Volume 2, Chapter 3: The Three Keys
All students who went treasure hunting had gone to the same place because the only location immediately identifiable on the treasure map was the underground crypt.
“So the other two marked locations cover too large an area?”
“That’s right. This one is in the forest and this one is in the old city,” explained Hiroshi while Akuto compared the treasure map with an aerial image of the academy grounds on his student handbook.
“I guess this crypt is large enough to know that’s what it’s pointing to. I just hope we don’t have to search through the other two areas.”
Akuto pointed at the location of the crypt. A small park was prepared aboveground. The park had an entrance leading underground that people used when performing a ceremony to mourn for those lost during the war.
“There’s also this text.”
It was written in small letters below the mark on the map. The other two marked locations had nothing written next to them, so this was clearly the first location to investigate.
“Is this Yamato Bouichirou one of the soldiers who died in the war?”
“The crypt is filled with graves that contain funerary urns. If we can find his grave, it might hold some kind of clue,” said Hiroshi.
Eiko began roaring with laughter at that.
“That's a stupid idea. You could figure it out if you gave it a little thought.”
“We can’t know until we check!” shouted back Hiroshi.
The two of them had been like this the entire time. It was giving Akuto a headache.
“But what if Bouichirou isn’t dead?”
“Now you’re sounding stupid. If we can’t find this guy’s ashes, we just have to assume the hint means something else.”
Eiko and Hiroshi’s argument was showing no sign of ending, so Akuto pointed forward.
“Look, I can see the park.”
They arrived at their first destination just before noon.
They passed through the gate. It did not seem the park was regularly cleaned. Grass covered the brick path in places and tree branches stretched across everywhere, giving the place a gloomy atmosphere. There was a rest area made up of a bench underneath a roof, but they hesitated to use it with how long it had been since it was cleaned.
“It looks like they only clean the area in preparation for the ceremony,” said Hiroshi.
“The war was over 100 years ago, so I don’t really blame them,” replied Akuto.
This time, Hiroshi pointed forward. He had spotted a building that was a bit tidier even if it had not been cleaned in a while either. The words “War Memorial Building” were carved on the side and a glance in the window showed it was filled with paintings, military uniforms, and other objects from the time of the war. It seemed to be cleaned at least once a year.
“The entrance to the crypt is in there,” said Hiroshi because he had taken part in the ceremony in the past.
He took the lead and opened the door to the memorial building. He turned right directly upon entering the display room and continued straight until he reached a large door.
“There’s a staircase behind this door.”
“Then there might be immediate danger on the other side. We must take precaution.”
Akuto told Hiroshi to leave their supplies here and was about to tell Eiko to wait with them, but she grabbed onto his arm before he could.
“I’m going with you, obviously.”
This made it difficult for Akuto to argue with her.
“Fine, but at least stop clinging to me. There is a good chance that this place is dangerous.”
—I can’t simply let this girl put herself in harm's way, but it looks like I don't have much of a choice.
Still uneasy, Akuto stuck his hand in his pocket and grabbed the grip of his incantation gun. He used the other to open the door.
The staircase leading underground was wide enough for five or six people to walk side by side and it had lights installed at set intervals. It felt less like heading underground than the path to the underground labyrinth in the school. But they continued down a long time, so Akuto guessed the crypt had to be quite a ways underground.
At the bottom of the stairs was a vast space. It looked as large as a stadium. The ceiling was very high up. A five story building would probably have fit inside the room. Lights were installed on the ceiling, but they were not bright enough to fully light up the ground. The other end of the space was too dim to see well. The floor looked like an artificial lawn. Small square boxes were systematically lined up to fill the space. That was all that occupied the area. As they walked across the grid-shaped artificial lawn running between the boxes, it became clear those boxes were plastic gravestones. Each of them was only 30 cm square, meaning many the dead had been put to rest here. Each gravestone had a name carved into it. They seemed to be organized in gojuuon order.
“There are a lot of them, but we should be able to find the name we want right here.”
With that comment, Akuto began to search for the family name “Yamato”. The vowel row was near the entrance, so the “Y” row would be near the opposite side.
“If confrontation truly is inevitable, I suppose it would be further down.”
Akuto began walking with Eiko and Hiroshi following behind. As they moved further in, they began to notice stains and scars on the floor that had not been visible from the entrance. Some conflict had clearly taken place here. A few scraps of bloody cloth had fallen to the floor in places.
“Its such a shame that this place was violated. Doesn’t anyone respect the dead anymore?” muttered Akuto, but Eiko cried out in utter surprise.
“Ehhhh!? What do you mean? You're the demon king! Why are you talking about respect as if you care?”
“I am not and never will be the damned Demon King,” he replied immediately and Eiko shook her head.
“You can't possibly be this dull. Why do you insist on taking everything in the least interesting direction?”
“I don't like living only for the present like that.”
Akuto also didn't like being criticized so coldly.
“If you insist on behaving this way, I will be forced to withdraw my love for you. I might just end up betraying you!”
Eiko hopped in front of Akuto, spun around, and stretched her mouth out as if sulking. The gesture was so childish yet so serious that Akuto was left bewildered.
—Betray me? But she was never even on my side in the first place. In fact, I get the feeling she’s been manipulating me from the very beginning. What am I supposed to do about her?
“Why are you so concerned about what I do?” he asked.
Eiko suddenly grew angry and said, “Because I'm in love with you!”
“Now, wait just a second. We barely know each other.”
This sudden and unexpected declaration of her so-called love was shocking in the very least.
“That’s right! We first met during that morning assembly! What's your point? Haven’t you ever heard of love at first sight!?”
“That may be, but you're going about it the wrong way”
“You can’t be worried about whether something is right or wrong! Why do you insist on that?”
“Because I believe it's important to always work towards ensuring peace. This is wrong because it's inappropriate,” said Akuto in full diligence mode.
This irritated Eiko even further and she began making a fuss like a child.
