“You sure seem to be close to Toudou Kirin recently.”
Ayato stood in front of the meal ticket machine at the Polaris Dining Hall, agonizing over his choice of a meal, when a voice floated over from behind. Turning, he saw a girl with beautiful rose-colored hair staring at him with a serious expression on her face.
“Hey, Julis. You here for lunch as well?”
Eishirou had again run out of money and Saya had again slept in, and was even now being scolded by their teacher. It was a rare occurrence when he ate alone.
“Your timing’s just right, then. Let’s eat together.”
“A-are you sure? Even if you say that…”
Giving in to the temptation, she cast a quick glance around before giving a happy nod.
“Alright, I’m gonna go with the chicken curry.”
Ayato input his choice into the meal ticket machine, and selected the chicken curry.
Although machines like this one were only rarely seen these days, Ayato still liked them.
“And you, Julis?”
“Hmm… Should I get the A-set pasta or the C-set which comes with dessert? Hmm…”
Julis propped her chin up with her hand as she pondered deeply. Suddenly, lifting her head, she turned to Ayato and snarled.
“Wait. That’s not what I wanted to talk about! About Toudou Kirinー”
Swinging her arms wildly as she shouted, she accidentally tapped the screen.
~dong~ A ticket came out from the machine which read, “Extra spicy curry”.
“Whoa, that’s the Polaris Dining Hall’s rumored curry; it’s crazy spicy…”
“…A-Anyway! That’s what I was planning on getting anyway! Hurry up. I’ll go get us a seat while you grab our food.”
Julis seemed quite anxious to eat, but was she really alright with that? In any case, Ayato went to retrieve their meals, at which point he couldn’t help but notice the potent destructiveness of her curry. Outwardly, it looked normal enough, but the smell was anything but.
It seemed to be smoking even; that was probably the best way to describe it. It gave off a scent of danger which instilled in him an instinctive desire to flee.
“Hey Ayato, over here.”
Julis waved him over from the spots she’d saved near the wall.
“Sorry for the wait, Julis… Are you sure about this? This thing isn’t playing any games here.”
Speaking, he placed her tray in front of her and her expression sunk.
“I-I already said it was fine! Anyway, I want to know what’s up with you and Toudou Kirin!”
“I’m not sure what you want to hear; we were just doing morning training together.”
There wasn’t anything to say, so Ayato answered straightforwardly. At his words, her face lost its tension.
“Oh, were you perhaps worried that she’d learn about my abilities? There’s no need to worry on that front. It was just a little light exercise, nothing that would have caused me to break the seal. In any case, I’m pretty sure she’s already got me all figured out from our duel earlier…”
“No, that wasn’t what I was worried about.”
Julis’ answer didn’t seem to clarify the matter in the least. She sighed and shook her head.
“Forget it. Keep doing what it is you’re doing. It’s fine.”
He had no idea what had just happened, but Julis seemed to be okay with things now.
“By the way, Julis. You almost haven’t even touched your food… everything alright?”
Looking closely, her plate of extra spicy curry seemed nearly untouched.
Her spoon had been moving, but she hadn’t eaten a bite.
“If you can’t finish it, just leave it. You can still orderー”
“Idiot! That’s such a waste!”
That was decidedly not a princess’ attitude towards food. This had to be the influence of her friends.
Julis finished speaking, summoned up her courage, and put her spoon in her mouth.
In a split second, Julis’ face turned extremely red before paling immediately thereafter.
“W-Wait just a second Julis! There’s no need to force yourself like that…”
“…I-It’s not a problem… I didn’t say…”
Her eyes brimmed with tears as she answered him in a trembling voice.
She proceeded to gulp her glass of water down in huge mouthfuls.
What part of what was supposed to be “not a problem”?
“…Well, would you like to trade with me then?”
“W-What?!” Julis screamed in shock.
“While mines is spicy as well, it shouldn’t be anywhere near the level yours is. If you don’t mind…”
Julis sat unmoving, like a statue.
“Oh, I see. It’s probably unhygienic to eat something I’ve already touched. Huh…”
“No! That’s not it!”
Julis shook her head.
“I-I really don’t mind, it’s just thatー”
Cutting herself off mid-sentence, Julis stopped speaking.
“No, I should say that having ordered this myself, I should take the responsibility to finish it. I can’t let this become your problem.”
“You’re the same as always, I see.”
To be stubborn to this extent was almost praiseworthy.
Suddenly, a way to persuade her came to his mind.
“That said, doing things this way, we’re not doing our best to understand one another. Aren’t we tag-team companions?”
Using the Phoenix as an excuse was a bit sly, he had to admit, but this way, his proposal would be easier for Julis to swallow.
Julis wore a difficult expression as she glanced at his plate, then back at her own, before finally lifting her plate aloft.
“…Th-Then… let’s e-exchange?” She asked with moist eyes and a timid expression.
At the sight of the current Julis presently before him, so different from her normal style, Ayato’s heart skipped a beat.
“Oh, right! Sure, of course.”
Seeing Julis’ head dip in worry, he immediately nodded and, picking up his own chicken curry, swapped it for hers.
Julis lifted her spoon and began to eat.
Julis wore a difficult expression as she glanced at his plate, then back at her own, before finally lifting her plate aloft.
If he looked closely, her cheeks were tinged with a faint shade of red, likely a result of the curry she’d just sampled.
(She sure is cute when she’s being honest with herself…)
The normally fearless and courageous Julis was indisputably beautiful, but the absolute change in personality she’d undergone was refreshing indeed.
Thinking this, Ayato lifted the spoon to his mouth. A raw, overpowering sensation nearly caused him to lose consciousness. Fortunately, he managed to finish it before their break ended.
– ψ –
The loud sound of boots echoed throughout the long corridor as the brown-skinned girl urgently made her way through.
