Archess continued to think to himself.
The sight of him lost in thought was nothing strange to children like Lena and Gabès, who had stood by him for so long.
He had been like that before Camdania. He had been like that when he decided he would go to Camdania. He was like that the night before the plan was executed. He was like that when he learned of Angel Saber’s intervention. And after a large majority of his children who could also be called Alhazan’s executives were lost, he was like that as well.
His elbows on the table, his arms folded, staring fixedly at a single point of nothingness. Could he see the future like that? Of course not. He could only simulate an immense number of possibilities. Seeing the future was only the result. Nay, he could do nothing more than filter out the means to grasp the future he desired.
During these moments, none of his children would think to bother him. Not Gabès nor Zazi nor Linus. They simply awaited the next words from his mouth. Because they knew. They knew with his clear intellect, it didn’t take too long to draw out the answer.
He had been like that when he decided to involve himself in this tournament called the Sacred Demon Cup. He had been like that when he confronted Sacred Demon Lord Suzuran directly. He had been like that when he agreed to participate in Cross Flags. He had been like that the night before.
Two to three minutes. Ten minutes at most. That was enough time for him to find his answer. That was Archess Alluente, the father his children believed in.
That was precisely why it was so off-putting.
How many hours had it been since Wilco was killed and Ratzelica captured? From when the sun was still high to past the sunset, but not wanting to bother him, no one risked turning on a light, leaving Archess unmoving as the moonlight poured down on his back.
Zazi spoke up, he couldn’t endure this any longer.
“So anyway… what are we gonna do, pops?”
“Mn? If you need food, don’t worry about me, just head off. You should be hungry by now.”
Right. He was never this absentminded either. Zazi let out a light sigh.
“… Not what I meant. I don’t know how far ahead yer thinking pops, but for now, it’s about Ratzelica. That person’s a no-no, she’s a part of the Sacred Demon Lord’s round table. Our options are either play dumb, or use her as a negotiation chip.”
“We all know that, no need to spell it out.”
Gabès said with a cold glint in his eyes, and Zazi lightly nodded back.
“Course we do. But it’s the first time I’ve ever seen pops think this long… just growing a bit anxious I guess.”
With a deep breath, Archess finally undid his folded hands and leaned back into his chair.
“I’m sure it’s not just me. As you all know, the circumstances could not be called favorable by any stretch of the word. You’ve got an idea, haven’t you, young Zazi?”
“… Yeah. How should I put it. It’s like I’ve got a sniper scope trained on my head. I’ve got no certainty. I don’t know when my head’s gonna be blown off… that unpleasant feeling.”
Zazi’s peculiar expression warranted a genuine nod.
“I see, that’s one way to put it. By capturing Ratzelica, we have made a clear demonstration of our stance towards our enemy, Obliterating Industries.”
His expression was resigned.
“It was our complete failure… capturing him.”
Gabès noticed something was off.
“Him… don’t you mean her?”
“I’m talking about Hideo.”
Everyone made quite a surprised face at the name Archess spoke out self-derisively.
“No matter how you look at it, he was completely unnecessary for the project proceeding in the underground.”
With the distant moon as his backdrop, his expression as he reflected was impossible to perceive the moment he hung his head.
“Why must our plan be brought to a standstill by the single person more powerless than anyone in this tournament? Surely I was unconsciously afraid of the Sacred Demon Lord… afraid of the immense power of the ancient gods that serve her. I was unable to believe in my own thoughts, and as a result, I clung to something as incomprehensible as future sight. And unable to accept my own superficial heart… it was too easy to bind him as the outlet of my anger.”
And driven by a transient passion, he failed to take into account the true unknown entity—Wilco—all the way up to today.
If that night he had just let him finish his paperwork in peace, if he let him return with no incident. At the very least, wouldn’t Wilco be spending her days as she always had? She wouldn’t have come searching for Hideo with such resolve, she wouldn’t have come into contact with Ratzelica, and looking at the result, there would be no possibilities of raising Obliterating Industries’ suspicions.
Their anti-infiltration measures were spread thin enough they wouldn’t be seen as suspicious. But they had practically no means to defy an abnormal power like an invisibility field. If the Sacred Demon Lord Party was up to it, they could easily breach their security and investigate. So for their side, the issue at hand was preventing them from noticing. A dangerous bridge, it was over the moment they noticed.
And then Archess was back in his normal smile.
“But there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Zazi’s right. The matter at hand is how we’re going to react to Obliterating Industries but… we haven’t been contacted by Suzuran yet, have we?”
Linus gave a small nod.
“Yes, lord Archess.”
Archess had a cell-phone too and it hadn’t rung yet. Any calls to the store would automatically redirect. No abnormal reports from the department store’s employees, Alhazan’s members.
Just as he was about to say something. Linus produced a cell phone from his breast pocket and took a look at the screen.
“… From the store, redirected directly from the president’s office. The caller is… Obliterating Industries.”
Linus said nervously as he passed it into Archess’ outstretched hand.
“Yes, yes, sorry to keep you waiting. You’ve reach Specialty Shop Mulholland’s Barchess. How may I help you today?”
A sudden change to his cheerful tone as if everything before it had been a lie. He heard Suzuran’s voice from the other side.
‘Archess? I just have a little question here, have you seen our Ratzelica anywhere? Ah, you may know her as Ratty, she’s always at the Center front desk.’
“Ratty… Ratzelica… is it?”
He left a terribly natural pause before turning to Zazi.
“She’s talking about that receptionist lady with glasses, the real friendly one.”
At times like these, Zazi was the sort who spoke unmotivated and unintonated. There was barely any distinction from when he was acting or not.
“Mn… Aah, yeah! Ratty! Ratzelica! That one!’
‘Right, that one! Kakko, see, she apparently promised to eat dinner with her, but she’s got no idea where she could have gone.’
