The night after the scuffle at Wild Hannibal went by, and Hideo was sound asleep in his apartment.
He woke to Wilco’s voice from the laptop PC. It was serious, by the sound of things. When he took a look, her pale face was stuck up right against the liquid crystal display.
‘They did us dirty!! We’ve lost the top spot!!’
When they confirmed the night before, they were definitely the top rank in wins. The one victory against Hannibal nudged them just a little ahead of the others. Meaning… in the time-space after they slept and before they woke up, someone must have won some matches. It couldn’t be too big of a gap.
“We’ll make up for it. Today.”
They couldn’t? That was a strange thing to hear from Wilco’s mouth. She was always far more positive than he was.
‘Have a look at this!’
The window Wilco slapped up against the screen showed the rankings board from Center’s database. Both Ryuuta and Lily’s names were in the top ten, tied up with the pairs that had three wins. As Wilco said, their own pair was now in second place, ahead by a small margin with four wins.
And rank one was…
… Two hundred wins?
Hideo lightly shook up his half-asleep head.
“Wilco. Are you finally. Bugging out?”
Leaping out of the PC, Wilco used all her momentum to deliver a biting punch.
“How rude! Wilco is an electronic virus, and definitely not a bug! She does not bug out either!!”
Looks like that was quite an insult in the digital world. He would be careful from now on.
“This is official data I pulled straight from tournament HQ a minute ago! Today at one o’ five in the morning, a pair suddenly showed up with two hundred wins!!”
One loss and that was it. That was why everyone carefully won each match like treading on thin ice, the top competitors in around the same boat at three sins… but a sudden two hundred was just unreasonable.
There were over three thousand participants. Meaning just over one thousand five hundred pairs. If two hundred of these pairs dropped out. And, on closer inspection, around two hundred fifty-give or take- had lost normally, that would leave just over a thousand potential wins remaining.
Meaning looking at the remaining competitors alone, a third of this indefinite duration tournament had already gone by. If two hundred wins became the new benchmark… it would become quite the feeding frenzy. Wins didn’t transfer, and they didn’t stay in the game.
Even if they won against a pair that had won a hundred battles, the record of a hundred would simply disappear with the loser who had obtained it. All the victor would gain was the ‘one win’ against that pair.
It could be presumed that only one team at most would be able to bring themselves to match this one’s two hundred victories. Getting overtaken in numbers was one thing… but this was on a completely new level. They had taken the impact of top contender away so hard he couldn’t even argue with it.
“What are we going to do, master!?”
With such a flashy victory, the other participants wouldn’t stay silent. On the contrary as long as someone, anyone defeated this absurd pair, their ridiculous record would collapse…
(… I should watch and wait.)
Right before Hideo finished that thought, his phone plugged into its charger began to ring. It was a business phone, provided by the president of Obliterating Industries. He hadn’t told anyone his number, so the one calling was naturally…
‘Kawamura Hideo. Are you awake?’
That pair had surely caught his attention by now. Iori Takase continued as if he had measured out their unrest.
‘They pulled a fast one. Elize Industrial.’
The name of the company at odds with Obliterating Enterprises, he had heard it from Hannibal the night before. He took a closer look at the computer screen to find the names ‘Hasebe Shouki’ next to ‘Elize Mithrilite’ on the top line.
Elize. That was the name of the top competitor.
‘There isn’t even any need to look into how they held the match. With such a crazy win, it can only be bribery.’
Bribes? For the judge? Or the competitors? It couldn’t be the former. Judges were the sole law in this competition. Even if there was some injustice, if it was bias on the tournament’s side, they were sure to take some measures. That was an unnecessary worry. In which case…
‘At this rate, one of the advantages I get by keeping you around, your title as the top spot will disappear. Do you get what I’m trying to say?’
“… You want me. To win.”
‘Kukukuh… that’s right. I expected no less of you, Kawamura Hideo. I guess I planted those explosives for nothing.’
That went without saying… if they could win against this Hasebe-Elize pair with two hundred wins, their top standing would be rightfully theirs.
Last night, Hannibal told them to drop by that company if they wanted to wash their hands of debt collecting.
“What do we do, master…?”
Elize Mithrilite. An enemy? An ally? Or perhaps…
There was no way around it. Whoever she was, he was going to drop by the industrial district today. Hideo made his resolve and whispered into the phone receiver.
“… Understood. I’m on it.”
‘Hold on, hold on, Hideo. No matter how skilled you are, their side is equipped with non-participant guards. Won’t that be a bit harsh?’
Non-participants. Meaning they had nothing to do with the tournament. They could kill and it wouldn’t be against the rules. Such was only natural for a company that could be called Obliterating Industries’ rival.
‘And so. I’ve already sent one of our firm’s fighting specialists to your apartment. Worse comes to worse, take care of them.’