“You don’t get it! I came here because I heard you were the Demon King! Why do you have to be such a goody two-shoes!?” cried Eiko, but Akuto did not respond.
He had spotted a shadow moving behind Eiko.
“Look out! Behind you!” warned Hiroshi as he pointed behind Eiko, but Eiko’s excitement did not die down.
“Are you sure you don’t want me on your side? I want to dedicate my life to a true man and I am saying that I’ve taken a liking to you!”
“We can discuss this later.”
Akuto held up his incantation gun.
A human-shaped shadow was approaching from behind Eiko. Its slender form moved slowly. That was all he could tell.
“Don't move or I’ll shoot,” he warned.
The shadow immediately accelerated, so he fired the incantation gun.
A dry sound rang out as he fired it. He controlled the bullet to pursue the shadow as it attempted to evade. As soon as the bullet approached the shadow, it detonated at a level regulated to blow the creature away.
A ball of light the size of a basketball swelled out. Even if the pressure was only enough to knock a human back, the impact of a direct hit would have been too much to withstand.
But the shadow scattered in the center of the glowing orb. Once the ball disappeared, a definite hole could be seen right there. It was as if the ball had struck some soft object and pierced straight through it. However, that hole was quickly filled in. The shadow seemed to be made up of many small particles and Akuto got the feeling it could freely change its shape no matter what was sent against it.
—This is exactly what the other students were talking about. I had hoped I could scatter it with that blast.
Akuto loaded the next bullet as he tried to come up with a plan, but then Eiko cut between him and the shadow.
“Get the hell out of the way!”
Eiko quickly pulled a short sword from within her uniform. She held it backhandedly and spun around to slice horizontally.
Just like with the explosion, the shadow was sliced apart but regenerated as soon as it jumped back.
Akuto was more amazed by Eiko’s actions than by the shadow’s regeneration.
—She’s clearly no ordinary human.
But even so, he could not allow her to remain on the front line. He hesitated over whether he should instruct her to fall back, but ultimately decided she wouldn't listen to him even if he did. Instead, he moved forward.
He could see the main body of the shadow. It was slender and wearing all black. He couldn't tell if it was male or female. Its face was covered by a white mask, but it looked human. As Akuto approached, it spoke.
“Leave and never return. If you do not heed my warning, I cannot guarantee your survival.”
“I'm glad that we can communicate. And I was actually just thinking the same thing.”
Akuto truly meant what he said and the shadow’s shoulders seemed to droop in disappointment upon stating his intensions.
“Then leave and never return to this…”
The shadow trailed off as he was interrupted by a sudden shout.
Eiko jumped up and sliced her short sword down toward the top of the shadow’s head.
Akuto thought the shadow’s mask would be broken, but then even the mask transformed into fog. Was the mask part of the shadow’s body, could it actually turn nearby objects into that fog as well, or was this nothing more than an illusion?
—Overthinking it isn’t going to give me any answers. I have to stop her.
“Stop! Fall back!”
Eiko ignored Akuto’s instructions and continued to slash at the shadow. This did not seem to have any effect, but the shadow fell back as if Eiko’s slashes were hurting it. It may have been exhausting to turn its body into that fog.
—That means it isn’t an illusion. Can it turn itself and any nearby objects into this fog and then reconstruct them? If so, this spell must be draining its mana.
Akuto decided that that was the only conclution.
—And once the shadow tires itself out, it will be forced to rely on offence!
“I said fall back!” repeated Akuto, but unsurprisingly, Eiko did not do as he said.
“Why are you giving me orders!? I’ll never follow the orders of someone I don’t love!”
—What is with this girl!?
And then Akuto’s fears came true.
The shadow extended an arm-like appendage which transformed into fog. In the next instant, it reformed in the shape of a sharp silver blade. The change had been so unexpected that Eiko was unable to react in time. She could not fully evade the stabbing strike from the newly formed blade.
Eiko was knocked back and collapsed to the floor. It seemed she had managed to hold up her short sword and block the blow, but a line of red had appeared on her arm.
“I warned you and your companions, girl,” said the shadow in a low voice as it seemed to glide toward Eiko.
It continued its assault on Eiko with the blade.
Eiko rolled to the side and blocked with her short sword to somehow manage to survive.
—If it has to solidify in order to strike…!
Akuto repeatedly tried to fire a bullet at the exact instant the shadow attacked Eiko, but the shadow would either turn a portion of its body into fog to neutralize the bullet or it would quickly deflect it with the blade.
Akuto then chose another bullet and quickly loaded the gun. This bullet had magic that would cause a small tornado.
He fired the bullet as the shadow attempted to attack Eiko yet again. The shadow assumed the bullet would have the same effect as before, so it tried to avoid it by turning into a fog. However, the bullet caused a whirlwind that enveloped the fog making up the shadow’s body. Akuto used his power to increase the intensity of the whirlwind. It instantly grew into a small tornado twice as tall and blew the shadow away.
—It isn’t all that powerful, but it’s pretty useful if you can control it.
Akuto ran over to Eiko.
“Are you okay?”
He held a hand out toward her where she lay collapsed on the ground, but he regretted it an instant later. Eiko looked up at him with a flush on her cheeks. Akuto recalled seeing a few girls looking at him this way back in his middle school days. And the situation had never turned out well.
—What am I supposed to do? I don’t know why, but girls like her always get really angry or start crying when I try to explain the situation and fix the misunderstanding.
“You saved me!” shouted Eiko in excitement.
“I would have done the same thing for anyone in your position.”
Akuto tried to draw back his extended hand, but Eiko grabbed onto it before he could.
“Don’t be shy. You need to be more honest!”
Eiko seemed to be in a very good mood.
Akuto averted his gaze and called out to Korone who had been watching from behind the entire time.
“Hey, can you heal her?”
But Korone silently pointed behind Akuto.
He looked over and found the shadow reforming. Akuto could somehow tell that the shadow was angry. He could not tell if this was due to this enemy having human emotions or if he was simply reading human emotions where there were none.
