The night drew on, and it was just about time for the date to change.
(Aaaaah… I have to go to work tomorrow. Tomorrow and the day after at the post office, and after that, the Imperial House…)
Not paying any particular attention to the late-night show she had left on, Shouka sipped her bear and stared at the notepad she had scribbled her schedule down on. Just how could there be so much work to do? She felt rather fed up.
If only her father and mother were here, she’d at least be able to let up on cleaning, cooking and laundry, but her father who’d thrown away the family business of sword teaching was flying around overseas as a broker for some major corporation, and her mother stuck close to look after his health. Her grandfather had been around from before the war, and he couldn’t do chores.
(Maybe I really should get married. If it’s with Takase, I could probably play around the rest of my life…)
A sip of the flat beer followed.
(… What’s Shouki gonna do?)
She had absolutely no idea. Thinking about it rationally, his best bet was to lower his head, say sorry, and hand Meeko over when the cardinal came over tomorrow, but… To be selfish and not listen to anyone once you said you were going to do it was in the Hasebe House blood.
(Well, my supervisor said to entrust her to the Assembly and Iori House, but that’s not my problem…)
To seriously think so was the nature of the woman called Shouka.
(… Now then, I should get to sleep.)
Shouka turned off the TV, turned off the lights, and lay on her bed. In the comfort of a slight drunk, she soon fell into a nice breathing rhythm.
She opened her eyes to a presence. A very faint presence.
There were no footsteps. The sort of presence she could only know after having lived in this house for so long and learned its silence… and the sort of killing intent she could know from her abilities as assistant instructor. Its destination was the guest room where Meeko slept.
(Shouki… can’t be. Hopefully the Sacred Assembly, but… what shall I do if it’s Zephirum.)
Shouka moved soundlessly herself, slipping out of her bedroom and peeking into the hallway. And she was struck dumbfounded when all her guesses missed the mark.
Her grandfather who was supposed to be asleep in a loose kimono, now in tidy dougi with a bloodcurdling expression Shouka had never seen in her life, was seated in front of the guest room. At his hip, he wore the godslaying long sword passed down from the first generation of the Hasebe House. Divine Sword Kongetsu Konya.
Her grandfather pulled open the sliding door. Into the room, he lowered his head in a deep bow. She heard his voice hoarsened by a great many years.
“It has been a while. Misurao no Mikoto no Hime—”
She couldn’t see her, but she heard Meeko’s voice. Was it the same willowy voice as usual? Her grandfather narrowed his eyes.
“… I suppose you no longer remember the likes of me?”
“No… I’m sorry. Have we met somewhere before?”
“Do you need something from me?”
He closed his eyes once. In the next instant, he stood on one knee, casting his hand over the long sword’s hilt.
That was the end to what Shouka saw and she heard.
Containing the beat that might make her chest burst, she returned to her room. Her drunkenness had been completely blown away. It had been the first time she had ever heard her Hiroshima-born grandfather speak politely. He would only barely lower his head to pay his respects at the dojo, yet, both his hands and his forehead were pressed against the floor.
Her grandfather knew Meeko was a ‘god’. Now that he knew she was a god, he intended to have her fall.
Who could she contact? The Sacred Assembly? The Imperial household? The Kantou Agency… No good, they would never make it in time. She could only pray her grandfather’s hand was still quick enough to take her down.
As Shouka carefully considered her option.
The room’s door was opened by her grandfather’s hand. With wonderful reaction speed, Shouka slipped into the bed and feigned a sleeper’s breath when… something strangely heavy was tossed over the covers.
“Oww… What’s up, gramps?”
“You’re the head now.”
Shouka opened her eyes and jerked herself up. The longsword she saw before had been tossed on the bed.
“Ya know, Shouka… as firstborn of the Hasebe House, I was drafted at fifteen, and for this country, I’ve been to Nanjing, the Philippines ‘n Imphal. But ya know, today’s the first time in ma life I felt ma knees shakin.”
