In the two weeks from Cross Flags, the Sacred Demon cup had slowly transitioned to the final tournament bracket. It was a mere two weeks, far too short. That thought filled the minds of everyone in the isolated city who mourned for the festival’s end. But at the same time, each and any one of them waiting in anticipation to see just who would reign at the summit.
The end would always have to come. The tournament called the Sacred Demon Cup that dragged in any and all races was no exception.
The Stadium set up in Center Plaza whirled with magnificent cheers for yet another day.
‘In the first match of our semi-finals, it was the Shouki-Elize pair that held true to their name! Now it’s time to see which pair is going to compete in the finals against the two who indulged themselves with the title Tournament’s Strongest!’
Kirishima Lena’s announcer voice carried across the microphone, resounding loudly through the speakers.
‘The indominable monster hunter whose superior technique has lent him stable match strength on all fronts, Ryuuta Salinger! His partner is the beautiful Lady on the Platform, Magical Princess Elsia!! In the other corner, the true supreme leader of Obliterating Industries, the organization that dominates the isolated city, the source of all evil, Nagoyakawa ‘Lily’ Suzuran! With her, a lady whose abilities apart from her appetite are still unknown, a close friend of The Lady on the Platform, the Black Sleeping Beauty Meeko!’
The moment the finals tournament began, Suzuran revealed herself as the Sacred Demon Lord, the one currently in control of the world and the organizer of this tournament. By this point, she no longer needed to conceal her status with mirrored glasses and a maid uniform. She wore a noble white outfit befitting her status.
‘May the Ryuuta-Elsia pair and Suzuran-Meeko pair please enter the stage…!!’
The presidential office of Obliterating Industries. Takase gazed absentmindedly at the TV, sipping coffee at his mahogany desk. Wilco was at the secretary desk she’d been provided next to his, halfheartedly fiddling with the company’s account book on her notebook PC. The real account book was so well kept in order it hardly needed a second check. Her activity wasn’t limited to this city, she was ‘inflating’ the official accounts of the company in the outside world. If she could find a way to safely take advantage, she would overwrite the databases of certain public offices.
Now that Hideo was nowhere to be found, Wilco who had nowhere else to go found herself in the employment of Obliterating Industries. On request, she would also construct production line systems and maintain servers for Elize Industrial.
She was spending rather plain, monotonous days.
Compared to the month she spent with Hideo, the days felt far too long, far too empty.
Even without looking at the screen, Wilco could pick up the live broadcast from Center. The cheers, the MC Lena’s voice. Both pairs proceeded to the center of the stadium to decide the rules. The time limit was vice minutes. If they went past that, it would automatically shift to the basic rule. Those were the regulations decided for the final tournament but… at this point, she simply had to ask.
“You’re not going to go watch, president?”
The chairman slash supreme leader was competing, yet it was just another quiet day at the mansion. The residential district would practically be a ghost town until the match was over.
Takase spoke without any strong feelings one way or the others.
“After cross flags ended, all matches we’ve been getting have generally just been under the basic rule. I don’t mean to repeat those words from the opening ceremony, but if you’re looking for the strength to punch people into submission, there’s no one here who could match Meeko or Elsia.”
“No. Wilco’s saying everyone’s getting heated up over those very same two going up against one another…”
“Don’t be stupid. The day those two outers fight for real, this city will be annihilated in minutes.”
Outer. A designation given to a member of any race who achieved powers equal to a god. It was said there was nothing they were incapable of, that they existed outside the bounds of measurement and rationality. Therefore, these two were called outers. They were apparently not the only ones.
What Meeko showed in Cross Flags was definitely irrational. Were those tube worms living creatures, plants, or monsters? Reality or illusion? Wilco couldn’t even comprehend that. Her analysis wouldn’t get her anywhere.
On the other hand, Elsia was an extraordinary magic user. When she first entered this venue, Wilco didn’t know left from right, but she had seen enough of other peoples’ matches to know this woman’s magic towered above the rest. Rumor had it she was the one who changed Elize Industrial’s lode into an open-air mine.
What would happen if those two went at it for real? She didn’t know about the city, but it was hard to believe all those spectators crammed into the stadium would come out unscathed.
Perhaps Ryuuta and Suzuran were well aware of that, it did seem they concluded their partners would spectate. Both Elsia and Meeko were just along for the ride. Neither had any interest in the title. The spectators began booing at this terrible letdown. A shot from Elsia’s magic. Not from the television, from the presidential office window, a flashy explosive inferno rose in the distance.
‘And! You heard it here folks! Everyone who wants to watch the semi-finals and finals will be obliterated!! My life as a judge is going to be hanging in the balance!! The organizer side permits these two to remain on the sidelines!!’
