The plaza in front of Center, she called it. The stairs they had started to climb in the cave let out like the entrance to a subway station. And what spread out before their eyes was truly a city, an urbanscape. Rather than in front of Center, they were in an open space smack dab in the middle of center street. That was Hideo’s first impression.
“Master, that building is called Center, apparently.”
Wilco scanned the map she took out from the envelope and pointed straight forward. Only a single building rose so high he had to crane his head up to see it, it towered over the rest. More than a building, it had a sleek silhouette like it had been built as a landmark. Made to sprout straight up from the base with the summit as a single sharp point, it was as if it was built to symbolize the essence of a tournament.
As always, it didn’t show on Hideo’s face, but deep in the Okutama Mountains, he had stumbled upon a flock of buildings and a modern plaza like Ebisu Garden Place.
(This is. A surprise.)
And in that fashionable brick-lain park, the pre-tournament festival had begun.
Around him hundreds of them, men and woman, young and old. From those who he would have to assume to be cosplaying had this been Akihabara, to those who looked just like Hollywood SFX. Those that would never show their forms under the light of normal society, a literal riffraff at the round tables dotting the plaza, eating and drinking a great deal, gathering their wits and their spirit for the unprecedented event that was about to begin.
(I am. Hungry.)
To Hideo, who had only eaten white rice for the past month, this scene truly was,
(A spinning merry-go-round… eh.)
His stomach was crying out as well.
“Master, quit making that scary face. If you want to eat, then eat. Those are the eyes of a starved beast.”
If he could enter that circle just because she told him to, Hideo would never have come down with stay-at-home syndrome. He was terribly terrible with crowds
“Wilco. What about you?”
Now just how human was this spirit of the digital world who had achieved corporeal form?
“How rude. Wilco is a computer virus, she can only eat peoples’ precious data.”
(… Now that’s troublesome.)
And overpowered by the festive mood of the venue, Hideo stood frozen on the spot.
“First that policewoman, then Ryuuta… you’ve really got some nerve, entering the tournament at the very last second.”
When he turned, there was an old man holding a cigar in his mouth diagonally, leading a dog along. Naturally, since he was here, he was no ordinary old man.
“But those are some nice eyes. I see, it’s just as Ryuuta said… I thought the youth these days had lost it. Those are a warrior’s eyes.”
An olive-colored military uniform with a beret of the same color. His physique was more than a size larger than Hideo’s. While he couldn’t make out any rank insignia or medals, the splendidness of the groomed beard around his mouth, the breadth of his shoulders, the thickness of his chest, the air he gave as if he only stood his back straighter with age.
There was only one word to describe him.
“Do you know him, master?”
Wilco asked from the side, and before he could answer.
“Oh… to think you’d be able to discern my rank at your age. I don’t know where or how you’ve walked but… you must have lived quite the unfortunate life.”
Misfortune was misfortune, for what it was worth, but colonel was just a presumption based on his appearance. Still, if he was going that far, there was no doubt this colonel had traversed quite the harsh battlefield.
(A formidable foe.)
Not that it made any difference. Everyone in this plaza was definitely stronger than him anyway, Hideo got to thinking.
“Are you acquainted with Ryuuta?”
“Ryuuta? Yeah, he’s something like my pupil.”
That Ryuuta who matched that policewoman at lightning speed. What’s more, this was his master.
“Then when did you enter the venue?”
“I got here a year ago.”
Wilco’s face cramped up. She couldn’t help it, the point was that this man entered the venue the moment after the tournament was announced.
“I should introduce myself. My name is George Redfield. I was the first participant to enter this venue, and the one most familiar with the playing field… right now, they’re calling me the strongest contender.”
(… Looks like he really is a formidable foe.)
It made him relieved the ball hadn’t dropped yet.
“Wilco is Wilco.”
“Yeah, best regards. There’s no need for you to worry. While I said all that, the part I want to stress is my knowledge on the playing field. Thanks to that, the organizers asked me to wait around the entrance and guide newcomers through the city. It’s too late for any more than a verbal explanation, but if you have any questions, I’ll answer. So you got anything?”
Questions? Rather, he didn’t know anything. If the tournament began without understanding a thing, he would be more than anxious. This was his chance.
“If the organizers put him up to it, we shouldn’t have to worry about lies. Let’s ask away, Master.”
Hideo sincerely nodded.
“Then. If you could, please.”
“It’s nothing difficult,”
Colonel Redfield gave as a preamble.
“The venue, this city itself… was the organizer’s idea, apparently. The city is built around the ‘center district’ we’re in right now, and the areas around it are divided into the ‘residential district’, ‘industrial district’, ‘shopping district’ and ‘nature district’. Participants are free to live and fight anywhere they want in this city.”
“Yes, yes! Wilco has a question! How’s the internet connection!?”
