It happened when the nightmare of an orientation was over, just as Suzuran was dozing off in the bed.
Now exceedingly oversensitive to outside stimulus, Suzuran leapt up at the sound of the intercom.
The ticking wall clock displayed a little past two. No light filtered in through the gap in the curtains. It was the dead of the night, the ox hour, in zodiac terms.
(Erk… just when I was getting nice and cozy with Hasebe-senpai…)
But the school life where that possibility existed was a thing of the past. The classmates she got along with and her wonderful senpai were nowhere around.
Half asleep, she teetered over with tangled feet and pressed the intercom button on the desk.
‘Get to the front gate this instant.’
‘Big job. Don’t’ forget your uniform. Hurry.’
Click. The call cut off. Suzuran stared at the receiver a while… before setting it down somewhat violently. The fact that her dream was just a dream made her fiercely irritated, the anger and fear sending her drowsiness off packing.
The car he said was a Lamborghini let off quite a noise as it flew down the road at an outrageous speed. The one driving was Iori. Suzuran was frozen stiff in the passengers’ seat.
“Umm… how far are we…”
Breaking into half a cold sweat, Suzuran who had glanced at the meter decided to pretend she never saw it.
“Two hundred forty kilometers is nothing; does it really matter? The real ones from that world are far faster than I could ever hope to be.”
“I see… so where are we… geh!?”
The car changed course with a sudden brake. It accelerated steeply again as it looped around the ramp, reaching a speed a little unfathomable to cross a toll gate with…
They just barely cleared it.
If only slightly, Suzuran got the feeling she understood how it felt for a thread to pass through a needle.
“Don’t get in a tizzy. We’re in a hurry this time.”
“Just what is it!? What the heck is our job today!?”
“We’re going to mess with the ally of justice.”
Down the misty mountain road, the car was climbing at what was— for argument’s sake— a sensible speed.
“Ally of… justice…”
“Who else is there to stand against an evil organization?”
Suzuran thought a bit, but couldn’t hit on anything. In the first place, she didn’t really watch shows targeted at boys.
“Even so. We’re not dealing with a tokusatsu brand cyborg or polymer suit. We’re up against an old and noble lineage, a troublesome one.”
“… Are they also a person of the world of darkness?”
“You could say that. That’s why I said it was a big job. An expert at devouring evil… no, they’re worse than that. They don’t even peck at the remains. They simply slaughter and bury, agitating that world from times of old… that sorta pest.”
Perhaps because she was looking at Iori’s grim profile. The image of a dictator rose in Suzuran’s head.
“And that’s an ally of justice?”
“Why of course. He’s the hero.”
The car lowered speed and stopped on the gravel shoulder. The engine cut off to silence.
“That sounds stupid. Are you stupid?”
“Now open your ears and listen well, foolish knave! Unwilling as I am, it is well within my power to aaaaaaaamply humiliate my two billion yen’s worth from that seedy body of yours, you know!?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t say anything! I won’t say anything anymore, but…!”
“But what!? Talking back again!?”
“I won’t, I won’t! It’s just, a hero… are they possibly related to the sacred assembly…?”
Iori steadied his disheveled panting as he sunk his body into the seat.
“You’re perceptive for a fool. He hasn’t been made public yet, but… at this rate, I’m sure they’ll eventually start parading him around like that mascot Ferriol of theirs.”
“Feeeh… is that true? Then, err… judging by where this is going… is there a demon lord as well?”
“… I know, right.”
“That’s right. There isn’t one. But the hero exists. And he’s on top of that viewing platform.”
In the direction Iori pointed was a stairway lined with trees. A promenade. There was a motorcycle parked right next to it. Was that what the vehicle of the modern-day hero?
It was somewhat cool, Suzuran thought…
“So… anyway… what am I supposed to do?”
“Have him eat lead.”
Thup. Black iron touched Suzuran’s knees as she sat in the passengers’ seat. She had seen something like it yesterday, at the warehouse on the pier. The thing that threw out the vwooming high-speed objects and sounded like a firecracker.
A handgun, handgun, handgun… though it went by other names.
She tried picking it up with her shaking hands only for them to torment her with even heavier tremors.
“I-IIIIIII can’t do that! M-m-mmmmurder is a bit too soon…!”
“Don’t be stupid. You’re up against a hero. That’s not enough to kill.”
“Even a foolish nave like you didn’t fall to a bullet hell. More so, if you think you can kill him, then be my guest. It would be a huge load off my shoulders.”