There were no audible objections to Lena’s voice from the TV speaker.
Takase spoke in a fed-up voice.
“… That better not have been one of our buildings…”
And Ryuuta said something about hitting girls not being his styles, so in the end, it became a gunfight using the shock bullets from Cross Flags.
“See? What did I tell you?”
Takase lightly scoffed.
“But what else can they do? No matter how you spin it, Wilco doubts they’ll suddenly break into a cooking battle in that situation…”
“You think? I wouldn’t be too sure if you guys were involved.”
Those words took Wilco by surprise. Takase turned to her, swivel chair and all. It was evident he had lost all interest in the match.
“The rumors… no, more importantly, you confirmed it as his partner. Kawamura Hideo was probably just a shut-in with no strong points. But that was precisely why he had to use his wit and creativity to win his matches. If they wouldn’t accept a cooking battle, then isn’t it your job to put in the effort to get them to accept? At the very least, that’s what I found interesting about you two.”
“Sadly… those with power are the first to rely on it. They don’t even try using their heads. As a result…”
Takase took a sip of coffee. He breathed out a languid breath.
“After you two lost, the words ‘surprise upset’ disappeared from the lexicon. Each and every one of them just brute forces it, nothing but powering through on the basic rule, the matches are decided just as expected. It’s not like sports where they’re competing in honing a single ability, it’s no fun to watch. Not for me, at least.”
That was likely one of the reasons they were subject to so much attention. The expectations for what sort of match they’d see next. A flash of inspiration that lets one triumph after stepping onto the opponent’s arena. That was surely why he was thought to have Future Sight, and why a great many people were looking forward to how he’d turn it all around.
Even if the victor never felt like he actually deserved it.
Elsia and Meeko left the screen and Ryuuta and Suzuran took distance from one another. With battles anticipated as the main event, the stadium was furnished with boulders, concrete walls, steel frames and fallen trees, objects to add an uncertainty factor to the fights.
While it was called a stadium, the events held were no different from the Colosseum of old.
Wilco was surprised to find herself feeling such strong emotions from the picture. Why wasn’t it she and Hideo inside the screen right now? What were they lacking? What would they have needed to reach that point? If they started out with nothing, then why had they been able to win all the way to the day of Cross Flags?
She didn’t want to clean it up with the word destiny.
“Who do you think will win?”
That abrupt question had her answer without any need to think.
“… Suzuran will take the title.”
Takase sounded far more amused than when he was looking at the match.
“It’s only the semi-finals, but you’re already talking about the title? Why do you think so?”
“Suzuran is the only one here who actually wants to win. Last time Wilco met them, both Ryuuta and Elize had lost their edge. Shouki seems like the type who wouldn’t mind losing as long as he had a good match.”
“I see. You’re right about the damn brat. Elize’s more intent on defeating our company than winning the tournament… and Meeko and Elsia are out of the question.”
“… Come to think of it, Suzuran’s already Sacred Demon Lord, isn’t she? Then it’ll be the same even if she wins. If she loses, she’ll just be chasing after the seat again. Why did she hold the tournament?”
“She said sad things are boring.”
“… Suzuran, you know. Despite how she looks, she’s witnessed bloody quarrels between demons and humans. Truth be told, choosing her successor as Sacred Demon Lord is secondary. Her greater goal was apparently exchange between humans and other races.”
“That’s right. All these boring troubles break out because we don’t know one another. In that case, let’s just gather up all the races and decide who’s number one. If the medium was ‘matches’, then humans and the other races could exhibit their strong suites to their utmost, and come to know one another to the fullest. And once everyone shared a drink and got along, it’s definitely going to be fun… she said. The outcome aside, that’s what she had in mind when she planned the tournament… wait, didn’t she give this grand speech about it the moment she revealed her identity at the start of the finals?”
“… Sorry, Wilco wasn’t listening.”
She was droning on. Wilco thought she’d just preserve it on a hard disk and review it later… only to completely forget about it. Whatever the case, that was presumably why the matches didn’t have any particular limitations. To make sure they could exhibit their abilities to their fullest potential.
“With so many humans out there, it’s not going to go that easily for the surface world. Well, that’s a job for the politicians and the UN. Sacred Demon Lord Suzuran undertook the peace of this side unknown to the surface.”
“Then… the reason pairs had to be made of humans and nonhumans?”
“There’s no changing the fact humans are the most populous race on the planet, right? Regulating the course of the world is presumably linked to what the humans will do. Then even if a demon became Sacred Demon Lord, a Sacred Demon Lord who only thinks about demons is no good. But if they formed a pair with a human, and had to cooperate with that human all the way to victory…”
Right. If they could build a bond of trust strong enough to overcome such hardships.
