Volume 3, Stage 03: The Rabbit Guide and the Liar Cat
“Shut up, you damn rabbit. I’m in a good mood right now.”
(Stage 03 Open 05/23 16:00)
The Rabbit Guide and the Liar Cat
Lu Niang Lan, the modified China dress beauty, breathed a sultry sigh from her scarlet lips.
She quickly realized she had been tossed onto the wooden floor with her arms and legs bound behind her.
“Huh? I’m all wet and see-through.”
She looked down at her chest which was swelling out even more than usual due to the arched back of her pose. The fabric was unpleasantly clinging to her skin somewhat and she could not move her arms or legs.
“I’m tied up!?”
Finally realizing the gravity of the situation, she looked around.
“Wait a second… I was in C Block’s Hai Hong Caiguan, so why am I in a Government apartment now?”
The floor was wet.
However, the government dog named Aika as well as Shiroyama Kyousuke, Isabelle, and even the white liger were looking down at her with exasperated looks.
“K-Kyousuke-chan? Can you explain what’s going on? You haven’t broken our unspoken understanding by selling me off to Government, have you!?”
Still confused, Lu Niang Lan suggested the worst possibility she could think of.
But when Kyousuke and Aika exchanged a glance, their expressions were even graver than that.
“Onii-chan, what should we do about this?”
“When you’re released from Girl’s Backdoor, you apparently lose your memories of being controlled, so I’m not sure there’s anything we can do.”
“Ehh!? You mean she gets off scot-free!? I refuse to accept that! This old hag gave us a whole lot of trouble!!”
“My chest still hurts. Somewhere between medium-sized and large-sized. Throb throb(deadpan).”
“C’mon. She didn’t actually do anything wrong here, so let’s leave it at this.”
Lu Niang Lan was clearly baffled by their exchange, but they ignored her.
They had something else to focus on.
The tablet produced the sound of an incoming video chat call.
Aika sat on the wet floor and tried to use the white liger as a sofa like usual, but the beast slipped out from under her. The five meter pet rejected Aika and the girl flipped over on the floor. The white liger may not have wanted to lie on the wet floor, but she also seemed to be having trouble relaxing after the Perfect Dragon’s rampage. Animals were fiercest when they were afraid, not when they had the advantage.
“Ahh! Onii-chan, go grab that baby bottle. I’ll win this stubborn liger over with a stomach full of milk!!”
“Don’t. Give her anymore and you’ll make her sick.”
“But that spoiled liger almost always goes right to sleep if you give her some warm milk. That old hag’s sacks of fat must have really scared her…”
“I don’t blame her. Zuuun(deadpan). I think I’ll be having some medium-sized nightmares…”
“Aika. You were controlled too, so don’t forget that attacking her is the same as attacking yourself.”
Aika pouted her lips and grabbed the tablet from the glass table while still lying on the floor.
She answered the call and a woman in a military uniform filled the screen. However, hers was much more subdued than Isabelle’s. It had a dark blue base, she wore pants instead of a tight skirt, and she lacked the black belts that acted as restraints. Instead, she had plenty of decorative medals.
She was a Government coordinator.
Or perhaps she could be called a planner or a troubleshooter.
Regardless, she was sent in to build a new plan when something failed inside their organization. She would also make alternate suggestions to minimize the damage. Overall, she was a bureaucratic specialist.
“We have finished regulating the data and updating our plans,” she said. “Might I get back on topic?”
“Currently, we have two primary problems. First, all information related to the Anthills has been passed to the enemy summoner. Second, that apartment where Government, Illegal, and Freedom meet was abused to pull it off. …Unfortunately, most of the higher ups are viewing the second problem as the more serious one. Although if they feel they can calmly think about punishment now, I have to wonder if they believe no bullet could reach their heads even on the front line.”
“Just to be clear, that Illegal old hag was being controlled by Girl’s Backdoor, so she had no control over her actions.”
“That is not all that relevant.” The coordinator gave a light sigh. “The problem is that the information would not have been leaked if you not been on such good terms with an Illegal assassin and if that contact point did not exist. I cannot cover for you here. If you have a complaint, bring it to the higher ups.”
“And while it was Lu Niang Lan who went on a rampage, it was you who leaked the classified information with your mobile phone, Aika. Thanks to that, two additional Anthills have been attacked. The valuable research data and precious lives there have been lost. Do not think this does not apply to you. You played a primary role.”
She made it sound like Girl’s Backdoor did not exist and Lu Niang Lan and Aika had simply conspired to leak the classified information.
Isabelle spoke to Kyousuke as she listened in.
“Nuuun(deadpan). This is small-sized irritating.”
“Oh, what a coincidence. It’s pissing me off a fair bit too.”
“You are part of this too, Alice (with) Rabbit.” The coordinator winked and tapped her temple with her index finger. “With the suspicion on Aika and Lu Niang Lan, they are a step away from disaster. If you wish to remove them from the list of possible executions, you must take on a share of their debt even if there is no suspicion on you directly. This is especially important to silence the higher ups who have never liked that apartment where all three major powers gather.”
“Oh? That’s quite the compromise. Could you not get at me without asking first?”
“This isn’t much different. Freedom Award 903, we will receive your help free of charge. We will send you to our fiercest battlefield at the moment. Refuse and we will add those two to the official list of wanted criminals. The world will bear its fangs against them and they will essentially be sent to the gallows.”
“Get to the specifics.”
“The data Aika leaked could not have been worse. It included the locations of the Anthills, the personnel, the funding routes, the equipment procurement routes, the defense forces, and the emergency evacuation routes. Two bases have already been destroyed using that data. We do not intend to lose any more of the research equipment, personnel, and research results that the higher ups paid large sums of money for. …Simply put, we are evacuating.”
When he heard that word, Kyousuke brought a hand to his forehead and looked up at the ceiling.
Isabelle tilted her head next to him.
“Mh? I’m not even small-sized sure why that’s so bad.”
“It’s really bad. By the way, how many Anthills are still functioning?”
“And how many people are inside?”
“Assume there are around one hundred in each.”
“You want to evacuate all of them from Toy Dream 35 at once? Using every route available, be it land, air, or sea? How are you going to protect them all? Liar Cat can use all of the information they got using Aika. If they have all your evacuation routes, they can attack you whenever and wherever they want.”
An amateur might think they could quickly create a new route, but that would not work. If it was that easy, they would not bother to create routes in advance. They needed packages, bodyguards, knowledge of possible attack points, a secondary route in case they were attacked, a tertiary route, an idea of where they could find safety, and a second and third shelter in case the first was compromised. Working it all out on paper took a week and not even a month was enough to confirm that it was indeed a valid route. And instead of getting a VIP or two out, this was sending around three thousand personnel in every direction.
And just because they could not do it did not mean they could sit around thinking about it. Even if they tried to barricade themselves where they were, Liar Cat was above Freedom Award 900, so that summoner would mercilessly crush the Anthill Project along with those bases.
Simply put, they were cornered.
“The higher ups have a plan.” The coordinator began grinding her index finger against her temple. “They will prepare a great number of transport groups, including decoys and then have them all simultaneously evacuate Toy Dream 35 in every direction. Even if our enemy has 900 level skill, they are only a single pair. A few of the transport groups might get hit, but Liar Cat will not reach the real one. …What do you think of that?”
“But that was part of the information they have now, wasn’t it? We aren’t choosing the target; Liar Cat is. It’s all over if they snack on a few of them and then get to the real one before the limit arrives,” said Kyousuke. “Not to mention that Liar Cat will almost certainly maintain their Material’s cost as much as possible by continuing the fight with Chains. If they can build up through the Regulation-class and Divine-class to reach the Unexplored-class, they’ll charge into the enemy forces at their most powerful. …But I doubt they can always reach the next target in the 90 seconds given. What do you think they’ll do then? We’re talking about Liar Cat who gave out Girl’s Backdoors for civilians to use as nothing more than a disturbance tactic.”
“Nuuun(deadpan). So if their Chain isn’t going to last, they’ll attack normal people to keep their super-sized Chain going?”
Kyousuke nodded at Red Hat Isabelle’s question.
“And they’ll be cutting back and forth across the city to pursue the transportation groups scattering in every direction. Toy Dream 35 won’t just be filled with pools of blood; the entire city will collapse.”
“But I doubt the higher ups will change their minds so easily. Or rather, it is hard to stop a giant cannonball once it has started to roll. If you wish to reduce the damage done, your only option is defeating the summoner pair as soon as possible.”
“But if Liar Cat’s possible targets are scattered everywhere, we can’t exactly lie in wait.”
“If we narrow down their targets to just one place, we know exactly where Liar Cat will show up. What are the most important personnel and resources among the Anthills? If you keep everything else as-is but try to evacuate them ahead of time, Liar Cat will definitely take the bait. We can beat them down there.”
“Even if they know it is a trap?”
“That type can’t resist the taste of revenge.”
The coordinator sighed.
A slight shadow or waver seemed to enter her previous stiffness.