—We’re in trouble if it attacks us more actively.
Akuto loaded another tornado bullet, but the shadow didn't approach or withdraw. It merely stood at a distance and slowly spread its arms.
Akuto had a bad feeling that turned out to be justified.
He heard the sound of wings flapping coming from above.
He looked up to find what looked like a black cloud floating up near the ceiling.
The cloud was writhing around while producing the low rumbling noise of countless bird or insects wings.
“You have got to be kidding me,” groaned Akuto.
He had once seen a flock of birds migrating. That flock had been in the hundreds. He didn't know if these were birds or insects, but this flock or swarm was just as large despite being in an enclosed underground area.
Akuto learned anew just what kind of monster the other students had almost died fighting. This flock or swarm was obviously being controlled by the shadow.
“Run!” Akuto shouted to Eiko.
But Eiko remained stubborn.
“No! My Akuto is not the kind of person who runs away!”
Eiko held up her short sword backhandedly. She intended to continue fighting the shadow.
—Why is she so obsessed?
Eiko seemed more stubborn than insane to Akuto. He had sensed that there was more to this incident than met the eye, but it seemed Eiko knew something he didn't. However, he didn't have the time to think it over.
The dark cloud lowered from above. It was a swarm of bats. Those black and ominous animals cut across his field of vision again and again. The sounds of their screeching and wings flapping filled the entire chamber.
Akuto repeatedly fired his incantation gun, but no matter how much he controlled the trajectory and the explosion, he could only ever shoot down one or two at a time. And he was attacked from his blind spots all the while.
The scratches themselves were light. However, the number of scratches was ridiculous. His clothes were ripped and blood began seeping from his torn skin. If this continued for too long, mutilation was inevitable.
Eiko and Hiroshi were in the same situation. Eiko was accurately cutting down the bats that flew in front of her, but she couldn't keep up with their numbers. Meanwhile, Hiroshi could only curl up in a ball.
“Korone!” shouted Akuto.
“Yes? Please do not ask me to save you. This situation is obviously your own fault, so saving you would not align with my mission to observe whether you are becoming the Demon King and to distance you from unnecessary harm,” calmly replied Korone.
She alone stood still in an area beyond where the bats were swarming.
“Yeah, whatever! Just take Hiroshi and get the hell out of here!”
“That I can do.”
Korone began rummaging around in her bag. She pulled out shoes with small tires attached and put them on her feet after holding them up in the air for some reason. They were basically roller blades, but they seemed to be powered in some way. Korone accelerated at a tremendous rate while still crouched down. She arrived at Hiroshi’s side in an instant, roughly grabbed at his collar, made a splendid 180 that left behind the smell of burning tires, and shot away in another instant. It all took only a few seconds.
—I should probably acknowledge her skills there, so why don't I feel any desire to do so?
After ensuring Korone had escaped to safety, Akuto turned back toward the shadow. He was almost certain that it was controlling the bats. Each and every one of the bats was artificial. That was obvious enough from the corpses left behind when he shot them down. They moved based on a simple system, but it would have been difficult for someone to take control of them. It may have been appropriate to say the shadow had tamed them. And the shadow had likely created all of them as well. If this shadow was human, he or she had tremendous talent. This would not be an easily defeated opponent.
But Akuto understood that it wouldn't do any good if they ran away. He also felt it was intentionally avoiding any fatal blows. Even so, it was still mercilessly attacking Eiko who stubbornly refused to fall back. The situation was only escalating. As time passed, the number of small cuts and scrapes on Eiko continued to grow. It was possible she would eventually run out of strength.
“There’s no other way. I really am hopeless,” complained Akuto.
A bad habit of his was how he thought so calmly at times like this.
He had thought up a way of resolving the situation. The worst part was that he felt he might actually be able to do it.
In the end, he was forced to follow the pace Eiko had set. She was trying to accomplish something and was willing to risk her life to do so. He didn't know if it was based on her expectations for him or on the size of her objective, but he felt like he would have to find the treasure now.
Of course, it was still too dangerous to simply do what Eiko wanted. She was clearly plotting something. However, he would prefer to know why he was being used and then choose his own path than to be used without ever learning the reason.
Akuto shouted toward the shadow.
“Sorry, but I changed my mind! I’ve decided to find what it is you're protecting! I'll try not to harm you too seriously, so please don't hold it against me!”
The shadow looked surprised at that announcement and the concentration of bats around Akuto suddenly increased. However, Akuto remained calm.
—I can use this.
Akuto pulled out one of the wind-producing rounds he had used before. He used his fingers to break off the actual bullet on the tip of the cartridge. He activated the magical signal stored inside which created a small whirlwind in his hand.
—I could control the wind when I fired it. But my mana is so unstable that I can’t control mana when it's anywhere near me. In that case…
Akuto prepared himself and then strengthened the whirlwind in his hand.
The noise of the wind grew so loud it sounded like an explosion. It was as if a typhoon had suddenly materialize. The violently whirling wind spread out around Akuto.
All of the bats were swallowed by the wind. The artificial lawn on the floor was ripped to shreads and thrown through the air. The plastic gravestones were blown to dust and the funerary urns within came out and scattered their ashes everywhere.
The shadow let out a human shriek.
The wind spread out in a bowl shape with Akuto in the center. Akuto could obviously not control it anymore and it rampaged through everything in the chamber. The wind roared as it swept across every nook and cranny of the room. Whether fog or not, the shadow was swallowed and blown about.
—That should be enough.
With that thought, Akuto tried to suppress the mana, but he quickly realized he had failed. Amid the roar of the wind, he heard a loud and odd cracking noise. He looked up to find cracks spreading through the ceiling. Before he could even react, the ceiling began to cave in.
A great roar and tremor shook the earth. Stones and the items stored in the memorial building fell down and were thrown about by the wind.
After a while longer, Akuto finally succeeded in suppressing the wind. However, the War Memorial Building had been utterly destroyed at that point. Akuto and Eiko, who had collapsed next to him, were unscathed due to being at the center of the wind, but they were surrounded by nothing but rubble lying in a spiral. The ceiling had completely disintegrated and the midday sky was crystal clear.