The current location: Allekant Academy’s underground research divisionー the most restricted and protected location on campus. Not even members of the research division without sufficient clearance were allowed to visit here, let alone the combat-oriented students of their own school, and especially not outsiders.
As opposed to a school building, it would be more correct to label this place a research facility. White walls and white floors spread out endlessly in an inorganic design which prioritized functionality above all else.
Neither plants nor paintings adorned the wallsー it was an atmosphere which declared the irrelevance of all that was deemed unnecessary.
The girl stopped, and verifying her identity against a two-form authentication system which validated both her school badge and her biometrics, input her personal password given by the owner of the room. Only then did the doors slide open.
“Tenorio has begun to move.”
Entering the room, the brown-skinned girl ーCamillaー spoke.
However, the owner of the room, surrounded by countless screens of data, did not respond.
The room was entirely dark but for the illumination of the screens and various instruments scattered around. Littering the floor were bags of junk food and the broken remains of various toys.
“…Ernesta?” Camilla questioned, astonished, but no answer was forthcoming.
Camilla stepped into the room, tiptoeing around the objects on the floor, making her way to the over-sized chair at the center of the screens, and to the girl sleeping there, resting snugly under a blanket.
“Hey… Wake up, Ernesta. What you’ve been waiting for this entire time has finally begun.”
Sighing, she pulled away the blanket.
Her eyes covered by a sleep mask, a line of drool hanging from the corner of her mouth, Ernesta leapt to her feet.
“Good morning, Ernesta.”
“…I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t. I was just resting my eyes, that’s all.”
Still wearing her sleep mask on her head, she waved her arms.
“…Is that so? Then, would you mind repeating the reason for my coming?”
“Um? Tenorio’s movements, correct?”
Answering calmly, she stretched lazily.
“ーAre you really awake?”
“Fufufu, whether I’m awake or asleep, I’m just as sharp as ever.”
…That was certainly impressive, but hadn’t she just admitted she was asleep?
Camilla kept her thoughts to herself.
They’d already wasted enough time as it was.
“Things have already begun. If we take too long, we’ll be left behind.”
In order to ensure they hadn’t missed a thing, preparation was vital.
At the very least, a good vantage point was necessary.
“Haha. I understand, I understand.”
Ernesta stifled a yawn and called out her optical keyboard.
ーAre you really awake?
Manipulating it quickly, she organized the displayed data. The windows surrounding her disappeared, leaving but one behind.
As the sole remaining window moved in front of her, Ernesta expressed her astonishment.
“Huh? There’s someone else besides Swordsman-kun?”
“You’ll be surprised when you hear who it is. That’s Seidoukan’s rank one.”
Surprised indeed, her eyes opened wide.
“Hoho, well now, well now.”
Ernesta’s eyes glittered.
“Even if they know, they’re still going ahead with it? That is certainly exciting.”
“Yes, that’s why they’re taking things seriously this time.”
Camilla reached over to a chair near her, pulled it over, and sat down.
“Or maybe they just have confidence in the results of their work! Swordsman-kun and friends, how are you going to deal with this? Hehehe.”
Ernesta spoke as if she had nothing to do with the matter. Camilla frowned.
“So? Who’re you planning on baiting next? Don’t tell me it’s the Magnum OpusGreat Doctor?”
“There’s no way that guy will show himself. For now, let’s content ourselves with the downfall of the lieutenant of the Tenorio.”
Camilla’s answer came as expected, and Ernesta nodded.
“We sure are being cautious, thoughー well, forget it. This is fine. This all works to the end of the Tenorio in the long term.”
“Exactly. Reaching too far will only cause unnecessary complications.”
…After all, that bastard would only reveal himself when he felt he had no other choice.
If that were to happen, then all this effort would be for naught.
“…Speaking of which, you sure like to gamble.”
Camilla gave a wry smile at Ernesta’s truly confounded expression.
“You can’t just take the safest route. That’s what I mean.”
“Heh, because that’s the only way things’d be interesting.”
Although her smile was innocent and child-like, a certain hard-to-grasp callousness lurked hidden there.
– ψ –
Mornings in Asterisk take but a short moment before enveloping the world in white.
The differences in temperature between the lake and the atmosphere made for prime fog conditions. As the sun rose, the scenery would fade like a mirage, granting the effect of an illusionary beauty which entranced all viewers.
Today, however, the fog was particularly dense.
“Good morning, Amagiri-senpai.”
Appearing from amidst the fog was a gym clothes-clad Kirin, bowing her head demurely.
“Oh. Morning, Toudou-san. Man, the fog sure is thick today,” Ayato answered, looking around in disbelief.
This was their usual meeting spot, in front of the high school building.
Of all the mornings he’d spent training here ーnot limited to just the few days they’d spent togetherー this was his first time experiencing such a dense fog.
“That’s certainly true… I’ve heard that winter’s even worse, though.”
“Seriously? Today’s bad enough as it is.”
A short distance between them was all it took for her to seemingly disappear into the fog.
“Hmm, with the fog as thick as this, running could be a little dangerous. Perhaps it’s best we hold hands?”
“Th-That’s fine with me…”
Ayato had only been joking, but Kirin had responded seriously. Face bright red, she took hold of his fingers with a tremble.
“…M-My bad; I was just joking…”
“Aah!? O-oh, sorry!”
She immediately released her grip.
Although there had only been the briefest of contact, the slightest sensation of warmth could still be felt on his hands.
“No, that’s not what I meant…”
The pair sunk into an awkward silence.
“…Um… Why don’t we get going?”
As Ayato offered an escape, Kirin nodded emphatically and began to run.
Their route basically followed the outermost path around Asterisk.
At this early time, there were hardly any people except for others with an identical purpose to theirs. With all the townspeople still asleep, the city was enveloped in deep silence.
