“Now let’s get to the temple together and get you baptized!”
This is bad. Clarica’s eyes had begun spinning at a tremendous pace.
“B-but I, you know… I don’t know what a priestess is supposed to do…”
“What are you talking about!? In the event that we summon our omnipotent, omnipresent Lord, the sacred devil will come with him! We need you to send right off all the monsters and evildoers! Now, now, now, now! For eternal love and peace through his grace’s purification of the soul!”
(Whoah. Bad news. Not happening.)
“Give her a break, Clarica!”
Before Suzuran’s nervous retreat, Shouki barged in.
“Senpai, umm… was that…”
“You’re right. It might all sound stupid, but it’s true. And I… don’t want you to have to go through any danger.”
“You haven’t awoken yet. But even if the baptism awakens you, if you don’t become the holy priestess, you’ll…”
Ah, he mortifyingly swallowed his breath. Clarica had covered her mouth, an expression of surprise on her face.
(No. Well, how to put it, err… is that really the setting we’re going with? Is all that springs to mind for me… what to do. Should I try acting surprised?)
A little later, he gave a self-deriding laugh.
“… Nah, just kidding. Wasn’t the best joke, right? Could you just forget about it?”
How peculiar. When he said that, it was suddenly overflowing with authenticity. Was it his sincere black eyes that made her think so?
“No way! Mr. Shouki, having come so far!”
“You know as well as I do, Clarica! We’re not in the ancient times you keep bringing up! There are so few monsters it’s hard to even level up! Just where do you see the need to entrust the world to a little girl!? The demon lord hasn’t even shown up yet! There has to be another way!”
“But as we speak, the demon lord is totally building up their forces! If we don’t call down the lord ASAP, the world is gonna be screwed!”
(Hmm… oh really… Aight. Can I run yet?)
To the side of the two carrying a drama with serious faces, Suzuran gazed at a small bird that had taken off from its branch after a while of rest. It sang a wonderful warble.
“The happiness of billions of people is on the line here!”
Bam, came a dry sound. Suzuran turned in surprise to find it was the sound of Shouki striking Clarica’s face.
“… I’m sorry. But even if it’s just one person, a means that makes a sacrifice of anyone… I think that’s mistaken.”
“Kukuh, that so.”
Iori’s voice came quite abruptly.
Outside the guardrails. Leaping up through the thicket that surrounded the cliff, Iori brushed off the leaves in midair as he landed to Suzuran’s side.
In an instant, Shouki’s sword was at the ready. His expression one of violent hostility he’d never show at school.
“Iori! Why are you here!?”
“Been a while, damn brat. Did your level go up? Hmm?”
“Can it… no, why do you know about that…?”
Why, you ask? Iori replied as he pulled off a clasp fastened to Suzuran’s cuffs… and removed a hearing aid -looking item from his ear.
It seems he had her bugged.
“Well done, Suzuran. You managed to obstruct his leveling.”
“Eh? Oh, yeah sure…”
Suzuran nodded. At their exchange, Shouki opened his eyes wider than ever before.
“It can’t be… don’t tell me! Agawa! Do you know just who that man is!?”
“Yes… err. I’ve got a bit of debt… so I’m working at his place…”
Iori roughly grasped her head.
“Aren’t I your Master, Suzuran?”
At the very least, she didn’t want to have to use that strange terminology in front of anyone else, but Iori’s five fingers mercilessly ate into her head.
“Owowowowowow!? Yes, you’re my master!”
“Kukuh. Good girl, Suzuran.”
Satisfied with that, next he lightly patted her on the head. Suzuran felt a just a little guilty at folding to the pain.
“Master… you say…”
To the hero who muttered in astonishment, Iori pompously replied.
“You know what that means, damn brat. That’s how it is between me and her.”
(Uwah. That’s not the best way to put it…)
Iori’s arm wrapped around Suzuran and pulled her close, that hand worming its way under her apron. Suzuran sprung up as she felt a firm grip on her breast.
“U-umm? Um!? Excuse me!?”
“Hoh? This is a surprise. You really look a lot slimmer in clothing. I retract my previous statement.”