—I thought I could do it, but this isn’t what I hoped.
Akuto regretted his actions, but it was too late now.
However, Eiko got up next to him and spoke, delighted.
“Wow! That was amazing! You really did it!”
“I'm not proud of what I've done. What’s so damn enjoyable about destruction?” replied Akuto in displeasure.
“It’s just fun. Do you really need a reason for it to be fun?”
A smile surfaced on Eiko’s bloodied face and it seemed she did not care about her own injuries.
“Anyway, why did you lead me here in the first place?” asked Akuto in all seriousness because this was no joking matter.
Eiko began to reply while still smiling, but Akuto’s serious expression did not crumble. She ultimately dropped the smile before speaking.
“What do you mean?” she asked sulkily.
“I know that you're hiding something from me.”
“Well, yeah. But I think this will all be for your benefit.”
“That doesn't matter. You want me to go on this treasure hunt no matter what. Up until now, I thought it might be a joke, but you were willing to risk your life for this. What is this treasure?”
When Akuto asked that, Eiko fell silent and looked away.
But then Eiko curled up on the ground. It seemed her injures were too much for her after all.
Akuto silently placed a hand on her. He attempted to heal her like that first year did in the dining hall before. He was only imitating someone else’s actions, but he didn't lose control over his mana. Healing probably didn't fall under the category of magic he specialized in, but it still worked well enough.
Eiko looked surprised at the healing, but then she suddenly spoke to Akuto.
“Hey, if I tell you, will you like me?”
“Maybe if you decide to make some changes,” he replied while monitoring the progress of the healing.
Eiko’s face lit up.
“No worries there. I already am decent.”
“No, you're not,” he replied immediately.
Eiko’s face clouded over and she said, “Then I just have to become decent from now on, right?”
“That’s right,” agreed Akuto.
After checking on her cuts one last time, he removed his hand from her. Eiko looked disappointed, but she began speaking indifferently about something very frightening while checking on her condition.
“The treasure is the property of the previous Demon King.”
“What? Where did you hear that?”
Even Akuto was shocked to hear his response.
“I can’t tell you. But I want you to become a man by acquiring it.”
“Acquiring one of the Demon King's possessions wouldn't make me a man. That's ridiculous. Are you a black magician or something?
“Please don't compare me to them. I don't think as formally as those people.”
“It's your destiny. That’s what it all comes down to.”
“Yes. Someone I have sworn loyalty to said so. Between you and he, one of you will be destroyed and the other will hold the fate of the world in your hands.”
“I've had enough of your stupid jokes.”
“This is no joke. He's never been wrong as far as I know. And he's a lot like you. That is why I fell in love with you.”
“I understand. So to sum it up, someone somewhere might think something about me,” said Akuto in annoyance.
Eiko snorted like a spoiled child.
“I'm being serious, you jerk.”
“If you are being serious, why are you weighing two different people against each other? And if I really am destined to have this thing, why do you bother doing anything?”
Eiko’s expression suddenly darkened.
“Guys that do not understand how a girl’s heart works are just pathetic.”
“I know. It seems that I have bad luck with girls.”
Akuto began walking tiptoed along the piles of rubble in order to avoid this conversation. Nevertheless, Eiko followed and continued speaking.
“Hey, do you want me to tell you?”
“Don't bother. Now that I know the circumstances, you're nothing but a nuisance.”
“Don’t be mean.”
As Eiko spoke sulkily, Akuto spotted something at his feet.
He found a plate engraved with that name. As soon as he said the name, he realized he shouldn't have, but it was too late. Eiko crouched down at his feet.
“It’s in here, isn't!?”
Eiko had already opened the gravestone the plate was attached to.
It didn't contain a funerary urn. Instead, it contained an old character doll. It was small enough to fit in someone’s palm.
Eiko picked it up and it seemed to actually be a keychain in the shape of the character rather than a doll.
"There has to be a button on the back.”
Eiko turned it round and pressed the button. The doll’s back had a small speaker hole. A voice played from it.
That much was understandable, but the recording was followed by something like high-pitched static. Eiko handed the keychain to Akuto.
“This is a recorder keychain for children, but what was that last noise?”
“Part of the language used to program artificial intelligences. Any intelligent magician can produce the noise with their voice.”
That explanation had suddenly come from behind Akuto. He turned around to find Korone.
“Don’t scare me like that.”
“I found it difficult to escape when the ceiling suddenly collapsed. Was that your doing?”
“Well…uh… That was self defense,” replied Akuto. He then began talking about the keychain to avoid further questions. “So someone recorded this and hid it here.”
“That is obvious. I will accept that this was self defense, but the other students are sure to assume you were desecrating the remains of those who died in the war.”
“I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with you.”
—It's only a matter of time.
Akuto looked up into the sky with no clue of what to do next.
Fujiko was watching the goings on in the crypt using the crystal ball in her lab. She was utterly dumbfounded at what she saw.
The footage was looking down on Akuto and the others from above. Fujiko had embedded a tracking device in the incantation gun she had given Akuto. She had then sent out a Monitor, a small flying relay device that would follow that signal.
“I can't believe it… But he can't talk his way out of this one!”
Fujiko picked up the glass container holding her brother’s head and showed him the footage in the crystal ball.
“You speak of me ‘talking my way out of’ this, but I really have no memory of it. However, I do know that keychain is mine. I would often leave messages using it. Mother said you liked it better when I used that instead of a video letter when I was away from the house for extended periods of time.”
“Don't you dare lie to me! If you know that much, how can you have no memory of leaving that message? Are even your memories fabricated? I never missed you when you were away! I know that quite well now!”
Fujiko disheveled her hair as she shouted in confusion. Her brother frowned, but only attempted to comfort her.
“Please don't be upset, Fujiko. This is my fault.”
“How can you say that so lightly!?”