The cityscape, drowned in fog as it was, had quite the exotic feeling. Looking out over the water, his field of vision lasted but some few meters, giving the feeling of having truly traveled to another world.
Nevertheless, Kirin, running lightheartedly in front of him, seemed unmoved by the scenery surrounding them.
As they ran along the path, Ayato began to sense something off.
ーSomething was tailing them.
Maintaining a deliberate distance, it consistently altered speed to keep pace.
Kirin had also noticed, and letting up slowly, she whispered to Ayato, shoulder to shoulder.
“…Yeah, and they’re not alone.”
Trading glances with Kirin, he suddenly slowed.
He felt confusion from the presences behind him.
“Four, no five. Five people?”
“Yes… but something’s strange.”
Kirin frowned in surprise.
“This feeling, rather than ‘people’ー”
Kirin muttered vaguely as the two pulled to a stop.
It hadn’t been planned. There was an obstacle in their path.
“Roadwork? There wasn’t any sign of that yesterday…”
Because of the dense fog, they hadn’t noticed until just now. The road was sealed off. In front of them, a sign forbade entrance.
“I don’t think we can just pretend we didn’t see anything and continue. What should we do?”
“This is dangerous. There’s some possibility this is a trap.”
The presences trailing them maintained their distance and similarly pulled to a stop.
Running into the roadblock, there was still a possible detour. Leading off to the left, the alternative path wrapped around a fence-enclosed park, which had only one entrance.
“Moreover, who knows if they’re not already there, lying in wait? Toudou-san, I’m sure you’ve already thought it through?”
“I can’t say I haven’t…”
She was the top-ranked Page One, there’s no way she hadn’t.
“Do you have something in mind, Amagiri-senpai?”
“Nn. You could say that.”
What came to mind was Ernesta, but something still didn’t feel quite right. In any event, now wasn’t the time to be considering such things.
“We could try splitting up…”
“At the very least, then we’d know who their target was.”
On the other hand, if both of them were being targeted, splitting up would only work to their opponents’ advantage. They couldn’t just casually divide up their combat strength.
“You know what? Let’s just stick together.”
He wasn’t sure if he was just imagining things or not, but she sure sounded happy.
“Now then, where should we go nextー”
Interrupting him, the presences behind them suddenly took action.
Seemingly unable to wait any longer, they drew closer.
They were now but ten meters away. As they neared, Ayato understood the meaning behind Kirin’s words. They definitely weren’t human; the feeling they gave off was too different. He wanted to say they were puppets or something to that effect, but he could feel Prana coming from them.
(Are they of the Starpulse Generation…? No, this is-)
What slowly appeared from amidst the dense fog couldn’t be said to be an animal.
At first glance, it looked like a tiger or lion, or some other large predatory cat. However, it was covered in hard scales. Its neck was oddly long, like a reptile’s, and its mouth was peppered with razor-sharp fangs. The closest thing that came to mind? A wingless dragon.
There were five of them in total. All were clearly hostile.
“What… are these?”
“At the very least, they’re not from around here.”
Kirin seemed puzzled by these creatures she’d never before seen.
“But still, they’re kind of cute, really.”
“Ah, yeah… Wait, what?”
As Ayato turned back to look at her in surprise, the dragon seized the opening to charge.
He immediately pulled a dagger-type Lux from his pocket and activated it.
The light blade burst forth, narrowly diverting the dragon’s attack.
The momentum generated by that enormous body forced him down as the dragon lithely spun in midair before landing gracefully. Its movements were like those of a cat.
“You okay, Amagiri-senpai?”
Looking over, it seemed that Kirin had repelled the attack of three other dragons simultaneously.
Moreover, her sword was still sheathed in its scabbard.
“Ah, yeah. It’s nothing to worry about.”
The dragon raised its front paw as Ayato answered.
From what he’d seen so far, there wasn’t yet cause to warrant breaking his seal.
Easily avoiding the simplistic attack, he severed its front leg. What he saw left him in shock.
The severed leg quivered as it dropped, almost like melting syrup. However, rather than disappearing, it turned into a translucent goo.
The dragon didn’t seem to mind its injury either, and its severed stump wasn’t bleeding. It simply stuck the slime-shaped thing back on, which quickly returned to its original state as a leg.
Ayato was left speechless. The last dragon, waiting in reserve, opened its jaws wide.
The Mana in the area began to accumulate at an astonishing rate.
The dragon’s mouth began to emit a brilliant light which swirled like a violent eddy.
This was clearly an ability identical to that which belonged to the Strega and Dante – the ability to interfere with Mana.
With a roaring hiss, a fireball burst forth, crashing into Ayato’s sword.
It wasn’t anywhere near on par with Julis’ abilities, but that an animal could manipulate Mana was something unbelievable.
“Don’t tell me… are these the mutants that Claudia was talking about…?”
On second thought, that couldn’t be it. Had mutants like these been discovered, the news would have long since spread around the world.
Even here in Asterisk, where defying common sense was an integral part of daily life, the thing standing before him was simply too absurd.
Two other dragons howled and drew near.
“I don’t like to take life, but I don’t think I have a choice.”
Even if he’d prefer to be a little more lenient, but he still wasn’t clear on the true nature of the beings before him.
Standing amid the fog, he brandished his sword and controlled his breathing.
Focusing his Prana, and raising it, he released his strength.
As the two dragons simultaneously took a step forward to catch him in a pincer attack-
“Amagiri Bright Dragon Style, Beginning Technique
As fast as lightning, Ayato twirled outward, and twisted his wrist, stabbing his sword forward with one arm.
A brutal cry erupted, utterly unlike any animal ever before heard, as the two dragons were simultaneously skewered.
In the following instant, the dragons melted into goo, just like the front leg had a moment earlier.