She had been quite similar, Wilco reflected. When she was simply swimming the sea of the net for her own amusement, exuberant over the fact she appeared in this world, she had spent time with Hideo, and before she knew it, she wasn’t only looking at herself anymore.
When her only whimsical goal was to do what she pleased with the virtual world, if that would disrupt the basis of society and bring trouble to Hideo… by now, she had no choice but to think of it that way.
“I don’t know what anyone else would say about it. But Suzuran thinks a pair like that would be worthy to be the next Sacred Demon Lord.”
And they had fallen through the sieve.
“… But what if such a pair doesn’t appear?”
“If that wasn’t possible, she said she was confident she could win herself…”
Takase returned her eyes to the TV.
“And there she is, in the semi-finals. If she wins, she’ll be Sacred Demon Lord again until some worthy soul appears. The world’s already hers at the moment. It’s up to her what she does with it.”
“So that’s it…”
Simple to say, but a dreadful story at that. She believed in herself more than anything. Perhaps that was directly tied to her strength.
Then what about Hideo? At the very least, he didn’t seem to be satisfied with himself. He was always trying to change. Always pursuing an ideal.
“… Still, you’re really matured in just over a month, you know that?”
“Appearance aside, the way you’ve gotten to worry like that. Well, to put it simply, it may just be because you don’t smile anymore…”
She stopped smiling? Yeah, she stopped smiling. He gave a slight sigh.
“You still don’t know where Hideo went?”
Wilco feebly nodded.
Of course in this city, and the outside world as well. She took a round trip of the electronic eyes all over Japan. There were no signs of him returning to the apartment in Tokyo. No address change notice at the city war. Just maybe, she thought, and investigated the suicide and autopsy reports in each and every prefecture but none of them matched up with Hideo’s physical characteristics. She wasn’t satisfied with that. She had extended her hand to web-connected cameras all across the globe, writing up her own AI to continue observing to see if Hideo would ever appear.
“He’s not really dead, is he?”
“… Wilco doesn’t know. But as she said before…”
“You’re still connected.”
Right. She was still infecting Hideo. Would the line be cut if she got too far away? Would she even notice if it was cut? If it got cut, would she regress into the sea of electrons? She didn’t know how it worked. Unlike when she was simply migrating across the sea, there was something within her… surely that meant they were still connected. She was convinced he wasn’t dead yet. To put it coolly, their souls were linked. Or perhaps… this was the strength of bonds.
She absentmindedly thought as she watched the world through the countless eyes of webcams.
Perhaps she was on the road to giving up. She had been fixating on finding him for far too long. Right, in this past week, she’d been single-mindedly focused on Hideo.
On one of the feeds, she spotted a figure the AI would never have detected. A policewoman with short hair. Only their hairstyle was in any way similar, and it reminded her of Minako.
That was all that was needed to trigger it.
By Elsia and Ryuuta’s testimony, she was the last person witnessed with him. And yet, she hadn’t even heard anything from Minako. Wilco didn’t know what district she belonged to, but she hacked into the national Police Agency next she found the time, and looked up the name Kitaooji Minako.
(Constable Kitaooji Minako… missing…?)
The landlady said she left the city within the day, Wilco was sure she’d have returned to her normal life by now. The moment after she felt something was off, Wilco instinctually reached for another database.
(Weekly Fry-D Editorial Department, Kobayashi… Kobayashi…)
Has exceeded data collection period, showing no signs of return.
(Whereabouts unknown, requesting police search…!? Conam Productions… Taoka, Taoka, where is…!?)
On an overseas business trip to scout new talent. Did not return to the country on scheduled flight.
(Requesting cooperation with Greek and Italian authorities on search…!)
The times the requests were submitted varied, but the problem was the fact they had all yet to be found.
“President!! What happened to Hannibal’s steakhouse!?”
“Mn? Oh, that place? Come to think of it, I heard their doors have been closed from the day after they lost.”
“Then what about Hannibal and Johnny!?”
“I don’t know where they went… what happened, you’re looking pale.”
Her heart was astir.
Allotting all her power to the world’s webcams was a completely wasted effort. A bad habit back from when she just left everything to the CPU. It felt like she had just tried to find a password by idiotically inputting every possible combination without considering likely possibilities.
How foolish. Had she really received such a shock? Her?
Was some part of her bugging out?
Information. More information.
Someone with a clearer standing.
(Colonel George Redfield!!)
Wouldn’t he know something? He was the first participant to enter the venue. The one who had perfected his preparations. Thinking back, he didn’t look like someone who would be so focused on obtaining the world and whatnot. Then couldn’t he have come to this city seeking something else? Could she meet him and hear his answer? Or was he missing as well? Even that would speak volumes.