The virus asked something quite inconsequential.
“Water, gas, electricity, and connection… they have all the important infrastructure for modern society. If you’re dissatisfied with that, I’m sure you could live in the nature district. From what I could see, they were quite plentiful in flora and fauna. You could make quite a good living if you have the survivalist knowhow. Of course, it’s more than possible to lay an ambush in the bush.”
And that part seemed inconsequential to the virus. Getting bored and teasing the dog the Colonel brought along, she hid behind Hideo the moment it barked.
(… It’s a Doberman.)
Most likely a military dog. It looked like it was exceptionally disciplined. While it wore a choker, there was no chain connecting it to anything.
“… How exactly are we going to live here?”
“You’ll probably be living in the residential district. They’ve got houses, mansions, apartment complexes… you name it. Free of charge, of course, but unfortunately, it’s first-come-first-serve.”
They probably wouldn’t have much luck with what was left over.
Luckily, Hideo was quite accustomed to living in a dirt-cheap apartment, and his nature was such that a vast room would contrarily be poison to his soul. When it came to Wilco… the computer was her home, so it didn’t matter.
“Other than that, it’s made so you can find everything you need here… in the center district.”
There the colonel pointed at the dazzling high-rise building, the first thing to capture Hideo’s eye.
“That’s the Centralle Building that serves as tournament headquarters… commonly referred to as Center. Apart from that, there’s a hospital, post-office, library, most standard public facilities are gathered in the center district. That’s why you can see so many buildings around. You can use the center district’s facilities for free at any time. Feel free to use them if you’re ever in the need.”
“Ni hi hi hi hi. All sorts of places loaded with important information.”
Hideo didn’t want to be kicked out, he prayed she kept herself in check.
“But if you want material goods, you’ll have to use tickets to purchase them, no exceptions. You should start off with food, clothing and weapons… but that’s not all, you should be able to obtain mostly anything in the shopping district.”
He had already heard that at the reception desk, at least he managed to confirm it. A thought suddenly struck Hideo prompting him to gently raise his hand.
“What if you run out. Of tickets?”
“You can earn them, of course. Underneath Center’s a labyrinth teeming with monsters.”
A word he was more than used to in games and manga, but far too unfamiliar with in reality.
“What are monsters?”
“Well, they’re monsters. Creatures you can fight. In accordance with the strength and numbers of the monsters you defeat, the organizers will pay out a reward. It’s quite an easy source of income…”
“Wai, wait a second, you… why do you know it’s easy?”
Wilco retorted. Hmhmm, he stroked his beard and laughed.
“I told you that you can use the center district’s facilities at any time, right?”
“From the moment you entered the venue?”
“That’s right. There are already plenty of competitors who’ve earned a considerable amount of tickets. Thanks to that, even those who came improperly equipped are now abundantly armed.”
(… A disadvantage.)
An overwhelming disadvantage.
Not just in information, in goods as well. In the first place, how much were the tickets he got from the receptions desk worth? And what was the cost of living here? Hideo couldn’t even determine that.
The colonel added on.
“One other thing, the basement labyrinth has an interesting effect.”
His somber emotion tormenting him, Hideo asked whatever he could.
“What would that be?”
“The deeper you go down, the stronger the monsters are. And your lowest floor and rewards earned are displayed as a ranking. It’s a concrete way to gauge a competitor’s strength.”
Diving deeper would mean you would have to defeat foes just that much stronger. The opponents were set as monsters with a fixed difficulty setting. In which case, the participants could all fight on equal terms. The ranking was impartial with little room for doubt…
Wilco raised her index finger.
“The current rank one is,”
The colonel chewing on a high-class cigar stuck out his chest to answer. Since he came a year ago, that cigar had to be something he purchased with the tickets he earned.
“Erk… this guy’s quite a strong contender, Master.”
“What is it?”
Whop, Wilco chopped with all her might.
“Don’t admit your loss before it’s even begun! Rather what’s with that losing spirit!? Where did all that enthusiasm you had before we entered the cave go!?”
“No buts about it! Master, have you forgotten the fact you are Wilco’s slave!? You just have to shut up and do your best for Wilco’s sake!!”
Even so, if they were aiming for the top, they would surely have to go up against this colonel someday. In which case, without any wasted effort, it would be far more efficient to call it quits here.
Wilco’s chops hurt so he would do what he could, he corrected himself. It wasn’t like he had the money for the bus back.
“Pant, pant… but Mr. Colonel.”
Wilco asked. She was also attempting to draw out as much info as she could in her own way. Despite that, the more they asked, the more his despair-inducing tracks of glory seemed to come out.
“Where is your partner anyway? If you’re no good, we’ll just have to start by crushing them.”
“Partner? Haven’t you been looking at him this whole time?”