“But the higher ups will never accept it. They truly believe that they are protecting themselves by refusing to admit to their own mistakes. If they know that such a risky method was suggested by an outsider, I seriously doubt they will change their evacuation plan.”
“You sound troubled.”
Kyousuke smiled thinly.
Their plan had already failed and 3000 lives depended on its success. Despite her overbearing behavior, this woman could not have enjoyed having this forced onto her.
“Do you have a suggestion?”
“It sounds like Government’s higher ups don’t understand the danger they’re in. They must truly believe that they can settle this by shoving responsibility onto someone else, that the problem only exists on paper, and that no physical flames are going to rain down on them. So how about I remind them? I’m willing to play the thankless job of the bitter medicine.”
It was now the coordinator’s turn to look up toward heaven.
She had apparently heard the legends of Alice (with) Rabbit, but her pride may have prevented her from actually speaking the words.
But she shook free of that and verbally raised the white flag.
“I would appreciate it if you would help us. I mean it.”
Apartments came in many different shapes and sizes, but this one was a one-room apartment for university students. The front door led directly into the room and the newspaper slot carelessly installed in the door would allow anyone to peep on the room if they wanted. That made changing clothes a daily challenge, but it was still an attractive residence for its relatively affordable price in the amusement park city of Toy Dream 35. Despite the poor customer service, there were no vacancies in May, which was past the season for beginning a new life.
Steam rose from the kettle.
Biondetta, the demon in a pink waitress uniform, hummed to herself as she prepared some tea. She removed her white lace glove to manipulate the tools with her slender fingers.
Murasame Kuina, her client and vessel, blankly replied while sitting on the pastel colored bed with her knees in her arms.
“To be honest, I don’t know much about tea,” said the girl. “I’ve only ever had it from a bottle. So don’t bother talking on and on about it.”
“Not to worry. This is a blend.”
“The Summoning Ceremony battles are mentally exhausting, so I have combined a few different types of tea leaves to provide a calming effect. As long as you know how to make it, standard store-bought teas are good enough. Yes, just like a clever usage of cold medicine and allergy medicine can create a sleazy drug that will put an innocent young girl fast asleep.”
“I don’t want to hear that from a woman who takes antibiotics by the handful… And isn’t caffeine a stimulant?”
“There are a number of ways to use it. Most summoners either have a special supplier or mix their own Incense Grenades, so we tend to be quite skilled at this sort of work.”
A student apartment did not come equipped with the kind of tea set used for the British royal family, but Biondetta used tools likely bought at a 100 yen shop for makeshift replacements. And she had done more than memorize the manual. She had broken it down and built it back up to absorb as much knowledge as possible.
Midriff Girl Kuina fidgeted on the bed.
“Did I ask you to do this? I thought our contract only said you would help me get revenge for Sayuri.”
“And I will provide everything necessary for you to truly enjoy your revenge. It would all be for naught if you were too sleep deprived to savor the taste of revenge when the time came. If you like, I could climb in bed with you to sing a lullaby, I could join you in the bath, or I could try my hand at providing a massage.”
Kuina got down from the bed and sat at the glass table in the center of the small room.
She sipped at the tea poured into a plastic mug, but…
“I really can’t tell any difference.”
“I appreciate the honesty more than pretending you know what you are talking about, ma’am.”
“But I have no intention of taking a nap. I’m too on edge to fall asleep. The core of my body is telling me I have to hurry up and get out there…hurry up and kill.”
“I would expect nothing less from my client. And that is why I prepared this as a type of inflight refueling.”
Murasame Kuina had trouble judging what the smiling demon was truly after.
Normally thinking, helping a stranger with their revenge came with enormous risk. Not only was there direct combat, but it meant making an enemy of everyone around the target and, if they could not earn their partner’s trust, it was possible they could be stabbed in the back. Plus, revenge tended to end in failure after being outnumbered and the enemy would not forgive them if they said “never mind” at that point.
Nevertheless, Biondetta chose to take part.
She gained nothing from it. She had no enemy in common with her client. This revenge only had any meaning for Murasame Kuina. Even if it succeeded, Biondetta would not gain anything at all from the violence.
It was almost like a reckless surfer heading to the beach on a stormy night despite the danger.
She was losing herself in the act itself. It was the madness of someone taking a hobby much too far.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know your situation. I don’t care if you’re secretly benefiting from this, if someone else hired you to do this, or if you’re acting as a double spy and all my information is fed right back to Government.”
She narrowed her eyes and shook around the contents of the mug a little.
“All that matters is that it helps me with my revenge in the end. I’m even fine with dying after the fact. So let’s go over the basics again, Biondetta. Help me with my revenge. It doesn’t matter if you’re my enemy or my ally.”
“Yes. I am delighted to hear that, ma’am.”
The pink waitress demon gave a smile that was far too rotten to call charming.
“I do not often meet someone who expresses that with her actions and not just her words, but you seem to be different. I am relieved.”
Murasame Kuina must have had trouble with hot drinks because she only took small sips at the mug.
Once it was empty, she set it on the table and stood up.
“What’s our next move, Biondetta?”
“Well, how about we go for something that is half for peace of mind and half pure harassment? They’ve probably noticed us by now. And they will know about these clothes.”
As she spoke, Biondetta pinched the sides of her waitress skirt and waved it around.
“I brought in an entire container’s worth as part of the costume event, so I was thinking we could spread some money around to hire hundreds of people to walk around dressed like this.”
“How can you hire people when summoners and vessels vanish from people’s minds?”
“We can use an intermediary by way of your Girl’s Backdoor.”
“I can only control three people. Is this really worth using up that stock?”
“If we no longer need it, we can remove them from our control. And Government is sure to think that the decoys might be manipulated by Girl’s Backdoor and thus could make indiscriminate terrorist attacks. As the world police, they cannot ignore that and will have to waste some of their personnel on them. Meanwhile, we can take advantage of our freedom.”
“So when you get down to it, you don’t know how effective it will be?”
“As I said, it’s half for peace of mind and half pure harassment, ma’am. Anyone with any sense will catch on immediately, but it will still allow us to rest easy. The trick to enjoying revenge is to add some fun into the efficiency☆”
“Hmph,” snorted Murasame Kuina.
She nodded to give her approval and then spoke.
“Then are you ready to go?”
“Yes, ma’am. I am ready to go anywhere you want.”
Despite the care she took in preparing the tea, she apparently had no intention of cleaning it up.
There was a simple reason for that.
As soon as the two of them stood up, something shook in a corner of the room. The figure lying on the wooden flooring had two arms, two legs, and long black hair that spread out like seaweed to hide the face.
It was the owner of the room.
The college girl had been controlled by Girl’s Backdoor and given a flowchart with only one instruction: curl up in the corner.
Miyama Gouta was a man in his prime who would turn fifty this year.
He was a soldier who had never once set foot on the battlefield and yet the chest of his deep blue military uniform glittered with a great quantity of medals. He stood inside one of Government’s Anthills.
A number of conditions were necessary to construct an Anthill, but the most important was a facility that functioned as a miniature model of society. It could be any number of things: a school, a hospital, a prison, a military base, a casino, a theatre, a hotel, a prep school, etc. Any relatively closed facility that managed a group under a single system could be remade into an Anthill.
That meant Miyama was inside one such facility.
It was A Block’s international airport.
“What? Are you still falling behind on preparing for the evacuation operation? We’re pressed for time, so finish as scheduled no matter what it takes! I don’t care about trivial safety management! We need to focus on ensuring the core of the Anthill escapes!! Use your head, you fool!! They may be bloodthirsty murderers, but their skill is at Freedom’s 900 level. Do I really have to tell you that losing our valuable research results in an indiscriminate attack is simply unacceptable!?”
There was not the slightest doubt on his face as he shouted angrily into a cellphone. He truly believed that the scales of good or evil were entirely dependent on whether or not whatever it was would allow the entire project - including himself - to escape safely.
“Listen. Do not delay this evacuation operation even by a single second. I don’t care if it’s a hangnail or a mouth ulcer; even the slightest loss or damage is your responsibility. If you get that, then get those hands working! Yes, your hands! We don’t need your mouth or your brain!!”
The airport’s floorplan looked quite open, but it was cleverly designed so a full two-thirds of its space was off limits. Miyama Gouta swaggered past the strict defenses, ignored the guards who made sure to salute, and knocked on a waiting room door.
His expression made a complete about-face.
The middle-aged military officer put on an almost creepily bright smile and spoke sweetly to the young woman lounging on the sofa.
He spoke to the researcher who was a central member of the Anthill.
“I am so very sorry, Miss Heartocean. Our schedule has been delayed due to inclement weather. Once the conditions clear up, we can take off immediately.”
“Anything’s fine with me as long as you let me continue my research.”
Maria Heartocean did not bother looking in the soldier’s direction and stared at the back of her hand and her fingernails instead.
Miyama’s right temple twitched disconcertingly, but he managed to respond with a smile.
“Is there anything else you lack?”
Maria said that with no hint of sarcasm. She made it sound like that was simply the truth.
She seemed to be displaying the colors of Government, the world police.