‘Of course, I mean that in the kill them sense. Oh, lose or die, it’s pretty much the same thing. A two-hundred-win record will disappear. You can take care of it personally, but in that instance, be careful with the coverup.’
‘I await your report. Kukukuh.’
Leaving a profound laugh that brought back memories of his flared canines, the call ended. Even if he said ‘take care of them’ so easily.
“Is this. A joke?”
“No… he’s probably being literal, Wilco thinks. The two companies do seem to have quite the terrible relationship and all…”
The doorbell chimed.
They were here. The Hitman.
Half in suspense, Hideo trudged his way to the front door. He unlatched the lock. When he opened the door.
“Are you Mr. Hideo? And that’s Ms. Wilco behind you?”
Wilco quietly whispered into his ear from behind.
“… The way Wilco sees it, you’re far more assassin-looking, Master. Is she really that strong?”
Wilco was right. The president said fighting specialist, so he had imagined someone more yakuza-ish, or at least robust like a Terminator.
“Obliterating Industries specialist second division, Clarica. Nice ta meet’cha.”
They left the apartment. Clarica turned to them with a fed-up look on her face.
“Did that rotten president really say that? Killing’s strictly prohibited, shadow supreme leader’s orders.”
“In that case… what are we going to do?”
“Let’s kidnap one of them. Having a partner’s your ticket to participate, if one of them goes missing along the way, that’s grounds for disqualification.”
Clarica blurted out such dangerous sounding words with a healthy laugh.
“And I want the two of you to hop aboard this.”
Where Clarica pointed… in the parking lot behind the apartment, its entire design pretty much a straight line, a grim styled bright red high-class sedan was parked.
“Uhah, it’s a Volvo from back when they were sturdy…”
“If we’re gonna charge in, a dump truck or trailer may have been better. But that would make disposing of it a huge pain later. The paneling’s properly bulletproofed.”
She, for one, was quite indifferent about all this.
And in the back seat, Hideo’s eyes caught a number of boorish black silhouettes lying around. There was no mistaking the machine guns. Were those round things with pins possibly hand grenades?
Up to that point, he only had a vague sense of danger, but it was now suddenly clad with a full taste of reality.
They really were performing a raid.
They were heading through literal fire and flames. At a scale his own life had never reached before. What’s more, just the three of them.
“… My stomach. Is…”
“Don’t worry, I got’chu. I bought’cha you some breakfast. You’ll have to eat on the way.”
Like she couldn’t wait for a field trip, Clarica was terribly cheerful. She shoved Hideo into the car and handed him a rice ball from the convenience store.
“… Master, are you possibly trying to say your stomach is hurting?”
Hideo softly nodded to Wilco’s whisper.
The industrial district he was only now visiting for the first time stood like good old Yokkaichi City in the days of yore. Herds of buildings with tall smokestacks that could be made out as factories at a glance. The numerous warehouses that seemed to form a pair with them.
“We’re already in enemy territory, for what it’s worth. You can consider everyone in work clothes your enemy.”
Clarica said as she sent a belligerent smile to the roadside. Indeed, the eyes the laborer saved for Clarica’s maid uniform were harsh. Like Obliterating Industries had the shopping district under their thumb, the Industrial District was quite likely Elize Industrial’s turf.
“You said kidnap one of them but… which one?”
To Wilco’s question,
“Now that’s the real problem. Elize’s a spirit so it’ll be hard to take her in with normal restraints.”
“Then should we go for Hasebe Shouki?”
That one made her furrow her brow just as much.
“Well, you’re right about that. But Mr. Shouki’s crazy strong, you know.”
Hah? Wilco looked at her.
“Oh, we’re acquainted. That Mr. Shouki’s a former hero, after all…”
Hero? What was that supposed to mean? Wilco asked with that sort of face.
“Y… you mean he fought the demon lord…?”
“That one never actually happened, but he’s made it out of more bloody battles than you could imagine.”
Experienced or not… a hero?
“His sword and magic are top class for a human. If I had to equate it to a lens, while being applicable to both long and short distances, there’s no distortion when switching between the two. He’s a perfect all-rounder.”
“… Umm. Master?”
I see… yes, I see. Hideo thought.
Meaning… he’s one of those.
That hero who gets gratitude from everyone no matter what he does. Who opens all the drawers in someone’s house, smashes their pots, and at the end of it all, arbitrarily makes out with everything that was inside yet, forget larceny, he’s not even tried for illegal breaking and entering, spending his days slaughtering monsters clearly weaker than himself under the just cause of earning experience looting their dead bodies of all their items and money all while calmly filling his party slots with all manner of beautiful girls! The sort who would calmly stay at an inn with them, that…!
A menacing aura built up around him.
“Master… why have the powers of the dark side tripled within you…!?”
“… I’m going. To win.”