Exhibiting an unbelievable degree of intelligence, they slithered across the ground to open some distance, and within the next ten seconds had fully recovered.
Ayato didn’t know what to think of the situation.
“There’s no way they’re actually immortal, right?”
With things having taken this shocking turn, what ought he to do?
If Julis were present, she’d be able to burn them to ash. At the very least, it didn’t look like pure swordsmanship would be enough to dispatch these foes.
(Maybe Ser-Versta would work…)
However, using Ser-Versta required a full release of his seal, which would place a restriction on his movements. That wasn’t an option in this situation.
“Looks like neither slashes nor stabs will work.”
Kirin, who at some intermediary point had backed up against Ayato, said tensely.
She held her unsheathed sword in her hands.
“They’re more than likely slime-based entities; don’t you think that appearance is just mimicry?”
“That does make sense…”
“It looks like running is the best option here.”
If they were to flee, it’s unlikely they’d be caught, but in these foggy conditions, if they were caught, it’d be catastrophic.
“ーShall I give this a try?”
Having spoken, Kirin advanced on one of the dragons with a measured gait.
On guard, the dragon loosed a threatening roar. After reaching a certain distance from the dragon, she suddenly leapt into the air.
As she calmly spoke, her body had already initiated the attack.
In the following moment, the dragon’s body split into halves.
As before, it howled as it again melted.
Kirin faced down the slime body and continued to attack. One blow followed another, slashing it to pieces. The speed of her consecutive attacks could only be described as divine.
Now in ten pieces, the parts of the slime that had hit the floor extended a tentacle as the parts mid-air began to shrink.
As this was occurring, Ayato noticed something strange. One of the segments of the rapidly shrinking slime was a spherical body, wriggling around.
It seemed as if it was trying to escape, but almost as if unsure of where to go, it moved both left and right, before it soon had nowhere left to go.
By the time all that was left was about the size of a person’s fist, the sphere stopped moving.
Kirin’s blade flashed as it chopped the sphere in two.
At the same moment, the rest of the slime stopped moving.
It seemed that the spherical segment was the control core.
Watching these events occur, the other dragons pulled back in seeming fear.
“So that’s the center, eh. Now that we know that, these shouldn’t be a problem…”
Kirin re-sheathed her sword, downplaying her feelings, although Ayato sensed sorrow hidden there.
“I have to say, it’s amazing that you noticed that.”
“The flow of Prana through their body was strange. It’s something I’ve always been very sensitive to.”
For the Starpulse Generation to be able to grasp the flow of Prana was second-nature, but this was an entirely different matter. This wasn’t a matter of training or anythingー to be able to accurately grasp the flow of such minute traces of Prana wasn’t anything other than God-given talent.
“…I think I start to understand just why you’re so strong, Toudou-san.”
Ayato gave a wry smile and picked up the severed halves of the spherical object.
Its composition was unclear, but that it was both inorganic and artificial were immediately obvious.
“As expected… it’s Allekant.”
Kirin asked with a perplexed look on her face.
“An explanation might take a whileー Uwa!”
Having pulled back, the dragons loosed their fireball attacks.
Of the four remaining dragons, all had attacked Ayato.
Recognizing that Kirin wasn’t to be trifled with, they focused their attacks on Ayato.
ーTheir decision was correct.
“W-wait a momeeeeeeeeent!”
Now wasn’t the time for a casual chat.
(No way around it, I’ll have to remove the seal.)
Having decided, he jumped backward to open the distance, and landed near the entrance to the park.
As he gathered his Prana, fireballs flew once more.
But this time, he wasn’t their intended target.
The orbit they traced was far too low. Exploding with a terrific boom, they crashed into the ground around his feet.
The cement around him began to crack.
By the time he’d realized what was happening, it was already too late.
In the next moment, a five meter circle, with Ayato at its center, caved in. There was no way Asterisk’s ground would give way to such force; the ground had likely been excavated beforehand in setting the trap.
Kirin rushed forward and thrust her hand out.
Ayato reached out and grabbed her hand, the only thing keeping him from falling.
Kirin caught hold of the edge of the hole, her left hand extended downward.
“A-are you alright, Amagiri-senpai?”
“Yeah, I owe you one.”
His sigh of relief lasted but an instant.
With an ominous ~crack~, the edge of the hole Kirin was grabbing onto ーfor dear lifeー gave way.
With a scream, the bodies of the pair were swallowed by the darkness.
– ψ –
“With this, the first act is over?” Nibbling her lips with a bored expression, Ernesta proffered.
The image on the screen before her revealed the scene of Ayato and Kirin disappearing down the hole.
“Is that giant hole really alright? If the Stjarnagarmr find it, things won’t turn out well.”
“That area was already scheduled to undergo construction. For the time being, it should be okay.”
Camilla, seated next to her, focused on confirming the information before her.
“So that was the phryganella viscous attack body. Tenorio still had a set.”
“They truly can’t be underestimated. I have to admit I’m pretty interested myself.”
“Yeah, Mana flow control as well as mimicry techniquesー it’s pretty interesting. The rest of it is absolutely worthless though. Useless from the very beginning. For starters, if it can turn into anything, why a lizard? Why not a penguin or a kitty?”
Ernesta picked up some sort of fabric doll from the floor, and rubbed it on her chin.
“Those are clearly just your personal preferences… More importantly, when Prana is used to force a change, it takes on the pre-stored appearance. Moreover, it seems that the cores are limited to storing only one form.”
Camilla referenced the window before her, full of information which had been fed her by her spy in the Tenorio faction. The alteration and modification of living things was Tenorio’s specialty. Ernesta’s absurd comment aside, Camilla felt there was much to praise there.
As she pondered what sort of breeding could result in such a thing, she gasped in surprise.
