An outrageous debt of three million tickets. If he didn’t want that, he would have to become a peerless (or so he was led to believe) modified human with three drills implanted in his body… such was the predicament Hideo faced, but he couldn’t lose sight of what was precious to him as a human being. In the first place, the day he was equipped with drills was the day he was disqualified from the competition. ‘Pairs must consist of one human and one sentient non-human’. If he became a cyborg or drillman… it was hard to say that counted as human any longer.
Parting with a worried Minako, Hideo and Wilco left the rip-off clinic labeled the Iori General Hospital behind them.
“We’re in trouble now, master…”
“Even so. They treated me, that’s a fact.”
Even if it was just one IV drip, in this city, the law (or lack thereof) sided with the hospital that treated him. If the hospital said it was a three million ticket IV, then it was three million tickets. He did feel they did not fulfill their obligation to explain beforehand, but this was not the Japanese society of reality.
(…… A debt, huh.)
That was the one thing he never thought he would shoulder. Otherwise, he would never think to commit suicide when he was troubled for food. That was now a pipe dream. Now that the responsibility was placed on him, to die here was just a selfish whim. A bother. If he borrowed it, he had to return it.
“Right after we got three consecutive victories… looks like it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, master…”
“Not much we. Can do.”
For argument’s sake, the doctor did hand over a flier, saying he would introduce them to a good financing company. Taking a loan was all they could do for the time being. He did make a fuss over how the surgery had to be paid for within the day.
Hideo made for the address on the flier. A nook of the shopping district. A shabby old corner like good old Shinjuku was where the loan company lay. Not that it had a sign out to say so.
“H… how should Wilco put this, for a multitenant building, it’s pretty grand…”
Wilo looked up at the first floor of the building. Location aside, it had a gorgeous entrance that could have belonged to some brand name or travel company. Once they were through the automatic door, a tidy travel-agency-like store interior and counter… that much was fine.
“What is it, customers?”
The one manning the counter was no pretty receptionist. Shapely face and silver-rimmed glasses, a young man. When he smiled, his canines were terribly conspicuous. He wore a black suit with no tie.
“I’ll give it to you straight, there are plenty of things out there more valuable than you. Money’s at the very top of the list. They often say you should use it systematically; in short, don’t lend what you don’t think you can take back. Collecting loans is time and effort.”
“… Umm, looks like we came to the wrong place.”
The moment the two bowed and took a right U-turn.
“Kukuh. Where do you think you’re going?”
“That’s obvious! Wilco is going to go find a more upstanding financing company!”
“There aren’t any.”
Ku ku kuh, the man rung his throat.
“None… you’re saying this city only has black-market-lending!?”
“Oh, that’s not what I meant. I’m saying…”
He spread out his arms. As if to say this city belonged to him.
“I systematically crushed every other financing company in this city. If you need quick money, borrowing from us is your only option… Do you get it now, Kawamura Hideo and Wilco?”
“… Why. Do you know us?”
“Word came in from the Doctor at the hospital. Word on the street’s that you’re a top contender. You’ll be able to pay the three million tickets in full, won’t you?”
Still sitting in his seat in the counter, not from a safe but just some random drawer,
He produced a large wad of tickets and slammed it down on the table.
“This is three million. You could spend half a day diving down to the labyrinth’s deepest depths, and spend another half day searching for an A Rank Iron Golem that may not even be there… and this is six times the reward you’d get for defeating it.”
When he put it that way, it sounded practically impossible to earn that amount. Of all else, Hideo had never seen a monster in his life. Was there any other route besides borrowing it…?
Wait. As long as it was a loan, he would still have to return it. The target would simply be shifting from the hospital to this man… what’s more, he said it. Don’t lend what you don’t think you can get back. And, money is more important than you.
“Kukuh. Did you get the memo? That’s right, I’ll need considerable collateral… but you have no need to worry about that right now.”
“I will lend you this money with the doctor’s right to make you a test subject as collateral. If I determine you can’t pay it back, I’ll hand you and that right straight over to the doctor. With a safe any easy ten percent interest every ten days. Simple enough.”
Forget safe, that interest rate was downright illegal in Japan. That hospital’s doctor and this man must have communicated quite a bit. This treatment on top of the ubiquitous sentences containing ‘Sincere’ and ‘Safe’ on the flier. Did the doctor recommend this place without knowing the true state of affairs…?
Taking a look at the flier alongside him, Wilco whispered.
“The hospital’s name…”
Hideo produced the invoice from his pocket.
‘Iori General Hospital’
The name of the finance company.
“Kukukuh… you’re only noticing now?”
“Meaning you’re in cahoots!”
Wilco looked oh so reliable as she almost snapped at him.
“And? What if I am? Seventy-five percent of this city’s shopping district falls under the umbrella of the Obliterating Industries Group… meaning it belongs to me.”
a business card came flying through the air.
‘Iori Obliterating Industries President and Obliterating Industries Group Supreme Commander
“That’s my name.”
He looked like he was still in his twenties, yet this arrogant air. When he had the looks of a delicate man, the dread, the dignity that shined in the depths of his eyes.
“Seventy-five percent of the shopping district, isn’t that practically all of it!? What exactly is this company…!?”
Wilco was frozen in place. The man folding his arms over the counter… Iori Takase mockingly flashed his canines and laughed.
“An evil organization.”
“Aaaahh… another weirdo…”
Wilco feebly crumbled to tears.
Just how much better off would they be if Javan appeared here and now? Just why did they have to win against Javan… come back Javan. Paying no heed to those thoughts, Takase continued the talk forward.