Wilco punched at America’s Department of Defense’s Pentagon’s firewall. Aah, this sky-high wall she wouldn’t even be able to approach before! The highest level of security in the world, yet when had it become so transient? Something had definitely happened to the partner who let her mature to this extent. She had a bad feeling about this.
Register of ex-servicemen… wrong, that was public information. There was a door reaching further in. The keyword.
She stumbled there. She ran into something hard.
In a few miliseconds, she had snatched the passcode of a high government official and applied it.
The circuit that opened led out of the Pentagon. She didn’t know the location. Did the unit called Angel Saber not officially exist? Then its information was managed in a separate lot.
And the database it led her to boasted a different pattern from the US’ archives. Apparently, it wasn’t exactly a branch of the armed forces. It simply wore their skin, perhaps. But for now, it wasn’t the time to grow intoxicated on the scent of secrecy. She searched his name in the new material.
‘Colonel George Redfield
Dispatched on Classified 10456
Target: Archess Alluente’
It was clear that Ryuuta despised him but did that have… something to do with the Colonel’s mission? What was this classified code? It didn’t align with the classification of any branch of the armed forces.
Like flipping through the pages of a book, she dredged up an index to see if anything matched. The organization wasn’t too old; compared to what had accumulated at the Pentagon, it was quite insignificant. She found the page outlining the classified order before long.
While presumed to be a pure-blood true demon who came from the demon world with Fier, by Redfield’s testimony from the Camdania Civil war, it is clear his combat abilities are remarkably low when compared to other true demons. Despite this, judging by the activity and results of the organization known as Alzahan, his negotiation skills and ability to grasp the human heart prove him to be a rare, long-lived true demon, and the societal chaos his operations bring about demand the utmost caution.’
A crude summary, rather of a sum-up of the documents connected to it… reports and journal entries. The dating began around two years ago.
‘There are suspicions that Alzahan has come into contact with the party designated the Sacred Demon Lord.
‘No results. AS Unit dispatched unable to obtain the cooperation of the Sacred Demon Lord party (Not the round table, the Obliterating Industries category). The Sacred Demon Lord claims she will take responsibility for whatever happens. Comment from the AS Units negotiator.
“Fine, see if I care.”’
“Report from heaven, and inquiry.
This is the newest world the girl known as the Sacred Demon Lord put the heavens to work creating. Apart from the outskirts of Tokyo, it presumably has a few gates sparsely spread around each continent. Objective behind creation unknown. Requesting another contact with Sacred Demon Lord party to procure details.”
‘According to Professor Nakae’s preliminary calculations, the distance from this parallel world to the demon world as well as other unknown dimensions and time axis’ is so much closer than any point on earth that comparison is meaningless. Therefore, it is theoretically possible to summon even the Evil God Rosso Mauso in the area concerned. He made special mention that this would not require any special time interval like the turn of the century.
Requesting strict surveillance. Calling back and dispatching the retired Redfield for a covert investigation.
Code change. Classified 10456’
There are traces of Alzahan in the city.
Archess’ whereabouts still unknown.’
‘Sacred Demon Cup kicks off.’
‘Made contact with former Second Lieutenant Ryuuta Salinger. As he is already an outsider, the mission must remain secret. Unable to obtain cooperation.’
‘No further reports. Redfield status unknown.’
‘Due to the nature of the events held in this city, the possibility considerable harm has befallen him, and the lack of any traces, it must be concluded that Redfield has been wrapped up in some scheme.
Classified 10456 Over.’
She found a hit. There was no doubt some sort of plan was at work. Otherwise, there was no way everyone would just disappear altogether like that. The Colonel, Hideo, and the others… Wilco thought as she read on.
When it was just supposed to be an electronic document, what was this extraordinary sense of danger she was feeling? The electronic spirit who had drifted the virtual sea for so long knew the human will could permeate even into the signals of 0 and 1. No, it was something only she could pick up on.
‘Successfully made contact with the last Demon Lord Fier.
She testified that among the evil gods of the demon world Barchess (Fier’s pet name for Archess Alluente)’s blessings from the existence known as the Dark God were especially strong. While she would not speak on the details, if they are on the same level as Rosso Mauso, it may be possible for them to be summoned. Archess’ lack of combat abilities is due to him being a specialized summoner.
Risk level risen from 5+ to EX
Top Secret 3-1’
‘Top Secret 3-1
In the case its range of influence cannot be contained to the designated space, this requires measures more drastic than the turn of the century. AS has returned the right to command the Angel Knights back to the four archangels, all Angel Knights are now under the direct command of Archangel Mariacressel.
Note: This is not a battle for humans.’