“So there’s only one kind? There’s nothing surprising about that. Or rather, for the Tenorio who have distanced themselves from the Great Doctor, that’s the most they can do, huh.”
Ernesta’s interest gradually faded.
“Anyway, they sure are weak. Is there even a practical use for something like that?”
“It can’t be helped. Their goal is living weapons, after all. These are just a byproduct of that research.”
“That much is true. But still, at this stage, aren’t my puppets like a billion times stronger?”
Now that was an exaggeration if she’d ever heard one. Measuring things in such a way was terribly childish.
Camilla, however, kept her thoughts to herself.
“To be honest, this is simply a matter of choosing one’s opponent poorly. The Seidoukan rank one’s title isn’t just for show, after all.”
“Yeah, that’s certainly true. What they aim for can’t be found here at Allekant.”
“Moreover, even despite our excellent performance at last year’s Phoenix, the students responsible have pretty much all graduated.”
“On the other hand, that’s given us the chance to make our debut.”
At that moment, the image on the screen changed.
“Here we go. Act 2 begins.”
“From their point of view, this next part is the real thing, right?”
“Hehe, and that’s precisely why it’s worth looking forward to.”
– ψ –
Ayato’s first feeling was that of shock. Immediately following was an icy chill and then a difficulty breathing.
His surroundings were immersed in darkness, and all he could see were bubbles. It seems they’d fallen into a deep body of water.
Having lost all sense of what was up and what was down, he forced himself to calm down and relaxed his body.
Normally, such an action would cause one to float to the surface, but on the contrary, he began to sink.
(Crap, it’s the weights!)
Immediately throwing off the weights weighing him down, he swam in the direction of the source of the faint but definite light.
Emerging from the watery depths with a splash, he inhaled deeply. Only then was he able to truly calm down.
They were in a terrifyingly vast space. From far above his present location, he could see the hole which they’d fallen in through. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, there were no stairs. Asterisk’s underground had many forms and uses, and thus was this trap made possible.
It had clearly been intentional.
“But man, this really is huge.”
From the surface of the water to the very top where they’d fallen in looked to be a distance of about twenty meters. Its width was impossible to estimate. Looking across, enormous pillars and the water’s surface filled his vision for as far as he could see.
There was nearly no illumination whatsoever, and he could just barely make out the distinction between the walls and the ceiling.
“Oh, crap! Toudou-san!?”
Looking around frantically, he noticed a faint splash not far off.
Seeing her struggle desperately, she looked to be drowning; perhaps it was the weights that were pulling her down.
Ayato promptly swam to her side as Kirin approached him with a face nearly in tears.
“*cough* *cough* T-thank you, Amagiri-senpai…! Thanks for saving me…”
“Are you alright? Hurry up and get rid of those weights…”
As he moved to help her, he noticed. They were already gone.
“Uu… S-sorry… Truth is, I-I can’t really swim…”
“Oh… Now I see.”
For someone as stunningly athletic as herself to be unable to swim was beyond surprising.
Even for members of the Starpulse Generation, it seems there were things they were proficient in… and things they weren’t quite so proficient in.
“No, I ought to apologize. It’s my fault you got dragged into this mess.”
She’d only fallen in because she’d tried to save him.
“Don’t say that. In any case, where are we…?” holding her breath, Kirin asked nasally.
“My best guess is we’re underneath Asterisk.”
“The ballast area then,” Kirin mumbled as she looked around.
“Because Asterisk is an artificial-island, in order to keep level, it has to utilize the lake water.”
It took an intimate familiarity with the construction of the city to have such an insight.
“In that case, there ought to be an exit that workers use-”
Kirin turned around and suddenly reddened.
“N-Nothing! It’s just… Um…”
Her stuttering clued Ayato in on what had happened.
She’d necessarily pulled in close to him. Given their extreme proximity, her blushing was, of course, expected. They were, after all, essentially stuck to one another.
Only the two heads were above the water. Below the water’s surface, Ayato’s hand was holding her up, or perhaps more precisely, engulfed in her cleavage.
“S-Sorry, sorry! I-I think it’s best I swim by myself after all…!”
“Not at all! It’s my…”
Even for a member of the Starpulse Generation, to buoy up two people’s weights wasn’t something that could be done indefinitely. They needed to find the exit, or at the very least, somewhere they could rest upon, or they’d be in deep trouble.
ーAt that moment.
Ayato caught a glimpse of an enormous shadow in the water beneath them.
“Hold your breath…”
Saying that, Ayato grabbed her and suddenly plunged below.
He exerted all his strength in this endeavor; they had to get away.
However, that enormous shadow wasn’t something on a scale they were capable of dealing with, and they were swept away in a current.
Just as they felt there was no escape, they suddenly erupted out of the water.
The scene before them was hard to imagine.
“Oh my… Isn’t thatー”
Neither of the two knew what to say.
In the place where the two were now floating, the head of an enormous dragon was outstretched.
In comparison with the dragons that had just attacked them previously, the former was larger by far. Simply the part that extended out above the water was already a good ten meters long. In total, it looked to be closer to fifty. From its silhouette alone, it looked like almost like a plesiosaur.
The dragons earlier had seemed quite reptilian, but this new animal looked to be more like a snake. Nonetheless, after seeing its body and legs, as well as its enormous head and razor-sharp fangs, “dragon” was the only word appropriate to describe this animal.
This dragon, however, was identical to the others in one aspectー its open hostility toward them.
“…Guess that’s how it is. Given how we’d fallen down here, guess there’s no way we could have made it back up so easily.”
The reason they’d been thrown down here was so that they’d encounter this dragon.
“Amagiri-senpai… this dragon feels a lot like the smaller ones from before,” analyzing the flow of its Prana, Kirin quickly determined.
“In other words, its true appearance is a slime?”
