It happened around the dead of the night.
The explosion, the impact. Hideo jumped up from his futon, while Wilco leapt out from the shaking monitor.
“W-ww-what is this!?”
“… What could.”
The two moved to the window and threw open the curtains to find a large hole opened up in the nearby road, presumably from the explosion. The next three houses over were blown away, as hellfire and black smoke rose and faded.
“And that’s the match! The winner is the Akane-Branken pair!”
That had to be the referee.
“W… what a nuisance… what region of the middle east are we supposed to be in!? How about we all keep our flashy battles to broad daylight, eh!!”
Marveling at the peculiar words that came back at her peeved complaint, Hideo and Wilco exchanged a glance. When they lowered their eyes back down to the pavement, a young girl in some gaudy fantasy-ish clothing was energetically waving back.
“I accept your challenge! Oh, this is going to be fun!!”
To her side, a western suit of armor, and next to that one… was Kirishima Lena.
“Howdy, I expected no less of you two! I’ll gladly oversee it! A flashy match when the sun is up, I can’t wait!”
And they left. Only the burnt-black pair that had apparently lost a moment ago twitched at the roadside, having been brought to the verge of death.
Wait, no wait.
For the first time since the tournament began. They had unintentionally issued a challenge of their own.
They received a call the next morning, and dropped by the pub that had hosted the singing battle with the Remina-Good Job pair. It was a pub that managed job requests so even early in the morning, it was sparsely populated with participants and non-participants alike. Within all of that, the two sipped their morning coffee over a strategy meeting.
“But Master. What does a flashy battle even mean…”
“… That’s. Well.”
That likely depended on however things developed. While there was an agreement for a match by both parties, the judge had not declared its commencement yet. It was like those mini-tournaments, so to speak; a match to be carried out at a designated date. They had been called to discuss the details. Then they simply had to bring the following discussion towards conditions favorable to themselves. Broad daylight aside, a flashy battle, there was any number of ways to interpret that…
“So, how do you interpret it, master…?”
He took a sip of coffee. He gently set the cup on its saucer an nd told her.
“Whop! Whop! Whop!”
A chop and a chop. However, this hazardous development was all Wilco’s responsibility for her off-handed comment.
Whatever the case, to know your enemy is to know yourself, or something or another. They were well aware they had absolutely nothing going in their favor, so knowing their enemy was all they could do. As Hideo opened the laptop on the table, Wilco displayed the data of their competition, the Akane-Branken pair.
When their own team had earned close to a hundred wins thanks to the Sacred Demon Grand Prix, the other side had just less than twenty.
“Nihihi. They’re small fries.”
Perhaps that was the case in pure win points, but…
At that moment, someone who just happened to pass by froze up as he saw the screen.
“T-that name is… hey champ, don’t tell me you’re up against that girl…?”
He looked back to find the mustachioed bartender who treated him to tequila.
“… Something wrong?”
“… In all her matches, even the ones that weren’t battles, her opponents are sent straight to the hospital, no exception. What’s more, some building somewhere is always blown up, it’s driving management up the wall … she’s a literal walking bombshell.”
Hideo and Wilco recalled the ground zero they saw last night and suddenly broke into a cold sweat.
“I’m begging you here, if you want to have a match, do it somewhere far away… fingers crossed.”
But just as they were discussing rumors.
With a bang, the girl from last night threw the door opened as she stepped in. A red magician garment and hat that would feel right in place in a Japanese anime, a metal staff in her hand.
“I-it’s the walking bombshell!”
The moment they saw her, all the customers in the vicinity promptly fled through the windows. Even the bartender with the mustache leaped over the counter and kept low like a trained soldier.
But without paying that any particular mind, the girl dragged the suit of armor, presumably her partner, over to Hideo’s table.
Overpowered by her peculiar intensity, he answered quite respectfully.
“I’m the alchemist, Akane Ingalls Amashiro Blanczar!”
Hideo glanced at her. His attention was immediately drawn away to the armor following behind her.
“… The Fullmetal.”
“Oh no, you’ve got me all wrong! My bible is this one!”
She peeked a single game software case out of her pouch.
“Oh. So you’re the Atelier sort…”
“Yep. I’m not particularly armed. All that aside… Kawamura Hideo!”
“If you win, please marry me!!”
Good grief, what are the young’uns saying these days? On closer inspection, she was still in her teens, no more than a ripe and spunky high school girl.
A critical hit from the corner of the laptop to his brow, Hideo fell flat over the table.
“… Wilco. A computer is a piece of. Super-high-precision machinery.”
“Wilco has a home server, it’s no problem if her holiday villa is busted up. Rather, don’t settle life-changing decisions in under a second!!”
He had once registered the corner as his weapon, but he never even imagined it would hurt this much. Perhaps even more so, given how thin and aerodynamic the model was.
“W-what are you doing to my future groom!?”
“Before being your groom, this man is already Wilco’s slave.”
The two girls began intimidating one another like cats. Out of nowhere at all, blue and black, two women each in their designated uniforms.
“Ahh, it sure is nice to be young. I was like that, once.”
“Yep, yep. Though I doubt Hideo’s gonna lay hands on that small child.”
Young as they were, Minako and Lena put up the mature air of adults.
“Twenty-something hags stay out of this!!”
When there wasn’t supposed to be a single raincloud in the pub, the thunder roared out with a violent flash… Hideo got the feeling. Forget a cat-fight, this was becoming like an all-out brawl between a pit-viper, mongoose, and gamecock.
Feeling a danger to his continued existence, Hideo lifted his blood-spewing brow from the table and inched his way towards the counter.
“You got it champ… popular guys’ got it tough.”