No. He had no choice but to win. This was an existence his kindred souls scorned as shut-ins and NEETs spent their lives admiring from across the screen. An existence only permitted because it was a game, who should be no means exist in reality. Erase. Eliminate. Delete. Just snatching him away wasn’t enough. Bury him. Bury him alive. One thousand meters below. Bury him so low he’ll never see the light of day.
“… Looks like that rotten president didn’t choose you for nothing. I can feel an unnecessarily amazing aura from you.”
“Ah… but in master’s case, these moments are unnecessarily short-lived…”
The car made it through the factories from a bygone era and turned. An orderly scene that looked like it would deal in modern precision machinery opened before them. Like silicon valley or Kameyama.
Covered in vast greens, with long, long fences around.
“This is the enemy home base… Elize Industrial. Are you ready?”
Clarica asked with a side glance while operating the submachine gun hung from her neck. Clack, the pull of a lever proved her preparations were in place.
That metallic sound returned Hideo to his senses.
Even if the hero was a hero… this was an era where machine guns existed. The fact this combat specialist had prepared one meant the other side had considerably defenses in store.
“W… well, Master, no matter what happens, they won’t just suddenly break into a firefight…”
While she was a mischievous soul in the digital world, Wilco had her apprehensions about gunfire in the real world. One wrong shot to the computer and her home was gone.
“If we talk our way through, the president might let us meet her.”
Wilco said, but… the place they were headed was a low and wide industrial office he could easily imagine the words Mitsubishi or Sumitomo on. Would the president of such a splendid company really meet them without an appointment?
The men standing at the ground gate station in berets looking very much like security guards were properly armed with machine guns. Like a military base or border security he’d seen on the news.
When they stopped in front of the sliding barrier, the men who closed in, like the laborers, didn’t make the best faces upon seeing Clarica’s uniform. They unhesitantly knocked up against the window glass with the muzzles of their guns.
A doubtful attitude of blatant hostility.
Clarica lowered her driver-side window.
“Hey, wassup. This is Obliterating Industries’ specialist second division, did someone order a hit ‘n run?”
She grinned wide and handed a metal ball over to the nearest guard.
“? … Grenade!?”
The moment he screamed that, Clarica immediately shifted gears into reverse and slammed the accelerator. In the distancing scenery ahead, the guards tossed aside the ball with the pin removed and made off in a mad dash.
The gate was blown off, station and all.
Was this the output of the real deal?
Rather than the sound, Hideo could only hear the vibrations. The blast wave was great enough to send static running down Wilco. Before the rubble had hit the ground, Clarica had already switched gear, her accelerator was on full throttle. The tires and engines screamed out as she rammed away the gate’s wreckage with the bumper, racing the ride into the premises.
The abnormality already had guards pouring out left and right. The light baps of lead pellets ricocheting sounded all over the car. With the wheel in one hand, her gun in the other, Clarica scattered bullets from the window she had left open.
“Wasn’t killing strictly prohibited!?”
“I’m using plastic bullets, they won’t penetrate!”
But the guards she shot seemed to be writhing on the ground in extreme pain. Clarica laughed out at the sight… and.
“Forward! Eyes ahead!!”
Wilco suddenly screamed out in tears. The car was making a straight line for the industrial office’s front door!!
“Not a problem!!”
She momentarily released the gas, changed gears, then floored the accelerator even harder.
What about the brake? Hideo’s thoughts lasted for only a moment before the car vigorously raced up a flight of stairs and jumped, smashing straight through a glass door and sending them flying into the building.
“Now, let’s get going, Mr. Hideo!”
A cheerfully-smiling Clarica handed him a heavy machine gun. When he looked at Wilco, she was already carrying the case with the chainsaw.
(You want me… to shoot.)
Now this was troubling.
Babang, the sound of an explosion rumbled all the way to the president’s office. A daaaaaaaazed out young girl in a blazer with unfocused eyes slooooooooooowly tilted her head.
“Make sure you follow… the proper safety procedures~…”
“You’re wrong, president! This isn’t a factory accident, it’s a raid! It’s Obliterating Industries!”
Her suited executives were losing their minds.
“That’s why I told you, president! They’re no different from a gang!”
“If only we paid their ‘protection fees’!”
“It was wrong for a proper company to conduct business in this lawless town…!”
The middle-aged adults were moving left and right, with little to show for it. The girl operated the remote in her hand.
“Please keep the room cool, Mr. Ghost.”
Boop. The air conditioner started spewing cold air.
“Calm down, just look at yourselves.”
The one who calmly spoke was a young man slouched in the sofa for receptions. In a room full of suits, he was the only one in jeans and a casual jacket. Black hair. With black eyes so straightforward it was as if they were an embodiment of his nature, he looked over the chief executives.
“Elize’s saying you’ve gotta cool your heads. How about you calm down?”
The man called Shouki reached his hand for the longsword beside him, a length which a normal person would have trouble just to swing around. He stood. The intermittent gunshots that had broken out after the explosion were gradually closing in.