Iori whispered as it to make sure the red-from-ear-to-ear Shouki couldn’t hear. She didn’t pick up the slightest hint of indecent intent from his voice or fingers, so she didn’t feel a physical revulsion, but… the surprise and embarrassment were impossible to bear.
A small murmur, Iori’s face beside hers was as smug as ever, but something was different from usual. Perceiving that, Suzuran tried following his eyes. All she saw was Clarica spacing out with a similarly red face, but…
“What’s wrong, oh high and mighty hero. You jealous? Hmm~?”
“S-shut up! You bastard… I’ll never forgive you!”
Ignoring the rage in Shouki’s address, Suzuran lowered her voice.
“Right now, the troublesome one isn’t the low leveled brat. It’s that sister. Her organization aside… I didn’t expect them to send an inquisitor.”
“That’s right. And she’s second division… not just any sister. Despite that stupid look on her face, she’s a first-rate killer.”
That jump in reasoning wasn’t one Suzuran’s thought pattern could follow. Regardless, she tried moaning.
“Got it. That’s enough. I’ve lost interest.”
(Well screw you too!!)
She put the nuances of a feeble, cute, gallant and delicate maid putting up a transient yet fleeting resistance into her moan, and that was his impression? Whatever the case, with the two of them whispering amongst themselves, and Suzuran unable to shake off all her shame, there was little left to interpretation. Shouki looked infuriated. Clarica… not older for nothing, perhaps had some immunity. She took some secret looks through the gaps in the fingers covering her face.
“Hey, hey… Mr. Shouki. Who’s that rough bloke?”
“Iori Obliterating Industries… he’s the boss of an evil organization!”
Clarica nodded. As the reverberations in her voice disappeared, the glimmer of thin ice lit in her eyes.
“Which means… he’s a villain?”
“Kukuh, precisely. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sister…?”
“I appreciate the courtesy. But I only have one greeting to give to a villain.”
It was instantaneous. Just when she thought the sister had put away her wand behind her back, she drew her pistol, unfolding its wooden holster, and readying it against her shoulder like a rifle.
“Heaven is calling.”
There was no warning. If Iori hadn’t pulled her body back the moment Clarica gave her greeting, she wouldn’t have even heard the vwoom of the bullet flying by.
Her eyes tracing the path of a few hairs falling to the ground, Suzuran thought. Wasn’t she using the phrase ‘Heaven is calling’ wrong?
“Kukuh. You think that outdated Mauser can defeat me? And before that. Do you even comprehend what I’m armed with here? Huh?”
Shouki cried between the threshold of anger and impatience.
But the sister didn’t lose heart.
“The holy priestess’s got the Lord’s blessings! It’ll be fine!”
Bang!! Apparently called a Mauser, the large-built gun with a small barrel mercilessly breathed fire.
“Bloody hell… I’d heard the rumors, but she’s crazier than I thought! Doesn’t one of your commandments say, thou shalt not kill!?”
Even Iori sounded panicked.
Yes, but, why is he holding me in front of himself? Suzuran wondered.
“Not read up enough, I’m afraid. That rule has a part two.”
“… Say what?”
“Though shalt not kill… but killing bad guys is A-Okay!”
“First I’ve heard of it!”
(… Am I… possibly being used as a shield?)
He was still dodging, so that was fine and all.
“Stop it, Clarica! What are you thinking!?”
Finally not able to watch any longer, Shouki stepped in to stop Clarica.
“Let go of me. Seriously! I’m being real here, I can hit a coin at fifty meters!”
“You’re shooting at a moving human! Stop!”
They grappled and at the end, Shouki tossed aside her gun. Iori knew this was his chance; still with a hold on Suzuran, he raced off.
“You fools. Have fun together.”
Fitting of an evil organization, Suzuran noted he had a perfect collection of one-liners to escape with, but upon noticing that, Shouki used his unnatural jumping prowess to clear the air over them. Bracing his body, as he landed, he confronted them in front of the only stairs down
Iori groaned and lurched back.