Was he really popular? Somehow he doubted it. The sound of metal footsteps approached. The one who stood next to Hideo was Akane’s partner, the suit of armor.
“…… Sir Branken?”
He turned to Hideo and quietly lifted the visor of his helmet. Of all things, there was a human face inside. About the same age as he was, but a blue-eyed pretty-boy that would definitely get some looks if he walked around town.
“I apologize for all the trouble milady is causing you.”
“… Don’t mind it.”
He already knew a bunch of troublesome people, one more wouldn’t do much. Mostly from some company he’d rather not mention.
“Yes. My name is Ash Branken, a humble knight in service to the Blanczar house. In order to assist milady in her search for a groom, I have come to this city falsifying myself as an armored automaton.”
Well, have a glass… Hideo poured him a cup of tequila.
“My thanks… the Blanczar House is a time-honored alchemist lineage, and in order to protect the honorable head of that household, the custom has been to find a bride or groom stronger than one’s self.”
That sounded common enough.
“But there was a single problem… my lady is an alchemic prodigy the likes of which comes around once a century. Her skillset does not end at the research she advances at her tender age, she is fully capable of adventure and combat… the short of the matter, she is outrageously strong.”
“Ah, have a look. She’s doing it now.”
Ash turned. In the midst of the pandemonium, Akane had all sorts of items fly out of her pouch like it was a fourth-dimensional pocket.
“Those are materials.”
With one word from Akane, they began to glimmer and meld with one another. She brandished the ball of pure light that formed over the palm of her hand.
Once the veil of light lifted, she was holding the sort of glossy black ball with a fuse that only existed in old cartoons. In her other hand, a gas lighter.
She ignited. She threw.
To Minako, to Lena, to Wilco, they frantically tossed.
A killer pass to Hideo.
“Ah, it’s going to explode.”
Ash lowered his visor and hid behind his shield. The bartender right in front of him dove into the kitchen.
“…… No. Umm…”
Hideo was sent flying.
“M-master!? How dare you do that to Wilco’s slave!”
“If you’d just kept it to yourselves, my darling would have been safe!”
“You’ve got some pluck, standing against the girl running this bloody tournament!”
“I’m arresting you under the gunpowder control act!”
And the all-out brawl broke out again. Ash showed his face once again.
“… Are you alright, Mr. Hideo? Ah, master. Please bill all your repair fees to the Blanczar House.”
Ash handed him a memo.
“Anyways, milady is extremely versatile. As long as she has materials, she can compound and transmute explosives on the spot.”
I see, thought Hideo. So she’s a genius. He got the feeling he had seen all sorts of magic, but those only appeared as real-world phenomenon for a brief instant of time. The power to disassemble, reconstruct and establish a substance as something completely new. It truly was.
Coughing out some gunpowder breathes, Hideo sat back down on the stool.
“I’m begging you, Mr. Hideo. If she keeps blowing everything up, then the legend of the Blanczar House that traces all the way back to the tenth century will have the title bomb witch added on. Milady herself sees you as her last hope in this city. Meaning, you, the famed top contender, are the only one who can stop her rampage. The final decision for the marriage and so forth hinges on the house head’s judgment, so…”
“… Well. If that’s. The case.”
The match had already been accepted. Even if he wanted to back out, if Akane didn’t, he doubted Lena would just cancel it. He would have to press forward.
And there, the cat, pit viper, mongoose, and gamecock came over. Putting aside which was which, Ash hurriedly slammed d own his visor to conceal his face.
“If you’re going to get married anyway, wouldn’t you want a young girl of a prestigious family like me!?”
“No, someone as earnest as Hideo would definitely prefer an upright and virtuous woman like me!”
“I think someone bright and cheerful would balance out the couple.”
“There is no way you would discard the glory of being enslaved to the electronic god!”
Slave was right out, for starters. Rather than him being popular, he had to wonder if they were just stubbornly competing with one another to get to the top of something. There was no way he could be anything other than an excuse…
“In the first place, Akane, what’s so good about this gloomy guy!?”
“That’s right! He’s silent, unsociable, and his clothes are completely uncoordinated!”
“It’s strange for a healthy young girl to like someone with the eyes of a serial killer!”
The eyes of a serial killer were changing to eyes longing for a swift death but no one seemed to notice in their excitement. Akane refused to lose, she stuck up a defiant finger and declared.
“Men aren’t all about looks! It’s about what’s inside!!”
The sincere cries of her heart had Minako and Lena wince in terror.
“You… figured that out at your age…!?”
“I mean, more men who are all looks drop by our house dinner parties than we know what to do with.”
“Erk… how envious…!?”
“I couldn’t care less about appearances… my groom needs to be strong of heart, a man who’ll risk his life to save me if it comes to it…!”
Like a shoujo manga heroine, Akane folded her hands in front of her chest, her eyes glimmering like the stars.
“But Akane, there’s no guarantee master’s what you’re looking for.”
Still analyzing Hideo as no more than a slave, Wilco showed absolutely no interest in love affairs as she expressed the facts from a level-headed objective standpoint.
“And that’s what this match is to make sure of! Right, Darling☆”
She clung onto Hideo’s arm. It was then that he heard the sound of a bike stopping in front of the shop. A young man with goggles hung at his neck entered with a stack of papers in one hand.
“Hey yo, old man, I’ve got the usual… wait, hello? Is no one in?”
“O-oh, Shouki. If it’s about requests, just set it down somewhere. We’re a bit busy at the moment…”
Elize Mithrilite’s partner, and a bodyguard of Elize Industrial… The former hero rumored to be the strongest competitor in this entire tournament, Hasebe Shouki entered the stage.
(… I see.)