“No I couldn’t say but… might I have some time? I can have our employees search the store.”
‘Thanks, could you please? Ah, also did Wilco come over to play?’
“Pardon? It’s Wilco this time?”
‘Yeah, around afternoon… Eh? Oh, evening, right. Yeah, she disappeared around that time. I was wondering if she was over there snacking on your confidential data.’
“Eh!? Hey, that’s no joking matter! Even if we have become a subsidiary of Obliterating Industries, we have our own management to…!”
‘Nah, hahaha, yeah, so, well, I’m just saying it’s possible, so be careful. I’m sorry for bothering you when you’re so busy.’
“Please don’t worry about it, Ratty and Wilco, right? If we learn anything I’ll contact you at once.”
‘Yeah, I’ll leave it to you. Well then.’
The call cut.
The room was silent. As it flooded out of the speaker, Suzuran’s energetic voice no different from usual had reached everyone’s ears. Gabès gave his frank opinion.
“… So even if her disappearance has been noted, she hasn’t gone as far as to realize we’re involved.”
“It must have been before either of them could leak any information. It was an all-or-nothing bet, but it looks like Lord Archess’ decision back there was correct.”
“Yes. That’s some small consolation, but…”
Archess hesitated to say. Naturally, his face wasn’t too encouraging.
“It’s also possible she was already tipped off, and she asked about our movements so we wouldn’t be suspicious. Even if that isn’t the case, she certainly did manage to sprout uncertainty.”
To put it another way, she had given herself a reason to move. The only problem was where her doubtful eyes turned. No… it was a match against time before they came this way.
Even so, simply panicking would ruin the plan in its entirety
“Please exercise the utmost caution whenever you come into contact with her or her men. With the hostage situation as well.”
He took a look over the faces gathered.
“Where are Lena and Michelle?”
“As I recall, they said they’d meet up after delivering supplies to the underground… a majority of the management committee is being pressed to repair the stadium after all.”
Linus rolled up his left sleeve and checked with his watch.
“… But they are running a little late.”
Zazi took a breath.
“I’m sure Michelle’s off harassing Hideo again. But if sis is involved…”
Recalling the events of the previous day, Archess furrowed his brow. His eyes turned grim as he quietly stood from his seat.
“Now that sounds like trouble… Zazi, please come with me.”
Everyone looked in at the printout on the table where the list of captured personnel had been divided between the building and the underground. Their ears all inclined to the voice from the PC.
‘The call to the department store was forwarded to Centeralle Building. Going off the relays, he had to be over seventy floors up.’
Wilco’s words had Suzuran lift the ends of his lips.
“Hmm, so he’s guilty. And he’s playing dumb. He’s quite the actor…”
In regards to that, Shouki.
“This is no time to be impressed! Wilco, are you unable to go there directly?”
‘Ahem, well, Wilco can definitely do that, but where do you want her to be, and what do you want her to do?’
Shouki was immediately at a loss for words.
It would be a different story if everyone could go, but with Wilco alone, it would just be a repeat of midday.
“But Suzuran, if we’re talking about actors, you’re quite something yourself… are you sure you didn’t have to provoke them at all?”
Elize shrugged her shoulders.
“Jolting them without evidence will just put them on guard. The other side has no shortage of hostages. A number that wouldn’t hurt them if they were to kill two or three.”
“But… with our executives— even just the ones in this city— if we launch a general offensive, won’t we be able to suppress them in the time it takes to kill those two or three?”
“We can’t master. That’s not what I hoped for at all. For people to grow heated over death, or having death be all they remember, it was because I didn’t want that, that I decided the rules of this tournament… and everyone had their share of wholesome fun over it. I won’t accept a sad conclusion to top it all off.”
And this time, it was time for Takase who asked to shrug.
“But the underground they keep talking about… if they’re referring to the furthest depths of the labyrinth, the monster spawn rate would be incomparable to the floors we’ve explored thus far. It’ll depend on how far down, but if they’re at a depth where A-Rank, S-Rank monsters appear, isn’t it dodgy how long anyone could survive?”
Suzuran held her tongue.
Takase was speaking the truth. This was a battle against time. Based on that report Wilco had dragged up, a fight to prevent the summoning of this evil god. And as Takase said, a fight to keep the hostages alive.
No matter who she was, having come so far, Suzuran couldn’t lightly say everything would be alright.
“I thought a nice threat would be a deterrence against this predicament.”
Just try laying a finger on them. Try killing a single one of them. You’re all dead— They had a great many executives, Outers, who by this point wouldn’t bat an eye slaughtering a murderer. More than enough persuasive force.
Seeing Suzuran mull over it, Takase sighed.
“Well… that’s just my take on it, you don’t have to worry too much. Rather than taking in my opinion, we should respect the opinion of Wilco, who actually had her partner taken hostage.”
‘No, president. Don’t just suddenly turn it towards Wilco.’
It was because she couldn’t do anything that she sought their cooperation, after all.
At that moment, Shouki gazed at the printout and spoke.
“This list… as far as I know, the ones below are all considerable fighters. There’s a high possibility they’ll survive. But…”
The hero raised his eyes and smacked the page.
“… If they were up for it, Alhazan could definitely pick them off. Am I wrong?”
Against monsters, they could independently achieve victory. But Alhazan would be able to leave them with no means of winning.
“I see, looks like you have grown a bit, damn brat. That’s one way to think about it. Then I’ll rescind my opinion.”
“You’re right… you have a point, Hasebe-senpai. Wilco’s already confirmed the safety of those captured above first-hand, so…”
She nodded against to convince herself.
“Alright. For now, let’s just believe the people down there are safe. If even Kirishima was an Alhazan executive, this information is restricted to the people in this room. We will thoroughly play dumb on the matter. Both Wilco and Ratzelica are simply missing. Over the course of tomorrow and the day after, our employees are going to be going around the city asking door to door.”