The sword in Shouki’s hand was sticking out as his throat. It must have been his training. The point didn’t shake in the slightest. It even made one wonder if it was being held by human hands.
“Let go of Agawa.”
“Where are you aiming, damn brat. Do modern-day heroes dabble in murder?”
“It’s pointless, Iori. If you think I can’t do it, why did you stop?”
“If you can do it, why haven’t you?”
A refreshing mountain morning was nowhere to be found. Suzuran could only shrink her body at the burning tension in the air. Neither side could shake off their doubts or fully believe. But the slightest movements would turn them too to reality.
“… If it’s just debt, I’ll shoulder it for her. Let Agawa go.”
“Kukuh. You’ll buy a Saint with coin?”
“Silence! Never spew such nonsense ever again.”
With the precision of a machine, the sharp point pierced through about one layer of Iori’s skin.
“… You’re no hero. You’re just another aspiring fool.”
Shouki’s black eyes painstakingly narrowed. Iori pulled Suzuran in his hands even closer as he laughed.
“What’s wrong? Look at me. I’m evil. A hero exists to slay evil. Now my windpipe? My carotid? Will you pierce through to my medulla oblongata?”
Shouki’s wavering eyes, with the next blink, had shaken off all their hesitation.
Suzuran’s voice was unnecessary—Shouki slowly lowered his sword.
“You’re wrong. A hero is someone who never gives up!”
He changed the grip on his drawn sword in an instant. What he bared wasn’t the blade, but the pummel. Even if it couldn’t cut, it was a mass of iron. It was enough to incapacitate.
Alongside that utterance, Iori moved.
He flamboyantly flipped up Suzuran’s skirt.
The faces of the two young’uns turned so fast they might let off steam. With his eyes naturally stolen, Shouki’s face received a clean kick from Iori.
“Gyahahahah! That’s why you’re a fool, ya’ damn brat!”
Hoisting up Suzuran again, Iori tread on Shouki’s fallen body, he took flight, he laughed out.
“Y… you fiend!! Demon!! Inhuman scum!! Ne’er-do-well!!”
Climbing up from the depths of shame, Suzuran cried out with all her might.
“Ha ha ha, very good, Suzuran. To sing the praise of their Lord is an attendant’s duty!”
“Heretic! Brute! Go to hell!”
“Ha ha hah!”
“Shut up and get in the car! You foolish knave!”
A hero he may be, but Shouki wasn’t a saint of perfect virtue. His patience had its limits. To take a pitiful girl hostage, to humiliate her, and then run away.
“Mr. Shouki, your nose is bleeding.”
“Because he freaking kicked me!!”
On Clarica’s indication, Shouki grew more irritated than necessary, wiping his nose with his sleeve as he retrieved his sword.
“Where have you been all this time, Clarica!?”
“How mean! You’re the one who tossed my Mauser.”
After returning the wooden holster and gun to her belt, she brushed off the spiderwebs and leaves sticking to her hat and shoulders.
“I had to go get it.”
“Anyways, we’re chasing them!”
He fiercely rushed down the promenade stairs.
He got down to the parking lot only to witness the very moment Iori got in the car.
“That car looks really fast. Like a cockroach.”
“A Diablo!? That bloody upstart!”
Raising a sound strange on the eardrums, Iori’s car started up. A twelve-cylinder 5700cc v engine, unthinkable for a Japanese automobile, despite its top speed reaching over three hundred kilometers an hours, it was a monster that, with the right skills, could make revolutions practically ignoring inertia.
In contrast, Shouki’s bike was a CBR400F— an old model that hit the market twenty years ago. Taking inspiration from its REV engine advertised as the fastest at the time, it was now equipped with a 28φ FCR Keihin carbonator made for Suzuki Bandits, the exhaust along with it. Following standard regulations, the Daisin-made muffler’s core had also been extracted.
Its fastest speed didn’t even reach one sixty kilometers per hour, but—when the stage was a narrow downhill mountain path, the absolute difference in output wouldn’t be a problem. A bike that could make sharper turns held the advantage. Now, this was the time to show off the handling of sixteen-inch wheels.
“Hop on, Clarica!”
With a light rev, his metal steed opened its eyes.