At the colonel’s perplexed words, Wilco blinked and tried looking for them. Her gaze reached a point by the colonel’s feet. The smartly sitting, large Doberman.
That menacing bark had Wilco run away again. She timidly pointed.
“A… a dog?”
“Someone that isn’t human with an independent will… he’ll go on guard when he sees an enemy, he’ll eat when he’s hungry, he’ll sleep when he’s sleepy… isn’t that what you’d call having a will?”
“Dogs do not talk!”
“You say some interesting things, little missy. Your partner’s quite the silent type too. I’d say my Rocky here’s got more bark in him.”
Hideo didn’t feel like arguing with Rocky. In the first place, the very fact he was here meant the organizers… whatever intent the tournament had… recognized his entry. In which case, there was no problem at all.
Still, as far as Hideo could see, there was barely anyone in sight bending the rules like the colonel. The non-human competitors took on all manner off forms and identities. Those floating like Wilco were by no means few in number. What’s more, in that case… the colonel shouldered the troubles to be shared by two partners on his own and still maintained his place at rank one.
“Crap. Master, he really is a strong contender.”
She would chop him so he wouldn’t say he lost… but was there really any way to win? The thought occupied approximately ten percent of his mind.
It was at that moment a firework burst in the night sky behind the Centralle Building. The colonel glanced at his own wristwatch.
“Twenty-three thirty… it’s time for the ceremony.”
Hideo strained himself to see the stage prepared in front of the Centralle Building, beyond the crowds indulging in the standing buffet.
When the fireworks stopped, the spotlights gathered to it. With that alone, the clamor died down in its entirety, a silence that brought pain to the ear. Each soul swallowed their spit and looked on… The one who rose to the stage was a young woman whose short hair was a good match for her tuxedo.
After letting her earring sway in a respectful bow, she grandiosely spread her arms wide.
‘Welcome one and all to the Sacred Demon Cup! I am the chief executive of this tournament’s administrative committee, Kirishima Lena. It is a pleasure to meet you!’
Her clear and lively voice passed through the standing microphone to flow through the speakers. With her sociable smile as if she had yet to shake off her childish innocence, an unsparing applause rose through the venue.
‘Thank you, thank you… thank you all for the magnificent applause! The number of participants in this tournament have far exceeded our expectations, totaling out one thousand five hundred and twelve pairs. More than three thousand names have fulfilled the harsh prerequisites of forming a pair between human and sentient non-human! You have taken a page out of your busy lives to gather at the Sacred Demon Cup! First off, let me send you some heated gratitude in place of our organizer!! ’
Another bow. And grand applause.
Lena raised her tidy face. Despite her position, there was a different organizer, apparently.
‘Now then. They called it a ceremony, but that firework display was all we prepared to dazzle you with. What we’re going into now… is a final check on all the important matters.’
This was apparently already common knowledge among everyone who got to the venue early: she recommended those sorts continue eating, drinking and chatting before she began her explanation.
From Hideo’s point of view, what she said hardly differed from what he heard from Ratty at the desk. Hideo listened with as much attention was needed to reaffirm what he already knew. And after a while.
‘… But I’m sure you already know all of that. Everyone, over the duration of this competition, please enjoy your lives in the isolated city to the fullest. And here’s the important part!!’
Lena raised her voice one level to draw eyes and ears.
‘Let me tell you about the criteria for the matches I’m sure you’re all very much concerned about. Are you listening?’
Silence once more. The details about how they were supposed to live were half inconsequential. Everyone here had come to battle. That was precisely why every nerve in the participants’ bodies angled themselves toward her.
‘Well, to start with…’
And the next words she let out,
‘In the event of a match, killing in combat is not permitted. In regards to inhuman entities, any act that may be deemed equivalent to killing is not permitted. In the million to one chance any pair commits such a deed, it is grounds for immediate disqualification.’
A clamor… the venue shook again.
From the point of view of Hideo, who had lived in the peaceful country of Japan, it was an obvious matter. But to the contestants like the colonel beside him whose livelihoods hinged on slicing and dicing, especially those whose techniques were their greatest weapons, this was a cause for concern.
The notice said they were free to bring in weapons, armor and any other such item they desired. And they presented those weapons at the front desk… one could say those details spurred on their misconceptions.
Dissatisfied voices were already raising here and there. The match criteria said anything goes, said one. That’s right, cut the crap, said another. Preach it, the next chimed…
While the venue was now growing heated in a different sense, Lena on stage let it slide without paying any real mind, continuing on in cold words.
‘You’re right. Sure enough, you bring up a valid point. The organizer side will not give the slightest input on the means through which a match is held. Right, the means that is.’
Chatter… chatter… chatter…
A tense atmosphere straight out of a gambling manga spread across the participants. The lively ones began noticing the nuance of her words.