“Let’s say I put your name on our group’s blacklist. What do you think will happen? The shopping district will become practically unusable. Barred from restaurants. Unable to purchase arms or armor. For starters, it’ll be impossible to replenish your items. You’ll be kicked out of the supermarket you used last night as well. Do you get what that means?”
He knew that much about them.
They wouldn’t be able to eat. No matter how much they won, this tournament dragged on indefinitely until a victor was a decided… if they had to retire from hunger, that would bring about a scenario the organizers probably hadn’t even imagined.
“There’s still twenty-five percent left!”
Wilco bared her fangs indomitably but,
“By this point, the remaining twenty-five percent are pretty much stocking products through our supply lines… if I say there will be no new shipments starting tomorrow, they’ll easily fold.”
This city’s shopping district, it’s supply chain… not just seventy-five percent, didn’t he essentially have it under his complete control?
(…… This town is rotten to the core…)
At that moment, in the depths of the room they were in, from beyond the door labeled ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ they heard a furious ruckus.
“Don’t screw with me! I don’t got what I don’t got!”
A man’s yell and the slamming of a desk.
“You ever heard the phrase you can’t get blood out of a stone? What exactly does your company expect us to do?”
The voice of a woman turned completely defiant.
It did seem a pair in similar circumstance was arguing.
“Do you get we’re tournament participants? You get that, don’t you?”
“Now, now, it’ll be hell if you make us angry. I wouldn’t want to hurt you too much. But do you want your building blown sky high?”
Right. The participants of this tournament were supposed to be nothing but able people. President Takase turned to that direction with a look on his face like he was having a headache.
“If anything happens, we’re taking the chance to book it.”
“They’re villains through and through. No matter how good of a person you are, there’s no need to bend to their whims”
Sure enough, this was a fully-self-aware criminal who himself proclaimed this was an evil organization. But would they properly be able to get away? If the building really did get blown off its foundation, wouldn’t they just be flattened with it?
“Too scared to speak, eh!? Hey, hey whatcha gonna do about this, shorty!? Get out the president, then we’ll be talking!”
“I feel bad for her if you threaten her too much. Hey, could you call in your president? Little one?”
Hideo didn’t know why, but he got the feeling he heard the sound of someone snapping behind the door. Right after… a small girl’s voice.
Tink!! TinkTinkTink!! Tonk! Tonk! Tonk!
“Wha!? Gehah! Gfff!”
“Gyah! St! Sto! Eek!”
Skwsh!! Skwsh!! Skwsh!! PingPing!! KchkKchk!!
President included, the three of them were silent. Something happened inside there. That alone was for certain. Eventually, they could no longer hear the man’s rude voice or the woman’s arrogant tone.
A blood-soaked man and woman scrambled out of the off-limits door like it was a haunted house that took itself too seriously.
“Well… just wait.”
The one who appeared after them was a small girl, around five or six with bluish-black hair. She expressionlessly brandished a metal bat, delivering a hard blow to both of their heads at a speed impossible to follow with the naked eye.
“W… we won’t run, no more running…”
“We’ll give it back… the money… even if it takes our whole lives… the money… will be…”
Already unconscious, showing the whites of their eyes, the two groaned as if they were having a nightmare. Wilco and Hideo were seeing a nightmare of their own.
“Worked up a… good sweat.”
Hmm, good grief. The small child expressionlessly made a gesture of wiping her forehead.
“Ripple-Rapple. I’m dealing with a customer.”
The president Takase contained his temple like he was enduring a migraine. Apparently called Ripple-Rapple, the girl with the bizarrely long name noticed their company and nodded.
“Your piece of mind is our number one priority… Sincere, gentle… Iori Finance.”
A nod and a nod. She turned back to the room she just came out of.
“It’s a black room. But that doesn’t stand for a ‘room to beating you black and blue’. Don’t worry.”
She swung her bat as she emphasized.
“And it’s a Mizuno. We are very careful with our equipment. Don’t worry.”
A nod and a nod. Looking down at the two participants at her feet, dyed red from the head down.
“Spilled a little ketchup. But… one hundred percent organic. Don’t worry.”
(…… Well it’s definitely organic.)
But if it was supposed to be tomato, why did it clearly smell like rust—?
Not a delinquent of any stripe, having never gotten into any real fights and having lived his life in complete peace, Hideo could not bring himself to believe the violence that just transpired before his eyes. The president dismissively waved his hand.
“That’s enough. More importantly, Ripple-Rapple, you went too far. What are you going to do if they die?”
“I am… not a participant. I won’t get disqualified… if I kill participants.”
She sternly nodded.
If he could, Hideo would have cried out as well. While it wasn’t in his place, Takase screamed.
“How are we supposed to collect money if they die!? Forget about it, just go dump them at the doctor’s place!”
Still expressionless, but with monstrous strength one would never expect from her appearance, the girl dragged off an adult man and woman and left. The pitiful pair would likely be shoved into that hospital only to be burdened with new debt…
“… I’m sure you understand your situation by now. I’ll leave this three million with the doctor. You two are going to go earn your keep at the labyrinth. I’m sure you don’t want to hear it from me, but that bat is ridiculously painful you know.”
Under a cloudy sky that darkened the height of the day, they set course for the Centralle Building. That skyscraper that loomed over them like a lone tower could be seen from anywhere in the city.
That was where the tournament’s management was situated, and where the Labyrinth lay beneath. Tickets, the city’s currency, could only be obtained through defeating the monsters haunting that labyrinth.
“Master, do you have any hopes you can defeat a monster?”