Her grandfather spoke in resignation.
“In the end, I could never draw that thing, not once in ma life… up to now, you were head for appearance’s sake, but now on, you’ve officially succeeded me.”
“W… why’s that!? I mean, my old man didn’t do swordplay, and since you were getting old… it was jus’ sposed to be temporary… until Shouki got bigger…!”
“That’s a shame.”
“I, see, I can’t swing around something so precious!”
“Ya think so? Then go throw it away in some ditch… where the police won find it.”
After saying what he wanted, her grandfather left with a laugh. For a while, Shouka stared at the long sword lying brazenly over her legs.
“Not my problem…”
After chucking it onto the carpet, she fell asleep.
By Lich’s instruction, Suzuran was left in the middle of a pitch-black darkness. With just a little twitch of the tips of her toes, the sound of them rubbing against the bottom of her boots resounded the world and back. The only other sound came from her breath and her heart.
Unable to see, unable to hear, all that was there to touch was her, herself. She was starting to grow tired with thinking as well, and by now her heart was empty. And as Suzuran did nothing but stand still and wait… five hours had gone by.
“How are you feeling?”
Lich’s voice finally sounded from somewhere, and Suzuran answered.
“Umm… not any different from usual.”
“Hm. Very good. A human cannot accommodate this manner of complete darkness. Under normal circumstance, they will lose their sanity after an hour here… and in that case, I would have left such a boring soul here an eternity.”
Lich told Suzuran she wasn’t normal. And that this was already a death trap. But Suzuran took his word without any particular resistance.
“Very good. Now let us move on to the lecture. This darkness was meant to kill your senses.”
“If you take it to the extremes, you don’t need your five senses in order to cast magic. Even less so for someone like you with mana concealed in their body. And why is that?”
I wonder why. Before Suzuran’s train of thought dulled by darkness could comply, his words continued on.
“Concentration. It is because that is all you need. You don’t need your eyes or ears or nose or mouth or hands to concentrate. The less excess sensations the better. Am I right?”
Like she had been captured in some form of hypnosis, Suzuran’s absent-minded head absorbed his words.
“… That sounds right.”
“Very good. Now, what will you be concentrating on?”
Lick’s words seeped into her head more comfortably than any of the teachers at the school she attended.
“On using… magic?”
“Very good. But you should know all you know is the human method. To be quite blunt, the spells that they chant hold absolutely no meaning to the actual phenomenon of magic. By chanting spells, they perform a form of self-suggestion that they are able to use magic, and that heightens the strength of their concentration… of course, if a human did not do so, they could never extract mana as an embodiment of the air and the other elements of nature.
Was it really? Suzuran hadn’t the time to respond to the darkness.
“There is absolutely no need for you to understand such concepts. You need only believe in your right as one who truly rules magic. Now, remember and believe in the three things I’m about to say. Nothing more.”
“Mana is a possibility. Only those who believe in that possibility can manifest and use it. If you believe in that phenomenon, it will activate.”
“… I see.”
It was simple. The point was that magic- something far too idiotic for the modern society she lived in- all depended on how much she could believe in it after living in that society. That was all there was to it, apparently.
Because it was a possibility, it could be made to take on any form. To shoot fireballs from one’s hands. To drop lightning with a staff. To raise the wind with but a word. No matter how downright idiotic it was, she just had to believe, and that was it.
“… It’s idiotically simple.”
“Very good. Do you understand? But that’s precisely right, Suzuran. It’s only because humans have no mana in their bodies, that they require their spells and rituals. Otherwise, they require an abnormally strong force of will. But for you, the mana within you should simply answer to your demands.”
“That is all for the lecture. Now onto the exam… can you see me?”
Simple, it was simple.
To see. To believe she could see Lick’s form. The problem wasn’t where exactly he was in this vastness of pitch black. Only that she could see her.
He was there. What’s this, so close even.
Less than ten steps ahead.