“Because as a spirit, I can only answer you honestly,” he said.
“That's not what I mean! Can’t you see how upset I am? If your past wasn't what I have always believed it was, then what I have always believed is…!”
“Don't cry, Fujiko.”
“But this means you were not a weak and pathetic coward who shamelessly abandoned his duty. If you set all this up, then…”
“Fujiko, I was weak and pathetic and I did shamelessly abandon my duty.”
“That's enough! How can I know for certain who the real…”
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Fujiko heard a scream and something crashing down behind her. She turned around in surprise to find Keena buried under books that had fallen from the shelf.
“Soga Keena!” shouted Fujiko.
“Eh heh heh heh…” laughed Keena.
“How did you get in here!? How long have you been watching me!?”
Keena jumped in fright when Fujiko raised her voice, but tears quickly filled her eyes and she kneeled before Fujiko with her hands clasped in supplication.
“I’m sorry! My rice ball fell down a hole and rolled away! I ended up here as I chased after it! I wasn’t trying to intrude.”
Fujiko scratched at her head in annoyance.
“Honestly… you're such a bad liar.”
But then Fujiko spotted a dirty rice ball out of the corner of her eye. It was covered in so much dust it must have rolled down the stairs on the way here. After seeing it, Fujiko felt that being angered any further would make her look foolish.
“Fine. Come to think of it, you already knew about this place. Just leave as soon as possible. I'm very busy.”
As Fujiko made a shooing motion, Keena quickly latched onto the crystal ball.
“Hey, It’s A-chan! Hi, A-chan!”
“Stop that! Get away from there!”
“Hey, onee-sama!” said Keena as she suddenly looked up at Fujiko.
“Wh-what is it? And did you just call me onee-sama?”
“Please let me call you onee-sama! Oh, and it may be rude to bring it up now, but I’ve been wanting to apologize for the other day!”
Keena had an oddly serious look in her eyes and Fujiko was swallowed up by her pace.
“I don't expect you to forgive me! But please at least leave A-chan out of this! You must still hold a grudge if you’re watching him here.”
“Well, yes. Of course I do.”
“Okay! You may not be able to forgive him either, but A-chan didn’t mean any harm. Now how about we go help!?”
Fujiko had not even considered that possibility.
“That’s right! Let’s go, onee-sama!” repeated Keena.
None of it made any sense, but it was enough to surprise Fujiko. She had surely wanted to go herself and having Keena beg her to do so made it easier.
“Fine. If you insist,” said Fujiko quietly.
Keena gave a clap of delight and said, “Yay! Then let’s make our preparations right away! We’ll need rice and outdoor cooking equipment! Wait for me by the confession tree in the forest out back! Now you might learn the truth about your brother!”
—Eh? Wait a second.
Fujiko tried to ask what Keena meant by that, but the girl had already left the room.
“I already decided that I'm going. I'll return to the school and report to the student council.”
Akuto was insistent. He spoke firmly to Eiko while he drank tea from a kettle on the portable stove. They had already pitched the tents for the night.
Eiko didn't seem to have given up, but when he went as far as to threaten her, she fell silent and sulked.
The area had grown dark and it was just about time to sleep. Akuto called Korone over and asked her to watch over Eiko the entire night before he crawled into his own tent. They had three one-person tents set up. One for Akuto, one for Hiroshi, and one for Korone and Eiko.
—I always have trouble with girls like her.
Sleep fell on him while he silently complained.
But when he woke up the following morning, he realized the camp site was oddly silent. He left his tent and found Hiroshi’s tent gone.
—Don’t tell me…!
He entered Eiko’s tent and found Korone in a pose as if in an embrace. However, she was all alone and frozen in place. She looked like a surreal sculpture.
“Dammit! She got away.”
Korone had clearly been deactivated. Eiko must have convinced Korone to embrace her and then pulled the artificial human’s switch.
To ensure Korone didn't fall over when she was activated, he embraced her, reached a hand into her skirt, and groped about for her tail.
—This is always so embarrassing.
While trying to touch her soft rear end as little as possible, he stretched his hand toward her waist and grabbed her round tail. He pulled it and light returned to her eyes with a slight humming noise.
“Now, hurry! Give me the special ningyou-yaki…huh? Where is Teruya Eiko?” said Korone in surprise despite showing no emotion.
“You were deactivated.”
“That is a problem. And I take it this means you did not use magic to switch places with her and play with my body.”
“That's not funny. Why would you even consider that?”
Akuto moved away from Korone.
“Then where is she?”
Korone looked around the tent. A letter had been left on top of a small knapsack. Akuto picked it up and found it was from Hiroshi.
Akuto held his head in his hands.
“That b*tch! She tricked him.”
“Such a fool,” declared Korone.
This was no different from taking a hostage. Akuto opened the small knapsack to find enough food and water for him. He put the bag on his back, left the tent, and began folding it.
“Will you follow them?” asked Korone.
Akuto nodded, “I don't have a choice. The next destination is the knight equipment lab. Do you know where it is?”
“It is listed in some old records.”
“Then let’s go.”
Akuto began walking. The others likely had a lead of several hours and their pace would likely be similar, so he and Korone would arrive exactly that much after them.
“There'll probably be someone else protecting the treasure.”
“It seems that girl really wants me to become the Demon King. She said that it was my destiny.”
“She is forcing the hopes of those around you onto you.”
“Please, enough with the jokes.”
He had assumed it was a joke because Korone had spoken the same as always, but she denied it.
“No, this is not a joke. That is one type of hope people have.”
“But I don’t want to be the Demon King.”
“This has nothing to do with what you want. That is merely a matter of yourself.”
“Don’t make it any more complicated than it already is. I want to bring peace to the world and I think I'm currently doing well as far as I'm concerned.”
“Many people believe that, but it does not always work out so well. That is what it is to be human. We artificial humans envy that of you.”
“You envy the fact that things don’t always work out the way we want?”