None. He didn’t say it, but there were none. In the first place, he didn’t know what sort of thing monsters were. All he knew was that they were surely far better than falling prey to that metal bat. What’s more, in any story or game, didn’t monsters exist for the essential purpose of being defeated?
And if the labyrinth was a place to take them out… but applying that same logic, what would they do to him in the black room if he failed…
As he maintained his silence and walked, Center was soon right before his eyes. He looked up to the countless glimmering windows like a mirrored surface. His feet pointed towards a large, glass, automatic door. It gave off a strange sleek, liberating feeling like the Tokyo government office or a major securities building.
He resolved himself and entered into a tidy vast lobby. The atrium extended a few floors up. But despite its width, the people were sparse, giving off a certain desolate inactivity.
“… Ah! It’s Hideo and Wilco!”
One of the few receptionists at the desk waved with an adorable smile.
“Hey, Master, it’s Ratty.”
Hideo made in that direction, lowering his head. She had handled check-in at the hut in front of the venue, but now that the tournament had begun, she must have shifted over here. She was a kind person who gave them tickets as a free bonus… now they had a debt so large that bonus was simply drops in a bucket; what an ironic reunion this was.
“You’re amazing, you two. I heard all about it, three consecutive wins on the first day. You’re the talk of the town.”
Ratty fiddled with the console at her hands as she gazed at the screen.
“At present, there aren’t even any participants with two wins. Starting this morning, people have started coming out with at most one victory… so you two have an uncontested monopoly on the top.”
Ratty said with a smile. Was she genuinely impressed, or was she trying to lay down pressure? It must have been because of her job, but her voice was easy to pick up, and it carried for miles. The people passing by took suspicious glances their way. Especially the participants who had nothing to do with the staff, they began whispering and appraising.
To Hideo who was terrible with people evaluating him, it was terribly unsettling. One of the reasons he holed himself up so he wouldn’t meet anyone was because he was terrible with strangers looking at him with such eyes. Even if Ratty had no ill intent.
“So what are you here for today? It doesn’t look like you’re handing over a losing pair. Umm, if you want information on participants, you are free to look through the database on the second floor.”
Ratty pointed at the elevator. The participants coming and going were mainly there for that purpose. There was nothing lost in gathering intel.
“And if you have any questions about the tournament, we can answer them here. Have you already decided on your residence? Then if you register your address, we can connect you up with mail, delivery and phone service. Apart from that…”
In general, these were all tasks Wilco could easily carry out from her computer. Wilco interrupted without any particular interest in that explanation.
“We came to kill us some monsters!”
“Oh, you want to use the labyrinth? In that case, please fill out this form…”
Ratty held out a sheet of paper with a number of blanks, along with a ballpoint pen.
“It doesn’t matter which, please fill in one of your names here. This floor achieved line indicates how deep you plan on going down. Estimated use time is self-explanatory, how long you plan to spend in the Labyrinth.”
“It’s pretty detailed…”
Groaned Wilco. Ratty’s expression clouded over a bit.
“Yes. In the case you don’t return by the reported time, you will be seen as stranded. In that case, a search party will be sent with this floor achieved mark as the criterion.”
Hideo felt a chill run down his spine.
“What do you mean. Stranded?”
“Stranded is stranded… You could be completely lost, you could be immobilized from a trap, you could get done in by monsters, those are the main ones. Lost and traps aside, a loss to monsters is still a loss… meaning you’ll be disqualified, so please take care. Of course, worst-case scenario, you’re not just immobile, you’re dead.”
After entering his name, Hideo wrote first floor with no hesitation. Next, he wrung out all his courage and wrote one hour.
“… How to put it, as expected of master.”
But the debt and the tournament were separate issues. He had to avoid the foolishness of pushing himself and losing for the sake of reimbursement. Accepting the form with all the necessary fields filled out, Ratty smiled.
“That sounds wonderful. I think it’s safest to see what you’re in for before going down further. The monsters in the shallow areas are weak, and the layout is pretty simple. There were quite a few participants who pushed themselves to outrageous depths and had to be rescued before the tournament began…”
If it was before opening night, winning and losing didn’t mean anything yet. That was why they were able to aim at the deeper, stronger monsters in an attempt to get rich quick.
But now that it had begun, the risk was far too high.
“This pamphlet lists a rough estimate of the rewards you should expect for each monster.”
A small booklet like a game walkthrough that included data entry on each monster. This city was getting more and more perplexing.
“If you take out a monster, it doesn’t matter what, please just bring back part of its remains. That will serve as proof you eliminated it. Now let me guide you to the entrance of the labyrinth. Follow me.”
They tagged along behind Ratty as she left the counter, proceeding down the lobby to the door with the easy-to-understand metal plate labeling it ‘Labyrinth Entrance’. In the room beyond it, this time there were two doors. One led to a normal stairway. The other was an elevator that went down ten floors at a time, that let you get right to its depths, it seemed.
Wilco asked rather curiously.
“How far does it go down?”
“Colonel Redfield’s floor sixty-eight is the current record. So for now, it looks like it’s got at least that much.”
“The organizers don’t have a complete grasp on how far it goes. Incidentally, we’ve managed to build the elevator down to the fiftieth floor so far, but the Colonel was really amazing, to be able to go down eighteen floors from there and make it back on his own merit.”
So aren’t you even more amazing, to be able to defeat such a person? Ratty’s eyes full of expectations were toxic to Hideo. He averted his eyes.
He did write down first floor, after all.
“Hey, Hideo. Fancy meeting you here.”
When he turned, there was Ryuuta in his field uniform, and the pretty girl Elsia hauling around her thick encyclopedia-like book in one hand.