“You lot’d better take cover. From here on is my territory.”
He unsheathed his sword, a uniform black from its blade to its hilt. The fearless smile on his face caused the others to swallow their breath. After exchanging a look, they turned to the president… the girl called Elize.
“You’ll need to use vacation days if you want paid leave~.”
That was a small price to pay for survival. With tangled feet, they scrambled out the office. The gunshots sounded again and again like firecrackers.
“… Good grief, they’re really making a show. This has got to be Takase… no, Clarica?”
“I have not heard about any such appointment~.”
“… No, it’s a raid, I tell you. What idiot books an appointment for that?”
Challenge letters aside.
Daaaaaaaaaaaze… her eyes that stayed open like they were left out to dry gazed into blank space. Just by those eyes, it was hard to determine if she was alive or not… no, perhaps that was an overstatement.
(Are all spirits like this…?)
Until not too long ago, Shouki possessed the time-honored title of hero. He was versed in what he called the ‘darkness’ of this world to a certain extent. He knew of magic and demons, angels, and even gods.
Yet all he knew about spirits was the fact they were called forth in summoning rituals. He was also vaguely aware that spells and magic circles were used to commune with spirits and bring about phenomena impossible for humans to accomplish alone.
“Please save me, room warming ghost~.”
Maybe the cooling was too effective, Elize pressed at the remote again.
But this girl wasn’t a spirit Shouki had summoned. By the time he met her, she had proper form, and she was running this company called Elize industrial Enterprises. When they met, he could hardly believe she was a spirit at all.
Strangely, she had a nature like a mix-up of all sorts of loose odds and ends, and at times he had trouble establishing communication.
“But I never thought they’d make their move this quickly. You think two hundred wins was overdoing it?”
“Every problem has~ a~ solution~.”
The sound of guns had finally reached their floor.
Concealing herself in a corner of the corridor, Clarica swapped out the magazine on her machine gun.
“It’s kinda been way too easy… making me yawn…!”
“What about it!? What part!?”
Wilco was half-snapped. Inevitably. Their destination, the president’s office was just at the end of the corridor, but a makeshift barricade had been set up, and the resistance was intense. Each shot was returned with ten, the corner they hid behind was gradually being shaved away.
By the time he reached the fourth floor, Hideo’s sense of fear was pretty much numb. That was the least of his problems. The moment the bullet hell cut off, Clarica’s body spilled into the hallway as she took a sweep with her machine gun.
(… She’s. Kinda cool.)
The side of her grinning face gave him the leisure to even consider it.
A grand chorus of agony from her targets. The bullets were plastic, but they were still propelled with gunpowder and a proper shot could break bones and rupture internal organs. It was dubious whether they were any more humane than regular bullets.
Incidentally, Hideo was peppering support fire from behind her with the submachine gun she gave him, but he couldn’t seem to hit.
Well, all he really had to do was fire enough that she didn’t get angry at him for slouching. That was how it worked. Definitely. Not like he was hitting anything anyway.
“Wilco doesn’t plan on dying when we’re not even holding a match… oh Lord!?”
Clank, an item like a spray can rolled towards them. But like a pitcher performing a last second double play, Clarica snatched up the rolling grenade and calmly threw it back.
After an immense sound and flash, it was quiet beyond the barricade. Clarica watched carefully a while before she beckoned them towards where the guards were; all face down, hopefully unconscious.
“That’s why I’m saying, it’s too easy…”
She scratched her head, rather disappointed.
“But looking at their command chain, Wilco thinks they were properly trained…?”
“Maybe on the surface world that’s enough. But on our side, it’ll be harsh to survive with that.”
Clarica pulled a small silver wand from her waist and brandished it towards the barricade.
The lockers, steel desks and chairs forming the barricade were sent flying apart like they had been hit with a sudden wind, transforming them into simple junk.
Hideo stood with Wilco, staring in amazement.
“I hear you’re pretty strong, aiming for the top of this tournament. Aren’t you pretty good with magic yourself?”
Her smile without a hint of doubt was blinding to look at.
“… Well. More or less.”
In shut-in language that translated to not at all. Wilco stared at Hideo, sobbing like she was looking at a pitiful soul.
“Now, it’s time to confront the president.”
“… If we’ve made this big of a show, don’t you think they’ve booked it by now?”
Wilco’s retort hit the mark.
“Ah. Well that’s… umm.”
“You didn’t even consider it!? You went on a rampage without a thought in your head!?”
Hideo restrained Wilco before she could snap at her. Clarica gave half a laugh, spinning her body towards the presidents’ office.
“Well, there’s no guarantee they’re gone.”
She stood before the heavy double doors with the plate that read president. She couldn’t tell how many, but she could definitely feel a presence. With the machine gun ready in one hand, she used the other to hold her silver want in a backhand grip and touch it against the door.
“Are you ready?”