After that, the two of them walked silently for a long while. After they left the unmaintained mountain path, an abandoned city finally came into view. It had been left as is after it had been burned down in the war. Akuto had never seen an entire ruined city before, it was almost too eerie.
“Why did they just leave the city like this?”
“Because of a lack of budget. It is on the academy’s grounds, so any repairs or demolitions would have to be paid for out of the school’s budget.”
“Oh. So it was just abandoned.”
Akuto began walking along the city’s central street. The war was most definitely the cause of this mass destruction, and he was relieved not to find any traces of the dead.
“Two military forces clashed here after the residents were evacuated,” explained Korone. “The Demon King’s troops targeted the city because of the knight’s laboratory, so the knights evacuated the residents and fought using the building we are headed to as their base.”
“I see,” replied Akuto just as he heard a rumbling noise and felt the earth tremble as if from an earthquake. “Looks like my hunch was right.”
Akuto placed his bag on the ground and began running. Korone followed and continued with her explanations.
“As you have likely guessed, that noise came from the direction of the knight equipment laboratory.”
“Yeah, I figure as much.”
He turned the corner and found himself on a major road. In the center of the plaza visible up ahead, he saw a five-story building that had half-crumbled. It was an old building made of the concrete that was considered very valuable in modern times. The roof over the entrance had collapsed and a large entrance hall could be seen beyond it. A monster stood there.
—You have got to be kidding me.
What Akuto saw was a metal giant. This humanoid figure was covered in gigantic armor, looked to be about thirty meters tall, and was moving. He saw light occasionally run across the surface of its body, but it was only after hearing Eiko’s cries that he realized these were caused by the giant being attacked.
Her battle cry was accompanied by a metallic clang and sparks flying from the armor’s surface. Eiko could be seen flitting across in front of the giant each time. She was jumping around it while attacking with her short sword.
—That isn’t working at all.
Akuto couldn't help but be dumbfounded by this sight. He couldn't come up with any way of resolving the situation, but he had to save her nonetheless.
“What am I supposed to do against a monster like that?” he complained to no one in particular while holding up his incantation gun.
When he did, the giant suddenly stopped moving.
Akuto found it hard to believe the giant had heard him, but it had obviously noticed him. The giant turned around and began walking toward the collapsed entrance. The entrance was too small for its large body, so the giant walked out as if spreading the entrance with its shoulders. It continued walking while ignoring the concrete fragments falling on it and the cloud of dust spreading out.
Akuto was terrified of the giant causing the earth to shake with each step.
It was thirty meters tall and fully armored. The gauntlet on its right hand was unusually large and held an axe just as long as a human being.
—Oh my God! I can’t stand up to that behemoth! But if I can at least stop it temporarily, the others can use the chance to escape!
Akuto fired his incantation gun. He was of course aiming for the gaps in the armor. The area behind the knees contained a space to allow the giant to move. The area behind the giant’s face guard was too dark to see what was inside, but attacking the back of the knee would cause decent damage whether it was a human or machine inside.
He controlled the bullet to hit the giant directly in the back of the knee. But just before it hit, the giant twisted its knee around to stop the bullet on the front knee plate.
Akuto was shocked that a giant like that could move quickly and subtly enough to block the bullet at the last second like that.
—Is it even possible for something this huge to have such remarkable agility?
He also realized he had heard some kind of quiet muttering. It was going to be harder to bring down this giant’s defenses than he thought.
“Kiaaahh!!” shouted Eiko once more.
She jumped from the building and slashed at the giant from behind. However, the giant didn't overlook this attack. Eiko had been targeting a gap in the armor, but the giant superbly altered where the attack landed.
The giant then swung its axe as if irritated. Eiko easily avoided it by jumping back. It seemed the giant couldn't exhibit the same subtlety in its attacks. It swung its axe toward Eiko again and again, but the girl jumped around and avoided every strike.
Eiko only focused on evasion and it seemed that she didn't even consider retreating. Akuto began thinking about the possibility of knocking her unconscious and carrying her away, but that idea quickly became meaningless.
Someone else dashed out from within the building.
It was Hiroshi. Akuto couldn't imagine what he was thinking, but Hiroshi held one of the electromagnetic batons modern knights often used. He was attempting to bludgeon the giant into submission.
—Oh, come on. What the hell is he thinking?
While trying to figure out what to do, Akuto fired his gun repeatedly to draw the giant’s attention.
Whether the giant found the bullets to be a nuisance or it didn't even consider Hiroshi a threat, it turned toward Akuto just as he planned.
But then the giant began walking toward him and quickly picked up speed. Akuto considered fleeing, but he couldn't run fast enough to escape from the speed that giant’s huge legs gave it. Now it was Akuto who was cornered.
—Are you freaking kidding me!?
The giant approached before his eyes. Akuto panicked as he thought of a plan. The giant used an axe. Eiko had easily evaded it, but the axe was only slow when it came to aiming. That blade was too large to avoid just by moving aside slightly after the giant had started to swing it down with a great roar. When it came down to it, Akuto didn't have the speed necessary to avoid it.
—In that case…
Akuto loaded his incantation gun with the strongest explosion round he had. If he controlled the mana to draw out the most powerful explosion he could, he guessed he would be able to blow away the giant.
He held up the incantation gun. He didn't bother aiming. The giant would just move its armor in the way regardless.
Without slowing down from its run, the giant swung up its axe. This caused a violent slashing sound.
Akuto pulled the trigger.
This round was meant to be used only in fights at school. However, Akuto filled it with atmospheric mana the instant it hit. The explosion spread out several dozen times larger than normal.
With a tremendous boom, a sphere of light swelled out on the giant’s chest.
That light continued to expand and consumed the giant.
The shockwave spread out and a wave of vibration shook the entire abandoned city for an instant.
While contemplating the time he had blown up the classroom, Akuto had investigated the pressure of the explosion he had created. The answer had been 5-7 kilograms per square centimeter. Without some kind of defense, the pressure of the explosion was enough to nearly kill someone. Even if the explosion had scattered due to being in midair, taking that to the chest should have at least knocked the giant to the ground.