‘The conjecture of the archangel who descended at dawn was fearsome. Far too preposterous to believe, I hesitate as it feels idiotic to leave down in text at all. Humanity will not crumble. For the civilization our unbroken line has cultivated to collapse is a dream within a dream. Who would ever let them blow the horn of destruction?
But if not us, then who will save the world? She sought the aid of the Sacred D’
She immediately pulled the line.
That wasn’t a security measure from the server. Some third party had intercepted her. From Centralle Building no less.
“What’s wrong, Wilco?”
“Wilco has to get going! She put it down in a memo, please have a look at it later!!”
Wilco left the words as she leapt into the virtual world.
A room in Centralle Building.
“How is it, Linus?”
Without turning to look at Gabès, Linus continued operating his laptop with accustomed fingers.
“It’s Obliterating Industries, no problems to report. They are always carrying on outside communication with their subsidiaries in the outside world… it doesn’t look like anyone has noticed yet.”
“There’s no way they would notice… or we’d have been caught long ago.”
Zazi seemed as easy-going as ever as he disinterestedly repeated tricks with his gun to occupy his stagnant hands.
“Yes. But the thing is…”
His keyboard clattered. Linus weakly furrowed his brow. There were various signals he had to pay attention to, whether it be from the main company office or the receptionist counter.
“… Is Ratty still sniffing around?”
Zazi placed a hand on Linus’ shoulder as he peered into the screen.
“That’s right. There are nine people underground at the moment, and just about as many hostages. If she keeps a careful watch on our accounts, it wouldn’t be strange if she noticed the disappearing food supplies…”
“And it’s your job to do something about that.”
Gabès’ words had him curl up a bit.
A short distance away, Archess stood from where he’d been watching the semi-finals over a cup of tea.
“We can only hope she just eats it up!? Badumtss.”
“That’s all stuff from pops’ shop. What’s tournament HQ got to do with it?”
“Yes, while she might be tournament staff… truth be told, Ms. Ratty is quite skilled herself, and she’s been frequently hacking her way into the department store. Meaning if she checks it too thoroughly, the fact that Lord Archess is publicly running an orderly proper business…”
In the corner, Archess whose existence had been ignored like the air was sobbing uncontrollably.
“… Meaning, well… thanks to Lord Archess losing in cross flags, we became a subsidiary of Obliterating Industries. Suzuran did demand exorbitant tribute money before that and all.”
“Yeah, that’s right. It still pisses me off to think about it.”
Gabès nodded, and Linus nodded back.
“The point is, it’s possible they haven’t noticed at the current stage, they’re just checking to see if we’re cheating the books. But in the process of that, slight as it may be, there is an income being lost to the hostages… if I had to say, there is a possibility she will notice the missing goods. I’m not sure if it will herald a follow-up investigation or a demand for more money, but…”
“I see… now that could be troubling.”
Archess came over, roughly wiping away his tears and putting his glasses back on.
“Linus. Would it be possible to change our entire story over to sales slips?”
“Yes…? Oh, well… that’s, umm, do you mean handwritten?”
Linus’ eyes were wide open, but he knew this man hardly ever joked around outside of terrible wordplay. He looked up to a relatively serious look on Archess’ face.
“That’s right. If we can manage our goods by hand, that eliminates the possibility of hacking, doesn’t it? We can keep up our business to boot.”
“But, wouldn’t that just raise even more suspicion…?”
A run-down hut has no lock because it holds nothing valuable. A treasure house is sealed in iron door walls and bars precisely because of the treasure. Even if there was nothing there, strengthening defenses like that carried the danger of having outsiders thing ‘there’s something there’. Not to mention tripping people up was where Obliterating Industries found their purpose in life. If their eyes stopped for a moment, they’d undoubtedly spill it all out partially just for the pure fun of it.
To suddenly abandon online management for paper was incredibly suspicious, he thought. No, anyone would in the current era. Picking up from his anxious expression, Archess easily regained his usual smile.
“… You’re right. We shouldn’t react excessively. I’ll believe in your decision.”
“Do you think Ratty’s acting under Suzuran’s orders…”
With a sympathetic shrug, Archess turned to leave.
“… What is she doing.”
When Zazi raised a brow at the image on the surveillance footage. Ratty at the receptionist desk. When there wasn’t anything particularly interesting about her business computer, she was looking rather surprised.
She was naturally quite surprised when Wilco suddenly peeked in on her display as if she had been chroma keyed in. But Wilco stuck a finger up to her lips with the text sshhhhhh, so Ratty swallowed her scream.
Had something happened? She looked left and right. There was no one around. A majority of both the staff members and participants had gone to see the semi-finals.
Ratty returned her eyes to the monitor and nodded for now. When she did, Wilco retreated outside the screen bounds and opened up a chat window. She apparently wanted to have a conversation with it.
‘You’re with Obliterating Industries, aren’t you?’