Unlike when she last saw him, he wasn’t wearing his pristine tuxedo. Its rot speckled in red and green, a yellowed and darkened set of human bones. Holding his rotten skull cracked open at the grown, thrusting out his bug-eaten staff, he spread out one side of his faded, tattered mantle. In the interior of his mantle, an uncountable number of departed, evil and resentful spirits crowded his person.
He who had continued dreaming the impossible dream of reviving the dead, and brought himself back to life. There stood the king of the undead.
Strangely, he wasn’t scary to Suzuran’s eyes. She felt no urge to shirk back. Ass she could see was his terribly pitiful, comical, sorrowful form. No matter how he believed, death alone was the one thing he could never overturn—
“Very good. You pass. You’re quite something, Suzuran. Every human I’ve encountered in the past fell into a panic and fainted with just one peek under this mantle.”
At Suzuran’s voice, he swung his cranium left and right.
“You need not pity. But truth be told, I was counting on you to never catch sight of this true form of mine. Even if you were to end your life in this darkness… for a Demon Lord is a thorny path, to shoulder all manner of sin.”
Lich’s form grew haze and vanished. No matter how she focused her eyes, she couldn’t see him anywhere. He wasn’t here. Only his voice.
“Now that you understand mana, my role is over. Let us move to the next stage… now, is anyone there?”
That question must have been the signal. Abiding by her sense of danger, she bounded across the darkness that unfurled before her eyes. Even if it were a hole ahead of her, it would be far better than whatever dreadfulness was approaching from behind.
Precisely because she had been exposed to the space paralyzed by darkness for so long, she was far more susceptible to stimulation of her senses. So this is what bloodlust feels like, Suzuran abruptly reached the conclusion, feeling somewhat let-down.
Sshhhh, the sound of the air being torn. It was coming again. But her eyes couldn’t follow.
Obeying her survival instinct, feeling ample fear, she ran. To the right, to the left, she rolled, she leapt. The sound of sliced wind continued. Along the way, a different sound mingled in. A sharp pain at her thigh.
The attacks stopped for an instant, and still concentrating her sight, she touched her leg. A damp warmth. A pain that flared up her fear. Her battle uniform with a magic coating was torn through even easier than paper.
But now is your chance. Ignore the pain. Keep your breath steady. Concentrate. Take in its form.
His beak was already in front of her eyes. It grazed her cheek. And Iwatobi slid through empty space, passing by her like a missile, not missing his chance to gouge out her shoulder with his sharp wing. The pain came so harshly she thought her arm had been torn off.
Ignore it, ignore it, ignore it!
If she lost this opportunity, surely her neck would be next. She turned, she made sure his form didn’t leave her eyes. She could see. The next attack was already coming.
No, it’s alright. Thought Suzuran. I can still believe.
Luckily, her arm was still attached. She still had feeling in it. In order to block Iwatobi’s wing, Suzuran immediately held up that damaged arm.
Is my palm going to be sliced through? That’s impossible for me!
Suzuran firmly caught the wing that could even slice through an A-Rank monster. It wasn’t such a high-class move as a blade catch, she had simply obstructed it with her palm.
A bewildered Iwatobi stopped moving.
That was her chance.
Right. If I don’t do it now. If I don’t do it I’ll be killed. The grinding tension. That the glorious release from death that came as she lowered the heel of her boot into the penguin’s guts with all her might. In an instant, the two sensations were assimilated into one far simpler thought.
Looking down over the rolling Iwatobi with her dazzling red eyes, Suzuran leaked a vulgar smile.
If you’re going to be killed, kill them back. That is the law. The only law.
What a wonderful world of darkness. Who would have guessed it would be so delightful to inch closer to life, to live on. How could pain be anything more than a pleasure to confirm you’re still alive?
Through her shoulder and her leg, the pain of being torn open played a symphony. They urged her to go on.
With such reassuring comfort setting her into delirium, Suzuran sprung at Iwatobi as he regained his posture. She punched, he got hit, she kicked, he took the blow. She threw, he was sent flying through the air.