—What the hell!?
Akuto was left speechless.
When the orb of light disappeared, the giant stood there unscathed. The only change was the smoke floating up from the heated metal of its armor.
“This is so not good.”
The giant had already swung its axe up once more.
He had lost his chance to escape.
The axe roared as it was swung down. Its trajectory was headed straight toward Akuto.
That roaring axe struck Akuto.
And when the steel struck flesh, the sound of blood gushing could be heard.
“Aniki!” shouted Hiroshi as he ran up behind the giant.
“Kyaah!” screamed Eiko as she looked up at the giant’s back.
—Oh, I get it. So that’s it. There are things I naturally specialize in and things I don’t. I should have listened more closely to what senpai said.
Akuto had come to a new understanding of what that meant.
He had thrown the incantation gun to his feet. He had then stopped the human-sized axe with his bare hands. He held his palms together above his forehead with the blade caught between them.
—Dammit. I’m the rational type, so no one would think I specialize in brute force like this.
The muscles of Akuto's arms had swollen up so it was noticeable even through his clothes. He had pumped mana into his muscles. That had multiplied his strength several times over.
—And unlike with other magic, I can actually tell I have complete control over this power!
Akuto looked up.
The giant was obviously confused. It was violently swaying back and forth as it tried to either push or pull the axe. No matter how much stronger Akuto had become, his actual weight hadn't changed. In other words, the giant should have only needed the power to lift up his body weight. However, Akuto had dug his feet into the ground and was using his now superhuman leg strength to grab hold of the earth between his feet.
“Please don't resist,” said Akuto as he twisted the axe.
The giant tried to twist the axe back, creating a comparison between their strength.
However, the competition ended quickly. The giant refused to let go of the axe, so the twisting of the weapon wrenched its arms around and caused its entire body to fall to the side.
This caused a giant tremor to run through the earth. Hiroshi and other things lying on the ground were sent up into the air for an instant.
Akuto took the axe away from the giant. He tossed it up into the air, let it rotate around, and caught it by the handle. He then easily swung it around.
The giant didn't speak, but it crawled away from Akuto, stood up, and walked away with its back to Akuto and the others. It seemed less that it was fleeing and more that it had graciously accepted its defeat.
—Why are the guardians of the treasure so different from each other?
It bothered Akuto, but his thoughts were cut off when Hiroshi ran over to his side.
“That was so awesome! I should've known you'd do something like this!”
Akuto tossed the axe aside and felt the need to lecture Hiroshi.
“This is not the time for acknowledgement. I thought I made it clear that I wanted you to get to safety.”
Hiroshi didn't seem to understand gravity of the situation.
“Eh? I just thought I needed to grow stronger since I’m your first follower!”
—Why the hell is he upset?
Akuto felt this was unreasonable, but he decided not to say anything as it didn't seem Hiroshi was all that angry.
“Fine, but I don’t really get the importance of being strong,” he said with a shrug.
He then looked around for Eiko. She was looking at him with an even more excitedly than Hiroshi.
“You really came through!”
Akuto ignored Eiko as she ran over. He walked right past her and toward the laboratory.
“You're going to get me involved no matter what I do. In that case, I’ll see this through to the end. But keep in mind that I won't forgive you for endangering my friend.”
“Drop the act! You can't possibly be this good of a person!”
Eiko spoke ill of him in her anger.
—This is why I can’t stand this crazy b*tch.
He set foot inside the half-crumbled laboratory. He was slightly interested in what they had been studying here, but everything had been cleared out. He went around to each room off the main hall, but they were all empty. The only thing remaining was in the room farthest back.
—Come to think of it, the keychain only mentioned the shelf in the back.
The room had nothing but empty steel shelves for documents. He opened all of the drawers to the shelves, only to find a memo pad-sized plate. He picked it up to find it was an old electronic toy. It could display the photos taken with it and could be drawn on with the attached pen.
Akuto was overcome by an odd sensation as he activated the plate. It displayed a cave entrance surrounded by trees.
Something had been written on the border of the photo of the cave.
Akuto put the plate in his pocket.
—Why do I have a bad feeling about this? I seriously doubt this is just a treasure hunt.
“I've found underground water!” announced Korone as she held up two bent metal rods she had taken from her bag. “I can measure the flow of the underground water now.”
Korone held one of the rods in each hand and walked ahead of the others. The metal rods wavered back and forth, but they stuck to a specific direction after she had walked a certain distance. She insisted the device detected mana, but Akuto couldn't help but be skeptical.
“We’ve been wandering through the forest for a while now. Are you sure this is working?” asked Akuto worriedly, but Korone nodded.
“There are no complications. We only need to follow the flow of the underground water.”
None of them had recognized the location in the photograph, but Hiroshi had speculated it was the limestone cave rumored to exist deep within the forest.
“Limestone caves can't form without underground water, so we’ll find the cave if we follow the underground water in the marked location on the map until it reaches the surface,” assured Hiroshi.
“Why are there rumors about this limestone cave?”
“They say it has a hot spring. Some of the people who enter the cave find the hot spring and others don’t, so it’s known as the phantom hot spring.”
“Couldn’t the people who found it show people where it was? Or is it just in too inconvenient a location to want to come back?”
“It must be. But there aren't any rumors of monsters. The forest might actually be more dangerous.”
“You say there are no monsters, but there has to be a guardian.”
“Aniki, what is it?”
“Think about it. It doesn’t make sense for this cave to have had a guardian all this time.”
“I see… Then did the guardian only appear when the map was found?”
Hiroshi looked troubled.
“Either way, the situation has escalated without my involvement, but the students will think of some reason to blame me.”
As Akuto complained, Korone looked up and said, “Ah.”
“What is it?”
“I have found it.”
Korone pointed toward the exact scene shown in the photograph. It was a cave entrance buried in trees.
“I never thought you would actually find it,” said Akuto without thinking.