“I’d especially like for you to do something about the internet connection. I mean, nothing but Wi-Fi and only two antennae? Is that supposed to be a joke? Humans have a limited lifespan, so wasting time like this could lead to missing a major discovery. And can you take responsibility if that happens? How?”
“I will arrange for it right away. I was given strict orders to give you the best hospitality possible, Miss Heartocean.”
“Also, does this violate the safety standards?”
Maria pointed straight ahead.
This was the strictly guarded off-limits zone of an international airport.
This was an important Government base.
This was the core of an Anthill.
Nevertheless, a large knife was stabbed vertically into the cushion of the two-person leather sofa across from Maria Heartocean.
“A boy wandered in here earlier and did that, but I’m not too familiar with the local slang. Do you think it’s some kind of message?”
Miyama froze up for a moment, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Someone had carried a blade into the same room as their top priority personnel. And no one had noticed. It was just as unreasonable as finding unidentified fingerprints all over the inside of a nuclear weapons vault.
“Impossible!? Who!? How!?”
His extensive knowledge of the usual security setup robbed this feat of all reality.
He was utterly confused and turned toward the door to call for his men.
That was when Miyama Gouta saw it.
“Hi. Would you have preferred a box of chocolates?”
Alice (with) Rabbit spoke calmly with his arms folded and his back resting against the door.
The military officer was shocked speechless and Maria gave a casual wave.
“Yahoo. Now that I think about it, you’re still borrowing Isabelle, aren’t you? How’s she doing? Are you using her well?”
“At the very least, I’m treating her with more humanity than any of you did. I’m not entirely sure I should give her back.”
“Ah ha ha. Yeah, I guess you would figure that out. That isn’t good…”
After that quick exchange, Kyousuke turned back toward Miyama Gouta.
“Just as a warning, we didn’t use an Incense Grenade to get in. We simply used the fact that people forget all about summoners and vessels as soon as they look away. Do you get what that means?”
“Heh hehn(deadpan). I already super-sized get it.”
“That’s great, Isabelle, but I don’t think he understands just how serious the situation is yet. …And even if there’s a big event in the city, it’s probably not a good idea to have the airport workers wear costumes too. Their uniforms act as something like an ID.”
Miyama seemed to finally remember how to breathe.
He saw Maria lightly waving at Kyousuke and realized they had gone over his head. The dirty reality of authority and hierarchy dragged his mind back to the colorful world.
He had been humiliated here.
To anyone with bureaucratic power, that felt more damaging than being stabbed with an actual knife.
“What are those lowly hired hands doiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!?”
“It might be unofficial, but you’re the man in charge here and yet you fell for it more than anyone.”
Kyousuke did not bat an eye as the man stepped closer.
They glared at each other from only a few centimeters apart.
“Listen. If I can do this, then someone else can too. Just to be clear, expert assassins are a lot better at this sort of job than expert bodyguards. …Liar Cat will go even further. Once you understand that, rethink everything you’re doing here. They’re Freedom Award 920. That’s higher than 903.”
“Don’t you talk down to me! Do you have any idea who I am!?”
“Good question. Who were you again?” Kyousuke continued leaning against the door. “Were you the optimist who honestly believes bullets will magically avoid him? Or maybe you were the narrow-minded fool who has lost sight of the approaching threat because he’s so busy figuring out how to corner Aika since he hates her so much? No, maybe you were the coward who was willing to abandon all 3000 of his men just to get the last seat on the ark. …People’s reputations are just like summoner names; they’re chosen by the people around them. So what does that make you?”
“You…!! You dare criticize me while ignoring your own failure!?”
“We were after Girl’s Backdoor in the first place. Without Aika and Lu-san’s help, the initial diversion plan would have caused much more damage. Plus, the targets would all have been innocent civilian girls. And let’s not forget that we didn’t keep what we learned to ourselves. We sent Government detailed reports including sample Girl’s Backdoors. Although the only people who did anything useful with that information were Aika and Academia here. You didn’t put together any kind of plan, you ignored the threat to civilians, and then when your precious world police were attacked, you shove all the blame onto us? Didn’t I tell you that people don’t get to choose their own reputation? That’s up to the people around them.”
Kyousuke pointed to the other side of the room with his chin.
The military officer hesitantly turned around in time to hear a relaxed comment from Maria Heartocean who was looking at her fingernails on the sofa.
“To be honest, I don’t really care either way.”
“But Alice (with) Rabbit did a pretty good job of proving that I’m just waiting around to be killed under the current system. I’m not sure I like the sound of that. I can’t stop wondering why I should even listen to you when I can tell you’re going to fail.”
His career was dead in the water.
That simple fact burned through the last thread of rationality in the military officer’s head.
“I-I’ll kill you. I’ll beat you to death, you damn brat!!”
“Yes, yes. Thanks for playing.”
As the military officer tried to grab him, Kyousuke slammed the man’s face against the door, knocking him out in a single blow. Then he spoke indifferently.
“Now you won’t have to lose your life in your reckless evacuation operation, so I hope you’re at least a little thankful.”
“Nuuun(deadpan). I don’t think there’s even a small-sized chance of that.”
Kyousuke showed no respect for the organization or the slightest courtesy while intruding on someone else’s territory. It was true Aika and Lu Niang Lan had made a mistake, but he was essentially forcing Government to overlook it by threatening them. From beginning to end, he selfishly prioritized his own feelings, so he could never function properly in an organization.
That was exactly why Shiroyama Kyousuke belonged to Freedom rather than Government or Illegal.
Those who praised freedom above all else and hated any kind of restrictions would meet some level of resistance from society. But some of those people would force through it with their own strength and those were the people who had naturally gathered together and built a loose framework around themselves.
In that way, he was the same as Liar Cat.
If he was to take advantage of those traits, he had to understand them.
“So.” Maria looked away from her fingernails and asked a question. “What should I do now?”
“If you want a 100% chance of death, feel free to continue with Government’s plan. If you would prefer something risky but with a chance of survival, then help us.”
Kyousuke explained the counter-proposal they had come up with. It would minimize the damage and ensure they could predict and intercept Liar Cat’s attack. There was only one enemy pair, so even if it was risky, there was nothing to fear once that pair was defeated. To do that, they had to drag the most important piece of the Anthill Project - Maria - to the front line as bait. All other personnel and equipment would remain on standby. There would be no diversions or body doubles. By bringing the biggest target out in just the one place, Liar Cat would definitely take the bait, knowing full it was a trap. And when they knew the attack was coming, it would be easy to fight back.
In a way, the plan would show its effects much more quickly. But it was also like throwing the president out onto the battlefield alone to draw out the guerillas or terrorists. The king in shogi had nothing on the underside because it was assumed the king itself would not move out to the enemy side of the board to be promoted. It was a plan that the Government world police could never agree to.
It barely sounded like Maria Heartocean had even thought about her answer.
In fact, she so casually threw out Government’s standard assumptions that Kyousuke was a little worried that she had not even considered the fact that this was her life they were talking about.
“I never really cared who was handling the evacuation operation’s security or how they were doing it. As long as a product works, who cares who made it? As long as you have no reason to worry about its quality, that is.”
She was implying that the military officer collapsed on the floor had been inadequate.
Isabelle tilted her head.
“I’m medium-sized worried whether everyone will accept this.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. Government is all about the vertical divides, so they have to obey no matter how selfish the people above them get.”
“And I bet no one really wanted to be the sacrifice to let some VIPs escape safely. They’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that farce has been called off. Especially when the replacement plan lets them get back at Liar Cat.”
She waved her hand.
“Also, Aika-chan’s pretty popular around here. From what I’ve heard, she really looks after people in her middleman job, so she never leaves a summoner stuck in the middle of the battlefield and she acts as a buffer with Illegal and Freedom which helps them avoid needless killing. There must have been a lot of people with a hidden dislike of how all the blame was being shoved onto her. If we give a small push in the right direction, things will change a lot easier than you think.”
“Then let’s do that. I’d appreciate it if you contacted us once those adjustments are complete.”
“Oh? You’re going to look after me to the end?”
“No matter how it happened, I do feel responsible for the leaked information ‘in my own way’.”
“Are you sure it isn’t about Liar Cat?”
Shiroyama Kyousuke briefly fell silent at her smooth reply.
There was no real sarcasm or irony in Maria Heartocean’s voice. She was simply stating the facts with a boldness unique to Government.
“Freedom Award 920, Liar Cat. An unusual summoner who binds a contract with her client and thoroughly supports their revenge. For that reason, her vessel changes every time and can be seen as identical to her client. …Don’t forget that we are Government. We’re going to do our research on the enemy trying to take a bite out of us.”
And Maria continued.
“That means the summoner is in charge. Or rather, her beliefs and specs form Liar Cat’s identity. Which leads me to a very, very, verrrry interesting fact about this summoner named Biondetta.”
“Apparently, her full name is Biondetta Shiroyama. Interesting, no?”
Shiroyama Kyousuke temporarily parted ways with his vessel Isabelle.
