After being shoved in an elevator by Alhazan, Hideo and Minako came upon a chance meeting with their former rivals. The place they were led to was, surprisingly enough, an artificially manufactured residential ward of some sort. It carried the feel of a building that had been abandoned before it had been furnished. Nothing but simplistic doors lining the uncanny silence of an inorganic passageway. Thinking back to what Gabès had said, it was easy to imagine this as some sort of prison. They were taken to a room slightly bigger than the others.
This came with no grandeur, every surface was left as bare concrete. A table that looked like it had been thrown together out of need, some simple circular chair; not a single hint of decoration, more tasteless than anything. Hideo could see a simple kitchen behind a counter… did that mean this was the dining hall? There was electric lighting, it seemed the water was running.
Once each member had taken a seat, Minako started out with the question.
“… Where is this? A dormitory… no, it feels more like a prison.”
“Neither of them are too far off the mark.”
Answered the Colonel.
“When this city… this tournament was being planned, this little place was designed for some sort of event that would have been held in the Labyrinth.”
“Would have? What happened…”
“They concluded it was way too far down, apparently. Too close to the other world, the entire plan was scrapped thanks to the monster spawn rates being too damn high. Otherwise, it would’ve served as lodging for either the staff or the participants, though I couldn’t say which… and now, it’s the concentration camp for everyone Alhazan’s got their eye on.”
The two of them recalled the rails, mine carts and digging utensils they saw on the way here. They thought they had been used when constructing this district, but if they were still being put to use…
“Concentration camp… what do you mean by that?”
Minako asked, receiving a nod back.
“Exactly what it sounds like. Did you know this tournament’s steering committee general director Kirishima Lena was a member of Alhazan?”
The recollection made Hideo lose the motivation to nod. Minako stated in his place.
“Hideo was… done in by her.”
The rest went without saying. His wound-ridden face spoke volumes. The colonel groaned.
“I see. She got you bad… I’ll hear out the reason later. Whatever the case, Alhazan lay their net in ‘society’ just as they usually do. This time, with Kirishima Lena at the lead, the organization known as the steering committee. The summit of the society known as the Isolated City. If nothing happened, I doubt they’d do a thing. But this time, they couldn’t overlook this abandoned district and the reason it was abandoned.”
“What do you mean…? Umm, there are so many monsters, and I don’t really get what you meant by another world…”
A sigh. Understandable, the colonel lightly shrugged his shoulders.
“Then let’s start explanations with how this city is set up. To put it simply, this city does not exist on the time-space axis usually live in. It’s not called the Isolated City for nothing… while small in scale, the city itself is a single separate world.”
They had gotten an eyeful of magic and the like. It was stranger to think such a fantasy place existed in the Okutama Mountains. Not something to be surprised about at this point…
“No, that’s surprising, ain’t it!?”
Javan suddenly stood. Verrocchia, with his cheek rested on his hand, flapped his palm dismissively and sneered.
“You’re the only simpleton we need here, Koushirou. As expected of the man who couldn’t accept it until Akane came around and blurted out Fushigi Dimension.”
“Well of course it exists, the Fushigi Dimension! Somewhere in Tokyo! Probably around the stone quarries!!”
A space sheriff and vampire —a pairing straight out of a Z movie— began quarreling but the others already seemed used to it. The colonel nonchalantly carried on.
“Long story short, the position on the time-space axis this city exists on is closer to the other world than our reality. It’s a world shoved in the space between this world and that… is that making any sense? It wasn’t like they crammed the earth in. That gap was plenty for a single city.”
The next one to nod at his words was Hannibal.
“Which means… I got no problems with how they managed to pretty it up but… the place has got a few special properties…”
“… I kinda get it… kinda don’t…”
Minako formed a conflicted face. Hideo felt the same. He understood something dramatic must have happened, but the specifics seemed too far out to swallow. The colonel caught on and smiled self-derisively.
“Well, I can’t say I understand it either. You’ll have to ask a physicist or mathematician for a real explanation. The important part is…”
The colonel pointed down.
“As a result, there’s not a big enough safety margin with the other world, and going down in this city gets you close to another world that spits up monsters.”
That was enough to get a general picture. The point was what would happen the closer they got. What would happen when they got there. If staying away was for the best, they wouldn’t have to do anything… but the fact of the matter was that everyone here was being forced to dig closer to it.
“The beat of the tournament’s drum was set by Sacred demon Lord Suzuran, but Alhazan’s tactfully used its rules to pick out the appropriate people. They discerned the skills of competitors trying to get the world in their hands within the rules of the matches. Elites who wouldn’t lose to the monsters pouring out ad infinitum, who could keep digging this labyrinth closer to the other world.”
Minako opened her mouth.
“But what is Alhazan… hoping to accomplish, connecting that other world to this one… do they want to fill it with monsters?”
“No, that much wouldn’t be a problem. The Sacred Demon Lord and her round table could easily get rid of all those monsters you saw before.”
As if he were belittling it all, the colonel cynically lifted the ends of his lips.
“They’re after the dark god, apparently.”
Even if that was a joke, based on the situation, it definitely wouldn’t be taken well. This couldn’t be a joke, the Gray’s overly earnest voice locked it as a reality.
“Do you remember, Master Hideo? I once told you there was a large energy reading beneath this city.”
Hideo nodded. That was right. When they parted, he clearly remembered such an enigmatic warning.
“As this city exists in a different dimension, it took quite some time to analyze, but… it does seem the source is this dark god the Colonel speaks of.”
“Large… how large are we talking here?”
“What will happen if it gets called up? Don’t tell me the world is done for… is it that serious?”