“More or less…”
“That’s not exactly good news.”
If that was the case, then standard forms of cutting and slicing would be to no avail.
Rather than attempting to deal with it barehanded, the wisest course of action would be to immediately activate his Lux while concurrently releasing his seal. This situation didn’t allow for anything but.
Fetters appeared from magic circles all around him as his Prana was forcibly raised. In the darkness, this was the only source of light.
Deciding its opponent had taken a hostile action, the dragon roared and charged.
Even if he was at full-power, that didn’t imply that he was capable of high speed movement in the water.
Guarding Kirin with his own body, he bore the brunt of the blow head-on.
Slammed with great force, they were carried away by the water.
Holding his breath as he dodged the dragon’s fangs, he was thrown into one of the pillars. A crater in the thick pillar formed from the impact.
“A-are you okay?!”
“Ah yeah. I’m fine, although this situation looks pretty bad.” Having reinforced his body with Prana, he hadn’t taken any major injuries.
That said, things couldn’t be allowed to simply continue like this.
The dragon confirmed its prey’s condition from not far off. Unexpectedly, it looked to have quite the careful personality.
“T-This is all because I’m a burden on you! Let me go!” Kirin suddenly said.
“I-It’s all my fault Amagiri-senpai got hurt… My…!”
From within his embrace, she began to sob.
“I-I really am no good… No matter how hard I practice, in the end… No more, I refuse to have anyone sacrifice themselves for me again…”
Kirin shook her head childishly as she spoke.
Ayato sighed, and holding her tightly, began to pat her head.
“It’s alright. Don’t worry.”
“Usually no one can stand a chance against you, right? Since I was able to do so, why not trust in me a little more?”
Ayato stared into her eyes and gently responded.
“There’s something else I want to say; no, that I can’t not say. Toudou-san, you’re very kind, but very strong. You are an amazing girl.”
Completely stunned, she stared at him blankly.
Her face dyed a deep scarlet, she nodded emphatically.
Wiping her tears away, she raised her head with a determined look.
Ayato again patted her head and activated Ser-Versta.
As he poured Prana within, black words appeared, granting a tinge of black to the white blade.
“ーNow if I can just find somewhere to get a proper footing…”
As he spoke, he lightly swung Ser-Versta, careful not to let it touch the water.
A large space was gouged out of the thick pillar as easily as if it were tofu, creating enough room for two to stand.
In the back of his mind, Ayato realized that he’d just destroyed a vital foundational structure, but in this situation, he couldn’t afford to be choosy.
As he gave Kirin a chance to rise, the dragon seized the opportunity to attack.
ーWithout so much as turning, Ayato simply waved his sword.
As the pointed fangs came within inches of piercing, its head, severed cleanly from its neck, flew off the into the distance.
The head melted in midair, and returning to its body, regained its original form.
“…No surprise that it’s the same as the ones above, I guess.”
Watching this scene play out before him as Kirin climbed up, Ayato frowned.
On guard after the previous attack, the dragon retreated some ten meters distance and slowly began to circle the pillar they were situated upon. Not an easy opponent indeed.
Again in similar fashion to the dragons from before, the dragon gaped its mouth wide and began to focus Mana.
However, as Ayato again casually swung Ser-Versta, it all vanished like so much smoke.
When compared to Julis’ attacks, this was but child’s play.
“That said, I’m not exactly making any progress either…”
This wasn’t an opponent he could just blindly rush in and attack; anything but a sure-kill was meaningless. This wasn’t just any foe; if he failed to destroy its core with his attack ーas Kirin had with the slimeー then there wasn’t any point.
“Toudou-san, you can follow the flow of its Prana, correct?”
“Ah, yes. It’s faint, but it’s there.”
“Where’s the core?”
“Well…it’s constantly shifting its location.”
What a troublesome enemy.
“…That doesn’t give me any other choice then. Let’s give this a shot, shall we?”
“Give this a shot…?”
In reaction to Kirin’s surprised look, Ayato raised Ser-Versta for her to see.
“Hmm, well, this really is a difficult enemy to deal with… so it’s not like we have any other choice but to press forward.”
Saying this, Ayato began to focus his Prana into Ser-Versta.
Concentrating all his Prana using the Mana Dite as a focal point, this technique temporarily increased the output of his weapon. When it came to enhancing physical reinforcement, such as what he’d used to defend himself earlier, Prana was quite easy to use. When expended in attacking, however, its use was much more restricted. Generally, this was solved via the use of a weapon as a medium for dispersal, but its effects were limited. The sole exceptions were the barehanded style employed by students of World Dragon Seventh Institute and Mana Dites.
Nonetheless, Ayato had never before succeeded at using Meteor Arts. Because the sheer amount of Prana he carried within him was too vast by far, the burden placed upon normal Lux weapons had always resulted in their destruction. Although it was, of course, possible for him to instead control the amount of Prana he injected, such fine control over his Prana was beyond his ability.
And thus, until now, he’d long since given up hope on seeing it to fruitionー
“You should be able to keep up, right?”
As if responding to Ayato’s words, Ser-Versta emitted a low sound.
As if devouring Ayato’s boundless quantities of Prana, Ser-Versta began to change shape. The area containing the black words hovering over its blade began to widen, and the entire blade itself began to lengthen tremendously.
Kirin swallowed. The rate at which Ser-Versta grew began to accelerate, and within moments, it had grown to ten meters in length. Its entire body emitted a low hum, and the black script fairly danced around the body of the blade.
Feeling a deep and instinctual fear, the dragon turned to make its escapeー but it was already too late.
Ayato swung his sword downward. The moment the blade contacted its body, the dragon’s body began to hiss. Ser-Versta continued downward, pushing down into the water.
In an instant, the water began to evaporate before their eyes, as if blown away by a hurricane gale.