“Three wins on the first day… by now you’re a genuine championship favorite. Looks like there was no mistaking my eyes. And now that you’ve got your stars, you’ve got the leeway to earn you some money?”
(No… definitely not.)
In fact, they were in a predicament where they had to earn it no matter what. Before Hideo could say anything… Elsia suddenly drew her face close enough to breathe on him
She was a beautiful woman. His heart was beating so fast his heart might jump out of his chest, but the woman who was peering into his eyes simply muttered sullenly to herself.
“Demon eyes… eh. Doesn’t look that way to me.”
And she left.
“Let’s save that fun for the end game, Elsia.”
If at that moment, he had been a drillman… how would they have reacted?
“By the way… Hideo. Have you ever heard the name Alhazan?”
“… I see. I thought you’d be knowledgeable about those parts of the world. No, if you don’t know, that’s for the best.”
Wilco held some interest in Ryuuta’s sudden question.
“Did they do something?”
“It’s fine, just forget about it. No biggy. Anyhow, I see you’re still hearing the explanation on the dungeon. If you’re not taking it down, could we get on first?”
Looking at the guide Ratty, what Ryuuta’s thumb pointed out wasn’t the stairs but the elevator. That demon box that would take them down tens of floors. There was no way Hideo would get on that death trap.
“I see, well c’ya. Tell me if you find a good spawn point. We’ll be around the fiftieth floor.”
“Fool. There’s no way they’d share that info with an enemy.”
Ryuuta and Elsia hopped onto the elevator and made off. Wilco, who was staring at them blankly, suddenly returned to her senses.
“Yes. Last night, I hear Ryuuta went to the fiftieth floor alone and made it back safe and sound.”
There was something different about him. As expected of the Colonel’s apprentice.
“Master, we can’t lose here!! We’re going to get down there and rake it in left and right!!”
“It’s not just monsters, there are valuable items littered around. Keep a sharp eye out.”
In which case, they could be visited by good fortune on pure coincidence.
Three million tickets, he couldn’t give up.
Ratty opened the lock on the stairs leading to the dungeon.
Right, be optimistic. You have to be optimistic.
No matter where you are, no matter who you’re dealing with, you just have to keep winning. That was the rule of this city… the one and only mission bestowed upon someone who had only ever lost.
Hideo spoke in a whisper, but a strong whisper at that.
His hand reached for the door.
When he opened the door, there was an outrageously large raindrop cake, like it had been made in a bucket, at his feet.
(… Is this an ite—?)
“Ah, it’s a slime.”
Before Ratty had finished speaking. Before Hideo could take his first step into the dungeon, he was sent flying by a body blow from the slime. He tumbled, his head smacked straight into the wall, and he was out like a light before he could even cry out.
Hideo jumped up.
He held his head at the terrible bump that had formed. When he looked around, he found not the apartment he holed himself on, nor the one the landlady managed. A sterile, cut-and-dried room. Meaning.
A rain of chops from a crying Wilco.
“You just barely fell unconscious in Centralle Building! Since you were outside the labyrinth, you avoided a loss!!”
And Hideo recalled why he was knocked out in the first place. A slime. Ratty definitely called it that.
(… Not happening.)
Hideo almost held his head from the sheer fear. A rainbow cake so large a child would have to hoist it up in two hands. Let’s say it was the volume of one bucket, around ten liters. Even if it was just water, that would put the weight at ten kilograms. That had sprung at him with full force. If he was smacked with a full bucket, then of course he’d be knocked off his feet.
(The Hero really is something.)
His level one was on a different magnitude, class, dimension from a level one shut-in…
At the end of Wilco’s quivering finger. The uncanny doctor who laughed Heeheehee was waving an invoice. A separate two million tickets. Before he knew it, the sum total of his debt had blown up to five million.
“Heehee, want a ride?”
The doctor gestured towards a stretcher to carry patients but… there were belts to restrain its passenger, and each one of them was a terribly thick metal. Rather than a stretcher, it was a restraint to prevent a test subject from running away.
What’s more, behind the doctor were a number of suspicious individuals in black suits and geometric-patterned masks. It didn’t look like he had any hopes of running.
It suddenly struck him, and Hideo asked Wilco.
“Why. This hospital. Again?”
Otherwise, at the very least, he wouldn’t be getting any new debt.
“This doctor barged in with all the black suits! He said he was your presiding physician and forcefully dragged you off!!”
Meaning Wilco did not have the power to resist these large numbers. Her chop was her greatest offensive power.
Now wasn’t the time to consider such things and escape from reality.
(… Well. Guess I’m a drillman…)
Hideo had half-given up, and at that moment.
“Are you really a top contender!?”
The young president kicked the door in, entering with an intense threatening aura.
“Takaseee, keep quiet in the hospital… heehee.”
“Silence. What is the meaning of this, Doctor? Isn’t he this tournament’s championship favorite? Didn’t he take down Angel Saber’s Colonel Redfield on the first day!? Do we have the wrong guy!?”
“No, it’s definitely him. Kirishima from management confirmed it…”
“Then why did he lose to a slime!?”
This was bad. This was an outrageously terrible state of affairs. Hideo felt a cold sweat down his back. He had sworn in the battle with Javan, his plan was to continue to act out the top contender. His weapons went by the names of fortune and momentum. And now they would be lowered to the level of mere chance.
If his real nature, the fact he boasted absolutely no combat capabilities came to light, in that instant… they would be sitting ducks. Sitting ducks for every single other competitor.
Wilco seemed worried about that as well. Even if she felt the impending crisis, she was making a conflicted face, unable to let it fully show.
