“What’s the matter, Amagiri? You’ve been in a daze all morning.”
It wasn’t until Eishirou, walking by his side, shouted, that Ayato finally came to.
“––Oh, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
He waved off the concern, putting on a smile for show.
“…Fine. Have it your way. You know you’ve been acting up ever since last night?”
“I’m just a little tired is all. Anyway, let’s hurry up or we’ll be late.”
“No need to rush. We should be good on time.”
Even if he said that, the hallways were already clear of students.
Indeed, they arrived at their destination without a moment to spare.
“I even tried to wake you up, but you went straight back to sleep! That’s the only reason we had to rush.”
“What’s the big deal? We made it on time, didn’t we?”
“That’s not the problem–– Oh, good morning, Julis.”
“Eh? Oh, morning.”
Flustered, she hid a letter she held in hand in a hurry, and avoided meeting his gaze.
“Alright, alright, everyone please be seated! I’m going to take attendance now.”
Though Ayato was concerned about Julis, with Kyouko’s bloodlust permeating the classroom, he didn’t dare follow up on that concern.
Julis didn’t get any better as class started. She didn’t pay any attention during class, seemingly distracted by something else.
“Everything alright, Julis?”
After school, Ayato found an opportune moment to approach Julis, but she wouldn’t face him.
“––Sorry, I have something to do.”
“Huh? H-hey wait a sec, Julis?”
With Julis deliberately ignoring his attempts to get her attention, he could only watch helplessly as she left the room.
“What just happened…?”
“Oh, how awful. She seems to have returned to her old self.”
Eishirou leaned in conspiratorially and answered his question.
“Before you came, that’s how the Princess always acted. She gave off this aura of ‘don’t concern yourself with me’. Here I was, thinking things had finally take a turn for the better, but it looks like we’re back to square one.”
While Ayato was still worried about Julis, he figured it best to report back to Claudia about yesterday’s incident. He could also use the opportunity to ask her her thoughts on Julis.
“My, what an unexpected guest. How can I help you?”
As he entered the student council room, Claudia greeted him with a smile.
“They came looking for us again yesterday.”
“So I hear. It seems they employed Le Wolfe students this time around.”
“Word travels fast.”
That wasn’t what needed to be discussed, though.
“…More importantly, I’ve got a number on our mysterious assailant.”
His words took Claudia by surprise.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m right.”
Leaning in, he whispered his conjecture into her ear. She paused for a moment, deep in thought.
“Now I get it… OK. I’ll look into it. I hope everything goes smoothly…”
The worried expression on her face didn’t disappear.
“Did Julis figure it out as well?”
“It’s not like I’ve confirmed it with her, but I don’t think she’d have missed it.”
“Where is she now?”
“She said she had something to do, she had to go first–– Shit!”
Ayato finally connected the dots.
Given Julis’ personality, and the fact that she’d likely realized who the culprit was, there was no way she’d just let things end there.
“…It seems this time things have gotten a little troublesome.”
“But what do we do now? Without evidence, the culprit can just lie about their role in things…”
“No, with things having reached this point, they can’t pretend nothing’s happened anymore. More than likely, they’ll try to silence Julis personally––”
“Don’t tell me–– That letter from this morning!”
“When I came in this morning, Julis was reading a letter. She was quite intent on hiding it, so I was rather suspicious.”
“We need to find Julis now.”
“But where do we look?”
Even if Asterisk was an artificial-island, it wasn’t small by any means. An uninformed search would be no more fruitful than searching for a needle in a haystack.
“Let’s first check whether or not she headed back to her room. If the culprit was indeed the one to call her out, then they’ll likely have chosen somewhere off the beaten path, where people aren’t likely to walk by. That should help us narrow our search.”
Claudia pulled up a map of Asterisk.
“––Ah, wait a moment.”
Ayato’s phone suddenly rang.
Thinking it was Julis, he frantically answered.
“…Ayato, save me.”
Unfortunately, the voice came from none other than a frowning, frustrated Saya.
“Saya? What’s wrong?”
This clearcut answer gave Ayato a headache.
“You’re lost again? … I’m sorry, but I have more important things to worry about right now; I need to find Julis––”
“…Riessfeld? I just saw her.”
Ayato and Claudia traded glances.
Saya nodded in the affirmative.
“Saya! Tell me, where did you see her last? Or rather, where are you now?!”
“…If I knew where I was, I wouldn’t need your help, now would I?”
“Excuse me, Sasamiya-san. Would you mind moving the camera around a bit so I can see your surroundings?”
Saya was slightly confused by Claudia’s request, but she nonetheless did as asked.
“That’s just outside the redevelopment zone. Between here and there, there aren’t too many options. That narrows things quite a bit.”
That was Claudia for you, a simple glance was sufficient.
“Thanks, Saya! You really saved us!”
“…I still need to be saved.”
“Oh, that’s right. Hmm…”
Ayato was torn. On one hand, he felt he should go get Saya, on the other hand, if the attacker really had called out Julis, she was in grave danger. Even if he gave Saya directions, however, it was unlikely she’d be able to arrive safely.
“I’ll go pick up Sasamiya-san. Ayato, you go to Julis.”
“Sorry, and thanks.”
Claudia smiled charmingly, and marked a potential spot on the map.
Although she still worked with remarkable efficiency, since she lacked her usual calm demeanor, the anxiety she felt was clear.
“…Why didn’t Julis say anything?”
Julis’ personality was such that she hated to rely on anyone else. Unfortunately, however, that same tendency had created this very problem…
“As expected, I guess she doesn’t feel she can rely on me, huh?”
“Precisely the opposite.”
Overhearing Ayato’s mutter, Claudia, still focused on the map, laughed.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Didn’t I say this before? That girl will go all out to protect the things she holds dear. It seems you now fall under that category.”
At that moment, it finally all came together for Ayato.
He felt enlightened; it had finally all become clear.
“I see now…”
He thought of that summer night.
Of his sister’s words: that she’d protect him.
Of his words: that he’d protect her.
Though he’d failed to keep that promise––
“…So it’s really that simple.”
He finally knew.
What his “mission” in life was.
Claudia shouted in elation at that moment, and forwarded the map to his phone.