Couldn’t he just shove all his problem onto him? He wasn’t a hero for nothing. Heart, body, and soul, he had everything in order; unaffected and sincere with fortitude and vigor, not lacking in the looks department whatsoever. Hideo didn’t even have anything to complain about his interior, and Akane surely…
“Oh, well if it isn’t Hideo. Are you in the middle of a match? You sure have it nice, being surrounded by so many beauties.”
His smile held no cynicism or worries.
“Wait, Master? Why are you blazing up with the dark side this time?”
How could he put it… right? It felt like he was being spoken down on.
Hey, I know I’m popular with the ladies but hmm, Hideo, never thought you’d be popular too; not bad eh? Well, you do your best, you’ve got a ways before you get on my level… or something like that.
(… There’s no doubt he’s thinking it…)
A tremendous persecution complex spun a spiral at the pith of Hideo’s chest.
… I’m not going to lose. No matter what.
“Master, master, you’re barking up the wrong tree? If you want to hold a match with Shouki, you’ll have to settle it with Akane first.”
“A match… wait, you two are up against Akane?”
He casually brought her up overly-familiarily.
“No, I’m telling you master… what are you getting so competitive over? Truth be told, Shouki… blahblahblah, etcetera, etcetera.”
“Ahahah, so that’s it. I see, so she proposed to you too.”
“Too…? Wait, then you too?”
On Wilco’s question, Akane feebly stuck out her tongue.
“I did bring it up once but… right? Mr. Shouki?”
“Yeah. Unfortunately, I already have a girlfriend, you see.”
“I’m winning this.”
“… No, no, master. Against who?”
Against every little thing that makes up this world.
He’d start off by defeating Akane and proving he was a man who could get a proposal or two. He could never settle down until he proved that. What’s more, in the million to one chance Akane really did become engaged to him, that was… not really a problem, was it? Wasn’t that just fine?
“Hmm. So it’s young girls that do it for you? Hmmm. Hoooo. Fmmm.”
“Hideo? Let me just tell you, but at her age, it really will be a crime.”
“I don’t really get it but… what are you gonna compete in? From the look of things, you haven’t started yet.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s supposed to be a flashy battle but… what do you want to do? Go by the basic rule?”
At Lena’s words, Wilco immediately shook her head. She was already a walking bombshell, Wilco rued the day she would have to face her on the plains of war.
“Thought not. We on the organizer side don’t want any more damage to the city…”
“I don’t care what it is as long as I can confirm darling’s strength! Of course, I won’t be holding back.”
So the part about wanting to marry someone stronger wasn’t a lie.
No? Then looking at it the other way… a match where he didn’t have to do anything. If it were a match where Wilco alone could stand out and perform, then even if he did win, wouldn’t it cause minimal discord? Ash’s request would be granted; if she couldn’t confirm his strength, Akane would give up; and if he didn’t show any motivation towards the match, Minako and Lena wouldn’t hold this matter against him.
This was a good idea.
“Hah, I see…”
Wilco replied upon reading his inner thoughts. While in the past she could only pick up vague emotions, lately if he thought he wanted to convey it, and she was thinking she wanted to pick it up, they could nearly perform telepathy. Did that mean their bonds were deepening living together each day, or was she maturing…
But there was no way the other side would so easily accept a match where Wilco would stand uncontested. The problem was choosing a method that maintained the balance.
“Hey, I’ve got a little proposal here.”
“Do you want to try carrying out one of our company’s requests?”
Shouki presented the page in his hand.
‘Urgent help needed! If you’ve got confidence in your shovel hand, if you’re friends with the pushcart, if you’re a skilled pickaxe master, if you love to destroy, we welcome you. Spend a fun day of work surrounded by the blessings of nature. Don’t you ever just want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and return to those childhood days of playing with the dirt?
Ten thousand tickets per day, with an added bonus depending on yield. Please ask for the specifics at the front desk or HR department of Elize Industrial.’
The light of the sun poured in brilliantly through the gaps in the mountains. A radiant sky, the thin wisps of clouds flowing by.
“For God’s sake, who was the idiot who did it, this is getting to my head!”
Under a parasol, she hautily relaxed in a deck chair with her arms crossed. Elize Mithrilite irritatedly gazed over the work.
“When I find the culprit, they’re in for it! They’re dead! I’m strangling them dead!”
The site foreman in a safety helmet wiped his sweat as he came over.
“Still not getting anywhere. Explosions won’t do a thing ‘less we can get through it, nothing more we can do.”
“What about the mithril drill I made!? Even that didn’t work!?”
“Yes… well… about that…”
Just as she was about to whack a fleeing foreman’s head, a single van drove in.
“President. You think that’s Shouki? Maybe he already had some luck in recruiting.”
“If they’re useless, they’re dead!!”
And the place they were brought to lay in the midst of the mountains of the nature district.
“Wha… what in the blazes fell to make a crater like this!?”
Starting with Wilco, everyone opened their eyes wide at the vast hollow depression expanding out far and wide.
“What. Look who the cat dragged in. It’s a novice newbie spirit.”
“Erk… Elize… you were here?”
“It’s my mining lot so of course I’m here. So. What do you want?”
“Oh, I thought we might use this place for Hideo’s match.”
Shouki stepped in to soothe a terribly displeased Elize. She took a look at Akane.
“And this one’s that bombshell girl, now this is a treat.”
“P-pleasure… Umm, Elize, aren’t you acting a little different than usual…?”
“You’re imagining it. And? What? I happen to be quite irritable right now; if it’s a normal match you’re dead.”
She was already rearing to kill every last one of them.
“Hey, just calm down… that match is to see who can excavate the most by sundown. No complaints there, right?”