Takase lifted up his silver-rimmed glasses and turned back towards them.
“… Don’t tell me you’re actually unbelievably weak?”
“That’s not true at all!”
Wilco immediately replied, but Takase mercilessly snapped back.
“In battles between participants, there are surely strengths and weaknesses… but against monsters, it’s another story altogether. In the first place, that place is a trial ground, a place that exists for competitors to confirm each other’s general strength.”
Meaning it was no exaggeration to say the floor achieved number indicated the participant’s level. Rather than those that ran back on the first floor, those that could get down to the fifth were overwhelmingly stronger. That was plainly obvious.
“And if you were struck down before you could even step into the first floor, how do you explain that? What’s more, I hear your application said you were only going for the first floor to start with!”
Hideo held up his hand to cut Wilco off.
“Then. On the contrary.”
Hideo turned to Takase as he spun his words. He couldn’t lose here of all places. Though even if he won, it wouldn’t be added to his official record, there was no way he could lose.
“Why do you think. We were able to win. Three times?”
“Hmm… must have been dumb luck. Third time’s the charm, they say. What happens twice will happen thrice.”
Not young for nothing, this president could be surmised to be quite the realist. A rationalist who spoke from conclusions. Then he could turn that around.
“That’s exactly… what we need them. To think.”
Cautiously but swiftly. Hideo chose his words. Even his dubious pauses began to hold an overwhelming meaning when placed against his eyes that had been labeled demon eyes.
“My apologies but. President. We never even stopped. To consider. Our debt.”
Takase was level-headed. Not flying into a rage, he watched how things developed.
“As long as you are not a participant. Even if we kill you…”
He took a breath.
“It will not. Be a crime.”
Not even Wilco could have foreseen him coming out with that. Hideo himself felt his spine grow cold with his own voice. But he couldn’t pull back. He had to win.
Takase laughed. Not in the mockery he had used to that point. This was a blatant intimidation tactic.
“Kukukuh… I see, so that’s your game. I thought you had some crazy eyes for your age but… you’re the first person to ever talk like that to my face.”
(He took the bait—)
In that instant, Hideo was convinced of his victory. At Takase’s expression as if to swallow him down. In other words, he was struggling not to be swallowed himself.
Yes, indeed. Hideo had no need to swallow anyone. Could he swallow me… he just had to make the other party think so.
“But I should tell you this, that little girl wasn’t all the muscle my company has to offer. She was nothing but the tip of the iceberg. Are you sure you want to play this game?”
And the essential point was not getting swallowed.
This man had control of a sector of this city where all the masters gathered. There was no doubt he had assembled strength greater than your average competitor. But now wasn’t the time to fear it.
“Hear me out. To the end.”
Hideo imparted those words with his hands raised, inviting in a dubious look.
“We won’t. Jump the Bill… on the contrary.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“We will pay in full. However. In a separate way.”
“Hmm, I see. You have done well in those matches so far. In the end, are you going to challenge me to a gambling match? In that case, you’re far too naïve.”
Hideo lightly shook his head. How idiotic… as if to say.
He took a breath.
“Will collect the debts owed to your company.”
They were taken aback by that one. Both Takase, and Wilco beside him.
“Say what? Meaning… explain yourself?”
“Wh… why are you giving us even more work!?”
Hideo spoke to a trembling Wilco.
“We committed. One grave mistake.”
He stuck up his index finger. Despite his words, he didn’t seem particularly repentant. He indifferently, expressionlessly spoke.
“We were too hasty. For victory.”
“What do you mean?”
This time Takase finally seemed to be gaining interest.
“At the point we defeated the Colonel. We should have called it a day.”
The point came where Wilco and Takase exchanged a doubtful look. He pushed through.
“We showed. Too much strength. The way things are… not a single person. Will even consider issuing or accepting a challenge.”
Wilco hit her hands together.
“You’re right… when we were at the labyrinth reception desk, the other competitors were all on guard. Not a single soul showed the slightest will to challenge us!”
Right. No one so much as tried to approach.
“That’s why. I could only write the first floor. In the box. What’s more… if I just returned normally from the labyrinth. It would be pointless.”
But a loss in the labyrinth was still a loss.
“Such an unbelievable loss as… being knocked out at the entrance.”
Once that happened, the thought would finally occur to them. What Takase said a moment ago.
— Aren’t they actually weak? The most shocked was none other than Takase.
“You’ve got to be kidding it. You’re saying… you had it all planned out?”
“It was my good luck there was a slime there. And I… where all the other competitors could see. Was apprehended by this hospital. This hospital managed by the Obliterating Industries Group.”
I hear he’s weak. And he’s even got a debt. If he’s weak enough for the group to tame him… those rumors would surely spread across the city in the blink of an eye.
“But what relation does that have with you collecting debt?”
“I need to plan for the future. If I keep winning from here, I’ll be back where I started… so.”
This was the only path he had left.
“I will use your company’s claims to issue challenges.”
“A-are you serious master!?”
As long as they obediently paid, he didn’t have to do anything. He could send a small margin of whatever he collected towards his own debt. If they refused to pay, he could issue a challenge saying their debts would be cleared if they won.
Snatch it from the root.
“Using the same logic. Even those who are on the run from your debt collection… will drop their guard around us.”
Just because someone came with a challenge backed by debt, the participants had nothing to gain from it. That was why they ran. But what if their opponent was a competitor too? What’s more, if by winning they could gain the title of top contender? They would not only be free, they would gain fame in the process. In this tournament, the merits of that title could be unlimited depending on how it was used, or at least Hideo had a vague feeling.