She surely brought up such cliché banter to avoid jumping to conclusions and crush the danger at the bud. The Colonel’s expression was serious.
“That probably depends on how far they can get. There’s not much I can say, I can’t even deny that possibility. Will it end at the collapse of humanity, or will the planet itself be erased? I presume it will be a crisis on that scale.”
Minako looked around the other faces. Each and every one of them seemed half in doubt, but it didn’t look like anyone intended to reel that assumption in.
“But… it’s just a presumption, right?”
The colonel gave a low groan.
“There’s no precedent.”
“Rumor has it this calamity has befallen the world once before… but it’s just a rumor. This goes even further back than the commonly known dawn of history, there are barely any glimpses of it in the realm of folklore. If you asked the four archangels… or senior outers from the original round table, you might find something out. In that case, your quickest bet would be Obliterating Industries’ Demon Meeko, but……”
Apparently Meeko knew. Come to think of it, this colonel did just casually blurt out that Suzuran was the Sacred Demon Lord. Hideo and Wilco defeated him on the first day of the tournament. In which case, it wasn’t that Suzuran divulged it, he knew from the start…?
No, that’s right. He was Ryuuta’s master. He also came up in Archess’ story of a certain kingdom’s civil war. He wasn’t just a soldier. He was considerably acquainted with this world.
“… There was a similar story in my clan’s ancient hymnals.”
The words of the siren Remina carried the sensation of song when she was only reciting them.
“That which continues to sleep. Continues to dream. That any and all people continue to fear. Let it sleep in peace.”
Akane spoke too.
“I heard this at the main house in Japan. If you try searching, those sorts of false gods of evil and loss come out in similar stories all around the world.”
When it came to fairy tales, using god with the concepts of good and evil just made it exceedingly easy to explain moral values.
“But what if those legends were about something that actually happened, they just changed in interpretation with language and region, and they all pointed towards a single specific existence… would that mean that there was a time they rampaged on a worldwide scale?”
“In that case, we wouldn’t be here to begin with, little girl.”
When Verrochia who was resting his head shrugged as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, Koushirou clapped his hands optimistically.
“I see! Then either they didn’t exist, or they didn’t do too much damage!”
“Aaaand Iii’m saaaying, in that devastating scenario, there are just as many stories that tell of some god or hero or something saving the world!”
Akane snapped back. The Colonel continued with a bitter smile.
“Well, with the intention of this tournament… to gather any and all sorts of races, there was no telling what sort of unforeseen incident might occur. That was precisely why this city was built in another world. On the million-to-one chance, there would be some cushioning preventing it from reaching the outside world.”
And that was why.
“So when the time comes, it’s all about what that cushion can do. This place… is humanity’s first and last fortress against invades from another world. The final battlefield. As the ones who stand on the boundary with another world, we will bear the brunt of it.”
The Colonel’s voice carried ample dread, he could feel everyone swallow their breath.
“That’s why the tournament must find a winner fast. It’ll be too late once the dark god is revived. As I said, there’s no precedent. It’s impossible to plan in advance. Though that also brings the possibility it isn’t much of a threat…”
It made sense to prepare for the worst. In his case, his life experience as a soldier probably seeped that train of thought into his very being.
The atmosphere was slowly getting Minako to accept it.
“Then if that’s all true… that means you’re all helping out in reviving that dangerous something?”
“Long story short, yes.”
Said the Colonel.
“You can’t do that!? When you’re all so strong, can’t you just hurry and escape from this place!?”
“Well take a good look at us. Do you see anything strange?”
Hideo finally pinned down the identity of the vague off-sensation he was getting. He did think it was strange that only half of each pair was down here Perhaps he should say they had been fragmented.
Minako finally noticed the same thing upon looking around.
“Come to think of it, where are your partners…”
“No idea where, but they’ve been taken hostage. That was how Alhazan abused this tournament’s system. Among the pairs, the stronger one would be sent to do forced labor down here… the weaker was taken hostage and imprisoned so they couldn’t get away. Thus, we have no choice but to play along with Alhazan.”
Hideo did think it was a clever trick.
If they were the weaker partner, it would be easier to contain them with force. And precisely because teams were formed between partners who trusted one another, the other side wouldn’t be able to ignore them being taken hostage; they wouldn’t be able to resist. The fundamental rule of participating in pairs had come back to bite them.
“But… I have Okamaru right here…”
‘… Indeed. Though Wilco is a mystery…’
Hideo immediately figured out why. Going off of Minako’s personality, once she had been told all this, she wouldn’t even consider escaping alone. They could easily research her nature through her matches over the course of the tournament. What’s more, her case was special, and she could only exhibit her own strength when she was holding her partner Okamaru. That was probably best for a combatant who was cast there to move work along.
But what about him…
That was simple. He had simply incurred Lena’s wrath. It was clear he wasn’t the right caliber to escape from here; they didn’t even expect him to work as an underling in this hell. All that was asked of him was to die in fear and despair.
“I heard afterward she was an electronic spirit… but what about Wilco?”
The colonel asked and Hideo had to weakly shake his head.
He didn’t know. Had Wilco been captured by now… no, she was fast on her feet. From her nature as a virus, she had quite some confidence when it came to getting away. As a mixture of reality and data, it was presumably impossible to capture her in the first place. Just as she had once declared, she was a tiger on a paper screen.
She was probably fine. Considering her.
That’s what he wanted to think. He could only pray for now.
“Hmm… then that means we really do have hope.”
Hideo raised his face ever so slightly at the Colonel’s unexpected words.
Minako tilted her head.
“What do you mean?”
“I was once the commandant of a unit called Angel Saber.”
He did remember hearing that from Archess’ mouth.