“Hmm. Looks like you’ve finally learned how to swindle people into doing work for you Shouki. I’ll praise you for what it’s worth.”
Shouki looked like he had something to say, but without giving him any more time of day, Elize turned to the rest of them with her fed-up eyes.
“Well I doubt it’ll be much of a match but go right ahead. Your quota is one ton. If you don’t excavate more than that, you get no daily wages. If you can’t do that, hit the road already, you useless sacks of refuse.”
“W-wait a second!?”
Minako had tagged along thinking she could cover her living expenses and she was now losing her mind.
“There wasn’t a word of that on the flier… surrounded by nature, a fun job where you can return to childhood and play with the dirt…”
“Oh well look at this, mountains, trees, bushes and weeds far as the eye can see. If this isn’t nature, I don’t know what is. Your dirt-playing quota is one ton. Here are your tools, a shovel and pickaxe. Now isn’t that fun?”
As she crudely tossed over a mud-covered set of mining tools, the party broke into a cold sweat.
“Umm… I don’t find it very…”
“Of course you don’t. You’re a working adult and you seriously think there are fun jobs in the world? Why that’s just a cliché to call in nitwits like you. You’re all moths flocking around the sweet smell of the street lamp. Comprende?”
Au, au, Minako faltered with each word.
“Do you get it? If you get it, then pick up your tools and dig until your blisters burst and you start coughing up blood. Any absolute moron who can’t comprehend that, go home and die, trash.”
For some reason, Elize was especially irritated today and as things stood her eyes were terrifying, so each hand reluctantly picked up a tool.
“U… umm, I’m just a judge.”
The non-participant Lena held her hand up high.
“Hideo-Wilco pair verses that Akane-Branken pair! Let the match commence!!”
Was this one of those so-called open-air mines? Yet footholds were the only things that had been set up so far, and with a rough look around, he couldn’t see any part that had been broken through. Whatever the case, Hideo thrust his shovel down.
“M-master. That wasn’t the sound of something that can be managed with a shovel…”
No matter how he thrust or struck, there was no sign of it having any effect. The same when he tried out the pickaxe. More than stone, this had to be metal. Though color-wise, it looked no different than normal dirt… when he tried touching a hand against it, it was smooth like glass. It was almost like when this crater was formed, it had melted and hardened everything around it.
He looked to the side to see Akane, Minako and Shouki just as ineffectual. Pink, pinkpink!
“Do you get why I said it wouldn’t be much of a match?”
When he turned around, Elize was airily floating around, checking on his progress.
“What even is this…”
“What became of an orichalcum lode we were supposed to excavate.”
“Orichalcum…? You mean that orichalcum that pops up in games?”
Elize shrugged her shoulders.
“That’s the one. Even harder than mithril: as far as we know, it’s the strongest metal on earth. Orichalcum that is supposed to only exist synthetically, yet for some reason there was a vein of it sleeping in this mountain.”
“Mountain… wait, don’t you mean hole?
Prick, a mark popped up on Elize’s temple making very clear her rage.
“It was a mountain! But the night before the Sacred Demon Grand Prix, some idiot shot off atomic-bomb class magic and eradicated the whole damn thing! And that’s what’s got us our little open-air mine!!”
Elize held her head in agony, she fastened her glare on the wall. This was surely what had her so up in arms.
“And thanks to that idiot smashing in a stupid amount of heat and mana, the whole place got sintered. All the iron and silicon and cadmium and uranium and mithril and orichalcum got all mixed together in a crystal lattice. What’s more, thanks to the mithril and orichalcum we’re after, it’s got not only a covalent bond, but a mana particle bond on top of that… so pretty much, there’s a form of magic membrane permeating into it.”
“Wait, if it’s a crystal lattice, then doesn’t that make it a completely new material!? This entire crater!?”
“That’s right. But all we could tell from investigation was that its nature is close to ceramics. It’s terribly hard but brittle.”
“Aren’t hard and brittle. A contradiction?”
“Now look here, Kawamura Hideo. A sugar cube is hard. But you can break it pretty easily. Same with glass.”
“But even if it is brittle, the hardness you need to surmount to reach that point is orichalcum-class astronomical… there’s nothing I can do.”
Tei, she cried out. While she struck it with the mithril spear that manifested in the air, it was repelled just as easily as the shovel.
Plasticity and elasticity were what were called for to form manufactured goods, and this material seemed to have practically no value in its base form. It was indeed useless. Even if this entire surface was diamond, it would only gain its value after it was excavated and facetted into gemstones.
“Then even if you do manage to extract it…”
“That one’s not a problem. If we can just manage to shove it into the blast furnace, we’ll be able to dismantle it somehow or another. Bashing in enormous amounts of energy with a mana particle collider, we have the best blast furnace in the world. If we can get it past the critical point, even orichalcum will melt.”
“You have a synchrotron!?”
“Our company’s grounds aren’t vast for nothing.”
Crk, a final kick.
“If you get it, then get digging, new recruit.”
“No… after Wilco’s heard that, she can’t really get in the mood to dig…”
“Then go home and die.”
But they were in the midst of the match so that wasn’t quite possible. Wilco began tapping against the wall with the hammer in her hand. Meanwhile.
“Oooooh…! You’re amazing, sis!”
The laborers who had been watching rose cheers. When he looked, the wall in front of Akane had a hole opened up, small as it was.
“No way… how did you do it!!?”
When Akane chanted, what looked like iron sand disappeared, and the wall turned to powder, easily collapsing away.
“I see… by arbitrarily compounding random elements into the wall’s molecular structure, she’s destroying the balance. Not bad.”
