Once a participant lost, they would have to submit an application saying they lost. Minako saw this cruel rule as the final nail in the coffin.
Walking next to Hideo who was even quieter than usual, she frantically stuck together words to liven him up ever so slightly.
“… And so in the end the Alhazan team lost. I hear Archess didn’t make it to the goal either. Ah, but President Elize and Shouki made it, they really are strong, aren’t they? A hero and a spirit. It’s honestly a bit vexing that Ryuuta and Elsia remained… hey, Okamaru, how about you learn to shoot beams and put up barriers already.”
Minako slowly unsheathed him and took a few swings through the air.
‘…… Minako. That defeats the original purpose of a truncheon.’
You have a point, she made a joking, bitter smile.
Hideo kept his head down beside her, he didn’t even attempt to smile. Come to think of it, she had never even seen him smile before.
He would answer if she spoke to him, but his eyes remained firmly plastered on the road. So dark and gloomy like his soul had been sucked from his body. It was like a doll identical to Kawamura Hideo was being pulled on a string.
“… No need to be so down! We did our best, didn’t we!”
…… They were finally alone. The starry sky was so beautiful, and yet…
‘… Just leave him be for now…’
There was one cylinder impeding her. Even if she wanted to leave him be, he was now far too fleeting. In Minako’s eyes, his form looked so hazy, as if he would disappear from the world the moment someone took their eyes off of him. She had to somehow keep him here, the words came to her mouth quite naturally.
“Umm… Hideo, what are you going to do once the tournament is over??”
“Ah, then where did you live before you came to this city? We got to know one another and all, maybe I could drop by sometime…”
As they approached the plaza, Hideo set course straight for Centralle Building as if to avert his eyes from the dazzling venue.
“… When we’re done with the paperwork, let’s have a blast! We’ll eat, and we’ll drink, and I’m sure we’ll forget about all the bad things…!”
(… Another nuisance.)
It was Ryuuta. There was Elsia there with him.
“Did you come to rub salt into our wounds!?”
“Nah, what’s this all of a sudden? No one said anything about that…”
While Minako snapped at him, Elsia stood before Hideo. She spoke while gazing deep into his eyes.
“They were a deception.”
“Say what…!? For real!? Then Elsia was right and your demon eyes were a lie!? You were just a master of drunken sword!?”
To Ryuuta’s surprise, Hideo lifted the corners of his mouth. And the first smile he ever showed… was so terribly, terribly lonely, deriding himself from the depths of his heart.
Elsia turned to a dumbfounded Ryuuta, she tilted her head.
“That’s why I said it didn’t look that way to me.”
“… Then… you noticed from the start?”
“Past present and future, only one person has ever possessed the power of future sight. The Myriad Eye, who boasts there’s nothing in the world she can’t see.”
With a nod, Elsia brushed away the hair hanging over her shoulder.
“But the destiny she saw was distorted by Nagoyakawa Suzuran’s fate. Even if she could see the future, the one who proved it wasn’t absolute was the Sacred Demon Lord. That’s why, strictly speaking, the Demon Eyes of Future Sight can no longer exist in the world.”
She took a breath. She turned back to Hideo.
And with a refreshing smile, she was on her way. Ryuuta scratched his head, a conflicted look on his face.
“Good grief, does she always have to be so cryptic… well whatever. Don’t let it get you down, Hideo. We’ll still be around when you’re done with the paperwork. How about we go drinking after this? Minako and Okamaru too.”
The direction he pointed out with his thumb, beyond the crowd, it looked like the Obliterating Industries members were gathering.
“Oh, sure! Then we’ll meet up with you later!”
‘I am glad to take you up on your offer.’
“Yeah! C’ya then!”
Ryuuta stated and left.
Hideo didn’t seem to resent this victory celebration. The look in his eyes was as if he failed to comprehend what the people passing him by found so fun. In the blink of an eye, he was silently walking again as if nothing had happened at all.
She hurriedly chased after him.
Minako could hear the whispering voices around. There was no need for Elsia to say it. If they really could see the future, who in their right mind would join a losing match? The very fact he was defeated was proof he didn’t possess future sight… or so everyone was whispering.
“Don’t let it get to you.”
“Of course, given my occupation, I do think lies are no good.”
‘… You’re too honest, Minako.’
“Shut it, you. A-anyhow, with how the tournament was set up, deceiving your enemies was a respectable strategy…!”
Hideo remained silent.