“Angel Saber is a bit different from anti-demon organizations like Japan’s Kantou Agency, see. We were set up to exterminate threats to our world from the other world. We’re a unit with direct ties to heaven.”
Minako dubiously furrowed her brow.
“It’s the world of the angels who govern the world’s very existence.”
Well, perhaps something like that existed. He couldn’t stop on every little thing in this city.
“I retired long ago but… maybe there’s something there, the angel who created the isolated city told me. Even more likely if a pureblood true demon from the demon world Archess was involved… I pretended to be killing some time in my old age and infiltrated to snoop around.”
So that was why he was the very first to arrive a year ago.
“And… I lost to you.”
The cynical smile on his face was turned to Hideo.
“But that was bingo. Presumably, if I continued winning normally, I’d never be able to catch them by the tail. Precisely because I lost, I found out that Alhazan had taken this tournament right from the top. When I heard about your future sight from Verrocchia I was certain. That had to be why you took up my, the top contender’s challenge. When you came down here yourself, I was certain of our victory…!”
Hideo’s heart ached again.
“Otherwise, there’s no way the future sight would willingly come down here. You let Wilco escape to some safe spot… and by now, she’s informed someone, hasn’t she? Am I wrong?”
The Colonel’s triumphant expression was so loaded with confidence. The smile he saw before. The full-face smile welcoming Wilco and himself. These men and woman had no way of knowing from the depths of the earth. The rumors from the plaza above.
More than rumors… they were fact.
Remina’s transparent voice livened up.
“You already know where the hostages are being kept, don’t you? Or are you looking at them now? He may be like that, but he’s my producer, for what it’s worth…”
Akane stood shortly after.
“Hey, darling! Is my Branken, is everyone alright!? You came to save us because you knew we could all escape safely, right!?”
“If anything happens to the earthling Kobayashi because of me, there will be new cracks in our relations with the galaxy…”
“What happened to Sandelmain? He may be old, but he’s a splendid head butler who’s been faithful from my father’s era…”
“Is the old man still having lower back troubles!?”
“Do you think Johnny’s… doin’ alright…”
Expectations and hope.
There was no way this body of his could shoulder them.
He lowered his head, he covered his face. Was this the time to laugh? No, just how much easier would it be if he actually could laugh. If he could just laugh off the limits of his stupidity… or would it be more appropriate to suddenly snap and scream? Would they sympathize if they knew his situation? What he found most detestable was how he could rationally imagine it, yet couldn’t obtain a single emotion. Once he divulged the truth, he could foresee nothing but abuse and scorn.
He shut it up in his heart. He couldn’t say anything. If he stayed silent, there was still room for imagination. He could see in his eyes just how vicious of a cycle it was and loathed himself for not putting a stop to it.
Why couldn’t he just get eaten by that monster and die?
Minako was painfully flustered. It happened as everyone started to wonder at Hideo’s silence.
“Long story shyort, that man wasn’t demon eyes or anything. He’s a nyobody.”
The door was rudely swung open by that apartment’s landlady twitching her cat ears back and forth… Michelle.
Behind her she led a number of black suits armed with guns, dressed up as tournament staff. She pushed in a wooden box on a pushcart.
“Food supplies and daily necessities for the new recruit.”
“Well thanks for that… but what did you mean about that, Michelle?”
Were they accustomed to this exchange? She laughed as the Colonel readied himself.
“There’s nyo mystery about it… you can tell by the look in that shut-in’s eyes. We only found out just the other day. We were looking in all the wrong places. That man is just a country bumkin, the sort of hyopeless human being who became a shut-in after failing to find a job in Tokyo. When you’re really searching for employment, it’s perfectly nyormal to fail fyorty to fifty companies, but he couldn’t even do that.”
Michelle laughed, nyah, nyah, she kicked the legs of the chair where Hideo sat. The eyes of the room gathered on him. They stabbed straight into his heart.
An unbearable stillness.
But Hideo had neither the words nor willpower to return. That was fact, after all. That’s why he should have just died. He continued telling himself to die as he kept his silence. When there was no way that would actually kill him.
“But instead of knowing his place, he went around proclaiming himself future sight and caused all this ruckus. He went and broke Kirishima who was trying to marry him to bring such an amazing ability into Alhazan.”
The Colonel laughed straight at her face.
“Ha hah! A hahahah! I see! So that’s how it is!”
The colonel laughed, pulling a box of dry cigars out of the provided rations and breaking the seal with experienced motions. Michelle’s ears twitched, clearly displeased at his leisurely attitude.
“What’s syo funny?”
The colonel toasted the end of his cigar with a match, taking a breath with a smug look on his face.
“What’s funny? Michelle, let me tell you what you just said. Both me and Archess, and Sacred Demon Lord Suzuran… no, the entirety of this city was tricked and led along by a young man with absolutely no power to speak of?”
“The fourth world, the world of the sediment, we who know of the outer bounds of common sense… had the rug pulled from under our feet by a completely ordinary young man who accidently wandered in from normal society? Then from our point of view, what could it be but a comedy? From an outside perspective, the greatest thrill of all.”
He composedly blew a puff of smoke, which was promptly waved away by Michelle’s irritated face.
“Nyo matter, if you think you can escape just because that man’s here, you’re way off. All you have to think about is digging that hyole to summon the dark god.”
The hammered it in and turned…Hideo stood from his seat.
“What is it!? I’m not your landlady anymore. I’m throwing everything out of the rooms you were living in.”
“No clue. Elize Mithrilite is one thing, but I have no need for a spirit who only knyows how to float, eat, and surf the net.”
When Michelle turned back, her mouth was in a malicious crescent moon.