He’d best start with the closest location first.
“Oh, wait just a second. Before you go-”
As Ayato prepared to dash off like a bullet, Claudia called him back.
“––’That’ is ready. Please take it with you.”
At the same time, Julis arrived at an abandoned building in the redevelopment zone.
The building, in the process of being torn down, was enshrouded in the murky darkness of dusk. Some of the walls and flooring had already been broken down, and the area looked quite open. However, the piles of scattered rubble and debris left much hidden from view.
But Julis, unhesitating, entered without pausing. The light of the setting sun, cast a strange shadow on the interior of the building. Julis wore a grim expression as she silently walked in.
––Just as Julis entered the deepest part of the building, a pile of rubble, piled nigh to the ceiling, suddenly fell without warning. The pile was large enough to easily flatten a young girl like nothing so much as a pancake, but Julis didn’t even bother to look up as she spoke.
“Bloom proudly – Red CrownRed Parasol Flower of Isolation.”
Appearing above Julis’ head was a pentagonally-shaped flower which diverted everything which fell. Its appearance was that of an umbrella formed of flame.
“You didn’t really think that would work, did you? You’d better show your face… Cyrus Norman.”
The moonlight shone on the ceiling leading directly to the roof.
The deflected girders pierced into the floor. As dust scattered from the impact, a young man slowly revealed himself.
“How rude. Aren’t I allowed to have my fun?”
The slim young man – Cyrus Norman – mockingly dipped his head in a bow.
“I have to say I’m surprised. I never would have expected that you’d uncover my identity.”
“That’s your own fault. You let it slip yesterday.”
“Yesterday, you say? And pray tell, just when did I do that?”
Cyrus tilted his head, questioning.
Julis maintained her calm demeanor and answered.
“Yesterday, when we ran into one another in the business district, Ayato was taking jabs at Lester. At that point, in order to defend him, you said something: ‘Everyone knows you aren’t the kind of person who’d ambush someone during a duel’.”
“…And what of it?”
“How would you know that the attacker was someone who ambushed others? The first attack –– during the duel between Ayato and myself–– was never mentioned in the news.”
“The second time was definitely in the news, though. I saw it myself.”
“You’re right, it was definitely mentioned in the news. However, the news only said that I repelled an attacker. Not only did it not mention that Sasamiya was present, it didn’t even mention her name. That really was stupid; she was, after all, the one who fought off you guys.”
Cyrus continued to stare at Julis with an unfathomable look in his eyes.
“You still don’t understand? The news never mentioned a third party. How could you know that I’d been ‘ambushed during a duel’ unless you’d either personally seen that duel ongoing or heard from someone who had? Either way, you’re guilty.”
“Ugh…what a blunder. Let me guess, that guy provoking Lester… that was all on purpose, right?”
“That’s quite probable. That much he’s capable of.”
Julis stuck her chest out proudly.
“Hmm…It looks like my decision to switch targets to him was correct after all. If I continued after you, he’d only get in the way.”
“Hehehe. You see, I already knew. The reason you came here was to make sure I wouldn’t get away with it.”
Cyrus leisurely spread his hands like a magician as Julis gritted her teeth.
This morning, she’d found a letter stuffed into her desk. It read, “The next target will be the one closest to you. If you don’t want to see that happen, come to this location.”
“Hurry up and finish whatever it is you want to say.”
“What’s the rush? If you ask me, we should talk this over, like adults. That’s why I called you out here, after all.”
“Even now, you’re just going to continue to spew this bullshit? Just cut the crap already.”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand. I’m very serious here. I have no great desire to engage in a direct confrontation with you either.”
Cyrus gave a seemingly frantic explanation, though his tone was as unhurried as before.
Before making her way here, Julis had investigated a little. Cyrus wasn’t listed in the Named Charts, and had never participated in a ranking match before. His strength was an unknown quantity.
Moreover, there had verifiably been at least three attackers. Even if one of the black-clothed assailants was Cyrus, that still left two more.
“––I understand. I’ll at least hear you out.”
Julis figured it best to let her opponent reveal as much of his hand as possible.
“That’s better. To be honest, we’re the same, you know? You and I. Our goal in coming here is money. For that reason, I’ve always thought we’d make quite the team.”
Cyrus nodded his head, an egotistical smile on his face.
“I think you already know what it is I want–– forget about trying to register for the Phoenix. The other thing would be for you to forget about this entire incident.”
“And what’s in it for me?”
“Is the continued wellbeing of you and Amagiri Ayato-kun not enough?”
“You must be joking.”
Julis bluntly refused.
“All I need to do is kick your ass right here, and call it good. Anyway, even if I did keep things secret for you, I’m pretty sure the student council has already puzzled out what’s been going on.”
“I’m not worried on that count. There is, after all, not a whit of evidence against me.”
“You seem pretty sure of that.”
“It’s a fact.”
Cyrus and Julis traded glares.
At that moment, a deep and furious roar came broke their silent standoff.
“What the hell is this, Cyrus?!”
Striding in with a heavy step was none other than Lester McPhail.
Julis prepared herself for an incoming attack, but none was forthcoming. Lester’s rage was not directed at her, but at Cyrus.
“Geez, you’ve really made us wait, Lester-san.”
“I came because I’d heard that Julis had finally accept my request for a duel, but… was what I just heard the truth? The one who ambushed Julis was you?”
It seemed he’d overheard their conversation.
“Yes, that’s right. What of it?”
“The hell do you think you’re doing?! How could you do something like this!?”
“I don’t know how to answer you except to say I was entrusted with this charge.”
To Lester’s expression, already a mix of shock and outrage, was added another emotion–– confusion.
If this was an act, he could win an Oscar for this performance. Julis knew, however, that Lester wasn’t that kind of scheming person. Sighing, Julis spoke.
“I’m not sure which school he’s working for, but he’s attacked students intent on entering the Phoenix at least several times before. You weren’t aware?”
Lester was unable to speak in his shock.
From what he’d thought he’d known, Cyrus was a rather obedient subordinate.
However, that did nothing to dispel the reality of Cyrus openly sneering at him as he shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m different from you, who never employs any stratagem in battle. If there’s a way to earn money without putting myself in harm’s way, isn’t that best?”
