If you asked what sort of town Tsukimori was, eighty percent of its residents would answer “An ordinary town”.
Even if heroes and kaijin flashed by on the local news, they wouldn’t find it strange in the slightest. The same went for the incidents that happened in the same down they lived, as long as it doesn’t happen right beside them, it is difficult for one to grasp the reality of the situation. That’s precisely why it was a normal town. A normal town with heroes and kaijin.
That was Tsukimori City.
“What do you think it takes to be a hero, Okina-senpai?”
On the question Okina Takeru raised his face from the screen of his smartphone.
The quiet library of Tsukimoto First High School. To the side of Takeru manning the counter as part of his job on library committee, his underclassman Tsuzuki Nozomi spin her pen needlessly skillfully.
“To be a hero?”
“I’m talking about the June special feature list. Remember, they said we were doing a feature on heroes. Everyone has to get their ideas together by the week’s meeting, they said. Have you already thought up candidates?”
“Feature… candidate… ah, now that you mention it… I did hear about that.”
“… Let me guess, senpai, you completely forgot.”
Nozomi tiresomely shook her head.
The second-year Takeru, and the first year Nozomi, it was only the height of May. While only a month had passed since they came to know one another, it did seem his standing in Nozomi’s head had been determined rather quickly. Naturally, it wasn’t particularly high.
“This year’s goal is ‘one thousand new library users a month’ isn’t it? How are we going to get there if we don’t get a grip? A goal you don’t work towards isn’t a goal but a delusion.”
“And I think a goal that’s impossible to accomplish is also a delusion.”
Takeru looked over the lonesome afterschool library with only the regulars in sight.
“That publication recession’s been dragging on a while, and a decrease in the reading population isn’t a problem our efforts can do something about. We’re at a level where we’re screwed if some hero to save the publishing industry doesn’t appear, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’ve got no interest in waiting for a hero. And shouldn’t a publication recession actually increase the visitors to a library? Ah, there really is no worth in talking to you… I was mulling over my selection, so I thought I should start by determining the concept…”
“You don’t have to make it so complicated, we’ve already got one in this city. A hero of justice, I mean.”
“Say what you want, but I’ve never actually seen them.”
Nozomi readily wrote it off.
“I mean, kaijins are scary, but doesn’t it sound a little impossible for there to be a human out there that can defeat the kaijin even the police have trouble with? Those stories have got to be blown up. And look, they said it was taken down already, right? That, umm, what was it again, that kaijin organization. They had the sort of name you’d find in an RPG…”
“That’s it! Calamity Co. Leviathan!”
Refreshed at reaching an answer, Nozomi nodded to herself.
“That Leviathan’s leader? Chief? Whatever was defeated, and the organization was collapsing, they were saying it on TV. In that case, I guess that hero’s going to lose his part to play.”
“You’re a harsh one, Tsuzuki-san.”
“I’m just being realistic.”
Nozomi answered with a shrug of her shoulders.
“In the first place, hero is an image the other people arbitrarily forge up. It’s simply a desire forced onto someone, and no joke to the one it’s pushed onto, I’d wager. A hero is the symbol of another’s aspiration, something like that. Oh, did I just say something clever? Hmhmm, then if I choose books based on that concept–”
As Nozomi was getting excited on her own, a softcover of ‘Flowers for Algernon’ was pushed across the counter.
“Can I borrow this?”
A female student with deep blue eyes peered at them.
Clear white skin, and that slender stature, lightly pigmented brown hair arranged at shoulder-height. Over her sky-blue short-sleeve short, a large sports bag was draped over one shoulder. The properly-fastened rouge-striped necktie moderately asserted this female student’s proper discipline.
Nozomi opened her eyes wide, suddenly falling into a panic.
“M-my apologies. I’ll process that right away! Umm, if you’d please hand over your library card.”
A sidelong glance at Nozomi as he accepted the female student’s card, Takeru started to get the stationaries in order. But, “Huh?” he noticed the confusion in Nozomi’s voice.
“I’m sorry, senpai… the barcode isn’t reading…”
“Ah… give me a second, Tsuzuki-san.”
Takeru took out an emergency form to fill out by hand and held it out it to the girl alongside a pen. The female student’s eyes flitted to him for a single glance.
She was on the verge of saying something to him, but before that, Takeru answered in a business-like tone.
“Please enter your name, your year, and your seat number. Is this the only book you’ll be borrowing? We’ll take care of the rest of the paperwork. Tsuzuki-san, try to see if the book’s barcode reads.”
After staring at Takeru a while, the female student resignedly accepted the pen and paper and began her entry. 2-E Omou Mia. The 2 and the E were crooked, but the name she was surely accustomed to writing came out handsomely in order.
“Sorry for taking up your time… return the book within two weeks, err, if you will…”
Omou Mia accepted the book from Nozomi and quietly left the library. After endlessly watching off the dignified bearing of her back, Nozomi took a deep breath, her tensions melting away. In that timeframe, Takeru manually imputed the data on the form and the book into the computer.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble… Okina-senpai…”
“… But why was Omou-senpai here?”
“She’s been here for the past thirty minutes.”
“Wha- if you knew, you could’ve told me! I was completely caught off guard there! Whoah, I was totally freaking out…”
“Freaking out? Why?”
“I mean, it’s Omou-senpai you know! Omou-senpai in the flesh!”
Nozomi’s eyes sparkled as she made a declaration.
“Flawless reflexes, grades always at the top, she’s pretty and cool, and despite that, surprisingly sociable… even in our class, there are plenty of Omou-senpai fans, you hear! Did you know? If you spot Omou-senpai at school, you’ll be blessed with tremendous luck for the rest of the day.”
“Why is she being treated as an object of worship…”
“Can you blame them? I mean, she’s the Hero of Tsuki High, isn’t she! There’s never a lack of stories to tell about her. Like about saving a kitten that couldn’t get down from a tree, or saving a child who was almost run over, I hear she caught a pickpocket the other day. Makes me think they really exist, those people with the specs of a 2d heroine. Rather, it’s rare for Omou-senpai to come borrow a book after school. It didn’t look like she was waiting for anyone either.”
“Who knows, can’t she have just wanted to borrow a book?”
“Still, that was nerve-wracking. It’s that, you know. She’s got this rock-solid aura, not relative, but absolute. Oh crap, I just gave birth to another clever phrase.”
“What’s this, Okina-senpai. Something on your mind?”
“Well let’s see, Tsuzuki-san. Let me impart some wisdom on you too.”
Takeru hit the enter key on the keyboard. With that, the loaning procedure on ‘Flowers for Algernon’ was complete, and with that he spoke.
“There is no such thing as an absolute reality, Tsuzuki-san.”
“I’m sorry. Please don’t rip of Kyougokudou with that triumphant look on your face.”
The time came to go home, Takeru and Nozomi put the books in order and went their separate ways. When Nozomi was gone, Takeru pedaled his cross bike straight out the school gates. The gentle downhill led him down to the river embankment.
Teiko River. Running between Tsukimori and the town over, it was the city’s boundary line.
After he had raced down the banks a distance, he began to hear the shouts of children from afar.
“There we go! Shunsuke, run for it, keep running! Chase the ball to the end!”
On the ground of the river embankment, the children wearing matching football uniforms ran about. This was the scene of the local boys and girls’ football club, Teiko FC practicing.
On the bench by the grounds, The local specialty female coach raised a yell.