‘Let me bring up a concrete example. Be it a boardgame. Be it sports. Be it gambling… and of course, be it blade or martial art combat, or a magic engagement. Tournament HQ will not give the slightest input on your means. However. No matter the game, we take charge of the result, and we want to avoid anything that results in death… is what I am saying.’
Chatter… chatter… chatter…
(She’s not. Wrong.)
Hideo nodded once. The victory conditions were ‘keep winning’. It didn’t say anything about killing one another.
(More so. That’s common sense.)
‘Indeed. No matter what sort of match is held, just please make sure the conditions of a win and a loss are clearly understood between opponents and presented to the referee. To bring up an extreme example, if the rule is that a loss is declared once all limbs are lost and the participant is incapable of battle, we don’t mind in the slightest.’
She insinuated as she lorded over her surroundings from the stage.
“Luckily, the medical technology of this city far surpasses that of normal society, so it’s simple enough to reattach a limb. Though there’s not much we can do with instant death”
Tap, tap, Lena hit the flat of her hand against her neck a few times. The reason that didn’t sound like a joke wasn’t due to anything she said… but because of the dangerous aura the armed contestants let out.
‘And in that instance, please bring your opponent to a hospital before they die of blood loss. If they die, you’ll have won just to be disqualified… does everyone understand?’
On the contrary, as long as they didn’t die, wasn’t it alright to do anything?
As Hideo shook off such scary thoughts, the colonel beside him raised his voice at the stage.
“But there’s a contradiction there. What if the contestants both agree that death decides the match? I hear Tournament HQ won’t give any input in what the contestants decide amongst themselves.”
Lena’s eyes shifted to him. To the man beside Hideo.
‘You’re right. Sure enough, you bring up a valid point. As expected of our top contender, the famed Colonel Redfield! You’ve got a sharp eye to point that out. But in regards to that, the organizer’s answer is this.’
Lena spread out her arms, a full smile across her face.
‘There is a nuclear bomb buried under this plaza!’
The air immediately froze over. Those on guard. Those who stared at the ground where they stood. Those who simply looked around… those who calmly watched over the developments.
‘And this is the switch to set it off.’
Lena pulled a black something with an antenna out of her pocket. With the distance to the stage, it just looked like a cellphone or something similar.
‘Let’s say I pushed the switch here and now… out of this crowd, just how many will survive, I wonder. It is presumably impossible for the humans. For the non-humans, won’t it be quite pushing it without quite the rare nature?’
Lena’s smile as she looked over them was cold. The commotion spread further, wider…
‘… But that’s just a joke. This is my cellphone.’
Her expression returned to the sociable, cute smile from when she first took the stage.
But her joke was in far too bad taste, pandemonium echoed all over the place. After stifling it with her hands, Lena smiled again.
‘As you’ve all seen. The reactions you showed were proof enough.’
Tucking away the phone she had tasked with the strangest role, she went on.
‘With that example, haven’t you come to understand how meaningless the action of killing is? When it comes to death and destruction, not a single one of you lives up to a single nuclear weapon. And you intend to compete for the top with that? What meaning does that hold? How idiotic.’
Lena’s forceful reasoning set the venue astir again. But no objections came out. Precisely because of how forceful it was, the words they led to were all the more just.
(Right. Makes sense.)
That wasn’t strength. It was just violence. If that’s what they were looking for, then just as she said, there would be no point in holding this competition in the first place.
They were permitted to bring arms. Did that mean this organizer individual meant to include that sort of strength as they watched over games of wit, courage, and gambling grit?
While Hideo silently thought, the Colonel shook his head and muttered.
“I see… that means sixty percent of the skills I’ve fostered over close to forty years of my life are meaningless. When I already investigated the best trap and sniping points beforehand… looks like I wasted the effort.”
Even if he laughed it off so cynically, Hideo couldn’t say much back. If forty percent remained, just how ultimate was this old man?
‘We went a little off topic… but one more thing in regards to that. While we did initially plan a tournament matchup system for this competition…’
Lena troublesomely scratched her head.
‘As I said at the beginning, the number of contestants has far exceeded our expectations. You’re all now free to challenge whoever you want.’
What? The word came out in symphony.
‘I mean to say… in around ten minutes now. Once the competition begins, please challenge whoever you want to fight. It will be considered a match as long as the other party accepts. Decide what determines victory, present it to a judge, and that’s it. No matter where, with whom, how many pairs participate, as long as it takes place with the agreement of all participants, we don’t care about the rules. ’
On the off chance everyone here decided to participate in a true or false quiz game.
Half of them could suddenly drop out.
(… Harsh. How very harsh.)
Of course, it did seem Hideo was the only one thinking of such an extreme example.
“Then what about my promise to meet him at the finals!?”