“Ah. They’re chasing us, master…”
“Kukuh, like hell I’ll fall behind a 400cc motorbike.”
But the road was narrow. Even Suzuran could tell he was speeding out of lane. Even so, Iori’s driving showed no mercy. A bad premonition was surfacing in Suzuran’s chest.
“If… if there’s any oncoming traffic, we’ll crash… won’t we?”
“Then start praying.”
A desperate Suzuran looked in the mirror with a dejected smile to witness Shouki’s bike collapsing to the right and to the left as it drew closer and closer.
“They’re going to catch up!”
“I know that!”
As far as she could remember, this wasn’t the path they came from. The road narrowed even further to one lane. On one side, a wall of rock, on the other a fall. The irritation of not being able to go as fast as he wanted swelled in Iori’s voice.
“Damn, this was beyond my calculations.”
“Iori! I’ll never forgive you!!”
Brandishing a sword with one hand, driving with the other, the Shouki in the mirror had approached close enough for her voice to reach.
“Tsk, that brat. I’ve got to hand it to his driving skills.”
“Senpai… kinda looks like he’s part of a biker gang…”
“Fwahaha, very nice, Suzuran! His ride’s a popular one with those sorts.”
No helmet, a headband (forehead protector), and a girl riding behind him. If his sword were made of wood, he’d be the spitting image.
“But what exactly does he plan to do with the sword in this situation?”
“You still don’t get the world of darkness? An aluminum body from this world will be split right in two. No, at that brat’s level, he’ll take the engine down with it!”
Iori acted before he had finished his sentence, raising the car’s speed. A straight line down. In the distance, a sudden steep turn. Iori raised his speed but couldn’t shake them off. Shouki’s figure approached with the shrill sounds of a bike exhaust.
“It’s over, Iori!”
Just before the curve, Iori slammed the brakes.
Behind the car, gashan! The sound of an impact. Shot over the car with the force of a missile, Shouki and Clarica disappeared beyond the guardrail, into the depths of the woodlands.
“Kukuh, that imbecile. Looks like he only knows how to charge straight ahead.”
It was such an anticlimactic last act. Dragging along Suzuran’s scream, the car started up again.
“Urgh… master, you’re terrible. I understand that painfully so… but senpai just…”
“He’s not dead.”
“Ah. As I thought.”
It was just a faint hunch, but Suzuran still pat her chest in relief.
“But don’t misunderstand, Suzuran. Residents of the world of darkness are just hard to kill, they’re not immortal.”
“… Um? So. What if he did die?”
“You’d cry. I’d laugh.”
Suzuran looked at his smug face and knew he really was hopeless.
“But… why didn’t you cross over?”
“Why didn’t you go off with that damn brat? You had plenty of chances.”
“I-I mean… they suddenly came out with priestesses and some nonsense… and I have to pay back my debt…”
“So this world is still your common sense. It won’t last.”
“Demon Lord and saint… they even said the fate of the world rests on my shoulders or something… doesn’t that sound idiotic?”
As Suzuran jokingly laughed, Iori laughed as well.
“Kukuh, precisely. You’re a good girl, Suzuran.”
He pushed up his glasses. The lifted corners of his mouth were the same as ever, but what sort of eyes was he making? His lenses reflected the morning light, and Suzuran couldn’t catch a glimpse.
“Urp… Mr. Shouki, you alive…?”
The voice came from the high branch where Clarica was snagged like a piece of laundry that had flown away.
Shouki turned his limbs that had gone numb from pain, painstakingly raising his body from the bush.
“There’s no way I’m dying… not until I take him down!”
“I know, right.”
Just as he thought the light filtering through the trees had wavered, Clarica came raining down, holding down her long priestly skirt. She demonstrated the nimble movements of an acrobat.
“First, gotta thank the lord I’m still breathing… but what do we do about this? It looks like Ms. Suzuran’s working with the other side.”
“That’s not it. That girl… she’s just being manipulated by Iori. Otherwise, why would anyone follow…!”
Iori Takase. The incarnation of evil.