“Hey, hey, connect it with a pass! Run through the space, the space! Don’t fear taking the change! I’m telling you to properly keep your eyes on your opponent’s movements! You can’t grasp victory if you don’t use your head!”
A megaphone in one hand, a deep-blue pair of track pants beneath, and a number ten Barcelona uniform up top. A coaching style that hadn’t changed in the slightest. Takeru brought the cross bike to a stop and walked over to the bench.
“You’re still using that megaphone, Sawa-chan.”
The coach gripping the megaphone, Mizumachi Sawako turned. Seeing Takeru’s face, she gave a delighted grin. Her smile crossbred of heartiness and cheer was no different than it had ever been. Their friendly relation that let him interact with her almost as if she were family as well.
“Oh, Takeru. Good of you to come. You could at least wear your necktie properly. You’ll never be popular like that.”
“Yeah, yeah, here’s what the doctor ordered.”
Ignoring Sawako’s words, Takeru took out a sack from his bag.
“A disk of the match from our generation. There’s three years’ worth on it. I separated it into chapters by match, you should just be able to play it on a computer.”
“Thanks. Sorry you had to go to the trouble. Could’ve just mailed it over.”
“It’s fine. The training field’s close enough.”
“Mn? Wait a second, is there something else in ‘ere?”
Sawako confirmed the item in the sac, before spurting out a laugh.
“Whoa, that’s a blast from the past! A ‘Ward Rabbit’ from the rabbit shrine. What’s up with that?”
“It was sleeping away in a drawer. You said you wanted something to decorate the examining room, so I thought it might work. Why don’t you keep it on your desk or something?”
“Hmm, well why not. Okay, I’ll happily put it up.”
Takeru took a glance over the ground. Within the six by six intrasquad game, a single especially tall player was mixed in. Soft yet elegant body movements, a far-too-familiar jerseyed form.
“… Well then, I’ll be taking my leave.”
“Whoa there, stop. No need to rush through life, youngster.”
Takeru’s collar was grasped as he attempted to peddle away his bike. Rough as the action was, there was some warmth to be found in it as Sawako’s hand brought him back.
“It’s been a while, you could at least watch them practice. You’ve got that cool face on, but you’re overcome with nostalgia inside, am I right?”
“I might not look like it, but I’m busy.”
“Free enough to drop by. You’re only gonna get busier here on. Hey, just take a seat, I tell ‘ya.”
Sawako pat against the spot beside her. Awkward as he felt, Takeru couldn’t help but lower himself onto the bench. Perhaps growing old, the bench raised a slight creak.
“So how is it? Are you enjoying high school?”
“I think that the notion youth is to be enjoyed is an adult’s arbitrary prejudice.”
“Wow, what an unendearing response. It’s because of all your sophism that you’ve got that old man look on your face.”
“Please don’t bring my face into this, it stings.”
“I mean look.”
All of a sudden, Sawako’s hand stuck against Takeru’s face. She pulled his lower eyelid with her index finger and pushed a finger around his Adam’s apple.
“Not enough red, you sure you’re not anemic? You can’t fool the eyes of a doctor. And what are you tiring yourself out for?”
“… I just study. I do have exams next year to look forward to.”
“You’re no fun at all. You’re a high school student, see, the heavens won’t punish you if you have just a bit of romcom in your life.”
“I haven’t set up any flags, so that’s probably not happening.”
“Nah, you’re just breaking them down. Just look at you now, so antsy to get away.”
Sawako stated in a tone as if she had seen through it all.
Before Takeru could respond, he heard the light sound of a fumbled ball. Taking off into the air like a bullet, the ball eventually surmounted the court before bouncing on the ground. Just like that, as if it was being sucked towards him, it rolled right to Takeru’s feet.
“Sorry! I kicked it too high…”
The taller player raced over. The item she wore was far too familiar, the sports jersey of Tsukimori First High School. After approaching, she noticed Takero and stopped.
Takeru quietly let out a sigh. He managed to struggle through at the library, but it didn’t seem it would go like that this time. The girl in a sports jersey—Omou Mio stared at Takeru a while before muttering in surprise.
Crows’ cries resounded through the river encampment sealed by the dusk. Th night time befell before long.
“Well then, you two take care. Mia, drop by the clinic later.”
Parting with Sawako, who went off to see the children home half-way, Takeru pushed his cross bike along the riverside road. It was a path littered with gravel, and the tires bounded up and down.
“There we go, Take-chan.”
Something cold was suddenly pushed against his cheek.
Mia walking beside him swung around an unopened PET bottle in one hand.
“You liked Aquarius, didn’t you? We had some leftovers today.”
“… I didn’t ask for one.”
“Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. Just be honest and accept the goodwill of another.”
With Mia’s insistence, he unsociably accepted the sports drink bottle. Mia pressed her lips against her own share.
She was acting quite different from the dignified air he spotted her wearing at school. The current Mia was slightly childish. The two walked a reasonable distance from one another, a faint citrus scent wafting from Mia’s direction.
Omou Mia. A heroic existence admired by the students of Tsukimori First High.
The childhood friend Takeru reunited with when he entered high school.
“How many years has it been since we went home together like this?”
Mia spoke with a tone as if she had prepared that line beforehand.
Some tension could be seen in parts of her good-humored expression.
“I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to talk a long time… I never could quite find the chance to have a good long talk with you.”
“Nothing we can do about it. We’ve both got a lot on our plates.”
“… Yeah, right. Well, you’re not wrong.”
Mia peeked at Takeru’s expression with fleeting glances. It was as if she was probing out the trick to turning the gears of a conversation whose oil had run out, whose parts had rusted long ago.
“… Are you always helping out? With Teiko FC’s practice, I mean.”
“Yeah! Just once a week, though.”
When Takeru brought up a topic, Mia energetically responded.
“It seems they’re in a pinch, short on people who’re able to practice. That’s right, why don’t you join in too? I’m sure they’ll welcome you.”
“… Someone who quit halfway in can’t just jump in and start acting like an old boy.”
“Nothing to worry about. I quit halfway too, after all.”
The light of a building came into sight at the end of the road. They would soon approach the national highway.
“Today, are you going to Sawa-chan’s place after this.”
“I am. The place I live right now is really close to Sawa-chan’s clinic. I go there to drop off food, and this and that.”
“… What about the old man?”
“Father… he’s out overseas. Got himself a job as a freelance journalist, so he’s flying all around. Don’t know when he’s coming back. You moved too, didn’t you Take-chan?”
“Mom got a job transfer. I’m freeloading at a relative’s place in the Meshie district.”
“I see. So we’re not neighbors at all anymore.”
Mia nostalgically narrowed her eyes.
“I left this town six years ago… returned three later, saw you again after a long while at the Tsuki High entrance ceremony… there really has been a lot going on…”
“This is where the hard part starts. Don’t forget your exams.”
“… Ah, I see, you’re right.”
Perhaps finding something funny, Mia’s face collapsed into a laugh. Her carefree laughing voice gently set Takeru’s eardrums shaking.
“… Looks like we can talk normally after all. You ignored me back at the library, so I was sure you hated me now. Last year too, you know, I went to see you a few times, but you’d never look me in the eye.”
“I wasn’t trying to ignore you.”
Takeru purposely emphasized.
“I dealt with you properly, Omou-san.”