“Are you crazy, Suzuran? You’ll be cutting off this city’s supply chain.”
While he said that, Takase was smiling rather amusedly.
“It won’t feel real unless we go that far with it, master. If Ratzelica or Kakko really did go missing… that wouldn’t be nearly enough. As a matter of fact, that was… how Wilco felt as she searched for Hideo all this time.”
She could understand. They hadn’t found Hideo yet, but Suzuran’s somewhat apologetic smile made Wilco just a little delighted.
“I see, then I’ll pass it on to the masks tomorrow. But what are you going to do after that?”
“After that, we’ll go to war with Elize Industrial.”
Prick. Anger raced across Elize’s face.
“Ah? What was that? What did you just blurt out, Nagoyakawa Suzuran?”
“N… no, you know, see, if we can’t find them after searching so much, it’s gotta be the work of someone with a grudge against us, right? It’ll make an even bigger appeal that we’re not doubting Alhazan.”
“We just have to crash our dump trucks into the industrial district every day, commit arson, and launch raids on your company, and if you’ll just get pissed off and get back at us like usual…”
Thud! Elize flipped over the table.
“You’ve got another one coming, stupid!! When I’ve done nothing at all, why must I not only be treated as the bad guy, but also suffer harm on your accord!?”
Just when they thought she had blazed up like a raging inferno, the next instant, she capriciously turned her face the other way and stood from her chair.
“You’ve ruined my mood. I’m leaving.”
“Do your best fixing the stadium, why don’t you? Then I’ll graciously take part in your final match. Whenever that may be~.”
“C… Christ! Fine! You’re still holding a grudge after I lowered my head that much! Fine, whatever! If you don’t fix it and don’t hold the match, you lose by default!”
“That so. Then go off on your own and proclaim your empty ‘grand victory’ over that pathetic pile of rubble. Oh, how embarrassing. We were all getting so heated over the Sacred Demon Cup, yet it ends with a default, just how inept are this tournament’s organizers? I’ll gladly have a laugh as I watch, all while spreading the rumor it was rigged in your favor.”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!? Wait, wait, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!!”
The Sacred Demon Lord writhed and held her head imagining the scene. Elize gawked in distaste.
“Your chairman is outrageously useless, Iori Takase, die.”
“Guh…!? Looks like we agree on something, Elize Mithrilite! Go to hell!!”
“…… May I say something? Iori Takase?”
“Elize Mithrilite, quit using my full name over every little thing!? What is it!?”
“Taki you idiot ♪ Die.”
He was dead. Psychologically. For some reason, president Iori Takase was dead.
“Umm… hey, Elize…”
“Mn? What is it, part-timer? Any complaints?”
It was at that moment that the bustling two returned.
“I got the perv doctor!!”
“Found the dungeon-crawler nerd!!”
Clarica and VZ crashed into each other as they both rushed through the entrance with their trophies in tow.
“… Hmm… What’s all this then? Suzuran’s trembling in delight, panting and writhing.”
“Don’t put it like that, Kakko! Never like that! Just normally! Why don’t you!”
“So why is our rotten president keeled over?”
“Well… he’s lamenting over the naivety of our company’s preservation of classified information…”
The newcomers teetered to their feet. The doctor pushed up his misaligned glasses.
“What do you need me for? Heehee. Thanks to that incident, our hospital’s so busy you see… our three operating rooms are jam-packed!!”
“I was caught just when I was about to be shoved into that operating room.”
Ryuuta roughly scratched his head.
“What was that again? Something about dungeons?”
“Right, that! The map from some time ago! Do you have it on you!?”
Said Suzuran, causing him to blink in surprise.
Rewinding the clock a bit.
Around the time Wilco had met up with the hostages aboveground… Hideo was silently, indifferently carrying out his work at the depths of the earth.
The small, intermittent tremors around noon had the party stifle their breaths, wondering if this was the harbinger of the dark god’s revival, but… those had completely settled by now, and it was back to business as usual.
Hideo did not embrace any reckless hopes, but that being the case, he was working mechanically to make sure he didn’t think anything too negative. He swung his shovel to clear away the dirt and the sand. He swung it thinking nothing but scooping away. It wasn’t that he was thinking as he worked, he was perpetually thinking about his work. In the end, a human has but a single head, and given the circumstance, they lack the space for superfluous thought.
“You’re looking… a little more decent than before…”
Hannibal said as he joined him in removing the dirt.
“… Am I. Really?”
“A man you know… a man’s gotta keep looking forward… it doesn’t matter at what… right… you gotta devote yourself to something… is what I’m saying…”
A shovel more than two times the size of Hideo’s was devoted into the mound by Hannibal’s hand, a heaping pile dumped onto the mine cart. He apparently had the horsepower of a small backhoe.
“But. Even if… we’re working towards. Destroying the world?”
“When you’re young… it happens all too often… always trying to shoulder everything on your own back…”
As he listened, Hideo continued indomitably swinging his shovel. Hannibal spoke on.
“Hideo… do you think you’re gonna save this world…?”
His hand’s stopped. Yeah, not happening, his heart honestly answered. He suddenly noticed that and accepted it. Hannibal didn’t dare laugh at him as he continued his words.
“That’s just how it is… my condolences to the colonel, but… no matter how you look at it, this situation… ain’t something we can deal with ourselves… we’re in the position in need of saving… don’t you think?”
He was right. The one who could save the world, the one who could overturn this crisis would have to be someone who could genuinely answer “I have to do something” to the previous question. Hideo knew he didn’t have the qualifications for that.
If he had to say, the ones here were side characters. Perhaps someone—the lead role—would come from outside to save them… but for now, they were bit roles waiting for that moment.