You’re just a lowly human… a shrewd monkey, don’t think you’re so tough!
The first time she heard his voice. No, more than a voice, she was struck by his will of disdain. Iwatobi’s eyes were dyed a red hue. Instantaneously, Suzuran’s leg he gazed at froze over and changed to a pillar of ice.
But Suzuran ignored even that. As he tried to get up, she trampled down on his head with enough force to shatter it.
“Now it’s getting to me. I’ll have you as yakitori!”
She mounted Iwatobi as he lay on his stomach and grabbed him by the crest. It mattered not whether penguin was tasty or not. For now, it was her life mission to pluck all his feathers. Iwatobi tapped the ground with his flailing wings.
I give, I give! I’m all blubber, it’ll make you throw up!
“Shut the hell up!”
He thrashed, he cried out.
“How about you leave it at that?”
Bap, a dull thud. It wasn’t from something sharp like Iwatobi’s wings. By that, Suzuran was shot back from the penguin’s back.
She rolled along the deep darkness so far she forgot what was up and what was down. A pain raced down the tips of her shoulders and her frostbitten leg.
What was it this time? That was obvious. It wasn’t Lich, and it wasn’t Iwatobi. That left one person.
Suzuran tried seeing through the darkness again. She gave up.
There was no need to do so. Dressed in a kimono, disheveled hair. The man with the metal rod stood dauntingly without even trying to hide his existence.
“… So my final opponent is Homura-san.”
Was it blood? Suzuran roughly wiped away whatever dripped down the side of her mouth with her sleeve, using her still-frozen leg like a prosthetic to prop herself up. She even cracked a smile.
“Heheh. Iwatobi wasn’t nearly enough… I won’t lose to you. I don’t feel like I’d lost to anyone right now.”
“In your dreams. If Ewan was even a little up to it, the likes of you’da be’n shattered inta bits and bobs long ago… and you say he’s nothing to you? Well aren’t you something.”
Thump. Thump. Thump. His footsteps were heavy, as if he was stamping his feet.
“Get off yer high horse!!”
His voice loud as if something had exploded. Another look, and his mouth had torn open all the way to his ears, sharp fangs sprouting from his mouth, from his flame-red tangled hair, two large white horns grew curved towards his back.
Wrath so intense she could see its distortions through the dark. A look like a man-eating fiend. No, the man before her eyes was a true oni, nothing more, nothing less.
“I freaking knew it’d turn out like this! This is why I was against it! How about you take a good look at yourself! Your red eyes so bright, smiling like a brat having the time of their life, is fighting to the death really so fun!? Right now, you ain’t no human or demon, you’re just out for blood! Think you’re becoming a god of destruction or something!?”
In an instant, as if something had left her, Suzuran returned to her senses.
“N…no…! I’m not…!”
“Well too late. Take you on? You’ve gotta be kidding me! I, ya see, I came to hammer you down a few pegs! That’s all!!”
Different. What was different? He was different from Lich and Iwatobi. Right, a far clearer murderous intent. This person would kill her
The thought crossed her mind. I’m going to die…?
“N… no way… I-I just, to save Meeko…!”
“Then even more so!”
Homura took a step in. With that alone, her surroundings were rattling like crazy.
“Each and every one of you, obsessed with your bloody power, trying to wake up what’s finally gone to sleep. The hell do you think that princess is? Someone far better off down and dead!”
“That’s… that’s wrong! That alone, I think you’re wrong!”
“Like hell it is. You can say that because you don’t know.”
Takase said the same thing. When they wouldn’t tell her a thing, they would repeat it like it was supposed to mean something.
“… Each and every one of them…”
Crk, Suzuran grit her teeth.