As Okamaru said, perhaps she was a little too honest. That last line wasn’t as supportive as she thought it would be.
The two rounded the glass front of Centralle Building. Participants went without saying, but staff members and assistants as well were all probably out partying in center plaza. There was no one to be found in the sullen silence.
However… this was a rare sight, the landlady of their apartment complex was manning the front desk. When she saw the two of them, her ears twitched back and forth. Tsk, she lightly clicked her tongue.
“… Eh? Umm, why did you click your tongue?”
“Did I nyow?”
Well, just from her expression, it was the usual beaming, lovable smile.
“Everyone else is outside enjoying the festival. But today of all days, I just had to pull the short straw.”
She slumped down exhausted. And from there, with teasing ill-tempered eyes and voice.
“What’s more, just when I thought I had a guest, it turns out to be a man and woman with a lovey-dovey air around them. Who wouldn’t want to click their tyongue there?”
“Eh? O-oh no, Ms. Landlady! We’re not like that at all…!”
‘Minako, it’s showing on your face.’
Okamaru was instantaneously drawn and smacked against the corner of the counter.
“I’ve heard what happened. Rather, nyow that Cross Flags is over, it’s all everyone’s talking about. Are you here for the defeat paperwyork?”
The landlady’s words of confirmation brought a flood of emotions to Minako.
“… Yes. Could you help us?”
Meeting Hideo, Ryuuta and the others at the tournament registration desk. The first time she ever fought alongside Hideo was against Javan. She remembered misunderstanding Hideo again. There was that time she, Ryuuta and Lily were captured by the Norka-Sorka sisters. The Sacred Demon Grand Prix was her field of expertise, the greatest fun at all. Thanks to Elize, the last part was harsh, but now she got along with her well. There was a time she quarreled over stupid things with the alchemist Akane and Lena and Wilco.
And many, many more memories.
The tears naturally gushed out of Minako’s eyes.
This really, truly was a wonderful month. She may have lost, but she had fought with every last fiber of her being. There was no way she had any regrets. These were terribly comfortable tears. Surely nothing in her life would ever come to replace the time she spent here. She felt just a little lonely that it had to come to an end.
“… Is that what you’re here for too, Mr. Hideo?”
He lightly muttered.
The sentence was concise.
‘I hereby acknowledge my defeat in the Sacred Demon Cup.’
Just a line to sign below that.
It took no time or effort. Just by filling it out, their Sacred Demon Cup was over in the truest sense.
Unlike Minako, Hideo felt absolutely nothing when he looked at it. He was already beyond those words, he had finished his resolve.
It pained him that he couldn’t answer Minako and Ryuuta’s smile and consideration but Hideo knew better than anyone he was a weak human being. He didn’t want to leave a single thing he’d think back to nostalgically. That was why he came here without meeting Wilco.
Facing the monitor to her side, the landlady hit a few entries into her keyboard. Click, clack, the comforting sound of unerring touch typing echoed through the vast halls of the empty building.
After hitting the enter key to finish up, the landlady lifted herself from her seat.
“… Come to think of it, Kirishima did say she wanted to have a final chat with you two.”
… What? For a moment, Hideo felt something was off, but he couldn’t notice what that was.
A cheerful nod to Minako.
“That’s right. A personal farewell from the tournament’s general director. Well, myore than that, Kirishima was particularly close to the two of you. She said to just gyo on right ahead.”
“I see, if that’s what it is…”
Minako turned to him. Honestly, he didn’t really want to meet Lena.
No, he didn’t want her to see his unsightly self with all the paint stripped off. From the bottom of his heart, he now detested that he still thought he had any pride left to care.
After hesitating a while, Hideo eventually nodded. What did it matter what he looked like at this point? It was too much of a pain to think up an excuse to decline.
“Then let me guide you.”
They followed the landlady as she left the counter. They climbed the stairs in the hall and waited for the elevator on the second-floor atrium.
… Watch out…
“… Is something wrong, Hideo?”
There was no one around, nothing that could have made a sound. Watch out? For what? How idiotic. The tournament was over. He didn’t have to take part in any more matches. He had nothing left. What did he have to watch out for?
“It’s here. Please get on.”
Hideo and Minako boarded the elevator as directed. There was a soft carpet lain out below; the door closed without a sound, and as it climbed, he could barely feel any change in gravity.
It climbed higher and higher, like it would never stop.
The point it reached was a height that defied common sense, the highest point of the tower known as Centralle Building.