“However, we do not have much time left to take it easy.”
Said Gray, looking at his terminal. Everyone hard at work turned towards him. The colonel rested the air hammer’s trigger to ask.
“Are we close?”
“Just as Alhazan said… if we continue at this pace, we will dig into the boundaries of space-time within two weeks.”
His wrist-watch terminal was flickering with electronic boops.
Come to think of it, Hideo thought.
“Can that terminal… get in touch. With the mother ship.”
Gray turned his head down and shook it left and right.
“I do not know if it is because this city exists in another dimension, or because this bedrock is made of a special material. The surface is just barely within transmission range… with a quantum communicator, I would be able to use it without issue, but this small-scale terminal is only capable of high-order advanced waves. Despite that, I have tested it out numerous times.”
Hideo wasn’t too knowledgeable on science fiction, but given the one who was talking, it probably wasn’t going to work out. He wasn’t getting any replies. Perhaps the signals from this side were reaching, he just couldn’t get any back… no, that was too optimistic.
In that case, even if he couldn’t reach outer space.
“You can… reach the surface?”
“The material in this particular region’s bedrock is especially peculiar, but outside of this area, I believe it will reach. However…”
The colonel shrugged.
“I tried asking that one too. But it looks like his terminal isn’t in top shape. What did you say again… something about the algorithm?”
The old soldier wasn’t too knowledgeable about computers. The scary part was how he could perfectly operate electronic devices like fighter planes and tanks despite that.
“That is correct. It is currently unable to generate an algorithm applicable to the machines utilized on this ☆.”
It was broken again in the most convenient of ways. But was it their good fortune Alhazan had overlooked this convenient item? Did they never think this wristwatch was equipped with a transmission device capable of reaching space? Or perhaps they thought if he wasn’t able to hold a conversation, he would just cause confusion on the worksite.
Due to Gray’s small body, he was more suited to clearing away monsters than digging. He could emit barrier-like somethings from his hands, perfect for a defensive role. Not only that, while it was a different type from Smoke’s, he had a ray gun capable of erasing monsters.
Not this and not that, as they started getting into a discussion, Hideo shifted his focus. When it came to ray guns, Javan was equipped with a blade and blaster in his suit. Javan noticed his look and turned.
“… Mn? What’s up, Hideo?”
“Does the Javan Suit have. Communication function?”
“Well about that… remember how your partner ruined the system in its entirety?”
Come to think of it, that was right. Wilco ate the whole thing.
“At first I was thrown down here with only the Javan Blaster and Javan Sword… it took a bit of time before the suit the Old Man repaired was delivered. They courteously had him neglect to repair anything outside of its combat functions.”
They went so far to get him combat ready?
“There’s no problems with combat so that’s all well and good, but there’s no auto equip or release, so putting it on and taking it off’s become quite a pain…”
But they had so many sci-fi items. They had members with outrageous abilities. Even with so many advantages, was it impossible to establish contact with the surface? Wasn’t there any way to skillfully put them together?
Any hint? Any lead?
He took another look around.
The air hammer the colonel was using. The air compressor that supplied its force. They had electricity… but they were too deep down for it to be coming from the surface. They had their own generator. Apart from that… the diesel that fueled it. A truck. Rails. Shovel and pickaxe. Clothing in their residential ward. Medical supplies. Food. Table. Desk. Bed. Playing cards… what else was in this underground? What else?
“Hideo? C’mon, Hideo.”
“Dinner is ready, let’s wrap things up and call it a day. I put my skill into grilled mackerel today. The miso has nameko mushrooms and…”
“Thanks. For that.”
Mackerel. A gas stove. Rice. Bowl. Plate. Chopsticks… miso soup.
“W-wait, what’s wrong, Hideo? Suddenly running off…!”
As he ran past the residential area, he grabbed the Colonel.
“Mn? What’s wrong?”
“Where does… the water come from?”
Everyone who heard Hideo’s voice repeated the word back.
“The electricity is. Generated here… but where does the water. And air come from?”
Something, anything. Just some connection with the outside world.
While Hideo seemed to be in a rush, the Colonel who picked up his intention answered this in a calm voice.
“Of course, we’ve explored any possibility we could think of. Hey, no need to stand around here… why don’t we talk over a meal?”
“There is an airflow. Where the dust collector duct leads, in order to eject the dust. But there are a number of ventilators along the way. Their high-speed fans can’t be slipped through by human hands.”
The colonel’s words had Verrocchia make a sullen face.
“Even so, I tried turning into fog to get through. They have a barrier along the way, they must have seen it coming.”
“Is it possible. To destroy. The fan?”
Hideo asked, but the colonel’s reply wasn’t too promising.
“If you just want to destroy it, that’s plenty possible. Well, seeing as how we’re in some corner of the labyrinth, it’s not like our air supply will be completely cut off, but… given the work we’re doing. No doubt it’ll leave us in an undesirable state of affairs. More than that, such showy moves will definitely be noticed by Alhazan. That’s the real problem here.”
And if they were noticed, the hostages… so it was no good.
“Then what about the water source?”
There, the colonel unfurled a hand-drawn map he had brought from his room.
“There’s a river flowing in the furthest depths of the residential area. The faucets and showers we use are drawn from there, but… the current’s too fast to swim. I thought we could have Remina investigate, but…”
With everyone’s eyes on her, she apologetically narrowed her shoulders.
“I’m sorry… I’m no good with fresh water. You’ll need Lorelei for that one… ah, I’m fine if it’s just a bath, but when it comes to swimming, it’s a bit…”
Retorting was pointless. This was just like the Gray’s transmitter. If the one in question said it wouldn’t work, it most likely wouldn’t work.
It suddenly occurred to him and Hideo tried asking.
“… What about the Javan Suit?”
“It sinks like a rock.”