Just as it would get him out of this predicament.
Takase leaned in.
“How much do you want?”
One raised index finger.
“Ten percent of whatever we collect. You will direct us to your heaviest debtors who are capable. Of paying.”
“What if you lose?”
“I will just lose my. Qualifications to participate. I’ll still… collect debt for you.”
Takase exhaled a breath of wonder.
“You are the talent this company has… no, I have been looking for all these years! I welcome you as a regular employee of our main Obliterating Industries company! On top of the ten percent yield you mentioned, I will provide you with a monthly salary and bonuses!”
“… I accept.”
Kawamura Hideo. Employment found.
After various provisions, it ended up that Hideo and Wilco were to go to the Obliterating Industries main company. Aboard a noisy Benz so low to the ground it almost crawled along the dirt. Despite being president, he didn’t have a driver and Takase himself was gripping the wheel.
Hideo and Wilco sat in the back seat.
“What’s wrong, master? You don’t look too happy.”
“… In the end.”
Hideo whispered so very, very softly.
“Tricking people is all I’m good for.”
Just how much of his own ability had he exhibited upon coming to this city?
He hadn’t exhibited anything. Because he never had any from the start. He was already a man of few words from the get-go. Just when he thought he’d gained the gift of gab out of necessity, the rest was just his lies getting through.
Wilco murmured so Takase couldn’t hear from the drivers’ seat.
“Wilco thinks people make enough misunderstandings about you as it is.”
“… But still.”
Even if it was to win. Say he actually won the tournament with that. Was there any real meaning to what he gained by continuing to trick people? And no lie lasted forever. The truth would come out one day. Even this time, he just managed to pull a fast one on this president. He had no plan. When he reached a wall that could only be breached with ability, that was as far as he would go.
And at that time, what would this president, would Javan, would the Colonel, would Ratty, would the Landlady, would Lena… what would they think of him?
His chest grew painful.
Until coming to this city, he had never won a single time in his life. But having won his way here… he was only noticing it now. Winning wasn’t everything.
The fact he had never realized something so stupidly simple… only cast shade on the life of loss he had walked to that point.
“Isn’t it fine as long as you win?”
Wilco declared. Still.
“… You think. So?”
“Far better than losing.”
She did have a point. He didn’t yet have the leisure to fixate on the quality of his victories. This was certainly an improvement from when he was pessimistically rotting away in his room.
(… But even so.)
When the patheticness of losing had seeped deep into his bones, he couldn’t just shake it off like Wilco. The axis within him. The foundation. Meaning his heart. Hideo noticed even that part of him was feeble. Weak enough to waver come so far.
“Wilco has to hand it to you for that turnabout back there. You may be cheating people, but when it gets to that level, it’s got to be a talent.”
That didn’t make him particularly happy.
“And… you may be deceiving them for now. But as long as you properly collect debt and win at the end, won’t it all become true?”
That sobered him up a little. He noticed he had yet another reason he couldn’t let himself lose. Even if it started out as a baseless lie, as long as he really did carry it out. He couldn’t call it a lie anymore. He would simply have made true to his word.
“… For a virus.”
She could be so human from time to time. Just before he could give thanks for clearing up his doubts,
“I searched up some counseling boards for similar worries and pulled out the most promising reply. Did that help out?”
Wilco nonchalantly told him. When Hideo looked at the computer on his lap, the wireless connection lamp was blinking
Takase took a glance back.
“What are you two whispering about?”
“It’s nothing. Are we at the company building yet? Forget the shopping district, we’re almost all the way through the residential district.”
“Yeah, we’re already there.”
Beyond the depths of the residential district with all the high-class residences, a place a little ways into the nature district. Like a private villa surrounded by a large sea of trees, a location of the highest class. What appeared in its midst was an old western mansion.
“Well, it’s one of those home offices. Ha ha hah.”
From how he could say that with no cynicism whatsoever, this young president wasn’t normal. He opened the iron gate with the click of a remote and arbitrarily parked the car by the front door. The sorts of maids that were at the supermarket soon came out in droves for a grand welcoming… or so Hideo got his hopes up, but no one came out to greet them.
No, there was one.
“Huh? You’re already back, master?”
A maid in her early twenties who was- for some reason- wearing mirrored glasses on a cloudy day. Was she out cleaning the yard? There was a broom leaned against her shoulder.
“It’s not the regular time yet. Are you slacking again?”
Takase was about to say before faltering for some reason. The maid was making a sullen face. It wasn’t anything too scary to look at, but Takase rephrased himself anyways.
“No, was it Maid S?”
“It’s Lily. I’m Lily now.”
The maid stuck up her thumb to point at herself. It seemed to be her name, but did those things really shift around so readily in this company?
“I see. Well, it doesn’t matter. This is work. We’re welcoming a wonderful talent to our firm’s financing division.”
The maid gazed over Hideo and Wilco with intrigue.
“Wait, Master!? Aren’t these two the championship favorites!?”
“Well isn’t that something…… eh? Don’t tell me you picked them up when they were disqualified?”
“Don’t be stupid. I’m a man of good faith.”
“There you go again. The full-body tights said they were going on strike again tomorrow.”
Erk, Takase shut his mouth. They caught a glimpse of quite the strange relationship between master and servant.
“… She’s quite the mysterious maid, master.”
When Hideo nodded, perhaps she had heard Wilco’s voice. Lily answered without a care in the world.
“Oh, me? If you’re wondering about my position,”
She handed over her business card.
‘Iori Obliterating Industries Chairman and Head Maid and Obliterating Industries Group Shadow Supreme Leader
Wilco cried out.