“Even if it means selling out your own schoolmates?”
? Haha, don’t make me laugh.”
Cyrus laughed as he shook his head.
“Those who gather here are all enemies, no? Sure, there are times when you might work together for a team or partner battle, but aside from that, this is a dog-eat-dog world. You of the Top Twelve ought to be more than familiar with that fact, no? Life and death struggles. Victories obtained via blood, sweat, and tears. A hard-fought and harder-kept position. And for what? All that just to live your life constantly being targeted by others? I say no thanks. If I can earn the same kind of money without ever having to stick my neck out…isn’t that just called using your brain?”
“…It’s not like what you said is wrong. Even if we are schoolmates, it’s not like we’re life partners here. In order to stand at the top, you must grasp whatever opportunity arises, and spare no expense.”
Giving a seemingly heartfelt response, Lester frowned.
“But–– don’t think for a second what you said is right, either.”
“Oh my, how unexpected. I was sure you and I were of the same mind.”
“Unexpected for me as well. I never would have guessed that you’d even think of mentioning me in the same sentence as you, you bastard.”
Julis seemed to tire of their banter, as she began to glare at Cyrus.
Lester cut in.
“Before I beat the shit out of you, there’s something I want to ask first. Why did you call me out here? Did you really think that I was going to agree with you? If that’s the case, then all I can say is your stupidity is without limit.”
“No, no, no. It’s you who’s the idiot here. You’re my backup plan. In case negotiations with Julis failed, I need a scapegoat to take the fall for me.”
“…You stupid piece of shit. You really think I’m going to just listen to you?”
“Oh, no worries. After I’m done here, it’s not like the two of you will be able to say a word. I’ll just throw a few excuses here and there, and that’ll be that. For example, ‘refusing to budge an inch, they fought to their very limits before both falling victim to their wounds.’ Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
Those words seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Lester lost all semblance of reason.
“Alright then. If you really think you can silence me, go ahead and try. Let’s see what you’ve got!”
As he spoke, Lester pulled out his Lux, Bardiche Leo, which was almost as large as he was.
“Lester, don’t rush things. I’m sure he’s got traps in place. For better or worse, he is a Dante,” Julis said, without letting her guard down around Lester. In this situation, however, she didn’t have the option of simply ignoring him.
Utterly ignoring her words, Lester leapt forward, closing the gap between Cyrus and himself in an instant. The enormous axe of light swung down with vigor.
A brawny black shadow dropped down between them, obstructing Lester’s vicious attack.
Blocking his blow barehanded was frightening enough already, but even as Lester began to exert the full might of his physique, the other party refused to so much as budge. Lester, confident in the fact that his physical strength was preeminent at Seidoukan Academy, was astonished beyond belief.
Despite his shock, he still jumped back, putting some distance between them.
“Hmph. I see, so that’s your companion?”
“Companion? Haha. Honestly, please try to keep up.”
Cyrus snapped his fingers. Immediately, two more black-garbed assailants joined the first.
“––Allow me to introduce my puppets. Cute, aren’t they?”
The attackers proceeded to strip off their clothing.
Hidden underneath were what were undeniably puppets.
There were empty sockets where their eyes should have been, and they lacked any hint of either a nose or mouth. Most notably, their bodies were entirely smooth, and spheres took the place of joints.
Although while, strictly speaking, they were humanoid, the discrepancies proved highly disturbing.
Combat replicants were indeed very practical on the battlefield, but their use required specialized equipment.
It was highly unlikely that such complicated machinery was at work here. It wasn’t impossible, technically; however, to accomplish such completely in secret here in Asterisk might as well have been.
“Please don’t compare that sort of crude garbage with my puppets, OK? They don’t have any machinery in them whatsoever.”
If that was true, then there was no way they could move.
And yet, the evidence stood before them. Not only could they move, but their movements were incredibly life-like.
“––I see. This is your true ability as a Dante, isn’t it?”
The reason she’d never been able to sense their presence was finally clear: her opponents were inanimate objects. They were naturally incapable of feeling bloodlust, and so she had been unable to sense such from them.
“You tricky bastard, so you still had this up your sleeve…! Didn’t you tell everyone that the extent of your ability was controlling swords…?”
“Can you seriously be this stupid? Hahahaha. Oh man, this is too funny. Anyway, try and think about this for a moment–– what kind of moron freely reveals his trump card?”
Cyrus threw up his hands in an exaggerated shrug.
“Lester-san, you got it. My ability allows me to use Mana to exert control over any inanimate object bearing my mark. As long as it’s inanimate, even something as complex as these puppets will heed my will. Of course, no one in this school has heard this before.”
Julis began to understand the reason for his boundless confidence.
“The reason you use puppets in your ambushes is because no one knows about your ability. They’d never guess it was you.”
This would always give him the perfect alibi. Using this ability made things perfectly simple. As long as it fell within the operational reach of his powers, he’d never need to appear himself. If his puppets wore cameras, then he could follow the situation from afar.
If a Strega or Dante were to commit crimes with such an ability, they’d be extremely hard to catch. Accordingly, those with abilities of this type were usually required to register themselves––
“Whatever! All I have to do is kick your ass here, and hand your ass over to the disciplinary committee or Stjarnagarmr. Problem solved.”
“Let’s see whether or not you two make it out of here in one piece first, OK?”
“That’s fine with me. Allow me to show you my true strength…!”
As Lester concentrated his Prana, the light blades of Leo Bardiche grew to double their former size. Julis had already witnessed this on many previous occasions; this was Lester’s Meteor Arts.
The battle-Axe was now closer in appearance to a giant war hammer.
“Take this! Burst Nemea!”
Lester howled as he struck with his full might, blowing the three puppets away.
With a horrifying boom, the puppets crashed into a pillar, shattering into splinters and cracking the affected pillar.
Of the three puppets, two were utterly destroyed. Their arms and legs were snapped clean off, their bodies twisted in a sickening posture.
The brawny puppet appeared mostly unharmed, however; its body showing only faint traces of cracks. Removing itself from the pillar, it nonchalantly faced Lester down once more.
