an absolute monster, but as she isn’t yet of age to participate in the Festa, I don’t think we need to worry about her.”
“The student council presidents of St. Garrardsworth and World Dragon…”
Claudia seemed to be the same. As expected, the student council presidents of Asterisk were truly the strongest of the strong.
“Oh, speaking of which. I know of one such person. Last year, it was all the news could talk about for days on end. The reigning champion of the Lindvolus, from Le Wolfe. What was her name…”
Ayato hadn’t had the least interest in the Festa, but even he’d seen her in the news. She’d already taken the Lindvolus twice, and if rumors were to be believed, she was posed to do that which had never before been accomplished, and take her third as well.
“ーThe EreshkigalVenomous Witch, Ophelia.”
Julis suddenly muttered in a tone with repressed emotion.
Ayato clapped his hands in recognition before noticing Julis’ strange condition.
Was she upset? Was she sad? Her face was hard to read.
“Julis…?” Ayato worriedly called out.
Julis broke out of her reverie. “Oh, uh, sorry about that. I was just thinking about some things.”
Julis tried to brush past the issue as she she suddenly raised a finger.
“T-That reminds me. Asterisk’s students aside, there are many other unbelievable individuals. For example, the head of the Stjarnagarmr ーthe strongest in Asterisk’s history, as well as the most popular Strega of allー our homeroom teacher, Miss Yatsuzaki. She is also undoubtedly at an entirely different level from me.”
“Don’t be fooled by how she looks. She’s the team leader of Le Wolfe’s only group to ever win the Gryps. As for why she’s now a teacher at Seidoukan instead, I’m not clear on the details either.”
Ayato thought of their coarse and disrespectful teacher.
Thinking back, she never revealed any openings. The students who dared to make noise during her classes were always greeted with a punch.
To do such a thing to a student of Asterisk was inconceivable unless one was also a member of the same Starpulse Generation.
“However, compared to our previous example, you do have one advantage. Do you know what that is?”
“Huh? Well, no. I haven’t the slightest.”
“Your abilities are still completely unknown. The incident with Cyrus was covered up and there were no other witnesses.”
That was certainly the case.
“You’re referring to our discussion earlier.”
In other words, the advantage of surprise when one’s abilities had not yet “been seen through”.
“The only thing that’s been made known is the registration of an Ogre Lux in your name. That much is likely already widespread. From just that alone, however, not much can be grasped.”
Julis turned her gaze to Ser-Versta, which had returned to its dormant state, and softly sighed.
“If only you could use its abilities while in this state…”
“Haha, that’s pushing things a little.”
When unable to pull out Ser-Versta’s full strength, Ayato’s strength didn’t even enter the equation for Julis. Of the times when Ayato had revealed his true strength, it hadn’t once been while Ser-Versta was in this dormant state.
“That reminds me, your sister previously used this sword before, right?”
“That seems to be the case.”
“I think so as well. I never would have imagined that siblings would end up with the same Ogre Lux…”
“That’s not what I was referring to.”
Julis slowly shook her head.
“Your sister was a Strega, correct? Normally speaking, the Strega and Dante are incompatible with Ogre Lux weapons.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“It seems to derive from a sort of Mana interference with the Ulm Mana Dite. In all of Asterisk’s history, the number of ability users who’ve wielded an Ogre Lux has only been around ten at most.”
“Ogre Lux weapons despise ability users?”
Ogre Lux weapons had their own wills, and would choose their own users.
This was something Ayato had already experienced firsthand.
“The reason still isn’t fully understood, but it may well be as you say.”
Julis shrugged with a bitter laugh.
“Anyway, I digress. The takeaway point here is that until the Phoenix starts in a month, you need to be careful to avoid taking part in any battles, and thus revealing your true abilities. Do you understand?”
His answer seemed to satisfy Julis. She reached behind her, and pulled out her rapier-type Lux, and walked around.
“Alright then, let’s start again. You need to learn how to deal with an unranked opponent without relying on your unsealed abilities. If you don’t manage to step it up another notch, you might just find yourself cooked enough to be served for dinner.”