For a moment, Mia’s face stiffened in unrest. She raced forward as it to shake it off, kicking one of the pebbles by the roadside. The pebble bounced against the ground, rolling away out of sight.
“… Snap, I thought it’d go farther than that.”
Tahaha, Mia laughed as she turned towards him
With a manufactured smile, she gazed straight at Takeru.
“Ever since I returned, you’ve been calling me that the whooole time.”
“… We’re high schoolers now. We can’t act the same forever.”
“Is that why you’re always avoiding me at school?”
A slight anger and disappointment wormed its way into her voice. Takeru answered with a level attitude.
“There’s nothing that never changes. There are no absolutes in the world. Just because we’re childhood friends, you don’t have to force yourself to put up with someone, right?”
“You could just as well say you don’t have to force yourself to avoid them.”
Mia said with a strong resolve.
“… So you know, Take-chan, did you quit Teiko FC because of that incident?”
Takeru didn’t answer. She layered on more words.
“… In that case, you’re misdirected. I’ve already overcome that incident. There’s no reason you have to fret over it.”
“… I’m not fretting over anything.”
Before she could finish the question, the ringtone of Mia’s cellphone chirped out.
After confirming her phone, a sharp light gleamed in her eye.
“Sorry, I have urgent business to attend to. I’ll be going ahead.”
“… Yeah, I see.”
“I’m really sorry… umm, see ‘ya at school.”
Leaving some hesitant words, she took off down the bank. Takeru listened to the sound of his childhood friend’s footsteps fade as he gently set his bicycle in motion. When he reached the main road, finally coming out into a place with more people, the conversation of passersby entered his ears.
“Hey, is that Leviathan video for real?”
“Yeah, they’re running it on the news right now. Hear there were shots exchanged with the police on the motorway.”
Takeru stopped his cross bike once. He took out his smartphone and swiftly tapped the screen. A search of ‘Leviathan Video’ quickly brought up the footage in question. Uploaded thirty minutes ago. The views already crossed a hundred thousand.
The video was titled ‘Calamity Co. Leviathan: Crime Declaration’. Displayed on the screen was an insignia of dragons coiling around a crescent moon.
That moon made of the sneer of a skull’s teeth was strangled by two limbless dragons. After drawing a double helix, the dragons antagonistically turned heads to face one another.
With the pair of dragons fixed on the screen, a toneless program-synthesized voice droned on.
“This is a declaration of war. To you natives who scorn us Alters as kaijin. Now is the you shall remember our terror. We are Calamity Co. Leviathan, the hope of all Alters, and their strength.”
There was something off about the speech dispatched in a low-bass tone, carrying with it a bottomless uncanniness.
“Natives. You will know our sadness, you will know our anger. You are to free our brethren sealed in the marine prison by today at midnight. In the case you do not accept our demands, know that the hostages lives are forfeit. I repeat, this is a declaration of war–”
Tucking away his smartphone, Takeru put the pet bottle to his lips for the first time. A penetrating cold spread across his mouth. After spending some time looking up at the waning moon in the sky, he forcefully kicked off his bike. As if the gears that had been still a long while were now spinning full throttle.
The incident began an hour prior, Kagari District on the west side of Tsukimori, at the bus stop in front of the post office. The stop was serviced by the public bus managed by the district, a yellow vehicle on the smaller side, with a bonnet rare for a bus.
At that time, the ones lined up for it were middle schoolers, parents, children, elementary schoolers, the local regulars. In the bus that eventually arrived, the only prior passenger was a single woman in the front seat.
The other passengers naturally took up the unoccupied back. The bus departed as per usual. As usual, the minds of the passengers didn’t stop to focus on the outside scenery. The first ones to notice the incident were the elementary schoolers.
“Are we not taking the road in front of the station today?”
“Huh? You’re right.”
With those words as the trigger, the other passengers also noticed they were running a different route than usual. What should have been the next stop was growing further and further away.
“Umm, excuse me. You took the wrong road.”
It happened when a housewife raised her voice; the buss suddenly picked up speed.
Receiving that unforeseen inertia, the passengers shrieked and clung onto the windows and the seats in front.
“What is this, what is this!?”
“Hey, that’s dangerous!”
“I’m scared, mama!”
While the passengers fell into a panic, the driver wouldn’t turn to them.
“Everyone, I ask you to keep quiet.”
The female passenger sitting in the front suddenly opened her mouth.
The young woman who pulled her hat over her eyes and wore headphones stood up. It was hard to determine her age. She was dressed in a plain hoodie that emphasized the bulges of her chest, alongside faded denim.
“You’ll be keeping us company a short while…”
The woman pulled out her headphones. The next instant, her body changed.
Before the very eyes, her body was enveloped in a new set of cells. A peculiar biological tissue covered her, clothes and all, changing her form to something else entirely.
Enlarged ears, fangs growing from her mouth, arms furnished with a wing-like membrane. A grotesque humanoid body closely resembling a bat, that form was undoubtedly–
“We are no kaijin. We are Alters.”
There the passengers noticed. The arms of the driver gripping the handles were uniformly covered in bizarre scales. The passengers’ faces twitched in fear. The elementary schoolers kept crying until they came down in hiccups.
The form of an alter could summon reasonless fear among the people, and even under normal circumstances, a majority of people were unable to bear it. An elementary school boy with a stiff face hid his hands behind him. He opened his smartphone to inform people of this situation.
The bat alter’s ears twitched. The boy was abruptly assailed by a shrill, metallic ringing in his ears.
Having lost his sense of balance, the high school boy dropped his smartphone and collapsed into his seat. At this point, the passengers couldn’t even cry out.
“It’s futile, I have a ‘visual’ on all of you…”
Able to pick up a wide register, the bat alter’s ears could perceive the world through sound. What’s more, by emitting ‘ultrasonic bullets,’ condensed ultrasonic waves of two hundred thousand hertz, she was capable of knocking out an opponent’s semicircular canals. Those highly adaptable abilities exhibited a tremendous might at a site that ran side by side with violence.
“Now then, welcome to the thrilling Tsukimori bus tour of hell, humans! I, the new hire Lemeo-sama, will be serving as your driver for this fine evening!”
The driver informed them in an idiotically cheery voice. He let his grotesque chameleon-like tongue swing back and forth.
“Please kick back and enjoy the ride. But do take care, we can’t guarantee you’ll survive it!”
Twenty minutes after the onset of the bus jack, the crime declaration was uploaded online and the special police force at Tsukimori Police HQ was immediately mobilized.
Forty minutes from the onset.
Investigation headquarters contacted local branches to construct barricades to stop a small bus. Traffic was regulated, multiple patrol cars blocked the path, a unit of officers with duralumin shields formed a line on standby. Ahead of the small buss that continued its rampage, a Harley raced as if leading the way.
A full-face helmet, and a black leather riding suit. The rider’s face was as of yet unconfirmed.
“Attention cyclist, pull over at once. This is a warning. If you do not comply, we will fire. I repeat, we will fire.”
But as if to mock them, the Harley ignored the warnings of the riot squad. There was no second warning. In exchange, their bullets opened holes in the riding suit.
The Rider’s stance didn’t crumble, let along crumble, their body swayed ominously.
“Ka ka ka!! How impertinent, humans! Is that all you can do!!”
The rider tossed his helmet aside. What appeared was the blazing red head of a tiger—a tiger alter. A scar-ridden countenance that had surmounted many a battle, his left eye was covered by an eye patch. With the shields of the squadron right before him, his motorcycle didn’t drop speed.