“If you end him, forget writing off your two billion yen, I’ll gladly give you my mansion, be your butler and kiss your shoes.”
Was it really that reckless? Or perhaps… was that just how much he looked down on her?
While she never reached that conclusion, the form of this arrogant youth kneeling before her (even if the kiss was going so far) was quite sweet to imagine. Despite what he said, Iori boasted decent aesthetics.
(H… he’ll call my milady…? Kufufu)
“Stop drooling and get going already.”
She hated him. End of story.
Scrubbing up her tears, Suzuran got off the car with a revolver in hand. And… before closing the door, she peeked back in.
“Something else you need?”
Pressing up his glasses, Iori let out quite an irritated voice.
Suzuran mischievously placed a hand on her smug grin.
“Humiliating me and kissing me… master, don’t tell me you’ve got a thing for me…?”
Hmhmm, and a wink.
(How about that, he’s down for the count!)
Or so she thought.
Iori’s eyebrows bent back, the corners of his eyes raised to an angle she had never seen before.
“Listen here. Listen well. You bloody fool! Say that after you can tell your chest from your back! In the first place, are you even wearing that apron the right way around!? Huh!?”
Suzuran slammed the door shut with a kick.
(They’re practically bulging! Blasted glasses! Just how screwed are his eyes!?)
Her shoulders square, she marched forward as if kicking the earth. As she hung her head, her irritating chest… the specific numbers aside… stuck out adequately, to say the least.
(Good grief! Hero or whatever, I’ll end him in one shot.)
There. Noticing she had begun thinking frightening thoughts, Suzuran shook her head. The depths of an early spring mountain, with the cold of the mist that clung to it, rapidly cooled her head to the core.
(But the hero exists—)
Was there a demon lord in the past? Perhaps there’s still one somewhere…?
It was an idiotic tale.
(A world of darkness… a hero of justice, if I were the hero, I might actually get to have some fun.)
If instead of Iori, it was Bishop Ferriol who appeared. Instead of being practically kidnapped by a foppish face like Iori’s. If Bishop Ferriol escorted her with that all-enveloping kind smile, she’d probably be motivated to save the world.
But sadly, her current standing was as a member of an evil organization. No matter how she looked at it, just some nameless goon(?). Her jobs were petty. If she could dream big about world domination (or at least helping out with it), then perhaps it might be exhilarating, but last time was just theft, and this time…?
(Shoot him even if he won’t die… what’s the point of that?)
Without really understanding, Suzuran climbed the steps.
“Dammit… I’ve got to hurry! The night is opening up!”
The boy cried out. The fog was so thick only his silhouette could be made out, but from the pitch of his voice, Suzuran judged him to be around high school age.
If a beer-bellied balding salaryman or a housewife in her slippers was the hero, she’d be quite reluctant to get involved… so Suzuran thought as she sprawled herself over the stairs and popped out her head.
“Fuh! Haah! … Taaah!!”
Now then, as the lights rose in the eastern sky, the boy was violently moving around the white darkness. Stepping left and right, or so she thought when he stepped in, swinging with what he had in his hand. His stance was one ready with a sword or something. His shoulders rose heavily with each breath.
No, as the lights came she saw it wasn’t just a sword or something, it was a sword. A double-edged one, a western weapon that looked straight out of a manga or video game.
“Today’s the day I reach level twenty!”
Which meant he was level nineteen right now. Decently strong as the adventure headed into the midgame, but a little unreliable to take on the mid-boss… somewhere around there.
His spirits ramped up, the boy continued his shadow boxing… no, shadow fencing? His physical abilities, when covered by mist just made it look like he was performing some staged wire action. What’s more, the instant Suzuran let her guard down, he was moving too fast for her eyes to follow.
It was then that Suzuran used the cellphone she received from Iori for the first time.
“… Ah, hello, master!?”
“It’s an idiot! I found an idiot…!”
“He’s kinda crying out as he’s playing swords and dragons all on his own…!”
‘And I told you. That pitiful empty crown of his, or the back, or his crotch, just anything, get in a few shots. Hurry.’
He snapped. When she faithfully made a report.
… Although did ‘I found an idiot’ really count as a report?
She questioned her own actions… it was true she wanted to alert someone else of this idiotic existence as soon as possible… as she readied the revolver in both hands.
With the boy in continuous motion, it was hard to set her aim but,
(One shot… one kill…!)
Devoting her body and soul, Suzuran aimed for the instant his body stopped moving.