“…That sounds pretty harsh.”
“To be honest, the best would be to practice with an opponent who better matches the model, but that’s not something I alone can help with…”
“Hmm? In that case, let’s just find someone.”
After he finished, Julis glared daggers at him.
“ーAre you making fun of me? You know I don’t have any other friends.”
“Uh, no, I never meantー”
“First and foremost, did you already forget what I just told you? Even if they’re classmates and schoolmates, we can’t let anyone know what you’re capable of. Moreoverー”
Just as Julis began to break things down for him, a bell sounded.
A moment later, a space-window appeared.
『 ーYou have guests. How would you like to respond?』
As the machine announced their guests, Julis and Ayato traded looks.
– ψ –
“He~h. I sure never expected it to be them.”
Julis spoke, her interest plain to see on her face, as she watched the pair of unexpected guests enter the room.
The first was nearly two meters in height, while the other was nearly his opposite – a girl so petite she seemed an elementary school student.
Both stared at Julis with a displeased expression on their faces.
“Saya and… Lester? What are you two doing here?”
The young girl so indicated by Ayato ーSasamiya Sayaー stepped forwarded and directed a finger at Julis’ chest.
Julis was stunned speechless by Saya’s words.
“Sneaky…? What do you mean?”
Saya and… Lester? What are you two doing here?
“You’re keeping Ayato to yourself under the pretense of practice. This violates my prohibition against monopolistic behavior and is in clear violation of guidelines for fair and equitable practices. I demand you do better.”
“…What does any of what you just said have to do with me?” Julis responded blankly.
Saya, expression as unchanging as always, advanced another step.
“Don’t try and fool me. Explain. Stealing away with Ayato to this secret location after school, and indulging in behaviors inappropriate for normal conversation; I’ve heard it all already.”
“D-don’t just calmly make up things about people! We’ve just been preparing for the Phoenix! Where on earth did you hear that from?!”
“I’ve promised to keep my source’s identity confidential. The most I can offer is their initialsー E. Y.”
“Yabuki, you bastard!” What was the point of hiding his name in that way?!
“Furthermore, Ayato wouldn’t normally go to a place like a training room. And at lunch, pretending like you just ‘happened’ to sit right next to him; how fake.”
“What!? T-That was really…”
“And for five straight days. That’s just too much.”
“…W-Well, then I have something to say to you as well. Sasamiya, you’re always waving around those ‘childhood friend’ credentialsー”
Saya and Julis began to butt heads as they argued back and forth.
“Let’s just ignore them.”
Ayato sighed, and turned to his classmate, even now forcing a smileー Lester McPhail.
“Congratulations on a complete recovery, Lester.”
“…Fortunately the injuries left by that asshole weren’t all that severe.”
Lester frowned unhappily, but responded in turn.
After the incident a few days ago, Lester had been sent to the hospital. Fortunately, he hadn’t suffered any grievous injuries. Although perhaps it was more appropriate to say that Lester’s possessed an inhuman vitality?
“So, what brings you here today? You even came with Saya.”
“I just happened to run into that midget on the way here. She looked lost, but since our destinations were the same, I brought her with me.”
At this point, a piercing shriek came from Saya, who interrupted her argument with Julis to stare in their direction.
“Just who did you call a midget?! Then again, what you said about showing me the way was true enough. Thanks for that.”
Saya bowed her head in gratitude for all of one second before resuming her argument with Julis.
In other words, life as usual.
In any case, in order to reach this training room from the match arena, one only had to head straight out of the school building. It was inconceivable that someone could get lost along the way. Saya definitely lived up to her reputation.
“…Well, your destinations were identical after all. Anyway, that reminds me. Lester, what brought you here?”
Lester’s frown deepened, and he looked away.
“…Uh, how do I put this? You know, the thing with Cyrus… it’s about that. Whatever, I’m just gonna come out and say itー you really helped me that time, and uh, I thought I should thank you…”
Lester turned and bowed his head.