Then whatever. Hideo offered Koushirou’s crisply stuck-up thumb a single nod. The Colonel stroked her beard as he expressed his opinion.
“Of course… whether it be air flow or an underground stream, if you make it through, you’ll be somewhere from floor sixty to seventy of the labyrinth.”
And he spread out yet another sheet of paper.
“Before the tournament began, I mapped out the Labyrinth whenever I went down… and I redrew this from what I could recall from that. I’ve been from floor one to floor sixty-eight to kill time, and I have every floor recorded, but… well, just have a look.”
Perhaps because it was peculiarly more ambiguous than the map of this district. The placement of traps and unique rooms, rivers and springs, those conspicuous landmarks were recorded, but the structure of the maze-like corridors was rather arbitrary.
Hideo thought and he thought. If Wilco were here, she would surely have forcefully dragged him into this conversation. And half forcefully, at times solely on the flow, he would be tangled into a match. He already longed for those days.
“… And I’m just wondering if those ears and tails are real.”
Koushirou said. Verrocchia irksomely replied.
“You’re still blathering on about that? As I told you, that girl’s a werecat…”
“There’s no way nekomata exist, right? As evidence, Michelle only has one tail.”
“I don’t know about nekomata and whatnot, but then how do you explain the members we have here?”
He was told, and Koushirou took a look around. In short, he wasn’t knowledgeable about this world, and despite that, he lost to Hideo on the first day and got taken down here, so he was still doubtful about the existence of other races. Presumably, he arrived at the venue rather late.
“How foolish, you still don’t recognize me as a vampyre?”
“I mean, no matter how I look at you, you’re just a human with slightly longer canines, right? Otherwise, a slightly-long-canine-kaijin and I’ll have to defeat you someday. No, but if you’re not a kaijin, turning into fog… hmmm.”
As he made a difficult face, Verrocchia looked like he was snap at him with those very same fangs, Remina stepped between them and tried to calm them down.
“Umm, but I’m a Siren for what it’s worth…”
“Yeah, your singing is the best! I get why they call you that!”
Apparently, he only saw her as a skilled songstress who was nicknamed Siren.
“Then what about Hannibal?”
Akane pointed at their notably giant member.
“Well going off that size, there’s gotta be someone inside the suit.”
“… He’s calling for the guy inside, Hannibal.”
At Akane’s fed-up voice, Hannibal didn’t seem particularly angry, rather he sounded quite used to it.
“You’ve got… the wrong guy…”
“Umm… in that case,”
Minako abruptly stuck herself in.
“What about Mr. Gray? That one’s going to be hard to explain away even if he’s got a child’s physique.”
“No, of course alien’s exist. What are you talking about?”
Why are you suddenly asking something so obvious? Or so his expression was starting to look rather heartbreaking.
“In the Roswell Incident, our appearance was already reported on a large scale, after all.”
It was up to the individual whether they believed or not. In Koushirou’s case, he boasted a philosophy that went along Kobayashi’s lane. That sort of taste, or rather he was aiming to proclaim himself Space Sheriff and all.
“We went off topic there, but I don’t think Michelle’s ones are on the same level. I tried scanning them with the Javan Sensors, but the tail and the ears aren’t being controlled by string… what do you think, Hideo?”
The sudden shift towards him almost made him spit out his miso soup.
“Hey, if you’re a Japanese man, you should know, right? A real nekomata should have two tails.”
Even if that was true.
Speak of the devil, and so on and so forth, Michelle arrived with their rations. Strangely with Kirishima this time…
“And some smokes for the addicts. How do you not have a Taspo at the speed you’re going?”
The Colonel and Hannibal were each handed their dry cigars and Marlboro.
“They don’t sell cigars at Japanese vending machines, see.”
“If you’re a man, just quietly buy… by the carton.”
“To be blunt, we’ll be quite troubled if you collapse from lung cancer.”
A little late for that, the longtime heavy-smoking colonel laughed.
“Well thanks for the consideration. By the way… from what I see, it’s just the two of you.”
When they usually took along a great number of subordinates equipped with guns. Not a single one today, only the executive Lena.
“That’s a rare sight. Did something happen to the others?”
“Meekyo and Elsia committed sheer idiocy at the semi-finals. The stadium’s a mess, and the staff are all pressed for what to do with the finals. Hell, we could even use your help at this point.”
I see, thought Hideo. Those tremors were a little off for an earthquake but… it was just those two running amok? Still, it was finally time for the semi-finals, was it? He hadn’t seen any matches or progress since Cross Flags, but this was somehow a little moving.
“No need to hold back, we’ll happily help out right away. Though you’ll need to take us up first.”
“I was just being cynical. You lyot just have to shut up and…”
And dig. She was probably about to say. She stopped herself, took a memo from her pocket and glanced over it.
“… You’ve done good work, syo we’re giving you a holiday. You don’t have to work for a week starting tomorrow.”
No one could have foreseen that one. That was the first accent placed on their monotonous days of mechanical labor. This means there had to have been some change to Alhazan’s plans. Some sort of movement.
A while ago, the Colonel said he needed a strong heart for the moment the chance came. Was that because he needed the discernment to recognize it, the wit to put it to use? And while each and every one of them sensed the discrepancy… Lena, who’d kept silent to that point, took the initiative to drive it home.
“I’ll just say it, but no funny business. If we don’t return, Gabès and the others will be down here in no time.”
But that was no reason to let it slip by. The change lasted until the moment they came down. Then the first step was to prevent these girls from returning.
Suddenly noticing something, Michelle hummed aloud and licked her lips.
“Sun-dried mackerel, you really are living in luxury…”
Before he had the chance to stop her, she had pinched the mackerel he had been thinking too hard to touch. Their eyes naturally met. As Hideo slowly stood, Michelle kept up her teasing smile.