“But when I suggested the shut-in wanted to die, her face cyompletely changed. Let me guess, you’re not just a shut-in, you’re suicidal? Then Lord Archess need not strain his heart. Your journey to find yourself is over. Get eaten up by monsters and die however you want.”
Slam. Michelle and her entourage left, the door was back to its original position.
I see, he thought. But that was for the best. The harm didn’t reach Wilco.
No, perhaps that was self-evident. Unlike the others, even without a hostage deterrent, he had no means to oppose. Alhazan had gone through such meticulous planning, they weren’t going to waste any more effort on him. Ironically, his own powerlessness lent him relief.
His eyes still fixed on the door Michelle had disappeared through, the Colonel breathed out smoke with a nonchalant face.
“… Was what she said true? Hideo?”
He was tired. What did it matter anymore? Who cared?
Hideo muttered a small, quiet murmur like he was confessing his sins before the court.
“… Yes. It’s all… true…”
That had been two weeks ago.
At the depths of the earth, where the sky was dark in the middle of the day, Hideo swung his shovel.
Down here, he had to doubt whether it was midday at all. This wasn’t on the scale of modern tunnel construction. It was closer to the coal mines from when the TVs were still black and white. Like a lingering haze of dust was constantly cast over everything in his sight.
Bedrock crumbled with the Colonel’s air hammer, Hannibal’s pickaxe, and Verrocchia’s claws were loaded into carts pushed by Javen and the Gray. If a monster appeared, Minako or Akane would take care of it. Should it prove too much for them, someone apart from Hideo would rest their working hands to go support them.
Hideo simply swung his shovel.
He ate when he was hungry, he rotated off when he was tired, he was back to digging when he got up. Two whole weeks of that lifestyle.
Only two weeks. There was no telling how long it would continue. If it was going to drag on until he was dead, he was better off dying quick. He was better off.
The more time passed, the more he’d be reminded of Alhazan’s scrupulousness. It even applied to the provisions Michelle brought over. They were provided with enough daily necessities they would have no inconvenience to live. Their food wasn’t only bread and water. Mean fish, plants of course, all sorts of multicolored vegetables and fruits were sent down in abundance. If Hannibal exercised his skill, a considerable full course would be complete.
The Colonel’s cigars were an obvious example. Coffee, tea, even luxury items like alcohol and sweets could be obtained just as easily as on the surface.
Alhazan worked not through unreasonable violence, but by worming their way into society. They were well versed in how to handle people, even more so in how to work them to death. They crushed as many buds of discontentment as possible, drilling in their heads their lives would be stable as long as they obeyed.
The select few elites part was also well thought out. Any normal person would be eaten by monsters in the blink of an eye. But if they gathered too many… if too many people went missing, there was a high risk their plot would be sniffed out. Additionally, if the people they chose were simply strong, that raised the possibility they’d prove too much to handle. Participants like Meeko and Elsia presumably wouldn’t be sent down here even if they did lose. As with their power, their mentalities were too strong.
They chose those with strong bonds with their partners, whose mentalities gave enough meaning to holding hostages, who were strong enough not to fold to monsters. They let them live in enough comfort they wouldn’t grow desperate and conducted the excavation with the minimum number of people so they wouldn’t be suspect.
But to think they would all be the rivals he took down himself was quite the irony. He had unknowingly aided with Alhazan’s plot only to be thrown down himself like a well-timed punchline.
This was the real tab for putting up the deception and playing the part.
The endless mechanical repetition of simple tasks like he had been placed in penal servitude. A mechanical lifestyle. There was only a slight amount of risk. No shortage of anything. Nothing to move him or bring him joy.
Then there was no meaning in him being alive at all. It was practically like when he was living alone.
The Colonel’s voice finally returned him to his senses. When he turned, a monster whose name he didn’t know was spawning right next to him. They would spawn to be defeated, spawn to disappear. Then did these monsters have any meaning?
He didn’t want to die. But it was more of a pain to run away.
The truncheon Minako threw repelled the monster’s claw about to tear him apart at the last second. No, it only managed to change its course. While it was shallow, the skin starting from the top of his shoulder was torn open, his flesh was swept over.
The pain brought him back for real this time. I want to die, he thought. But I don’t want to hurt. Just as Hideo rolled to the side to escape, the monster staggered at the Colonel’s heavy, sharp savate. Next, Verrochia’s claws ripped it open from the opposite shoulder and finally the monster dispersed.
“Hideo, are you alright!?”
Minako held him up. It hurt, it definitely hurt, but not enough to make him panic. At the root of it, he didn’t have enough energy to panic. The one who gave a disconcerted sigh was Verrocchia.
“If he doesn’t have the will to live, just let him die. Don’t bring trouble to my hands.”
Minako angrily shot back.
“There’s no need to put it like that! Aren’t we comrades!? And Hideo, he…!”
“Has no power, is that what you were about to say? I don’t know if you’re praising him or insulting him, but I’m tired of hearing it.”
The vampire got down on one knee to let his red eyes peer into Hideo’s pupils.
“How off the mark could I have been? A dead fish could see the world a bit better than this whelp; where exactly did I see a demon’s eyes… if it was up against future sight, I convinced myself my defeat was inevitable.”
“… I’m… sorry…”
Hideo’s words made Verrocchio furrow his brow… he looked even more fed up than before.
“Ah, it’s fine, it’s fine. I’m tired of hearing that from you. By the gods, ever since you came here, is apologizing all you know how to do, good grief…”
The Colonel closed his eyes for a moment, rolling his neck to loosen up his shoulders.
“… Let’s take a break. Minako, my apologies, but could you take care of Hideo…”
“No… I’m fine. I’ll go. Alone…”
He stood on his own. He walked.