The plan was likely to use that same magic from before the tear through the door and gain the upper hand. Hideo swallowed his spit, he firmed his grip on the machinegun… and nodded.
The door shot into the room, hinges and all. But. It broke before it got far. From the other side, a shadow advanced too fast for the eye to follow. A single young man.
With the body of a long, pitch black sword slammed against the crown of her head, Clarica fell flat on the spot.
“You overdid it, idiot.”
As he said that, his tired eyes turned. They shifted grimly to Hideo. At the same time, a swish, a light pull so faint it was even somewhat comforting.
By the time he noticed it, the machine gun that was definitely metal was completely bisected like it was made of bamboo. Without the time to be taken aback, Hideo reflexively tossed it down. The black point was thrust right at his throat. Straightforward eyes. And tone.
“Do you want to continue?”
That was impossible. But he did have to break out of this situation. The last name Clarica called out, and the irrational strength that took her out so easily. There was no doubt this man was the hero Hasebe Shouki.
Then there was a way.
As long as he was a participant, killing was out of the question. And if he really was the hero, he wouldn’t even consider such inhuman notions such as kidnapping and burying someone…
… Ah, so that’s why I can’t be a hero. He realized and got himself down.
“… Don’t. Misunderstand.”
“…? What do you mean?”
With a dubious Shouki before him, Hideo left a moment of silence. Remember. What was your original goal in coming here? Before the president told him to, Hannibal had told him the same.
“We are here. For peaceful. Negotiation.”
Wilco’s chop came at a good angle. She was frantically pointing out the path they had come down.
“Wilco doesn’t think that’ll work after all we did to get here!!”
But that was all Clarica.
“Found a new friend~.”
“Oh noes, you caught me~… wait, who is this!?”
Before she knew it, there was a girl with daaaaazed out eyes wrapped around her arm.
She looked younger than Wilco, like a girl who had just entered middle school… but she was for some reason the president of Elize Industrial. Her slender build in a formal blazer somewhat gave the impression like she was all dolled up for a coming of age ceremony.
Be that as it may, her hair done up with a headband as if to show off her forehead was a bright silver close to white. Her slightly-blue silver eyes definitely gave off an inhuman mystique.
Elize pointed at herself.
She pointed at Wilco.
She pointed at the air conditioner.
She trying to say they were spirits in arms. No, ghost?
Still wrapped around Wilco’s arm, Elize dragged her into the president’s office. Shouki reluctantly sheathed his sword with a sigh.
“What do you mean newest, Elize.”
“She’s the newest spirit~ in the world~.”
Hideo followed while listening to their exchange.
“Sure enough, Wilco has been called an electronic spirit on the darknet but…”
“That’s wonderful~ She’s an electronic spirit~.”
“In that case…”
Wilco pointed at Elize. Then what sort of spirit was she?
“I am the spirit of mithril~.”
“Mithril… Wilco’s hears that a lot, but what exactly is it…?”
“Sacred silver! A divine metal~. For love peace and courage~, the mithril that smites evil~♪”
Elize said sweetly in song.
“Then Elize Mithrilite is…?”
“A name I arbitrarily gave myself~.”
“Well, Wilco can’t say she’s any better.”
A slight affinity seemed to be welling up between fellow spirits.
Come to think of it, he knew she was a computer virus, but he didn’t know the first thing about how she came to be. She herself didn’t seem to have a full grasp on her materialized self, after all.
“So I can do this~.”
Elize easily opened the case Wilco was holding. The chainsaw lightly floated in the air. And fell apart.
“W… what are you doing!? That’s Master’s only weapon!”
The full-body tights did say it was made of mithril.
Of the airily floating parts, only the metal portions gathered together, beautifully melting down like mercury into a single small elongated slab… an ingot that rested atop Elize’s hand.
Perhaps oddly, or perhaps this was the natural course. The color of pure mithril, unlike its original metal color, was far closer in hue to Elize’s silver-white hair. When she had shown them that much, the two could only stare blankly, no longer caring about weapons and so forth.
“Elize Industrial Enterprises is the world’s largest producer of mithril~.”
Contrary to her dead eyes without any clear focus, Elize strongly stuck up the index finger of her right hand.
“By spreading mithril through the world, I will rank up from spirit to god~.”
Then what? Did that mean Wilco would become a god by spreading pathogens through the world? No way.
“More importantly, Elize.”
It was Shouki who spoke.
“What are we going to do with these two?”
“I already heard from Mr. Hannibal~.”
Who would have guessed that brusque man had already passed the word. Hideo felt a heat in his chest, but he lacked the words to carry it.
“But you were just one step too late~. If you’re just troubled by debt, we would have resolved it if you came by last night~.”
“W… what do you mean?”
At Wilco’s words, Shouki leaked a laugh.
“Remedial action. From our company Elize Industrial to the people suffering under the debt of our rival Obliterating Industries… of course, you two were taken under their wing, so they would never have told you.”