“Cheh. Rather tenacious bastard, aren’t you?” Lester muttered out of the corner of his mouth, his confidence seemingly waning.
“This is an especially sturdy type designed especially to handle you, Lester-san. Its defensive abilities are quite something. Both its physique and armament were designed to imitate you, so that it could take your place if necessary.”
“In order to frame me, I assume? That would make the one with a bow a copy of Landy?”
“As you say.”
“Heh, you’ve really thought this through. Too bad for you your effort’s all going to go to waste!”
Lester again swung Bardiche Leo.
Just as its blade was about to cut into the puppet before him––
Two more puppets appeared from behind the pillar, firing at Lester in a torrent of small arms fire.
Julis, unable to restrain herself any longer, attempted to dash to his side, only to be be obstructed by yet another newly-appearing puppet.
Three more puppets still surrounded Julis. They were slightly different from the others in that they were dressed entirely in black.
All wielded a sword-type Lux.
Julis didn’t dare do differently, activating her rapier-type Lux “Aspera Spina”.
“Hmph…I should have guessed. You always rely on this kind of contemptible tactic, after all…!”
Lester, kneeling on a single knee in seemingly great pain, glared at Cyrus.
“Wow, still so lively.”
He appeared to have focused all his Prana on defense at the moment of ambush. Although he was bleeding heavily, his will to fight didn’t seem to have decreased one bit.
That said, it wasn’t like Prana was limitless.
Once his Prana was exhausted, he would fade into unconsciousness. In this situation, however, it wasn’t just his consciousness that might fade, but the flames of his life.
“I-It doesn’t matter how many puppets you bring out, they’re nothing to me…”
“Honestly, Lester-san. You really just don’t get it, do you?”
In the next instant, more puppets dropped down before Lester’s eyes.
One after another they came, jumping down from the ceiling two or three at a time.
Lester watched the scene unfolding before his eyes first with malice, then with shock, and finally with terror.
Julis, originally planning to break through the puppets encircling her, was left similarly frozen speechless.
In front of their very eyes stood not just ten or twenty puppets. No, the number was closer to––
“It ‘doesn’t matter how many puppets I bring out’? Alright then, I’m game. The maximum number of puppets I can control at any given time is one hundred and twenty-eight.”
Bloom Proudly – Snapping Firebloom of the Engulfing Dragon, Antirrhinum Majus
Lester revealed an expression fraught with deep despair.
Cyrus looked down at him with glee and cleared his throat.
“Oh… the expressions on your faces! This is it, this is what I wanted to see! Alright, I am going to savor this.”
Cyrus waved a hand. All the puppets simultaneously charged Lester.
“Stop this, Cyrus!”
Julis tried to forcibly break through her surrounding puppets, but their numbers were too vast by far.
While individually they were nothing special, their coordination was remarkable.
From behind Cyrus’ giggling visage, Julis could hear the occasional miserable scream, but soon enough, even those ceased.
“Hey, no need to rush, alright? Feel free to struggle all you want. I need to make it look you were the one who took Lester-san out, so I need to prepare the scene just right.”
“Bloom Proudly – Antirrhinum MajusSnapping Firebloom of the Engulfing Dragon!”
Things having reached this point, Julis’ personality wasn’t so laid-back as to simply allow Cyrus to continue talking. Tracing the orbit that Julis weaved with her Lux, magic circles began to appear from which an intense heat burst forth. Immediately following was an enormous dragon of flame which appeared as if bursting forth from a magic circle.
“Ooh, that’s a new one on me.”
Cyrus mumbled his admiration. This was natural, as this technique was one of Julis’ trump cards. There’s no way she’d casually allows others to witness it.
The roar of the flame dragon shook the very air. Immediately following, it crushed the puppets encircling Julis in its jaws.
Although the puppets were all flame-retardant in preparation for the battle with Julis, that didn’t provide the least protection against the overwhelming force with which they were being crushed.
“Amazing. It looks like that fifth rank isn’t just for show…”
Cyrus opened some distance between them and snapped his fingers once more.
“But, in the end, quantity over quality!”
Five puppets bored through the dragon’s lower jaw, encircling and attacking Julis once more.
Julis raised her Lux to meet them head-on. However, since the majority of her attention was focused on controlling the dragon, her reactions were slower than normal.
She barely blocked an attack that nearly cleaved her in half. The tip of her Lux began to erupt with a blinding light.
“Don’t look down on me!”
Julis kicked the chest of the puppet before her with force, dodged the weapon of the puppet who had snuck behind her, and thrust clear through it with her Lux.
The puppet wasn’t in the least affected as it grabbed ahold of Julis.
“Wha–– A kamikaze attack?!”
“Hehehe. Rather effective isn’t it?”
As he spoke, the row of puppets by Cyrus’ side took aim.
Julis called her dragon to her to ward off her attack, but she was a second too late.
Streaks of light flew at her and pierced her thigh.
Unable to stand, Julis fell to her knees. Two puppets grabbed her by her arms and pinned her to the wall.
At the same moment, her flame dragon faded into nothingness.
“Your ability really is quite powerful, but it sure has a problematic weakness. It’s limited to what you can see with your eyes.”
“…You really are some stalker…”
Julis struggling with the pain, taunted him with a smile.
“But you know, I’ve figured out something myself.”
“And what is that?”
“Allekant’s the one pulling your strings.”
Cyrus’ smile vanished.
“You just mentioned it, didn’t you? That these puppets were ‘specially designed’. These designs, specifically intended to counter Lester and I–– how did you come by them? To say nothing of the sheer number. Simply put, there’s no way they could have come from any other school.”
“You really are too smart for your own good. Oh well, all you’ve done is reaffirmed that I really can’t let you go.”
“Bullcrap. Like you ever planned to let me go.”
Cyrus approached Julis, and stomped on her thigh wound with great animosity.
“Hehe, don’t worry; the pain will end soon. Originally, I’d planned to torment you a bit more, but it seems I’d best get this over with.”
Cyrus turned his back on Julis, groaning in pain, and raised his hand.
She saw the brawny puppet approach her, gigantic Axe in hand, ready to hack her open.
She couldn’t bear to watch any further, and closed her eyes.