The tiger alter’s chest visibly swelled up.
“You’ll be opening up the way!”
Leaning out, the tiger alter bared his teeth as if to roar. What came out instead of sound was a red-hot flame. The combustible bodily fluids that scattered along with the flames stuck onto the shields, starting a blaze all at once. The barricade and patrol cars exploded, burnt up.
The small bus and Harley passed down the forcefully wrenched-open road.
An hour after the incident broke out.
The small bus and Harley advanced onto Tsukimori Beltway. Having only just been constructed, there were plenty of unopened segments and few users. For that sake, nothing was left to obstruct the alters’ charge.
Hostilities exchanged between alter and police were caught on the footage of news helicopters, broadcast on local channels across Tsukimori city. Voice of criticism quickly rushed into investigation headquarters as a large anxiety spread across the people of Tsukimori.
The town had begun to shake at the crimes of the alter.
‘Strategy relay, this is bus team. Currently driving down Tsukimori Kodaira. Estimated ten minutes to destination at Arisu Tunnel.’
“This is Arachne. Understood. I’ve finished cleaning up on my side.”
Answering across the intercom was an alter similar in appearance to a spider. While she boasted tender, womanly limbs, her entire body was enveloped in what looked like the carapace of an arthropod. Three pairs of jointed legs sprouted from her back, and her visage was covered in the giant head of a spider.
The spider alter loitered in a room of a certain building. In her red compound eyes, she looked down at the police snipers she had just taken down. While the plan had been for them to shoot out the small bus, she had them bound in the threads she excreted.
“How are the rest of you holding up?”
“This is Ikaruga. Fair weather all around, police car seized.”
Driving a patrol car, the alter with a form like a squid answered.
With the damp tentacles growing from his jaw, he gripped the steering wheel. There were other cars driving around him, yet none of them noticed the squid alter. Shifting the coloring of his body exterior, he took on the form of a police officer. There was no one who could see through the elaborate hologram he produced by altering tens of thousands of pigment cells.
One after the next, the police strategy orders raced into the wireless radio loaded on the car.
“The order of command’s in chaos. If anything happens, I’ll contact you. That’s all. Anyone else?”
“Yep, yep, this is Hurtle! Hurtle and Murtle doing just fine!”
The boisterous cries came from a cat alter standing on the roof.
A height around middle school, and an entire body covered in a soft coat of fur, a long tail growing from the waist, matching claws on both her hands and feet, triangular ears sprouting from its head, and whiskers that sprouted straight out from her cheeks. Her blue and red heterochromia gleamed alluringly.
“For now, we’re still keeping watch over the designated point. Let me switch over to Murtle.”
To the side of the cat alter answering the intercom, another cat with identical features peered through a set of binoculars. Her hands gripped a rifle. Right below their eyes, they could see a strip of the beltway where traffic came to an end. The cat alter poised with a rifle indifferently answered the intercom.
“… This is Murtle. No helicopters in sight, no obstacles. Keep straight ahea—”
The cat alter Murtle suddenly cut her words. From Tsukimori Beltway, she shifted her gaze to the opposite building. The cat alter beside her, Hurtle’s whiskers twitched.
The change in the air current the twin alter picked up, that was the warning.
Murtle spoke in a tense voice.
“Rabbit confirmed… I repeat… Rabbit confirmed… most likely enroute from the highway… everyone, stay on alert.”
The bat alter, Ecole swallowed her breath at the report from the communication device in one ear. Codename Rabbit. The threat they anticipated from the start, and yet the worst possible obstacle. Before long, it would be upon them.
“Don’t lose your nerve, Ecole.”
The alter gripping the wheel, Lemeo obstinately answered. The enlarged eyes on his scale-covered face took a round to take in the surroundings.
“Even that thing can’t catch up to a bus speeding this fast. In the million to one change it catches up, we’ve got three people, don’t worry about it. We’ve even got old Freiger.”
“I know, but…”
The tiger alter racing in front of the bus, Freiger delightfully bared his fangs. Freiger had formerly been an executive of the now-late alter organization Leviathan. Unlike Ecole and Lemeo who slipped into human society to live, he was used to rough waters.
As he drove, Lemeo reached his tongue towards the bottle of mineral water he kept beside him. Skillfully manipulating his giant tongue, he opened the lid of the bottle and poured water into his throat with that very same motion.
“Whatever the case, as long as we enter Arisu Tunnel, it’s our game. All that’s left is to meet up with Ikaruga-san, and abduct this lot. Even the rabbit won’t be able to pursue us.”
“Abduct… what do you plan on doing to us…”
Clutching her young child, a mother showed a cowering face.
Lemeo gave a cynical laugh but no answer.
Ecole killed her heart and drew closer to the back
“Please keep quiet. That is, if you want to guarantee your safety.”
The mother glared at her with eyes of loathing, but didn’t open her mouth any further.
They hadn’t actually received any orders to kill. Their leader Arachne was moving so as not to put out casualties. This was nothing more than pressure to put on the hostages. There was little to be gained in actually laying hands on them. Or so it was supposed to be.
The small bus passed under a sign. One hundred meters to Arisu Tunnel.
“… Lemeo-san, sharp curve ahead. Drive safe.”
“Yeah, got it.”
The bus’s speed gradually dropped to make the bend. Across the soundproofed rail on the side of the road, a number of commercial buildings protruded out side by side.
A portion of the full moon’s ominous glimmer was interrupted by brick.
What a beautiful moon, Ecole thought something out of place as she lent an eye to the night sky, when she noticed a silhouette standing on a building roof. In the next moment, the figure had leaped off.
Ecole leaked a voice. With light feet that ignored the laws of gravity, the figure landed on the road, standing right in front of the bus to block its way.
The headlights lit up its form.
An unclouded pure white body. Who long protrusions swaying atop its head, an expressionless white mask, pure white belt-shaped protectors equipped here and there that seemed to disappear into the flesh. A form almost like a white rabbit
A young child among the hostages realized its identity and called out. The name of ‘Tsukimori’s Hero of Justice’—
The Rabbit—Gaimoon raised one leg overhead.
The next moment, a sharp impact jolted the buss. Lemeo lurched forward, Excole’s stance crumbled. The hostages leaked tome shrieks. Cracks ran down the bus windshield.
A single kick let loose from Gaimoon. Just a single kick had pierced through the bonnet, damaging the engine beneath it beyond repair.
Having lost its driving force, the bus glided with inertia, but Gaimoon didn’t withdraw a step.
Weight eight thousand kilograms, speed sixty kilometers, it caught that momentum with only one leg. Gaimoon kept pressing against the bus. Letting off a great volume of steam, when it had eventually lost its forward force, the bus completely stopped in its tracks. It would be impossible to drive again.
From behind Gaimoon a Harley engine sounded off like a beast’s roar.
“I wanted to see yooou, Gaimoooooon!!”
Ignoring codenames, Freiger called his foe’s name with anger and resentment.
Recovering to her feet, Ecole confirmed the situation. The cowering hostages were in a terribly agitated state. Yet that wasn’t in a sense of terror as it had been a moment ago.
Gaimoon had come. That fact had become their hope.
“This is bus team! Rabbit encountered on the bend before Arisu Tunnel! Bus heavily damaged, any further driving impossible! Awaiting orders!”