Unable to find any other words, Minako and the others silently watched off Hideo’s unsteadily distancing back.
His exhausted feet brought him to the infirmary. It wasn’t as if they had a specialized doctor. That was simply what they called the room where they stored all the medical supplies and placed a single bed.
“It’s Remina’s examination corner~♪”
This woman was generally the one on duty. Once a day, before work began, she would sing to purify the space and lower encounter rates. Other than that, she was generally stationed here to look after the injured. On the rare occasion, she would go to the kitchen to do some prep work or make snacks.
“Why how do you do, what seems to be troubling you today?”
As you can see, he pointed out the bloody gash across his chest.
“I’m just kidding, kidding.”
Remina laughed, taking some disinfectant off the shelf. She wore a pointless labcoat with a pointless stethoscope hanging from her neck.
“I always wanted to try it you know, playing doctor.”
“But everyone here is so strong, they just won’t seem to get injured for me.”
She said, preparing some absorbent cotton cloth and taking out some bandages.
“Just when I thought he was finally injured, Verrocchia healed himself up in the blink of an eye.”
She got out an IV drip and syringe on top of that.
“Right, right, when it comes to Hannibal, he just sticks himself back together with glue. Although in his case, rather than treatment, all his fragments are scattered like a puzzled, and it’s quite the ordeal to put them back together.”
A suture needle, scalpel, forceps, hammer, chisel, hand drill, titanium bolt, the side table by the bed was slowly filling up.
With a hum on her breath, Remina pulled rubber gloves down over both her hands. If he strained his ears.
“It’s Predator~♪ The skin tears free~♪ Everything he takes down~ is his trophy~♪”
She was singing quite the incredible song in an incredibly beautiful voice.
“…… Umm, doc.”
“Yes, what is it?”
Was she happy at being called doc? When she turned with a wonderful smile, there was a chisel and hammer in her hands.
“… No, umm… that…”
“It’s alright. Despite how I look, I’m a siren you know. I’ve saved a drowning person once or twice…”
“… Were you not. The cause. Of the problem?”
A shadow quickly spread across her smile.
“Won’t you believe in your doctor?”
He must have hit a strange nerve.
“Now lie down on the bed. I’ll lobotomize that pain right out of your head.”
Dying and going through incredible pain was something different. But when Wilco wasn’t around, he didn’t even have it in him to retort properly.
Picking it up off his expression, Remina lonesomely swapped her equipment out with disinfectant and a cloth.
“Hideo, in your case, your heart is far worse off than your injuries. I thought I could get you to laugh a bit… it looks like I took it too far. I’m sorry.”
Her consideration only hurt him more.
Hideo stripped his shirt and washed off his wound.
“But you’ve gotten somewhat sturdy now.”
“… What do you. Mean?”
“Don’t you think you’ve firmed up a bit?”
Remina said, prodding at his forearm. Come to think of it, she was the one who treated his wounds from Lena.
“Your daily labor must be doing the trick.”
Come to think of it, that did get that feeling. While muscle pains plagued him for the first two or three days, that had softened up. Apparently, what he thought was swelling and inflammation had actually been a bit of muscle.
That was somewhat reassuring.
Over the time period he was desperately swinging the shovel in despair, he had become just a little stronger. Of course, nothing would come of rejoicing over that. He was sealed away down here. The situation hadn’t taken any turn. However… for the first time since he came here, he felt just a little happy.
Remina smeared the ointment she took from a bottle to seal up his disinfected wound. It stung, but not badly enough to make a ruckus over. Right, compared to Elize’s attacks from the Grand Prix… the medicine stung badly enough he started negotiating with himself, but didn’t make a noise regardless.
“You’re not going to sing your song anymore?”
Song? The word came with no forewarning, he had to blink.
“I forgot to ask you the name but… remember, back at the pub? That fun song?”
But perhaps as expected of a siren. Remina hummed, thinking back fondly, waving her finger to and fro like a conductor’s wand as she nimbly tried recreating the melody.
“~♪… You might feel better if you sing. Unfortunately, we don’t have any medicine here for the heart. But songs can pep you up and give you courage.”
She hummed the rhythm to herself as she wrapped his bandages.
Eventually, dinner time came around, and Remina made her late appearance at the mess hall where everyone was gathered. With all eyes on her, she gave a reassuring smile.
“No need to worry, he’s fine. The salve Akane compounded will have him right as rain in two to three days, he won’t even have a scar. For now I gave him some pain killers and a nutrient IV and put him to rest.”
“I see. That’s good.”
Minako stroked her chest, relieved. She hadn’t been able to make out the taste of Hannibal’s luxurious feast today, but now she could finally calm down and eat.
“But I still cannot believe it. To think Master Hideo was carrying such serious insecurities on a mental front…”
When they first started out, the Gray wasn’t the only one who thought so. Minako never even considered it until Lena clearly spelled it out that night. No combat experience, no affiliation to any organization past or present, no special lineage, not even any knowledge about this world. He was an average person, normal in every way.
“I was sure he was an evil-eye kaijin…”
The man who’d stripped off the Javan suit, Shibasaki Koushirou groaned over his folded arms. Akane pointed her fork at him with a none-too-pleased look on her face.
“What sort of camera and monitors have you got on your helmet? How is my darling a kaijin?”
Verrocchia broke the seal on his after-meal blood transfusion.
“The look in his eyes was great enough I mistook it as demon eyes. So where exactly are your eyes, little girl?”
“I don’t care about looks. It’s all about the heart. The heart, you know.”
As Akane confidently struck her chest, Hannibal broke into a nihilistic laugh.