‘Rather than Obliterating Industries, I follow Sacred Demon Lord Suzuran.’
‘Even better. Do you know anything about master?’
‘Kawamura Hideo, Kitaooji Minako, George Redfield, Hannibal, Remina, Kobayashi… it can be any one of them. Even the whereabouts of their partners.’
‘As far as Wilco could see, the aforementioned participants have all been deemed missing in the outside world.’
… For real?
‘Did you hear that from Suzuran?’
‘Wilco looked into it on her own. Or have you seen a single one of them in this city?’
Ratty took another cautious look around as her fingers fluidly raced along the keys.
‘They are all people I was not at the counter for, or taken off shift when they filled out the defeat paperwork.’
Her face turned grim.
‘The night of Cross Flags, I was originally supposed to be here, but Kirishima did me a favor and let me celebrate with Suzuran and the others outside.’
Ratty typed as she thought back to that day.
Come to think of it. Lena really was acting a little strange that night. Ratty had seen the man through from his first day, she was quite insistent on filing Hideo’s paperwork herself, but… the smile on Lena’s lips with that look in her eyes was somewhat bizarre. In the end, she told her she could bid him farewell with Suzuran and the others but… Hideo never appeared after that.
‘Kirishima Lena? Is the tournament’s general director involved with master’s disappearance?’
‘That’s a bit of a reach.’
She couldn’t say for sure. But it was Wilco saying all this, she was better off believing they really had disappeared. The girl who could freely traverse the electronic sea had investigated.
Then… was it Alzahan? Suzuran certainly had her misgivings about the organization known as Alzahan before the tournament began. There was no telling where they’d launch their attack from. That’s why Ratzelica had infiltrated tournament management just in case. She warned the top contender Hideo they might come into contact.
But didn’t those doubts melt away with their discussion some time ago? In the first place, if her conjecture was right… that would mean Kirishima Lena who took her off shift that day, was colluding with Alzahan.
‘Who exactly is Kirishima?’
She must have caught on. A suspicion towards her had evidently taken root within Wilco.
‘Just like me, she was originally a member of an organization called Zephirum. I’d rate her combat abilities lower-middle class, but thanks to her personality, she was perfect as a mediator and manager so Suzuran selected her to be in charge this time around.’
But… going off of Alzahan’s means. Going off the premise that they branched their roots into organizations and societies unbeknownst to all… it was within the realm of possibility that she had infiltrated Zephirum before the tournament began.
She of all people? No matter how Ratzelica considered it, she didn’t look like she was hiding a second face. She couldn’t bring herself to imagine it. She couldn’t even pin down anyone who disliked her. With her personality…
‘Incidentally, what were you looking at?’
She noticed the Specialty Shop Mulholland account book was still open.
‘Suzuran asked so I was checking to make sure they weren’t falsifying their earnings.’
However contrary to her initial doubts, Archess carried a goodness of character. Even if she did check, there was no way he was committing any fraud, and she really was just gazing over it.
‘But there’s a hole, isn’t there?’
In the time it took Ratty to blink, there were check marks here and there on the list. Still, Ratty couldn’t understand what this supposed hole was.
‘There aren’t any contradictions with their account book.’
‘Even if there’s no deficiency in Mulholland’s account book, there’s a discrepancy with the stock supplied by Obliterating Industries.’
That was right.
By this point, the shopping district was completely under Obliterating Industries’ control. While they couldn’t control the flow of money in the city, they were pretty much the only ones with a supply line from the outside world. That created a discrepancy between the main company’s sales slip and the inventory of the subsidiary Mulholland.
It was a trivial contradiction, like a game of spot the difference. Something only Wilco who had managed the coming and going of all goods in the city could notice.
From within the massive amounts that circulated each day, each and every one was a worthless consumable. A few hundred, few thousand yen at most. Obliterating Industries moved them around in the tens of millions, they were on the level of what would be called small change. Considering Suzuran and Takase’s indulgent personalities, inconsequential sums of money. No use worrying about.
Ratty tapped at her keyboard and pulled up the goods Wilco had checked off.
They really were trivial consumables. It was common enough just to forget to fill them in or misplace them in a transportation mishap. The most conspicuous entry was tobacco. Perhaps because it was always the same brands that were consistently lost. The first, a well-known cigarette, Marlboro. The other, an American-made dry cigar brand, King Edward.
Hold on. Wait a second.
Maybe Marlboro was a super major brand but… King Edward. Weren’t those the Colonel’s Cigars?
He was always chewing on one whenever he entered the labyrinth, so she once tried asking, ‘Are cigars expensive?’ His answer: Boasting the name of the English King known as a peerless heavy smoker, King Edward VII, this brand is the world’s… and so on and so forth. Now that she could see the delivery statement, it was only around a few hundred yen a box. But putting that aside.