“What is it? Does the walking dead NEET have a cyomplaint…?”
He firmly gripped her tail.
Swish, a scratch mark down Hideo’s face. The surroundings were dumbfounded.
“Are you an idiot!? Suddenly grabbing someone’s tail? How rude can you be!? If a wererabbit’s rabbit ears were swaying befyore your eyes, would you grab them!? I’m saying it’s just that rude, for the love of nyaaaaah!!”
She nagged and she nagged. But Hideo was one hundred percent homo sapien. He hadn’t the slightest idea on a therian’s common sense. Perhaps he had done something that warranted this much anger, but… with that, he had perfectly dragged her into his pace. Just like Shouki. The impulsive types were easiest to use.
his slashed cheek sluggishly oozing blood, Hideo spoke
“… I must admit. This is a real tail.”
“You really are an idiot, aren’t you! We’ve known each other since you were at the apartment, but you thought it was a prop this whyole time!?”
“But. That must have been. Someone else.”
“That kind. Landlady, and who you are now… you’re too far apart.”
“Why of cyourse. I was just acting as a landlady to research the participants.”
That made sense.
“Quite it with the nyahs, it’s getting annoying.”
A few seconds of dead silence.
“What’s wryong with a cat saying nyah!? Have you finally gone and bryoke!?”
He was in essence acting recklessly enough for it to seem so to surrounding eyes. His own pupils contained the cool that once had them feared as demon eyes.
It was a matter of course. He was nearly killed by Elize, beaten down by Lena when her restraints were removed, he had gazed long and hard at the grotesque forms of countless monsters, and the colonel had taught him about death. To that point, Hideo had been through his share of terrifying experiences.
In comparison, this girl before his eyes was just noisy, even endearing at that… and to the current Hideo, definitely not someone to fear. Regardless of her numerous malicious remarks, as long as he used his imagination, he could mentally convert her into a tsundere.
“… Just be. Honest.”
“Seriously, are you okay?”
Now how would he continue the conversation… as Hideo was thinking.
“Hmm. I take my eyes off you for one minute and you’ve already lost your mind, have you? Hideo?”
It was Lena.
“It’s already become quite the uproar up there. A liar’s demon eyes, they say. Are you being bullied down here?”
In no time at all, Lena’s eyes glimmered with the dangerous light from that night.
They were different in type but… she also suffered from a disease of the heart. No, her case was surely far more serious than his own. It would be far easier to lead her along than Michelle, but there was a higher chance of her exceeding boiling point making it impossible to talk at all.
But, well, it would be worse if she suddenly said she was leaving.
“And what about. You?”
“… Hah? About what?”
“Did Mister Archess. Get angry?”
Her arm that was lifted in an instant collided with him in the blink of an eye. The second hit onwards were easily suppressed by Minako’s policewoman proficiency in self-defense.
“Let go of me! Let go! This! This useless piece of…!”
“Please calm down, Kirishima! Why are you always so…!”
That soured talks quite a bit, troublesomely enough. But this would buy him enough time. This was evidently the first time the others had seen Lena’s change in face unimaginable from when she acted as a commentator as they headed to assist Minako with looks of disbelief across their faces.
It was a ruckus like trying to contain an addict going through withdrawal.
“I see… so that’s why Hideo came down here in that state.”
The Colonel said to Lena.
“And is this Archess’s order?”
The mention of his name caused the rationality in her heard to start working. She had finally swallowed the situation, powerlessly slumping down.
“… I’m sorry. Hideo…”
A far-too-surprising word.
Perhaps she didn’t hate Kawamura Hideo himself… the fact remained that she couldn’t permit the existence of anyone who caused harm to her living god Archess.
Seeing her finally calm down, Minako released her arms.
“But, why did you…”
“Because it was the first time I ever saw papa so troubled.”
She wasn’t rampaging anymore. This time, as if she was possessed by something, she quietly muttered to herself.
“How could I forgive Hideo for doing that to him… was that bad…? All of my precious family was tricked by Hideo… was it bad to be angry? Why isn’t anyone here angry…? That’s what I can’t believe…”
“Why that’s because it was a match so it was unavoidable!”
Minako’s words brought a blank look to her face.
“In a rule-less match, just like we relied on our weapons and power, Hideo who had absolutely nothing of the sort simply relied on his wisdom! All you had to do to win was see through his demon eyes! That was the game; you lost in a battle of wits with Hideo!”
Hideo included, that was also the first time anyone had seen Minako blaze up like this.
“We all understand so there’s no way we could be angry at him! And yet you arbitrarily convinced yourselves, snapped at him when you found out you lost, and one-sidedly used violence to seal him away down here… are you stupid!?”
At that moment, Michelle’s ears twitched towards the door. It took a little while before the others heard the sound of footsteps.
“Hey, Michelle, how long are you gonna let this drag on?”
Zazi said as he entered with none other than Archess himself.
“Were you teasing Hideo again?”
“… That’s nyot it. These people were just persistently asking why work was being pyostponed.”
Archess nodded to Michelle with a vibrant look on his face.
“I see, well I thought it might be something like that.”
“Hmm, and so the boss came down personally?”
The Colonel belligerently raised the corners of his lips. Hideo’s stalling of Michelle and Lena had reeled in a bigger catch than he had anticipated. There was no way he wasn’t enjoying this.
“Yes. I’m sure it’s hard for you to accept, so let me offer you the unvarnished truth.”
He cleared his throat once.
“I’m sure you’ve already heard, but in the second match of the semi-finals, there was a terrible accident… the stadium that would have hosted the finals was completely destroyed. On the request of the organizer Suzuran, the date of the finals has been postponed.”
“And so? What does that have to do with our work?”