“… So in short… that’s one long, roundabout way of saying he ain’t a looker…”
“Erk… w-what does it matter!? Right, I think he looks better than pottery!”
Hannibal silently lighted his Marlboro. For no reason at all, its smoke looked like it was swaying in sorrow.
‘How nostalgic. When you first saw him, Minako, did you not take him as a murderer and drug addict?’
“Oh shut it.”
Tap, tap, she hit Okamaru against the corner of the table and cleared her throat. Carrying on.
“Whatever the case, for now, we won’t get anywhere discussing Hideo’s looks.”
The Colonel had cleaned off his plate and was just about to take out a cigar.
“I’ll admit I was convinced he was a veteran soldier but… right now, the problem at hand is his mental state.”
“… How long he’ll hold up.”
While Alhazan generously provided their necessities, that didn’t change the fact they were in an abnormal situation. A change in living environment was already enough to bring considerable stress. But that wasn’t where their worries ended down here.
Would they be able to leave someday? Or were they fated to be shut away until they died? There was no guarantee they’d never encounter a monster strong enough to cause a cave-in. If Alhazan changed their mind and stopped supplying food, everyone here would quite likely die. There were plenty of terrible possibilities to consider, but at present, they hadn’t worked out any solutions.
Each member of the team boasted confidence backed by their own strength. Hideo had none of it. Not only that, if this was his first life-or-death situation, how much could his psyche hold out? That was where their misgivings lay.
“He’s working well… the best he can, but…”
Hannibal muttered in a low voice, but he didn’t speak with a positive light. Shouldn’t they be impressed he had continued on without throwing it down? Perhaps normally. But the truly strong knew.
“Right. That’s a dangerous sign. To flare up against the irrational and scream out against fear are normal psychological processes carried out in order to alleviate stress. But he has none of it. He’d be better off if he started screaming out or arguing with everyone.”
“And if he doesn’t…?”
Meaning, if he stayed like this? The Colonel’s grim face sighed at Minako.
“… It’s a deadly disease. Worst case, he’ll die at his own hand.”
Minako swallowed her breath. She slowly shook her head.
“… That’s a lie. There’s no way he would. I mean, I know. I’ve seen it.”
His gallant form at the Sacred Demon Grand Prix. In the freezing cold rain, the dead-tired look on his face, the unwavering strength of will that carried him to the goal line, shouldering her the whole way.
“He’s won against every single person here, hasn’t he!? Then why would Hideo ever lose to himself…!?”
“I’ll say this as a fact, the vitality I see in him has completely changed.”
Verrocchia’s words had her turn.
“I’m a vampyre. I can at least tell how tasty a treat is before my eyes. Unfortunately, even if I were to suck his blood here and now…”
He hoisted up his half-finished provision blood transfusion.
“… It’ll be just like this one, completely hollow, less savory than any morsel I have ever partaken in. Like an echo in a cave, he shall speak when spoken to, but tease him as I might, he neither grows irritated nor shows any distaste. His heart is not answering.”
It would be different if he was trying to kill his emotions. As the Colonel pointed out, his psyche wasn’t operating properly. No, forget normal or not, it wasn’t operating at all. Verrocchia simply expressed the fact his eyes perceived.
“Then… when you said he didn’t have the will to live…”
Holding the straw from the blood pack in his mouth, he lifted the corner of his lips.
“I meant it literally. You’re all far too kind to him, is it because you’re of the same race? Since we are here, let me spell it out clearly. If he becomes living baggage that will only drag us down… don’t you think it inevitable he be abandoned?”
While no one readily nodded, they all grasped the meaning of what he was saying. This was where one would naturally reach following a logical train of thought. An appropriate conclusion.
“… You’re right. Worst case scenario, we should consider the possibility.”
“No way! Colonel, even you…!”
“Calm down, Minako. I said worst case. When it gets so bad you’ll have to hit up morphine instead of pain killers. No one here wants to willingly take the initiative.”
That was clear from their expressions. Even Verrocchio was just playing devil’s advocate as a member of another race. He wasn’t looking too happy about the idea.
“… I’m sorry. It… looks like I’m a little tired…”
“you’re right, we shouldn’t be having this conversation over a meal. You should retire early today. Let’s talk about something a little more productive tomorrow.”
They shared a nod, and once a quiet meal was over, they naturally dispersed for the day.
Alone in the infirmary, Hideo stared at the IV fluid falling drip by drip.
The work for the day was already over. A silence interrupted only by a slightly-loud air conditioner.
He made them worry, he caused terrible trouble. He understood that. And so… did his life even have enough worth to cost so much? He stared at the drip.
He had forgotten what was the occasion, but he remembered how the neighborhood priest once told him a story.
He told of a certain traveler about to fall down a bottomless hole. A single rope the only thing holding him up. There was no one to help him, and as if that weren’t enough, a white mouse and a black mouse would take turns gnawing on the rope’s threads. The heavens would occasionally shower him with rain on a whim, and the traveler only narrowly managed to stay alive on those sweet drops.
It was a story with no salvation, but…
That was life, he was told.
From the moment they’re born, humans are on the edge of the pit of death, where the white and black mice- night and day- would relentlessly begin cutting away at the thread of life. Whether the thread was thick or narrow, that was destiny… and even upon seeing that, we can cling to the rope without despairing thanks to the blessings of the heavens.
That was good fortune. Someday the sweet drops will fall, as long as you keep firm, you keep holding on, as long as you live, surely good things will come… It was that hope that let people live on even hanging over the pit of despair.
That was all there was to the story, but I see, that’s interesting, his young heart accepted it.