She had served at this receptionist counter quite a long time but she didn’t know of any other who smoked cigars so frequently. Could this really be shelved as a coincidence?
‘Wilco did some caloric calculations.’
Wilco entered into the chat window. Was she trying to discern an amount?
‘Enough food for just around twenty people periodically becomes unaccounted for. Also, they were supplied a power generator and excavation machinery from an Obliterating Industries’ affiliated merchant before the tournament began, but there are no traces of them crossing over to the Industrial District.’
‘But isn’t it too early to jump to conclusions?’
It was definitely suspicious but… when it came to the food, that could be explained by Alzahan’s members eating in secret. She had no idea what the excavating tools were used for… but it was possible to say they were used to expand the department store. It wasn’t solid enough evidence to push Alzahan into a corner… and like them to the disappearances.
‘Ratty, do you think Alzahan is innocent?’
Wilco seemed quite impatient in the screen.
‘That’s not what I mean. Even I the unaccounted-for goods are related to the participants’ disappearances… the next questions are how and why.
‘They’re being imprisoned, of course.’
So she thought so too. They were being supplied with enough food to keep them alive. In which case, the digging tools… were they being forced to work? For what? No, maybe the order was wrong. They were captured so they could be put to work? Where?
She wasn’t getting anywhere. But whatever it was, there were missing participants. There was food that periodically disappeared. If those two points were put together, them being imprisoned made the most sense.
She had collected her thoughts, she would put them on her next breath.
She didn’t know whose voice it was. But as Wilco closed every window… Ratty felt something cold on her neck.
“Meaning his life is in our hands… so won’t you leave it at that? Ms. Ratzelika?”
The monitor screen reflected the gentle smile of a delicate man with long hair. The saber blade that came with it sent a different message. Just try and move a finger… was the message she was getting. Ratty gentle lifted her hands off the keyboard.
“I heard from VZ but… your air is definitely similar to Lord Elsion’s. Perhaps it’s because you’re a true demon?”
“You speak too highly of me. I may be a true demon, but unlike such a noble personage, I’m merely a heretic.”
Was that why he didn’t have that high-handed attitude? His voice was so intimate. As if his tone itself pleaded, why would I be plotting something, why would you suspect me? Couldn’t it be that this man purposely showed himself before Suzuran to erase her suspicions? Archess’ eyes were focused on the monitor.
“Who were you talking to?”
Wilco was nowhere to be seen. How far had he caught on? A few seconds to think. The time she spent with her mouth shut increased the pressure on the blade. If he just pulled it back, she’d be cut. It had reached that stage. But Ratty had her pride. She didn’t excel in combat, but she had the pride of one who served the Sacred Demon Lord.
“Archess. Suzuran won’t keep quiet if you kill me.”
“You’re quite right… and that’s why someone completely irrelevant will die instead. Is that more to your liking?”
“The missing persons you’ve caught wind of. For example… that’s right.”
He narrowed his eyes, still gazing at the monitor.
“… How about Hideo?”
Lightning raced through the empty space. Wilco manifested with her palm brandished, releasing a glass-colored spear at a terrifying speed.
Archess had caught it with his free hand right before it pierced his forehead. Undeterred, Wilco made a second and a third, as Elize had done before her, she deployed even more spears.
“Where did you take my master!?”
There must have been some movement in the course of the match outside. Cheers roared out like a tsunami. An explosion resounded from the top floor of the atrium hall, as if they’d been waiting for that moment. That which transcended a gunshot belonged to the antimaterial rifle in Zazi’s hand. Twice the speed of sound. Faster than the noise could reach her, the Aegis Shield Wilco deployed erased the supersonic impacts.
Gabès appeared from the stairs to the second floor. Michelle danced her way in, kicking down the door that led to the office behind the counter. They had arrived at practically the same time.
The electronic spirit informed them.
“Get lost, trash.”
Tink, the space echoed. The Aegis was disassembled, crystalized, clad in light.
By the time Ratty thought, the quiet beams of light emitted from the crystals shot towards the sniper on the top floor, the monster cat leaping over Archess’s head, the assassin gliding in from the landing.
She heard the sounds of each one of them collapse. But Wilco’s eyes didn’t falter for a second, they remained locked on Archess. The points of her spears weren’t directed at anyone who meant her harm. From the moment they were created, they pointed at Archess and no other.
“Where did you take my master?”
Just as he was doing to Ratty. Wilco pushed her spearpoints up against his chest and throat. But Archess spared no mind for the blades.
“You don’t care what happens to Ms. Ratty?”
“Wilco doesn’t mind. As long as master is safe.”