Acting on your high horse, when you won’t tell me a thing. Because I don’t know anything. And getting mad like I’m supposed to care, mad for not knowing when I have no way to know…
“Ewan’s entire clan was eradicated by that princess! Old man Lich was straight up murdered by her! All my friends and comrades, she ate them all! The number of countries that princess has destroyed isn’t some paltry hundred or two! The number of humans she’s eaten isn’t just some fifty or hundred thousand!”
That was it? That’s was the secret they guarded with religious devotion?
“An’ yer trying to protect that sorta princess! If that’s not a god a destruction, I don’t know what is!”
Suzuran was angry. It got to her head.
“And so… what…”
“What did you say…?”
Homura’s hair flared out. Suzuran glared back, not to lose to the oni. Her voice shook with angry.
“… I just want to borrow your power for a day… as long as Meeko can live as the Meeko I know, that’s enough. That’s all I’m asking for.”
“You make me laugh. And that’s why you ruined your arm and your leg? If you don’t get it yet, those limbs that Ewan took out ain’t gonna…”
Suzuran cut off his words.
She already knew what he was trying to say. By this point, the pain was more than just pain. There wasn’t any sensation left below the shoulder that’d been cut. Her frozen leg was just heavy, it wasn’t hers anymore.
It was cold and painful and harsh… it got to her head.
“Are you going to help me or not? Please answer the question.”
“… I already told you. I’ll knock you down a few pegs!”
And Homura braced his legs, holding his metal rod high over his head.
“Is that so. Then I don’t’ need you.”
Suzuran readied herself with only one remaining leg and one remaining arm.
“Give it up. My blows can level mountains!”
With a boast, he opened his eyes wide and lowered it with his entire body. Even in such a predicament, Suzuran’s red eyes glowed through the dark as she smiled.
“I’ll knock you back!!”
Shouki sobbed in his room lit only by the light of the moon.
No, the eastern sky was already beginning to brighten. He had thought half a day and still had no idea what he was supposed to do. He knew Meeko wasn’t counting on him. But Shouki couldn’t even find the words to call to her when she lost her smile. And now when this night let up, the cardinal would come.
In the end… there was nothing he could possibly do until then. Kneeling before a terrible sense of powerlessness, he could only shake his fist with directionless indignation.
“Is this… supposed to be a hero…!”
To never give up, never be crushed, to carry oneself boldly with courage.
As he was now, he lacked in all of them.
It was presumptuous to even consider himself a hero.
He was simply lifted up on one, and he’d gotten in over his head. He had just defeated so many weak monsters he thought he had amounted to something. Right, for the selfish desire to grow stronger, he had repeatedly bullied the weak. That was all.
Whenever true troubles, a true enemy he had to defeat appeared, he was absolutely useless, was he not? It was like that with Cardinal Randale. In the Iori House basement, he could only pathetically cower at the mere presence of the dragon. He couldn’t lift a finger against Demon Belronde.
And today, he knew it was impossible on his own and ended up using Suzuran.
And in the end, he was someone who could only bully the weak.
What could someone like that do against four knight orders and a cardinal? It was impossible. Reckless. Such a feat would amount to nothing but suicide.
“How… how is this a hero…!”
And by the time he let out a self-burning scream he had stifled to death, the door to the room quietly opened.
Ripple-Rapple waddled her way in and closed the door behind her. Shouki hurriedly wiped the tears crossing his cheek.
“W… what. Did you come to laugh at me…”
“… I knew it. To a demon like you, seeing the hero cry must be quite the comedy.”
But the young girl just stared at Shouki, her expression didn’t even twitch. Expressionlessly, she dragged a cushion arbitrarily lying around to a space in front of him, and sat her bottom down over it.
“This little lady… is going to tell you a nice story.”
“… Sorry, I’m not in the mood right now.”
Shouki turned his face away, glaring out the window.
“It’s the story of a man who defeated a dragon.”
“Those are a dime a…”
He got midway through before turning to her blankly.
“You can’t possibly mean that dragon? The one I saw in the Kantou Agency underground, that…”
Nod, nod. The girl gave two small bobs of her head.