“Waaah… the nightscape! Look around Hideo, both the sky and the earth are a full sea of stars!”
One hundred floors above the ground, Minako expressed her innocent admiration at the scenery she looked out over from the corridor window.
“Kirishima is waiting.”
“Ah… that’s right. Then let’s take it nice and slow on the way back.”
“That syounds like a plan.”
What was it? What could it be? Something was wrong, it had been wrong for a while now. He didn’t know why. He couldn’t understand the reason and yet something, something felt strange. His heart felt restless.
“Mr. Hideo, is something wrong? I can’t be away from the desk too long, please pick up the pace.”
“Ah, t-that’s right. Let’s get going, Hideo.”
He had no basis, he could only follow along. But what was so strange? What was this off-sensation? Even if it was the short straw, wasn’t it strange for there to only be one person at the counter? Even stranger if she knew they would need a guide to get to the general director’s room. If she had to leave the desk, couldn’t she have called out to anyone in the plaza right out the door? The click of her tongue when they entered the hall, more than jealousy, wasn’t it just irritation? Why was it today of all days that her cheerful smile looked so mechanical?
… Watch out…?
“Nyow this way.”
A double door with a metal plate that read ‘Tournament Director-General’. Both sides swung open without anyone knocking.
There were men and women in black suits systematically lining the left and the right, Lena stood in front of the back desk in her usual uniform.
“… I was waiting for you, Hideo.”
That voice, that smile, the hostilities and scorns blatant from every single person on both sides. An instinctual shiver swept down his spine.
Minako finally noticed there was something off herself.
“Get in there already!”
Before she could ask what was going on, the landlady gave them a large push on the back. The door was soon closed behind them. Lena slowly walked their way. Draping leather gloves over her hands.
“I waited for you Hideo. It really was a shame.”
Her beautiful ice-cold smile approached.
“Hey… did they bully you? You passed through the party in the plaza on the way here, didn’t you? Did they bully you as a liar? Did they bully you as a huge lying swindling bastard? Did they bully you, telling you to get off your high horse when you have no abilities at all?”
He couldn’t tell. Just what was… she saying…?
“… I see. Then I’ll bully you too.”
An instant. The look of an ogre graced Lena as her fist beat into Hideo’s face.
(I was… struck…?)
When Hideo opened his eyes, holding his aching cheek, he found Lena’s eyes curled in terribly cruel laughter.
“Lena!? What are you doing…!”
Minako raised a scream and raced over only to be held back by a few of the people in wait. Lena screamed, she lifted her fist.
“Yeah, a real shame! You really are a shame!! To think the legendary future sight was just a bluff!! You tricked me!! You tricked me, Hideo! Hideo! Kawamura Hideo!!”
Punched, struck, hit down.
“You lying con artist!! A normal human with no lineage!!? A NEET with no redeeming features!!? A shut-in at your age!!? Trash of society abandoned by your parents!!? Nothing but a nothing from nowhere!! How dare you trick me!! Aah!?”
Kick, kick, kick. Kick, kicked across the floor.
“Just when I thought I’d act a little interested!! Just when I went out of my way to visit when I was so busy!! Forget returning the favor, your future sight itself was just a sham bluff!! A shame!! This really is a shame!! The plan is all ruined thanks to you!! It’s all your fault it went up in smokes!! You ruined it!! It’s your!! Your!! Fault!! All!! Your!! Fault!! Because of you…!!”
Minako’s piercing cry finally had Lena raise her face. Her foot remained crushing Hideo’s body down.
“… What is it, Minako? What’s wrong? What does it matter, what happens to this rat? You were tricked all the same, weren’t you?”
“Y… you, you’re… acting strange…! What happened!? Why!? Are you really Lena…!?”
“Oh you, why what happened to you? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten my face?”
A joking wry smile. At that moment her voice and the smile were the same as usual. Not a fragment of malice. Like the display was changed. That only made it all the more uncanny.
Someone entered the door without knocking.
“… Oh man, good grief, you really went and did it…”
Spotting Hideo slumped down at Lena’s feet, Zazi weakly scratched his head.
“Yeah, sorry about this, Minako. With everything happening so fast, I’m sure you don’t know what’s what. Hey Linus. Michelle. The hell aren’t you stopping her?”
He was answered by a pretty young boy in a corner of the line.
“N… no, that’s… I did know I should but for me… stopping Lena when she gets like that is…”
From there on the Landlady spoke in an unchanging smile.