Toy Dream 35’s P Block contained a lot of parks and sports fields and the rooftops were being proactively covered in greenery. Kyousuke was in one of the parks there. The artificial land was as large as a soccer field and it was forcibly supported fifty meters in the air with somewhere between a few dozen and over a hundred pillars. Although the park looked more like a café terrace thanks to the chain café there.
The short grass was dyed orange by the setting sun.
Thanks to the Delayed Walpurgis, people dressed as Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood were sitting at the large rectangular tables and chatting over coffee or tea. The tables had a billiards motif and it looked like the game could actually be played on them, but with all the water drops and stains, they did not look suitable for an official game.
With all the costumes everywhere, a normal hoodie stood out.
And he had been fully aware of that fact when he came here.
Kyousuke was casually enjoying a saccharine new product with honey, milk, cinnamon, and who knows what else inside an iced coffee. His left hand felt itchy in the leather glove.
Before he could even remove the ice cubes from the transparent cup, the demon arrived.
In this city’s twisted sense of “normal”, the demon was able to blend in more than him.
“May I sit here?”
The demon in a pink waitress uniform sat across from Kyousuke before he even answered.
She placed her cup, a mille crepe on a small plate, and a bottle of antibiotics on the edge of the table.
“You were waiting for me. How did you know I would be here?”
“To be honest, I had been keeping tabs on that Murasame Kuina you’re using as a vessel. I wasn’t able to put together an algorithm since I didn’t know who she was working with, but then Government contacted me. …They said the infamous Liar Cat had destroyed the Anthill in D Block.”
“The rest was easy. One: The Cheshire Cat likes to watch the evening scenery from an elevated place. Two: The Cheshire Cat cannot go three days without honey and cream. Three: The Cheshire Cat practices hitting balls for two hours a day to hone her fingers and ensure she does not forget that feeling. You would have begun to relax now that you had all the Anthill information you needed thanks to Aika. I figured you would want to increase your efficiency by intentionally taking some time to relax before getting to work, just like the Spanish siesta.”
“You don’t have to call me that every single time, you damn rabbit.”
The atmosphere grew so tense they could almost hear the sound of cracking glass.
But Kyousuke saw a nearby costumed café worker go pale as if overcome by sudden hyperventilation and the waitress demon took a bite of her mille crepe, so they both relaxed for their own reasons.
Time seemed to move once more, the oppressive sense of heavy glass left, and a normal atmosphere returned. The part-time worker in an orange pumpkin-style uniform quickly left.
The waitress demon smiled and clacked together the equipment next to her.
One was a strange Blood-Sign. A silver pipe was bent in two with a leather belt wrapped around it and a disposable handle carelessly attached to the side.
The other was a bolt-action sniper rifle that used 7.62mm rounds.
“I was fully aware of the danger, so I laid a trap. Didn’t you think I might start by sniping you even if I did come here?”
“I know you can read my algorithm to a certain extent.”
“You have your vessel positioned at the most likely spot, don’t you? So while I was lying there preparing to take the shot, she could take advantage of my narrowed focus and field of vision by hitting me over the back of the head.”
The demon took a sip of her tea and glanced to a different building’s rooftop.
Her vessel was not here either. She had laid a trap for his trap. In the end, their ideas may have been quite similar.
“But the Summoning Ceremony industry is surprisingly small. It seemed like some kind of mistake that we escaped that miniature garden 500 meters belowground, but here we are butting heads again.”
“You still haven’t really escaped that place.”
“Please, call me Detta. And is it really that surprising?”
Kyousuke narrowed his eyes as he watched Biondetta pour the antibiotics into her mouth straight from the bottle.
“A summoner that binds a contract to help people with their revenge? No, what you’re doing is different. You want to take revenge and you can’t forgive yourself, so you’re forcing those words out of other people’s mouths.”
“Hee hee hee! You’re one to talk, boy. I’m no different from you.”
“You help people because you hear the cursed words of ‘help me’? You don’t really want to do it? Don’t make me laugh. When you get down to it, you want to save them and you can’t forgive yourself, so you force those words out of other people’s mouths. We’re not so different. We want to do it, so we create a system that allows us to do it. Am I wrong?”
Salvation and revenge.
They stood at complete opposite positions, but this strange pair both saw what they were doing as “helping” people.
And they were both at the 900 level, so they had the incredible power needed to fulfill that request.
“No, I’m not like you. I really do want to wash my hands of all this.”
“You say that, but the second you hear those cursed words, you’ll jump right back in.”
“It is true that half the world’s problems might be my fault,” said Kyousuke to cut her off and drown her out.
A thick and hopeless darkness filled the depths of his eyes.
“But I also think it might be for the best if I stay out of it and don’t get involved. Taking responsibility is my own selfish desire and the world might be left with shallower wounds if I give up instead of making such poor attempts at a solution.”
“And leave the White Queen to do whatever she wants? When no one but you can even speak with her?”
“See? That changed the look on your face. You can’t escape this industry, boy. No matter what you say or think, there’s nothing you can do when it has influenced your very soul.”
“Shut up, you damn rabbit. I’m in a good mood right now.”
The reclaimed atmosphere ground to a halt once more, as if the world’s gears had jammed. The air of death that expanded did not allow the average person to even breathe adequately.
“Either way, I will not quit my revenge. Just like you and your addiction to saving people.”
“No matter what?”
“Yes, of course. That Fifteen Siblings Project held in the Queen’s Miniature Garden was quite the sinful project, but don’t you find it a fascinating sign that its products - that is, us - are involved in this incident?”
A closed miniature garden.
A facility that managed a certain number of people with a single social system and maintained a certain level of secrecy.
Fifteen people of different nationalities, religions, races, and sexes had been gathered together.
The project had been meant to thoroughly analyze familial and sibling bonds.
They wanted to make the planet one giant family.
But not as a mere ideology. In that grand farce, they had hoped to implant those bonds in all of humanity on the level of brain structure. They had truly believed that would act as the ultimate safety device that would bring an end to all conflict around the world.
To determine the effects under the harshest conditions the world had to offer, extreme environments had been artificially created using the greatest Materials of the Summoning Ceremony and the research data on them.
And this had produced…
“If you’re talking about the Anthills, you’re way off the mark.”
“But the sequence of events suggests that those were created based on data obtained from the wreckage of the Queen’s Miniature Garden. Of course, they never moved past the surface level and never even approached its true essence, but if they had, they would have gone far beyond simply mass-producing vessels, don’t you think?”
“Half of the fifteen died in that war and the other half reached the 900 level. Just as an honest question, do you really think that was all thanks to the ‘lessons’ there?”
“It’s impossible to know for sure at this point. But personally, I think it had more to do with our careless contact with the Queen. But I can’t even be sure of that. The Queen might see it in reverse. I get the feeling she would point at you and insist it was all her brother’s doing.”
It had not failed.
They had simply failed to predict what would happen once it succeeded.
“So you’re saying an incomplete Fifteen Siblings Project was turned into a vessel mass-production project?”
“If so, we have the right to tear it down since that project messed with our lives. I have a reason to take revenge and an excuse that justifies my doing so. Isn’t that exciting?”
Why had no one realized the truth?
It was true that certain kinds of love and affection might develop between families and siblings.
But it was not restricted to that.
For example, the death of any one of humanity’s seven billion people would bring the same shock as losing a close relative. So could anyone maintain their sanity when people died on a daily basis?
For example, there were feelings fostered by sibling bonds beyond love and affection…such as hatred. If that intimate hatred covered the world, wouldn’t the subsequent destruction be far deeper rooted than with normal negative emotions?
“How did this happen?” asked Kyousuke without expecting an answer. “A lot happened in the Queen’s Miniature Garden, but not all of the fifteen arrived on the same path as you. Cheshire Cat, what did you see there? How did you end up like this?”
“Shut the hell up, you damn rabbit. You’re the one that completed your Sewn Realm Summoning during the Fifteen Siblings Project. That stabilized the White Queen and allowed us all to view her from different angles. It may have been the Queen’s fear, the Queen’s passion, the Queen’s violence, or the Queen’s allure.”
The waitress demon counted on her fingers as she spoke.
“But you were the only one to see the Queen’s love. You’re the one I have a question for, you damn rabbit. How did you manage to keep your sanity? After seeing that incarnation of destruction, how were you able to accept the Queen? What did you learn about her that would allow you to even consider that possibility?”
Shiroyama Kyousuke’s mind went blank.
Unable to understand, he repeated the words as if throwing them back at her.
“You’re saying I’ve…accepted the White Queen?”
“Of course.” The demon smiled while pointing right at the boy’s nose. “I seek revenge because - no matter how nauseatingly disgusting I find it - the very roots of my soul were influenced by the Queen’s hatred I saw back then. Similarly…”
Oh, no, thought Kyousuke.
He could not let himself hear this. Because they knew each other so well, these fatal words would pierce straight through his heart’s defenses.
“Your ‘help me’ syndrome is a role the powerful White Queen was supposed to play, isn’t it? She is summoned because people seek her, she fights because she is called upon, she saves every last life through absolute victory, and even the enemy bows down to her after the battle. She is supposed to be a saint who saves two hundred when trying to save one hundred. …How can you snuggle up with the Queen with that refreshed look on your face? It’s just plain creepy.”