“A, anyway. Thanks! That’s all!”
“Whoa, hold up a second! Lester!”
Having achieved what he’d come there to do, Lester turned to leave. Ayato called his name in a hurry.
Although his manner of conveying his gratitude was terribly clumsy, he’d come expressly for that purpose. On this point, he was much like Julis.
Given that they’d gotten off on the wrong foot, he couldn’t miss the opportunity to patch things up with the current Lester.
And Ayato thought he knew how he might go about it.
“Hey, just now we were discussing how we badly need training partners. Lester, if you wouldn’t mind, would you do that for us? That includes you as well, Saya.”
Lester, Saya, and Julis were all astonished beyond belief, and could only stare helplessly at Ayato.
“A-Ayato! Don’t just decide things by yourself…”
“The fact is, we really do need someone to help us, and if it’s these two, it shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
As a participant in the incident a few days prior, Lester already had some notion of Ayato’s true strength. Saya, of course, had always known.
“T-that is true…”
After Julis reluctantly voiced her agreement, Ayato turned to the other two. Saya nodded.
“I don’t mind.”
All eyes turned to Lester.
Left without much of a choice, he finally gave in.
“…I-it can’t be helped, I guess.”
– ψ –
“I see, so Haru-nee sealed your powers…” Saya, wearing her usual pokerface, sighed.
As they started to warm up, Ayato explained their circumstances.
“So you’ve finally grown up. Instead of throwing a tantrum like a little child, here you are, taking things seriously. No wonder.”
“…I wasn’t like that before.”
“That said, I don’t think that Haru-nee, wherever she is, is the kind of person to have done this without reason. Are you sure you’re right about this?” Saya spoke seriously.
This made Ayato quite happy. “Thank you, Saya.”
“Well, this way you can keep up with things. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“Haha… thanks for that.”
The feeling of Saya’s hand on his wrist was terribly nostalgic, although noticing the difference in their heights now, Ayato felt a little restless.
Julis suddenly interrupted.
“It’s about time to get started, so if you wouldn’t mind…”
“Ah, right. My bad.”
Julis seemed rather unhappy for some reason.
“For them to form a team out of nowhere is asking too much. Instead, since we’re clearly divided into forward and rear guard roles, let’s do that instead. You two forward guards practice close-combat, and we rear guards will practice providing support from behind. Sound good?”
Sparks flew between Saya and Julis.
“Those two sure are enthusiastic about this.”
Feeling their pressure, Lester activated Bardiche Leo, and spoke. “Worrying about the girls is fine and all, but you might want to worry about yourself first.”
“From the explanation just now, you can’t use your full strength right now, am I correct?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Let me just warn you in advance. I don’t ever go easy on my opponent.” Lester laughed ominously, and the words that went unsaid had Ayato in a cold sweat.
“…Please show mercy.”
Unable to think of anything else to say, Ayato also activated his weapon.
As the starting bell chimed, Lester charged Ayato. Although he knew this to be Lester’s standard MO, encountering it firsthand was decidedly more intimidating.
As the Axe swung at him, Ayato blocked with his swordー and was flung backward a good distance.
What nightmarish strength.
Even if he unleashed Meteor Arts, he wasn’t certain he could block such an attack. In any case, he was incapable of doing so in the first place.
“It’s not over!”
Ayato had planned to shift his weight into order to correct his posture, but he wasn’t given the opportunity as a second attack came flying in.
As the axehead came soaring downward… Ayato dodged by a hair’s width and taking advantage of the gap to charge into his opponent’s space. In order to deal with the extended reach granted by Bardiche Leo’s long haft, closing the distance was the best option. This was, however, within Lester’s expectations, and as Ayato closed, he charged him with his shoulder, stopping any movement.
The difference between Ayato and Lester’s physiques was too much, and as the distance between them opened once more, the third attack came.
“C’mon, c’mon! Don’t tell me this is all you’ve got!”