“An angry Kirishima is syo very, very scary. Nyot my problem.”
“Good grief, each and every one of you… hey sis, you haven’t killed him, ‘ave you?”
Zazi peered into Hideo’s hollow eyes.
“No way, I could never do that. I mean, I’ll need him to go through something far more terrible than that…!”
“… Your choice, but yer gonna get pops angry.”
“How do you figure? There’s no way he would be. I mean, I did it for papa, right? Didn’t I? Isn’t it all this thing’s fault… as long as he didn’t exist…!!”
the ogre shoed its face one more.
“That’s right, I don’t care what happens to you!! It’s all your fault even papa lost!! If only you didn’t exist…!!”
“Good lord, why did it come to this…! Oy, quit standing around and hold her back!”
Lena scattered wails and violence as Zazi and several others ripped her away from Hideo.
“… What’s the ruckus?”
A quiet, succinct sentence resounding with dignity returned the room to silence. Gabès following behind him rushed ahead.
“Lena! You’ve done it again…!”
“Hold your tongue Gabès! Zazi! Everyone! I…!”
Archess sternly shook his head.
“Lena. I’m sure I told you. No more senseless violence.”
“… But, but why, papa? Why are you angry…? It isn’t senseless? It’s all this guy’s fault you lost, isn’t it!? I did my very, very best! If it would make the power of future sight papas, I would have happily married him! And yet this thing!! This trash!! That’s why I…!!”
Just when he thought she had winced back in fear, this time she began shedding tears like a small infant.
“I’m sorry… don’t be angry… don’t be angry… papa… I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
Again and again, like some magic spell. Upon seeing that, Archess’s sigh carried a hint of resignation, a touch of pity.
“… It’s alright, Lena. Today was a large tournament. You are a little tuckered out. Now go get some rest… Linus, take her away.”
“Y… yes, Lord Archess…”
Holding a sobbing Lena up by the back, the young boy led Lena off to another room. Archess got down on one knee by the side of a fallen Hideo.
“… Are you alright, Hideo?”
Right before his eyes, Archess’ worried face.
“My apologies… but honestly, I also feel you’ve pulled a fast one on us. There was no way I could ever believe. In the Sacred Demon Cup where each and every race, first-rate masters on every front gathered… how could you expect me to believe you got here on nothing but bluffs? Even holding onto the top contender seat the whole time?”
When he tried to let out his voice, all those vicious kicks to the back had him break into a coughing fit. He tasted fresh blood.
“Hideo, get a grip…!”
Minako who had been released lifted up Hideo’s body. Gazing straight into his face twisting in agony, Archess continued.
“If you didn’t join in on Cross Flags, I still had my options. A far more reliable way to take down Suzuran.”
Gabès took over.
“… We were running a front company. Even if we were to lose, we’d be fine as long as we managed to take out the Sacred Demon Lord.”
And Zazi shrugged his shoulders.
“But… because you participated, it became a mini-tournament too huge to control. Future sight is joining us, we thought, if we just go at it normally and win, that would work out just as well. I love my guns, but sniper rifles aren’t quite my style, after all.”
Minako swallowed her breath.
“Take down… sniping…!? Don’t tell me, assassination…!!”
Archess lifted up the bridge of his glasses without answering her.
“But… unfortunately, we ended up losing. You have sealed off the legitimate path of winning the Sacred Demon Cup… leaving us with no choice but to pick an option that forces even greater sacrifice. I really didn’t want to do this. In that regard, I really do find it unfortunate.”
“What are you planning!? What are you using this tournament to…!?”
But Archess stood and turned his back.
“My apologies, Minako. I will be having you and Hideo become the cornerstones for it.”
Minako drew Okamaru at once, but Zazi’s gunpoint was faster and pointed at Hideo’s forehead.
“… Just to let you know, this one’s already been switched out to real bullets.”
“Now stand. Not a single one of us here wants any needless sacrifice.”
Even as she bit her lip, Minako… put an arm around Hideo’s shoulder, standing him to his feet.
“There’s no required or needless with sacrifice…!”
Before he left the room, Archess spoke with his back still towards them.
“Play your cards right and you might survive. Of course… it may be hopeless for Hideo, who was no more than a shut-in.”
Hideo thought in his haze head.
What does it matter? Not a single thing they said meant anything to him. It was going to happen one way or another. But there was only one thing… one regret that lingered.
As Minako dragged him along, he looked at the door Lena had disappeared behind.