“Let me explain things in order. First, there are two distinct possibilities for how the dark god will appear. First, it will simply show itself on my summons. That is the optimum route… the other. The moment the worlds connect, it may flood into the world like a raging tsunami. If it proves necessary, I will not hesitate to make sacrifices, but I do not have a liking for unnecessary sacrifice.”
“… Meaning you’re calling up a power that’s just that massive.”
“On the million-to-one chance of an accidental discharge, by the time the heavens and their nonaggressive defense start moving, it’ll already be too late… there’s a possibility it will advance towards such circumstance. So first off, I need to make this city a base that is ready for the power of that god. The bridgehead for true demon restoration. In order to fight against the Sacred Demon Lord and the heavens, if I had to say, my first goal is to have it operational as a fortress on the battlefield.”
After a breath, he had regained his gentle expression.
“I am not scheming something as childish as destroying the world.”
“But there’s still the possibility.”
“When the time comes, I’ll have to go up against outers like Meeko. Tried and true gods who in the all-out war known as Ragnarök, split mountains, drained the sea, obliterated continents. As long as I can prevent it from flooding out, I think the power is worth the risk.”
“And if it runs out of control?”
“We’re operating with care to make sure that doesn’t happen. However… when X-day comes around, it would be most desirable that both the Sacred Demon Lord and every member of her round table are no longer in this city. Meaning, my hopes are that you all finish work once the tournament is over, once Suzuran is satisfied and leaves this city behind her. On the off-chance it does go berserk, I’m sure you’d all prefer it if there are as few people in the city as possible.”
So he needed the stillness of the festival’s end.
“… Do you guarantee our safety when that happens?”
“Please rest assured. The final line of stone will be breached by explosives. Naturally, that will be after everyone and their pairs have been freed.”
The colonel breathed a deep breath.
“… You’re really thorough about it.”
“I’ve had a long history of service, but I’ve never seen a commander so mindful of his prisoners of war.”
“I am tasking you with quite a harsh request. I won’t ask you to forgive me, but I do believe this is the least I could offer you.”
The colonel composedly slouched into his chair, looking around at his comrades.
“… Anybody else have any questions? Looks like he’ll answer anything now, but I can’t think of anything nice.”
“Oh no, Colonel Redfield. When you say something like that, you’ll put me on guard, won’t you… I will of course withhold information that might prove useful to your escape.”
Knowing well enough what that would entail, Archess flashed a joking smile.
Indeed, leisure was born from self-conceit.
… The final line would be dealt with through explosives.
Meaning, at that time, there would be no one in the hole. Would he hit a switch from here? If some incomprehensible substance would be flowing in from another world, just remaining in this deepest portion was suicidal. Even the labyrinth in its entirety, with easy way out. Then where would the switch be?
Would the signal reach? No, according to the Colonel they were over sixty feet down. Did they have a signal that could be used through so many layers and special bedrock? Then would it be a physical wire? No, both electricity and water were self-generated on this floor. It was unlikely they could get in a conducting wire from outside.
… A relay? That was the usual way to get cell-phones working in the underground mall and subway. But did they have something like that? No, even if they did, they would still need to wire it, wouldn’t they?
Now think. Just like when he was fascinated by the scalpel’s blade. The chance hidden within this abnormality, dig it out with a blade of thought.
“…… Pops, looks like Michelle and sis are fine. If we take too long, Gabès will be worried.”
Zazi unmotivated yet scrupulous eyes looked over them with his warning. His four guns, revolver and automatic were the same as ever.
“You’re right. I do apologize for intruding on a meal, well then… one last thing, Hideo. There’s something I need to tell you.”
After turning his back, Archess came to a stop.
“Today afternoon, I killed Wilco.”
Afternoon? Having known her almost as long, Minako gulped before even he could.
“I do offer my condolences. But it was unavoidable.”
Afternoon. That moment. When he suddenly felt dizzy.
Had that been… her death throes…?
Couldn’t be. How stupid. This was no joke. How did he drive the tiger from the paper screen? This wasn’t a matter of burning the screen down. How did he harm someone who lived in the inexhaustible world of the net?
The story so sudden, it didn’t feel real to Hideo. Archess apologetically closed his eyes.
“She had gotten too close to the core. When she appeared at Centralle Building, we cut off all electricity and circuits.”
What, that was it?
No, wait a second.
He felt a chill. His heart hammered out fast, stimulated enough to tear open his sweat glands.
Killed? The girl who could survive in a dead, abandoned old-model laptop with only 20 gbs of hard disk space? The girl who stood against Meeko and provided enough energy for a rail cannon on her own?
Meaning at that moment, this is what Hideo’s ears heard.
She had gotten so close to the truth he had to kill her, and he let her escape…!!
“… I sympathize with the pains of losing a partner you’ve gone through pain and joy with. However…”
He didn’t need his condolences. Perhaps it was such a critical situation. But how could he explain all the energy Wilco suddenly sucked out of him at that moment?
If the tremors were from Meeko and Elsia… then for what could Wilco have used what Elize called the most efficient source of energy on?
To keep herself alive, of course.
That way of thought was only natural to Hideo. A natural consequence of spending more time with her than anyone.
If Archess would equate Meeko to a god, then Wilco was of the caliber to be a new comrade to such gods. In the first place, humans would never call something that could be exterminated in a day or two a virus. She was no ordinary virus at that. She was a super pleasant heinous infectious virus. Then she had already spread the truth.
No, that wasn’t all. Archess didn’t know… she had done it in secret. Wilco had presumably gone to the place he dreaded most, the one she had the most connections with, Obliterating Industries.
Right. In that case, it would be terrible to slip up here. Archess’s penitence as if he understood everything was the greatest farce! Wilco, you’re amazing! He shouted inside. For the first time, his life-long expressionless face nearly carelessly burst into a smile… at this supreme entertainment!!