If this continued, this fight would be pretty one-sidedー
Just as Ayato and Lester were thinking the same thought, balls of flame appeared between them.
“Tch. Well placed!”
That technique of Julis’ was the PrimroseDancing Nine-ring Firebloom.
The fiery spheres, dancing in midair as if fireflies, quickly found their target and laid down suppressing fire on Lester.
“Fuu… You really saved me there, Julis.”
Viewing the scene before him, Ayato began to understand why it was so difficult for Lester to face Julis.
Julis’ abilities allowed her to attack regardless of the distance between her and her opponent. For Lester, who wielded Bardiche Leo, this was difficult to deal with.
“Ugh! Annoying as always… Oi! Shortstuff. Stop slacking, would you?”
Lester shouted insultingly as he turned to look behind… only to freeze on the spot.
It wasn’t just Lester who stood unmoving, either.
Julis and Ayato both stood motionless, their mouths flapping open and closed wordlessly.
“…I’m just about to get started.”
The gun in Saya’s hands ーactually, it was infinitely closer to a cannonー was simply too large to be believed.
Its barrel exceeded two meters in length.
Countless space-windows appeared around it, emitting light beams as if engaged in Meteor Arts.
“Thirty-ninth form, Lux-type laser cannon, Wulfdora ー Strafing Fire.”
As Saya unconcernedly shouted aloud, a deep rumble followed an eruption of light.
“W-Wait just a moment!”
Hearing Lester’s desperate cry, Ayato hit the deck.
Passing just over his head, an enormous beam of light strafed the area.
Catching Ayato’s reaction, Julis and Lester similarly leapt for the ground. They made it. Barely.
As the beam strafed past their location, it faded away without a trace.
Trembling, he glanced up. The wall which had borne the brunt of the attack had been eaten clear through as if an enormous caterpillar had wormed its way through it. The walls of the buildings in Asterisk had all undergone a strengthening process identical to those employed by the match arena. This level of destructive power was simply too frightening.
“Th… That was way overdoing it! Moron! You almost killed us!”
The first to recover their wits was Lester. He rose and stormed over to Saya, the veins in his forehead throbbing wildly.
“If someone gets hit, it’s their own fault for not dodging. If that was the old Ayato… It’d be trivial to deal with.”
Saya didn’t feel she was the least bit wrong for doing what she did.
Seeing that completely unruffled expression made one wonder what the point of getting upset was.
Julis as well felt like getting angry was pointless.
She could only hold her head in her hands.
“ーOh my, this is quite the scene of devastation.”
A leisurely voice floated over from the direction of the new hole.
– ψ –
Sticking her head in through the newly formed hole-in-the-wall was the student council president of Seidoukan Academyー Claudia.
“While we do give the members of the Top Twelve these training rooms to practice with, please try and refrain from haphazardly laying waste to school property, OK?”
“…I know. This was just a training accident. It’s not like this was vandalism or something.”
“That’s good to hear.”
Claudia laughed and nodded.
At that moment.
“But man, my heart just about jumped out of my chest there, Camilla. I never would have guessed there’d be a hole in the wall. If you want to talk about strange, then this certainly counts. I guess it’s just different strokes for different folks.”
“Honestly, would you mind restraining that mouth of yours a little, Ernesta? The last thing I need is another incident on my hands.”
From through the hole, two girls Ayato had never seen before could be seen standing behind Claudia.
Moreover, it wasn’t just that he’d never seen them before. Even for Ayato, who’d only transferred in a month earlier, this was a new sight.
The uniform the girls’ wore was not that of their school’s.
“ーWhat’s going on here, Claudia?” Julis asked in a tone as cold as winter.
It wasn’t just Julis either. Lester had also taken a stance and was glaring threateningly at the newcomers. Only Claudia remained undisturbed as she clapped her hands.
“Let me introduce you guys. These two are from Allekant: Camilla Pareto-san and Ernesta Kühne-san.”
That made the reason for Julis and Lester’s poor attitudes clear.