A sociable smile. An ever-bursting, energetic tone. Conducting herself so enjoyably before the public eye, a goodness of character that could captivate anyone. She possessed every single quality he longed for, and he had admired the woman called as Kirishima Lena.
Even if it was a begrudging play. She took time out of her busy schedule to visit him. She would act interested in the likes of him. She gave such human garbage a throb in his heart.
He regretted the fact he made her cry. He wished she had stayed the cheerful girl he admired forever.
There wasn’t much to it.
… He had probably loved the woman called Kirishima Lena.
Several hundred meters in the sky, no one could ever know what was being done or being planned.
With Zazi’s gun pressed up against the back of his head, Hideo borrowed Minako’s shoulder to walk down the corridor. Minako spoke.
“… What was wrong with her… Lena…”
The one who loathsomely opened his mouth was Gabès, who had tagged along to keep watch.
“… Morbid dependency.”
“That there is a woman who can’t live without Lord Archess. We members of Alhazan, we’re all here because Archess saved our lives… but the place she was picked up from was far worse than any of us. It’s not hard to imagine just how that man’s smile was reflected in her young eyes. Most of us look up to Lord Archess as a father to be respected, but to her, he’s the one absolute god.”
Zazi’s voice from behind.
“Sis is pretty first class in our ranks… but that’s one thing she can never get over. When she’s usually perfect at whatever she does, any off-beats and she breaks.”
“But, why does Hideo have to…!”
“You heard her, didn’t you? Sis had her hopes on him. On the flawless top contender called Kawamura Hideo. If she could pull the Demon Eyes of Future Sight into our ranks, we’d know everything ahead of us, what’s good and what’s bad. No doubt pops would praise her for it… she continued racing ahead with that on her mind and got betrayed.”
Zazi shrugged his shoulders.
“Perhaps it would have been fine if Hideo lost. But the worst thing of all was how he dragged pops down with him… of course she’d be angry. We’re at our wit’s end here too.”
“That’s way too selfish…!”
Gabès scoffed at her petty indignation.
“The one who tricked us was that man. I hear the first one to come out with it was some vampire called Verrocchia, but if he was wrong, ‘you’re wrong,’ just two words would have done the trick.”
Zazi shrugged again.
“Well, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘er snap that badly…”
“Thanks to that, this is a completely wasted effort. Lord Archess is too kind. Unless he gives her a harsh reprimand… there’s no guarantee she won’t make a fatal mistake someday.”
“Cut ‘er some slack. She’s on the brink here, Gabès. If pops strikes her, she really will fall apart.”
Not a word from the two of them after that.
“… Was out landlady one of your… Alhazan’s members…?”
“Oh, Michelle? That’s right. It’s not only her, there are plenty of them among the staff members. Among the remaining competitors too.”
“What is your goal…!?”
Gabès came to a stop.
“That’s as much time as your chit chat is going to buy.”
They had been led to a space around the center of the building. When Gabès put his hand against a wall with nothing strange about it, a portion of the floor rose up to show an elevator.
His sharp eyes turned to them.
in an instant, Okamaru who’d kept quiet and erased his presence up to that point saw it as his last chance and tried slipping out from Minako’s hip. Zazi suppressed him in a flash and returned him to his sheath.
“… Hold yer horses, lil’ guy. Yer master’s gonna need you down where she’s going.”
And the gun muzzle prodded Hideo. He and Minako were shoved into the elevator.
‘Kuh… you speak as if this path leads to hell…’
“Hmm… hell. You’re not too far off.”
“Sorry about this Minako. Sis just wanted to punish Kawamura Hideo. You were unlucky. Now that you’ve seen all that, we can’t let you run free.”
“But how ironic that your last moments are going to be with this man.”
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Well, you know how it is. If you want to resent someone, don’t look at us. Keep it to that man you’re holding up. The man who swindled us all with a sham of undeserved demon eyes.”
“Don’t you dare…!”
The door began closing before she could finish.
“When everything’s over… if you’re still alive, we’ll meet again.”
Gabès’ words as the final bell, the box was enveloped in silence. It began its descent.
“… I’m sorry, Hideo. If only I… I was stronger…”
Hideo slowly shook his head, slumped against the wall.
“It’s… all… my… fault…”
Just how much. Just how much trouble was he going to cause for others before he was satisfied…
This wasn’t anything like a match with rules. Archess’ plot was focused outside the bounds of the Sacred Demon Cup. He told him they were headed for a place of life and death. Then without any metaphor, this was surely going to be where he died.