That bizarre massive bulk that could crumble thick bedrock, the nuclear flames emitted from its jaw that could be called a cauldron of hell, Shouki immediately revived the memory. He asked as his instincts willed him.
“Was he a hero—?”
Shake, shake. Wagging her head left and right the girl denied it.
“Then… a famed magician?”
That one was also silently denied.
“A master of a divine treasure…”
Shouki went on and on, but the girl shook her head a third time.
“Then… who could…”
“He was just a… human.”
Those inconsequential words resounded strongly through his chest.
“The man was a knight who left on a journey… to correct injustice in the world.”
“The man loved justice more than anyone. No matter what large disaster appeared before him, he was unable to twist his own nature. For the sake of the ideals he believed in, he would challenge any danger.”
The girl who was always silent was now gesturing with her hands to tell a tale.
“His actions seemed to know no ear, and there were people who called him a fool. They said he had gone strange in the head. Even so, for that voice, he would never turn back. Forever and ever, he looked forward and walked on.”
Those words came with a strange weight, resounding in Shouki’s heart.
This was Shouki’s ideal personified. This girl’s words truly were what Shouki set his sights on, what a hero should be. Without knowing it, he was leaning his body towards her.
“What was… the knight’s name…?”
Ripple-Rapple gave a small nod before muttering the man’s name.
“The man’s name was Don Quixote. The man of true valor who faced the dragon alone.”
“… Err, you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about, so I’ll tell you. Don Quixote is a novel from medieval Europe written by this guy called Cervantes and…”
“His eyes could see the fire dragon hidden in the isolated world.”
Shouki swallowed his breath.
“Even if he was alone, even if he knew the spear in his hands would never reach… even so. And at his soul as he marched forth for the justice he believed in, he imbued fear in the fire dragon. The dragon ran away.”
Ripple-Rapple took a quiet breath. Her sincere pupils stared straight into Shouki’s eyes.
“What defeated the dragon was not a hero’s sword, nor legendary magic, nor a sacred treasure. It was the strength of will of a single man. And he is the only existence I know to have ever defeated the fire dragon.”
Satisfied with her own words, she gave two slight nods.
“Among us, he was… without a doubt, a hero.”
If he laughed it off as nonsense, that was the end of it. But even if that was the case, the words she layered had brought a large change to Shouki’s mentality.
“Why are you telling me this…?”
Shouki’s voice was sent towards Ripple-Rapple’s back, as she had already turned to leave. The girl sullenly responded.
“Meeko is… my friend. Half-hearted measures are one thing… I won’t allow.”
“… Thank you. Ripple-Rapple.”
With her back still turned, she stiffly nodded and went out to the corridor. The tears had already left Shouki’s face. The sun was making its rise.
“Umm… Shouki, a walk at this hour…?”
Shouki had Meeko change and took her outside. While she was making sleepy eyes, having been woken up at such an early hour, as Shouki pulled her by the hand, she hesitantly made her way to the garage.
“That’s right. We might be going a bit far.”
“But today… isn’t the cardinonal coming?”
“If we wait that long, you’ll be killed.”
With one of her hands still gripped by Shouki, she touched the other to her chest.
“… But. I’m not supposed to be here. If I go away, the world will be peaceful…”
Meeko said so in her usual smile. Strangely, she didn’t seem to think of that as sad in any way. As if running was the bad thing to do.
But Shouki strengthened his grip on her hand.
“I want you to be here.”
She made a bit of a surprised face. From there, she slowly returned to her smile. Eventually, it was a restful smile with no decoration.
No matter what massive power she had in the past, even if she still concealed it, there was no way he could have peace of mind leaving her alone. Shouki thought he had to protect this smile. Even if he was on his own.
That was the justice he believed in.
At the aspiration-filled smile Shouki showed her, Meeko gave a delighted smile.
“Nyaaan… Hasebe-senpai, are you eloping?”