––At that moment, a gust of wind blew past her.
A wind both gentle and carefree, and yet with all the ferocity of a gale-force wind.
“Sorry I’m late.”
Shocked, Julis opened her eyes. In front of her stood a young man who had no place being here.
In his right hand he gripped a large sword of blinding white light.
As Julis screamed his name, the Axe-wielding puppet crumpled.
At precisely the same moment, the puppets holding her did the same, their bodies sliding apart where they had been severed in half.
“Wh-What are you doing here…?”
Ayato held her in his arms.
As relief flooded through her, a complicated mix of joy and embarrassment bubbled up in her heart.
“Thanks to Saya and Claudia.”
“Sasamiya and Claudia…?”
No, that’s not what was important here.
“Don’t tell me you came here to save me?”
“…Isn’t that what just happened?”
Julis couldn’t help but be enraged by his words.
Didn’t he know for whose sake it was she had braved her loneliness to make her way here?
…She had to be honest with herself. This bright, kind-hearted young man was someone incredibly dear to her. And yet it was for that very reason that she hadn’t wanted him to get caught up in this.
“This is my problem, it’s none of your business! Why would you intentionally put yourself in harm’s way?!”
Speaking the words that floated up from deep within him, Ayato responded openly.
“Julis, you said before that you were fighting of your own accord, for your own sake? That protecting that orphanage was something you yourself desired to do?”
Julis was slightly taken aback by the sudden change in topic, but she nodded.
“I honestly find that admirable. It’s just that-”
Pausing his words for a moment, Ayato turned to look Julis in the eyes before continuing.
“––Who’s going to protect you?”
Julis had never before considered this question.
All that she was had been for the sake of protecting that which was dear to her.
Every spare moment had been spent toward achieving this very goal.
To take the reins of the future, to ensure that tragedy never repeated itself, she’d devoted her very being.
And that was why––
“Did you know, Julis? I’ve always been searching. Always seeking. In pursuit of that which only I can do, that which I want to do, that which I
do–– my life’s purpose. Ever since the person precious to me above all else disappeared, I’ve never stopped looking. It wasn’t until I came here ––until I met you–– that I’ve finally found what I’ve been chasing after.”
Ayato’s voice was filled with deep longing, as if bidding a dear friend farewell.
“Now I know what I want to do–– and I have the power to make it happen. This, is my calling––”
“I will be your strength. Just that.”
Ayato nodded lightly as a smile lit his face.
The eyes that met Julis’ were open and sincere.
Fathomless and dark, eyes like the boundless night sky.
She felt her heart begin to pound.
Although slightly painful, it was a mysterious feeling which filled her with joy.
This was something she’d never experienced before, an emotion which surged with great force-
“Are you two done? Man, I never would have guessed you’d show up here–– Amagiri Ayato-kun.”
The voice pulled Julis back to her senses. She saw Cyrus give an exaggerated shrug.
He was as unperturbed as ever. Even if three of his puppets had been destroyed in an instant, he wasn’t unnerved in the slightest.
Brimming with confidence, even if Ayato had now joined the game, he was sure the victor had remained unchanged.
“So that was the power of Ser-Vesta. It truly is something to behold.”
Ser-Vesta was a name that even Julis had heard of before. It was a prized possession of Seidoukan Academy, a first-rate Ogre Lux which hid a terrifying ability. Truly a demon sword indeed.
Its enormous blade radiated with a blinding white light, held aloft by a single of Ayato’s hands.
“Unfortunately, such a weapon is wasted on a second-rate owner like yourself. Ayato, I’ve already watched you fight. People with your mediocre level of ability are a dime a dozen. Your success just now was only because you took me by surprise. Faced with my army of over a hundred puppets, what can you possibly hope to achieve-”
“––Shut your mouth. The despicable coward who attacks others by surprise is you, Cyrus Norman.”
It was almost impossible to believe such a cold and unfeeling reply had come from Ayato.
Intimidated, Cyrus retreated a step.
As he realized what he’d unconsciously done, his face twisted with rage.
“…You sure talk big, but why don’t we see if you can back that up?”
Cyrus again snapped his fingers, and once more, the ranks of his puppet army readied their weapons.
“If you have what it takes to face off against an entire army, then bring it!”
Bullets of light flew from all directions as puppets wielding Lux swords, axes, and guns attacked all at once.
“––Secret sword bound by the prison of stars, release your might!”
At that precise moment, Julis saw.
Ayato’s face showed a bitter expression. At first, she’d figured he was simply raising his Prana to its limits. Instead, she saw magic circles floating all around him, which sparkled into nothingness. A breathtaking surge of Prana was released, becoming a pillar of light that touched the heavens.
No. If I were to put you down, he’d undoubtedly go after you. I’m sorry, but please bear with it for a moment longer
Almost as if the chains that bound him had been undone.
A moment later, he disappeared.
Cyrus mouthed wordlessly as he watched the puppets that had attacked Ayato fall apart. Looking at the fallen bodies, it wasn’t so much that they’d been cleaved in half by a blade as that they’d been burned clear through by tremendous heat.
Cyrus stood unmoving, completely at a loss to explain what was occurring before his very eyes, as he continued to stare at the location Ayato had previously occupied.
“…How! How is this possible!?”
Finally coming to his senses, Cyrus surveyed the situation.
“Wh-Where did you disappear to now-!?”
“I’m right here.”
Ayato stood behind him.
Grasping Julis tightly with his arm, he’d appeared behind Cyrus in an instant. His path was made evident by the trail of bodies.
Julis watched the scenery before her change like channels on a television as she realized just what kind of inconceivable speed she was being made witness to.
Ashen-faced, Cyrus turned and staggered backward.
Before him stood a young man, a giant sword in his right hand, Julis in his left. His entire body overflowed with a force of Prana so dense it was nearly visible.
“Wh-What are you…?”
Julis was similarly stunned speechless, but recovering her senses, she started to struggle.
“A-actually, let me go! I don’t want to be a burden on you!”
It didn’t matter how light she was, holding a person in your arms as you fought was bound to negatively affect your combat ability.
This was even more true since it forced Ayato to wield Ser-Vesta single-handed. The burden created by doing so couldn’t be underestimated.