But even using such a special ability, it seemed to require a considerable amount of energy to collapse, and after only two compounds, Akane was already teetering on her feet. In the end, all she could manage to open up were small holes thirty centimeters across.
“Milady. You mustn’t push yourself.”
“Y-yes… I’m alright, Branken. More importantly, why don’t you try digging? That should have weakened the area somewhat.”
Ash lifted his pickaxe and lowered it with all his might. The wall they hadn’t been able to lift a finger against, yet he managed to break off a small fragment
“Oooooh…! You’re amazing, bro!”
“You’re not getting paid to gawk! If you don’t want your monthly paychecks shoved in the blast furnace, get to work!!”
Some intimidation from Elize, and the rubberneckers scattered off like baby spiders.
“Aah, this is so pointless… I call quits.”
“I’m not getting anywhere either…”
Giving in early, Shouki and Minako dropped their shoulders and pulled out.
“The police officer aside, since Shouki can use magic, can’t he just vwoosh the place?”
“Hey, newbie, didn’t you read the sign?”
Elize pointed out the words, no open flames, no magic.
“… W-what, is this stuff set to explode or something?”
“Wrong. Whatever idiot opened up this hole, they wielded extremely pure mana. Thanks to that, this wall was formed with miraculous balance… if you shove any low-quality mana into the mix, you’ll crumble the array of mana particles, and this time we’ll end up with depleted orichalcum.”
“Depleted… like uranium?”
“Right. Orichalcum is a metal that depletes when it absorbs mana. We wouldn’t want you to hasten that process. When that happens, it’s the end of the line. It costs a stupid amount to get it enriched again, even if we excavate it, we won’t be able to turn a profit. Do you know about ultra-pure water? It doesn’t freeze even below freezing point, but if you apply a shock at those temperatures, it immediately begins freezing all at once. It’s like that.”
These fantasy world rules are complicated, Hideo thought as he hit away.
(… Faith can move. Mountains…)
He violently thrust the pickaxe. In the end, Shouki and Minako gave up and pulled out. Akane was resting. But in that time frame, little by little, Ash really was collapsing the wall.
“… Elize, can’t you at least give us a hint?”
“Can’t give what I don’t have. But while magic’s a no go, maybe spiritual power?”
“It’s a power only humans have. They say humans are beings of corporeal and spiritual existence. And that’s what makes spirits like us.”
Hideo recalled what the Doctor had told him. Spirits were being born of human will. So that power of will was in some way converted into spiritual power… perhaps.
“Then you’re a spirit too, so why don’t you do it…”
“You just saw it, didn’t you? My abilities won’t do it. How about you, fresh meat?”
The blessings of nature. The warble of the little birds, the white whisping clouds. The sun was already set to cross its zenith. The others had long since gone on lunch break, but Hideo and Wilco along remained at the work site with absolutely no progress.
“Like this… like this?”
Pangpink, Hideo continued his fruitless efforts without shrinking back. Beside him, Wilco was directing her hand at the wall, turning it away.
“Like this… and this…”
She seemed to be carrying out some trial and error.
“Wilco. What are you.”
“! Like this…!?”
A small circle Wilco’s palm touch disappeared, leaving a hole. In the next instant, a light weight came down on Hideo, the same as during the race.
“Nihihi. Nihaha. Nihohohohoh.”
“… What was. That?”
“Wilco ate it.”
“She learned from watching Akane, the same principle Wilco uses to digest food in her stomach, she deconstructed it into 0s and 1s.”
“And where did the raw material go then?”
Elize came with a basket in one hand, the look on her face like she was suppressing her anger.
“Umm… can’t you praise Wilco a little bit…?”
“Hah? Now listen here, I told you to dig. If you make it disappear, that’s just theft. Now spit it up. Vomit it all out.”
“Waah, no need to do that, it’ll be fine!”
Escaping from Elize’s stranglehold, Wilco brandished her hand again. Hideo felt an even stronger load than before, he lightly staggered, but… before Wilco’s hand, a wide variety of plates of all sizes pattered down.
“How about that!? Iron goes with iron, mithril goes with mithril, and look, the orichalcum is…”
Smaller than the nail on her pinky, Wilco pinched up a silver-colored chip. Despite that, forget delight, Elize’s face had turned quite grim.
“… New recruit. Are you always doing that?”
“Heh? What are you talking about?”
Elize strengthened her flabbergasted voice.
“This is why you’re a novice newbie neophyte. The power of us spirits originally comes forth from humans believing in us. It doesn’t have to be in you as an individual. In your case, those folks panting heavily at their computer screens, in my case, the folks entrusting their lives to mithril weapons.”
“Uwah… what a terrible difference.”
“Whatever the case. When your domain proves useful to humans, when they devote their affection, the energy that gathers bit by bit is the power of us spirits. It’s precisely because we can gather faith and use it to cause miracles that we are Gods.”
“Wilco already heard that one…”
“Just shut up and listen, trash. You just skipped over all that process to directly siphon power off of that man.”
The burden was only temporary. Hideo himself no longer felt it at all, but as she pointed at him, Elize’s eyes were the epitome of serious.
“Auu… but, but that’s…”
“Well of course it’d be efficient. Good enough to decompose and reassemble anything. But what you ate to achieve it was this man’s vitality, his soul! That isn’t what any respectable god will do. It’s the work of an apparition, an evil spirit.”
Wilco kept her shoulders down, she was pressured to silence. Unable to stay where he was any longer, Hideo finally gave his working hands a rest.
“… Well. I…”
“You’re quite the goody-two-shoes, Kawamura Hideo. You’re going to die. You may feel fine now, but if you keep at it, she’ll eat away at your lifespan.”
Even so, he turned his head side to side.
“… We have already. Reached an agreement. On the matter.”