Bang! The first bullet she shot in her life came with an intense recoil. The high school girl Suzuran had no way of knowing, but this was a model called the Rolls Royce of Colt revolvers, the Python 357 Magnum. The shock of the magnum cartridge was naturally not something a young girl’s arm could contain… her catapulted two arms were shot up and behind her, ripping her stomach off from the stairs, and sending her body falling back. And.
“Huh? Whoah! Gyaaaaah!?”
She was rolling down the stairs.
When the rolling finally ended, while she hadn’t gone unconscious, she was tormented by a terrible sense of vertigo. The ringing in her ears from the gunshot didn’t help.
First, she retrieved the fallen gun. She was on a landing she had passed not too long ago. A brick square around ten meters in both directions surrounded by rails. It wasn’t as vast as the top, but this was also a viewing platform, technically.
“Get out of there!!”
The boy’s voice was sudden. Without the time to turn, Suzuran’s body was coiled with an unnaturally thick stream of fog.
“Heh? Eh? Aguh!?”
The fog constricted her torso.
Her body rose right up. She was being lifted by the fog.
The pressure was terrible. As if she was being squashed by invisible walls on all sides. She couldn’t breathe. If she spat out the air in her lungs, she wouldn’t be able to inhale again.
(I’m dying? I…)
It was a rather cold thought, but each one of Iori’s words that revived in her shaking consciousness affirmed it. She was being eaten by a demon-eat-demon world. This this was a demon.
When stuck in a pinch, her true powers would awaken… it seems it wasn’t that sort of drama.
The world isn’t so sweet.
That was the sole philosophy Suzuran had learned firsthand.
(Ah… I’m dead… well damn…)
The moment before her consciousness went white. Just as she thought she saw Iori’s smarmy grin in the fog.
A gallant, gut-wrenching cry. It happened just as the sunrays poured in through the mountains.
For a brief moment, Suzuran witnessed the form of a pure white giant. She perceived she was being clenched in that giant’s hand.
Immediately after, right before her eyes, a human shadow raced forth like an arrow. In his hand, his sword scattered the morning light in silver hues.
It was a time like a dream or illusions.
The giant blurred and vanished. A feeling of falling.
Ah, this is going to be painful… Suzuran recalled the bricks below her, but the impact never came. Because she fell into the boy’s arms.
(… C-could this be… is this my fated meeting…!?)
The thought did cross her mind.
The hero might save a weak maiden captured by an evil organization.
(S-should I pretend to be unconscious for just a bit…!?)
She did consider it. But that lasted less than a second.
After a breath, the boy asked her.
“Are you alright?”
“Me? Oh, yes, thanks for saving…”
Bit by bit, with some embarrassment, she looked towards him. Her eyes met with the strong-willed boy’s.
“Aren’t you the first year Agawa Suzuran…?”
“…… Se… senpaiiiiiii!?”
Suzuran’s cry resounded through the mountain just as clearly as the gunshot.
To think she’d encounter the senpai who she’d met in her dream like this. She did get this hunch she recognized the voice. Come to think of it, didn’t he ride a motorcycle too? Or so the hindsight was catching up to her.
“U-umm, please… put me down.”
“Huh? Yeah, sorry…”
Both their faces flushed, a silence descending as they took a reasonable distance from one another.
The boy’s name was Hasebe Shouki. An upperclassman at the school Suzuran had attended.
Suzuran was officially part of the track and field team, but thanks to her superior athletics, she was occasionally borrowed by other clubs. Shouki was originally on the go-straight-home club, but his athletics had him borrowed for competitions.
With those connections, they had many times found themselves together over extracurriculars. They did talk, and while they hadn’t even held hands… Suzuran did secretly have a crush.
He was the antithesis of Iori’s abnormal aesthetics, a healthy and sound young man. Stiff and tight eyebrows, a straight nose line as if to embody his personality. Black eyes so deep they might pull you in, yet with kindness at their depths.
What’s more, he was great at sports, and despite his poor record of leaving early and coming late, he got good grades, a mystery even the teacher camp had to tip their hats to— It would be stranger if Suzuran didn’t take to him at her age.
(So my senpai…)
Hiding her face, she lowered her shoulders heartbroken.
(Was an idiot.)
She noticed right after.
(Nooooo, wait a tick, hold it. In this situation, I’m quite the idiot myself, aren’t I?)
In a mountain at the break of dawn, maid uniform, a gun in one hand.
Amazing, wonderful. Nay, dreadful.
Rather than mulling over what excuse he might believe, she got the feeling it would be much faster to search the globe for someone who would believe any excuse.