“No. If I were to put you down, he’d undoubtedly go after you. I’m sorry, but please bear with it for a moment longer.”
“But then you can’t use your other arm…!”
“There’s no need to worry. You wouldn’t believe how light this sword is.”
Ayato waved Ser-Versta lightly. Along the blade, clear as snow, a trace of black began to show. Rather, it should be said that the trace of black actually left the blade, coiling around its body.
The thought that naturally came to Julis’ mind was of the blackened flames of hell, leaking through their seal. Perhaps that was the origin of this weapon’s name.
“Although, even if I say that, I really can’t maintain this for too long. Not that it matters when it comes to opponents of this level, though.”
Ayato again advanced toward Cyrus.
“Uu…! It seems like you’ve got some skills, but don’t underestimate me!”
Cyrus tried to give the appearance of having maintained his calm, but it was obvious he was deeply worried.
“Let me show you what I’m really capable of…!”
The ranks of puppets which had fallen into disarray, again organized themselves into an orderly formation.
The first ranks held those which were armed with spears, axes, and other long-range melee weapons. The middle ranks were composed of those puppets with swords, and the final ranks were armed with guns and bows. Cyrus stood at the rear, directing his forces.
“This is the true form of my Merciless CorpsMerciless Puppet Army! Its destructive power is equal to that of a military company; if you want to challenge it, go right ahead!”
The first ranks suddenly charged forward.
Ayato dodged the tip of a spear which came lancing towards him, but arrows had already targeted his reaction. Ayato blocked them with Ser-Versta, at which point the sword-wielding puppets attacked.
Ayato again avoided an attack before leaping backwards.
Julis finally took a breath.
The succession of attacks had only missed her by a hair. Ayato wasn’t clutching her with his full strength, but nonetheless, their intimate proximity had Julis blushing.
Julis scolded herself for allowing her imagination to run wild at a time like this, but it couldn’t be helped.
“To think you would actually avoid all that… That said, it’s all you can do just to dodge, isn’t it?”
Watching Ayato defend himself, Cyrus began to recover some of his former confidence, as he bared a mocking grin.
“Ah, about that. After that attack just now, I understand everything.”
“…And what is it that has you so enlightened?”
“Six types, right? That’s the most you can move at once.”
Cyrus frowned in disbelief.
“And here I thought you were going to say something profound. Are you blind? Am I not moving more than one hundred puppets right before your very eyes?”
“It’s precisely because I’m not blind; all you have to do is look. Only six types are capable of independent movement. Those capable of following some basic patterns are around 16 at most, and the remaining are only capable of pulling triggers and waving their wrists; that kind of simple motion.”
“That’s only good enough for a bluff. Now I see why you always have to rely on sneak attacks. Were you to try and use this sort of crude ability in a real match, you’d be seen through.”
Cyrus, paling, began to tremble.
His reaction was enough to verify that Ayato’s words had been spot-on.
“You know, speaking of six types and sixteen puppets…your ability uses the imagery of chess, doesn’t it?”
“Chess, that’s it!”
Generally speaking, the abilities of the Strega and Dante were modeled after real objects. Just as Julis’ abilities used flowers as a focus, it seems Cyrus’ abilities mimicked chess pieces.
As Julis nodded, she was simultaneously filled with admiration for Ayato’s impeccable powers of observation.
If that short engagement had been enough for his secret to be seen through, then it was clear that Ayato was many levels above Cyrus.
“You probably saw yourself as a grandmaster–– but that’s not how this game is played.”
Flushed completely red, Cyrus howled in rage.
The front ranks of puppets again charged forward, but this time Ayato didn’t dodge. Instead, Ayato strided toward the dense mass of the puppet army, and swung his sword.
As the light flashed, three lance-wielding puppets fell to pieces. Ayato swung his sword with extraordinary speed, and with all the ease of brushing away an insect, each puppet that appeared instantly dropped.
“It’s useless. Even putting aside the fact that they’re powerless alone, as long as you’ve grasped their movements, they may as well be made of wood.”
Ayato swung his blade without so much as looking. Like a moth to a flame, the puppets approached him, and with a searing hiss, were dispatched.
In other words, Ayato had completely grasped their movements.
“Alright then, it’s about time we finish up.”
As he finished speaking, he suddenly charged into the mass of the puppet army’s main body.
With every swing of his sword, the number of puppets dropped.
Several of the puppets attempted to guard against his attacks, but to no avail. Ser-Vesta was simply too strong. As other Lux weapons attempted to meet it, both the puppets and the weapons they had used as shields were cut through like a hot knife through butter.
Julis trembled at the sight of this almighty power.
(A demonic sword that can’t be blocked…?)
Even for an Ogre-Lux, this was just too much.
They then tried to evade his attacks, but his sword was far too fast.
––It hadn’t even been three minutes.
During this short duration, Cyrus’ puppet army which had numbered over a hundred was now left utterly in ruins.
Whether it was the large and sturdy type meant for Lester or the black-clothed flame-retardant type meant for her; all lay in pieces.
“…This isn’t possible… This isn’t possible… Impossible… Just not possible…”
Watching the scene before him in disbelief, Cyrus seemed to have fallen into an incoherent stupor. As Ayato pointed his sword at him, he let out a scream and fell on his butt.
“Game’s over, Cyrus.”
“…It’s not over yet! I still have my trump card!”
From his position on the floor, Cyrus waved his arms energetically.
From behind a pile of rubble an enormous puppet appeared.
It was five times the size of any previous one. If it hadn’t been for the hole in the roof, it would undoubtedly have smashed through the ceiling. Its limbs were large enough to rival the size of the pillars of the decrepit building. Although it was still vaguely humanoid, it resembled an ape much more than a human.
“Ahahahaha! Come forth–– my queen! Destroy my enemies!”
Heeding the command, the queen charged Ayato at a speed unfitting for its large size.
She didn’t seem to be armed, but all things considered, she probably didn’t need to be. With all the momentum that blow could accumulate given its mass, even someone from the Starpulse Generation would be unable to withstand its force.
Ayato, however, only sighed, and again took Ser-Vesta up in a stance.