The numerous floating crystals began converging light once again. She made a declaration.
“The next one will kill.”
Was she talking about Archess? Or perhaps his subordinates littered here and there? The crystalline bodies had no clear direction outputs like a gun’s muzzle, but the more killing intent Wilco put in, the greater their shine.
Archess lightly swallowed his breath.
“An electronic spirit… is it? It does seem I should have had you marked down over Hideo.”
“… This is the last time. Where. Did you take. My master?”
Receiving that glare… as if he had given up. Archess took a slight sigh.
“Linus. If you will.”
The lights shut off. The air conditioning, the monitors, the power light on the desktop, every single appliance that operated on electricity had come to a halt. Only the light that poured in from the glass front remained. A power outage. No. All electricity sources had been cut off, backups included.
Came Wilco’s small voice.
The crystals were slowly losing their radiance. As if they were melting into the air, those distinct spear shapes lost their outlines and faded away. Wilco took her eyes off of Archess for the first time, yet she couldn’t enter the monitor she had turned towards.
Ratty completely forgot the blade against her and stood. Static noise was beginning to race down Wilco’s body. It gradually grew rougher, more chaotic.
“All electrical power and net circuits in Center have been physically severed. There’s nowhere for you to run… am I wrong?”
Wilco held her chest tight with a pained expression brought forth by a spasm. Kzzrrrrrk, a large mass of noise burst forth. The spears and crystals dispersed. Even now, she persisted.
“Wher… id y… mast…”
“He’s fine. He’s still alive for now. But… you’ve learned too much. With your abnormal nature, we… do not know of any means to seal you as we did with him.”
Even as he clad himself in sorrow, Archess turned his saber towards Wilco. In a split second, Ratty tried to turn towards him, but she was pinned down by Michelle who had recovered from the beam.
“Let go of me!”
“A demon on your level can’t match up to a therian’s power!”
In the time Ratty grit her teeth, Wilco’s body swallowed by noise was beginning to blur to such a degree she could see through her.
“…… If we hadn’t met like this, you may have been a new possibility for this world.”
It seemed she couldn’t hear Archess’ distressed words any longer.
“Ma… ster… my mast… where… it’s dark… Wilco is…… here…”
Her eyes couldn’t even focus any longer.
As sand crumbles away. As a haze disperses.
Lightly. Faintly lingering. Her color drained away.
“… How unfortunate.”
With two narrowed eyes of stifled emotion, Archess sliced through Wilco’s form like he was gently stroking it.
One last flash of electricity dissolved in the dimly lit hall.
Without any time to oppose his blacking-out consciousness, Hideo thrust his shovel into the ground and leaned against it.
“What’s wrong, Hideo…?”
He collapsed before he could answer the colonel’s doubtful words.
That alone revived in his mind.
The same as back then. The Sacred Demon Grand Prix. When he was on the verge of falling unconscious, when he caught a glimpse of the vast feats she was capable of. Something one-sidedly drained out from his body.
He looked up to the low ceiling. His heart gazed far, far beyond it. Surely to where her voice had come from.
Are you safe, she asked.
Are you alright, she asked.
He was connected. He was still connected.
And… he was making her worried.
“Hideo, are you alright!? Get a grip…!”
By the time he noticed, Minako was shaking him with a desperate voice. His consciousness returned clearly.
He had been foolish.
The girl who laughed so heinously and pleasantly. He had convinced himself she had lost interest in the likes of him.
No, that wasn’t it.
He had simply told himself that to convince himself he had no lingering regrets. And just like that, he had continued ignoring Wilco and Minako, the feelings of his comrades who worried for him so.
He was the worst.
If she wished for it. If she asked. At the very least, he could pay the price. He was still alive. More than the Colonel’s threats, his partner Wilco’s voice had called back life to his heart.
Let’s be optimistic, he thought.
That wasn’t enough. Again and again, he had been taught how weak of a person he was. Even if he set his goals, there was no way he would accomplish them.
In that case, he would assertively corner himself. Right, if he was forced into a corner, he would at least put up a last-ditch struggle.
Wilco had appeared in the world by infecting him. He didn’t know the process, but if he were to die here… what would happen to Wilco? That terrifying answer he had refused to think about so long finally led him to his answer.
What else was there to do?
How long was a man of twenty years of age going to play the tragic heroine? Whether he lived or not, yeah, he really didn’t care. But the same couldn’t be said for Wilco.
He hadn’t returned a single bit of his gratitude. Inviting him to the Sacred Demon Cup, leading him to this city, and in no time at all, he was actually having fun with life… he hadn’t paid her back yet.
A nod to everyone watching over him, Hideo stood again.
Not just. To live.
I have to return.
I have to make it back. Alive.
There was still a bond in his heart.