He heard Ryuuta’s voice from somewhere but ignored it. He must have imagined the dull sound of a book smacking hard into something.
‘But as stated, this competition lasts indefinitely until a victor is decided, so there’s no need to rush. Nothing can stop you from waiting until you’re fully prepared to issue a challenge. Even if someone challenges you, you just have to decline. Those finer details are all up to you.’
In which case, careful watching may prove to be the best tactic. They just had to wait for the other contestants to crush one another and whittle away their numbers. Hideo couldn’t ask for more… but that did not a competition make.
As if she picked up those shrewd intentions from those gathered, Lena added on.
“Oh, right, right. I’m sure there are those among you who intend to watch on as the other contestants crush one another… and we do accept that is a valid strategy. But please do keep in mind. The condition for victory is to ‘keep winning’… you’d do your best not to forget that.”
(… I was foolish.)
Hideo cursed his own foolishness. He fully realized his own naivety of having lost, and lost and lost some more. Indeed, he had to win. To run away from battle until the very last round where a victor was decided…?
(Far too foolish.)
Having come so far, he was irritated at his own stupidity for letting the thought cross his mind if only for an instant. It was because he was always prepared to shirk responsibility that he was always reluctantly holed up in his apartment, spending his time sluggishly lounging around, was it not?
His parents made him go to school.
Society was different. Unless he moved on his own, no one would keep him company. Didn’t he understand that well enough to be cornered to death? And now that he was moving.
(I have to win.)
No one would recognize him if he didn’t win. If no one recognized him… he would once again be trash, groping around for a way to die in that dirt-cheap apartment. Garbage even his parents abandoned only to become a corpse.
(… I have to win.)
For some reason, he was participating in this ultimate tournament.
‘Now then, everyone. I’ve kept you for quite a while, but that’s all I have to say. You can always go over everything I’ve told you at that Centralle Building over there, please use it if you have the chance… now, the time is upon us! In just one more minute, the Sacred Demon Cup will commence!!’
Tensions stretched thin across the level-headed participants. On the other hand, the free-spirited ones like Wilco burst in excitement.
‘Set your sights on the Regalia, the Sacred Demon Cup! Take aim at the summit, the Sacred Demon Lord! Let’s get that ball rolling! ’
A grand chorus of countdown.
5! 4! 3! 2! 1—!
‘The Sacred Demon Cup has begun!!’
Just as Lena proclaimed it loudly to the heavens, a firework display grander than the one at the ceremony’s commencement was launched into the air. Those star-shape bursts bloomed wildly in three hundred and sixty degrees, from the top of Centralle Building and all the other buildings, long sparklers let off their sheen like a dazzling aurora.
Claps and cheers, at such splendid beauty.
As lively as if the year had just begun. There was no doubt the organizer didn’t hold this competition just as a test of strength, but as one large festive event. The sole rule that banned killing made him feel so.
‘Now! Now, now, the Sacred Demon Cup has begun, but the night is still young! I’m sure this competition has a long way to go! So everyone, for just one night, how about you enjoy it!!’
In concert with Lena raising her clench fist, “YEAAAAAH!!
a grand cry from the venue.
And the first thing that begun was a bingo tournament. For the pairs that entered the venue today, the cards were in the envelopes they got at the desk. For everyone else, they got them when they reached the plaza. The prizes ranged from extravagant magic items to large amounts of tickets, among other things.
“Bingo, bingo, we’ve got to hit it big and gain an advantage.”
Brimming with motivation, Wilco promptly pulled out the bingo card.
Naturally, Hideo’s nature was such that he couldn’t join in on such a ruckus even if he wanted to.
“Kawamura… Hideo, was it?”
The colonel turned to him. Perhaps it was his occupation, he couldn’t seem to adapt himself to this festive ruckus. With the endless bursts of fireworks lighting his face, the Colonel spoke.
“I challenge you.”
Hideo immediately replied. Holding the bingo card high, Wilco’s face crumbled.
The word. At the strange sense of tension that raced only between the two of them, the contestants closest quieted down to whispers.
“Look… it’s the colonel, no less.”
“Colonel…!? Who’s he up against…?”
Chatter. Chatter. Chatter.
“Urp… those eyes, he’s not just anyone…”
“What cold eyes… almost like a tombstone…”
“Tombstone… don’t tell me he’s that legendary…!?”
As a prejudice waxed in misconceptions raced across the crowd, the look in the Colonel’s eyes changed.
“I see. I heard the rumors but… it makes sense now. Mister Golg… no, Duke Tougou.”
“It’s Kawamura. Hideo.”
“Wai… waiwaiwaiwait! Master!? What are you thinking!?”
The Colonel had challenged him to a match with this timing… to leave an impression on the other participants as the first victor. Everyone was present to witness the spectacle.