“Meaning you’re higher up than the president!? And what is Shadow Supreme Leader supposed to mean!?”
Perhaps she was in a hurry, the portion that spelled out ‘Maid S’ was scribbled out with pen, with the word ‘Lily’ written in by hand. Both Hideo and Wilco had something to say about how she boldly put ‘Shadow Supreme Leader’ on her business card.
“Aaah, master… it’s nothing but weirdos…”
Probably, as long as they were in this city. Hideo thought but didn’t say.
“Hope we get along. The truth is…”
The maid pleasantly raised her lovable lips.
“… I’m a participant too.”
For some reason, Hideo felt a bottomless intensity from her smile.
Ten minutes after he was let into the mansion. Hideo entered the room where Wilco, Takase and Lily were waiting.
Came the voices of admiration.
As it turned out, Hideo was provided with a uniform. It wasn’t too formal, but it was the sort of black suit that could definitely be used for a formal gathering. A white button up and red necktie. So-called mourning clothes.
He hadn’t had to tie a tie since he came to the city, and that was a bit of a trial to figure out. Incidentally, he was wearing sunglasses on top of that.
Going by the president’s orders.
“Walk up slowly… that’s right. With your character, there’s no need for shoddy theatrics. Close in emotionlessly, slowly take off your sunglasses, and say, ‘Give me all your money’.”
He tried doing just that. One, two, three steps. Remove sunglasses.
“… Give me.”
It was a success before he even finished.
“Scary! You’re terrifying, master! More than a debt collector, you’re completely an assassin!!”
Wilco excitedly droned on.
“Hm, you’re exactly what I hoped for. No, even better. Kukukuh, how was that, Lily?”
Takase proclaimed in delight.
“Whoah… by this point, he wouldn’t feel out of place in the Kijima Alliance. But if he’s that good, don’t you think they’ll run away the moment he takes off the glasses? Maybe we should switch up the order of things…”
So and so. Such and such. There was no place for Hideo to enter, the three of them were arbitrarily growing heated. Was this that thing that had its moment of popularity, that so-called producer type game…
“While we’re at it, Young Wilco, how about you change into uniform as well?”
“By uniform, do you mean those maid clothes?”
Wilco pointed at Lily’s getup. Lily and Takase nodded.
A wave of static nose raced up and down Wilco’s body. In the net instant, Wilco was in the same one-piece, apron and headdress as Lily.
Nihihi, Wilco laughed. She must have developed a new skill. Quick change. But how would that prove useful… Hideo analyzed the situation relatively calmly. On the other hand,
“Wait a second!!”
Chimed Takase and Lily. Wilco reeled back in surprise.
“W-wait. What was that just now? How did you change!? Why was there static!? Floating or not, you’re no ordinary demon, are you!”
“Hey, are you perhaps an angel!? I saw something like that once before, or rather was forced to do it!”
“Umm. Wilco, you see…”
As Wilco pleaded to him, Hideo nodded. Lily was definitely a participant, but this wasn’t something he could hide given the circumstance.
The fact she was an electronic virus. That she lived in Hideo’s laptop and had infected him. She was a peculiar existence, a radion and psion… and such, she explained as far as she knew.
Takase and Lily were giving half a blank look.
“I’m pretty knowledgeable about this side but… it’s the first I’ve ever heard about an electronic spirit.”
“Right… I’m sure Meeko and Ripple-Rapple don’t know about her either. Even more so if she said she was born from a computer.”
The topic of conversation shifted even further away from Hideo.
“By the way… young Wilco. Are you able to operate within the computer?”
“Wilco can do any bad thing short of murder.”
“Can you manage a database?”
Wilco seemed a little disappointed with that one. Generally speaking, she loves eating data. With a feast before their eyes, who in their right mind would enjoy a job of just lining them up on tables to rot.
There, Takase’s eye went to the notebook PC in Hideo’s hands.
“That’s a bit of an old model. Meaning… to you, it is a sort of bottleneck. Between ‘WindOS’ and ‘Mackle’ which would…”
“Wind! Get me wind!”
Her eyes glimmering at the developments she could see coming, Wilco energetically waved her hand.
Around thirty minutes from Takase’s call, a brand new computer of the latest model was delivered. Using the world’s thinnest, lightest magnesium alloy, kind on Hideo’s arms, strong against impact, the Sharps IT Company’s flagship model, the Murakumo X1.
“Yaaaay!! It’s moving time!!”
Before it was out of the wrapping, Wilco entered it even sooner than the operating system. Without any power source, the hard disk began groaning out like it had when Hideo first met her.
Come to think of it, Hideo had barely any recollection of charging the computer since he met her. She had to be supplying the power on her own. No, but still, when he picked her up, she made him turn it on while it was plugged in.
Wilco mentioned she was in safe mode at the time to escape the pursuit of an antivirus software. What’s more, she only got to enter the real world after that… could it be she was gradually growing and evolving?
‘Will.CO21 is busy infecting. Please wait.’
Like a well-trained receptionist, Wilco came on the screen in work mode.
Their dumbfounded faces, to Hideo who was long accustomed to it, was a sort of show.
‘Will.CO21 has been successfully installed… wait, this hard disk is crazy fast!! 886!!? What is this memory!!?’
The room on the screen wasn’t the cozy compact one he had seen before, it was like the suite room of a super-high-class hotel. Wilco was freely roaming around inside it.
‘A… at this point, shouldn’t I just infect the president and—’
Hideo folded the PC shut.
‘Master, I’m just joking… winning the tournament is Wilco’s goal.’