‘This is Arachne, understood! I’ll send Ikaruga, Hurtle and Murtle your way. I’ll also hurry there, but you’ll have to hold out until then.’
Arachne answered calmly, but her voice was tense. Without a moment’s display, Freiger screamed across the wireless.
‘Lemeo! Don’t lift a finger! This one is my prey!’
“… Settle down, I can hear you just fine, old man.”
On his motorcycle, Freiger took in another deep breath, expanding his chest. In his body blazed a flame to turn Gaimoon to ash.
Gaimoon extracted its leg from the bonnet, peeking at Freiger approaching it from behind. One beat later. A low-poised Freiger spat up scorching hot flames.
Gaimoon leapt aside to avoid it.
Expecting that, Freiger took off with his Harley. The black bike charged straight at the hero with the speed of a hawk; But Gaimoon touched both its hands to the ground, forcefully pushing its body towards Freiger. A powerful drop kick exploded into Freiger’s chest.
His eyes spun, but here stood a seasoned veteran. Right before he took on the attack, he leapt back and broke away from his bike. The Harley that had lost its rider toppled sideways and collided with the damaged bonnet. After rolling to land, Freiger swiftly stood, as Gaimoon once again landed softly with both feet from a kicking position.
Both competitors had returned to combat stances, barely any time lost. Freiger emitted his second burst of flames without a moment’s delay.
This time unable to dodge, Gaimoon’s white body blazed up all at once. To add to that Freiger readied his claws.
Don’t give it time to recover. He was about to unleash a coordinated consecutive strike.
But the next instant—
A flash like a bolt of lightning was emitted from Gaimoon’s body.
“… The hell’s that?”
Lemeo muttered in a daze. Ecole couldn’t tell what had happened either. The flames that had burned so strongly were extinguished in an instant. Gaimoon appeared from within the fading fire, not a single scratch on its pure white body. Facing it head on, Freiger opened his eyes in shock.
That became the opening. By the time he collected himself, Gaimoon had plunged into his bosom.
Ecole’s scream didn’t reach. Gaimoon went right into a low kick on Freiger’s right thigh, and as his footing crumbled and he fell face up, the hero hammered a straight fist aimed right at his stomach.
No longer able to breathe, Freiger raised a groan, after which he felt limp and unmoving.
The seasoned alter was no match at all, he was taken out instantly.
“… This is bus team Lemeo. Old Freiger was done in. Hurry with those reinforcements. How much longer?”
No response. Only a noise like crashing waves reverberated.
“… Oy, you’re listening, right? Someone respond. Hey, do you read!”
No matter how Lemeo screamed, there was no response from his comrades.
Despair, Ecole had never before felt the meaning of the word to such an extent.
Lemeo finally gave up and gazed out at Gaimoon.
The news helicopter’s light lit up the hero, and the collapsed Freiger.
“… No choice.”
When she thought Lemeo had muttered something, his grotesque tongue suddenly reached out. What the tongue grasped was a young child from the hostages.
“Stop! I’m begging you! Not the child! Anyone, take me instead!”
The mother let out a half-crazed cry. Ecole tried to stop him as well, but Lemeo took no heed. His tongue still wrapped around the child’s neck, he dragged him close. The child simply silently curled up. With the hostage put in sight, Gaimoon quietly stood on the spot. Any wrong moves and what would happen? Both sides reached an understanding on that point.
Now in such a situation, how did Tsukimori’s Hero of Justice plan to move?
At that moment, Ecole’s ears picked up a faint mutter. Like a pure crystal, a transparently ringing voice.
“—What it takes to be a hero, that is…”
Ecole raised a blank face.
The voice’s owner, Gaimoon readied its hand in a chop position as it muttered. As if it was instructing itself.
“To never give up, no matter the times. To never abandon someone crying.”
Gaimoon lowered its right-hand chop right where it stood. In the next instant, a bullet hole bored through the windshield glass.
Lemeo was sent flying back. The tongue binding went loose, freeing the child.
A thumb-size sphere rolled down the buss floor. It must have held a considerable heat, as smoke rose from it. Seeing that, Ecole finally noticed that sphere had been the means used to attack Lemeo.
Lemeo groaned but showed no signs of rising. While his body convulsed that never made it as far as a movement.
Unable to hold out any longer, the windshield glass finally crumbled away. As the outside air rushed in, Gaimoon plunged into the vehicle.
The hostage child delightedly rushed over to Gaimoon. Gaimoon gently stroked his head, its eyes flashing at Ecole without a second lost.
Ecole withdrew to the back, desperately steadying her breath. Lemeo was done in. Freiger was done in. She could hear the rotor of a helicopter outside. That was no news helicopter. That one was a police copter. The police force they were supposed to have taken care off were gathering in drovers. At this point, her group was completely surrounded. No place to run.
Ecole promptly fired an ultrasonic bullet.
Not even Gaimoon should be able to detect ultrasonic soundwaves, she thought. Without a moment’s delay, Gaimoon lifted its left hand in front of its face. A blink, and a circular organ generated on its left forearm. That shield made of biological tissue dispersed the mass of sound in its entirety.
“… No way.”
Ecole absentmindedly muttered. What was that shield? In the first place, was Gaimoon able to perceive her attack? Just what sort of power lay hidden in this monster?
“… Come in, this is Ecole. Someone, please respond, come in…”
Practically begging, Ecole continued to call into her transmitter.
Gaimoon slowly walked towards her.
Hero of justice?
Wrong. What was before her eyes was- to alter- a nightmare.
“Please… someone… someone respond…!”
As she cried out, Ecole did nothing but pray. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!
– Someone, save me.
A clicking noise entered Ecole’s transmission. Someone had intruded into the wireless channel.
‘Dear Alters, I ask of you. A life in hell, a peaceful death. Which would you choose?’
An unfamiliar voice. The noise mixed in rendered its nature unclear.
But it was lacking in intonation to an uncanny extent, the heatless voice set her heart astir.
It was as if she was being called to from the depths of hell.
‘If you choose to live through hell, then move as I tell you. I will grant you escape from this situation. I have the power.’
Who the voice belonged to? That didn’t matter.
Whoever it was, they told Ecole they had the answer she was seeking.
That alone was enough.
“I don’t care if it’s hell. Please save me.”
The other party immediately issued the orders. But on those joke-like contents, Ecole didn’t know how she should respond. Gaimoon only a step away. No time left to hesitate.
Ecole made her resolve.
‘First, ask what it thinks about a house mouse with intelligence.’
“… What do you think about a house mouse with intelligence?”
Ecole asked with hesitation. After it left her mouth, she grew ashamed of what she was doing in such a situation. But in the next moment, that changed to shock. Gaimoon’s step suddenly stopped. As if it was flustered.
‘When your enemy shows an opening, fire your ultrasonic at the water. Aim for the water behind Gaimoon.’
What Ecole spotted was Leo’s water bottle.
The PET bottle remained in the driver seat drink holster, around half of its contents remaining. Its location was perfectly right behind Gaimoon.
Ecole aimed at the water, and fired off a shot. Gaimoon’s reaction was just barely too late. She hadn’t been aiming at the hero in the first place, so the ultrasonic waves passed by and collided with the water. On the boundary between air and water, the ultrasonic waves perfectly reflected. The lump of identical sound that reflected back slipped its way under Gaimoon’s notice and collided.
The sudden attack got Gaimoon to its knees. It had lost its sense of equilibrium, it seems.