At the precise moment when that giant fist would splatter the two, the sword flashed.
“Rend flesh and shatter bone – Amagiri True Bright Style, Intermediate Technique
Even Julis, watching from point-blank, couldn’t tell what Ayato had done.
She saw but a single flash from Ser-Vesta, but in the next moment, all four of the giant puppet’s limbs had been severed, dropping to the ground with a loud rumble. A huge scar had been scored into the puppet’s body. She wasn’t sure just what kind of attack could leave such a mark–– actually, she wasn’t even sure just how many times Ayato had attacked in that single moment.
At last, Cyrus was left completely speechless.
As Ayato approached, his face twisted in fear and he ran.
Stumbling, crawling, wailing, he squeezed his way into the wreckage of his puppets.
“You really don’t give up, do you?”
Ayato frowned impatiently, and followed after with a dangerous expression.
Even if Ayato had immediately taken after him, he was still a step behind.
Clutching a piece of wreckage to his chest, Cyrus began to float.
More accurately, it was the wrecked piece of his puppet that began to float, but the effect was the same either way.
He watched Cyrus accelerate and speed away.
“Sorry, Julis. I need to go after him. Would you mind waiting for me here?”
“If you’re going to ask, then of course I can. Can you catch him though?”
“…I’ll be honest; it’s going to be hard.”
At that moment, Cyrus had nearly reached the roof. If he managed to escape the building…
“Alright then. Tag me in.”
“Didn’t I say this already? I refuse to be a burden!”
Julis laughed fearlessly and gathered her Prana.
“Bloom proudly – StrelitziaStellar Wings of the Bird of Paradise!”
As mana gathered, wings of pure flame began to sprout from Ayato’s back.
“We’re going to take off. Leave control to me! I’m going to teach that despicable piece of trash a very painful lesson!”
“…Princesses shouldn’t talk like that.”
Julis ignored Ayato’s comment and spread her wings.
The pair flew through the hole in the roof and out of the building in a burst of speed, emerging into a sunset scarlet-dyed sky.
Although this was Julis’ first time flying with the weight of two people, she felt anything but unsteady. Indeed, strength bubbled forth from somewhere deep within her.
Julis again accelerated, and they soon caught up to Cyrus.
“––This is checkmate, Cyrus Norman.”
They flashed by him.
The remaining piece of his puppet turned to ash, and Cyrus let loose a blood-curdling scream as he fell into the depths of the dilapidated building.
Seeing as he was a member of the Starpulse Generation, the fall posed no threat to his life.
“Claudia and the others ought to be waiting below. Let’s leave this to them.”
Julis closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
A lot had happened, but it’d finally drawn to an end.
The strong breeze flowing by felt decidedly comfortable.
At Ayato’s words, Julis opened her eyes and surveyed the scene.
“…You’re right, it’s gorgeous.”
The gradually setting sun dyed the city a deep rose.
The streets, sky, and lake surface, all a captivating scarlet.
Julis and Ayato spread their wings and, turning to one another, laughed.
Suddenly, Ayato’s expression twisted in pain.
“W-what’s wrong?” Julis prompted.
Even before receiving an answer, she could tell something was off.
All the Mana in their surroundings began to accumulate with Ayato at its center.
This amount was no joke.
“W-what is this…?”
She couldn’t feel the presence of any Strega or Dante in the vicinity.
It was likely this was the effect of some mechanism put in place beforehand. To be honest, such abilities weren’t all that rare. Both time-delay abilities as well as those that took effect after some pre-existing condition was met were rather common.
(But this much Mana…just what on earth…?)
As Ayato let out a painful shout, magic circles began to appear all around Ayato. From these magic circles, shackles of light erupted, and bound him hand and foot.
“This is from earlier-!?”
These magic circles were identical to those she had seen earlier when his Prana had surged to untold limits.
(In other words, those magic circles are meant to bind his powers? It takes this much mana just to do that…!?)
“Hey, hey! Ayato! Hey!”
Ayato seemed to lose consciousness, and his body fell slack.
Thankfully, the wings of flame were under Julis’ control, or things could have taken a turn for the worse. Until just a moment ago, it had been Ayato who’d held Julis in his arms. Now, their positions had switched, and she held onto him for dear life.
“Honestly! What a pain.”
Julis searched for a convenient spot to land, spreading her wings once more.
“…Forgive me, Ayato.”
The maiden’s face showed a smile, but her eyes brimmed with tears. She gently placed her hands atop the boy’s head.
Attired in an old dojo uniform, the boy gazed up at the girl, puzzled.
Moonlight shone through the dojo windows, announcing the room empty for all but the two. The room was near silent but for the sounds of wildlife, and the dark mood of night filled the empty dojo.
On this night, the girl was clearly unsettled.
Her attitude and voice, at once warm and gentle, steady and stern, was as per usual. However, the eyes through which she gazed at the boy were clearly not.
The boy’s face proclaimed his confusion. As he opened his mouth to speak, to inquire, the girl closed her eyes as if to cut him off.
While the girl continued to plead for forgiveness, over and over, the world began to spin furiously, engulfing the boy.
The boy screamed wildly.
An intense pain ran through his body, like an electric shock. The boy tried to struggle, but was unable to so much as lift a finger. From out of the thin air, countless shackles appeared and clung to him, binding his entire body. The boy endeavored to look up and over, beyond the hand of the girl, blocking his vision, as countless magic circles appeared.
The boy couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
More correctly, the boy understood in his mind; this was his sister’s power. This was the power to stem the flow of nature itself, a defensive power with the strength to forcibly suppress all things. A power that belonged only to one who possessed a magician’s nature – a Strega.
However, the girl normally despised her power. For her to use this power on the boy was inconceivable.
Or so the boy believed.
The boy whispered in a quiet voice that was fast fading. Strength drained out of his body with each passing moment.
The girl continued to hold her eyes shut, as she mumbled solemnly.
“––By the power of the circular shackles, your might shall be imprisoned.”
At that moment, the boy’s senses vanished as certainly as if they’d fled into the night sky.
As if he’d been thrown into a bottomless pit, the entire world seemed to flood with darkness.