The current him could picture it and see he had none. Beyond the hole was a drought that burned him down to the bone. Not a cloud in the sky, the rain would never come. He couldn’t even imagine it coming. He couldn’t see any necessity to keep holding on.
But… did he have a choice? Instead of leaving it to the mice. To unhand the rope on his own? To powerlessly let go?
The IV drip had ended. One last drop fell like the last leaf on the tree.
There was no one around.
Only the scalpel Remina had taken out half-as a joke was burned peculiarly vividly into his hazy head.
He lifted his body and offhandedly pulled out the IV needle. Rising like a ghost, he walked, he opened the cupboard on the steel desk… the small blade he held was cold and white. Its beautiful glimmer captivated him more than anything before it.
He had read somewhere that a box cutter usually wasn’t enough to cause death. But what about this? It was a blade originally designed to cut humans. Even if tendons and the like got in the way, couldn’t he cut them all together? Like in the movies and drama, would he have to put the wound under running water if he wanted to bleed out?
What about the neck? The rib would be in the way if he wanted to stab the heart.
His heart beat hard enough to burst, his thoughts became surprisingly level. He had overcome the drowsiness of the painkillers, his mind had frozen over. If this was what he was going to do, he should have researched it more. Point being, it did seem back then he wasn’t serious yet.
But now was different. It was different now. This was the end. This would put an end to everything. He could finally be at ease. He could find his peace.
He applied the blade to his neck.
Now let’s put an end to it.
Do you have any regrets?
What do you mean regrets?
Why even ask.
It was nothing but goddamn regrets.
The tears came up, an idiotic amount. Along with his overflowing tears, the blade dropped from his quivering hand. He stifled down his sobs to preserve the silence, he was trembling uncontrollably.
Why did it come to this? Where did I go wrong? I wasn’t supposed to be like this. I never asked for this future. Didn’t I use to be a little brat like the rest of them? Romping around without giving a care to whatever anyone said? The priest’s tale was from when the old man got mad at me and my friends for playing around the graveyard. In the first place, back then, I actually felt like I was myself. Where did all those days where I frolicked around with no time to care about other eyes go?
(I want to go back…)
To those times when I played all night with my comrades.
I gotta believe. I can do it.
Right, back to when I would talk and talk with my friends.
Back to when I still felt like somebody.
What changed, what did I do wrong…
His two clenched fists were lowered on the desk only once.
The regret at not having been able to live the life he wanted. He didn’t need a reason to live on from here. But look as he might, he couldn’t see a reason he had lived up to this point. He couldn’t find why he had lived at all. No, that was wrong. He was dying because it was an insignificant life pointless to even look through.
What. Where. Why.
They weren’t even questions anymore. Only disjointed words endlessly swirled through his brain.
The Colonel abruptly entered the room.
“Remina asked me to change out your…”
He stopped mid-sentence when he noticed the scalpel lying at Hideo’s feet. He didn’t say anything, he quietly closed the door behind him.
“… I see. Well, I’m not going to ask what was going through your mind…”
A deep breath, he composedly took a seat on the bed.
“I won’t stop you, as long as it doesn’t cause us any harm. How you think and how you act is up to you.”
He took out his cigars and stuck one in his mouth. He held another out to Hideo.
As Hideo crudely wipe his tears with a sleeve and shook his head, the Colonel tucked it away with a small laugh.
“Back then, you told me this. I’m a pitiful man who won too many times on the battlefield.”
It happened after the first match of the tournament.
“But if you’ll let me have my say… you know too little about death.”
Death? He didn’t know death? What part of it.
“Mass production, mass consumption, in an era where food and clothing is naturally provided at no inconvenience, it’s hard to truly feel their value. Just like that, young men like you… think that life comes only natural, and it’s only natural that you die.”
Why of course it was. Just like everyone else, he was naturally born. He naturally received an education with everyone else, naturally spent his adolescence with all of them. A great many adults would chant life is precious as if it were the natural thing to do.
Indeed. It was so natural none of it felt real. It all felt so worthless. Thinking that was simply the way it was, that was the most he could do.
If he killed himself, ah, how tragic, the media would comically flare up. Overwork is to blame, bullying is to blame, school is to blame, society is to blame, the country is to blame… it would become a topic of discussion for a short while and then it was over. It was the same old thing on the same old papers and news broadcasts. Wasn’t suicide only natural?
In the end, if he disappeared, someone else would be there. The world would turn well enough without him. That’s all life really was.
It was nothing worth finding value or blessings in… what was so wrong about seeing it that way?
Turning to Hideo who thought but couldn’t express, the Colonel spoke.
“When I went to Vietnam, I came to learn. I killed plenty for the sake of freedom and democracy. And the Vietcong really did die so easily. With knives. With bullets. With explosions. With napalm. Just like them, my own comrades would bite the dust like it was nothing. If you go to the jungle, it’d be the traps. If you go to town, the little peddler boy’s suicide bomb. Go to the farm, and the AK the girl pulled from her wheelbarrow…”
His sorrowful smile as he reflected, the colonel scorched the cigar with a flame.
“And within all of that… do you know what I felt?”
It was the same old obvious story. Live in Japan, and you’d hear it on repeat every time summer came around. The usual platitude.
Life is precious, they would say. But how much meaning did an adult, a stranger’s words hold? No more than the mentality of a professor who pontificated like he was above everyone else. Then I’m different from you. You may be like that. But I’m beneath you, I’m me.
The feeling he was being talked down to changed right into irritation.
“I, see… I felt the depths of my fortune. That day, that I could survive another day. That I was born in a country called America. That I was sent to the battlefield with enough training. That time I saw a baby born deformed by agent orange…”
Like he was remembering that moment, so happily he laughed with a triumphant face.