Hannibal was also being harassed by debt collectors. Meaning he knew and was giving them the hint. If they had made here straight from his store yesterday… they would have received this remedial action? Wilco timidly cut into it.
“Isn’t there anything you can do about that…?”
“It’s a request from my newest friend, of course I’ll lend an ear~.”
Wilco put her hands together.
“We have a debt of five million tickets!”
Hideo took a cautious glance back. Clarica was still out cold. It was better off keeping the gap between the real him and the him who deceived Takase a secret.
The mithril spirit nodded.
“Very cheap~. Then let us hold a continuation of last night’s mini-tournament~.”
Wilco furrowed her brow at the strange places this conversation was going. If it was a mini-tournament, then unlike the one-on-one matches they had conducted to that point, this was a means to win against an unspecified large number of people. Like a fishing contest, eating contest, the game of life… the list went on. Naturally, they had never participated in one before, but perhaps they would have taken part if they had come the night before.
“And how will we be holding the match..!?”
As Wilco swallowed her breath, Shouki’s smile gradually deepened.
“The match will be decided by ‘assets’. The side with the highest assets wins. To prove their superiority, the winner will provide the loser with enough tickets to pay off their current debt.”
Wilco couldn’t close up her mouth. Even more than her, Hideo was satisfied with that explanation.
(… I see.)
A rigged game.
Oddly, the words of his own president were spot on the money. Bribery taking the name of a match. Using her position as president, a means of match that granted perfect, certain victory.
Little over a week had gone by since the tournament began. It was around time competitors began to see the caliber of its top contenders, and the troubles that lay on the road to victory. Among the pairs that looked back on their own abilities and realized the narrowness of possibility, there were those who had fallen on their luck, fallen in debt with that company, and developed distaste towards their forceful means of debt collection.
(… They threw the match.)
Matches were built on the premise that both sides had to consent. They got their opponents to agree to a match that guaranteed certain loss. That was all there was to it. Two hundred pairs of participants desired loss of their own accord. But rather than losing with nothing but a life of debt collection ahead of them, they sold off the win to bid the tournament a clean farewell. The shrewdest loss possible…
As a loser himself, Hideo strongly denied it.
That was just empty idealism. In the end, they were made livestock of. His company had rounded them up, and these two had served them on the table. Remedial action? That was quite the deception. The only reason they got them to accept the challenge was because they could see where they stood.
Shouki spoke half-teasingly.
“If you really want to wash your hands of debt collecting, you won’t get a better offer.”
He contained Wilco’s fears with a hand.
“I can’t accept that challenge.”
But this was the result of what Iori Takase. Of what Elize Mithrilite had built up on the way to the tournament. To win. To lose. If he had to say, this was the difference in life’s tally before the tournament began. He couldn’t speak for Wilco, but he himself. He was an overwhelming streak of losses. This was the difference.
He was brought to realize it time and again. He was a loser.
A daring smile full of self-confidence. That had to be something backed by the victories he stacked up as a hero.
“Oh, you heard from Clarica? Yeah, I’m not one anymore. But I am strong.”
Shouki lifted the guard of his black sword.
“In that case, want to try going at it under the basic rule? I wouldn’t mind.”
“Wilco is surprised you can say that after what you’ve done to master’s weapon!”
Wilco pointed at the ingot in Elize’s hands and the bits and pieces of plastic that remained… she went on as if suddenly realizing something.
“And wait… if you’re not in active service, what are you now?”
Surprisingly, that question seemed to erase his self-confidence. Elize answered for him.
“He was an unemployed university grad~. Back when he was on duty, he was a good customer of our company’s mithril products, so I took him on part time~.”
“Could you stop spreading that tidbit already!?”
Beneath his sunglasses, Hideo quietly closed his eyes. And he spoke.
“A part-timer… huh.”
What a sense of superiority…!!
Even if he got in by chance and was trying to wash his hands of it… he was fully employed!! The person before his eyes was a part-timer!! Ah, lo and behold the social stigma!!
… Regardless of whether or not his own company was any better in that regard.
“M-master is letting off a strange aura…!?”
“Silence! What do you know!? I devoted almost all of my senior year at college to job hunting, and all five companies I interviewed with rejected me! What do you know!!? Yeah, that’s right, if it weren’t for this bloody recession, I’d be…!”
Hideo had already kicked down the reception table.
Five companies. A mere five companies. No matter how he endeavored as a hero in that world over there. Once he got to the real world, that was it. How frail.
Hideo quietly removed his sunglasses. He glared straight at Shouki.
“To hell with college. You empty-headed academic. Don’t look down… on society.”
“You’re just a puppet. Wearing your former glory as a hat. You hypocrite…”
“S… say that again!”
The smile disappeared from Shouki’s face, he must have struck a nerve.