Korone held the metal rods up in front of Akuto’s face.
“These rods are highly trusted magical tools that are used even when laying pipes.”
“Oh, I get it,” replied Akuto as he put down his bag.
He called Hiroshi over and had him conjure up light for them. He then looked over toward Eiko. Unsurprisingly, she obviously intended to go in with him. Akuto had given up on trying to stop her.
He then took the lead as they walked into the limestone cave. The entrance was small enough that he had to crouch, but the ceiling rose up soon afterwards. The stone beneath his feet was damp and slippery. It was very humid and water seemed to be flowing within.
“That's an interesting sight,” said Hiroshi in admiration.
He was illuminating a tunnel just large enough for a bus to pass through. The walls were glittering. Water running through the ceiling trailed down the walls. Pieces of rock that had fallen from the eroding ceiling had gathered below.
“Is this the only path?”
As they continued on, the path seemed to head down. They saw a dark hole up ahead that the light didn't reach. When they arrived, they found it led to a large cavern.
Hiroshi amplified the light so they could see the entire cavern. It was about the size of a school gym. Stalactites hung down from the ceiling like icicles and stalagmites both large and small rose up from the floor like anthills. Further in, they could see circular indentations in the rock. They were filled with water. This created a row of several small pools.
They walked around to the walls of the hall. They had several indentations, but no holes leading out. It seemed this hall was the end of the cave.
—Are we really at a dead end? We still haven’t found the shrine. Wait a minute. These pools might be deeper than they look. They might lead further in.
Akuto walked up to the side of the pool furthest back and crouched down. As expected, the wall that had appeared to be a dead end had a hole in it leaving a space of several dozen centimeters above the water’s surface. They could head further in by passing through the pool.
Akuto placed a hand in the pool. It was warm. Just as the rumors said, it was a hot spring.
“It looks like we have no choice but to swim,” said Akuto, but Hiroshi was too frightened.
“I’m afraid to go in there.”
“You’re right. It's dangerous. Okay, you can wait here with Korone.”
Akuto stripped down to his boxers and took the orb of light from Hiroshi. If he said anything unnecessary here, Hiroshi might obstinately insist on “getting stronger” again, so he entered the pool without saying anything more. The water was surprisingly shallow. He had to crouch down and crawl with only his head above water. The hole didn't go very far. After only a few meters, the ceiling opened up again and he found himself in a different cavern.
It was much larger than the previous one and light came in through the ceiling. It seemed the ceiling here had completely eroded because he could see a portion of the forest through it.
A portion of the hot spring Akuto was soaking in was made of limestone, but it changed to rougher rock up ahead. Past that point, it looked more like the standard forest hot spring. Several different hot springs were divided by areas of rock. Animals likely soothed their injuries in it too.
—This place is really relaxing. But this is no time to be taking it easy.
With that thought, Akuto stood up to search for the shrine where the treasure was hidden, but then someone grabbed onto him from behind.
However, Akuto hadn't let his guard down too much. It was only Eiko who assaulted him. While Eiko was apparently skilled at spying, it had more to do with Akuto not wanting to pay any attention to her.
Akuto felt her soft breasts pressed against his back. He had no shirt on, so he could feel skin sticking to skin on his back.
“What the hell do you think you're doing!?”
Akuto tried to run away, but she was holding onto him from behind.
“We’re finally alone. How about we have some fun?”
Eiko had her arms firmly wrapped around Akuto’s body. She gradually pulled Akuto into the water like a ghost dragging down a victim.
“Let go of me!”
“No. If I let go, you’ll run away.”
“Of course I will! You’re freaking naked!”
“No one goes into a hot spring wearing their clothes.”
“Did you strip down back in the other cavern to pursue me?”
“I’m quick, so the others didn’t notice. I’ve been waiting for a chance like this,” she said in a bewitching voice.
“A chance to do what? Kill me?”
“No! You really don’t understand, do you?”
“How many times do I have to tell you that I love you? And that means it's only natural for me to pursue you so violently.”
Eiko pressed her body up against Akuto, grabbed his hand from behind, and guided it toward her own body.
“Wh-what are you doing?” he asked nervously.
“Don’t make me spell it out for you,” said Eiko as she pressed his hand against her breast.
Akuto’s fingers stiffened and Eiko gradually brought his hand lower. His hand slid down to her stomach and then even lower…
—I need to train more often.
Junko finally became keenly aware of that fact. She had tracked Akuto and his team from the underground crypt to the deserted city, but she lost their trail once they entered the forest.
—A top-level spy should be able to do this with ease. Was I so filled with impure thoughts that I rushed things?
The “impure thoughts” Junko mentioned were her imaginings concerning whether Akuto and the mysterious girl with him were doing anything indecent. She did fine while focusing on tracking them, but her mind would quickly wander. When those impure thoughts made their way to the surface, she would shout out despite being all alone. She would then look around to make sure no one heard her.
—Get a hold of yourself, Junko. If this girl really is Teruya Eiko, he might be in danger.
“But now I’ve lost track of them.”
Junko was wandering through the forest. Just as she thought about leaving altogether to pick up the trail from the beginning once more, she found a spring welling up within the forest. She stuck her finger in it to see if it was drinkable and found it was reasonably warm.
—Come to think of it, I haven't had a chance to bathe for three days now. Maybe I should take some time to relax.
She put down her things, examined her surroundings, and then stripped off her clothes. She folded them, placed them on her head, placed her sheathed sword on top like a lid, and tied it all on to her head using the cord on the scabbard known as the sageo. This was a habit of hers that allowed her to react if attacked when she bathed.
After once again checking that no one was watching, she stretched her naked body and stepped into the bath.
“Ahh” she sighed, flushed while rubbing against herself.
—I'm pretty durable thanks to my martial arts training. I wonder if he prefers squishier breasts like Keena’s…
After thinking that, she frantically shook her head.
—No, no, no. What am I saying? Constant training is my family’s duty to keep others from saying we have grown weak after choosing government over war
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