“During the Sacred Demon. Grand Prix.”
This was the price of a miracle.
The look in Elize’s eyes sharpened.
“Oh really, well fine, do whatever you want. But you should think long and hard about it, fresh meat. Are you a spirit granting your blessings to this man, or an evil apparition possessing him. An electronic god or… a virus eating into his soul.”
Wilco bowed her head down… and lifted it with an earnest expression on her face.
“Elize… Wilco is glad you took the time to teach her all this. She’s is truly grateful.”
“T… there’s no real merit to me being thanked by a spirit like you! When you want to use your power, just confirm it with him first, that’s all I’m saying! Between spontaneously being granted it and arbitrarily stealing it, the efficiency is on another level so just do whatever you want good grief, you piece of trash, die!!”
At the end, for some reason, she slammed the basket into Hideo and left in a huff with her shoulders perked up. He opened it to find it contained onigiri and other bento assorted edibles.
“She’s got a bad mouth… but Wilco is sure she’s a good senior in the business.”
“… I think. So to.”
Flopping down onto the ground, the two stuffed their cheeks with the rice balls. They were evidently made for hard labor, those onigiri loaded with salt were just what his sweaty body needed.
Lunch break was soon to end. Hideo sat cross-legged staring up at the hole around the size of a volleyball Wilco had opened up. Wilco had gone to get tea, and she didn’t seem to be coming back, so he stared at the hole, still as a statue. Around that time.
Akane clung to him from behind.
“How is your work going? Do you think you can win against me?”
“… As you can. See.”
As she followed his eyeline, Akane’s disappointed aura was amply conveyed. The wall they were excavating had already opened up large enough for a single human to enter.
“I see… then you weren’t the person I was looking for. You were being called the top contender from day one, and you even had a spirit following you so… I thought, just maybe.”
Akane gently let go of him.
“When this match is over, I’m going home.”
“… What about. The tournament?”
“That? Well, I just came here to find a groom. I’m satisfied that I got to test my power to my heart’s content. With this, I’m sure my father will stop introducing me to uninteresting candidates…”
Hideo resolutely stood to his feet.
“I’m not going to lose.”
Cut the crap. Looking for a groom? Going home because she couldn’t find anyone she liked? Then what about everything he and Wilco had piled up having come to this city? She could at least wear the glory of defeating the top contender and use it as fuel to press forward. But now it was all just to be wasted.
“I’m definitely not. Going to lose.”
Hideo said and turned back to the rockface. His blistered hands gripped the shovel again.
“Darling!? Don’t tell me you actually love me that much!?”
What was she misunderstanding?
“But you’re right, there’s still plenty of time until sunset! I’m not going to hold back! So do your best to win, darling!”
Akane delightedly raced over to her own worksite. Shortly after her came the sound of metal footsteps. Ash passed by Hideo’s side. In his arms, a bomb so large he had to hoist it in both hands.
“… Wait. Umm.”
“We are going to try detonating it.”
On the other side, Akane was playing with the trigger of her lighter, flickering it on and off like she couldn’t wait.
“This is a first for me too. I’ve never seen a bomb this big.”
“… Is that. So.”
He looked around to see that the open air mind was completely empty. Up top, a laborer was waving a white flag. His other hand held a red one. Ash made his way to Akane and stationed the bomb next to the open hole.
Only for Akane to abruptly ignite it with no forewarning. She and Ash hurriedly raced down the path they came. The laborer giving warning signals waved the red flag as he pulled down his helmet and evacuated. That day, Hideo ran faster than he ever had in his life.
The flash was so violent for a moment he thought he heard a sound, yet the roar that shook the entire region resounded so tempestuously he could only feel the vibrations. Wild beasts fled from the forest, the birds took from their treetops.
“Did she do it!?”
Elize popped her head up over a sandbag barricade, peeking beyond the gunpowder smoke with a pair of binoculars. But the foreman who was doing the same shook his head.
“That one was no good, president, nothing but light and sound. It wasn’t contained, so the energy all escaped outward…”
“Aaah, what a waste! If this stupid match wasn’t going on, I’d get my technicians blasting away at it lickity split!!”
Elize flew into a rage. Akane started to sulk beside her.
“I mean… you can never do without thermite.”
“Why are you mixing in such pointless materials!? We don’t need pyrotechnics in a mine! Now go cram in some C4 good grief!!”
Right beside her as she stamped her feet, Hideo was collapsed in a peculiar posture. Just like an action movie, he had run with his back to the explosion. The blast wind had taken him by the back and blown him all the way here.
“Are you okay, master…”
So the reason she didn’t come back was because she knew it was going to explode. An alchemist who could make anything as long as she had the materials truly was fearsome. But that was only when she made the appropriate item given the situation. That seemed to be Akane’s trump card, she was half depressed, half in thought.
“Uuu, but thermite reactions produce high heat, so I thought it might metamorphosize a bit…”
“Thermal expansion was the first thing our company tried, you nitwit! By God, I had some expectations when I heard you were a genius of Amashiro Blood…”
Meaning concentrated heat on a single point wasn’t going to work like it did on Hannibal. His only reliable method was Wilco’s binary decomposition, but if they kept up with that, Elize would never let them hear the end of it.
“In the first place, unless you penetrate that incomprehensible magic coating, a normal bomb is completely pointless.”
But magic was a no go, what a deep dilemma.
Long story short, there was a coating like rust on the surface of the metal. Albeit far firmer and more stable than that. There was no guarantee that was how the magic coating worked, but perhaps he could find a hint, thinking like that.
“Looks like Hideo’s finally at the end of the rope… Draw 2.”