Shouki turned to a cheerful tone. There, in a sailor uniform, her hair split into two bunches with pink ribbon, a woman with pink-framed fake glasses. As if she had been hidden in the morning haze, right, at some unknown point, she was just simply standing by the side of the road.
“You’re… Nagoyakawa’s friend…? What do you need at this hour?”
“So the Sacred Assembly doesn’t sit right with you; saw that coming. But do you have a destination in mind?”
“What… was that?”
To Shouki’s doubt, Kakko smiled even wider.
“The assembly is persistent you know. Truth be told, the holy knights already have this town encircled.”
“… Who are you?”
Shouki let go of Meeko’s hand, took a step forward to protect her, and unwrapped the narrow bundle in his hands. His hand cautiously gripped the hilt of the sword that appeared.
Hearing Shouki’s words, seeing his actions, Kakko’s made mischievous cat-like eyes and giggled.
“Ufufufufu… at times, she can be Suzuran’s friend, Takagi Yoshiki. And at other times… umm…”
The girl thought a bit. She gave up.
“B-but her true identity! Is!! Drumroll please!!”
Going on with all her momentum, the girl placed a hand on her own sailor uniform. And when it looked as if she had possibly ripped it off… she had changed into a feathered cap and black mantle, her entire wardrobe a shade of black.
“It was me, one of Zephirum’s top executives, VZ All along! Wow, that’s amazing! I never saw it coming!!”
With her glasses and pigtails gone, only the girl’s voice resounded, and all that remained after that was the usual sleepy stillness of the residential district. The sort of calm morning silence where he could hear the newspaper delivery boy and the milkman in the distance.
“U… umm, did I do something wrong?”
“No, I’m surprised. I’m definitely surprised but… you know.”
About how the demon he saw at the former Kantou Agency Headquarters was before his eyes, about how she was actually Suzuran’s friend, about where her glasses had gone, about exactly when her hair had come undone, about where the saber at her hip had come from… there was surely a mountain of factors to be surprised about, but…
How to put it, they all seemed wasted on her.
“Then, then, no way, I’m totally in danger!!? Or, say what!? Or something… nothing?”
Shouki replied immediately. The wide-brimmed feathered cap she wore slumped down in disappointment.
“So what does Zephirum want?”
“Whoah, now that’s cold. Even when I came all the way here to save that Meeko over there?”
“Sure you did.”
“Hasebe-senpai, you know, don’t you? That Zephirum is an organization of Demons. And the Sacred Assembly’s enemy… on top of that, Ms. Meeko’s an extreeemely distinguished demon, and from our point of view, a Super! V! I! P!”
Meeko watched VZ as she enthusiastically swung her fists.
“Shouki, what’s a vee aye pee?”
“Well… it means very important person.”
Honestly flattered, she put her hands together in front of her chest.
“And so, won’t you come with us? Hey, I gave you the option, but just because you refuse…”
As Shouki instantly replied, VZ who was trying to put on airs ended up tripping.
She tilted her head as she rose, her eyes wide beneath her hat.
“I decided to protect this person. There is nothing wrong about protecting her. That is what I believe.”
“I-is that so… then I do have a car prepared but… wanna take it?”
As VZ pointed around the corner, Shouki nodded and started walking without hesitation.
“But why is Nagoyakawa’s friend… as I thought, is Zephirum trying to set her up as the demon lord?”
“Suzuran? Well with Suzuran, of course we want her. That’s why we’ve had her marked down for a long time now.”
“But for what?”
As she walked, VZ gave a grin.
“Even we know Suzuran’s just a candidate. We’re not suddenly expecting the power of a demon lord. That’s why, all we want is a symbol to unite the demons.”
“Just a portable shrine, eh? That’s why you won’t go out of your way to abduct her…”
“Right. With candidates, there are always a few in any era. In Suzuran’s case, Iorin’s got quite a firm lockdown on her.”
“By Nagoyakawa… do you mean the girl who came over to play with Ms. Kakko?”