His consciousness fading, his mind hazy, he faintly heard the voice of the girl, struggling to keep herself together as she answered.
“Didn’t I say before? I will protect you, and so––”
As the voice seemed to fade into the distance, the boy fought with all his might to reach out his hand.
“N-no…! I also want to protect Onee-chan…!”
It was for this purpose, it was all for this one purpose, that the boy had worked so tirelessly.
“Good-bye, Ayato. I love you.”
In all of the boy’s memories, that was the last time he ever heard his sister speak.
As Ayato opened his eyes, what entered his vision was the sight of Julis, her frown fraught with concern.
Seeing him come to, however, she brightened considerably.
“Hey, finally awake? For a moment there, I really didn’t know what to do.”
“Hmm, this is…Ow!”
Still not clear on the situation, Ayato tried to rise, but pain wracked his body.
This searing pain, however, allowed him to remember.
“Ah. I fainted.”
“Don’t push yourself. We’re currently on the roof of that rundown building. I’ve already spoken to Claudia, she’s going to come get us.”
“That’s great. Thanks.”
In Ayato’s current condition, even walking would likely prove to be difficult.
Ayato looked around. The sun had long since set, night had fallen, and stars filled the sky.
“Th-there’s no need to thank me. Rather, it should be the reverse. I owe you my life.”
Speaking, Julis turned aside.
Seeing Julis as straightforward as always, Ayato inwardly rejoiced.
Suddenly, feeling that something was off, Ayato squinted his eyes as he looked at Julis.
Things were far too soft for him to be lying on the ground, as he’d supposed.
Moreover, he caught the slightest scent of a flowery fragrance.
“H-hey, stop that! Don’t just move around…!”
Moreover, as he suddenly realized, her face was rather close.
-In other words, he was currently resting on her lap.
“Wah! S-Sorry! I’ll get up… Argh!”
Flustered, he tried to rise, only to feel an electric shock run through his body.
“D-Don’t worry about it. Calm down, you idiot! You still can’t stand, right?”
“I-I said not to worry, so don’t worry! Geez.”
Julis, whose face was now so red it seemed steam would come out, turned her head and swatted Ayato on the forehead.
It seems it was best to avoid rocking the boat.
Ayato, now also blushing to his ears, moved only enough to nod lightly.
“Th-That reminds me.”
Julis coughed lightly, and looked at Ayato.
“Mind explaining what just happened?”
“Oh… well, what is it you want me to explain?”
“Let’s start with whatever it is that’s suppressing your powers. That’s the work of a Strega or Dante, correct? Who’s the one who did that to you?”
“Ha, that, huh…”
Ayato hesitated for a moment, but seeing Julis lean in close, he decided to stop playing dumb, sighed, and began to answer.
“…My sister. My sister’s power allows her to bind all creation.”
Julis appeared ill at ease with his answer.
“Is that so… In other words, that just now was your true power?”
“You could say that, although that’s not entirely correct.”
“Which is it? Such a frustrating man.”
Ayato smiled wryly, and then answered the fuming Julis.
“A power you can’t control doesn’t count as part of your ‘true power’.”
“From what I saw, you didn’t seem to have any problems.”
“Within the bounds of a certain time limit, yes. That was my first time going over five minutes. When the time limit’s up, I pay the price, and am left unable to move an inch. It’s not like it’s all bad, but it’s not something to write home about either.”
The first time he’d tried to break his bonds, he hadn’t even lasted ten seconds.
“…Why would your sister do something like that to you?”
“If I had a chance to ask her, I would like to know as well. Five years ago, after she did this to me, she disappeared.”
“It’s alright. I’m sure she had her reasons.”
Ayato waved away Julis’ concerns.
“Speaking of which, there’s something I’d like to ask you myself.”
“Have you found a partner for the Phoenix yet?”
Julis open frown answered his question for him.
Ayato, relieved, continued to speak.
“In that case, um… how about me?”
“I wouldn’t call myself a saint, but I think I do alright. My mind’s about as sharp as the average person. When it comes to an iron will or noble spirit, well… I might have to ask you to turn a blind eye there…”
“…You know you just admitted you don’t meet any of the requirements.”
Although Julis was thoroughly taken aback, she put on a tactful smile.
“I am grateful that you’re thinking about me, but don’t push yourself. When it comes to the Festa, your normal abilities aren’t enough. Moreover, didn’t you say you weren’t interested in fighting?”
“Don’t worry about any of that,” Ayato stated firmly.
“I said this before, right? My calling right now–– it’s to be your strength, Julis.”
His words made Julis blush.
“B-But, you shouldn’t decide this sort of thing so casually…”
“…Are you sure you’re not just embarrassed? Your face is pretty red.”
“I-Idiot! Who did you say was embarrassed?! And you, stop looking!”
Julis gave Ayato a slap.
It didn’t hurt, but she held on to Ayato’s face, obstructing his vision.
She didn’t reply.
In place of words, Ayato felt the hand on his face shake a little.
“––D. Do you really mean that?”
Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, and it quivered as she spoke.
Utterly unlike the self-confident tone she normally used, this insecure voice spoke of her fear of disappointment. Her voice revealed her fear of extending her hand to another, or of reaching out to take another’s hand which had been extended to her.
Such a reaction was very common. No matter who it was, taking a new step entirely on faith was something that brought fear and anxiety; that was common sense.
And perhaps–– this was Julis’ true nature.
Neither more nor less than that of a normal girl.
If such a girl were to bravely and staunchly advance for the sake of acting on her convictions, she would be both amazingly courageous and overwhelmingly adorable.
“Do you even need to ask?”
And so, answering, his resolve was no less than her own.
He would not allow himself to feel regret; no, never again.
This time, he wouldn’t make the same mistake.
“…Honestly. You are one strange guy.”
Julis released her grip.
Under the starry sky, Julis smiled.
Ayato spoke not a word. He simply raised his hand and gently wiped away the tears that had run down her face.
Jump up↑ A reference to the Nemean lion Jump up↑ Likely a reference to a Latin phrase from Ovid: “Saepe creat molles aspera spina rosas – Often the prickly thorn produces tender roses” Jump up↑ Antirrhinum Majus is more commonly known as the snapdragon.