Rank one. An overwhelming huge victory just as the curtain was raised. After that, the colonel would presumably spend his time rather peacefully until the grand winner was decided.
(On the contrary,)
If Hideo wanted to make it to the finals, he would undoubtedly have to clash with this colonel eventually. It was clear from the reactions of the surrounding voices. It was only a matter of sooner or later. This one moment when his own hand was still unrevealed was his final chance.
The colonel began smiling particularly amused.
“Hey, I never thought you’d actually accept… so I haven’t decided what we’ll compete in. But this is perfect. While knowing I’m the top contender, you accepted without even hearing out the details of the match. I shall show my respect to your boundless courage. You may choose the game.”
To turn his words around. He would let them choose without asking what their strengths and weaknesses were. An expression of just how versatile he was.
“Let me tell you, Hideo. I have never lost.”
A scathing proclamation.
“Do you know why? That’s because in my life… to lose has always meant death.”
With just one loss, he wouldn’t be standing here now. The bloodstained past he overcame imparted him with absolute confidence.
“I was once part of a special unit, there was even a time I led it. The only firearms I haven’t handled are still being developed in the lab. I can pilot any vehicle short of a space shuttle or UFO. Just about the only martial art I haven’t trained in is sumo… and I. Have continued to win, throughout all sorts of danger zones. All around the world.”
The colonel’s two eyes began filling with something dreadful.
“Right. No matter what underhanded methods I had to use.”
Whatever he remembered, the colonel laughed. His lips curved, he clenched down on his cigar, it was a smile like the devil.
“… It was to survive. What choice did I have? As a result, every mission I’ve ever participated in has succeeded. Eventually, both enemy and ally got to calling me… not Redfield, but the Blood Fields.”
The old man’s hoarse throat roared. All in sheer delight.
“… This is the information I will give you. All the hints you’ll get. You have my utmost respect for taking up my challenge. Now think over it well and choose how we will compete.”
This wasn’t a hint, it was a restraint. He had secured the mental high ground. Nothing but ill-spirited remarks that would corner him the more he heard.
‘…… Eeeh!? Really!? You’re saying there are participants already facing off!?’
The information finally got around. Lena hosting the bingo tournament’s voice turned inside out. At her voice flowing from the speaker, the commotion came down like a tsunami. And climbing down from the stage, Lena restlessly rushed over to the two of them.
‘Things are heating up! The contestants are… now this is amazing! The fastest one to enter the venue one year ago, the top contender Redfield and Rocky pair and! They just entered the venue a moment ago, the Hideo and Wilco pair! Is this some trick of fate!?’
At the announcement with momentum to spare, the venue boiled up. Their surroundings were an unending crowd. But to Hideo right now, he couldn’t care less. Only the colonel before him entered his eyes.
‘And since I’m here, I, Kirishima Lena will take on the three roles of moderator, commentator and judge! Getting right to it, how are you going to compete!?’
To the woman so lively it was irritating, the colonel muttered in a low voice.
“He’s deciding right now.”
Was there anything?
“From what Ryuuta told me, your forte is close combat. Go right ahead.”
(… Yeah, definitely not.)
That was just Ryuuta’s misunderstanding.
This man was part of a special unit, it was far too reckless to challenge him with stamina or combat technique. Since he led it, there was no mistaking his knowledge, memory and force of will were greater than average.
Already convinced of their loss, Willco had completely lost her mind. She didn’t look like she’d be much use. Rather, he didn’t even know what she was useful for yet.
Nothing but negatives. Even so, if he didn’t win here, winning the tournament was a pipe dream.
To seal all of this colonel’s overwhelming physical ability and skills. On top of that, a match that would give him the highest possible odds of victory.
His belongings gave him a flash of inspiration.
The moment he noticed, Hideo could feel himself freeze over to a terrifying extent. Something he could never taste had he stayed holed up in his apartment, this truly drug-like exaltation. The will to win. Did gazing at one’s victory really feel this uplifting?
‘Now, now, how will you compete!?’
Urged on by the moderator, Hideo produced his wallet from his pocket. He produced it from his wallet. His life savings, fourteen yen. The ten-yen coin.
‘This… what? That’s a ten-yen coin, isn’t it?’
She seemed to be struggling to find what exactly she was supposed to be commentating on. Only Lena’s hesitant voice got across her microphone Seeing her like that, the Colonel scoffed.
“Calm down, lady. He’s saying we should decide who’s batting first.”
‘Y… yeah! I see, so that’s what it means!’
“How interesting. But how about you drop the act and say it? They’re all waiting for you.”
(For what? How stupid.)
Hideo made his resolve, he took in a deep breath.
“I said we’d decide it… with this.”
To a doubtful Wilco, colonel and Lena. He showed the money one more time.
“Right… with a coin toss.”
Everyone was taken aback.