With the first ever sight of the hero on their knees, Ecole couldn’t hide her even greater shock.
‘Gaimoon will only be down for a brief moment. In that time, press the switch for the smokescreen your group loaded onto the bus. Wake up your comrade and withdraw. Your ride will be there shortly.’
With no delay, Ecole pressed the switch embedded in her wireless radio. Right after, a pink smoke spouted into the inside and outside of the bus.
The hostages raised shrieks. She could hear angry roars fly from the police outside. Of course, that had nothing to do with Ecole. She could ‘see’ the world through sound.
Paying no regard to the smokescreen, Ecole proceeded down the carriage.
“Lemeo-san, snap to it! We’re pulling out!”
“… W-what the hell’s going on?”
The numbness had largely subsided, Lemeo barely managed to stand his body. Ecole held his shoulder up and proceeded out the bus through a broken window.
“Freiger-san, where’s Freiger-san!?”
Enveloped in pink mist, Freiger unsteadily stood. Wounds ran all across his body. Despite his condition, the man wouldn’t step down.
“You lot go ahead. I’ll fight Gaimoon to the end…”
“That’s… you can’t! The mission has failed, we’re retreating…!”
“Shut it! For us first generation, the fight is our life! Just shut up and let me turn this place to ash!”
Ecole couldn’t say anything to his imposing bearing. At that time, a patrol car raced towards them. While Ecole stood on guard a moment, seeing the tentacle reaching out from the window, she opened her eyes wide.
“Hey, need a lift?”
Learning her comrades were safe, Ecole leaked a breath of relief. Disguised as a policeman, Ikaruga responded in his usual lighthearted way.
“We can talk later. We’re taking off before the cops notice. Freiger, you…”
The fake policeman looked at a tattered Freiger and narrowed his eyes. There, Freiger gave a gentle smile unbefitting of his form.
“Tell the twin midgets and Doc Moel’s girl. You had to leave me behind.”
“… That so. Then you two, get in.”
Ecole issued a protest at Ikaruga’s far-too easy acceptance, but noticing the approaching police squadrons, she shut her mouth. Freiger wouldn’t turn their way any longer. There was the back of a warrior proceeding to the ground where he died.
“… Is that the good fight you’ve been looking for, Freiger?”
Ikaruga muttered in a low voice. Confirming Ecole and Lemeo had boarded the back seats, he immediately took off. A life in hell, or a gentle death. Unaware of what death lay ahead, the patrol car raced down the road obscured by smoke.
“Gaimoon… Hey, Gaimoon…”
Shaken back and forth, Gaimoon’s hazy vision gradually began to focus. The child it had saved, alongside his mother, peered at it with worried faces.
“Are you okay? Does it hurt?”
Gaimoon shook its head, it informed them it was fine to the best of its abilities.
The smoke was already beginning to clear. It seemed the Alter had escaped.
Rising, Gaimoon confirmed the state of the hostages. None of them had suffered any major injuries.
“—You’re Gaimoon, I presume.”
Heavy steps surrounded the bus. The light illuminating the hero, police officers clad in body armor pointed their guns.
“You’re under arrest. The laws of Japan have no provisions that recognize a ‘Hero of Justice’.”
Surrounded by gun barrels, Gaimoon quietly raised its hands. The other hurried officers passed by its side to take charge of the hostages.
“Gaimoon saved me! He’s not a bad person!”
“It will be alright, young boy. Now come with me.”
With the hostages all led away, Gaimoon lowered its shoulders for the time being. Soon its mind turned to how it would escape this situation, and it was then. Every sensation in its body informed it of an evil presence. Gaimoon suddenly leapt and pushed down the remaining police officer pointing his gun. The cop had no time to take action before flames flooded into the bus interior.
With no delay, Gaimoon punched a fist into the fire. A pale blue electric current raced over the surface of its body, and like a parlor trick, the three-thousand-degree Celsius flames died away.
“I see, so it’s an electric extinguisher…”
In no time, in place of the smoke, crimson hellfire had taken in the area around the bus. The flames to his back, a one-eyed tiger alter roared.
“The ions and soot particles in the flame react to an electric field. I guess it’s possible in theory, but… ka ka ka, I thought controlling fire was my patented property, you’ve got one up on me there…”
The tiger alter bared his fangs, forming a ferocious smile.
The flames prevented the other officers from getting close. The officer it had pushed away watched over the state of affairs with a tense face.
“I’ll take on the alter. Officer, you confirm everyone’s safety.”
After a moment of thought, the officer gave a heavy nod.
“… I’m counting on you.”
Gaimoon leapt out of the bus’ front and landed on the road. Shaking away the flames assailing the bus with the electricity from its body, it walked towards the tiger alter.
“I’ve known Gaimoon for ages. He’s been our enemy for a long, long time.”
The tiger alter produced a thick cigar from the pocket of his mostly burnt-up jacket.
The tip of the cigar he bit lighted up on its own.
“That’s why I can call bullshit when I see it… The old Gaimoon was a vindictive, troublesome bastard… but at the very least, he wasn’t a monster like you. Three years ago, that day when you showed yourself before us, you weren’t the Gaimoon we had fought to that point.”
The tiger Alter blew out smoke. And grabbing his eyepatch, he tossed it into the flame.
The eyeball had been crushed, the lasting scar of single stroke running vertical came exposed.
“Answer me, who are you? Three years ago, who was it that crushed my left eye, crushed Leviathan, and defeated that person?”
After Gaimoon left a space, it suddenly pointed high its finger high up to the moon hanging over the night sky.
“—When your heart is touched by sorrow, the white moonbeams shall light out justice.”
Disregarding the taken aback tiger, Gaimoon took on a stance reminiscent of Chinese martial arts. Alongside a dance as if to encourage itself, it dispatched its battle cry.
“Here stands the natural enemy of evil, Gaimoon!”
An exaggerated introduction straight out of a kabuki play.
The tiger alter’s mouth twitched, before he finally raised a grand laugh.
“Ka ka ka! I see, I see! You’re Gaimoon, nothing more, nothing less! Then I might as well name myself too…”
The tiger’s smile changed to a malicious countenance of rage.
One of the original Alter siblings. Captain of Calamity Co. Leviathan’s third specialized unit, Freiger! With this life Lord Helvenom blessed me with on the line, I’ll rip the skin from your bones! Here I go! Com Plete Com Buuuustioooooon!!”
Alongside the tiger—Alter Freiger’s bellow, a blaze swept over to burn life and soul. Condensing his own heat, Freiger had discarded rationality and all else, melting the road’s asphalt away as he charged.
Gaimoon grandly drew back its right leg. Pale sparks raced down it. Enhanced flesh contracted as powers condensed.
Freiger unleashed the wave at her.
towards the wild beast, its fangs bared, the hair on its body standing on end, Gaimoon released the concentrated power. A tornado-like roundhouse kick with the left leg as the axis. A gale picked up with the hero at the center. The flames went out in an instant, even the surrounding officers blown back. With all the force of the kick hammered into his neck, Freiger was slammed down sideways, colliding with the protective wall.
“L… Lord Helvenom…”
Freiger’s flames died. Crevices suddenly spread along the tiger’s visage. Freiger stared at his own rapidly collapsing form with a look of despair.
“… Your Alter cells are experiencing necrosis. Right now, your external organs have begun a rapid breakdown.”
Gaimoon said as it walked over to Freiger.