His mind fell into darkness.
Atop another building in P Block, another confrontation was underway among the greenery growing on the square rooftop.
It looked like a scene from a costume party.
Isabelle had been waiting on that building in case a sniper targeted Kyousuke during his meeting with Biondetta. When taking into account line of fire, wind direction, the layout of the buildings, the flow of the crowds, the location of the sun, etc., there were relatively few good sniper spots even in a wide open area. That was why there were experts who took all that into account and used it to their advantage.
As Isabelle waited there, she heard someone stepping on the gravel.
And as soon she looked that way…
“…I found you.”
“I finally found you!! Sayuri!!”
A girl with semi-long brown hair and an exposed midriff had suddenly appeared. It was Murasame Kuina. Isabelle’s eyes widened in confusion as the girl tightly wrapped her arms around her.
Still held in the girl’s arms, Isabelle pulled her head back a little.
“Nuuun(deadpan). You do not seem to be hiding the components to a super-sized sniper rifle, so I will attempt to engage you in conversation.”
“Hm? What is it, Sayuri?”
The red military uniform girl’s eyes clearly focused on the girl in front of her.
“My name is super-sized not Sayuri. It is Isabelle.”
“What are you talking about? Your name is not Isabelle!”
Isabelle stepped back several meters for no real reason.
She had not particularly changed her location and she was not hiding, but Murasame Kuina seemed satisfied and spoke to her more quietly this time.
“Listen. Your name is Kawamo Sayuri. You were a normal middle school girl living in Harukawa City…no, in Toy Dream 40. You haven’t had any military training and you aren’t part of some weird group called Government. You really are just a middle school girl. You would go home without participating in any clubs, you were awful at anything athletic, and you always stuck by my side!”
“Oh, honestly!! Just look at this picture! This is you!”
The girl grabbed the thin chain around her neck and pulled an accessory out from the chest of her clothing. It was about the size of a large coin and it seemed to be a locket. She snapped it open to reveal the face of a slender Asian girl with long black hair.
Isabelle viewed the photo from a distance instead of moving closer for a better look. She seemed to be keeping distance between them and keeping an eye out for a surprise attack while her focus was on the photo.
“My face is not this expressionless. Zuuun (deadpan). This is super-sized wrong.”
“The way you’re acting now is what’s wrong! That Anthill Project messed with your very soul!!”
Murasame Kuina grabbed the shoulders of the red military uniform and roughly shook Isabelle while shouting at her.
But it did not get through.
It was like an infinite panel of soundproof glass separated them.
“How much do you know about the spiritual damage research that Government has been doing?”
“Not even a small-sized amount.”
“Oh, honestly. At least that part of you hasn’t changed,” groaned the girl. “Listen. That’s a catchall term for all the impurities, bugs, errors, or whatever you want to call them that stick to people’s souls. They cause illness, insanity, and other bad things, so the usual desire is to find a way to get rid of them.”
“Now that you mention it, that is exactly what I thought it was. Point (deadpan).
“You weren’t thinking anything of the sort, were you? Anyway, they’ve shifted beyond that. Simply put, they want to improve people’s specs by attaching artificially-created spiritual damage to their souls.”
Kuina looked disgusted just saying it.
But she continued despite the bitter look on her face.
“It’s the digital version of what has long been known as an evil spirit or namanari. They start eating raw meat for nutrition, they grow horns from their head, they grow hair all over their body, and they grow claws and fangs… You can just think of it as redesigning a human. If they wanted to, they could probably give you wings to fly through the sky or gills to breathe underwater. And if Government can do that, surely you can tell that you mustn’t rely on your current appearance.”
In her red hat, Isabelle - or the girl going by that name - looked down at her hands.
That project added the traits of a vessel to artificially create vessels.
“Hey, you’re a vessel, so you know the penalty when you lose, right?”
“O-of course. I have a super-sized understanding of that. Ah ha ah ha ha (deadpan).”
“You do actually know that, don’t you!? A-ahem. The loser’s heart is hit by the same shock as seeing the god they worship killed before their eyes. They’re stuck in a mindless daze for twenty four hours and they’ll slowly obey what anyone says like a zombie. But it normally doesn’t leave any lasting effects. Yes, normally.”
“Am I not normal?”
“No. Government must have given you certain orders afterwards: ‘Stand and fight. Summon something in sound range *** with a cost of *** and then lose.’ The loser can’t fight a complex battle, but there may have been something assisting you. And what do you think would happen to a human soul after doing that every few minutes…no, every half minute or so?”
“Then I’ll tell you. There are different patterns to a damaged heart. By having you summon the Materials on a list put together for a certain purpose and then losing each time, they can reshape your soul how they want. It’s a lot like chiseling away at a stone pillar. …And that’s what Isabelle is. The pillar named Kawamo Sayuri was chiseled away again and again and again!! They chiseled away at you until you were an unrecognizable vessel!!”
Government was an ally of justice and they likely believed they were doing the right thing.
Even if they were creating a new table by taking apart, sawing at, and hammering at a beautiful paulownia dresser without knowing its value.
Thus, this was different from multiple personalities. It was more like a diamond created from a corpse.
The original person was no more. There was not a neat and tidy distinction between one and the other. Just as the picture in the locket and the blonde-haired blue-eyed military uniform girl looked nothing alike.
There was only Isabelle now.
“Hmm. Your claim does not even make a small-sized amount of sense.”
“Summoners and vessels work together as a set, so a summoner’s soul would have had to be destroyed along with mine.”
“The Anthills are supposed to mass-produce vessels, so destroying a summoner for each vessel is super-sized inefficient…”
“It’s simple. Government sacrificed someone. That’s all.”
“One-on-one, they would destroy a summoner along with the vessel. But they just had to pair the mindless and broken summoner with another vessel candidate. And then they just had to give their orders. That summoner just had to bind contract after contract after contract after contract after contract after contract… The summoner doesn’t actually die. They don’t die, but they have to continue the process forever. Their life becomes nothing more than losing mock battles alongside each new vessel candidate. That’s a tragedy in its own right. That is the truth of the Anthills.”
Everyone had called them Anthills.
They may have assumed that was in reference to the building or facility.
But it was not.
The ants were eating through a person, not a thing.
Just like letting maggots crawl through stinky cheese, they intentionally opened holes in a human soul that was on the verge of crumbling into nothingness. While smiling at the improved flavor and value, they viewed the collapse as a good thing. It was a noble’s game.
Murasame Kuina bit her lip and kept her voice low.
“It doesn’t look likely that it’s possible to make you Kawamo Sayuri again. The research on the soul itself hasn’t gotten far and the greatest experts are in Government. But Government is full of scum and a single mistake could kill you instantly or transform you into some bizarre form. There’s nothing we can do.”
At this point, the girl’s tone dropped even lower. Rather than coming from a vibration in her throat, it sounded like pure resentment seeping out from some other invisible organ.
“The people who did this and made you like this? I will send every last one of them to hell. Showing them hell isn’t enough. I need to send them all there. That’s all I can do, but because it’s all I can do, I will do it as best I can. You’ll see.”
Perhaps it was coming directly from her soul.
It was like a dark red mist that would be fatal to merely touch or inhale.
“So withdraw from all of this, Sayuri. You don’t need to protect them. You have no reason to. More importantly, the summoner I’ve bound a contract with is perfect. Biondetta will smash it all to pieces and I don’t want you caught in that.”
“I…” said the military uniform girl as her shoulders trembled. “I’m not very smart, so I don’t understand all these details even a small-sized amount.”
“Call me Isabelle. Sayuri doesn’t sound right to me.” She looked up. “But if I was created as something super-sized new after chiseling away a large pillar…”
She looked to the eyes of the girl she had once walked beside.
“And if, regardless of how it was made, it is a human soul that keeps me moving…”
And she said it.
Was this Kawamo Sayuri or Isabelle? Had this been there from the beginning or had it been added on later?
She did not know, but she spoke the honest thoughts in her mind.
“Then I don’t know if I should let my hatred destroy ‘this’.”
Isabelle heard the sound of teeth grinding together.
It came from Murasame Kuina. Her left hand trembled ominously in its leather glove. That was Girl’s Backdoor. When shaped like a gun, the strange device could control the young girl it pointed at. But Murasame Kuina did not aim it at Isabelle. She knew that was the simplest answer, but she could not let herself do it.
After all, Murasame Kuina knew that perfect answer had not come from the creation known as Isabelle. Her deep understanding of the girl named Kawamo Sayuri told her that.
That was the real problem.
“Why did they have to take so much from you…?”
It lit the fire.
Massive firepower danced inside the internal combustion engine known as revenge.
“Why did the girl who thought like that have to be chewed up and spat back out as something entirely different all for someone else’s benefit!? Why did someone who thinks like that have to have her heart destroyed!?”