But the one she needed to prepare an excuse for was the one before her eyes. For this, and that.
(What do I do. What do I do…)
“Weh!? Eh? Oh, yes, what is it…?”
“… Why are you in a place like this?”
“Well, that’s… why I could ask you the same.”
Alright, it’s a draw.
“… Is that a pistol…?”
“And yours is… a sword.”
Blow for blow.
“…… And the clothes?”
“Oh you, what are you saying when…!?”
He got her! Of all things, he had to be wearing a normal student uniform…!
While there was something like a forehead protector wrapped around her head, that paltry accessory was easily offset by the identity of a maid uniform, its headdress. It didn’t have the same impact as a full maid set.
“Umm… right, more importantly, what about that white giant!?”
She won! She had it in the bag!
“Say what? … Did you see something like that?”
Complete and utter defeat.
Her eyes locked on Shouki as he refreshingly gazed at the morning sun, Suzuran grew desperate.
“There was! I was on the brink of death! And wait, I’m so done with this world! I’m going to die!”
“Wah! Stupid! Hey! I get it, just calm down!”
When she was supposed to have jumped over the guardrail, with just a light tug on her wrist and shoulder… she was standing on the landing again. And by the time she noticed it, he had even extracted the revolver in her hand, as easily as if it were magic.
Right. In that darkness, this boy was fighting with the giant who had melded into the mist. What’s more, he had collected himself in this short period of time. Adding together everything that had happened to her, Suzuran felt impressed. It did seem he really was incredible, and that was a fact.
“… Haah. Don’t be hasty. Since you saw, I’ve got no choice but to tell you… you’ve got to keep it a secret.”
“That was a monster… it was a monster in the doll category called a Mist Golem.”
(Uwah. Senpai, that sounds stupid…)
Paying no heed to Suzuran’s muffled laugh, he strongly gripped his fist, turning to the morning sun with a grim look on his face.
“And I carry the mission of protecting humanity from those monsters and defeating the demon lord—I am the chosen hero.”
“Aw man, you finally went and spilled the beans.”
A woman’s voice that seemed cheerful, even when scolding came from on high. The owner of the voice descended from the viewing platform with bouncing steps.
(Eh? … Isn’t that…)
She had some recollection. The tidy blue garments with white lines. On the hat that seemed to be modified from a nurse cap, a white cross. She had to be a sister from the sacred assembly.
Suzuran had seen people dressed like her proselytizing around the station and other crowded areas. However. The footwear of the one before her eyes consisted of completely unstylish, simple and sturdy boots, and there was a considerably large firearm handing on her belt.
Shouki called out to her, once she’d gotten down to the landing with one last jump.
She was twenty or younger. At this point, rather than beautiful, she more suited the descriptor of cute. Her outward-curling hair and wide eyes gave off a vigorous impression.
“You can’t do that, Mr. Shouki. Any careless speech will hurt whoever hears it far more than you. You’ll end up dragging them in.”
Clarica touched the silver wand in her hand to the cheek of a troubled face. But, after that,
“Looks like you know each other, so whatever… who is she?”
She listened to Shouki as she showed Suzuran a bursting smile. The sort of energetic, sunflower-like smile that might make anyone open their heart.
“That girl is… Agawa Suzuran. An underclassman at my school.”
“Hmm. She’s cute. Are you like that?”
She stuck up her pinky.
“N-no. That’s not how it is. We’re just senior and junior… right…”
Right? With a sociable smile turned her way, Suzuran gave an ambiguous nod.
To be honest, the feelings she felt toward him were on a downward spiral. In contrast, the new budding concept of idiocy was on the rise, and she couldn’t help but classify him as the sort she didn’t want to approach.
“My, my, you mustn’t tell a lie… but this Sister Clarica shall overlook it with broad eyes.”
“Ah. So you really are a sister…?”
Shouki answered Suzuran’s question.
“Yeah, she’s Sister Clarica of the Sacred Assembly. Umm… how should I explain it?”
“Well, it’s that. One of those hero party members, ya know. By the way, Mr. Shouki. Why is this kid wearing a maid uniform?”
Before she could think up excuses, this time Iori’s head surfaced in her mind.
In the first place, was the job a success or failure? No, this situation right now… for a hero and his comrade to find a member of an evil organization was absolute peril.
“W-what about you, Ms. Clarica, when you’re wearing…”
“Because I’m a sister…”
“Because I’m a sister.”
“Look, a UFO!”