Whenever Shouki made an outing as a hero, he would appear to get in his way without fail. If he actually turned out to be the demon lord, Shouki would through everything down and set off on a journey to beat him without the slightest surprise.
At times, he would steal the last hit on monsters (and the EXP). When Shouki went out to take care of a gang, he beat everyone there up (Shouki included). When Shouki headed to the scene of a bank heist in progress, when Shouki was fighting the robbers, he was the one who freed the hostages.
Just the other day, Shouki made for the harbor to stop a drug exchange, but for some reason, there was a police inspection in place, and Shouki was sent off with a strict reprimand from the officers.
And a ticket for speeding.
That was undoubtedly his trap—
“Iori… I’ll never forgive you!”
Shouki’s eyes blazed, it happened as he clenched his fist.
A distracting electronic jingle demolished the forest’s stillness.
“Ah, sorry, gotta take this… Ahem, yep, Clarica here… totally. Uh-huh.”
(… Did they not have any decent sisters around…?)
Shouki wondered. He was the modern-age hero of all things, so it was unfair for all the resolve he mustered to be destroyed by a ‘The Police Dog’ ringtone.
He didn’t used to have a sister following him, but with God’s descent right before them, this was who the grand temple sent.
From her reflexes and firearms, it was at least clear she was no normal sister. But Shouki never heard where she learned how to handle a gun. Because I’m working with the hero, was all she said.
“Uh-huh… uh-huh… that so…”
Checking for twigs in her bangs, Clarica repeated those lukewarm replies.
“Yeah, a’ course you can. A-Okay, bishop.”
Shouki tripped on some moss as he tried to stand, his head smacking right into a tree branch. At the fact the person she was sharing a laugh with was the bishop.
With their ‘prophet’ at the summit, the organization called the Sacred Assembly consisted of four cardinals, sixteen bishops, and eighty-two priests… its personnel were spread out like a pyramid, but when it came to bishops, they had enough authority to speak with state leaders behind closed doors.
They each led what could be called the association’s private army, one of the orders of holy knights scattered around the world’s nations, day and knight scattering sparks with evil organizations like Iori’s, or otherwise monsters. The aspects they had shown to the public to spread the news of God’s descent were just the tip of the iceberg.
“Yeah, that’s the thing. She really was the holy priestess… yep, then I’ll send you the indicator’s log afterward. Yeah, May you go forth under the grace of God… aight.”
Clarica closed the phone.
She turned to Shouki with a bursting smile.
“And that’s how it is, Mr. Shouki.”
“That’s how what is!? And is it really alright to take that tone with the bishop?”
“Everyone’s equal before the Lord’s eyes. You won’t lose your blessings jus’ because you talk bad.”
She gave a laugh.
Decent sister or not, he at least wanted to see she was putting in an earnest effort.
On the verge of a sigh, Shouki asked.
“… So what were you talking about?”
“Truth is, one of the cardinals is coming over to Japan to witness the Lord’s descent. So anyway, it’s that. One of those crusade things?”
Clarica stuck up her index finger.
“The eleventh order of holy knights stationed in Tokyo under Bishop Ferriol’s gonna go rescue the holy priestess from an evil organization.”
Several hundred followers had gathered, yet the temple rested in silence. The very top canopy of the dome-shaped space was decorated with stained glass, and faint as it was, the gate was just barely visible.
On the altar, with murals depicting the organization’s history to his back, a tall elderly man in crimson vestments breathed words through the gap in his orderly white beard. The man was the oldest among the current acting cardinals, Randale.
“— For what is the lord necessary? Certainly, there exist beautiful people earnest in their effort. There are righteous souls ardent to rear new life. And yet… those children of light have become far too few in number. As science advanced, humans lost the heart to believe in what the eye cannot see.”
The holy knights revered him as ‘The Lightning of God’, while those of darkness feared him as ‘The Hammer of Judgment’… right, at eighty years of age, the voice of the man who was still very much feared carried dignity with each and every word—yet now, it basked in a shade of melancholy.