“Isn’t that right? I wasn’t born in a remote jungle village without satisfactory medical facilities. I was never handed a package I didn’t understand and told to approach the enemy troops. I was born in good enough health to fight as a soldier on the forefront and survived. I thanked God for it.”
He recalled the private army of Elize Industrial.
Perhaps they had gone too far, but that was precisely why they boasted an absolute sense of virtues that wouldn’t fold to any other.
“Someone with good sense would surely criticize my way of thought. They’d call me imprudent. But rather than chanting life is precious like it’s the natural thing to do… I’m sure I’ve experienced just how miraculous it is.”
… A miracle.
“Do you get it? The fact you were born in this era, maybe this region…”
He said with a bitter smile. A light shrug of his shoulders.
“No, maybe I’m not doing a good job getting my thoughts across. In this era of no inconvenience, it’s the first time I’ve sat down and had a long chat with a man like you… but at the very least, while we were all ready to be killed, neither myself nor any of my men would ever personally unhand the miracle that they were living another day.”
And… his heat sending him towards death, slow as it was… slow like cooling iron…
“If you fall into extreme panic or confusion and cause harm, I’ll kill you myself.”
The words took him by surprise. Hideo drew back his body.
He was still sitting on the bed, the expressionless eyes that looked up at him, the emotionless voice, none of it as merciful as the glimmer of the scalpel.
“And I’m sure you’ll easily die. Far easier than any Vietcong.”
The reason he didn’t fear monsters was because they rampaged indiscriminately, they came at people caring not who they were. Some part of him was at peace knowing someone would defeat them if left be.
A clear murderous intent was directed at himself. The proclamation he would sever his life shook him more than he realized. He feared he would lose the miracle that he had lived so long. No matter how many times he thought he would just die… that was just his own narcissism flaring up. When the notion he was going to be killed was so real, Hideo experienced for a moment what life was.
All the Colonel had to do was stand up as if he had said nothing, and Hideo’s shaking legs retreated.
“If you can’t kill yourself, just tell me. I’ll kill you with no weight on my mind. It will be far easier than suicide.”
If he really did wish to die. He would have been able to beg him to kill him here.
In the end, he didn’t want to die. Who would ever pick death by choice? No, no one wished to die. They would die an inevitable death of lifespan. An unavoidable death of unfortunate accident. A helpless death, of one’s life left locked at a standstill. With surrounding ill intent causing them to lose the place of their heart, they would die with no other means of escape.
But everyone surely would live when given the option. They surely wanted to live.
What about him?
His life didn’t go as he wanted. That was all there was to it. It wasn’t like he took up the challenge and failed. It wasn’t as if the neighbors were raining down baseless persecution. Other people had nothing to do with it, he wanted to die for himself alone. Selfishness, infantile to the extreme.
Nothing more than a feeble intent to press the reset button when it looked like he would lose the game. Far too worthless, the very worst reason to let go of a miracle.
Reality had no resets. The game ended the second he died. The only difference was whether he interpreted that as game over, or game clear. There were no redos.
A miracle was a miracle because it only happened once.
And to win the game of life… to live a life he was satisfied with…
Hideo was visited by a small, very small change in thought.
Trivial as it was. Once the word miracle was carved in his heart, Hideo’s thoughts began moving, moving towards living on.
“… Have you calmed down?”
“Well, as we are now, we’re just helping lead the world to destruction. When you think about it, perhaps we’re better off dead… but there’s no need to choose here and now. It’s not like we have anything to lose apart from our lives. How about you try being selfish for once? When Michelle comes around, ask her for whatever you want. We may be stuck down here, but we’ve literally got all the time left in the world… then until that time, why not live however you want.”
Always overly earnest, living wary of others eyes, they were trivial words. They were words that dropped the weight off his shoulders.
(However I want…)
… That’s right. Perhaps that was right.
Unlike Tokyo, for better or worse, he was never troubled for food. No… more so, for better or worse, he had no choice but to work. Wasn’t he just a little happy he had gained muscle? If he worked tomorrow, perhaps he’d find some more happiness. Even if the rain didn’t come, perhaps a mist would drift his way.
This was a life far healthier than being holed up in his apartment. And these good men and woman accepted him even after knowing he had tricked them about the demon eyes. That was already… something he had to rejoice over most of all.
Then… just for one day, tomorrow, he would try living.
And if he survived tomorrow… he would try the day after that.
He would live.
“… I’m going to… try living…”
Slight as it was, the sereneness brought to Hideo’s face caused the Colonel’s expression to soften.
“Sounds like a plan. You…”
Before he could say something, the door to the infirmary was energetically thrown open.
“Hideo, you’re hungry, aren’t you!? I made riceballs!!”
“Darling is injured so he’ll definitely prefer the porridge I made!!”
Minako and Akane were brushing up against one another, feuding over who could enter first.
“Porridge loses its original purpose if you boil it thick with milk and butter, it definitely won’t suit Hideo’s Japanese tongue!!
“I don’t want an over-twenty who can only make riceballs at her age lecturing me on food!!”
Tapping Hideo on the shoulder, the Colonel whispered in his hear.
“…… You’ve got people worrying for you.”
He lightly nodded.
He didn’t know if it was a blessing or pity, but he wiped his oozing tears before they could fall.
Because he chose not to die. He was happy again. For now, that was plenty. Even if he didn’t have anyone, even if he wasn’t anyone, even if he couldn’t obtain his ideal… he had comrades who’d share their joy. However he wanted. If such a thing was permitted… at the very least, he’d leave himself to it for a little longer.
Humans can’t live alone. Precisely because it was so natural, he ended up forgetting such a natural thing.