“Bas… tard… are you sane!?”
The colonel was no exception. The shudders reviving from how many decades passed had his hair stand on end. Effort. Technique. Talent. Strategy… every single factor had been thrown out the window, a far too simple method for a game.
‘A coin toss!? And how many times!?’
He answer without twitching an eyebrow.
“… Just one is enough.”
Hideo’s proclamation had the venue’s excitement reach critical mass. The first match of a war that would wage for who knows how long. The courage to wage it all on one stroke of luck gave way to a whirlwind of thunderous ovations.
(What a man…!)
He did have a point. There was no need to drag it on. To decide a game of luck, just one flip, heads or tails was enough.
But the most fearsome of all were Hideo’s eyes. His expression far too level and cold, even with the colonel before him, he didn’t look like he had shouldered any risk at all. The same as when he first saw him, the eyes of a warrior. Eyes gazing at his own victory. There was no way he would leave it to luck, throw it to the heavens. The glint in his eye could see nothing but victory, to an arrogant extent.
“… I see. A game of cheating, huh…?”
The colonel found himself muttering. In that case, it would explain limiting the match to one time. Any more, and there was a possibility his means would be seen through.
“If you think so,”
Hideo said. Without shying back in the slightest.
“You just have to see through it.”
Hideo didn’t affirm it. Nor did he deny it.
“If a single person here can.”
He didn’t have to limit it to his direct opponent.
This competition. There was no telling what insane powers of observation lurked among the abnormals gathered here.
‘Then… as I understand it, if it comes out that you’re cheating, you’ll accept this as your loss!?’
Lena turned the mike to him, Hideo nodded. No hesitation.
Where did his confidence come from? What did he intend to do? But that young man came out with something even more surprising.
“You issued the challenge. I chose the game. Then…”
Hideo held out the coin to the colonel.
“Now it’s your turn.”
“Absurd! You’re going to have me flip it!?”
Hideo nodded again.
Then… where was there room for cheating!?
(No… no wait. That’s exactly why.)
This match has no room for cheating… by making them think that, he would dodge the spectators’ eyes if only a little.
The colonel took it. The number 10 on one side. The picture of some temple-like building on the other. It didn’t feel like either side was weighted. He bit it. This was the firm consistency of metal. It was unmistakably real.
(I don’t get it…)
At the current point, he hadn’t the slightest idea what the game was.
If he lost. The complete year he spent since he entered the city would have been completely wasted.
He hadn’t felt such pressure since he stepped down from active duty.
‘Then let me ask the two of you! Heads or tails!? … And wait, which side is heads on a ten yen coin?’
At Lena’s words, the entire venue was enveloped in an orchestra of whispers. It was a relatively unknown bit of common knowledge. This was also the first time the colonel had stared so intently at Japanese currency.
“It’s time for you to choose, Hideo.”
Come to think of it, it was plausible he handed the coin over so he could select first. That was probably the case.
“… Then I choose. The side with the picture.”
“Very well. I take the number.”
They each told Lena their choice.
‘Understood! As you’ve all heard, all of the over three thousand faces here are judge and jury! The match will take place only once… are you ready!? Then let’s begin.’
At the end of her words, the last bit of sound disappeared from the venue. Silence that tormented the eardrums.
(I have to stop him…!)
The colonel grit his teeth.
Now that it had come to this, the game began once he threw the coin. There was no place for tricks once he covered it with his hand. If he wanted to see through Hideo’s cheating, all he had was the moment the coin flew through the air.
The colonel rested it over his thumb.
“… Let’s go.”
Back when he was a new recruit, he recalled how he would often make bets with his war friends like this. For ale, for cigarettes, for breaks, for patrol… the colonel recalled as he focused. One second seemed like an eternity. The coin turned. With a dull glimmer.
The moment it fell onto his knuckle, he covered it with his other hand. The young man before him didn’t seem to have lifted a single finger. At the very least, his eye couldn’t catch it.
There was nothing left to do. Not a single onlooker tried to unveil Hideo’s dishonesty. Practically praying by this point, the colonel opened the covering hand.
The scene entered his eye… Lena cried out.
‘… I… it’s the side with the picture!! The winner is the Hideo and Wilco pair!!’
An explosion of cheers.
“You… you did it! Master You’re amazing, master!!”
The tumult as a distant auditory hallucination, the colonel collapsed down to his knees. In the end, he had no idea what Hideo had done. Perhaps he really did just wait for the result. Perhaps he didn’t need to.
Whatever the case, there was only one thing that had been made clear.
“I lost… from the green beret, I climbed my way up angel saber’s command… but for this…”
The man called Hideo before his eyes stood no different than he had been before the match. The victory had brought him no joy.
“… You are a. Sad soul.”
Despite his words, he didn’t seem to be pitying him.