Former hero, eh. He was probably the same type as the police officer Minako. A strong sense of justice, and therefore oversensitive to his own faults. Even more so when they were pointed out by someone he thought of as beneath him.
“Hero… you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s obvious that a company president has money. It’s obvious that a hero is strong.”
Meaning, Hideo took a breath.
“Your very existence in this tournament. Is cheating.”
Hideo himself knew that argument was pushing it, but he could tell the blood was getting to Shouki’s head.
Seeing Hideo’s mode change, Wilco hopped right aboard. She had gotten used to it.
“In the first place, the assets are Elize’s power! The former hero/bum hasn’t done a thing!”
“I’m not a bum! I’m just underemployed!!”
“If you think that’s something to brag about, you’re living in the wrong era! Making yourself look cool saying you used to be the hero!? If swinging around a sword and threatening people with violence is all you’re good for, what does that make you!?”
“Urgh… if you’ll let me have my say…!”
In her daaaaaaaaze, Elize set the ghost something-something airconditioning to cool, flooding the room with cold air, but it didn’t seem to effect Shouki.
“What about you two…!”
He had no argument. Nothing worth listening to.
“Two hundred wins gained. Through cowardice is. Nothing more than cheap makeup. It will fall off someday.”
Shouki gripped his sword stronger.
“And. If it was so cheap… it’s worthless to us. I’m disappointed. I have. No business here.”
Hideo turned to leave, but Shouki immediately stood in front of him. He would lose nothing from letting them leave, but his history, his pride as a hero wouldn’t permit it.
“I’ve heard about you too, Kawamura Hideo! I don’t know about demon eyes or future sight but… do you think I’ll back down after you’ve said all that!?”
Hideo was up for the challenge… but then what? His opponent was an all-rounder. What’s more, the means he used against the Colonel wouldn’t work anymore. That one would wash off his own makeup.
It needed to be a method that showed off his own abilities to an extent. On top of giving him a winning chance. What he didn’t have in the first match, something he had obtained in this one week. What he could use in a match… computer. Cellphone. Car. Connections to Obliterating Industries. A chainsaw… not anymore.
When he wanted to wash his hands of them, in the end, it all tied back to that company. How ironic.
“Sacred Demon Grand Prix~.”
Elize abruptly blurted out. The words brought a grin to Shouki’s face.
“Oh… I see.”
“Why are you acting so satisfied on your own…?”
Shouki nodded once. His precarious penchant to lash out at them was gone.
“I’ll hear you out. If assets are no good, and battle’s a no go… then how about we have a match of speed?”
“Speed… grand prix… meaning you’re challenging us to some sort of race?”
“That’s right. Elize and Takase put up the announcement this morning. It was on TV, the homepage, the board at Center… you didn’t see it?”
For less than second, Wilco closed her eyes.
“Will.CO21 working… search complete. A joint event between Obliterating Industries and Elize Industrial? Open to all participants and non-participants…?”
Shouki seemed shocked as she suddenly spouted its contents.
“I-I see… electronic spirit. Yeah, that’s right. Meaning, even if you’re not in pairs, anyone can participate. Organizers, laborers, shopkeepers, anyone. You know how there’s a war waging between Elize Industrial and Obliterating Industries, right?”
He didn’t know it had gotten bad enough to be called a war.
“Both sides will enter their own participants in the race, and the losers will come under the umbrella of the winners.”
So it was like Mahjong between Yakuza.
Wait a second. Then what? If it was announced that morning, then the president knew full well when he sent them to erase Elize and Shouki? Was that why he wanted to take care of them? Even if Hideo was eliminated from the tournament, his company would reap all the benefits…?
He was dirty to the core… it had to be called a talent by this point.
“Kawamura Hideo. How about you represent Obliterating Industries? As long as you don’t drop out half-way, this race won’t count as a loss.”
Shouki said with a profound smile.
(… Meaning, on the contrary.)
If you drop out of the race, you lose. Not only the race, you’re disqualified from the Sacred Demon Cup. The moment his thoughts were about to go towards the risks, Wilco cried out.
“The grand prize is… a hundred million tickets!?”
(Now this is…)
That one was a surprise!
“Master, there’s more! Sacred Demon Cup participants who complete this race are recognized to have defeated pairs who dropped out, it will be added to the official record! These points will be distributed based on… the finer details aside! The point is! If we win, we get loads of money and wins!!”
I see. This was what it meant to have a high-stakes game. Those at the top will be able to further solidify their positions. Those at the bottom have a chance to turn it all around. There was no doubt this mini-tournament would have a considerable number of participants.
And the race would presumably become a huge scramble to crush one another. The more pairs that drop out, the more wins awarded at the finish line.
“Wilco. The rules?”