He had finally dragged Minako to where there was no turning back…
If he wanted to die, he should have just died alone.
If that was what would improve Lena’s mood, he had already planned on doing it… he’d happily oblige.
Was dying the only thing he was good for…?
“… Hideo, do your wounds hurt…?”
When normally, he should be the one giving her courage. Why was the man the one crying?
“I… it’s alright! I’m a police officer tasked with protecting all the virtuous citizens! No matter what happens, I’ll protect you!”
He wiped his tears.
No good. It was no good. This was no longer his personal problem. They had been swallowed by the devil’s mouth, there was no telling where they were being led… what awaited them.
He could die whenever he wanted to. But that would have to come after he got the woman beside him through this alive. He could no longer be an empty husk.
Alhazan hinted that Minako had a possibility of surviving as long as she had Okamaru. Then becoming the deadweight that dragged Minako to her death was the one thing he had to avoid…
“… Thank god.”
Minako said. Looking at Hideo’s expression that had regained some motivation. When Hideo raised his face, she was looking at it with relief.
“Hideo… you’ve been like a corpse ever since we left the hospital.”
Right. He wasn’t dead yet. He wished for death but he was still alive.
With the faces of Obliterating Industries alongside Elize and Shouki, Ryuuta began a drinking contest. Elsia sat at a table a little distanced from the noise. She slowly savored her very very berry tart like a small bird pecking at its meal.
“Yes, Lady Elsia.”
Norka tilted the teapot. Sorka added one spoonful of sugar and slowly stirred it in.
Elsia took a sip and looked up at the night sky. Center Plaza had served as a party venue quite a few times since opening ceremony. When she wanted to see the stars, the decorative lights were somewhat irksome.
Their stomachs were also a little too noisy for her liking.
“… You can stop serving. Eat something as well.”
“Yes, thank you Lady Elsia!”
It was eleven at night. The siblings permitted a late supper broke into a dash towards the tables lined with food.
She heard a voice.
“Maaaaaassstteeeeerr! Where did you goooooo!?”
A completely new variant of spirit. Kawamura Hideo’s partner Wilco. Was she searching for him? Come to think of it, it was rare to see him without her.
Their eyes met. Wilco floated her way to Elsia’s table.
“Have you seen Wilco’s master!?”
“I have. A while back.”
“Where is he now!?”
She hung her head crestfallen. Unlike the ever-expressionless Hideo, this girl was quite easy to read.
“Hey yo, wassup, if it ain’t Wilco! Mn? What ‘appened to Hideo? You’re not with him? Hic!?”
Ryuuta, or rather a drunkard teetered over.
“Master! Ryuuta, have you seen Wilco’s master!?”
“Maaan, you really are a cutie, you know, always floatin’ around! Elize? She’s no good, I don’t need the tsun of tsundere… hey Elsia, no need to put on airs, how ‘bout you go over there? Yer pretty crazy when yer drunk ain’t ya?”
She promptly poured her freshly brewed black tea over his head.
“… Whoah, that’s hothothothothot!?”
“Have you sobered up?”
“Wench what do you think you were doing I mean hey I had a little malice there but even a first rate reaction artist knows that steaming soup’s the limit goddammit!?”
She had no idea what he was trying to say, but he was evidently a little more coherent now. Go ahead, Elsia sent Wilco a look,
“Ahem, Ryuuta. Wilco wants to know.”
“Yeah, sorry, sorry… come to think of it, we were supposed to meet up after he filed the defeat paperwork… isn’t he somewhere around with Minako?”
Ryuuta took a crude glance around. Wilco tilted her head.
“No… Wilco wasn’t able to find the officer either…”
“Mn? … That’s strange. Hey, Elsia, didn’t we meet them around an hour ago?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
And there a new figure.
“Is syomething troubling you?”
“Ah, landlady… have you seen Wilco’s master…?”
“Hideo? He finished his defeat paperwork and left.”
“If he left, does that mean he went to the apartment?”
The werecat’s expression clouded over.
“Who knyows? I didn’t ask. But he seemed pretty depressed… I’d say he looked like he was brooding over syomething…”
Perhaps that gave her some ideas, Wilco’s complexion changed as she flew off somewhere.
“Masteeeeeeeeeeer!? Where are you Maaasteeeeeeer!!”
Practically a chick calling for its mother. Her voice gradually faded into the distance.