“You weren’t chosen because you had one-in-a-billion talent. It wasn’t because you drew a legendary sword, because you were delivered by an angel from heaven, or because of any other grand trigger! Biondetta told me even I probably had better talent as a vessel. But Government chose you because they wanted to know if they could make something usable out of a completely normal person!! That was all!! Government gathered people like they were searching for files and throwing them in the trash! They gathered them and used them up!! And yet…!!”
“But that is not even a small-sized reason to overlook what you are doing now.”
“No one wanted you to do this.”
“I don’t want you to do this. I super-sized don’t want it.”
“Then!! What am I supposed to doooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!?”
Murasame Kuina let out a roar as if filling the world itself with her resentment.
She already knew that.
She had understood it from the very, very beginning.
Even if she had been worried, a kindhearted girl like Kawamo Sayuri would not want anyone to take vengeance on her murderer. If the alternative was someone dirtying their hands like that or letting it influence them forevermore, she would have preferred to be forgotten.
But Murasame Kuina could not accept that.
It was her, not anyone else in the world, who could not allow it.
Revenge was nothing more than a way of soothing one’s own heart. By losing oneself in the act of revenge, they could avoid looking at the unbearable loss that felt like an insurmountable wall towering before them.
She knew that.
She knew that, she knew that, she knew that!!
So was she supposed to coldly process the information and continue forward? Was the proper human response to trample on her anger and loss with the precision of a clock’s second hand and dispassionately continue on into the future?
She did not think so.
She did not care if that conclusion meant her gears were broken.
When it came down to it, the girl named Murasame Kuina did not want to forget.
The everyday life she had assumed would continue like normal had been cruelly destroyed beyond repair. Her childhood friend of ten years had been altered and destroyed until she did not even recognize her own name.
She did not want to accept that.
She did not want to move beyond that.
Her vengeance was directed at more than just a simple criminal. Society, the world, and the current age acted as tyrants who could only make justifications for using overwhelming quantity and speed to wash away, fade, and erode what she cared about most. She did not want that and could not accept that, so to protect “what had once been”, she acted alone to face it all.
A fierce wind blew back at her.
A great pressure pushed back at her like a flash flood or a landslide.
But the girl had challenged it all head-on and made it this far.
And so much of her had been worn away in the process.
“I refuse to accept it.”
Her voice sounded like the heavy creaking of a giant rusty gear being forced into motion.
“This might all be for naught and I might be meaninglessly running away from reality, but I don’t care. Those people tore Kawamo Sayuri to shreds and feasted on the profit, so I absolutely refuse to just let them go! Even if the entire world and you yourself don’t want it!! I still won’t accept it!!!!”
That was likely a form of justice.
And that made it much harder to stop than a simple evil deed.
Revenge was a justice that did not forgive, did not save, and did not bring happiness.
Isabelle finally spoke as if she had been overwhelmed.
The unclear sound grew to a quiet voice.
But she was not asking to be saved from this revenge.
Nor was she speaking on behalf of the researchers who had created her.
The face in the picture did not look right.
The name she heard did not sound right.
But this was still someone who was willing to express anger on her behalf.
“Please help my friend.”
Shiroyama Kyousuke had first met Isabelle before binding a contract with her to take down the old-fashioned Illegal fighters over the Pacific.
It had been aboard the large Repliglass transport ship known as a Whooper Swan.
He had first asked if her name really was Isabelle.
She had not understood the point of the question, so she had answered that any name was fine: Sayuri, Isabelle, Before, or After. Even Doll or Weapon was acceptable. What she was called had no real meaning.
The boy had looked up into the sky.
When she had asked why, he had simply held a file out toward her.
It had given the name of their expected enemy.
A vessel was after revenge and working with an unknown summoner.
The vessel’s name was Murasame Kuina.
The file had nothing to do with the midair battle over the Pacific. Shiroyama Kyousuke had already found bits and pieces of information on the enemy they were expected to run into that after that skirmish was over.
And he had known the reason behind the girl’s revenge.
He had not known what Government was doing, but he had known that Isabelle was the result and that some kind of sacrifice had been made.
None of it had held much meaning for Isabelle.
She could not remember her original face or name.
Nothing in the file had seemed real to her.
The created girl named Isabelle had felt a slight ache in her heart when she saw the attached photo. She had not wanted that person to dirty their hands or destroy their body for her. She had not known where that feeling came from, but she had obeyed who she was at the moment. She had accepted it as correct.
The words had naturally left her lips.
She had pointed to her own chest with her thumb and relied on the slight feeling that remained inside her.
“Help this girl’s friend.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
The summoner had shaken his head.
And he had said something else instead.
“But I’ll lend you a hand as soon as you’re willing to call her your friend.”
A metallic sound burst out.
It came from Shiroyama Kyousuke and Biondetta.
They had both pulled out an Incense Grenade and slammed the bottom of it against the café billiards table.
It was like slamming down an empty glass after downing a strong drink.
The savior and the avenger glared at each other across the rectangular table.
“I will save Isabelle and her friend.”
“Oh? You aren’t giving in even after I brought up the Queen? How rare.”
“I don’t care if I’m contradicting myself. I can think that through later. None of that has anything to do with Isabelle who is asking for help right this instant.”
“Hee hee. You are obsessed with battle, aren’t you? The two of us are so very similar.”
She could say whatever she wanted.
She could mock and deride him however she wished.
With his eyes displaying renewed faith in himself, Kyousuke reached for the pin of the Incense Grenade he pressed against the table.
Horned Biondetta responded in kind.
The savior rabbit made a definite declaration.
The vengeance cat spoke in the exact same tone of voice.
“I will never stop helping people.”
“I will never stop helping people.”
They pulled the pins.
They kicked their chairs back as they stood up and simultaneously pulled out their Blood-Signs. After precisely five seconds, both Incense Grenades detonated. A twenty meter Artificial Sacred Ground was constructed and the two vessel girls were forcibly called over from the distant building rooftop.
“Let’s do this, Biondetta!!”
“I have decided on a super-sized reward for myself! So I will fight that girl!!”
The battle had begun before the girls even landed.
It was an extreme close-range fight. The opening ritual was the breaking of the three-dimensional Rose made of Petals, but they interfered with even that.
Biondetta acted first. With an explosive sound, she fired a sniper rifle round at close range.
She had yet to unfold her Blood-Sign, so she pulled the trigger in that state.
Kyousuke forcibly kept it away with his Repliglass Blood-Sign and rotated the Blood-Sign to let the force escape. He swung the long rod around for a powerful blow, but Biondetta used her folded gun barrel to hold it back and forcibly grabbed the heated joint of hers. She ignored the disconcerting sizzling sound as she unfolded the Blood-Sign. A second and third exchange followed.
They slipped through the slightest opening to launch White Thorns.
One from each of them struck the Rose simultaneously and the 216 Petals scattered across the Artificial Sacred Ground.
As the Petals were hit into the Spots, the two vessels changed form.
Murasame Kuina became the Original Green (k). Sound Range: Middle. Cost: 1.
Isabelle became the Original Yellow (s). Sound Range: High. Cost: 1.
They were both three meter slime Materials, but then something strange happened.
Kyousuke and Biondetta climbed directly onto the billiards table and directly clashed before the Materials could.
The attempt was obstructed by their protective circles, but those monsters of the 900s did not care.
“Shut up, you damn rabbit!!”
They glared at each other.
It was almost like infighting in boxing, except they fought with their 180cm Blood-Signs.
Not even the Blood-Signs could break through the enemy’s protective circle, but anything else was fair game. When one Blood-Sign left its protective circle, the other would strike it. They deflected, diverted, and pushed. They worked to throw off their opponent’s aim, obstruct the growth of their Material, and gain the advantage themselves.
They seemed to be using spear or staff techniques, but it went beyond that.
The essence of a battle between summoners was building up their Materials and having them clash violently.
They would find slight gaps in the direct battle or work the interference into their plans and thus use the diverted path of their Blood-Sign to launch their White Thorns accurately around the Artificial Sacred Ground. A cushion of three or four ricochets was standard. Sometimes, they needed a complex set of six or seven ricochets to accurately hit the necessary Petal into a Spot.
This was a battle between those at the 900 level.
This was the realm of the monster children born from the results of the Fifteen Siblings Project.
It was a clash between savior and avenger.
Learning the rules of the occult and treating the Summoning Ceremony like a game…was just plain silly. This was the ultimate form of the ceremony in which they used everything the world had to offer in order to bring down the enemy before their eyes.
Kyousuke had the Feasting Flower (l v z - j). Sound Range: High. Cost: 4.
Biondetta had the Dancing Hammer (k k - h d i). Sound Range: High. Cost: 5.
Kyousuke had the Blood-Seeking Spear (b i h - e i - d p - t q). Sound Range: Low. Cost: 9.
Biondetta had the Scorpion’s Tail in the Sandstorm (h u - c e - k k - d i - a - x). Sound Range: Low. Cost: 10.
Kyousuke had the Glittering Steel Mantis Reaper 05 (v i - o u - q u c - s n - a - r o l - e i - y w - f v - l i). Sound Range: Middle. Cost: 21.