Allekant was the school responsible for the events a few days ago. For the principal victims of the incident, it was asking too much to expect these two to view them as anything but the enemy.
Taking the long way around, Claudia and the two others made their way to the front entrance, and entered normally.
“We’ve decided to engage in a joint Lux research effort with Allekant. These two are in charge of planning. They’ve made their way here in person to finalize the terms of the agreement.”
“ーGood day, everyone.”
The chestnut-haired girl bowed her head as deeply as if apologizing.
She seemed slightly older than Ayato. Her proportions were on par with Claudia’s although she cut a tighter figure. She had almond-shaped eyes and wore a tight-lipped, frigid expression.
“Joint effort… is it? I see, so that’s how it is.”
Julis seemed to accept the given answer even though she was clearly still dissatisfied. Ayato was confused as to what was currently happening.
As Ayato began to ask for an explanation, Lester spoke first.
Let me introduce you guys. These two are from Allekant: Camilla Pareto-san (right) and Ernesta Kühne-san. (left)
“Hey, Julis. ‘That’s how it is’? What do you mean?”
“You’re as dense as ever, I see. In other words, this is how they’re compensating us for the Cyrus incident. I imagine that in return for covering up what they did behind the scenes, they’re going to be providing us with technical assistance.”
Lester was shocked.
“Well, that’s more or less how things stand.”
Claudia continued to smile as sweetly as before.
Although she had technically avoided answering the question, she might as well have.
“Whatever. I did leave things in your hands. This kind of thing is your specialty, after all. But aside from that, why did these people from Allekant decide to visit?”
“Oh, that would be becauseー”
“Ooh, ooh. That would be because I wanted to see for myself!”
Energetically throwing her arm into the air was the other girl from Allekant. Her name seemed to be Ernesta, and compared to Camilla, her expressions were far more lively. Also in contrast to Camilla, she had a white coat draped over her uniform, though from the sloppy way it wasn’t closed, one could get a feel for her unrestrained personality.
She seemed to be roughly the same age as Ayato and the others, or a year or two older at most.
“No matter what, I wanted to see with my own eyes the swordsman who chopped my puppets into pieces.” She said, laughing.
Ooh, ooh. That would be because I wanted to see for myself!
An awkward silence filled the room.
Lester and Julis’ jaws had just about hit the floor, the silent Camilla seemed to be thinking “Not again…”, and even Claudia hid her expression of surprise behind her hand.
Of course, Ayato was no exception.
This girl had just openly admitted that she’d been the cause of the previous incident. It was impossible not to feel astonishment.
“So that would make you the rumored swordsman. Hmm. I see, I see.”
Ernesta completely disregarded the atmosphere in the room and approached Ayato, sizing him up before nodding several times with great feeling.
“Not bad at all, I think. I like him!”
Afterwards, she beckoned the utterly floored Ayato over with a cute wave of her hand.
She shushed him with a single hand as she said in a small voice, “Come boy, come.”
Ayato approached her, half guarded, half confused. Ernesta narrowed her eyes, cat-like, and whispered into his ear.
“Howeverー I wonder if things won’t be different next time?”
As Ayato lifted his head, Ernesta suddenly gave him a peck on the cheek.
Ayato frantically backed away as the expression on the faces of the three Seidoukan girls underwent a dramatic change.
“Th-This girl! What do you think you’re doing…!?”
“…You vixen. Die already.”
Julis pulled out her weapon, and Saya aimed her laser cannon ーwhich she had never stowedー at Ernesta.
“Hahaha, how terrifying indeed. There’s no need to glare at me like that; it was just a greeting.”
Ernesta fled to hide behind Camilla, her face revealing a mischievous smile.
“This is a great opportunity to let bygones be bygones and start all over as friends! To be able to meet not only Swordsman-kun, but the Gruene RosePetalblaze Witch as well is awesome!”
“Even if you hadn’t been directly responsible for the Cyrus incident, I despise your school. Don’t try and get close to me.”
Julis’ malice was bared for all to see, allowing one to feel the strength of her resolution.