“… What was that all about…”
Ryuuta made a conflicted face. The werecat took her leave.
(… That’s right.)
Elsia recalled his fact the last time she saw him. He definitely did give off that expression.
To be able to bloom at any and all times was what it meant to be a human flower. Yet wilting also took only an instant. There was no reason to stop someone who wanted to die. That was part of what it meant to be human.
She felt it a little wasteful for him to wilt.
His eyes the day before Cross Flags boasted a wonderful heat. When she asked if he could see the future, he said he would win. That heat. That one was nice.
That was why she had said ‘a shame’… something so out of character for herself.
While she was thinking long and hard to herself, Ryuuta abruptly cut in.
“… So what next?”
Elsia asked, pouring a new serving of black tea into her cup.
“Well Archess lost, didn’t he?”
Just as Suzuran had so thoroughly prowled after Hideo. In the midst of that free-for-all, Ryuuta alone bit onto Archess like he was challenging him to a death match. The fight continued to the brink of sunset… the command car Archess and Minako were riding failed to reach the area in time, while their own helicopter practically crash-landed into the clear at the last second.
“… As long as you think you’ve settled things, isn’t it fine?”
“What’s this, after you threatened the hell out of me… you’re not gonna kill me?”
“Yes. I said I didn’t care whether you won or lost. I wanted to see the demise of your heat. I got an eyeful of it today. Now not even a cinder remains within you.”
“I… see. Aah, it’s been so long since I felt so at peace.”
Ryuuta tried taking a large stretch.
“I kinda just figure it out… with today. It was within the rules of Cross Flags, but no matter how I tried to kill him, he wouldn’t die. And he never even attempted to kill me. In the end, no matter how many times I tried it, aren’t I just gonna repeat, I started thinking…”
He breathed out a reflective sigh.
“It’s been like that since we met in the labyrinth. It was the same when we dined with Lily. I’m always going in circles. Every time, he looks at me with sorry eyes, like he’s pitying me. When I think of it like that, it’s kinda… you know.”
Elsia said as she took a sip of the tea she had to add sugar to herself.
“The chance I would never miss if I kept my heat, in the end, I never saw it.”
Unbeknownst to herself, Elsia’s hand came to a stop.
Wait a second.
Right. Why did she tell Ryuuta about that back then? What premise did she base that on? She looked towards Centralle Building taken aback.
“What’s wrong, Elsia?”
“… How many pairs lost today?”
“Ah? Well there’s Hideo, there’s Minako and there’s Archess, right? What about it?”
A little over five hundred pairs remained. When practically everyone participated, there were only three losers.
No, there was no way. Didn’t Meeko and Hazuki agree with her? He definitely couldn’t have the Demon Eyes of Future Sight. Even the esteemed Ripple-Rapple apparently declared it the first day on the late night program.
“… I’m not really aiming to come on top. If your goal’s been cleared up… wanna call it quits?”
She didn’t believe in future sights. But that was the feeling she was getting.
“A little longer and we’ll see something quite interesting.”
The elevator really did dive to the depths of the earth. There were no floor indications. But it kept going down for a far longer time than it took to climb from the hall to the top floor.
Okamaru spoke in a wary, bloodcurdling voice.
‘… It does seem we have arrived. In this hell of theirs…’
Could he pick up the wicked air? Hideo nervously gulped.
The elevator touched down. As the door opened, a geothermal heat flooded in—lukewarm—like the breath of a beast. An underground darkness continuing with no end, carried only by the bare minimum lighting along the walls.
Where had they been led to?
“… This seems like the labyrinth under Center…”
Minako said, looking left and right. Okamaru was already in her hand. Once they were off, the elevator door immediately closed; the box that had served its purpose heartlessly made its way back up.
And as Hideo carefully walked forth with Minako by his side… he knew there was something within the darkness. Without any training or relevant knowledge, even Hideo could sense this thick presence. The darkness stretched and coiled as if it had sniffed out the two lives that had suddenly appeared. A pitch-black gas that cut off all light amassed as a number of figures began to appear.
A one-eyed ogre with a metal hammer. A suit of armor with a longsword in one hand, the other carrying a helmet like a severed head. And, straight out of a fairy tale, with a dorsal fin, with horns, steel-like claws and fangs, a massive lizard.
Each and every one of them a being he could only see in games, in manga, in anime, in movies, their large bodies imparting him with primordial fear, grotesque forms that set his hair on end. He was half in wonder, seeing something so impossible in reality.