Biondetta had the Bubbling Gears that Bring Aging and Reap Lifespans (n j - o u - h a - j v - a - l m - e i -t z - k r - n o - x i - g). Sound Range: Middle. Cost: 22.
One was a five meter mantis seemingly made of silver armor. That ultimate predator sliced through everything with its scythes that glittered like laser blades, bit into it all, brought it to its mouth, and chewed it apart.
The other was a collection of countless gears of varying size, making it one of the most inorganic Materials. That bizarre sadist sent the grinding sound of its interlocking gears slipping into the target’s ears, which caused them to rapidly age like some kind of curse.
Kyousuke had made the first move, but Biondetta had followed after and always matched his sound range. Plus, her cost was always one above his. As he was acting first, Kyousuke’s Material was naturally more worn down and cost was everything in the same sound range, so it was like being forced into a race where your rival’s car was always blocking the way ahead.
But that just meant he had to put a stop to that.
During their high-speed exchange of White Thorns, Kyousuke used every method he had to interfere with her: grabbing at her Blood-Sign with his, throwing a smoke or stun grenade disguised as an Incense Grenade, using his Blood-Sign to grab at the coffee or tea cups on the tables and throw them at her, etc.
But none of it got through.
She kicked away the smoke grenade, she placed a metal tray over the stun grenade and stomped on it, she dodged the drink containers so they would not even hit her protective circle.
And in response, Biondetta spread her legs to shoulder width.
Kyousuke naturally grew cautious of what was hidden up that short skirt.
(Is it an interference style of grenade!?)
Hearing that, he realized the action had been a feint.
He quickly looked up just in time to hear Biondetta clack her back teeth unnaturally. The sharp light of a magnesium reaction escaped the demon’s mouth and stabbed into his eyes.
“Isn’t being two steps ahead the standard for us?”
In that slight pause and safe period she had created, Biondetta’s Blood-Sign rapidly launched a White Thorn. It was not a strength-focused power shot. She just barely grazed the far right edge of the glowing white sphere for an intense spin shot. The White Thorn drew a sharp curve like a boomerang and accurately struck a certain Petal.
“My formation is already complete.”
It was a small pile of three or four Petals.
And when they scattered, they reached other piles.
And on and on and on.
“My mirror-image copying strategy is only a smokescreen to hide my true intent.”
More and more Petals were hit like falling dominoes, the chain reaction grew, and they were all flooded into the Spots. With each one, Biondetta’s Material grew with frightening speed. Instead of a great number at once, it was a great number in a row. She built up the cost in no time as if running up a flight of stairs.
“And that true intent is to lay landmines which trigger a chain reaction!! Once the avalanche has begun, you have no way to stop it!!”
It was like a clean sweep.
The next thing he knew, she had exceeded a level that could be described with cost difference and sound range.
As Biondetta shook her tail decoration, a tall dark figure spoken of in Egyptian mythology stood next to her. That evil god was the symbol of injustice who ruled over dryness and darkness. He had killed Osiris, ruler of the underworld, and temporarily taken his throne.
In other words, this was from the Divine-class.
Kyousuke was still stuck in the Regulation-class, so there was simply no way for him to defeat this.
“Farewell, savior. Farewell, my despicable mirror-image.”
Biondetta lightly spun her Blood-Sign around like a baton as she smiled thinly. She rested the long rod on her shoulder and spoke.
“When you next wake, this will all be over. So rest easy and enjoy the taste of defeat.”
The waitress demon snapped her other hand’s fingers.
A moment later, the darkness rushed in.
The dark figure’s silhouette crumbled into a deadly mist that dried up everything it touched. And that flew toward Kyousuke’s Material…toward Isabelle.
No Regulation-class Material of any sound range could defeat a Divine-class.
Thus, she should have been destroyed in a single blow.
And she would have been if not for the high-pitched sound as Kyousuke himself cut in between them inside his protective circle.
That circle would remain as long as his Material was not destroyed and he would not experience the mindlessness of defeat.
The protective circle defended against all external and internal factors that would obstruct the summoner…or rather, the ceremony itself.
Biondetta spun around the Blood-Sign that had been resting on her shoulder.
“Stalling for time earns you nothing.”
“True, this doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. And this cheap trick won’t work again. My kinetic vision can’t keep up with a Divine-class’s movements. And more importantly, all Materials are filled with combative instincts, so it’ll probably charge at me itself.”
If this strategy was effective, the theory of these battles would be very different. The summoners would stand out front to receive all the attacks while the Material bombarded their enemy from safety.
But that was not how things worked.
The Material moved out front and the summoner stayed back. There was a good reason for that.
“But it took you an awful long time to set everything up, didn’t it? The Artificial Sacred Ground lasts for an average of ten minutes. So how much time has passed? Eight minutes? Nine? The White Thorns are recharged every ten seconds, so it shouldn’t be that hard to keep track of the time.”
“You don’t mean…?”
“I just have to escape.”
He thrust his Blood-Sign forward this time.
“Besides, this isn’t our real fight. So thanks for showing off that special strategy that I’m sure you’ve put a lot of effort into developing. I think I’ll put that data to good use when it comes to our evacuation operation.”
“You…you damn rabbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!”
Kyousuke did not respond to Biondetta’s rage.
He spoke to his partner instead.
“Isabelle, destroy our footing!!”
“Isabelle, don’t get too hung up on this one chance!!”
<Gashiiiin (deadpan). I want three scoops of maple cream ice cream as a super-sized compromise.>
The ground split and swallowed up everything.
Kyousuke, Biondetta, and the two Materials all fell straight down. They fell several dozen meters within the forest of dozens…no, of more than a hundred pillars that supported the large park. They fell straight toward the ocean below.
“Ma’am!! You can do it now! Focus your aim on…”
As soon as Biondetta shouted to her vessel, the protective circle wavered around her. Then it vanished and the powerful wind struck her unprotected body from below.
(The ten minutes are up!?)
The monsters created from the girls returned to their original forms.
(But that’s fine. Wherever we land, I just have to use an Incense Grenade…no, my sniper rifle…!!)
Biondetta’s mind was boiling, but then she noticed Kyousuke smiling thinly her way as they both fell at the same speed.
His lips moved.
His voice did not have time to reach her, but she could tell what he was saying.
“Your protective circle is gone.”
“So you need to be careful. There’s nothing left to protect you.”
“Wha…!? Oh, no!?”
She did not have time to shout.
One of the countless pillars had something like a metal tower or framework sticking out horizontally. As soon as she spotted that maintenance crane shaft with its attached pulley, a dreadfully dull sound burst out.
Kyousuke did not bother checking what happened to Biondetta after she vanished from view. He extended his arms and legs to control his midair position and approached Isabelle who was also falling.
He held her in his arms and aimed for the ocean surface.
They produced a mighty splash.
An object quietly swayed back and forth in midair.
It was the waitress demon named Biondetta.
Just before colliding with the crane shaft, she had used the wind pressure and her position to twist around like an acrobat jumper and wrapped her entire body in the long leather belt that normally held her Blood-Sign. And instead of randomly, it was calculated out to distribute the impact to her body like a parachute harness.
Then she had intentionally wrapped it around the metal framework of the crane shaft to fully escape the impact that should have torn off a limb if not breaking her torso in two.
Her cellphone rang.
She answered it while still dangling down and heard the voice of her client and vessel Murasame Kuina.
“Where are you!?”
“If you look up, you should see my finest pair of adult underwear.”
“Well, as long as you can still move. I landed in the water safely, so let’s decide where to meet up.”
“Yes, of course. But please be on the lookout for that damn rabbit. He loves tricks as much as me, so I could see him finding you on your own and defeating you to avoid the battle between summoners.”
“Then you come get me.”
She manipulated the leather belt so it seemed to move on its own like a strange tentacle and she managed to climb on top of the complicated framework of the crane shaft.
The closest emergency staircase was three meters away, but she did not hesitate to take the jump without a running start. She did not reach the landing on her level, but her feet accurately found the landing a level lower.
“It hurts that he managed to get away with knowledge of our technique. Biondetta, do you have a way to make up for that lost advantage?”
“I will prepare anything you desire, ma’am.”
Biondetta jumped more than ran down the emergency stairs located alongside the pillar.
“I already explained that there is a good possibility that their evacuation operation and bodyguard plan have been changed, didn’t I?”
“What about it?”
“Given the balance of power within Government, that damn rabbit won’t be able to change their bodyguard plans so easily. To put it another way, they’ll ignore him at some point. And that will create friction. I just need to read his algorithm. I just need to ask what I would do.”
“Get to the point.”
“I can settle this with a single phone call.”
She arrived at the lowest level which was just off the ocean’s surface.
She removed the cellphone from her ear and spoke directly to the soaking wet girl in front of her.
“What demon doesn’t whisper into the ear of an impure soul to bend them to her will?”
Kyousuke and Isabelle had arrived on the opposite bank.
The leather glove on his left hand felt uncomfortable after soaking up the seawater, but he could not complain.
They climbed onto the concrete base and used the emergency stairs to arrive at a giant bridge covered in pedestrians. He casually glanced around, but the costume event worked against him here. That striking waitress uniform would be buried among all the outfits of the Delayed Walpurgis.