Reacting with such vitriol to the other side requesting to be friends, it was clear that Julis had some sort of past with Allekant.
“I apologize, Ernesta, she…well, her personality is pretty much what you’ve seen. Allow me to greet you all in her place.”
Camilla gave a bitter laugh and bowed her head in greeting.
It seemed at least this person ーCamilla Paretoー had a rather earnest personality.
Suddenly, Camilla’s gaze rested upon the weapon in Saya’s hands.
“Hmm, pretty interesting, that. It’s a Lux with a lot of personality. It has two, no…three Mana Dite cores? Its power seems to derive from forcibly linking them together – that design sure is nostalgic.”
Unbelievably, Saya’s expression changed, and surprised, she turned to Camilla.
“…That’s correct. How did you know?”
“This falls within my field of expertise. That said, that design is hardly practical.”
Saya’s eyebrows twitched.
“The LOBOS method for connecting multiple Mana Dite cores is an incomplete design already rejected over a dozen years ago. Its power output is unstable, its burden on the user is high, and both its volume and mass are substantial. In order to maintain a high level of output, it requires an excess of Mana as well as a significant pause between shots. Moreover, a way to overcome these flaws has yet to be discovered.”
Camilla broke out into an unceasing torrent of words, the contents of which Ayato understood not one half, though he at least grasped the main point, which was that Saya’s weapon had extreme limitations on usage. To be honest, a weapon which relied on the Mana overdrive phenomenon ーMeteor Arts, in other wordsー was something that could only ever see use within the bounds of a duel.
“…That’s very true.”
Unhappy, Saya bit her lips as she returned Camilla’s gaze.
“ーBut I still can’t forgive you for insulting my dad’s hard work. Take it back.”
Camilla took a deeper look at Saya’s face.
“Ah… I see. You’re the daughter of Professor Sasamiya then?”
Her voice was tinged with an element of both nostalgia and mockery.
“What of it?”
“In that case, I definitely won’t retract my words.”
Camilla shrugged and Saya’s gaze grew sharper.
“Professor Sasamiya is a heretic. He’s someone who was chased out of Allekant by my group, the FerroviusLion Faction. Infinitely more important than raw power is a weapon’s suitability with the powerless masses. This is the founding principle of Ferrovius, of which I am the representative. There is no way I will acknowledge that warped thinking of his.”
Saya and Camilla glared at one another, neither giving an inch.
As the situation appeared about to erupt-
Claudia exaggeratedly cleared her throat as she seized a hold of Saya.
“Now then, our guests, if you would. It’s about time we began discussing what we came here for, yes?”
“…You’re absolutely right. I apologize for my poor manners.”
Camilla gave a heavy sigh and turned.
Then, as if to lead Claudia on, she turned her back on Saya.
“Camilla’s always this stubborn! Refusing to budge even the teeniest bit, that’s her,” Ernesta declared with a gleeful laugh, her face alight with childish delight as she watched the scene before her.
“ーWords are meaningless. Use power to prove your pointー isn’t that the way of things here?”
“…You want a duel?”
“Nyahaha! Not a chance, there’s no way Camilla would accept.”
Ernesta laughed aloud as she waved her hand.
“That said, we did register for the coming Phoenix.”
“If you reach the finals, feel free to demonstrate your point then.”
Although Ernesta laughed as before, that act had since ceased to mirror her mood.
“Ernesta, let’s take our leave.”
“Sounds good to me. Well then, everyone, until we meet again~”
Following the voice which had trailed through the entrance, she bounced out of the room.
“…Seriously, what an infuriating woman,” Julis muttered, after some time had passed.
Her expression indignant, she picked up a beverage beside the wall.
“Even if they said they’ll be at the Phoenix, no matter how I look at it… aren’t they researchers? Were they really being serious?”
“Researchers?” Ayato asked Lester.
Lester answered with an expression that showed he didn’t quite understand either.
“Allekant Academy’s students are divided into those that research Lux weapons and those that participate in the Festa. Generally speaking, these two groups are mutually exclusive.”