Steam rose unceasingly, violently soaking Ayato and Kirin’s hair. The mist settled back down around the two’s feet, and calm was once more restored; the dragon had been vaporized entirely.
“…Well, something like that, I guess?”
This was the first time in his life Ayato has expended such a vast quantity of Prana.
This feeling of hard-earned exhaustion felt rather comfortable.
The price for the removal of his seal came hungrily and painfully.
“A-Amagiri-senpai! A-Are you alright, Amagiri-senpai?!”
Once more, magic circles appeared all around him, binding his strength once again.
Kirin caught his body as he collapsed. That softness was beyond description, and he blushed, but in his present state, he could do naught else.
– ψ –
“ーSo the time limit for your full strength is five minutes?”
“It’s as you say. Well, I could push things a bit, but ten minutes is the absolute limit.”
Ayato, leaning against the hole he’d carved in the pillar, gave a bitter laugh as answer.
That left the two without any choice but to wait here to be saved.
After all, he couldn’t so much as lift a finger and Kirin couldn’t swim, so that was the reality of things.
He was unable to reach anyone with his phone which was disturbing, but nonetheless, given the length of time he’d been out of contact, someone had likely noticed something was awry. Since he’d never returned after his routine morning training, Eishirou had definitely noticed the anomaly… probably.
“However, when I expend all my Prana, the effects occur sooner than normal. That said, today is my first time experiencing anything like this.”
“I-Is that so?”
Kirin seemed a bit crestfallen.
“…Is something the matter?” Ayato inquired.
Kirin looked near to tears.
“Amagiri-senpai… just how are you able to fight to this extent?”
Even though the question had come as a surprise, Ayato found the answer came rather smoothly to his lips.
“ーBecause there’s someone I want to be of service to.”
This was Ayato’s desire of late.
The wish he sought to fulfill.
“Yes, that’s right.”
Hearing Ayato affirm her guess, Kirin lowered her gaze, seemingly regretful.
“Th-Then, it’s as I thought, isn’t it? A-Amagiri-senpai, y-you, y-you’re in love with Riessfield-senpai, right?!”
Ayato felt entirely confounded by this startling question. “I-It’s nothing like that…! O-Of course she’s someone I get along well with, butー”
“Eh? B-but then…”
Watching his stunned expression, Kirin seemed to want to say more, but she held her silence. “…Forget it. I’m sorry for asking something so weird.” Bowing her head and mumbling softly, an expression of heartfelt joy floated onto her face.
“If that’s true, then I…”
Her mutterings didn’t reach Ayato’s ears.
“Hmm? Well, I guess that’s that…
Just as Ayato recovered his breath, he gave a mighty sneeze. *achoo!*”
“A-Are you okay?”
“Ah, it’s just that hiding here in this wet hole-in-the-ground sure is cold.”
“Yeah, and our clothes are thoroughly soaked, too… *achoo!*”
Kirin seemed to be as cold as he was.
Down here ーor perhaps it was better to say here where it was wet, even if it was summerー their current locale was quite cool. If things went on like this, they’d surely both catch a cold.
“At the very least, we need to get out of these wet clothes…”
As they traded glances, silence fell between them.
There was no way he could suggest stripping. If he really said that out loud, he’d be forever marked a pervert. Even when it came to removing his own clothes, there was a feeling of daunting pressure, like he’d never be able to turn back from the path he’d started on when intruding upon the girls’ dorms…
As Ayato sunk deep into thought, Kirin turned redder than she ever had before, and began to tug at his clothes.
“…U-Um, w-wearing these soaked clothes isn’t healthy…”
Kirin’s face looked about ready to give off steam it was so red, and she bowed her head.
Looking back and forth for a brief moment, she-
“…C-can you turn around…?” asked in a voice so quiet it was almost inaudible.
– ψ –
They hung their clothes using Kirin’s sword as a clothesline.
The edge of the pillar’s hole happened to conveniently serve as a place on which to dry their clothing.
Measuring just over two feet and three inches, could it have done so, her Inoue Shinkai-crafted blade would have wept to have been used for such a purpose, but it would have to put up with it for a while longer. (Incidentally, her sword was named “Senbakiri”.)
The ballast area in which they found themselves wasn’t just cool, but also very damp, and so they had no other choice if they wanted their clothes to dry. It was possible that Ser-Versta’s heat would be able to accomplish the job in a mere moment, but the fact of the matter was that having already released his seal, Ayato was in no position to use Ser-Versta again.
Ayato and Kirin were both immersed in silence, their backs to one another.
They weren’t, of course, fully naked. Both still had their undergarments on.
Even if their backs were to one another, he could feel the intense beating of a heart, though whether that was his own or Kirin’s, he wasn’t sure.
Speaking in order to loosen the tense atmosphere, Kirin answered stiffly, overly conscious.
This both relieved Ayato, and made him happy.
“This time, do you mind if I’m the one to ask? Toudou-san, what is the reason you fight?”
His question caught her unawares, and she sat perplexed for a moment before finally opening her mouth to speak.
Ayato and Kirin were both immersed in silence, their backs to one another.
“The… The reason I fight is something I believe I’ve mentioned beforeー it’s for my father’s sake.”
“I presume your father is also of the Starpulse Generation?”
Children of members of the Starpulse Generation weren’t necessarily members themselves, but the probability was quite high. If both parents were of the Starpulse Generation, than the probability their child would be as well was ten times greater than otherwise.
“My father’s been detained as a criminal. I want to help him.”
As long as victory was obtained in the Festa, the Integrated Enterprise Foundation would see any wish to fruition, even if that meant distorting the very laws that were the fabric of society. Even criminals would be granted an immediate pardon if so desired; this had already occurred on many instances previous.
“He didn’t do anything wrong! He was just trying to help me!”