The Government coordinator spoke to him over his smartphone.
“Alice (with) Rabbit, Government has made some adjustments based on your request. For the withdrawal operation, we can spare a Stingray Repliglass transport ship and a Blue Whale Repliglass submarine. They will be carrying the classified server that acts as the core unit of the entire Anthill Project and Miss Maria Heartocean who leads the project. Is that acceptable?”
“I have emailed you the details of the plan, but simply put, the Stingray will pick up Miss Heartocean within Toy Dream 35, carry her to the Blue Whale outside the city, and that will dive to bring her out of the country. You can only help in the Stingray zone which is the only part that Liar Cat can attack.”
“That’s fine. The Cheshire Cat is bound to show up no matter how obvious a trap it is. She isn’t going to wait for her revenge to grow cold.”
“…Are you saying you’ve already made contact with her?”
Kyousuke hung up without answering.
Isabelle shook her head like a wet dog and looked up at him with water dripping from her.
“I said it in the beginning.”
“As long as you fulfill my objective in the very, very end, I’ll go along with a super-sized number of detours.”
“I remember. So let’s go save your friend who’s been deceived by that liar of a cat. …It’s true she may have been the initial spark, but it never would have grown this much without that Cheshire Cat continually dumping fuel onto it.”
What was salvation to the girl named Isabelle and what could he do to help her?
Not even he knew that anymore.
She was a cheaply and simply made vessel. For that purpose alone, her soul had been eaten away, her physical appearance had crumbled due to that, and not even her own parents or best friend could have recognized the pitiful ruins she had become. She was what had budded from that.
But the girl had hoped for something.
Her sense of self, mind, personality, memories, and everything else were only vaguely defined, but she had still wanted to save the friend whose name and face she could not remember but who she had apparently once walked alongside.
That was her most pressing desire and she felt granting it would save her as well.
So Alice (with) Rabbit would respect the definition Isabelle had found for herself.
He would respect the heart that, before even thinking of saving herself, had wished to return that misguided friend to the proper path.
“I’ll ask you as many times as it takes. Bow (deadpan).”
“Please help my friend.”
It was only slightly different from the cold and distant request she had made before.
But the words had definitely come from the small girl’s heart.
It was not someone’s empty shell.
It was not the mere vestiges of someone.
It truly came from the heart of the girl named Isabelle.
Kyousuke still had no definite definition of what would save this girl.
But he smiled just a little.
In the end, he was taking the same path as Biondetta. It was a twisted path that could never be seen as straight. At first glance, it looked like he was granting a request, but he was really drawing out the words he most wanted to hear. He knew that, but he was still satisfied.
Even if that path was about to crumble away, he still believed it could bear the weight of at least one life.
“As you wish.”
The summoner and the vessel disappeared into the crowd.
The sun would set soon.
Then the all-important Anthill evacuation operation would slice through the darkness.
They had been together since they were little.
They had always, always been together.
Even among childhood friends and groups of friends, a leader or a hierarchy tended to form. But that sort of distortion never seemed to form between Murasame Kuina and Kawamo Sayuri.
They could decide who made the day’s decisions with a coin toss.
Sometimes Murasame Kuina would tug on her friend’s hand and head out to play, but other times Kawamo Sayuri would selfishly insist they were going out to eat ice cream and crepes. If someone had asked them who the leader was, they both would have immediately pointed at their own face and said “me”. But that was fine. That was why they were truly equal friends, unlike the other groups whose equality was only skin deep.
“Kuina-chan, over here.”
“Eh heh heh. We’re in the same class again.”
“What should we do over the next break? Is there anywhere you want to go?”
Of course, it was a human relationship, so there had been complications.
But in the end, they had shared everything.
They had always found themselves smiling together once it was all over. They had been the best of friends.
No matter what happened, they had assumed there was no way they could ever be separated.
“Let’s make a promise.”
“If either of us runs into some kind of trouble, we’ll go help each other out.”
“It’s a promise. Okay, Sayuri?”
Murasame Kuina remembered something that filled her with despair.
She stood by a grave as the sun set. She had made it herself. There had been no remains and no one knew whether Kawamo Sayuri was alive or dead, so the grave was empty.
“I told myself I wouldn’t cry in front of her,” she muttered as the waitress demon stood next to her. “But she must have told herself the same thing. She was a crybaby and a worrier. It was the worst possible combination, but she was always smiling in front of me.”
She remembered. Only Murasame Kuina remembered.
The girl had seemed plain and quiet, but she had actually been a jack-of-all-trades who could do anything. But she had never noticed her own value and instead focused on collecting mascots like Juddark and Sheriff Kitty even after entering middle school. Instead of climbing to the next stage, she had believed happiness lay in what she already had. She had been Cinderella before finding the fairy godmother.
It was a meaningless conversation.
The endlessly dry air blew between the two of them.
And finally, Biondetta quietly spoke.
“There is no need to restrain yourself any longer.”
That had been her limit.
Murasame Kuina’s face crumpled and something clogged inside her flowed out. Her tear ducts opened and large clear drops filled her eyes.
Before they could fall down her cheeks, the waitress demon embraced the girl.
All she could do was cry.
All the words she had been holding back spilled out and she shouted at the world’s unfairness.
“Why did it have to be Sayuri? Why did she have to be chosen, why did she have to have everything taken from her, and why did she have to be made into a toy for whoever those Government people are!? Why did she have to have her soul messed with and her body and personality destroyed! That…that isn’t Sayuri anymore! She looks like a French doll made from her body!! Why did something so terrible have to happen to her!?”
Biondetta said nothing.
She simply waited as her client let out everything she had kept bottled up in her chest.
“And worst of all, why don’t we have the power to turn her back into Sayuri!? I don’t care about any of this summoner or vessel stuff. I couldn’t care less about the gods or the Unexplored-class beyond them!! If you have so much power stored up, then why can’t you save just one girl!?”
It was a lament of despair.
It was a cry of resentment toward herself and others and a call for the destruction of the world.
But Biondetta did not laugh. Nor did she show any disgust or mockery.
Who had decided that the will of the world mattered more than individual circumstances? Who had decided that a small heart had to be crushed when it saw that giant metal ball at the top of a slope?
It had nothing to do with logic, efficiency, calculations, or profit.
What was wrong with fighting simply to fulfill one’s own heart?
Biondetta quietly spoke to Murasame Kuina who continued to bawl in her arms like a child.
“It is true I lack the power to save Miss Kawamo Sayuri. My power may not be what you truly desire.”
She spoke earnestly and sincerely.
She gathered strength in the arms around the girl.
“But if you wish, I will assist you with any form of revenge. There is no need to worry about the realistic difficulty of it. I am Freedom Award 920, Liar Cat. I am nothing more than a tool to accomplish your revenge.”
The girl simply sobbed for a while.
But as time slowly passed, Murasame Kuina wrapped her arms around the waitress demon’s back. She grabbed at the fabric and clenched it so very, very tightly that it nearly tore.
“Lend me your strength, Biondetta…”
That resentful voice seemed to echo up from the depths of hell.
At the same time, it was the voice of a girl who felt hopelessly trapped.
“I can never forgive Government!! They turned Sayuri into that!! They tore our memories to pieces! And yet they have the nerve to call themselves the world police!! So I don’t care if it’s wrong or if it means straying from the proper path! Lend me your strength, Biondetta!! I need that for my…no, for our revenge! So help me!! Help us!!!!!”
Still embracing the girl who was as dangerous as shattered glass, Biondetta silently smiled.
And the demon spoke the decisive words.
“As you wish.”
*Shiroyama Kyousuke and Biondetta Shiroyama are both Summoning Ceremony experts raised in the Fifteen Siblings Project. Each participant came into contact with the White Queen and later either died or became a summoner at the 900 level, but the individual details, survival, and affiliation are unknown.
*Similarly, Kyousuke seems to have taken in the White Queen’s love and Biondetta the White Queen’s hatred. Biondetta’s speech patterns and general behavior show some similarities with the Queen, but details are unknown.
*The Anthills are much like imitations built up from the wreckage of the Fifteen Siblings Project. However, it became something entirely different due to a failed understanding of that project’s true meaning.
*Isabelle’s real name is Kawamo Sayuri and she is Japanese. The Anthill Project had someone experience repeated planned losses in the Summoning Ceremony over a short period of time to intentionally carve away at their soul and create the spiritual traits needed as a vessel.
*Maria Heartocean destroyed Kawamo Sayuri’s soul and constructed Isabelle.
*If multiple summoners use Incense Grenades simultaneously and their Artificial Sacred Grounds come into contact, the Artificial Sacred Grounds will fuse. Ownership of the Artificial Sacred Ground remains with the summoner who set up theirs first.
*The protective circle can be used to stop Material attacks (although there are exceptions such as the White Queen). But based on the Material’s mobility, the summoner can only react once or twice at the most, so it is not a good long-term strategy.
*The girl said she wanted Shiroyama Kyousuke to help the avenger named Murasame Kuina…no, to help “her” friend.
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