“Because I’m a sister.”
Complete defeat. This person was in another dimension.
She changed the topic.
“That’s right, senpai! What did you mean by level!?”
“Urgh!? No, that’s…”
She couldn’t compete with Clarica. But Shouki was fair game.
“In the end, did your level go up!?”
Suzuran quite honestly didn’t care, but it was proving surprisingly effective. He returned to his senses and turned to Clarica.
“That’s right, Clarica! What’s my level!?”
“Oh, it was no good. The Mist Golem disappeared when struck by the morning sun. Didn’t net you any experience points.”
“But it’s not all bad. You got to meet the holy priestess and all.”
Some incomprehensible jargon struck Suzuran’s earlobe.
“The truth is… and this is real top secret stuff,”
Clarica gave as a preface.
“You’re the holy priestess… meaning, you have the makings of a saint.”
After hero we get a saint? Oh, is that so.
But Suzuran was troubled. Shouki was one thing, but this person was an actual religious authority. If she called her an idiot, it might lead to unforeseeable consequence. She might stary praying or cursing, or soliciting.
“I see… is that so?”
“You never saw it on TV? Bishop Ferriol’s called for ya a few times.”
Which means that broadcast really was directed at her? Recalling Ferriol’s quiet smile, Suzuran tilted her head.
“I did… see the program…”
“Well, can’t help it if you didn’t believe. You’re… to use an idiom… Ms. Suzuran, will you get it if I say you live in the first world? You’re someone who’s spent her life on the surface.”
Iori said something similar.
Though to be more precise, she wasn’t on the surface world anymore.
“It was only a few days ago that the sacred assembly pinned down the fact that Ms. Suzuran was Ms. Suzuran. Unfortunately, when they tried dropping by, you had just moved house. And when they went to your school, you had transferred away…”
“But Agawa, there are all sorts of rumors going around. Something about yakuza and noises outside your apartment in the middle of the night. And how the police car that headed to the scene collided with some suspicious high-class ride…”
“When the police got there, the room was an empty shell. The girl who lived there’s whereabouts unknown. It was an incident that perfectly aligned with Bishop Ferriol’s invitation, so as the hero, I embarked to investigate the truth of the matter… but,”
“His level wasn’t high enough.”
Shouki was stricken by Clarica’s voice.
“Umm, I don’t really get that part. Level…?”
“Suzuran-san, you ever play an RPG?”
For people of the world of darkness, was that the only thing they could ever equate it to? That was precisely why it always ends up looking like idiotic roleplay. Was Suzuran’s conclusion.
“It’s dangerous ta go on a difficult mission when yer level’s too low. When the sacred assembly dispatched me, I concluded he’d need to be at least level twenty fer it.”
It strangely seemed coherent yet nonsensical. What’s more, where did that criteria for judgment even come from?
(But… does that mean senpai was fighting that monster for me?)
Her eyes met with Shouki’s awkward face. He turned his head away, even more awkwardly.
“Ah, by the way, how do you determine these level things?”
“It’s real convenient nowadays. Once upon a time, you ‘ad to haul yerself to the temple and get an oracle.”
Clarica took out something like a pager.
“Magicalize Indicator. The culmination of the sacred assembly’s magic engineering technique. The attributes of one’s mana of course, but unlike those bygone mana counters, it can lead them to greater heights. Their comprehensive total mana, their latent mana, their mana waveform, and get this…”
Clarica’s eyes transmogrified into the mesmerizing zealotry of a tough salesman. Letting her saliva fly as she proudly continued her explanation for another few minutes, until,
“… And it’s all the work of our benevolent lord! Suzuran-san, how about you go right ahead and join us in Mariolatry.”
“He definitely exists!!”
If he does, then why did a normal high school girl get a debt of two billion?
Shouki must have heard her spiel more than enough times, he leaned against the rails with a crestfallen face.
The area had completely lit up. Asking about levels was just a way to buy time, but to continue listening to this religious talk seemed a bit off. However, why wasn’t Iori coming to help her?
“Suzuran-san, you don’t believe? Then first, let’s point this at Shouki-san.”
Clarica pointed the Magicalize Indicator in her hand at him. The clear liquid crystal display (It was in color, despite the fantasy), after displaying the minute values of EXP printed LV19.
Well it was something. Though she didn’t quite get it.
“And next, when I change the mode and point it at you…”
“Does that mean I’m level one?”
“Oh no. It means you possess a negative level of magic. This isn’t an error, it means it officially acknowledges you as the holy priestess.”