“He’s going up against orichalcum after all. You could’ve just told us beforehand, Shouki. If the match itself is digging holes, then flashy is the last word you’d use to describe it… Draw 2.”
“Hahah, truth be told, truth be told, I thought they could settle their differences with a draw. But to think she could actually dig through that stuff, Akane really is something… Draw 2 Reverse.”
Aaah, they sure were taking it easy, even getting the judge in on a game of uno house rules.
“Yes, and a Draw 2 from me too. Fufufu, haven’t you run out by now, Minako.”
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… a Draw 2 Reverse for a Draw 2 Reverse!”
“Whoah there, that was dangerous… here’s my final Draw 2!”
Shouki was suddenly saddled with a wide medley of cards.
Well, all that aside. I see, he thought, an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. Orichalcum for orichalcum. It sounded far too simple, but that was all he had going for him. Just like diamonds were the only way to cut diamonds… he would need to get Wilco to use her power one more time.
“? What is it, Kawamura Hideo?”
“I need you to give me. The orichalcum. Wilco excavated.”
“… Well sure. That’s easy enough. But what are you going to do with it?”
It wasn’t as if the whole article needed to be so. Only the surfaces came into contact. Diamond cutters weren’t made of pure diamond, there were just diamond particles set into it.
“Yes, I see. So you want to try coating the surface of the pickaxe with orichalcum?”
“An orichalcum coating for. An orichalcum coating.”
Whether that pure conjecture was sound or not aside… there wasn’t much else he could think of. He turned to Elize seeking a professional opinion.
The spirit of mithril well versed in all things metal put her hand to her chin, spending some time in thought.
“… It’s not a bad idea. It’s just that no one has ever had the technical process or expertise to carry it out. But binary decomposition and reconstruction… Wilco’s absurd alchemy-like ability might be able to do it.”
But. Elize emphasized.
“You haven’t forgotten what I told you, right?”
“That’s… if master says there’s no other option.”
“I. Believe in Wilco.”
Elize gave a tired sigh.
“That so. Then do whatever you want. For now, you’re finished unless you can dig more than Akane’s team.”
And Wilco got right to it. Speaking from conclusions, the pickaxe was completed all too anticlimactically easily. Was it because he believed in her power, in their own victory? He felt a load far lighter than before, and right after he blinked, a peculiar pickaxe black at the tip had been formed.
Elize focused her eyes to check its completion. This was the work of a spirit. With her naked eyes, she could capture the atomic arrangement one would need a high-power electron microscope to see.
“Hmm… it’s become an amorphous metal. No wonder it’s got such a strange color. First I’ve seen one.”
“Right. There’s the iron and carbon from the pickaxe, the oxygen and nitrogen from the air… all sorts of impurities mixed in; you’ve got a membrane just as chaotic as that wall. Why don’t you give it a good whack?”
Elize handed it over and Hideo took a firm grip of the handle, Wilco put her hands together in prayer.
(It’s going to be. Alright.)
If he had any of this spiritual power substance. He would swing like he was concentrating all of it in the tip of this pickaxe.
He held it up high.
Knowing his arms would be feeling it after this, Hideo swung down with all his might.
More knowledgeable than anyone about this wall, Elize was the most surprised. The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, no, it had been even more impenetrable than Jericho, only to crumble away as easily as a cube of sugar.
“Y… you did it! We did it!”
GrkGrk. Like he was digging out a sash of gold coins, Hideo kept digging on. Only a few swings and he had already blazed past the hole Akane ‘s team had opened.
“E-enough! You’re amazing, I get it, now stop already, Kawamura Hideo!”
But with all the pinks he had been getting before, Hideo couldn’t help but feel refreshed. He forgot the pain of his blisters, grking and grking away like he was avenging his family…
“… W-what’s happening, Elize? What was that ominous sound.”
“Aaaah… there you go, don’t say I didn’t warn you. This crater’s going to collapse.”
Elize got right up and floated away. By that time, a subterranean tremor was already sounding out as a prelude to collapse. Here and there, all over the place cracks were running left and right.
“… Wait. Why.”
“This crater was a perfect half-sphere. The tensile strength was perfectly balanced, and that was also one of the reasons the walls were so sturdy, but… now that you’ve smashed your way through like an idiot, you’ve crumbled the equilibrium!!”
There was once a terrifying flask that wouldn’t break no matter how they hit it with a hammer. But it had quite a surprising weakness, and just a small scratch on its inside caused the tensile strength to snap and it crumbled away… or so, an experiment he had seen on TV went through his head as his life flashed before his eyes.
She was floating just like Elize, Wilco held out her hand… but one shadow came to cover for him a moment before he could reach it.
“It’s dangerous, milady!!”
Ash deftly snatched away Akane’s body.
Exchanging a handshake with the air, Hideo fell just as gravity ordained it.
Luckily, the place they were working was at the edge of the crater and he wasn’t buried alive. He found around half his body had sunk into a sand bath.
“You never know what’s going to happen with Hideo’s matches. I never thought digging holes would make for such a flashy battle.”
“Are you okay, Hideo!?”
“Hahah, looks like that’s the match.”
While everyone came to help him up.
“Milady, are you alright…!?”
As Ash propped up her body, Akane looked up at him in a daze.
“Is something the matter…? Hah!?”
It must have come off in the chaos of the collapse. He finally felt the failure of the loss of his helmet.
“T-this is, umm… milady…”
“You were… a human? Not an automaton…?”
He hadn’t only falsified himself to the tournament, he had acted as such even to Akane, who he was supposed to guard.
“M… my apologies, Milady. There’s a good reason for this…”
“Fufu, it was father, wasn’t it. My father was the one who entrusted the ‘automaton’ to me, after all.”