“Science is not an evil, not by any means. Scientists are also beautiful people of effort. It is they who spread medicine to the sick, their industry that erases the differences in status, bringing a bountiful life to all. But the result is this: there are now many more blinded by the convenience before their eyes. Therefore… once again, we must regain the heart to believe. Surely, only then will we be able to discern what’s truly necessary and what’s not, even through all the convenience.”
The young bishop who had received a report from one of the sisters… Ferriol was at the very front of the altar where Randale stood, taking in his seeping deep voice.
“As the times go by, the Lord need no longer be sought after like the sun. There is only one path that leads to a true coexistence, of science, while holding in our hearts the true spirit we should all strive for. That path is for all to bear witness. It is for that reason the Lord shall descend. I’ll say it as many times as it takes. We must regain the heart to believe… we must regain the heart to give thanks. To this earth the lord gifted us. This water. This air. And the joy of life. Please think hard and you will see. There is not a single self-evident thing in the world…”
Ferriol closed his eyes with a slight nod.
The cardinal’s words were right on the money.
However— he feared he might naturally break into a sneer, so he exercised his self-restraint. At the same time, the cardinal had finished speaking, and someone had begun to clap.
This wasn’t the same as a place for a politician to give an address. Ferriol turned at the irregularity… a single conspicuously beautiful sister, her long hair bound with a lavender ribbon, had stood from her seat, clapping her hands with an expression moved to the depths of her heart. Roped along… the other believers stood as well.
For the first time since its construction, a thunderous applause resounded through the holy halls. Randale’s words definitely did carry that much power, Ferriol gave an inappropriate smile as he mimicked the adherents.
“The girl called Suzuran really is the holy priestess. I received confirmation a moment ago.”
Tranquil as it was, Ferriol’s voice echoed far and wide through the temple, once the followers had left. The wrinkles around the cardinal’s eyes loosened as he nodded.
A smile similar to relief, a gentleness one would never imagine from his moniker.
“I see. So mankind’s dearest wish is soon upon us…”
“Yes. However… the darkness has taken the first move.”
Ferriol pretended to wrack his brain as he lowered his head for a peek at Randale’s narrowing eyes filling with sorrow.
“… To think their roots had spread through such a country of peace. No, did they make a move knowing our intent… is it Zephirum?”
If they Sacred Assembly was the light, then they were the dark entity that had similarily secretly spread across the world. Even with the assembly’s information network, there was barely any information on the organization as a whole, but the fact it was a gathering of demons was certain. At present, they were the sole force in contention with the assembly… but Ferriol shook his head to deny it.
Randale’s white eyebrows drew together in surprise.
“Then are they of this country?”
“An organization in the Kantou region. But the ones there are…”
“Yes, it is that organization.”
“… What do you mean?”
At his voice, Ferriol raised his face.
“They belong to what this country once called god-slayers.”
“What a blasphemous name. There is no way man could show such contempt for the Lord.”
It was precisely because of his belief that, almost as if he didn’t seem to take them as any particular threat, he simply expressed the thoughts that came to mind.
“Indeed. Of course, theirs was different in nature from the Lord we believe in. From olden days, this country came to believe that a god dwelled in every aspect of creation. It was their eyes that bore witness to the powers beyond man, the darkness… they were those who fought against all manner of monster. But now the generations have shifted, and they’re only using their place in the third world to commit atrocities.”
“… I see. It is a tragedy. If the world wasn’t as it were, perhaps we could have taken each other by the hand.”
Randale feigned indifference as he turned his back to Ferriol. He looked up at one of the paintings lining the temple dome.
It was one that decorated every temple, a depiction of a battle of old. Of the red-haired archangel, and the blue-haired demon lord. The humans stood perplexed in the open space in-between them.
“… At their base, humans are lifeforms who fear the dark. Yet nor can they keep their eyes on a light too strong…”
Was he speaking to the mural? Or to the god-slayers that had turned to the path of evil?
The silence seemed to pick out Ferriol, pressing him to answer that question. But as the young bishop held his tongue, the man called the lord of lightning asked nothing more, leaving only his footsteps behind.
(A light too strong… sure enough. That’s precisely it, cardinal.)
And Ferriol soon took his leave as well.