Although the two girls were undeniably members of the Starpulse Generation, it didn’t look like they’d undergone any training either. But if that was the case…
Just as Ayato sunk deep into thought, Saya pulled him out of it.
“Hmm? What’s up, Saya?”
“I’m also going to participate in the Phoenix. I’ve decided.”
“The Phoenix…? Well, that’s alright with me, but who’s your partner going to be?”
“You, of course.”
“What did you say!?”
Julis interrupted her drinking to shout a response to Saya’s straightforward reply.
“W-Who do you think you’re kidding here?! That guy is my partner!”
Saying this, Julis reached out to grab Ayato’s right wrist. Saya, refusing to lose, grabbed his left, and pulled him in the opposite direction.
“…Monopolizing him is prohibited.”
“W-W-Wait just a minute, you two! It hurts! Owwwwww!”
Even if Gandhi himself were here, chances were good he’d be unable to separate these two girls.
“You should just continue what you were doing earlier, and partner up with Lester!”
A reply without hesitation.
“I’ll pass on that as well! A psycho like her who blows away both friend and foe I can do without! Actually, before all of that, I already have a partner!”
“…Good point. The only person who can completely avoid my attacks is Ayato.”
“That’s something you should change! Anyway, the deadline for registering for the Phoenix is already past! What’re you planning to do about that?”
“Hmm… That is a problem.”
Saya released Ayato’s arm and began to think.
Julis seized the opportunity to pull Ayato to her, and as if protecting him with her body, took up a threatening stance like a mother cat.
“Well, for now, just sign up as an alternate. Every year people drop out anyway.”
“Good. Then that’s that.”
Saya thumbed up her approval of Lester’s suggestion.
Facing Saya, Julis guardedly questioned further.
“…And your partner?”
Julis and Saya began to quarrel once more.
Ayato sighed, and thought of what Ernesta had just said. “ーHowever, I wonder if things won’t be different next time?”
Although her tone had implied it was a joke, he was decidedly concerned.
(What did she mean by “next time”?)
– ψ –
“Honestly… Please try not to give me another heart attack, OK, Ernesta?” Camilla pleaded with Ernesta, walking before her.
After having smoothly finished signing the agreement, they were leaving Seidoukan grounds.
“Hmm? When did that happen?”
Ernesta turned back with puzzled expression on her face. They’d been friends for too long, however, and Camilla wasn’t about to be taken in by her pretended innocence.
“The fact that you were responsible for the incident a few days ago… There was no need to make them aware of it.”
Camilla was referring to what she’d said back in the training room.
Back then, she’d revealed herself as the mastermind behind the plot, and needlessly put them on guard. There had been no benefit in doing such a thing.
“Whatever. We’ve just formalized the agreement, so there’s no need to worry about it coming back to bite us now, anyway.”
The agreement this time was, of course, exceedingly in Seidoukan’s favor, so they had nothing to gain by going back on their word.
“First, let me express my gratitude for the assistance of Ferrovius. I mean it. Dangling the idea of developing new Lux technology as bait… they simply had no choice but to accept.”
“In any case, it’s not like they’ll really be able to use what they learn from us, so who cares? If that’s all it costs to have the PygmalionSculptor Faction indebted to us, then we count it cheap.”
That was certainly true.
Practical deployment of ‘that technique’ was something that Ferrovius ーCamillaー felt might as well have been impossible.
…’That’ belonged to essentially the same system of things as Professor Sasamiya’s weapon.
“Nyahaha. In any case, I never would have thought I’d see the day when Camilla would be so openly provocative, and to that blue-haired little girl. Given your personality, that’s something unprecedented.”
“…It’s nothing. Something that small hardly counts as a provocation. I was just expressing my true feelings. Anyway, more importantly, is everything ready to begin?”
“Yep yep, it’s all gone very smoothly. The opportunistic SonnetDark Lady Faction and MethusalehIdea Faction have been roped in for the moment. That being the case, the TenorioUbermensch Faction ought to keep quiet for a bit,” Ernesta spoke nonchalantly.