As he hung his head and covered his face, Minako placed a consoling hand on his back.
He truly had to apologize for the fact he was hiding his smile, for the fact he was the only one having fun.
“… I’m… fine…”
He violently rubbed his face as if he was wiping his tears and erased his smile.
He took a breath to cool his excitement.
“What is it, Hideo? If punching me will clear up your mind, go ahead…”
Hideo quietly shook his head.
“… No. A memento.”
“A memento? You mean… for Wilco?”
What would he tell her? With the current situation, if this man’s good nature was no lie, he would probably comply with mostly anything.
“On the BBS of ‘EveryonePlaza’. It can be posted anonymously.”
“I see. That may be appropriate for a message for an electronic spirit…”
Naturally, he couldn’t say anything too obvious. As long as he wasn’t the one at the keyboard, any traps to do with word order were out of the question. Any codes thought up on the spot would be instantly seen through. Worst case scenario, Archess had the option of leaving it as a verbal promise unacted upon.
Yeah, he had no real proof. He had no certainty, but.
“… I’ll be waiting. In your old room.”
“You mean the apartment Michelle was managing? Are you sure that’s enough?”
“… Yes. That… is all.”
This was the limit to what he could play off as a memento. He would need considerable distortion, and even if they saw through his intention, they would have no way to confirm where that actually was.
For an instant. Just a brief instant, he thought Lena faltered.
A minute vibration interrupted them. Zazi took a folded cellphone from his pocket.
“Yes, I know… well then, everyone, it may only be temporary, but please take it easy. You’ll be informed of when you’re to restart your work shortly.”
And without turning again, Archess and the others were off.
A dark silence. Painful or perhaps sympathetic eyes fell on Hideo. He silently sat down, washing down his cold side-dish-less rice with some cool miso soup.
He processed all the information he’d come across.
With one final gulp, he quietly set down his chopsticks.
“… In our match against Alhazan. Our chances of victory are unbelievably high.”
Those who were sure he had sunk into sorrows raised surprised face.
“… Now let’s go win.”
Their voices lost at Hideo’s sudden declaration.
“I’ll be waiting in your old room… is it?”
Linus turned from his computer to Archess standing beside him.
“Yes. What do you think he meant?”
“I’m not quite sure how to respond…”
He couldn’t really say much when he was so abruptly asked for his opinion. Zazi behind him was disinterestedly spinning his gun.
“He meant what he said, pops. If he waits in that apartment of memories, Wilco’s soul or something will come back to him. Now ain’t he a romantic.”
“… Right. I can only see it that way as well.”
Linus chimed in.
“Indeed, is there really only so much meaning…”
“You really are a worrywart…”
Zazi crudely scratched his head.
“No… it may be my imagination but back then.”
“When Hideo was covering his face, crying… I got the feeling he smiled for a split second.”
“… I’m surprised you could see with how he was hiding that face.”
“Yes, so rather, from his atmosphere or presence, how should I put it…”
“… But wait a second.”
Lena returned carrying a tray with enough coffee for everyone.
“If it was the apartment Michelle managed, wouldn’t he say our room, not your room?”
“Oh… I see. I finally noticed what was so off. I knew something was bothering me.”
“Then sis. Where is Wilco’s room?”
Zazi poured ample milk and sugar into his coffee.
“That’s well, you know… surely her computer, isn’t it?”
“What’re you going on about?”
While Zazi seemed let down, Lena spoke rather matter-of-factly.
“I mean, you could say Wilco lives in her laptop, can’t you?”
“I get that part, but how is Hideo supposed to wait in a computer?”
“Then isn’t he just a romantic? It caught on not too long ago. VR, dive, the matrix that sorta thing. Instead of becoming a star, maybe he thinks he’ll wind up in data? Wilco’s been a bad influence.”
Or so Lena took a sip of black coffee.
“… Hideo was a little strange today… when he heard Wilco died, maybe he finally crossed the last line. That must be why you thought he was laughing. Knowing there really was nothing left, he could only laugh you know.”
Everyone here knew it happened from time to time. In a situation where one might die at any moment. And what they heard was bad news that extinguished all hope… of course, one might laugh out of desperation.
Linus spoke, waiting for the coffee he’d been handed to cool.
“Even if he wanted to convey some message to the outside, anonymously there would be no way of telling who posted it and who it was addressed to… the message is too short to contain any helpful information.”
“Rather, pops. If you’re that worried, there’s no need to hear out his request.”
“Ah, no… well, if it really is a plea of the heart, doesn’t it feel pitiful to just leave it? It’s fine as long as it doesn’t lead to anything. The off-sense I was getting, and Hideo’s smile have a tentative logical explanation. Sure enough, for a normal person like himself to labor there for so long, it’s possible the mental strain was too much.”
“And you dealt the last blow. Ignorance is bliss and all.”
“Oh c’mon Zazi…! What does it matter, whatever happens to that shut-in liar…!”
When she was about to fall into disarray, Archess’ voice alone returned her to her senses and got her sulking.
“I’m sorry… I know…”
A breath. Then Archess spoke
“… Well then, Linus. Keep it word for word. But don’t be anonymous, post it under Hideo’s name. Not only on EveryonePlaza, arbitrarily spread it around message boards all over the outside world.”
Just as his hands touched the keyboard, Linus abruptly turned back.
“Umm… please elaborate…?”
“The words are undoubtedly his. So this is the message that will be sent. He definitely did disappear from this city, but he was by no means held prisoner. And Wilco wasn’t killed, she noticed that message faster than anyone and left Obliterating Industries to search for Hideo.”
Zazi softly shifted his eyes.
“… Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re kind or terrifying.”
Just a thin smile, Archess didn’t answer that one.
“Someone of your caliber should be able to falsify the post date, right Linus?”
“Yes, very well. Lord Archess.”