With a light swish, Wilco’s form was painted into the real world. It did seem leaving the screen didn’t have much to do with whether the laptop was open or closed.
“Wilco, why do you want to win?”
“Wilco is going to become God!!”
“Y… you’re dreaming big…”
With the sheer size and momentum of her statement, both Lily and Takase were half impressed, half fed-up. Well, even if she said God, she was talking about the virtual world, she just wanted to crush antivirus companies and such.
“… And what about you?”
Lily turned the question to Hideo.
Saying it here wouldn’t amount to anything. Explaining what brought him here would be the same as divulging his own background.
“Hm. But to see someone so honestly grateful is a nice feeling indeed.”
Takase nodded to himself and turned to Hideo.
“Let me give you something too.”
“… You already. Gave clothes.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re unarmed, right? Since you were the last person to enter the venue, I assume you had no time to prepare… am I right?”
He hit the mark. Of course, even if he did have a time extension, what exactly could a shut-in such as himself prepare…
The item the president so carelessly set on the table, raising a heavy sound, was a dull-colored pistol.
“Hooray! There’s finally a weapon in master’s hand!”
Hideo desperately contained his shacking as he slowly shook his head.
“… No. President.”
“Are you more accustomed to revolvers? If that’s not enough firepower… I can get an M249 here in no time.”
“… No. I’m saying.”
“What are you hesitating for!? It’s a weapon, a weapon at last! On top of collecting debt, we have to keep winning! If we are aiming for the top, shouldn’t we try and get every weapon and advantage we can!!?”
He understood that. He got it, but Hideo was fearful. He couldn’t use this one. This was a weapon that really could kill someone. The moment he pulled the trigger, a symbol of violence with no self-restraint. He hadn’t the slightest idea about human vitals. Even if he did know, he was unable to aim. If it were the Colonel or Ryuuta, surely they could use it disarm an opponent… performing feats so cool he yearned for them. But he was different. If he used it, worst case, there was a possibility he really would kill someone. If he did that, not only would he lose something precious as a human being, he would also be disqualified.
Disqualification was just some petty idealism he was using as a front.
He was just scared.
It was unbearably terrifying for his weak self to lay hands on such overwhelming power. The item before his eyes was a line he definitely couldn’t cross. Worse than lying, his conscience overpowered his instinct to warn him.
But he… before these people, he had to be an expert in violence and killing. That was his comeuppance for tricking the man called Takase at the hospital. The tab he paid for his falsehoods…
Lily told Takase. The words that followed dragged Hideo’s thoughts up from the bog.
“From what I’ve heard, Hideo is specialized in close combat.”
“Oh, I see. Then… a knife? A saber? A longsword? Axe, spear… there’s no end if you start listing them out.”
“That’s not it. It’s martial arts. To be blunt, I do not. Need. A weapon.”
“No, that’s… master!?”
Wilco isn’t going to let this chance slip by, she was about to cut in, when Lily interrupted. Wilco was left chastising Hideo with her eyes for not picking up what was before his eyes. The conversation… continued.
“… And I’m saying, master. How about that?”
At Lily’s words, Hideo and Wilco exchanged a look.
“You had it made, didn’t you? As a joke.”
Takase hit his hands together at the realization.
“That’s right. It was a joke anyway. Don’t you think it might be more useful in Hideo’s hands?”
I see, Takase nodded. After telling them to wait a minute, he left the room. Wilco cautiously muttered.
“W-what is it…?”
“Some. Thing. Nice.”
Lily put on a cutesy act and Takase was back.
“Here it is.”
What he lifted onto the table in place of the gun… as a rectangular, hard suitcase with no distinguishing features. Judging by its sleek, black finish and size, it could very well contain a violin.
“… I can’t play any instruments.”
“What are you talking about, Master!? Going off the size, it’s gotta be a rifle or something!”
He did hear some dangerous things about being an assassin. In that sense, this was a prop that brought out even more intensity. It was a plain briefcase, so if he carried it in his black uniform… at the very least, the moment he removed his sunglasses, anyone would think he had seven tools to kill inside of it. Like in an action movie, the act of pulling out a business card or cigar might make people hallucinate that he was taking out a pistol.
And he did look the part.
With this size. In this abnormal city where everyone was free to bring any sort of weapon, the illusion it gave wouldn’t stop at a revolved. It could be a bomb, a machine gun, maybe even a legendary weapon or item… The very gesture of opening it was a substantial declaration of intent, perhaps his enemy would surrender.
(… I see.)
“The contents are half a joke, but I think you’re the one most suited for it. Take it with you.”
“… Then I’ll. Gratefully. Accept.”
He swept it up. It was considerably heavy. It could probably be used as a blunt weapon. He could expect more destructive power than a laptop’s corner.
“Wait, Master!? You’re not even going to ask what’s inside?”
“Kukuh… so you’re confident you can use it no matter what it is. How promising, Kawamura Hideo. You’re right, there’s nothing to say. But in destructive power alone, you can’t even compare it to guns, swords, or magic. How you use it is all up to you.”
Hideo had no interest in the contents. Whether it was a gun or legendary weapon or magic item… he was completely confident he would not be able to use it. However, this case was useable. So he would take it.
“And don’t forget these.”
The table was furnished with a blacklist of debtors and the keys to a car. So he was saying walking around would take forever, just go round them up.
“I’ve got my hopes on you, Kawamura Hideo. Kukukuh…”
“Do your best, Hideo. Ah, on the Sacred Demon Cup too, of course.”
At the fearless smile Lily showed for only an instant… Hideo nodded.