“What do you mean…?”
“If this was a battlefield. You would never let your enemy… choose the game.”
An impact like lightning beat the colonel down.
Sure enough. Ever since he heard the announcement that killing was banned, he knew this was nothing more than a game. No matter his drive to win, he could recall himself growing lax.
That was why he committed such a folly of letting his opponent choose the means. Dragged along by the surrounding festivities, he wanted to enjoy it in his own way. That negligence. That arrogance, this man’s warrior eyes didn’t let it slip by.
“You can’t take it seriously. Unless lives are on the line.”
Hideo spoke courteously as if he knew all too well.
“… You won, far too many times. Over there.”
“Phh… fwahahah. Good grief, you got that right… how ironic…”
‘No more than ten minutes since the ball dropped, our top pick for the championship, Colonel Redfield has dropped out! What an upset! Colonel, please proceed to the Centralle Building and fill out the withdrawal paperwork! Even so, that was amazing, Hideo! This may be sudden, but I’d like to interview our victor… huh? Hey?’
“Masteeeer! It’s an interview! Bingo is still going on, where are you going…!”
In spite of beating the top contender, Hideo’s back wasn’t merry in the slightest, only fading further and further into the distance. Like it was making off for a new battlefield.
(How much of a warrior is he… that young man…)
The colonel hoisted himself up, leading his faithful dog along as he made for the Centralle Building. Along the way.
“Colonel. That was a shame.”
It was Ryuuta.
“Ryuuta… that young man, it looks like you were right about him. No, maybe I’m just getting old.”
“Don’t let it get you down.”
But those words were unnecessary. The smile of an old soldier he sent to Ryuuta was already sunny enough. In an era where each and every soul cried of peace and fraternity, he had come across a true soldier.
George Redfield’s battle came to an end then and there.
“Master! Wait for me!”
Quite distant from the Center Plaza. A desolate street corner, under the streetlight, Hideo finally came to a stop.
(… Can’t do it.)
Hideo was deathly terribly at the act of standing out. Otherwise, he would never spend all day out of eyesight in his apartment. In the midst of the match, he was so entranced with defeating the colonel it didn’t bother him, but once he returned to his senses, his surroundings were a tempestuous torrent.
An interview on top of that had to be torture. His face would breath fire, he would unavoidably die from full-body burns. If he was the victor, there was no reason for him to undergo such agony.
“But that was amazing. To think Master had a talent for cheating! Is this that gambler’s hand!? How about you tell little Wilco here what you did!?”
Wilco’s face crumbled again.
“I. Didn’t do. Anything.”
“Wh-wh-wha! T-then don’t tell me… you really left it to luck and threw it to the wind…?”
With his nod, Wilco’s chop came down.
“What are you thinking!? It’s good that you won and all! But without any prospects!!”
No. That was one thing he had to deny.
“I did have. Prospects.”
Wilco looked at him blankly.
He was hit.
“That’s what you call leaving it to luck!”
Hideo said, looking at Wilco’s sharp-angled eyebrows.
“At the point we accepted the match. What were our, odds?”
“That’s, well… endlessly close to zero. Err, rather, zero is pretty gener… ah.”
Right, it was reckless no matter who he was. Accepting a challenge from the colonel was undoubtedly an act of suicide. Whatever else the game was, his chances wouldn’t even reach a single percent.
In that case, a fifty-fifty split was miraculous odds. When going up from zero, it held unlimited possibilities. And compared to any other means of a match, it was practically certain victory.
“But… the point is, you left it up to luck, didn’t you.”
She said it point blank.
“And… do you intend to win your way through with gambles and coin tosses?”
Far too foolish.
(Just asking for retribution.)
To win on with a fifty percent chance would eventually lead to an outrageously small probability. He’d finished high school, he could somewhat calculate it out.
But at this rate, it was a plain fact that luck was all he had to rely on. Unless he established some redeeming feature, and fast.
“… Master, Wilco really doesn’t get you.”
“Ni hi hi. But you know, you were really cool during the match. The other competitors were shaking in their boots. So how about we try using this?”
An incomprehensible means of cheating no one managed to scene through. It was cheating that went by the name of ‘doing nothing’ but no one would think so. This man had the mysterious power to accomplish such a feat… it was enough to make everyone think so.
“Meaning that scary look in your eye, and your ability to be unfazed by everything!”
How terribly depressing.
“And now that we’ve decided our policy, where shall we go now?”
“Go home. Go to sleep.”
Wilco spread out the map.
“The residential district is in the opposite direction.”
With a sigh, Hideo dragged along his feet that had reached their limit and took a right U-turn. He walked to put an end to this long, long day.
(I can only hope.)
He prayed his feeble legs would hold up until he reached that residential district. The Sacred Demon Cup truly had just begun, after all.