Having forgotten about Takase… and of course, having forgotten about Suzuran as well, Meeko muttered somewhat thoughtfully.
“She had quite a nostalgic scent…”
(Nostalgic… eh. Come to think of it, Iori did say a demon lord’s bloodline was rehabilitated as the godslaying houses…)
Or could it be she simply remembered her faintly from Takase’s manor? Perhaps it was a far older connection that would cause an uproar.
“… Ah, there it is. That one. We’re going in that car!”
“Oh, how cute.”
One look and Meeko was already smitten with the rounded style of the Volkswagon New Beetle that came into view.
“But Hasebe-senpai, are you really sure about this?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about me. I won’t hesitate anymore.”
The wind that picked up from Homura’s strike blew the darkness coiling around them away. Eventually, the dust settled on a cracked white stone pavement that seemed to carry on without end. The Iori House basement, as it should be.
“… I see you were talking big when you said you’d blow a mountain away.”
The metal pole’s tip had been lowered a few centimeters to the side of her. Homura hadn’t missed, Suzuran had parried and changed its trajectory.
“… Of course. If I fought that seriously, this cave and everything above it would collapse.”
Homura no longer had his horns. Nor his fangs, he spoke with his human mouth.
“Weren’t ya gonna knock me back?”
“But… I can’t knock back when you haven’t knocked me yet.”
As she said that, Homura’s mouth opened feebly, before he fell on his behind like he’d been had.
Suzuran gave one self-derisive sigh.
“I can’t do it. If it really, really got to my head a lot more, I think I might be able to… but I think what you’re saying is right. If I really took you out here, Homura-san, I get the feeling I really will become a murderous wretch. If that happens, my mother will be sad, and I might not even care about Meeko anymore.”
“Good grief… you think you can really crush us?”
Eheheh, Suzuran laughed.
“So that’s enough. Master might be angry, but… I’ll try to do something about Meeko on my own.”
“… No need to be hasty.”
As she tried to go, Homura called her to a halt.
“Fine, I’ll listen to what you’ve got to say. I, see, you drownin in power was what scared me the most.”
“That’s why I was against it, I was. When a human gets a power beyond a human vessel, its the vessel that falls apart. We’ve all seen our fill of those broken humans. You should know one as well.”
One naturally came to mind.
“Are you talking about… master.”
“It’s a sad story. Drowned in power and thirsting in more… to peer further and further down until ‘e was smashed up by sediment like us. If he actually wished for it, ‘e might’ve ‘ad hope. But you know, the kid had the black dragon implanted in him before he knew who ‘e was, and by the time he did… well, what could e do? It’s a hard cross to bear. And the one who took him down was none other than his princess.”
Was that why Takase was so afraid? Of Meeko awakening?
“I was worried that might happen to you. That you were just being led on and got the wrong impression of yourself.”
But that was wrong. Perhaps he was trying to say. His mouth put up a carefree smile.
“Sure. I’ll listen to you.”
“Hm. Very good. Looks like Homura agrees.”
By the time she noticed it, a tuxedoed Lick and Iwatobi were behind her. It was there she recalled.
“… Umm. About that. Like Iwatobi’s comrades being eradicated and Mister Lich being killed…”
Iwatobi gave Homura an unpliant chirp. Don’t run your mouth, he said. But Lick held his cigar in his hollow teeth and took a puff.
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Suzuran. Those were the times we lived in. But you should remember this. Depending on the circumstance, she can freely wield that sort of power. All that prevents her is human… like yours, the gentle heart that humans can possess.”
Lich nodded. This man was a good teacher.
The moment she let her guard down, Suzuran fell back on the spot. Her entire body hurt. The wounds themselves had transcended pain, they were completely numb.
Come to think of it, her wound-ridden arm and leg were already…
“Don’t worry. I know I said that, but Hazuki should be able to fix that up in a jiffy.”
The man the whelp calls Doctor… Iwatobi’s words finished her off. Suzuran’s consciousness immediately drifted away.