The longer she spoke, the more emotional she became. For a moment, she seemed about to turn around before remembering and stopping herself.
“When you say he wanted to help you, what do you mean? What did he do?”
“…Five years ago, my father and I were at a store when a robber came in. He took me hostage, and Father… he, in order to save me and left without any other choice, killed that man.”
He heard her teeth grind in anger as she recounted her tale, evidence of the sheer depth of her bitterness.
Five years ago, she’d been but eight years old. Just a child.
“…Let me guess. The perpetrator wasn’t a member of the Starpulse Generation.”
Truth be told, the current state of the Starpulse Generation was terribly fragile, regardless of the country or state in question. One might go so far as to say their human rights had been impinged upon. When a member of the Starpulse Generation harmed another, it would never be ruled self-defense, but always a use of excessive force instead. Even if the other party did not die as a result of their actions, the majority of rulings resulted in their punishment being harsher by far than that of the criminal in question.
This was one of the few elements of public opinion even the Integrated Enterprise Foundation had been powerless to overturn.
It went without saying that this was a terrible situation.
“The robber didn’t realize I was a member of the Starpulse Generation or he would never have taken me for a hostage. The moment I saw that knife blade though…I was so scared I couldn’t move.”
Even as children, those of the Starpulse Generation wielded considerable power. However, if they had yet to undergo any training, they were nothing more than a young child in front of an adult wielding a weapon. That overwhelming feeling of menace was something unavoidable.
“It was then that he saved you?”
“Yes… At the time I was still in training, but truthfully, that wasn’t an opponent that should have posed any threat to me. But I was too scared…I didn’t have the courageー”
He heard her sniffle.
“…If things continue, even after decades to come, Father won’t be able to come home. Only Uncle is able to speak to him. It was Uncle who offered me this one and only path toward my father’s freedom.”
“And so you came here?”
“…That’s right. Their relationship as siblings is terrible, since Uncle loathes the Starpulse Generation with every fiber of his being. The reason is likely due to the deep-seated resentment he holds for being passed up as the successor to our style in spite of being the eldest son. That’s why even if he’s only helping me for his own sake, it’s fine. This is already the only chance I have left.”
Kirin spoke, half-weeping.
What should he say? Something came to Ayato’s memory.
Just what was this strange feeling of unease that disturbed him still?
“Truth be told, Uncle really is a most amazing person. Using his authority as a member of the Integrated Enterprise Corporation, he was able to suppress the news about Father, which instead reported a different name and title.”
“He went that far…”
Ayato was shocked. This truly demonstrated the awe-inspiring might of the Integrated Enterprise Foundation which surpassed that of national governments by far.
In any case, this seemed to match up. He hadn’t heard any news of an arrest in the Toudou-style main family, which given the scope of their influence, would have been scandalous indeed.
“My coming here was the same. My entry this spring, my match opponents, intelligence gathering, even battle plans such as when I fight, or what is the most effective way to obtain resultsー Uncle is responsible for all of these.”
Her back began to quiver.
“If it weren’t for Uncle, there’s nothing Iー”
“ーThat’s not at all true, Toudou-san.”
Her half-mumbled confession was flatly rejected by Ayato.
“Even if you’re walking toward your goal, but the path you’re taking isn’t your own. That cannot happen. If things continue like this, then very soon, you will find yourself on the wrong path.”
Indeed, a path that wasn’t chosen of one’s own accord was unacceptable.
Walking a path that you did not desire would only wear away at you, little by little, until there was nothing left.
That wasn’t something Ayato wanted to see happen to her.
“Not that I really have the right to comment, though. I’ve only recently discovered it myself.”
Kirin once more immersed herself in silence before finally squeezing words out.
“But… I have no choice… I can’t do this alone… I can’t, I can’t…”
“Then there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Toudou-san, you are not alone. At the very least, I’m here. This way, you can feel free to choose the path that you want to walk.”
“…The path I want…”
Kirin mumbled those words over and over, as if affirming something to herself before stealing a glance at Ayato.
Deep within her eyes he glimpsed a hidden radiance, but as it appeared for just the briefest of instants, he wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination.
“But that’s the not the case during a fight, okay? Throwing a fight would be too ill-manneredー not that there’s any room to throw a fight when you’re my opponent.”
Ayato smiled wryly, and accepted her gaze.
“Hehe, you sure are strange, Amagiri-senpai.”
“…Julis said the same thing.”
Her shoulders shook as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Ayato could only scratch his head awkwardly.
“ーBut also very cool,” Kirin whispered, too soft for Ayato to hear.
“Hmm, eh? Uwa! Toudou-san!”
“Huh? Ah… kya!”
The two finally noticed they’d turned to face one another.
As the sight of Kirin’s glistening skin sunk deep into Ayato’s pupils, he frantically turned.
“N-Not at all. Th-This was myー”
The two apologized in a fluster when suddenly a voice came from above.
Help had finally arrived. Ayato heaved a sigh of relief.
Suddenly Kirin spoke from behind him in a shy tone.
“U-Um, Amagiri-senpai, earlier you patted my head?”
“Huh? Oh, that’s right, sorry about that. Did you mind?”
A girl of her age, of course she minded.
However, Kirin shook her head.
“No… It’s just that Father used to do the same thing,” she answered, happy.
Jump up↑ Two shaku, three sun, and four bu, to be precise. Jump up↑ This is likely the only time I’ll ever transliterate a name instead of translating it outright. Nonetheless, the translation of this sword’s name is just too atrocious for words. Its name in kanji is “千羽切”, which literally translates to “thousand birds sliced”. Terrible, isn’t it? [ED: More like “thousand birds slicer”; as it so happens, is a relatively common naming sense for suppossedly powerful swords and sword techniques, based in legends saying that “they can cut flying birds”]