With this, they’d taken control of the assembly.
“…You sure move fast.”
Camilla had no doubts regarding her own ability. When it came to Allekant Academy, which gathered the very brightest from the four corners of the world, she had the confidence to stand at the head of the very largest faction.
However, when she stood next to the girl in front of her, she could feel the difference between herself and this heaven-sent talent. Whether it was in her role as a researcher or in her role as a leader, it made no difference.
“The President didn’t do too bad a job at the Rikka Garden Council; the stage is set, and our people are making the final arrangements.”
At last, Ernesta’s expression turned dark.
“Is there a problem?”
“You could say that. The drive system’s been completed thanks to Cyrus’ help. We have all the data we need. The output system, however, is a little unstable. It’s going to need more time.”
“If he’s willing to obediently come over to Allekant, then we can wrap things up pretty soon.”
“That can’t be helped. He’s not like those Strega and Dante that just go wherever they want. Anyway, who’d willingly sign up to be a guinea pig?”
Ernesta spoke quite cheerfully, and even Camilla gave a wry smile.
“Hence the lie? Leverage?”
“Yes. I’ll use any method to achieve my ends. It’s for the purpose of realizing my dream, after all.”
As Ernesta spoke, she raised her head to gaze at the twilight sky.
She’d squinted her eyes as if playing a prank, but within their depths lay a fearsome seriousness. On this, Camilla was most clear.
“When you said you wanted to see him, this was your reason?”
Camilla inquired as Ernesta continued to stare at the sky.
“Mm. You know, when it comes to the Phoenix, I think that swordsman is our biggest foe. So I wanted to see things with my own eyes, confirm things a bit.”
“Amagiri Ayato, his name was. The data we’ve collected seems to be legitimate…”
From their meeting just now, the boy had seemed rather juvenile.
The way Camilla saw it, he was anything but out of the ordinary.
Even if you included the fact that he wielded Ser-Versta, he didn’t seem to be a threat.
“I wish there was more info on him…Mm, I wish.”
Ernesta mumbled to herself.
“…Please don’t tell me you’re plotting something again?”
“This is pretty frustrating, to be honest. I can’t use my puppets since they’re being adjusted at the moment, and there’s no time to go play with another school. Originally, I’d figured I’d do something here, but there’s no one else like Cyrus-kun to take advantage of. Moreover, the data measurement terminal should already have been prepared…”
Ernesta spoke without stopping before suddenly raising her head.
“ーOh, that’s right. There’s still that way.”
“Something just occur to you?”
Ernesta nodded proudly in response to Camilla’s inquiry.
“The Tenorio, weren’t they recently raising a fuss? Something like the incident with Cyrus bringing disgrace to Allekant or something.”
“That was just something they said for appearance’s sake.”
In comparison with the humiliation the Tenorio had suffered four years prior, Ernesta’s failure was a minor thing.
More correctly, the original goal of the thing with Cyrus had been to measure the Mana transfer efficiency rates at which telekinetic ability users used their abilities. This data had been collected, and thus in regards to this aspect, the plan had been a complete success.
Added to that, it had been Ernesta’s own Ferrovius which had paid the cost of compensation. Tenorio hadn’t a leg to stand on with their complaint.
“I think we ought to give them a chance to reclaim their honor. That’s only fair, after all.”
Ernesta, enjoying herself thoroughly, laughed delightedly.
“…What’s the plan?”
“If they were able to eliminate the cause of our defeat, then wouldn’t that mean that their research’s results are superior to ours?”
So that’s how it was. Camilla had more or less grasped the plan.
“You’re going to provoke them.”
“Hehehe, killing two birds with one stone is most interesting, after all.”
Seeing Ernesta immerse herself in her new idea, Camilla gave a wry smile.
This was a person who was absurdly reckless, and yet a terrifyingly reliable friend.
For this reason, though she was forced to endure countless hardships on her behalf, she’d accepted it without a second thought.
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