“Yes, the plaza in front of Centralle Building… where the opening ceremony was is the starting point! You have to reach checkpoints in each district in the designated order and make it back to Center Plaza! The race starts at noon, three days from now, the time limit is five hours, means of transportation, anything goes (no teleporting). On foot, car, flying magic, anything! Weapons, magic, and items free to use! Of course, obstructing participants during the race is completely permitted!!”
With each word Wilco grew more excited, the money was blinding her.
“At this point, it’s the Cannonball Run!!”
“That’s right. A Cannonball Run of the world of darkness. You can’t even compare the severity to the surface world… and of course, you accept, don’t you? Kawamura Hideo…!”
For a race this large in scale, it could be seen as a pregame to predict the grand winner of the championship. To Hideo who had to stick to his seat as top contender, there was no way he could decline.
Hideo quietly nodded before he said,
“… I accept.”
Shouki was to take charge of Clarica until she woke up.
Hideo and Wilco left through the broken-down gate. As he watched off their backs from the shadow of the blinds, he unknowingly burst into a smile.
“The rumors were true, those eyes of his aren’t normal. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this tense. I can’t wait to see what happens in three days!”
His hot-blooded spirits rode his fist as he smacked it into his palm. This tension was a long time coming. It had been so long since he could look forward to a fight with no holds barred. When all was said and done, he quit as a hero, but the surface world society was so boring. This was what he lived for. This patter of his heart was the proof he was alive.
“I wouldn’t count on that~.”
This spirit’s speech and conduct was always a mystery, so it was only natural he could never tell what was going through her mind.
“I’m not going up against Obliterating Industries for show~.”
A swish and a swish, as she spread her arms wide, Elize’s unfocused eyes danced in delight.
(What? Did she lay some sort of trap in the tourney…?)
From the tournament’s very first match, those two had remained top contender. Takase may be a villain, but Shouki trusted his insight. He didn’t believe any small measure would be able to take them out…
Of course, the car they came in was confiscated, so they had to return on foot. They plodded step by step through the industrial district steeped in the scent of coke, machine oil, and metal.
“Master, in a sense, the real battle starts in three days! If we take the top spot, we’ll be swimming in wins! We’ll be out of debt! We might be able to take it easy for a while!”
For what it was worth, he did confirm it with the president but, ‘if that’s how it is, then so be it, kukukuh…’ he sounded remarkably delighted with the idea, so that was one matter taken care of.
“And wait, we’ll be rich! Instead of a laptop, Wilco will live in the server she’s always dreamed of!!”
Right. He definitely did want to take it easy a while. His shut-in self had left the house far too often this past week. A normal stay-at-home patient would have died of overwork by now with this harsh… nay, heartlessly cruel schedule.
Three days. They would be better off refraining from other battles until then. To recharge their spirits, of course, but tripping up on a small matter before the main event was the worst thing that could happen. Naturally, the other participants would probably do the same.
As Hideo was cautiously gazing at his forecast of the future, Wilco abruptly pointed in the direction they were already going.
“Master, what do you think that crowd is for?”
Where Wilco was pointing. Right out of the industrial district, around where he could see the rows of shopping district buildings, laborers in work clothes had gathered by the side of the road. There was a familiar face among them. Characteristic blue clothes with a truncheon, it was Minako.
“The police woman’s with them. Looks interesti… eek!?”
It was an instant. The moment one of the crowd noticed, all the several dozen turned with eyes filled with hostility. They were surrounded in no time.
“W-what is this, officer!!?”
She drew her truncheon Okamaru, no questions asked.
“Hideo. I never thought… I never thought you’d be so dyed in evil!!”
“… What are you trying. To say?”
“Not only did you barge into Elize Industrial demanding they pay off your debt, out of fear for the hero- a wonderful man- you sacrificed one of your own comrades- a feeble woman- to make your escape!! And that brings us to this point!!”
“… Wilco now understands how terribly mistaken you are, but…”
But what to do now, Wilco rubbed the corner of her eyes. Around that time, Hideo heard a whisper from behind him. Low enough that Minako up front couldn’t hear, a pleasant murmur of a worker.
— Don’t think poorly of us. President’s orders.
I see, thought Hideo. So that’s what it means. Even if she was the spirit of sacred silver. Even if a hero was her partner… that spaced-out girl was competing with Iori Takase. Meaning she had to be just as manipulative as he was.
They had already turned down the invitation. Then this time, it would be the opposite of what they did that morning. Elize could fill in her lack of pieces by winning over people like Minako with lies. They were the spirit of sacred silver and the hero. Hideo’s side was an evil organization. Then normally, wouldn’t people unconditionally side with his opposition?
Now that Takase had accepted him as representative, if he disappeared, Elize Industrial won the Sacred Demon Grand Prix by default.
(… I see. It really is…)
It really is corrupt to its core, this town.
There were no judges. No challenges to a match.
The blue-collars had their tools. Minako held Okamaru at the ready. While Hideo was failing to find a card to play, the circle mercilessly closed in.