It hadn’t taken his life. But Freiger’s life as a alter would soon die out.
“Very soon, you’ll lose your ability to transform.”
The external organs formed from Alter cells were called the very essence of a alter, after all.
“… Kill me. Who the hell’d want to show the world their burnt-out cinders.”
“There’s something I need to ask you.”
Gaimoon quietly asked.
“Was Lord Helvenom really defeated?”
“… What are you talking about? Three years ago, with your very own hands, you…”
Freiger cut his words along the way. A blaze of madness ignited in the eyes of a dying tiger.
“I see… I see, I see, so that’s what it is…”
As if in a convulsing fit, Freiger continued to laugh. With each laugh, his crystalizing skin crumbled away. Even so, Freiger’s outburst wouldn’t stop.
“So that rumor was true…! The black Helvenom… you met him in the flesh…!”
“Lord Helvenom is supposed to be a red skull. Answer me, Freiger! What do you mean by black.”
Gaimoon’s mind flashed back to the scene of a memory halfway between dream and reality. A burnt building, the many people collapsing, the flowing blood, the black skull that stood.
“Are you listening, native trash! Your nightmare isn’t over yet! Leviathan still lives! Soon a storm will be blowing in this town! You’d better prepare yourself, Gaimoon!”
As he said that, Freiger shoved some sort of capsule into his mouth.
When Gaimoon tried to stop him, he had already swallowed.
“… We don’t forgive, we don’t forget, quiver and wait for us to come.”
His expression in ecstasy, Freiger boomed in a brain-jolting voice.
“Long live lord Helvenom! Glory to Leviathan!!”
His body raised a pillar of flame as it burst.
Jumping back and avoiding by a hair’s breadth, Gaimoon silently looked at the exploding flames. The officers hastily assumed their positions. It did seem after message spread of Freiger’s suicide, and the alters’ retreat, they had determined Gaimoon as their next target.
Gaimoon shook off their advances and jumped off the road. Like the wind, the hero’s figure disappeared into the Tsukimori City night.
The patrol car Ecole rode arrived at a port in Tsukimori City.
Infiltrating that area where the containers brought in by tankers were put on display, the car came to a stop where there were no people around.
From his police disguise, Ikaruga reverted to his original alter form. The tentacles extending from his head in the shape of a squid comfortably writhed.
“That was harsh. It’s a real bother to keep up a disguise you know. At my age, this old man is beat. Good work out there, you two.”
In the back seats, concealed under the blankets, Ecole and Lemeo finally popped out their faces.
“… Are Tsumigi-san and the others gathering here too?”
“Young lady. It’s not Tsumigi, its Arachne. Using human names in this form is a big no-no.”
“Ah, I-I’m sorry.”
Each alter possessed two names, one for native form, one for alter.
Ecole had formed a connection with the alter community around four years prior. She hadn’t yet become fully accustomed to alter culture. Watching her curl up, Ikaruga answered her prior question.
“If we’re to believe that one’s words. A map here should have been sent to everyone’s terminal. Oh I’m glad they’re well prepared.”
“… Is it true? When you said someone jammed our transmission?”
“Yeah, the transmission channel we used was cut off by someone. Thanks to that, everyone was left by their lonesome self. When I thought it was hopeless, someone called out from a different channel, and here we.”
“Is it alright to think of the voice that let us escape as an ally?”
“We’re safe for now, so I’d hope so.”
Ikaruga said with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Even so, I’m getting a feeling he’s even stronger than when the leader was taken out three years ago, that Gaimoon…”
Even before they began scheming this plan, he informed them of the threat that was Gaimoon. They weren’t making light of the hero. They were supposed to have made countermeasures. But they had all fallen apart on Gaimoon’s arrival.
Ecole had no cards to play from the start.
Something tapped against the door of the patrol car.
An alter with a spider’s head, Arachne. Ecole hurriedly opened the door.
“Ikaruga-san, Ecole, Lemeo… good, you’re safe…”
“Arachne-san… umm, but Freiger-san was…”
On the verge of saying it, Ecole noticed Hurtle and Murtle, the twin cat alters behind Arachne. The two hung their heads sobbing.
“… They already know. Just leave them be for now. Freiger was like a father to them.”
“Whatever the case, that’s everyone.”
Stepping down from the car, Lemeo and Ikaruga warily took a look around. Ecole also strained her ears, but all she could hear was the beat of her comrades, no other human presences to speak of.
Arachne also kept up her guard as she answered.
“I’ve spread my threads around, if anyone was here I’d know. Does the fact that they aren’t mean they didn’t intend to show themselves from the start?”
“I’m fine with anything, long as it’s not a trap. Well, it irks me we went on a fool’s errand…”
Right, at the moment the air around everyone relaxed,
A dreadful pressure came down on them.
Ecole hurt as if her throat was being strangled, she fell to her knees on the spot.
She couldn’t let out her voice, her understanding wasn’t able to catch up to whatever was happening. A seething fear whose reason remained oblivious to her.
It was practically as if some stranger was churning up her brain cells, forcefully bringing just an emotion of fear to mind. She couldn’t go against it, she had no means to fight back.
The others held their chests, letting out pained groans. The sole member who hadn’t fallen to their knees, Ikaruga, stood with his body convulsing.
“What’s that supposed to mean, this pressure… don’t tell me, that person’s…!”
“That’s right, it’s Terreur.”
Ecole was a loss for words.
When up a moment ago, she hadn’t felt the slightest presence.
At that very instant, sure enough, someone’s presence was approaching them.
She couldn’t feel a pulse. What resounded was an emotionless voice—if she had to equate it to something, the sound of a corpse. Unseen, the voice’s owner carried on.
“If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back. I am that abyss. Good alters, you have no possible means of going against me.”
“What sort of… drivel are you…!”
Lemeo tried to threaten him, but his tongue wouldn’t work. Ecole was the same, the pressure came down on her, keeping her down. Ikaruga alone put up resistance to it. He wasn’t the usual light-hearted Ikaruga, he was panicking. His eyes were darting around.
“Why can you use Terreur… just who are you…!”
Terreur. Upon hearing that word, what surfaced in Ecole’s head was a certain mythos.
The dear teacher who once explained to her how she could live as an alter had taught her, the legend of this town. Passed from alter to alter, the Alchemuls Mythos.
── The Kaijin given life in this world were weak and divided,
lives that would fall with each swipe of the blade.
In order to live, they needed unity ──
The footsteps approach.
They’re heavy, dead footsteps that crush all underfoot.
Enduring the suffocating air, Ecole looks up at their owner.
── So the Alters gathered.
Under the skull possessed of battle and death.
Under the skull who would rule all through fear ──
The first thing to enter her eyes was a jet-black skull, all the flesh and blood stripped away. A full-face helmet in the shape of a skull. As if to curse the living, a malign shape perfuse with nihility. A coat the color of crows’ wings fluttered, that form could belong to no other but a god of death. If fear itself had to take shape, then there was no doubt it would take on such a form.
Ecole knew. She knew the name of this skull
── The name of his skull is Lord Helvenom.
Ruler of the spiraling twin dragons who swallow the moon.
Controlling the grotesque and the dead, the absolute evil for the Alters ──
Lord Helvenom. In the alters’ mythos, the symbol of fear and rule. But this one was just a little different from what she had heard. Lord Helvenom was supposed to be a red skull.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, ladies and gentlemen. I am the Second Lord Helvenom who has inherited the will of the first.”