I can’t win.
I’m going to be killed
And surprisingly enough, he thought this.
… I don’t want to die.
Parrying the longsword of the headless knight, Minako had it eat a heavy thrust. While the thick plate armor wasn’t dented, she successfully shot him back with Okamaru’s power.
By that time, the one-eyed ogre had lifted its heavy hammer high. Precisely due to its weight, even Hideo had time to react. He lifted Minako in practically a tackle and rolled with his momentum.
Just one smack of the hammer shook the cave. Cracks raced down the stone face, the rocks that scattered striking him all over his body. The next time he opened his eyes and rose, the dragon that could surely swallow one person whole had opened its atrocious palate. Beyond it was another black mist. The shadow of a new monster.
Hell indeed. This was hell. He would never be able to survive it.
“Hideo, get back…!”
Minako tried to move forward, she thrust away beyond the fog from which a new monster was to appear.
Hideo didn’t move. He glared at the monsters head-on.
I don’t want to die, he told himself. I don’t want to die, but I’m sick and tired of my pathetic self. That’s why dying is all I can do. At the very least before I drag Minako down. This the last thing a loser can do. So eat me. Devour me, don’t leave a trace. Erase this pathetic self, this pathetic life off the face of the Earth…!
The dragon roared to answer him.
He could see the tremors of hellfire in the depths of its wide-open throat.
But there were those who wouldn’t accept his action.
“Slice open our victory road! Javan slash!!”
A blue and silver metallic suit. A blade that glimmered as if to symbolize justice bisected a number of monsters along with the dragon’s tail.
“Hmph, bringing trouble right to our doorstep… this debt is going to cost you!”
A white mist emerged from the swirls of black fog. The prince of darkness with gleaming white fangs cut down a number of monsters with one swing of his sharp nails.
“Put your body on the line to save a woman… now that’s the Yamato spirit… Hani hah!!”
An ancient warrior revived by the smiths of Yamato took the blow of the one-eyed ogre… the cyclops with crossed arms with no difficulty whatsoever. The next instant, the fist he returned shot up, smashing its enormous bulk all the way into the ceiling.
“I take my eyes off it for one moment, and this area has grown quite stagnant… I’ll color you the blue of the Aegean sea!”
The gloomy songstress they paved the way for lifted her hand with a beautiful song voice. The waves of purity that gushed forth from nowhere in particular washed away the endless black mist, purifying the space in its entirety.
“The great bridge that spans the expanse of space… cannot fall here.”
A black-eyed otherworlder possessing high intelligence strafed its raygun. The remaining low-grade monsters, as undead turn to salt and ash before the rays of the sun, were swiftly erased.
The last one, the remaining dragon before Hideo raised an enraged cry to its face as it charged.
“I wont let anyone bully my darling! Eat this!”
The supreme alchemist in madder red threw a bomb into its far-too-large mouth. While a dragon’s entire body was clad in armor-like scales, it had no way of fighting a contained explosion within. After a thunderous roar and flash, a half-roasted dragon steak dispersed.
Minako was so taken aback by the scenery unfolding before her eyes she almost dropped Okamaru. She unhanded her most trusted partner, the weapon that would keep her alive in this hellhole… to Hideo as well, it truly was such a shock.
The ones who had come to their aid, the many rivals and veterans he had taken down in his battles to get here.
Had they survived in this hell? Every one of them was covered in dirt and dust, their fresh wounds unceasing. Yet their expressions showed not the slightest iota of resignation, more so, as if they were overflowing with hope at Hideo and Minako, their newest comrades, their smiles overflowed with ambition.
“… It’s been a while. I never imagined you’d be thrown down here.”
When he shifted his gaze, there was an olive-colored field uniform and beret cap. Exposed arms that only flourished more with his age. There was no way he could forget. This was the man who handed him the fate of top contender.
“No, every time I heard of your newest exploits… I thought I would be seeing you soon.”
His voice overflowed with confidence. Minako was no longer able to conceal her surprise.
“Why… what is the meaning of this…? Where are we…? Why is everyone…”
He lightly shrugged his shoulders.
“It just goes to show a game is just a farce without lives on the line. And the only ones who learned the truth and can put a stop to Alhazan’s schemes… the only ones who can save the world are, ironically, we losers of the tournament above.”
Turning to Hideo’s wide-open eyes, Colonel George Redfield grinned a fearless grin.
“Welcome Hideo! Take a seat! Now this is the battlefield…!!”