“Yes… he was so worried when you said you were going on an adventure at your age. On a journey to find a groom, it would be most inconvenient to have a man like myself by your side…”
“No, it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve finally come across the person I’ve been looking for…!”
Keh and tsk, he heard some unreserved tongue clicking behind him, but Hideo decided he wouldn’t probe further into who they belonged to. The girl in the man’s arms finally made her plea to the knight who had protected her so long.
“Please marry me!”
“Sorry… I have a fiancé I’ve sworn my future to back home…”
Crash and burn!!
“Um, a ha ha hah, now, now, Akane, there will always be a next time! Right!? Yep, yep!”
“That’s right, that’s right! It might be hard now, but I’m sure you’ll look back on it fondly someday!”
Nodding with broad grins over their faces, Lena and Minako were suddenly putting on sisterly acts. When it looked like they were trying to encourage her at a glance, was it just his imagination that looked way too fishy?
“Y-you’re right! I won’t lose! I mean, I still have my darling who was strong enough to defeat me!!”
Just as she was about to dive at Hideo,
“Just give it a rest already, ya brat!!”
“Hey! Don’t get in the way of two young lovers!!”
So came the clamor once more.
After that, Hideo and Wilco helped out the laborers all the way to sunset. Crumbling the crumbled wall even further, removing the debris and carting them away.
Naturally, the match was Hideo and Wilco’s win. While Akane didn’t look like she had given up yet, for the time being, she went back down to town to fill out the defeat paperwork.
The sun set, under the light of the night, the day’s work had been done.
“Well, I wasn’t taking that kid seriously to begin with,”
“I was more than aware that Hideo wasn’t into her.”
Minako played along. The two older sisters made triumphant faces. Yet why could he see blue sparks flying behind their praise for fighting the good fight?
(… I’m imagining. It. I’m better off just saying. I imagined it…)
Elize flapped around an envelope labeled day wage. She handed it out to Hideo and Wilco.
“Good work. You really did well, the both of you.”
We can finally get some work done, the president’s finally in a good mood, the surrounding employees sent grateful words and warm applause.
“Thank you thank you.”
The two took it, and Wilco pulled out its contents. Two mint condition red paper bills, each ten thousand tickets. One for each of them, twenty thousand.
Hideo was sincerely delighted. While he had worked at Obliterating Industries, this was truthfully the first time he had received a salary like this. Without her strident avarice from when she was in that company, Wilco also smiled wholesomely at those two sheets of paper.
Both Shouki and Minako sent a bitter smile.
“Oy, Elize, you’re seriously just paying the day wages? There’s nothing wrong with throwing in just a little more, don’t you think?”
“I have to agree. I’m actually glad now I called it quits early. Not only was it no fun at all, it was just hard labor… it’s not easy living in this town.”
“My thoughts exactly, it just doesn’t add up…”
Elize’s eyes grew sharp as she turned towards them.
“What are you blabbering about? A job where you can rake it in easily doesn’t exist in the world, and even if it did, it would be completely worthless. If the two of you want to earn money, earn it with your life on the line. Money, you see, be it part-time day labor or gambling, or even crime. It only has value if put your life into it.”
Elize produced a wad of bills from her breast pocket and tossed it high towards the sky.
“How about it? If I said I would give you that money, would you be happy?”
Minako and Shouki stood in a daze. As high-value bills came fluttering down like snow, Elize continued on.
“… I won’t say money is worth more than life, but the money you put your life into making is worth just as much as the life you put into it. It’s a waste if you don’t give it your all. Isn’t that right? A human life ain’t long, but you have to use your valuable time to work.”
Have a look at them, Elize pointed at Hideo and Wilco.
“Today, these two used up a day of their short existence in exchange for two sheets of paper. They have crystalized something as ambiguous as life into concrete form. That’s why money, you see, it’s delightful to save and a blast to spend. It’s why you gotta work like your life’s on the line. If you don’t understand that at your age, you’ve got no right to laugh at those two.”
To Hideo who had never properly worked a day in his life, those words were stronger than anything.
This is what it meant to work.
Some would say they were working in order to live. But, certainly… to work precisely because you were alive, to stock up the life spent as money. As the proof you were truly alive. Wasn’t that also a wonderful way of thought?
“… I’m sorry, I was wrong.”
“So that’s why your company goes out of its way to pay all employees in cold hard cash… alright, I’m gonna turn over a new leaf starting tomorrow.”
“What do you mean tomorrow, you template trash. Can’t you take a hike already? Why don’t you go off to Takase’s place?”
“Why!? Wait, anything but that, hey, I’m begging you here!”
With Shouki set in a panic, Elize broke into a grand laugh with a great many of her men. She raised her spirit.
“Now all of you, we’re drinking to the opening of Elize Industrial’s fourth mining lot! It’s aaaaallll my treat, so get to gathering that money I just scattered!! That’s your drink ticket!!”
The laborers threw up their helmets and hats all at once. So this was the true Elize Mithrilite. The top of one of the two factions that ruled this city. With an expression that had lost all its edge, Elize turned to them.
“Now Hideo, Wilco. You’re coming too.”
“I… is that alright!?”
“What are you talking about, you two were the stars today!”
“Then I’ll. Take you up on. That.”
“Yes, that’s the spirit! How long are you gonna get yourself down, Shouki, you’re pouring! Minako and Lena, get that walking bombshell while you’re at it! From here on, it’s orichalcum ripe for the picking, we’re going to storm into Obliterating Industries’ company store, and smack Takase upside the face with a wad of cash!!”
For Wilco, a spirit’s way of being. And for Hideo, how to live as a human. They each carved it into their heart as yet another Sacred Demon Cup night came upon them.