A black skill—the second Lord Helvenom stood aloof, lightly waving both hands. Alongside his hand movements like the conductor of an orchestra, Ecole and the others’ bodies suddenly felt lighter. Her comrades violently coughing as they repeatedly forced air down their throats, as of yet, were still unable to move.
“… I remember,” the one who said it was Arachne.
“Three years ago, when the first Lord Helvenom was defeated, the rumor did go around… that Lord Helvenom had a successor, what’s more, that person fought with Gaimoon, and returned alive…”
“Hey now, what are you talking about? Never heard it in my li—”
“… It was during the Meteor Seminar fire incident in the Koheru district.”
Lemeo’s words were interrupted by Ikaruga.
“I fire broke out in a building where a prep school was being held. Eight dead, they were all kids and teachers from the school. From the terrible states of the bodies, there were suspicions of alter involvement.”
Ecole also remembered. The victims were the same age as her, so it left an impression.
“… There was another strange rumor about that incident. Talks that there were two supposed alters fighting at the scene of the crime. One was a red one that looked like a rabbit.”
“A red rabbit, is it…?”
“That would presumably be Gaimoon. The color was just the fire. And the other, the one who fought evenly with Gaimoon. As I recall, it was definitely a black skull.”
Someone swallowed their spit.
Out of curiosity, Hurtle timidly asked.
“You killed? Eight? You?”
In place of a response, Lord Helvenom turned his coat. The black skull buried into the shadows. The footsteps grew distant. Like a spirit returning to the bowels of hell.
“Hey! Wait! We’re not done talking here!”
“… A week from now, I’ll appear before you again. My new brethren…”
The corpse voice echoed.
As if even forgetting wasn’t permitted, the voice continued to reverberate in their heads.
“You’ve made the choice. Now resist your predetermined fate of ruin. To defeat the moon of justice, the time has come to awaken the twin dragons once more…”
Altogether, the voice ceased to be. The presence of that Lord Helvenom was no longer around. Along with the others, Ecole’s heart pounded as she stood.
The lingering smell of fear persisted like a curse.
“New brethren… awaken the twin dragons…”
Repeating the second Lord Helvenom’s words, for some reason, Arachne’s face rose in surprise.
“Don’t tell me, he means…”
“Yeah, what crazy talk…”
Ikaruga filled with a cold anger as he spoke.
“He’s reforming Calamity Co. Leviathan, I’d reckon…”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. You don’t have to worry. Didn’t bang anything too important. Thank you for all the support.”
Gaimoon sat along on the water tower of a building.
“… I know, I do think I pushed it a bit. But I couldn’t think of anything else… it’s been a while since I had to go up against three opponents. I never thought I’d fall to a surprise attack.”
The other party over the transmission teased Gaimoon over the fight. The full details of the battle had been preserved beginning to end on the news camera.
“It’s not like I let my guard down. The alter suddenly asked a strange question. She asked me about this book I just happened to borrow, see. Did I tell you about it? That book father recommended to me.”
Gaimoon took out the sports bag kept to one side.
From inside the bag, it pulled out a single paperback.
‘Flowers for Algernon’, stuck with the seal of Tsukimori First High. The story of a young man and mouse who gained super intelligence through brain surgery.
“Thanks to that, I let them get away… and again, I couldn’t stop an alter from dying…”
It’s not your fault. The speaker on the phone consoled.
As long as an ally of justice fights, there are lives you’ll have protected. By proud.
“… Yeah, thank you. I’ll drop by later. Well then, see ya.”
Gaimoon hung up, and looking up at the moon, she removed her mask.
The crystalized exterior organs crumbled, riding the wind as they fell away.
‘What does it take to be a hero?’
She recalled the conversation that had entered her ear that evening. The dialogue between her childhood friend, and an underclassman girl.
“For instance, I see it like this.”
She said, holding her fist straight out.
“A hero is someone who ‘absolutely’ never gives up, no matter how harsh the situation is! If I said that, would he tell me there are no absolutes again? Take-chan…”
She—Omou Mia said, and spat out a large breath.
“… But you know, no matter what, I’m not going to give up. On Take-chan, or on Gaimoon. The peace of this city the previous Gaimoon entrusted to me.”
Holding Gaimoon’s mask in her arms, she looked up at the moon.
No matter how the town changed, Tsukimori City’s night sky hadn’t changed.
From back when she could speak so freely with Takeru. Not in the slightest.
“They’re all delayed from traffic regulation. What shall we do, Chiyo-sama? Should we take a detour?”
“We’re fine where we are. As long as you drive safe, I care not.”
“Yes, very well.”
The woman in Japanese clothing sitting in the driver’s seat, Fuwa Akemi pressed down on the accelerator. Regardless of her clothing, her handling was light. The station wagon quietly ran down Tsukimori City’s national highway.
Sitting in the backseat, ‘he’ directed his eyes out the window.
When such a ruckus had broken out in the same city, the town he could see from here hadn’t changed at all.
“… Freiger was a fool. To think he still had some apoptonitro on him. There’s no need to zealously cling to the rules of a dissolved organization.”
The woman in a wheelchair in the back, Akutsu Chiyo said in an uninflected voice.
And she went on.
“So how was it? The feeling of using Terreur on an alter for the first time?”
‘He’ gazed at the jet-black mask in his hands. The inactive mask had no expression. No matter what technology produced it, as long as a human didn’t equip it, the mask couldn’t exhibit any power.
“… It worked on the second gen, but Ikaruga resisted. It looks like my Terreur isn’t complete enough to use on the first generation of alters.”
“One who grants fear must first learn his own fear. If you really do intend to rule every alter, then you’d better start by taming your own fears. Get it in your head already.”
“Like you did as the first gen?”
“Who are you calling the first? All that’s left here is an empty husk that got her recompense.”
Chiyo said with white eyes that didn’t reflect the slightest light.
“Evil shall always be judged by the hand of justice, just as I was in the battle three years ago. Yet you still insist you’re going to do it?”
“Of course. That’s why I obtained the power of Lord Helvenom in the first place. I thought you knew that a long time ago, grandma.”
“Hmph. All I knew was that I had a foolish grandson.”
And there, ‘he’ suddenly remembered something and asked.
“… Hey, grandma. What do you think it takes to be a hero?”
“Is that some sort of psychological test?”
“Nah, just a question.”
“Heroes are vile tumors born of the times. What else could they possibly be? Do you have a different take on it?”
“This is just a probably, but I think they’re people who keep winning.”
“Right. They fight, and fight, and fight, and pile up victories. That why a hero needs someone to fight. They need an evil to slay.”
“… And is that the reason you’re dragging every alter and this town into your fight?”
Fed up as she was, Chiyo spoke in a voice with no sadness.
“I’m sure you’ll become an evil greater than me. As the successor of Alchemuls—Takeru.”
‘He’—Okina Takeru gazed at Helvenom’s mask.
Feared, revered by all Alters, the word ‘absolute’ that couldn’t even be tacked onto the concept of god.
It is impossible for any phenomenon in the world to be absolute. If there was, it could only ever exist in the human mind. That’s why Takeru would have to become it.
In order to save Omou Mia who lived hidden by the mask of justice.
He would need to become the ‘evil’ that opposed the hero.
“Now, Mia, let us begin,” Takeru said.
“The good fight of justice and evil.”